BSR: Time to revisit the “Winner-Takes-All” System?



Comoros is an archipelago of volcanic islands off the east coast of Africa. It is one of the poorest states in the world, consistently existing in the lower echelons of league tables such as the Human Development Index. Three quarters of its population is rural and the majority live below the international poverty datum line.

Politically, it has experienced more than a dozen coups since it gained independence from France. It is a member of the African Union. The three main islands are Grand Comore, Mohéli and Anjouan. Their indigenous names are respectively Ngazidja, Mwali and Nzwani – reflection of the Bantu roots of some of its original inhabitants.

Comoros lays a claim to a fourth island called Mayotte (Maore) which is still under French administration. Its inhabitants voted against independence from France when the others did in 1974. To this day they remain under French, as a department.

Politically, Comoros has had more than its fair share of troubles over the years. Coups, no less than a dozen, including attempts, have been a regular affair in its short and tempestuous history. When the poor and repressed citizens of Comoros flee they seek refuge at their cousins’ in Mayotte. Such is the irony of independence.

In March 2019, the Comoros held national elections. The incumbent leader Azali Assoumani was declared the winner of the elections with 60.8% of the vote. The runner-up Ahamada Mahamoudu had 14.6%. There were 12 opposition candidates.

The opposition rejected the election results. They cited a vast array of reasons, including electoral fraud, violence, bias, arrest of opposition supporters and candidates, pre-marked ballots and the barring of independent monitors.

They held a protest and demanded a new poll administered by a transitional authority. At least 3 people were killed and a candidate was arrested. Election observers, including the African Union, condemned the election noting that it was highly irregular and lacked transparency and credibility.

When even the African Union condemns an African election, it means it was really bad. Comoros’ disputed election outcome was one among many of similarly troubled stock.


In February 2019, on the opposite side of the continent Africa’s biggest country by population and economy, Nigeria, also held its general elections. It was no better.

First, the presidential and parliamentary elections had to be postponed by a week because the electoral authority discovered in the early hours of voting day that it was not ready. That false start was the harbinger of worse to come.

The incumbent leader Muhammadu Buhari was declared the winner with 56% of the vote, outpacing his closest rival and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar who got 40%.

The opposition rejected the outcome, citing a number of irregularities in the electoral process. They cited violence, poor collation of results, vote buying, ballot stuffing, and harassment of journalists among their concerns.

Nigeria and Comoros couldn’t be more different in size, both physically and economically. Nigeria is vast – it has 36 states and more than 200 million people. Comoros is a bunch of islands with a population below a million. They couldn’t even fill up one of Nigeria’s 36 states.

But the two African countries share much in common. The elites in both countries are wealthy, and at the bottom the ordinary people wallow in abject poverty. Both fail the test of holding a decent election. Size does not matter – big or small both cannot stand the test.

In its final report the European Union observe said the “systematic failings seen in the elections” require “fundamental reforms”. More than 300 people were killed in the run up to, during and after the elections. Elections are indeed a matter of life and death.

The losing candidate launched a petition to challenge the election outcome in court. Ironically, during his time as an opposition candidate, Buhari had also rejected election results and took legal action. Three times he had gone to court and But three times he had lost.

Like Comoros, Nigeria has had its fair share of coups and military rule since independence culminating in the brutal regime of General Sani Abacha in the mid to late 90s. His death opened a new opportunity when his successor General Aboubakar steered the country back to democracy in 1999.

Thus began a new chapter of hope for democracy. This was the sixth national election since that chapter began. Most of the elections have produced contested outcomes and the grounds recur like clockwork. Buhari was the petitioner a decade ago. Today, he is the respondent. What has not changed are the points of complaint over the elections.


Further down the continent in central and Southern Africa is Malawi, smaller and poorer than Nigeria economically but with a claim of a better punch than Comoros in the lightweight division. Blessed with a people of generous spirit and conviviality, Malawi prides itself as the “Warm heart of Africa”.

For decades, the country was under the iron grip of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, it’s founding leader who had declared himself life president. Estimated to have been born in the late Autumn of the 19th century, he would have loved to rule his homeland into the 21st century – he missed it by less than a decade.

Dr Kamuzu Banda was eventually forced to embrace political competition during what scholar Samuel P. Huntingdon called the “third wave of democratisation” in the early 90s. The Cold War had ended and multi-party democracy was in vogue. The world had changed and he was swept away by the wave. In 1994 Dr Kamuzu Banda bowed out without grace, defeated and humiliated in an election he should never have contested at his age. He was already a nonagenarian.

In May 2019, Malawi held its general elections. The candidates fought a close battle. In the end, the incumbent Professor Peter Mutharika was declared the winner with 38.5% of the vote, narrowly beating his closest rival, Lazarus Chakwera who had 35.8%. The difference between their votes was less than 159000. Unlike Nigeria where voter turnout was low, Malawians came out in large numbers registering 74% of the electorate at the polls.

The European Union observers appeared to approve saying the elections were well-managed, transparent, inclusive and competitive. Nevertheless, the opposition candidates rejected the outcome. They cited various irregularities and like their Nigerian counterpart, launched a petition to challenge the results in court.

South Africa

In the same month of May, South Africa the most modern and economically advanced of all African countries had also held its national elections. But like its African compatriots it is troubled by severe economic inequality- a legacy of apartheid and a circumstance of gross corruption.

The elections were won by the ANC, which has been in power since 1994 when the country held its first democratic elections after apartheid ended. The ANC’s victory was never in doubt.

Although it won, its majority was slightly depleted compared to the last election and at 58% it was the first time the party got less than 60% of the vote. Its closest rival the DA did not improve.

There were two big movements: first, the gains made by the radical EFF which campaigns for economic emancipation of the marginalised and expropriation if land without compensation. Second was the rise of VF+ a fringe party representing white Afrikaner interests, a response to threats of land expropriation.

Everyone accepted the outcome. Parliament sat and duly chose the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who was sworn in with each of the other candidates graciously conceding defeat and congratulating him. The world watched as the leaders of the parties embraced and spoke well of each other, Ramaphosa magnanimously complementing Julius Malema of the young and radical EFF for his party’s strong performance.

What made it remarkable is that it’s a rare sight on a continent where, as depicted by the three elections described before South Africa’s, the outcome is usually disputed and competitors have nothing nice to say about each other. In that way South Africa is like an island of calmness in a very violent sea. Why? We shall return to that later


Needless to say, Zimbabwe is in the category of those three states where election outcomes are always disputed and challenged. Much has already been written in these pages repeating it would serve little purpose.

In the last election in 2018, the incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa was declared the winner, but the opposition had already raised questions before the election was held. The opposition raised more or less similar concerns as described in Comoros, Nigeria and Malawi. For those reasons, they rejected the outcome and challenged the results in court as required by law.

The court ruled in favour of Mnangagwa but the legal outcome did not resolve the dispute. When people protested, the state responded with typically brutal force, shooting and killing civilians. This discredited the government and the electoral process. The disputed election and the violence unleashed by the state have dogged the beleaguered country ever since and it is sinking deeper into the abyss.


In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the path was similar. The long-delayed Elections were held on 30 December 2018 and after some delays the results came on 10 January 2019. The incumbent was not contesting, having completed his terms. His wish to change the rules of the game by amending the constitution was blocked. But he ruled for two years, without legal mandate.

Veteran presidential candidate, Felix Tshisekedi was declared the winner with 38.5% of the vote while the runner up Martin Fayulu had 34.8%. The opposition apparently called it an “electoral coup” believing that the outcome had been engineered to favour the incumbent’s preferred candidate with whom he had already cut a deal. A candidate from Kabila’s own party had 23.8%. They did eventually make a deal, with Kabila’s party having won control of parliament.

The Catholic Church which ran a parallel tabulation system said the results did not tally with their findings. Fayulu took legal action but the petition was dismissed by the Constitutional Court, paving the way for Tshisekedi’s ascendancy. SADC which had expressed concerns and called for a recount were among the first to congratulate Tshisekedi. Scores of people lost their lives in the election process.

Common pattern

From this small sample of 5 African elections in the last 12 months, all but one of them have produced disputed outcomes. The majority have been violent, often leading to death. The concerns raised by candidates rejecting the results have largely been similar. They point to manipulation of the electoral process and bias of electoral referees, including election management bodies.

In most cases, the election process has ended up in court but the legal process has not been an adequate solution. The only exception in this sample has been South Africa. What explains the consistent pattern of disputed elections and the exceptional case of South Africa?

These are not easy questions and there is no single answer.


Is it because one of the youngest democracies on the continent is also the most mature? How did it mature so quickly? South Africa has certainly exhibited signs of maturity in the conduct of its elections, something that has been absent in most of its counterparts on the continent.

Maybe by being one of the last to gain freedom, it benefited by learning from the mistakes of its peers who had already got independence long before it but faltered.

Mandela’s calming leadership and wisdom were exceptional gifts to the young nation which could have gone wild very quickly in the hands of a demagogue. But that is not an adequate explanation.

Strong Institutions?

Is it because South Africa has built strong institutions? There is certainly much to be said about the strength of institutions in South Africa. From the onset South Africa established what are often referred to as Chapter 9 institutions, which are designed to support democracy. Together with the judiciary, these bodies provide important checks and balances.

The work of the Public Protector has been world-class and its judiciary has remained robust and independent. The manner in which the Public Protector held the presidency to account during the Zuma era drew plaudits and admiration across the world. The IEC which runs elections is trusted and has maintained institutional independence and professionalism.

There is certainly a strong case for attributing South Africa’s exceptionalism in this case to the strength of its institutions. However, it is important to commend the political leaders without whom the institutions would have been compromised as they have been in other countries. They could easily compromise the institutions and undermine their independence as has happened in countries like Zimbabwe. They have exercised forbearance and mutual respect, allowing the institutions to do their job without undue interference.

A more cynical but important perspective is that the political elites with power in South Africa have appeared so mature and have steered clear of compromising institutions simply because they have never faced an existential threat. In other words, there has been no risk so far that the ANC could possibly lose power to any of its rivals. This comfort of knowing it will win and retain power is an incentive for good behaviour. There is no need for the ANC to resort to extremes as do its counterparts elsewhere who face real threats of losing power and the privileges that come with it. In terms of this perspective, the best time to find out if the ANC is really different fro other ruling parties  is when it faces a stern test which poses an existential threat. The fact that there is weak opposition which has no real prospect of taking power from the ANC allows it the opportunity to behave differently from ruling parties in other countries that face a real threat of losing power in an election. The ANC has no incentive to cheat because it has not yet faced a real threat of losing power.

This cynical view is based on the assumption that ruling parties are motivated to resort to the dark arts by the fear of losing power. However when you look at a country like Zimbabwe, this has not always been the case. ZANU PF the ruling party has always been violent and manipulated the electoral system from the beginning and even during lean election periods when it faced no existential threats at all. Even when it was genuinely popular, ZANU PF had already mastered the techniques of deploying its surrogates at the Electoral referees making them institutionally biased.

The fear of an existential threat certainly raises the stakes and motivates ruling parties to resort to dirty methods but some ruling parties are simply paranoid and would use these methods even where there are no existing threats. They have always had to use dirty tricks and historical path dependency means they will generally resort to similar tactics, even if threats of losing power do not exist. In other words it is not the fear of losing power that motivates them but the mere fact that institutions are wired to deploy dirty methods against opponents.

Winner Takes All or Sharing Profit and Loss?

There is, however, one other aspect that distinguishes South Africa from the other countries in this sample and this is worth considering. It is that South Africa uses a different electoral system which is based on proportional representation whereas the rest use simple First Past the Post majoritarian system. There are important elements in these two systems which might assist in explain some of the differences between South Africa and the others.

In an electoral system of proportional representation voters vote for parties, not individuals and a party is given seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for it in an election. In other words, in a PR system, seats are distributed in a way that corresponds closely with the proportion of the votes cast for each party.

To use a very simple example, if a party wins 60% of the total votes, they would get 60% of the seats. But this also means the party that has 40% of the total votes would also be entitled to 40% of the seats. This guarantees representation in parliament even for those who “lost” the election, that is, the 40%.

By contrast, the First Past The Post (FPTP) system means, as the name implies, the one who gets to the line first wins the prize. There is no room for those who come in second or third place. It’s the classic case of majoritarian politics. He who wins the majority of votes, whether it is one million votes or one vote, gets everything. Hence it’s often referred to as the Winner-Takes-All system. It’s a zero-sum game – the winner walks away with everything and the loser walks away with nothing. To go back to our earlier example, the 60% who voted for the winner are represented by their candidate while the 40% who voted for the losing candidate literally get no representation.

The FPTP is the system that is used to elect MPs to the U.K. Parliament. The way Electoral College votes are distributed in the US Presidential election is also based on the same Winner Take All principle: the candidate with highest votes in a state gets all the Electoral College votes. At independence, many African countries adopted the same system. It is also widely used around the world. Its appeal is that it’s simple and straightforward. All the countries discussed in this BSR, with the exception of South Africa, use the Winner Takes All system. Might this be an influential factor?

There is no doubt that the Winner-Takes-All system raises the stakes in an election. Elections literally become a matter of life and death. The zero-sum nature of the outcome means the cost of losing is too high. In a PR system, the losing parties can expect some representation in the political space. The EFF might not have gained the exposure, prominence of voice and experience for its leaders if the PR system did not open up representation for them. By entering parliament they are able to access other key areas of the states d influence governance. They have been small but tenacious fighters in parliament.

For example, the EFF leader Julius Malema sits on the influential Judicial Services Commission which plays a fundamental role in the selection of judges. The PR system is good for small parties and minorities. It means they can have representation even where there is a large and dominant party like the ANC. For the losing parties, elections are not a zero-sum game. There’s something worth fighting for even if they are likely to lose the election.

To see the opportunities it presents for smaller parties, one only needs to look at the system in Zimbabwe where there’s partial proportional representation in the case of the women’s quota (the 60 additional seats specifically reserved for women). Although the MDC led by Dr Thokozani Khupe lost dismally in the Winner Take All seats in the National Assembly, when proportional representation was used for the women’s quota and for the senate, the party got two representatives.

Where it works well, PR also creates room for diversity and multiple parties in Parliament, coalition-building and politics of cooperation and collaboration. Voters can spread their votes around, hopeful that they can still get representation even if their party does not actually win the election. It is this prospect of representation that gives comfort to supporters of EFF or the DA – they know they will lose but they also know they will get some representation: their vote will be worth something.

As stated by Wim Louw in a brief for the Helen Suzman Foundation “South Africa’s proportional representation system was selected for its inclusiveness, its simplicity and its tendency to encourage coalition government”. The ANC has dominated since 1994 but elections have meant something for losing parties. It’s not a zero-sum game as it is in other countries where losing literally means get nothing for all the hard as long as they are not in the majority.

Scholars who have researched this area such as Fjelde and Hoglund have found that African countries that use the Winner Takes All system are likely to be more violent than those with proportional representation precisely because the stakes are so high that the election is literally a matter of life and death. This is exacerbated by the fact that democratic institutions are still weak compared to older democracies that also use the same system.

For example, as we have seen the US and U.K. use the same system but they have robust institutions. More than that, however, these countries have norms developed over a long period of time which have helped to restrain political actors and encourage good behaviour. Levitsky and Ziblatt refer to these as the soft guardrails of democracy and they include forbearance and mutual respect and toleration.

We have already alluded to the high cost of losing elections under the Winner Take All system. Of course, there is also a cost to losing under the PR system but it is lightened by the guarantee of representation for losing parties, which is absent in a system where the winner takes everything.

Here we have to factor in how political elites view and use the state. It is literally the most important and most coveted source of wealth – government assets, tenders/contracts, subsidies and a host of benefits. The prize of winning control of the state cannot be overstated. Where it’s Winner Takes All, the stakes are very high. As Fjelde and Hoglund have stated, the Winner Take All dynamic reinforces the idea that elections are zero-sum. Either you win control of the state and its resources or you lose it all”

Where institutions responsible for elections are weak the incumbents are more likely to manipulate them to remain in power. It’s not surprising that once they are incumbents, they are likely to use the same methods that they complained against when they were in opposition. Buhari May have rejected the outcome three times as an opposition leader but today he is dismissive of his rival’s complains which are not different from his own in the past.

One might add that where ethnic minorities are concerned, they stand a better chance of getting representation under the proportional representation system than the Winner Take All system. Their votes will matter and the cost of losing is reduced, also lessening the stakes and tensions.

This is not to say the PR system is perfect. No, it isn’t. No electoral system is perfect. In PR there is the advantage of more representation as we have seen but it also means voters have no choice regarding individual representatives. That is done by the party. What people vote for is the party, not the individuals themselves. The trouble is you might end up with individuals who are not good enough even though you love your party. On the other hand, while the Winner Take All system allows voters to choose the individuals and hold them accountable directly, as we have seen it means less representation for minorities and it raises the stakes more significantly because the cost of defeat is too high.

Our view is that this is a matter deserving of serious debate actions the continent and within nations. Democracy and elections are borrowed systems which we are still coming to terms with. The South Africans were very deliberate in choosing a system that responded to their demographic circumstances coming out of apartheid. Indeed some may be thinking that their system is no longer good enough. But looking at it from the other end, it is probably better than the systems elsewhere.

We are not suggesting that the PR system is the sole reason why South Africa has well-run elections whose outcomes are universally accepted as legitimate by winners and losers alike. We have already given alternative explanations. However, it may well be an influential factor. It is important to revisit the electoral models and to consider whether it might be better to move towards PR and away from the Winner Takes All system and the mentalities that come with it. There has been a debate in the US over the Winner Take All principle in the electoral colleges of the presidential election. It is also an important debate in our contexts.

In Zimbabwe, people did not have adequate opportunities to debate this matter during the constitution-making process. It was taken as a given that the Winner Takes All system is the best. We do not think the majority of the people got a clear explanation of the differences between the two systems and the advantages and disadvantages they offer. To my mind, “political reforms” should include this core issue of how we elect our leaders. Its ramifications are fundamental and could affect how our politics is conducted and even how we organise ourselves as and in political parties.