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Experts advise Proportional representation for successful transition in Arab world

by Wael Abdel Hamid // Published February 25, 2011

2011 is a period of changes for the Arab world as many revolts have burst within its main countries, starting with Egypt and Tunisia. As these nations move toward their first truly free and fair elections, it will be important to implement reforms in order to ensure a peaceful and democratic transition in their societies. On this subject, political experts agree that forms of proportional representation would be a good option for Egypt in particular and, for Arab democracies in general - just as proportional voting was important in such nations as South Africa, Brazil and every nation in Eastern Europe as they moved toward free and fair elections in the 1980s and 1990s.

A number of experts have weighed in on the value of proportional voting in the Arab world. In this review of recent writings, I will focus in particular on a forum that ran on February 17th in the New York Times. Its contributors were Samer Shahata (Georgetown University), Ellen Lust (Yale University), Steven Hill (FairVote's co-founder), Benjamin Reilly (Australia National University), Michael Meyer-Resende (International Democracy Reporter) and Clark Lombardi (University of Washington School of law). Nearly all of them explicitly talked about the value of Egypt using a proportional system, as did other leading experts such as Larry Diamond in the Washington Post or The Carnegie Middle East Center in Los Angeles Times. In addition, proportional representation is being talked about within several Arab countries as well, including Juan Stemman for Blitz and Khetam Malkawi for the Jordan Times  in Jordan and Andrew Barwing for Foreign Policy in Yemen.

Egypt could be considered a very good barometer in light of its image as the historical core of the Arab world. There are plenty of Proportional Representation systems out there, as you can see on FairVote's website and at other resources such as those of the Electoral Reform Society. According to Ellen Lust in the New York Times forum, the one best suited to Egypt's circumstances would be a Proportional representation system in which "candidates run on party lists in multi member-districts, and voters cast their ballots for individual candidates on a party list." Seats are then distributed in proportion to the number of votes each of the parties receives, and then distributed within the parties to the individual candidates who get the highest number of votes. Members of the parliament would then elect a prime minister chosen from the party that obtained the most seats in order to form a government.  

Others in the forum echoed this general recommendation for use of a party list system. For example, Steven Hill exhorts Egypt to follow the Iraqi model of Proportional Representation "where each political party was awarded legislative seats in direct proportion to their share of the popular vote in each of 18 provinces ''.
Benjamin Reilly share this point with him as he explains that « many transition elections, like those held in Iraq, have used proportional representation with large, multi-member electoral districts so as to include all major social groups in a transitional legislature. Such systems have several great advantages, allowing minorities and majorities alike a fair prospect of equitable representation broadly in line with their share of the vote."

As far as Arab countries are concerned, social and religious nuances play a large role in politics. Arab nations are generally very fragmented in terms of religious minorities, which may form a party to be represented in a proportional parliament. In Egypt for instance, Coptic Christian influence in parliament has been stifled by the winner-take all-system that prohibits them from exerting their political rights within a legal framework.  This is one reason why members of the Coptic community have often been involved in clashes -- riots have provided a rare opportunity make their voices heard. In a proportional parliament, the political will of religious minorities would be given a legitimate outlet through representation in parliament.

The Arab world is also politically fragmented and despite of the presence of neo-liberal, green or communist parties, has not seen great political presence or participation from them, due largely to electoral politics that under-represent non-dominant parties. Just as it would provide for the inclusion of religious minorities, proportional representation would allow opposition parties to exert influence in proportion to their popular support.

Last but not least, a system of proportional representation would help allay fears about the presence of extremist parties in many Arab societies by providing opportunities for more secular opposition leaders to emerge The most striking example is again found in Egypt, where the international community fears the resurgence of the Muslim Brothers. In order to avoid a "Palestinian phenomenon," in which free elections combined with a winner-take-all system to benefit Hamas (actually a subsidiary of Muslim Brotherhood), a proportional representation system would absorb the extremist activity by giving groups like the Muslim Brothers a fair amount of seats in the Parliament. Steven Hill makes this argument convincingly in this New York Times piece.  Elsewhere in the Times, Clark Lombardi sums it up well : "The more parties represented, the harder it will be for powerful groups, both secular and Islamic, to steer the constitutional drafting process in their favor."

Proportional representation could answer to Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister of Jordan who declared to the Washington Post on February 2nd:
Arab countries, including Eypt and Jordan, need to start by building stronger parliaments. This can happen only with changes to electoral laws that make elections more fair and parliaments more representative. Today most Arab parliament's work on providing services, they need to gradually begin exercising their oversight role and monitoring government actions.

In strengthening political institutions and in guaranteeing each significant political group a role to play in their changing countries, proportional representation could help promote a peaceful and successful democratic transition in Arab countries. Moreover, this system could be the fundamental basis these societies need in order to provide women's representation in government-for instance, by changing electoral rules to mandate the inclusion of women in every party list, as done in a number of countries today, particularly in Latin America.

However, the introduction of a system like PR requires a lot of attention to technical details such as the size and number of seats for districts. Arab peoples must ensure a thoughtful application of this system in order to avoid institutional deadlocks (like in Lebanon) or political fragmentation that could be catastrophic in countries in transition.

We are witnessing an Arabic Spring of Nations, as Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria flare for democracy. Something must be done in Egypt and Tunisia to provide a model of successful democratic transition for the whole Arab world. Proportional representation, with its built-in ability to promote consensus-building and defuse extremism, provides a powerful solution to the problems facing these nations at this crucial juncture.