How to Avoid the Hamas Problem

By Steven Hill, New York Times, “Room for Debate,” February 17, 2011

There is great worry in many quarters that elections in Egypt could result in a polarized government, or even an Islamist takeover. But this need not happen if the electoral rules are constructed to encourage broad representation.

For an example of the wrong way to run an election, consider the Palestinian elections in January 2006. Hamas won a majority of legislative seats, but that was possible only because the “winner take all” electoral system used in those elections produced grossly unrepresentative results.

If the Palestinians had employed the proportional representation election systems used in many democracies around the world, the story would have turned out very differently. The lessons for Egypt are crucial.

The Palestinian elections used a combination of a U.S.-style winner-take-all electoral system and a more European-style proportional voting system. Germany uses a version of the “mixed member proportional”, as does New Zealand, Japan and other countries. (In the “mixed” system, a number of seats in the legislature are set aside for district representatives, and another set of “accountability seats” are held for parties to compensate for unbalanced partisan results in the district elections.)

Palestinian voters had two votes, one for their favorite political party (the proportional vote) and another for individual candidates in winner-take-all districtswhere the highest vote-getters win. In the proportional vote, which is a national vote and therefore the best measure of the overall support for each political party, Hamas won about 45 percent of the popular vote and about the same percentage of seats — 30 of 66, not a majority. The incumbent party, Fatah, won about 41 percent of the popular vote and 27 of 66 seats, only three seats behind Hamas.

So the popular vote actually was quite close, and if those were the only election results they would have produced a broadly representative legislature. Instead, the winner-take-all seats completely threw the election to Hamas.

Hamas won only 41 percent of the vote in the winner-take-all districts, yet won 68 percent of those seats. That gave them 45 of 66 seats in the winner-take-all districts while Fatah won only 17 district seats even though they had 36 percent of the winner take all vote.

Overall, Hamas won 57 percent of legislative seats even though their national support was around 45 percent. If they had a better electoral system, Hamas would not have won a majority of seats and perhaps would have formed a grand coalition with Fatah. The lopsided result was caused by a winner-take-all electoral system, which was susceptible to distortions from, split votes, poor strategic voting and Fatah running too many candidates.

Iraq, on the other hand, used a proportional system where each political party was awarded legislative seats in direct proportion to their share of the popular vote in each of 18 provinces. When the dominant Shi’ite party failed to win a majority of the popular vote, they also failed to win a majority of legislative seats. Instead, the Shi’ites had to negotiate with the Sunnis and Kurds, preserving a fragile balance of power.

The current Egyptian electoral system uses winner take all elections, with a first-round followed by a second round if no candidate wins a majority. This system could result in a faction with less than a popular majority winning more than a majority of seats, as it did in Palestine. It also could lead to fewer centrists getting elected and a polarized legislature.

By adopting new electoral rules, Egypt could avoid this polarizing outcome. Proportional representation would ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood, former Mubarak supporters as well as the many secular constituencies in Tahrir Square would each get their fair share of representation, but no more.