With the chaos and violence of post-election Kenya in mind, M. Saffa Lamin of Sierra Leone wonders whether a multi-party political system would be best for the country. It’s an interesting question because many claim multi-party systems came to be in Europe because the pre-existing economic cleavages on that continent. One party – or a block of parties – represented the interests of the working class, another block represented middle class interests and so on. These parties work – for the most part – people argue because different classes have different interests.
African worries on multi-party systems center on the fact that the blocks often tend to represent the interests of specific ethnic groups, which help build divergences where none should exist.
The multi-party system has often been touted as if it were a panacea for all political problems in countries experiencing a crisis of democracy. Indeed, the benefits of a multi-party system as outlined above are tremendous but we need to examine the costs and situational realities along with those benefits in order to determine its viability in a particular political context.
In Sierra Leone, we had a multi-party system in law immediately before independence and up until 1978 (twice punctuated by military rule) but a de facto two party system with the APC and SLPP as the dominant parties. This trend was replicated in the brief interlude (1991–92) between the one party rule (1978-91), and the military rule of the NPRC (1992-96). Since the return to multi-party in 1996, Sierra Leone has again reverted to a de facto two party system. In the 2007 general elections, 102 of the 112 parliamentary seats were won by the APC (59 seats) and the SLPP (43 seats). The remaining 10 seats were won by the PMDC. The other five parties that took part did not capture a single seat. In the presidential elections, President Koroma (APC) and then Vice President Berewa (SLPP) carried more than 85 % of the total votes cast. These results are not atypical of results in earlier elections held under a multi-party system in Sierra Leone.
What does this pattern suggest? This is indicative of the fact the two party system seems to be the right fit for the country. Like an organ transplant without a proper match, the body politic seems to be rejecting the multi-party system because it does not appear to be the right fit. It seems however that as a people, we are oblivious of these warning signs.