The Two Party System as a catalyst for national integration and democratization in Sierra Leone

26 February 2008 at 08:56 | 906 views

The Two Party System as a catalyst for national integration and democratization in Sierra Leone

By M. Saffa Lamin

In an earlier article entitled “Do we really need a multi party system in Sierra Leone?” I vehemently interrogated the efficacy of the multi party system as tool for democratization in Sierra Leone. Based on the analysis, it was apparent that rather than promote democratization, the multi party system in Sierra Leone (like most African countries) has actually undermined the democratic process by creating an atmosphere that is vulnerable to ethnic manipulation and political disintegration. Rather than produce strong governments based on the will of the people, it has produced governments that are weak from inception because of the need to rely on the support of the vanquished to hold and maintain power. Instead of a party system based on broad and inclusive ideologies, we have a system in which the parties are narrow and exclusive in outlook and ideology (to the extent that ideologies exist). As a way of ameliorating these problems, I suggested that the two party system offers the best chance for a vibrant party system in an integrated and democratic Sierra Leone.

The Two Party system as a tool for national integration in Sierra Leone
For a state to be considered a nation in the classical sense of the word, it must have a population that shares a common culture which includes language and values. The people in a nation come together because of the need to maintain their common identity. It is interesting to note that what is nationalism in Europe is ethnicity (a euphemistic substitute for tribalism) in Africa because the states in Africa are a conglomeration of nations. It is therefore almost inevitable that the differentiating quality amidst the cultural affinity is language/ethnicity. Unfortunately however, this difference has been used to drive a chasm between peoples rather than an asset to be used in building great societies rooted in diversity and tolerance.

Based on the classical definition of nationalism and the primacy of ethnicity in defining it, Sierra Leone has more than fifteen ethnic groups/nations joined together to form a nation-state because of convenience rather than necessity. It was in the interest of the British colonial administration at the time to rule the peoples of Sierra Leone under a dual and ultimately single administrative mechanism. The boundaries of the country and its ethnic composition has remained the same (and must remain the same) since the annexing of the protectorate and the ultimate merger of the protectorate and colony of Sierra Leone but very little has been done to foster national integration to the extent that sub-national sentiments emerge and often tend to mar the political process especially during elections.

The fact that there are multiple nations/ethnicities in the state of Sierra Leone and in Africa (for that matter) has been exploited by politicians in a multi-party context for political gains. The multi party system makes it very easy to form a party which may be good for democracy but not so much for national integration because parties tend to resort to their ethnic bases for support rather than focus on common goals and aspirations. This unintended consequence of the multi party system hinders development and often ignites or exacerbates internecine conflicts in Africa.

That said, how would the two party system galvanize the people of Sierra Leone into a nation of nations? A two party system is one in which the legal requirements for the formation of a political party are so rigorous as to render it almost impossible for other parties to emerge and thwart the two established parties. It does not however mean that other parties do not exist as in Britain and the US where the Liberal and Green Parties exist respectively regardless of the fact that they are completely over-shadowed by the two leading parties in those countries. Even though Sierra Leone legally has a multi party system, the reality is that the APC and the SLPP are the dominant parties, which makes Sierra Leone a de facto two party state.

The two party system is therefore not an abstraction as far as the politics of Sierra Leone is concerned. It is clearly what the system has proven capable of handling but instead of honoring the dictates of the system which must ultimately bear the weight, it is being loaded beyond capacity. The reality is that most of the smaller parties emerge before elections and submerge afterwards - they either atrophy or they get absorbed by the main parties. More worrisome is the fact that most of these parties tend to be rooted in ethnicity rather than principles and can therefore be bought or sold to the highest bidder. The main parties also conveniently exploit ethnicity because it offers them the easiest chance of rallying their base, winning elections and ultimately governing.

Under a two party system, politicians would feel constrained to not exploit ethnicity and instead focus on principles, policies and ideologies as a key to winning the hearts and minds of the people. The two party system takes away the cover of multi party that disingenuous politicians hide behind to conveniently disguise their exploitation of ethnicity. Faced with such a situation, the parties suddenly realize that they must include other peoples and ideas in order to stand a chance in an election. That realization would force them to expand their ideologies so as to attract support from all over the country. The more those parties reach out and incorporate other people and groups, the broader they would become in outlook and national in objective.

Furthermore, the two party system offers a better chance of uniting the country because it short lists the options to two in any major decision making. Once the two positions emerge from the parties, the reconciliation process begins and often a decision would be reached without much acrimony. If one party loses, they would more readily accept the outcome knowing that they can win on another issue and blame the other party if the policy fails. Under a multi party system, there is usually a plethora of options offered by various parties along with the potential for more contentious disagreements. It is also more difficult to assign blame for failure in a multi party context because policies are almost always convoluted by-products of compromises and alliances that weaken or water down the originality of the policies.

The two party system all by itself cannot completely integrate a country. However, it would take away the potential for ethnic manipulation and national disintegration that the multi party system poses. It also renders decision making and consensus building easier because it significantly reduces the number of players without jeopardizing the right to dissent. I intend to deal with strategies for national integration from a broader perspective in future articles.

How a two party system enhances democratization
A democracy is a system of government in which the citizens chose their leaders (often through an election) to carry out their will for their common benefit. It is a people-centered system in which leadership is not ascribed but rather emanates from the people. Having an election is therefore a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy. For a system to be truly democratic, it must in addition to free, fair, and regular elections uphold the Rule of Law, the theory of separation of powers and checks and balances; the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, as well as, recognize and protect fundamental human rights among other conditions. This ideal of a democratic society has become the transcendent form of political organization in modern times and would continue to be in this century and beyond.

So, how would the two party system facilitate democratization in Sierra Leone? The two party system would take away power from the political parties (especially “spoiler” parties) and put it back in the hands of the people. Under a two party system, politicians would recognize that every individual vote counts as opposed to acquiring the block support of a particular ethnic group under a multi party system. This realization would cause the politicians to actively seek out the votes of people from groups that may not historically be a part of their constituency. When this happens, the people become central as it ought to be in a democracy. Government on the other hand would become more sensitive and responsive to the demands and aspirations of the people and democracy would flourish.

In addition, the two party system would shift the focus of alliances from convenience to principles. By so doing, the power and influence wielded by “transient parties” that wax and wane before and after elections would be severely diminished. That power to serve as “brokers” in the business of forming a government would be taken from them and transferred to the people whose vote should be the most critical element in the formation of a government.
Moreover, under a two party system, the main parties would not only focus on winning elections, they would focus on promoting democracy and participation as a means to acquire power. While the ultimate aim of gaining power may be self-serving from a party standpoint, it would promote democracy nonetheless because the parties would want to be seen as champions of democracy. They would therefore manifestly advocate for and defend policies that promote democratization.

This would in turn put pressure on the government in power to improve on its democratization efforts or jeopardize its popularity. Most governments would choose the former when faced with such options.

Finally, under a two party system, the citizenry would become more actively engaged and less confused about the parties, the players, and their motives. As intelligent as the average Sierra Leonean is, it is almost impossible to keep track of the names of all eight parties that took part in the 2007 elections let alone remember their objectives and the names of their leaders. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the people when asked would only name the APC, SLPP and possibly “the party headed by Mr. Charles Margai” - PMDC.

The people would be better served if they do not have to be needlessly confused over who is or is not in the game because the majority of the parties pass away after an election only to be resurrected at the next without contributing much to the democratic process.

The two party system has never been legally adopted as a party system in Sierra Leone. Yet, it has always been the de facto party system in a democratic Sierra Leone. Adopting it as the legal party system would help unite the country and sow the seeds of true democracy because it would take away the confusion and potential for sub-national consciousness that comes along with the multi party system and force the surviving parties to embrace democracy or lose their standing among voters.

Even though the two party system would not fully integrate the country or make it a democracy by itself, it is the necessary first step that needs to be taken in order to bring about national unity and democracy that Sierra Leoneans can be proud of. I shall discuss other measures that need to be taken along with the two party system to convert the country into a nation of nations and a shining example of democratization in Africa in future articles.