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Take Care in Divising Electoral Systems

In the opinion-page package on South Africa, the article ``Proportional Representation Plays an Important Role in Rebuilding Countries Racked by Ethnic Conflict,'' Sept. 14, correctly points to the advantage of proportional representation as an electoral system appropriate to a society, like South Africa, where there are divisions based on ethnic political consciousness.

However, the virtue of proportional representation is also its vice. In the long run the introduction of such a system is likely to promote the reproduction of the ethnic cleavages that were its inspiration in the short run. This is because the system encourages the leaders of ethnic parties to promote ethnic solidarity in order to maintain their electoral base.

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In South Africa proportional representation was an essential element in the constitutional engineering that finally overturned the hegemony of the white minority, for it guaranteed African majority rule but also a place at the political table for all the ethnic groups including the white minority. There are electoral systems other than winner-take-all and unbridled proportional representation, which would have different effects, at least potentially. Societies like South Africa and the US need to be concerned with the ``fit'' between national needs and goals and ``technical factors,'' like election systems, through which are chosen those who define the needs and goals. Jack Parson, Charleston, S.C. Professor of political science, College of Charleston