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24 November 2014 11:07 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Don't vote. It's your right.

  • Ivo Vegter
With the elections upon us, it seems to be common cause that one ought to vote, and one ought not to complain if one doesn't vote. This is not true. Every non-vote reflects a political battle half-won.

It's hard, I know, but picture yourself as a dissatisfied voter.

You once supported, say, the DA in the Western Cape, and believe that the party either did not deliver on its promises, or promises way too much government in the first place.

You have several options.

Either vote for someone else, like the ANC, which distinguishes itself from the DA by not delivering on its promises and promising way too much government in the first place.

Or withhold your vote from the DA, thereby depriving them of your consent to govern, but not granting that consent to anyone else either. For the ANC, that's half the battle won. The other half involves convincing you to vote for the ANC instead, rather than merely deserting the opposition.

The same argument holds in reverse, for former ANC voters. It sounds far-fetched, perhaps, but is it inconceivable that some ANC voters are fed up waiting for promises of service delivery to be made good? Or that they feel insulted by the cynical pre-election rush to implement “quick-win” projects and employ temporary workers to fix roads and pavements, knowing that those projects and jobs will vanish like mist before the morning sun once the election is over?

They might not be ready just yet to vote for a racist little girl who dances like a monkey, but they may well be ready to reject the party that brought them years of corruption, qualified municipal audits, wabenzi, billing crises, AIDS deaths, blackouts, crony-capitalism, machine guns and semi-nude sushi slaves.

That would mean voters are halfway towards being convinced. No longer will they support a party merely out of some sense of blind loyalty or historical obligation. Each non-vote for one party is a small victory for the opposition.

(To be fair to Helen Zille's dancing, the better reason to resist voting for the DA is that the party once changed its name to accommodate a merger with the remnants of the architects of apartheid, the ill-disguised New National Party. The alliance did not last long, and the remaining Nats, faced with extinction, eventually crossed the floor to join the ANC and disbanded the NNP in 2005. However much the party claims to have changed, that “alliance” leaves a stain that for many voters remains indelible.)

There would be less of an excuse for not voting if the ballot contained an explicit “none of the above” option. That could be counted and analysed as an expression of deliberate intent, in a way that non-participation or spoilt ballots cannot. Such an option is often available in countries where voting is a legal requirement, for example.

There is also a more cynical option: the tactical vote. The simple case is voting for one party simply to deny another a two-thirds majority.

More realistically, you might believe that government should not be promising jobs, houses, social welfare cheques, heavy-handed policing and burdensome regulation, but all you see are parties that each promise to be better at doing so than their opposition.

You could also vote for a fringe party that declares honestly that it has no intention of perpetuating a culture of entitlement and dependence by promising “service delivery”.

However, does it make sense to find a minor party that better reflects your political views, when that choice has little impact on the outcome of the election? Worse, is that choice liable to encourage weird special interests, such as tribalism, religious conviction, or advocating secession of this or that province? At best such votes are ineffective, and often they're downright silly.

The example of the United States is instructive. You might be a free-market advocate, for example, based on well-founded notions of individual liberty in both social and economic matters. If so, you'd oppose both the Democrats and the Republicans, in favour of the Libertarian Party or an independent candidate such as Ross Perot. In the former case, you risk being associated with a motley crew of paranoid survivalists, dangerous militias, or addle-pated anarchists sporting dirty “Legalize Pot” t-shirts. In either case, all you're doing is to split the vote. Bill Clinton beat George Bush Sr in 1992 only because Perot appealed to a large number of people who would otherwise have preferred a Republican to a Democrat in office. In failing to elect their first choice, they ruined the chances for their second choice, and handed the election to a president who never earned a majority of the vote. Ralph Nader had a similar effect eight years later, on the opposite side of the two-party system, when he handed the US Presidency to George W Bush.

This observation would lead to the conclusion that if you are dissatisfied with the incumbents, it is smart to vote for the party with the best chance of forming a powerful opposition. Forget about nuance, principles and policies; to get rid of the ANC, vote DA. Even if they say they'll ban dancing on school nights and beer on Sundays.

The dissatisfaction that leads to so much hand-wringing about an expected low turnout reveals deeper issues, however.

The same problems that plague our national elections also affect local polls. Voters have little say over who exactly gets voted into office. Except in exceptional cases, you don't choose a candidate, you choose a party. The party chooses the candidates via a complicated list system. In many cases, this process results in candidates that are not the popular choice of voters.

Worse, the only way to get rid of non-performing candidates is to hope that their party bosses will do the right thing and fire them.

Worse still, the candidate that is foisted upon you by your chosen party can simply cross the floor and proceed to represent interests other than the ones you voted for, with no discernible ill effect on their political careers or tax-funded pay packets.

In short, voters feel powerless not only to elect those candidates whom they really prefer, but also to hold those candidates accountable.

It is time to revisit the list-based proportional representation system that was really just a compromise between the ANC and the National Party during the negotiations for a new South African dispensation. This compromise gave the liberators the assurance that concentrations of white voters couldn't form racist federal enclaves, while giving the white minority the assurance that their votes would at least count for something.

South African voters deserve better. They ought to be able to select candidates by name, rather than leaving it up to political parties to decide for them. They ought to be able to recall candidates who fail to live up to their promises, or abuse the powers they were granted. These principles ought to apply not only at municipal level, but also at provincial and national level.

There should be a member of the local council, provincial legislature, or national assembly, whom you know by name as your representative. That person should receive your letters when you're unhappy with something. That person should be arguing your interests. That person should vote not because the party whip told them how to vote, but because their constituents did. Their continued employment in this capacity should be dependent on representing you to your satisfaction.

Perhaps if voters did not feel that election to government office is merely a ticket to the gravy train, and felt that they could demand accountability from their elected representatives, they wouldn't be so reluctant to vote.

Until that changes, remember that voting is a right, not a duty. Citizens are free to exercise that right, but are not obliged to do so. Besides, if they know so little about the candidates, parties and policies that they're not motivated to vote, it's probably safer for an informed democracy that they stay away.

Most importantly, however, if we're tired of the electoral dominance of the ANC because it is the historical party of liberation, we shouldn't berate people who desert them as the future party of government. Those who withhold their vote have taken half a step in the right direction. It is up to opposition parties to convince those voters to take their unused votes and invest them elsewhere. DM

PS. A reader pointed out that my comment about floor-crossing is misplaced, and so it is. Former president Kgalema Motlanthe signed an amendment to the constitution to abolish this dubious practice. The broader argument, however, that parties choose candidates and voters cannot hold them directly accountable for representing their interests, stands.

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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