South Africa

DA’s electoral reform, aka Dial-an-MP: Nice to have, unattainable for now

By Ranjeni Munusamy 5 March 2013

The issue of electoral reform has been bubbling under the agenda for several years with two public inquiries recommending that a mixed system of constituency-based representation and proportional representation be introduced. The DA is pushing for such reform as it is aiming to break the ANC’s electoral dominance through high-performance constituency representatives. The ANC still wants to use its brand as its primary election weapon. It is an interesting concept for South Africa, but it’s going nowhere, slowly. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Political debutante Mamphela Ramphele stole the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) thunder on electoral reform two weeks ago when, at the launch of her Agang “party political platform”, she said she would be launching a million-signature campaign for electoral reform. However Ramphele did not give any details of what she had in mind, other than to say, “electoral reform must be the first order of business of the post-2014 election parliament.”

The DA reclaimed the issue on Monday by submitting an Electoral Reform Bill in Parliament with a view to amending the Electoral Act to introduce a constituency system to elect MPs. The submission of a Bill to Parliament is obviously a more tactical move than Ramphele’s route of a signature campaign, which government has the option to ignore.

There have been two previous studies into electoral reform: the commission appointed by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2003 and headed by former politician and analyst Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, and the Independent Panel of Assessment of Parliament in 2009. Both of these inquiries recommended that the current system be changed to allow for a hybrid of both constituency-based representation and proportional representation.

DA MP James Selfe says the Bill proposes the establishment of 100 three-member constituencies, each with approximately the same number of voters. This differs from the Slabbert Commission’s recommendation, which suggested 69 multi-member constituencies returning between three and seven members each, electing 300 MPs in total with an additional national list of 100 representatives.

“While the current list proportional representation electoral system has its advantages, including that it is inclusive, immune to gerrymandering, and is perceived to be fair, it does not ensure accountability over members of the National Assembly to individual voters. People have no way of voting out an MP who does not perform,” Selfe said.

This is not the first time the DA has tried to put electoral reform on the agenda. In October 2008, following Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s announcement that he would not be voting in the 2009 national elections, the DA said this highlighted the extent of the public’s disillusionment with elected officials’ lack of accountability. The DA announced it would resubmit the recommendations of the Slabbert Commission to then president Kgalema Motlanthe, urging him to initiate the process of electoral reform.

That campaign, obviously, fell flat.

Now, in the context of growing disillusionment with scandals and poor performance in the ANC government, the DA is again trying to build momentum around electoral reform. The DA argues that it need not be a partisan matter and says it is prepared to work with all parties to enact changes to the voting system.

“Parliament must become more relevant and responsive to the public, and this can only happen if every South African can feel a sense of ownership over their Parliament,” Selfe said.

But the DA has little hope of getting a new electoral system in place in time for next year’s election. In its report in 2003, the Slabbert Commission said Parliament could not be expected to pass a new Electoral Systems Act much earlier than a year before the next national and provincial elections, which would leave very little time for political parties to adjust their processes for compiling candidate lists. The commission said there would also be too little time to fully acquaint voters with the intentions and principles of the new system.

Interestingly, the Slabbert Commission noted in its report that a public opinion survey conducted at the time showed that 74% of the respondents were satisfied with the “fairness and equality” of the present electoral system, and 81% with the “inclusiveness”. However, the survey found that while 68% felt that the electoral system helped voters hold political parties accountable, only 60% felt the system helped voters hold individual representatives accountable.

“This resulted in 71% feeling that candidates should come from the area they represent, which was seen as a means of improving their individual accountability. Lack of accountability and availability/responsiveness was thus also seen as the weak point of a system with which respondents were otherwise generally satisfied,” the Slabbert Commission said.

It would be instructive to see what a comprehensive public survey would find now, with high levels of disillusionment and community protest action over delivery and performance of the elected representatives.

However, with the ANC leadership firmly opposed to changes in the electoral system, there is hardly a chance  – unless the proposal comes from ANC branches or there is a mass build-up in the country, both unlikely in the short term.

The office of the ANC chief whip in Parliament, Mathole Motshekga, reacted swiftly to shoot down the DA’s proposed Bill, saying those who have “resuscitated this debate have entered into it from a narrow and populist perspective”.

“An impression has been created that a change of an electoral system is a panacea to the challenge of accountability which some believe our constitutional democracy currently faces. Some have even absurdly suggested that the current electoral system is undemocratic and unrepresentative, and therefore a solution lies in a different one. If one was to remove the noise, propaganda, lies and dishonesty from the debate on electoral reform, the naked reality remains that a different electoral system is no panacea,” Motshekga said in a statement.

He said the ANC had 260 constituency offices around the country and the ruling party viewed constituency work as the backbone of its parliamentary programme.

However the ANC has in the past given into pressure from the opposition for changes to the election system by acceding to floor-crossing legislation, which allowed MPs to change parties without losing their seats in Parliament. Motshekga said the proponents of floor crossing in the opposition argued at the time that it served democracy.

“This was intended to dislodge the majority party and weaken it. When the legislation turned out to benefit the majority party more than those who campaigned for its enactment, they made a U-turn and demanded its withdrawal. The current debate on electoral reform smacks of the same motives,” Motshekga said.

The issue of electoral reform does not have universal support in the opposition, with the Congress of the People (Cope) contesting the DA’s Bill.

“If you just look back, constituency-based elections kept the National Party government in power for very long,” Cope chief whip Juli Kilian said. It’s still the party that determines who is going to represent them. Where the party is strong, that party can put up just about any candidate.”

But the DA’s parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, says even with opposition from the ruling party, the public will be able to engage on the proposed legislation and mobilise in its favour.

The DA is unlikely to succeed in this project in the next year as it will be stymied by the ANC’s control of parliamentary processes. It is also unlikely to build significant momentum on the ground for a mass campaign to enact changes to the electoral system. There are simply not enough people who think the current system is significantly flawed to have it changed. It would also take a lot of convincing to show how the hybrid system would ensure better service delivery and accountability.

In the milieu of campaign issues, including crime, violence against women and children, anti-poaching, the environment, education and anti-corruption, it would be difficult to locate electoral reform as the priority to be pushed through Parliament speedily. And if the issue is left on the back burner until the next elections, it might run aground again.

The only way the DA and others supporting electoral reform can ensure that it happens is to win a significantly higher percentage of the vote next year and thereby have increased leverage in Parliament. Electoral reform is desirable in theory but will be a waste of energy so close to the elections.

The real battle is for the hearts and minds of voters, who will be watching political parties closely in the next few months. The ANC will have to pull up its socks and convince its constituency that it deserves to remain in power overwhelmingly, despite its poor performance and litany of scandals. The DA will have to show that it is a government-in-waiting, and in order to do so, it cannot have split focus away from displaying its machinery in action.

An MP on call in your area would be a nice to have in the future. But before that, South Africa must decide who it trusts with the future itself. DM

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