South Africa

ANALYSIS

Electoral system change is coming – but how helpful will it truly be?

Electoral system change is coming – but how helpful will it truly be?
Residents cast their votes in South Africa's general election at Joubert Park, Braamfontein on 8 May 2019. (Photo: Chanel Retief)

While there is a great deal of support for a constituency-based system, it is likely to make our politics more divided and more identity-driven.

Last week’s ruling by the Constitutional Court allowing individuals to compete for power in their own name has been widely hailed as a great moment for our democracy. And yet, this ruling has the potential to make a situation of great unpredictability even less predictable. 

Many believe the judgment will lead to significant changes that would benefit many greatly. In essence, the belief is that allowing individuals to compete for power in their own name, and the fact that this may lead to a constituency-based system, will make politicians more accountable.

However, it is not certain that will be the case, and there are great risks attached to making major changes right now.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling was that it is unconstitutional to prevent an individual from contesting power in their own name. This would mean that instead of having to form a new party, a Mmusi Maimane, or a Herman Mashaba (or even… a Cyril Ramaphosa…) could essentially stand for office on their own, in their own name, without a party machinery behind them.

This leads to a bigger discussion on how to achieve that ideal. Currently, with 400 seats in the National Assembly and our system of proportional representation, if a party gets 1% of the vote, they get four seats, 10% leads to 40 seats and so on. For one individual to get, say, 11% of the vote then poses a huge problem: do they get the same voting share as a party would?

And if that is the case, what then for our politics? The horse-trading that could result in terms of how important votes in the National Assembly would be at the behest of one individual has the potential to introduce the kind of chaos we have seen in Nelson Mandela Bay. There, one party with two councillors, the Patriotic Alliance, has been able to change decisions and loyalties on an almost hourly basis, with people being given positions to ensure certain votes went through.

And, of course, a much more likely implication is that we have to change the entire system, and introduce a stronger role for geographic constituencies; in other words, have one member of Parliament representing one area (as is the case in the UK, and was the case for white people during apartheid, which led to Helen Suzman being the MP for Houghton and the lone voice against the National Party).

For many, this would introduce more accountability: if an MP did not perform, voters would chuck them out. And it would allow MPs to stand on their own or to stand with a party. Supporters of this system believe that this would prevent what we have seen so far in our completely proportional representation system, where MPs are completely beholden to “party bosses”. It was our current system that led to all ANC MPs, for example, voting to protect then-president Jacob Zuma over Nkandla, or for the Protection of State Information Bill (with the important exception of Ben Turok, who simply left the room during the vote).

But supporters of this system sometimes overlook important problems that it brings.

First, many voters around the world in constituency systems make their voting choice primarily on the identity of the leader of the party they vote for. This is why in British politics, for example, Jeremy Corbyn was so destructive for the Labour Party and Tony Blair so electorally successful for the same party (until he decided the UK would participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq). It is also why contests over the leadership of the Conservative Party have been so important. And many people over there, who don’t actually know their MP candidates, simply vote along party lines.

Local politics expert Paul Berkowitz tweeted the numbers last week. In 2016 the ANC got 77.7%, the DA 16.8%, the IFP 4.2% and the EFF 0.3%. This shows how important proportional representation is, in that it makes it almost impossible for the smaller parties to have any impact at all. 

Here, imagine a situation in which a senior ANC leader, say, Ace Magashule, or Ramaphosa, or anyone, stood for a geographic constituency. Even if they completely neglected their constituency, it would seem unlikely that they would be removed. Supporters of their party would simply continue to elect them anyway.

Also, if a party whip system were introduced, it would mean that MPs elected for areas would be forced to vote along party lines. And so where would be the benefit?

There is another important issue to consider, around the very cohesion of our society. The individually elected MPs could divide our society further than it already is. UCT Politics and Policy Professor Anthony Butler, writing back in 2013, raised several important objections to individually elected MPs, as observed in earlier commissions.

As he points out, perhaps the most important is that it would mean that local issues could end up raising issues of ethnicity. This seems inevitable. People in certain areas would campaign by saying they would support and protect people from that area, which often still has a level of ethnic identity. To win support, they would oppose other groups, and in possibly dangerous ways. Imagine, for example, in Vuwani where one group of people wants two municipalities and another group wants one. Their demands mirror almost exactly linguistic lines. It would be in the interests of their local politicians to inflame those divisions to win political power.

That would surely make our politics more divided and more identity-driven.

Up until now, the current structure, of simple proportional representation, has incentivised parties to compete on non-racial and non-identity grounds, to fight for support from as wide a slice of the population as possible. This is important, perhaps even critical to a country with the sheer levels of racialised inequality that we have. To remove this incentive, or even to just weaken it in any way may be very dangerous in the longer term.

One of the intriguing aspects of this judgment is that it orders Parliament to make the changes that will allow an individual to stand for office. But this is against the interests of every single MP, as they were all elected as members of a party. They are likely to drag and delay and limit the changes they have to introduce.

A pandemic, a slowing economy, massive unemployment and social divisions do not make this the best time for another divisive and distracting conversation around how our political structure should change when it will be controlled by vested interests.

At the same time, the debate on any kind of change is likely to be divisive, with different parties wanting different things. This will be based on what they believe they will do in any new system.

Perhaps the best point of reference is to study the results of the constituency wards in the last local elections (in local elections you vote twice, or even three times. One of those votes is for a person to represent your ward, the others are for proportional representation). This gives us a roughly accurate guide of how the local picture would look if there was a shift to a more constituency-based system.

Local politics expert Paul Berkowitz tweeted the numbers last week. In 2016 the ANC got 77.7%, the DA 16.8%, the IFP 4.2% and the EFF 0.3%. This shows how important proportional representation is, in that it makes it almost impossible for the smaller parties to have any impact at all. 

That means that the smaller parties (including the EFF) will fight any change in this direction tooth-and-nail, while the bigger parties, particularly the ANC, will support it.

Amid another conversation around possibly merging next year’s scheduled local elections into the 2024 national and provincial elections, this has the potential to be all-consuming (City Press reported on Sunday that the ANC and the EFF “had agreed” to delay the local elections).

A pandemic, a slowing economy, massive unemployment and social divisions do not make this the best time for another divisive and distracting conversation around how our political structure should change when it will be controlled by vested interests.

We have become almost used to political unpredictability. People and parties change sides on issues, they contradict themselves, and individuals can sometimes move around politically with mind-boggling speed. But this comes at great cost, when the lack of proper and certain economic policy, the difficulties involved in planning for the future, and appallingly low levels of delivery all add up.

The Constitutional Court gave Parliament time to make the necessary changes. In just the next few years our politics will see a leadership election in the DA, an ANC national general council, local elections, an ANC national conference and then a national election. This suggests that the very structure of our politics could change – when perhaps the greatest need is some central political authority. This may well end up making things worse, not better. DM

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