South Africa


Our electoral system may be imperfect, but it mostly works – don’t tinker with it

Our electoral system may be imperfect, but it mostly works – don’t tinker with it
The Constitutional Court ruling in favour of independent parliamentary candidates is no panacea, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

The recent ConCourt ruling in favour of independent parliamentary candidates will fundamentally change our electoral system. But this proposed reform is unlikely to make the difference that some hope it might. It could make some positive difference, but it could also make some negative difference.

The Constitutional Court does not consist of experts in political science. But in demanding a reorganisation of the national electoral system to accommodate independent candidates (New Nation Movement NPC and others v the President of the RSA and Others), it has charged the political and legal class with a task whose successful completion will likely require the input of specialists in comparative electoral systems. Since I have a longstanding interest in this topic, I presume here to offer some thoughts.

Primarily I want to say two things. First, if the proposed change is to conform to constitutional requirements of proportionality, it will require adopting either a national version of the local government electoral system or a system of single transferable vote. But, second, this reform is going to be no panacea.

In saying so, I am not seeking to downplay the importance of electoral system choice. Electoral systems have different strengths and weaknesses, and it matters for the quality of a country’s democracy, not to mention the course of its history, which system it chooses. It’s just that this proposed reform is unlikely to make the difference that some hope it might. It could make some positive difference, but it could also make some negative difference.

The choice that really makes a difference is one South Africa has already made: the one in favour of proportional representation (PR). PR fulfils an elementary democratic requirement: fairness. It results in parties getting as many seats as their vote share entitles them to. Other benefits include a pluralistic multi-party system; better representation of political, ideological and (should they desire it) ascriptive minorities; fewer wasted votes and thus more incentive to vote; and the possibility of more principled, less strategic voting. Party-list versions facilitate representation of underrepresented groups. Mixed versions allow voters to choose between different kinds of representatives to perform different functions (for example, to represent a ward versus govern a city).

Absent PR, there would only be three parties represented in South Africa’s National Assembly: the ANC, the DA and the IFP. Goodbye, EFF. But goodbye also any party lacking a staunch ethno-regional base or that seeks to challenge the ANC nationally. COPE would never have gotten into Parliament in the first place. And absent PR, the ANC would be more dominant than it is now.

If the ConCourt majority is to be faulted, it is for failing fully to register the sound historical and normative grounds for adopting proportional representation in South Africa. One gets the impression that it is rather mystified as to why the Constitution insists on it.

Having said that, proportional representation does have downsides. More on these shortly.

I got interested in electoral systems while living in the United Kingdom, where I joined an electoral reform society called Charter 88. I got interested because it seemed to me outrageous that Margaret Thatcher could introduce drastic social and economic changes based on 43% of the vote. It seemed to me outrageous that, as a progressive, I would have had to (if I was a citizen) choose whichever party had the best chance of stopping the Conservatives in a swing seat, rather than the party I actually supported. It seemed outrageous, too, that competitive elections only took place in a tiny number of constituencies and that many cities were one-party fiefdoms.

Given my assorted outraged reactions, it may be unsurprising that I, along with Charter 88, favoured the introduction of proportional representation into the UK.

Or, as I saw it, the introduction of democracy.

It will also be unsurprising that I supported proportional representation back in South Africa, the country of my birth and citizenship to which I later returned.

I loved that the national system allowed one to get into Parliament with just 0.25% of the vote – actually, less than that if you consider the battle for highest remainders (I won’t explain). This seemed like an exhilaratingly low barrier to democratic representation, and thus highly egalitarian.

The model would satisfy the demands of the court, because independents can stand in constituencies. It would secure the political rights of citizens as individuals, as the ConCourt demanded.

I also liked that it enabled so many women to get into Parliament.

Different types of PR are possible, and South Africa itself adopted two different ones: an additional-member system at local government level (combining single-member constituency and party-list representation) and a pure party-list system at provincial and national levels.

But even before returning from the UK, I was aware of building discontent in this country around PR and, more specifically, the pure party-list system operating at national level. And I knew that a team led by the late Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert had been assigned to find a better system and that it proposed an alternative back in 2003.

The basic problem, as many South Africans saw it (though they rarely separated out these complaints in a clear way), was fivefold.

First, national-list PR did not provide for constituencies and, hence, local representation with dedicated constituency MPs. Strictly speaking, South Africa has 10 multi-member constituencies, one national-to-national and nine provincial-to-national. But these constituencies are so large that it feels like the country consists, as Netherlands and Israel do, of a single national constituency.

Second, many voters wanted to be able to choose which individuals should represent them, rather than have parties choose candidates, as they do under list-based PR.

Third, many wanted their MPs to carry direct mandates from voters and be individually accountable to them. They did not like the idea of parties carrying and enforcing the people’s mandate.

Alternatively, critics wanted individual MPs to be able to follow their individual consciences, rather than have to toe the party line.

Fourth, they believed the system handed too much power to party bosses and machines, both to choose and to discipline candidates.

Finally – the only subject, oddly, of the recent Constitutional Court case – the system allowed no room for independent or non-party candidates.

These complaints all have some merit, but they are often voiced with a certain naivete about whether or what alternatives systems could address them.

Which could?

Bear in mind that, according to the Constitution’s clause 46(d), any electoral system has to “result, in general, in proportional representation”. That rules out a system based exclusively on single-member constituencies, whether winners are chosen through plurality voting (as in the US and UK) or majority voting (as in France).

As a former Charter 88 member, I’m relieved that the discussion of alternatives is subject to that proportionality proviso. So long as proportionality is secured, we can relax into a discussion of variants of PR that might meet the court’s test.

The simplest way to do so would be to implement nationally the additional-member or mixed-member PR system practised at local government level (and in the German Bundestag and Scottish Parliament). At local government level in South Africa, voters exercise two votes, one to choose a candidate to represent their ward and the second to choose a party (or party list) to govern the municipality. The party-list seats are assigned in such a way as to ensure overall proportionality.

This option has the merit of being a system South Africans are familiar with. Substitute constituency for ward, country for municipality, and you have a ready-made alternative.

The model would satisfy the demands of the court, because independents can stand in constituencies. It would secure the political rights of citizens as individuals, as the ConCourt demanded.

But while it might satisfy the court, would it reduce party dominance (as some reformers hope) or ensure large-scale representation by independents? I doubt it. Parties contest constituencies too and, if the experience of the UK or US — or South African local government — is anything to go by, voters will mostly opt for the party-backed candidates even when they have the choice. Voters know roughly what parties stand for. Parties put resources behind their candidates. Independents will not often break through.

Because progressive party leaders would not be able to juggle party lists in accordance with their pro-diversity values, it would also be more difficult to ensure that women secure seats in Parliament.

So under this system, you inadvertently end up with two distinct classes of party-approved representatives, de jure in the case of party-list representatives, de facto in the case of directly elected representatives.

Would the Slabbert Commission proposal meet the court’s requirement? No: contrary to what some assume, Slabbert does not permit independents to stand. It proposed simply to multiply the number (from nine to 69) and reduce the size of constituencies. That way citizens could put faces on their MPs and enjoy more access to them. But representatives of each constituency would, at least initially, be chosen from local closed party lists. And additional proportionality would be achieved by top-up from national party lists.

Slabbert does allow that, at a later point, voters might be empowered to alter the ranking of candidates on their preferred district party list (as they are in Belgium), but every candidate would still belong to a party.

An alternative that does meet the court’s requirement is the single transferable vote (STV). Here, as in Slabbert, the country is divided into multi-member constituencies, but voters vote for individuals (who may or may not be party affiliated). Voters cast several votes, ranking candidates in order of preference. STV ensures that votes given to a particular candidate beyond the quota they require for a seat are not wasted, but redistributed to other (say, second or third preference) candidates.

STV offers an elegant solution, but at a cost to proportionality. Because there are only a limited number of MPs per constituency, it is more difficult for small parties to get into Parliament (in a seven-seat constituency there is an effective entry barrier of 15%). In countries where there is a perceived need to guarantee minority representation, this could be a problem.

Because progressive party leaders would not be able to juggle party lists in accordance with their pro-diversity values, it would also be more difficult to ensure that women secure seats in Parliament.

And STV carries the danger of excessively personalised and fragmented politics, where competing personal interests and agendas supersede ideological debate.

But that is a danger inherent in independents standing for election generally. Say it quietly, but parties have their value. They are interest and value aggregators, informational-cue providers, suppliers of governments-in-waiting, popular-mandate enforcers and avenues for participatory activism. They would be missed if they were absent or, rather, they would be invented if they were not already. Get a group of people together in a joint political project or prospective governing team, and you have a party.

But whatever system is chosen, don’t expect a shift from one PR system to another to generate miracles. Local government’s additional-member system has hardly produced good government, nor, for that matter, has it limited local party dominance. I’m not sure STV would do much better.

What we can hope for are small changes that address the legitimacy deficits of the existing system and, by the by, satisfy the self-appointed political scientists of the Constitutional Court. DM

Daryl Glaser is Professor in Political Studies in the School of Social Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand.


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