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30 March 2017 18:26 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ebrahim Fakir

The electoral system: Is there vice or virtue in reform?

  • Ebrahim Fakir
    Ebrahim Fakir

    Ebrahim Fakir works at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (EISA) which he joined in February 2009. He was previously analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg (2003-2009) and also worked at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) [1998-2003] in both Pretoria and Cape Town. He was a Draper Hills Summer Fellow at the Centre for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University in 2011. He is also an advisory council member of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC). When not writing or thinking about politics and governance he dresses well. He was recognised for this by GQ magazine in 2009, and again in 2013.

With South Africa’s 2014 elections done and dusted, it’s an appropriate time to consider serious electoral reform or, at the bare minimum, to introduce a base threshold of support that parties must receive if the pure proportional representation system is to be retained. It is almost intolerable that at the bottom of the pile, nine parties share 6.5% of electoral support and thirty seats amongst them. This, by any stretch of the imagination, twenty years into an accommodative and inclusive transition, is proving to provide opportunity for excessive proliferation and fragmentation amongst “opposition”. Smaller parties have minimal to no political impact, policy influence, or governance effectiveness. In short, if there is no mixed electoral system introduced, then at the very least, those with less than 2% must go.

Elections, and the electoral system through which elections are conducted, are primarily political instruments rather than the technical, systemic exercises they tend to be viewed as. Electoral systems have a profound impact on the nature and shape of the party system and the specific government regimes, systems and subsequent governance cultures in a society. In general, an electoral system is a process which serves to facilitate people’s participation in a process of choosing leaders to represent them. The electoral system is thus a process that creates the equality of opportunity for citizens to exercise choice and give voice to their choice. Consequently, elections, by their nature, would need to be process driven, serving to systematise and manage the competition and contestation over the issues and resources that may be at stake in society which the leaders elected, give direction for the use of.

Each electoral system has distinct advantages and disadvantages, for instance pure proportional representation systems account for every single vote in determining the outcome of an election, but does not embed the potential for closer constituency responsiveness and accountability, In addition, pure proportional systems provide inordinate power to political party bosses to determine policy. Pure First Past the Post systems (winner takes all), on the other hand, bear the potential for greater accountability to constituencies, allow ordinary members of political parties and back-bench legislators greater influence in policy by virtue of the constituencies they command, but are not always a fair reflection of the choices made by an electorate. In this system winners of an election by very slim margins take all the power, with all the other votes for candidates who might lose by small margins, being discarded.

Mixed systems may minimise disadvantages and maximise advantages, but depending on the mix used, can potentially create such overwhelming systemic complexities that they are rendered indecipherable to citizens. In addition, they create serious complications in the management and administration of elections as well as the tabulation of results. This can cast a pall of doubt on the credibility of electoral processes and consequently serve to delegitimise the electoral outcomes as oversight over and transparency of the calculation and counting of outcomes are rendered ever more complicated. Simplicity of the electoral system should not be under-estimated as a great virtue.

In order to really simplify matters, some people argue for a simple direct election of executive authorities, like the president. In a constitutional democracy in which executive authority is subordinated and answerable to the legislature, the indirect election of the president by the National Assembly, means that the president can be removed from office by it. Similarly for provincial premiers. Some electoral reform debates have proposed that the president, provincial premiers and local council mayors be directly elected. In the 2014 elections all parties who made the direct election of the president or the provincial premiers a campaign issue, fared badly; more precisely, did not collectively get more than 10 seats in Parliament or more than 5% of the vote share. One of these parties, AZAPO, disappeared altogether. This should tell us that the appetite for this kind of ‘direct’ election of executive authority is low. It is a view, to the extent that it has any currency, which is blind to the fact that indirectly elected executive authorities are faced with an intermediary site of accountability at the legislative level when indirectly elected. This is an important safeguard and avoids the situation of directly elected presidents believing that a direct mandate confers direct and unconstrained powers on them since they derived power directly from the people. It is tempting in such a situation for leaders to relegate accountability for decision-making and implementation to a secondary virtue rather than a primary one. Where there are indirectly elected executive authorities, it is also possible that pre-legislative processes can serve as an additional curb on excessive executive authority through both legislative as well as political party structures. Thus, from an accountability perspective, indirectly elected executives and presidents are better than directly elected ones.

Parliament, as we know, consists of two houses: the National Assembly, whose members are directly elected by the voters, and the Council of Provinces, whose members are delegates sent by the various provincial legislatures, who in turn are directly elected by the voters. South Africa also has elected local level government with prescribed and limited, but influential legislative and executive powers (especially on areas deigned section 76 in the Constitution) and where there is dual authority for provincial and national governments. The Constitution is not prescriptive about how the National Assembly (composed of 350-400 members, depending on population size) and provincial legislatures (30-80 members) is elected. The Constitution allows leeway, through a system that is laid out in legislation, using a single common voters’ roll of voters 18 years or older, that “results, in general, in proportional representation” (section 46).

This allows for a great deal of flexibility in the creation of and changes to the electoral system, as long as it meets these criteria. In practice the electoral system used for electing the National Assembly and the provincial legislatures has, since 1994, used proportional representation based on a closed party list. Registered voters 18 years and over are supplied with two ballots. One ballot contains the list of parties that have submitted candidate lists for the National Assembly, and one of the parties that have supplied lists for the provincial legislature. On each of these ballots voters choose the party they wish to represent them at national and provincial levels. The number of seats gained by each party in the National Assembly or in each provincial legislature is proportional to the number of votes received nationally or provincially.

South Africa used the Droop quota (also called the largest remainder method) for allocating the seats to ensure proportionality. Thus in the 2009 elections the ANC won 65.9% of the vote for the National Assembly and was allocated 66% of the seats, while the DA obtained 16.66% of the vote and was allocated 16.75% of the seats; at the other extreme, since there is no minimum threshold, the African People's Convention, with 0.20% of the vote won a single seat in the National Assembly, or 0.25% of the seats. In the 2014 elections, three parties were allocated seats who should not ordinarily warrant a seat in the National Assembly if a free, fair and credible citizen plebiscite is the judge of levels of voter support. The African Peoples Convention, the Pan Africanist Congress and one of the two seats for AGANG-SA are allocated to them merely because the formula used to calculate the allocation of seats benefited them. In their case the adage ”remainder” could not be more fitting. In the 2014 elections, ten parties share 37 seats, distributing among themselves 8.9% of the total valid votes cast. No doubt this is inclusive, but less than ten percent of the electorate is represented by ten different parties, three of which got seats not because they got a sufficient number of votes but because they got mathematical help.

The system, however, has its drawbacks. In some countries, such as post-war Italy, the wide representation of parties has led to unstable coalition governments. In the South African context, the dominance of the ANC has made coalitions unnecessary, except in the Western Cape, but even there the coalition governments have been relatively stable. After the 2004 election, for example, the ANC won 45% of the votes, and took on the New National Party (NNP, 11%) as a coalition partner to obtain a majority. (The NNP was absorbed into the ANC, which then had an absolute majority). In 2009 the DA obtained a slight majority of 51% of the votes and formed a coalition with the Independent Democrats (ID, 5%) to ensure a workable majority. In institutional settings, parties with small representation are unable to play an effective oversight and policy role, especially where committee deliberations are more substantial that debates in plenary. Smaller parties are overstretched and frequently unable to represent their interests on key portfolios of substance.

Of greater concern to critics of the current system is the fact that the individual members of the National Assembly and provincial legislatures are not directly responsible to the voters and that elected representatives may be less sensitive to the needs of voters and more concerned about pleasing their party, which has the power to move them up or down the lists or even exclude members from the list entirely. A single-member constituency system, despite its many defects, ensures at least that the member will be concerned about the needs and perceptions of those in the constituency that elects him or her and constituents know whom to turn to with their grievances and problems. Yet evidence from the use a of a pure mixed system at local government level (with half the seats in a council filled from a closed list PR system, and the other half elected in a first-past-the-post system, better accountability and responsiveness has not been evident. At least, though, it bears the potential for greater accountability and responsiveness, without losing the benefits of inclusivity and fairness resulting from a PR system.)

Since the only prescription the Constitution makes is that the electoral system should generally result in proportionality of representation, the issue of a lack of accountability, responsiveness and answerability could easily be dealt with by the adoption of a simple mixed system. In this system, most of the seats are single member constituencies, but further seats are allocated to parties from lists to ensure that each party is represented in a legislative body in general proportion to the votes it obtained. An alternative suggestion by the Electoral Task Team (ETT), formed in March 2002 and chaired by the late Professor Van Zyl Slabbert, in its Report of January 2003 suggested that the country be divided into smaller proportional representation constituencies with around seven members each. These are both options worth considering.

While smaller parties remain an important part of the political firmament, yet fetishisation of the inclusivity, representativity, plurality and diversity promoted by the use of a pure closed list proportional representation electoral system cannot be sustained in the face of the low political and governance impact (oversight over the party in government, oversight in legislatures and the functioning and operations of national provincial and local executives) the smaller parties have had. The retention of the current system has led to much inclusivity and diversity but resulted in the proliferation of parties, accompanied by excessive fragmentation and consequently, a degree of ineffectiveness. It has been good for consociation but not good for effective oversight, accountability and refined policy. In the face of the sustained low political, policy and governance impact of fragmented small parties, it may be worth considering, two decades into South Africa’s evolving transition, some degree of electoral reform to harness the potential benefits of a mixed Proportional Representation (PR) and directly elected First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system to begin to construct a greater culture of oversight, accountability and responsiveness. At the very least, South Africa may need to introduce a minimum threshold for qualifying for a seat. If election deposits are an appropriate instrument to both ensure only serious entrants to the political market are part of the game and serves to test the connection a party has to a constituency of support prepared to risk funding its participation in political competition, then the introduction of a minimum threshold would be an equally appropriate instrument to leave out the jokers, the spurious contenders and render the overall governance system of representation, responsiveness, oversight and accountability more effective. DM

  • Ebrahim Fakir
    Ebrahim Fakir

    Ebrahim Fakir works at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (EISA) which he joined in February 2009. He was previously analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg (2003-2009) and also worked at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) [1998-2003] in both Pretoria and Cape Town. He was a Draper Hills Summer Fellow at the Centre for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University in 2011. He is also an advisory council member of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC). When not writing or thinking about politics and governance he dresses well. He was recognised for this by GQ magazine in 2009, and again in 2013.

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