The Constitutional Court recently ruled that Parliament was to change the Electoral Act to include provisions that allow independent candidates to compete in national elections. The decision was welcomed by many who believe that it will strengthen South Africa’s democracy.
Indeed, competition in any democracy is important as it is the space in which ideas should be tested and debated. Creating an enabling environment where individuals can independently put themselves forward would surely add value. Those who are frustrated with the nature of party politics may choose this as their avenue to contest in the election, a critical right which has now been asserted by the Constitution.
However, one must really engage on whether it will significantly alter or radically change South Africa’s electoral landscape or the composition of Parliament. The reality is that the review of the Electoral Act is unlikely to do this.
First, what many have overlooked in praising the Constitutional Court judgment is that at local government there already exists a system whereby independent candidates can compete for seats as councillors.
In metropolitan areas, the council composition is divided between proportional representative councillors and ward councillors. At district municipalities, it is a little more complicated where only 40% of the council seats are allocated on the proportional representative vote. Any qualifying South African can register to be an independent ward candidate. The process is clearly articulated on the IEC website — it is relatively simple and requires a deposit fee of R1,000.
This system has characterised all the country’s local government elections and yet while hundreds of independent candidates sign up to contest ward elections, the overall representation of independent councillors in councils across the country is less than 1%.
One of the leading drivers behind the rise of independents is often that they have left a political party over a disagreement or conflict. This took place in the Great Kei municipality when a number of ANC ward councillors resigned in support of their mayor who was recalled by the ANC provincial structures. All those former ward councillors ran as independents in the by-elections for their wards, only for them to lose to the new ANC candidates.
This is ultimately the challenge for any independent candidate in that no matter what system is in place, they will ultimately have to contest for a political seat against a candidate who has the backing and support of a political party. Generally in politics, we see that brand trumps personality. On occasion, a candidate will emerge with a strong and established personality and often partner with a political party which gives them an even stronger platform. However, very rarely do you see an independent candidate without a political party’s backing achieve significant political success.
The vital change is more in the fact that in amending the Electoral Act, South African voters will now for the first time have a better idea of which MP is representing their specific area, town or municipality in Parliament.
Take for example one of the most famous political independents, Bernie Sanders in the US. When Sanders ran to be a senator in 2007 he was endorsed by Chuck Schumer, the then chairperson of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a decision which essentially prevented any Democrats running against him. Barack Obama even campaigned for him during 2006. Despite winning the Democratic Party’s primary in Vermont in both 2006 and 2012, Sanders did not register as a Democrat and refused the party’s formal nomination so that he could still register as an independent, even though he basically publicly aligned himself with the party.
In 2016, Sanders could have chosen to run for president as an independent, yet he chose to contest for the nomination of the Democratic Party against Hillary Clinton. In 2019 he made the same choice to contest for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination. Sanders understood that the only way he stood a credible chance of becoming the president of the US was to do so through a political party.
Equally interesting is the United Kingdom where their electoral system allows for independent candidates to compete to be members of parliament. Out of the 650 members of the House of Commons, not a single candidate was successfully elected as an independent in the 2019 general election. In Canada, out of 338 parliamentarians, there are two who are independent — 0.6%. In Germany, the Bundestag has 709 seats of which six are held by independents — 0.8%. This list could go on to compare other democracies around the world, but the general trend is the same — the overall representation of independents in national parliaments is usually below 1%.
Coming back to South Africa and examining results in the 2019 elections provides some valuable insights into electoral choices in the country. There were 48 political parties on the ballot, a record number. Out of this, 14 achieved representation in Parliament. In this election, to achieve representation in Parliament, a party needed more than 30,000 votes to garner a single seat. This seems like a low number, yet 24 organisations with teams of volunteers failed to achieve this requirement.
Political parties, despite their flaws, hold immense value for democracy. They provide a mechanism through which teams of individuals can collaborate around particular values and ideas which they feel are critical for the country’s development.
Despite changes to the Electoral Act to allow independents to compete in the national election, it is unlikely that South Africa will witness a fundamental shake-up in the composition of Parliament. While some individual voices may be elected to the National Assembly, the country’s Parliament will still be dominated by political parties.
The vital change is more in the fact that in amending the Electoral Act, South African voters will now for the first time have a better idea of which MP is representing their specific area, town or municipality in Parliament. This is of course if a mixed system of constituency-based elections and proportional representation is chosen, as it exists now with local government elections. This holds immense value for citizens who want to engage directly with their MPs and assess their effectiveness.
In this way, it may also force political parties to choose candidates who are personally known in their area and have a localised presence to build concrete support with their constituents. It may equally force candidates of political parties in South Africa to engage in internal primaries to compete with one another to secure the candidacy for a particular area.
All of this will strengthen the democratic process and create more transparency in how candidate selection may work.
However, the notion that there will be a sweeping wave of independent candidates coming into Parliament is simply misguided.
Political parties, despite their flaws, hold immense value for democracy. They provide a mechanism through which teams of individuals can collaborate around particular values and ideas which they feel are critical for the country’s development. Organisationally they pull in a variety of individuals with a range of skills to work together around shared goals in what they feel is best for the country. They will always have their role to play in South African politics, as will independent candidates. DM