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Deadline for electoral reform that will shape SA politi...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Deadline looms for electoral reform that will shape SA politics for decades to come

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Alexandra Willis is a researcher at the Social Policy Initiative. This article is written in her personal capacity.

Cabinet has rejected a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system that could mean the end of single-party dominance of the ANC and could result in accountable and effective governance.

Legislation which will shape South Africa’s political landscape for decades to come is about to be finalised by Parliament.

The Electoral Amendment Bill (B1-2022), which is currently subject to a nationwide public consultation process by the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs, has received some mixed reactions. The bill proposes amendments to the Electoral Act 73 of 1998 after the Constitutional Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for not allowing independent candidates to contest elections to the National Assembly and provincial legislatures. The court gave Parliament 24 months to finalise and pass the bill. That deadline is fast approaching: 10 June 2022.

Home Affairs Minister Dr Pakishe Aaron Motsoaledi established the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) to develop policy options to address the deficiency. After completing its task, MAC then tabled two options to Cabinet on 10 January 2022: the minimalist option and the mixed-member proportional system. Cabinet selected the minimalist option. In summary, the bill suggests electoral reform to allow independent candidates to contest in the national and provincial legislatures.

However, it falls short of proposing meaningful electoral reform which would take South Africa’s current proportional representation (PR) system to a mixed-member proportional representation (MMPR) electoral system that would include MPs directly elected by constituencies.

This has been the call from academics and independent research think tanks for well over two decades. This article examines what the possibilities of an MMPR system could mean for South Africa’s democracy.

There are many meanings, connotations and contestations attached to the word “democracy” which constitute it as one of the most slippery concepts to define, yet it has emerged as perhaps the only stable and enduring principle in the postmodern political landscape. Democracy, according to classical political theorist Robert Dahl, has meant different things to different people in different times and different places. In other words, it’s contextual.

There is universal agreement, however, that “free and fair” elections serve as the most basic precondition for democracy. In the field of comparative political science, there are four types of definitions of democracy: substantive, constitutional, procedural and process-orientated. However, constitutional and process-oriented definitions of democracy fall into the categories of substantive and procedural respectively.

Substantive approaches give attention to conditions of life, regarding aspects such as human welfare, social equity, public deliberation and individual freedom. Substantive approaches to defining democracy are fundamentally dependent upon the meta-ideology of liberalism.

Procedural approaches focus on a range of governmental practices that qualify a democracy. Democracy in this sense is defined by classical theorist Seymour Martin Lipset as “a political system which supplies regular constitutional opportunities for changing the governing officials”. The latter includes elections.  

Different kinds of electoral systems

There are different kinds of electoral systems. South Africa’s current proportional representation — which has merit because of its quality of “fairness” — is also the most common system across the former colonies of the world. The existing PR system provides that parties obtain seats in direct proportion to the votes that they receive.

This means that, for example, if a party receives 1,000 votes out of a total vote of 20,000, it receives 5% of the 400 seats in the National Assembly, which translates into 20 seats. This is theoretically merited on fairness and ensures that parties are represented proportionally with citizens’ support. However, in all successive elections following the 1994 general election, South Africa’s Parliament has been characterised by single-party dominance by the African National Congress (ANC). Practically, that means that the ANC holds sway on decision-making in Parliament.

Under the current system, all members of Parliament are nominated in accordance with their place on their party’s national list — i.e. voters do not decide on which individuals represent them. The drawback of this is that there is an absence of accountability of members of the National Assembly to voters whom they represent, at least theoretically.  

The Electoral Amendment Bill proposes the inclusion of individual candidates on the grounds that the commission must determine a fixed number of seats reserved for each region (province) for every election of the National Assembly, taking into account available scientifically based data in respect of voters and representations by interested parties. The regional seats are allocated for each region in terms of meeting a quota. To read in detail about how the quota is determined you can click here to find the bill itself.  

The bill, however,  falls short of meaningful electoral reform insofar as it does not account for independents who have national support outside of the region in which they run, and, more pressingly, voters still remain alienated from their theoretically elected national representatives.  

A change to the MMPR system, which was pioneered by Germany and other effective democracies across the world, would entail voters getting two votes: one to decide the representative for their single-seat constituency (i.e. a local representative) and one for a political party (to represent on a national level).  

Seats in Parliament are filled first by the successful constituency candidates, and second, by party candidates based on the percentage of nationwide or region-wide votes that each party received. This guards against single-party dominance, unless the ruling party has a disproportionate say in the boundaries of constituencies in which case it might use this system to perpetuate itself through gerrymandering, insofar that the remaining seats after individuals have been elected are proportionally allocated in such a way that their representation is not disproportionate with its support on a national level.

Moreover, this system theoretically will enhance transparency and honesty in elected leaders and make them directly accountable to voters and not political parties.

This is huge. Not only could this mean the end of single-party dominance of the ANC but it could result in accountable and effective governance. Moreover, meaningful electoral reform in South Africa might see a return to high voter turnout following a psychological shift. Poor voter turnout has been recorded and deliberated upon in all successive elections following the 1994 election.

Can a government truly be said to be representative of its people if only a small proportion of its people voted for them in the first place? I think not. DM

 

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  • I would say that there is merit in this local/national MP selection system. I would go a bit further and say there should be a provincial federal system. National MPs are then selected on a Local/Provincial system. This would increase individual accountability of MPs.

  • We’re not so naïve as to believe that the turkey is going to vote for Christmas. The current system suits the ANC down to the ground .Virtually every candidate on the ANC list has some nefarious skills to offer to ensure that the mafia that is the ANC continues to keep their snouts in the trough indefinitely.

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