“Since the country is not forced to choose a new electoral system, is there any reason why it should want to do this?…
… there is a problem with this sort of reasoning – and much of what we hear about electoral systems. It is based on armchair logic which makes sweeping statements about how voters and politicians behave based on ‘common sense’, but never on a concrete analysis of how real people behave in the real political world.”
By Professor Steven Friedman; University of Johannesburg
IF we all lived in textbooks, we could make democracy work for South Africa’s people by changing the electoral system. Since we live in the real world, we need to look elsewhere for remedies.
A judgment by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that independent candidates must be allowed to stand for provincial and national office and that the law must be changed within two years to allow this, has revived an old favourite of campaigners. It is now assumed by just about all political insiders that the court’s ruling means that the system must change and there is now a lively debate on what those changes should be. The Minister of Home Affairs has appointed an advisory committee chaired by former minister Valli Moosa to look at this issue.
The only option which appears to not be under discussion is keeping the system as it is. First, it is assumed that to do this would ignore the court ruling – which, of course, must be respected if we are to preserve our constitutional democracy. Second, we are told repeatedly that a new system is essential if our democracy is to work as it should. This article will argue that the court ruling does not mean that a new electoral system is essential – and that changing the system is unlikely to make elected representatives and leaders any more accountable to the people than they are now.
Jumping to Conclusions
Contrary to the claims of the campaigners, the court ruling said nothing about changing the electoral system.
It found that the Electoral Act is unconstitutional ‘to the extent that it requires that adult citizens may be elected to the National Assembly and Provincial Legislatures only through their membership of political parties’. It then gave Parliament two years to remedy this. This obviously says nothing at all about electoral systems. Since the judgement, the impression has been created that it is impossible to allow independents to stand within the current system and that a new system is the only way to implement the judgement. But that is not true.
Since 1994, national and provincial elections have been contested by individuals who, in effect, turned themselves into parties. An early example was the KISS party whose founder seemed to be its only member. Bradford Wood, who had appeared in a TV series, contested an election as The Organisation Party. There are other examples.
The only reason they formed parties may have been because the rules said that they must – it was the only way they could get onto the ballot paper. If that rule was scrapped, they could run as independents and the judgement would be implemented.
The usual objection to this is that the ballot paper would resemble a phone directory as hundreds of independents registered to stand. But, as the examples mentioned here show, an individual who wants to stand under the current rules simply has to invent a party and get a few friends to sign up for the party list. Since is that easy, why were there not hundreds of these one-person parties on the ballot?
The reason is that it is not easy to contest a national or provincial election. For a start, you need to find R200 00 to contest a national election and R45 000 for each province – very few people are prepared to shell out that amount of money simply to see their names on a ballot paper. Small parties (independents in all but name) have never done well in provincial or national elections. In the last election, parties who failed to win enough support to keep their deposit forfeited R16,7m to the public coffers. This is a further reason why independents will not flock to contest since they are unlikely to get much of a return on their investment.
As long as the rules which currently apply to parties also apply to independents, it is hard to see the ballot paper expanding by much. And the import of the judgement is surely that they should ne included on the same terms. The judgement could, therefore, be implemented by keeping the system unchanged except that individuals who wanted to stand would no longer have to form make-believe parties.
Since the country is not forced to choose a new electoral system, is there any reason why it should want to do this?
The ‘common sense’ claim is that we must change the system to ensure that elected representatives are more accountable to the people. At present, we are told, they are only accountable to the party leaders and structures which decide where they will be placed on the list. The cure is to make them directly accountable to voters by ensuring that they can vote for a person, not a party. Despite this, few if any of the voices in the debate are arguing that we should move to a first-past-the-post system in which the country is divided into constituencies and the candidate who wins most votes in each is elected. This would not be possible unless the constitution is changed – it says that elections must ‘result, in general, in proportional representation’. Instead, they advocate a ‘mixed system’ in which there will be both constituency and proportional representation. This is meant to offer us the advantages of direct election of candidates as well as proportionality.
All of this sounds sensible but there is a problem with this sort of reasoning – and much of what we hear about electoral systems. It is based on armchair logic which makes sweeping statements about how voters and politicians behave based on ‘common sense’, but never on a concrete analysis of how real people behave in the real political world. Once we look at real world politics, we see both that moving away from proportional representation does not necessarily make representatives more accountable and that the mixed system which offers us the best of both worlds does not exist anywhere.
To take the second point first because it is less important.
To say that a system must provide for direct election and reward parties in proportion to their share of the vote sounds good in theory, but in practice all mixed systems stress one at the expense of the other. To illustrate, the Electoral Task Team chaired by the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert proposed that the present system for electing members of the National Assembly be replaced by 69 multi-member constituencies and 100 members chosen by proportional representation. A quick calculation shows that this means that each constituency would comprise around 380 000 voters. Since each constituency would have around four members, each representative will serve around 90 000 people. Clearly this is not going to come close to offering the close contact between representative and voters which direct election is meant to offer.
So, if we want that closeness, we have to increase the number of constituencies. But that means that there will be fewer members elected by each constituency and the result will be less proportional. If only a quarter of members are elected proportionally, it might make up for some of the distortion, but not all of it. So, choosing a mixed system does not free us from choosing between being fair to parties and direct election of people.
This is important because most people who advocate a mixed system seem to feel that this means that they don’t have to choose between direct election and being fair to parties. But, in reality, choices have to be made – either it is more important to ensure that each party wins the number of seats to which its vote entitles it or to create a direct relationship between voters and elected representatives. It could be argued that a system which allows small parties to win seats is superior because more voters feel that there is a party which speaks for them.
This brings us to the second point – the claim that changing to a system in which voters can vote for candidates as well as parties would make representatives more accountable to voters. Unfortunately, this ‘common sense’ view does not describe reality.
Direct election does not necessarily mean more accountable government.
South Africans should not need to look to international examples to see that this is so – we have one in our own back yard. Local government is elected using a mixed system but it is not more accountable than the other two spheres. In fact, voters tend to believe that this sphere is the least accountable,  which is why it is the constant target of protest. It is one of the marvels of our political debate that we still continually hear that more direct election always makes government more accountable when we have living proof that this is not true in the places where we live.
In Brazil, a proportional system which allows voters to choose candidates as well as parties enables corruption because candidates need money to win election and they get it by making deals with the wealthy. They are accountable to the rich and not to the people who voted. In the United States of America direct election within parties as well as in elections at all levels of the system produced an extremely unaccountable system.
Nor is it necessarily true that direct election means that representatives are no longer dependant on their party leadership to gain election. In Australia, parties issue ‘how-to-vote’ cards to supporters telling them who to vote for and in which order and voters usually comply. In Italy, parties issue similar ‘advice’ which is almost always obeyed.  These examples are particularly relevant to this country because it is the power of party leaderships here which often ensures that ward councillors are far more accountable to those leaders than to voters.
The Wrong Cure
These examples do not mean a system in which voters choose candidates as well as parties is less accountable and more prone to the influence of big money than our current system.
What it does mean is that the claim that we can ensure a more accountable democracy if we change the election system peddles an illusion. In some countries, systems not that much different to the one we have now ensure accountable government, in some they don’t. There are countries in which direct election does offer more accountability – we have just seen that there are others in which it does not. The obvious conclusion is that it isn’t the electoral system which decides whether we have accountable government but a host of other factors.
A while ago, a political scientist who studied electoral systems in Africa found that proportional representation and direct election systems produced roughly the same results. In all the countries he studied, the geographic vote was crucial. People in particular areas tended to vote overwhelmingly for particular parties. This meant that whatever system was used, the results looked much the same.
South Africa is similar to the countries he studied. While party politics has become more fluid, party loyalties are still strong. This explains why, after a quarter century of proportional representation, our politics resembles that of constituency systems in the textbooks. It has only two or three main parties and changing the electoral system will not change this.
Far more important, it will not change the realities which create dissatisfaction with the current system. Accountability is a huge problem here – although, contrary to what we are often told, it is far more of a problem in townships and shack settlements than suburbs. The problem is not that politicians are accountable to no one. It is that they are more accountable to those in society who wield power and make themselves heard which excludes many who were disadvantaged by apartheid.
The reasons for this have nothing to do with the electoral system. They are, rather, a product of the reality that democracy has changed less in this country than it should have. Among the reasons are poverty and inequality, the fact that the suburbs have more power than the townships and that, despite changes, where people live still largely shapes how they vote. If we want a stronger democracy and a fairer society, we need to begin tackling these problems. But changing the electoral system will not change them. All it is likely to do is distract attention from what we really need to do.
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