Thu. Oct 17th, 2019

Let’s talk about electoral reform – should we change how we vote?

Election results prediction programmeElectoral reform will not eliminate all of our problems, it is just an initial step towards improving relations towards the electorate and parliamentarians.

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There is a pervasive sense of renewal that is taking shape in the country, embodied in the phrase Thuma Mina, that began ever since President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) in February last year, which still continues today.

Therefore, in the spirit of renewal, I believe it is time we revisit an old topic: one of electoral reform.

One great takeaway from the 2019 General Election results, is that people are severely disgruntled and have lost faith in the state and its institutions. This is evident with the declining voter turnout and registration, especially amongst the youth (people under the age of 35).

Prologue to parliamentary representation

There is a great dissonance between the issues that are most salient on the ground across the country, and the issues that tend to get the most attention in the media and in parliamentary debates; something that has become more prominent in the lead up to the Elections.

For example, leading up to the elections, land reform was expected to assume a significant proportion of the electorate’s concerns because of its pervasiveness in parliament. However, this did not turn out to be the case.

While still important, issues of social grants, unemployment, severe socio-economic inequality and youth disillusionment seemed to be the most latent issues.

This suggests that there is a disjuncture in the relationship of the electorate and parliamentary representatives, which, to an extent, is attributable to the design of our electoral system.

One of the many challenges that were faced by negotiators at the Convention for a Democratic South (CODESA) negotiations was the instituting an electoral system that would simultaneously bridge the highly divided South African society and counteract the appeal of parties canvassing people along their racial or ethnic identification; a system that would be reflective and representative of the country’s diversity.

Understanding the proportional representation system

It was also necessary, that in the new South Africa, minority rights were adequately represented in parliament instead of being excluded. The model that was agreed upon was a closed-list proportional representation system, which encourages representativity.

In this model, the people cast their vote for party lists that are selected and agreed upon by individual political parties. The votes are cast, tallied and parliamentary seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the number of votes received – in order to receive a single seat in the National Assembly, a party needs to have between 30000 to 35000 votes.

This, in principle, is a highly fair and more representative than First Past the Post (FPTP) – a model that was adopted under the British and Apartheid government. The system has many advantages, many of them being the fact every single vote counts, smaller parties have a definitive chance of earning representation in the National Assembly, representing the variety of opinions and voices across the country.

Problems with the current electoral model

However, there are severe problems with this model.

Under the closed-list tally, parliamentarians are more accountable to their party they represent, than they are voters.

There is no incentive for them to be seen as addressing the needs of the voters; representatives often appear remote and heavily removed.

Tied to this is the fact that the PR enables a system whereby the separation of power between the executive and the legislative arm of government is only nominal.

This is because the distinct powers of the two spheres are easily conflated with one another; the parliament cannot perform its action of holding the executive to account for the people. 

The expansion of smaller parties can lead to instability and these minor parties being used to mediate the balance of power between the two dominant parties: The African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA).

This means that the views of voters can be suppressed and not afforded the time necessary in government. So it is not really representative.

This is facilitated by the processes of bargaining, agenda-setting and manoeuvring, which occur far away from the gaze of voters. The policies that result from these processes are usually removed from the demands of the electorate on the ground and this is largely because, in the PR system, voters never have a direct relationship with their representatives in the National Assembly.

This is has resulted in a system whereby the contest for representation in the National Assembly is embedded in the parity of political parties. This is unfair and needs to change.

A move to accountability

Indeed the leader of COPE (Congress of the People) even submitted a Private Member’s Bill to parliament in 2018, arguing that the electoral system of the country should be changed to enable greater accountability to constituencies and to encourage the direct election of the president, premier and mayors instead of having them imposed on us.

We need to start considering this. The issue has long been discussed in academic circles but I think we need to start seriously some form of reform.

The time to do this is now, especially when there is a glaring contravention between the 1998 Electoral Act and Section 19 of the constitution. Section 19 (3) of the constitution stipulates “that every adult citizen has right to a)vote in elections for a legislative body established in terms of the Constitution and to do so in secret; and b) stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office”. However, the Electoral Act only allows citizens to run for office if they are members of a political party – one cannot run as an independent.

Electoral reform will not eliminate all of our problems, it is just an initial step towards improving relations towards the electorate and parliamentarians. However, we need to start thinking about it before lack of accountability destroys our country.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TheSouthAfrica.com.

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