A call for electoral reform

2008-11-19 00:00

The African National Congress (ANC) breakaway party’s righteous indignation about South Africa’s flawed electoral system is justified, but hardly revolutionary. My and the Inkatha Freedom Party’s objections about the deployed party list system of proportional representation were first raised at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) where this electoral system was devised for the new South Africa.

Several years down the line, in 2003 — as Minister of Home Affairs — I co-opted an electoral task team to investigate and re-search a better-tailored electoral system for post-apartheid South Africa. The task team, chaired by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, recommended that the existing system be modified in favour of one that would promote greater accountability of public representatives. Our advocacy of a mixed-member proportional electoral system was flatly rejected by the ruling party which then comprised many of the discontents in the ANC breakaway party.

The electoral system which a country adopts determines how the votes cast by the electorate in an election are distributed among political parties in Parliament. It is through a particular electoral system that the electorate decides about not only who is to govern but also how they are to govern.

The main charge levelled against the party list system of proportional representation is that it gives the leadership of political parties absolute control over the choice of public representatives. At the same time, it relieves our public representatives of constituency pressures which bind them in the constituency-based system. On the whole, the system not only curtails the accountability of public representatives to constituents but it also prevents individuals from standing as independents in Parliament.

The recent political crisis, due to the dismissal of Thabo Mbeki, has reopened the question of whether our president should be elected directly at the ballot box or indirectly by parliamentary majority. Direct election would imply that the president is ac-countable to the electorate and not merely to the ruling party which can “recall” him at will, as was the fate of Mbeki.

The 2003 electoral task team did contemplate a return to the constituency-based system as deployed in apartheid South Africa. In the end, this system was found inadequate because it lacks an element of proportionality required by our multi-ethnic society. Although constituency-based electoral systems generally result in stable, one-party governments without coalition partners, such systems inevitably favour the majority opinion and entail some level of electoral distortion.

The best example of such a distortion is, of course, the 1948 election which saw the ascendancy of the National Party government and with it the onset of apartheid. D. F. Malan’s National Party won this election with as little as 40% of the popular vote whereas General Jan Smuts’s United Party lost it even though it secured about 60% of the vote.

Bearing in mind the lessons of 1948 as well as those of 1994, 1999 and 2004, which have produced parliaments largely unaccountable to the public, South Africa needs electoral reform. As my task team concluded, we require a mixed system which combines the assets of proportional representation and constituencies, and which, simultaneously, limits their liabilities. The answer lies in a mixed-member proportional electoral system, deployed, for instance, in Germany, where voters have an opportunity to choose between individual candidates and political parties.

This system prescribes smaller multi-member constituencies without adding complexity to the ballot paper. It promotes political accountability of public representatives by stressing the local link between them and their constituents. In doing so, it diminishes the power and discretion of party bosses. At the same time, it mirrors the election results based on proportional representation. In doing so, it prevents electoral distortion and restricts the primacy of majority opinion.

The ANC breakaway party’s support for an alternative electoral system renders the ruling party the odd one out that does not appreciate the implications of electoral reform for the well-being of South Africa’s democracy.

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