Eusebius McKaiser

Electoral reform is no silver bullet

2013-02-21 11:00

Eusebius McKaiser

There is renewed interest by many, such as Cope's Mosiuoa Lekota, in an old debate. Should we reform our electoral system to introduce some form of constituency based voting for parliamentary seats? The short answer is, "Yes we should".

But it is not an optimal use of opposition party resources to obsess about electoral reform that will not likely happen because of the ruling party's fear of empowering voters with the ability to directly elect their MPs.

Electoral reform, at any rate, is unlikely to be a silver bullet resulting in good and responsive government.

Good and responsive government require deeper political cultural changes within our body politic.


First, it is important to realise that accountability could be reduced in a constituency based system if the biggest party wins more parliamentary seats than its aggregate share of overall votes cast nationally. This is possible depending on how the constituency boundaries are drawn.

Put simply, an African National Congress majority in two constituencies could mean two ANC MPs in Parliament and no representation for non-ANC voters from those constituencies.

There are two risks here: smaller parties may be out of parliament sooner than is currently the case. And, furthermore, there could be less parliamentary oversight of Cabinet in scenarios where this happens. So opposition parties should be careful what they wish for. Multiparty democracy itself could be at stake.

Of course one could mix a pure constituency model with proportional representation but in that case party bosses are back in the game. At best a very small number of genuinely independent minded MPs may come through.

But given that party bosses would have huge powers, still, to offer party resources and machinery to help party candidates run for elections, it is anyone's guess whether MPs would listen to constituencies or party headquarters. Just look at the sometimes anti-democratic influence party leadership wield in England, for example, where constituency based elections happen.

Second, it is in theory, of course, imagined that if voters directly elect an MP, even if it is an ANC MP, they could knock at their door and hold them accountable right there on the stoep. In practise this is unlikely to happen.

Our system is a counter-example

At local government level, for example, how many of us actively engage the councillors we supposedly vote for directly? Do you know the names, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers of your local government representatives? No? That makes two of us.

Unless voters in constituencies are active in political processes, informed and in the habit of engaging elected officials, electoral reform will not guarantee greater public accountability. Our mixed local government electoral system is a counter-example to the theoretical reasoning of those punting electoral reform.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the real issue is not ultimately electoral reform. It is about how we will change our political culture so that publicly elected officials behave ethically, and respond to the needs of citizens rather than to the wishes of party leaders.

And, yes, incentives for good MP behaviour can include electoral systems that make indifference towards the public, something that cost you your job. So I don't mean to be completely undermining the need for electoral reform. I would vote yes in a referendum asking me if I support electoral reform in favour of a mixed voting system.

Pointed focus needed

But here's the bottom-line: in all electoral models deeply unethical and incompetent political actors can survive. The more enduring solution is to fix the political culture that enables this truth.

That is a harder problem to focus on which is why opposition parties focus on the proximate cause, a quick and dirty analysis of our current electoral system.

It is worth shifting public discussion, however, to a more pointed focus on how we might change the odious political culture that has taken root in our country.

- McKaiser’s book A Bantu in my Bathroom is now available from all leading bookstores. Ebooks can be bought from and epub and pdf versions can be bought on-line from Exclusives Books and

- Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics. Follow @eusebius on Twitter.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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