Melanie Verwoerd

Voters are never powerless – despite our electoral system

2018-12-12 08:32
The opposition benches in the National Assembly of Parliament.

The opposition benches in the National Assembly of Parliament. (Lulama Zenzile)

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Undeniably, voters have a far bigger say in a first-past-the-post electoral system. But in a country like ours such a system would have seen the ANC getting close to all the seats in Parliament, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Last week, in reaction to the debate in Parliament and social media on whether MPs should have degrees, I suggested that we should rather debate what characteristics and values we want in our elected representatives.

I was (pleasantly) surprised by the amount of reaction my column on this created. One person took the trouble of writing an article for MyNews24 and raised some interesting questions which I think are important to investigate a bit more.

The writer's main point relates to the nature of our electoral system. Since 1994 we have had a proportional list system on national and provincial level. This means parties through different internal procedures compile a list of candidates to present them in Parliament and the provincial legislatures. These lists are registered with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and a certain number of these individuals are then elected to Parliament or the legislatures based on the percentage of the total vote each party gets during the election.

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The writer is therefore correct when stating that: "Not a single one (MP), from whatever party was elected to their positions. They were appointed by the party that received a certain amount of votes and therefore were entitled to appoint a certain amount of people to Parliament. There was no election of individuals, but parties, who could then appoint whoever they wanted to any position, regardless of any education, and indeed, moral or ethical standing."

The writer is also correct that this creates a weak link in terms of direct accountability after the elections given that members of Parliament are more likely to follow the dictates of their political party than serving the needs of the electorate.

So the question is, why have this political system?

We must remember that the opposite of a proportional system is one of majoritarianism. In this system there are usually single (or sometimes multiple) member geographical constituencies, where those with the most votes are declared the winners.

In between these two systems there are a number of hybrid or mixed models, like, for example, in our local government system.

Undeniably, the voters have a far bigger say in a first-past-the-post electoral system. They decide who is elected and if not happy with the candidate's performance they can vote him or her out at the next election.

The problem is that in a country like ours a first-past-the-post system would have resulted in the ANC getting close to all the seats in Parliament. Given our demographic and the racially defined voting patterns it is almost impossible to see where there would have been a constituency where the ANC would not have had a majority in the last 25 years. This might have changed slightly in more recent years, but the numbers would still be overwhelmingly in favour of the ANC.

This is what the writers of the Constitution had in mind when they agreed on the current system. In our proportional system every vote counts. In a first-past-the-post system the winner can be declared with a majority of 1% of the total vote and thus the other 49% of the votes are disregarded in the representation in Parliament. Not so democratic either.

The South African system was also designed with a low threshold for parties to secure a seat in Parliament. This together with the proportional nature of the system is meant to ensure that smaller parties and parties representing minorities still get representation in Parliament.

If we had a more direct election system we would certainly not have had any representation from the PAC, Agang, Cope, Freedom Front Plus or any of the other smaller parties.

It is also true that women generally do much worse in a purely constituency based system unless parties ensure that they are put up as candidates in the safe constituencies. This rarely happens due to internal power battles.

Of course there has been much debate in more recent times as to whether we should have a more mixed system at national and provincial level. This was recommended by the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform in 2003. There has been more debate around this issue in the governing party especially during the last few months of the Zuma era, but in many instances arguments in favour of a change were linked more to a frustration that the ANC did not get more of the seats.

So although our current system has some shortcomings we need to be cautious when considering a new system.

It is also important to note that although the current system does not allow for direct elections of individual candidates, voters can still make themselves heard. Of course those who belong to a political party will have a say in their own party as to whom they want on the lists. Those who choose not to belong to any party can through public debate and social media at least make known what they would like to see in their elected representatives, thus putting pressure on the parties.

We must remember that as long as we have a democratic system voters are never powerless – unless they choose to be.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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.

Read more on:    iec  |  parliament  |  election  |  voting
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