Reform the way we vote or risk becoming a fully-fledged kakistocracy

2019-05-12 07:00
MANGAUNG, SOUTH AFRICA ââ?¬â?? MAY 7: South Afric
South Africans queue as they wait to cast their vote on May 7, 2014 in Manguang, South Africa. This is the fifth democratic election in South Africas history. (Photo by Gallo Images / Conrad Bornman)

The PR system gives political parties monopolistic control over our public representatives, promotes politics of patronage as heard in the state capture commissions and others, writes Rich Mkhondo.

After robust electioneering heaving with policy platitudes promising everything from the end of corruption to land distribution, jobs, houses and even R1m for every student registering at a higher institution of learning, I never thought I would agree with Winston Churchill's observation that "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried".

It has been with a mixture of anger, sadness and wonder that I have watched the political landscape of our country being decimated by epic misgovernance, brazen corruption, self-serving and self-aggrandising politicians and political parties anchored by our proportional representation (PR) electoral system.

As I have stood in the midst of all this bluster and blather searching desperately for reason and civility, I have become more and more convinced that our electoral system is the mother of all political evils.

Our marriage to the current PR system, which allocates legislative seats based on a party's percentage of the overall vote, rather than under a winner-takes-all system is no longer suitable for our democracy. It has produced state-capture and reduced us to a kakistocracy. The sooner we dump the PR system, the better for our democracy to prevail.

As Churchill knew, there is no perfection in politics. I am convinced that the authors of our Constitution certainly didn't imagine our PR system's lack of accountability would help give birth to state capture and other political and economic shenanigans.

PR system birthed kakistocratic tendencies

Electoral systems need to be reviewed regularly, but understanding them is not easy. There are many widely accepted electoral systems and they are all democratic. And yet they usually produce radically different outcomes. Our PR system has given birth to kakistocratic tendencies.

The Webster's dictionary defines kakistocracy as: "government by the worst administrators – a system of government run by the least qualified, most unscrupulous leaders possible." It quite literally means leadership by the worst people imaginable is defined by the manipulation of wealthy, powerful and influential people, particularly politicians and plutocrats, to pursue their self-interests in a civil society.

The key features of people willing to get ahead in a kakistocracy are amorality and complete loyalty to those higher up, something akin to what the last two elections produced.

Traditionally, kakistocracies tend to collapse through their own incompetence. But it can take time. Ours took "nine wasted years" and the impact will be felt for years to come.

I realise that debates on the reform of electoral systems always go around in circles, with party hacks and their favourite politicians favouring the system that keeps them in power. I know there are those who say people who lose elections want to change the system, and winners want things to stay exactly as they are.

That may explain why for the past five elections no political party has advocated for any amendments to the current PR system.

I am more than ever convinced that to save our country from further gravitating into a fully-fledged kakistocracy, we need a new electoral system.

There is extensive literature about comparative electoral systems. I have counted at least five of them being used around the world. They are first-past-the-post (FPTP), a constituency-based system in which the winner takes all, majoritarian (second ballot and the alternative vote), list proportional representation (PR), such as the single transferable vote (STV), and the "two-vote system" PR.

Not the first to change

We will not be the first country in the world to change our electoral system. For example, New Zealand, for many years regarded as the paragon of majoritarian democracy – voted to reject its single-seat district plurality electoral system and adopt a system almost identical to the German's mixed member system model. Japan has discarded its single-non-transferable-vote system and Italy abandoned its list-PR system in favour of a mixed-member system.

Israel, while keeping a district PR system for parliamentary elections, opted for direct election of the prime minister, which of course necessitates a majoritarian formula, and thereby makes its electoral system mixed.

Russia and a number of other former communist countries – including Albania, Armenia, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary and Lithuania – adopted mixed-member systems.

Bolivia – formerly a list-PR nation, has opted for a mixed-member system as part of its sweeping liberalisation of the electoral process.

In our 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), nine countries use the FPTP system. Our country, Angola, Mozambique and Namibia use the PR system.

In the FPTP system, voters can at least point to someone who is supposed to be their representative, to whom they can communicate their needs, address their complaints, reward for their promises and successes, and punish for their failures.

In the PR system as we know it, parliamentarians are just out there, not directly accountable to anyone but their party.

The PR system gives political parties monopolistic control over our public representatives, promotes politics of patronage as heard in the state capture commissions and others. After all, Albert Einstein said "An empty stomach is not a good political adviser".

Hybrid system a better option

I like the idea of a hybrid electoral system, combining the FPTP and PR systems. In this system, sometimes called mixed member proportional or "two vote" PR system and used in Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales, voters cast two votes, one to directly elect an individual member to serve as their representative, and a second for a party or parties to fill seats in the legislature allocated according to the proportion of the vote share they receive.

In this hybrid system, individuals have an equal opportunity to be elected in constituencies, not only those put on the list by party leaders and their faithfuls to perpetuate self-serving cronyism and politics of entitlement. 

Our current system has many disadvantages, most notably its propensity to outsource accountabilities to political parties.

Over the years our politicians and bureaucrats have failed to adequately realise that they are accountable and responsible for their actions and official conduct to the people, not their parties.

We need to strengthen government accountability. We should never compromise on our belief that the people have the right to be heard. Let's look at options to reform the way we vote.

If we don't, we run the risk of delving towards a kakistocracy, a system of government that is run by unscrupulous muppets and supported by incompetent sycophants and hustlers.

- Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm, a ghost-writing, content development and reputation management hub.

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. ener is a specialist reporter for News24.

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