South Africa is a country with a very diverse base of political support. The National Assembly is currently elected by proportional representation and thirteen different political parties have at least one seat in this 400-seat house of Parliament.
Proportional representation is undoubtedly the most democratic mechanism for electing a legislature. However, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that more direct democracy is necessarily better democracy, after all, some of the world’s worst dictators were democratically elected. Even today, we still see fringe and extremist parties get representation, such as Golden Dawn – basically a neo-nazi group from Greece – which get seats in the European Parliament.
Democracy has many dangerous flaws, but at the same time it can be used as a way of keeping the government in check and getting the populace involved in the political system. This can only happen, however, if certain tweaks are made. Here I suggest two electoral reforms which South Africa could greatly benefit from.
Presidential: Two-round presidential elections
France recently held their election for their president and demonstrated how effective having a two-round system can be. The system works as follows: Parties nominated a candidate for president and voters vote for their best choice on the ballot in the first round. If no candidate wins a clear majority, the top-two face off in a runoff elections and whoever wins that, wins the presidency.
This a good system for a few reasons: Firstly, with the prospect of a second-round runoff election, voters can feel safe knowing that their vote will not be subject to the ‘spoiler’ effect. Like many countries, France had two parties which have dominated their elections for years, but with a two-round system, there was no fear that by voting for a party other than those two they would be spoiling their vote somehow (as was the case in the United States in 2016). Thus, this year neither The Republicans candidate François Fillon or the Socialist Party’s Benoît Hamon made it past the first round. This meant that voters felt safe to vote for a non-dominant party in the first round and decide on the lesser-of-two-evils in the second round, if need be.
While the ANC has been winning majorities in South Africa’s elections since 1994, it would still be a good idea to have a two-round system in South Africa as the mere prospect of a second-round election can change the mindset of voters.
Currently, our parliament is elected by proportional representation from a party list. This just means that the percentage of votes a party gets is roughly the same as the percentage of seats it gets in Parliament (while there some more complicated calculations here, it is basically as simply as that).
While proportional representation is certainly the most strictly-speaking ‘democratic’ system of electing a legislature, there are a number of problems associated with it. The first great tragedy is that voters do not vote for a person, but rather a party. A party represents a set of views or an ideology, but the individuals in that party should be able to fully exercise their judgement. The parliamentary caucuses in South Africa are notorious for voting blindly along party lines, usually because of harsh punishments imposed on members who vote against party lines. We might as well simply have the chief whips occupy all of their respective parties’ seats and have them vote on behalf of their party.
This has been particularly bad in the recent case of the motion of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma in the wake of his controversial cabinet reshuffle. Opposition parties are currently in a legal battle at the Constitutional Court simply to have court order the motion to be voted by members in secret. The outcome of this case will be crucial as there have been many rumblings from the SACP and COSATU of unhappiness with the President’s firing of Pravin Gordhan.
One of the most crucial roles of the legislative branch of government is to hold the executive branch to account. This is to ensure that the President does not abuse his power and if he does, the legislature duly acts against him. Without this check on power, we are a country with an open door to executive tyranny.
As the situation is presently, South Africa has a dismal record. Considering, as an example, the United States’ treatment of their presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, Jacob Zuma has been relatively untouched. The phrase “people have been shot for less” comes to mind when considering his sagas with Nkandla and the Guptas. Rational Standard contributors have written previously why Zuma himself is not the problem South Africa has, but it is nonetheless embarrassing that a liberal democracy such as ours cannot hold our executive to account as we should.
If we had a first-past-the-post system, partisanship would be far less of a factor as voters would now be voting for a person instead of a party. As an example, if a candidate is campaigning in a particular constituency, potential voters would be able to ask them if they would vote against party lines to hold their president to account and make their decision to vote accordingly. Likewise, should an elected MP break any of their individual campaign promises, constituents could simply vote them out in the next election.
In addition to this, the first-past-the-post system opens up the possibility of independent candidates to get elected to office. Independents can stand as people who voters will know do not have a partisan agenda and are not subject to the orders of a chief whip. It is yet another way in which citizens can run for office and truly vote their conscience in Parliament.
Our democracy is young, but sadly, we are beginning to see the flaws it has in enforcing it’s limitations on power, but with a few changes, this could be made to be far more effective.