POLITICAL PARTIES can’t be trusted with electoral reform

by Oct 13, 2022All Articles

HOW DO WE MAKE OUR CHOSEN representatives more accountable to the country’s general populace? That has been the focus of most of our conversations about electoral reform. Our current system of proportional representation is designed to ensure that every vote cast in an election is efficiently allocated to ensure the broadest level of representation of citizens within our legislative arm of government. However, our proportional representation system dramatically decreases the ability to hold elected officials accountable. Votes are allocated to a party rather than to an individual. This incentivises elected officials to be more responsive to their political party than to those who elected them. The choice of this system was made in 1994, to ensure that all groupings within society would be able to find political expression within our parliament.

The belief was that our elected officials would care about us. Over the last 28 years, it has become evident that they don’t. It is no surprise that the lack of electoral reform is not the result of a lack of effort by citizens or civil society. It is the result of the choices our elected representatives have made. The truth of our situation is that substantive electoral reform remains a near impossibility in our current democratic dispensation. Two extraordinary activities would have to take place to alter our electoral system. The first would require all our political parties, who have been incentivised to maintain our current electoral system, to actively fall on their sword. The second would require a democratic activity that has never been tested before in our post-1994 democracy.

The mandate of the Constitutional Court

The choice of this electoral system was made in 1994, to ensure that all groupings within society would be able to find political expression within our parliament. The belief was that our elected officials would care about us. Over the last 28 years, it has become evident that they don’t.

In 2019, the Constitutional Court told our parliament that excluding independent candidates from our electoral system was unconstitutional. As a result, our parliament was responsible for making the appropriate amendments to the Electoral Act. However, rather than parliament leading the charge for reform, the task was eventually given to the Department of Home Affairs. The Department subsequently appointed an independent ministerial task team to advise parliament on the best way to include independent candidates in the electoral process.

There were two options placed in front of our parliament by the Ministerial Task Team. One option advocated for a substantive reform that would make parliamentarians more accountable to constituencies in the country. The other option sought a more minimalist approach that would maintain the incentive to be more accountable to the party rather than the citizenry. The inclusion of independent candidates remains present for both proposed options. The choice to go with the more minimalist approach demonstrates parliament’s continued disdain for substantive electoral reform.

Parliament has history on this

This is not the first time that parliament has decided to ignore the advice of an independent panel that has advised and advocated for a change to our electoral system. In 2002, an Electoral Task Team was established by Cabinet that proposed an electoral system based on constituencies, rather than a system based on proportional representation. The majority opinion from the panel was routinely ignored in favour of the minority position that left the system largely untouched.

In 2009, an independent panel, mandated to assess parliament, recommended a review of the closed party list system, a recommendation that was quietly ignored. In 2017, a High-Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change was established by parliament. It strongly suggested that there should be electoral reform to make parliament more responsive to citizens. That suggestion was also ignored.

There has been a constant across all these discussions. The intent is to change electoral legislation to make our system of governance more responsive to citizens. But there has been no desire to question whether the system, as a whole, is relevant anymore.

We have a legislative history of disregarding all recommendations for electoral reform. This showcases the incongruence between the populace’s supposed desire for electoral reform and the definite desire by political parties to maintain the status quo. This is an incongruence that political parties themselves cannot resolve because there is an inherent conflict of interest between parties and the issue of electoral reform.

The two key issues

Two issues drive this conflict. The first relates to the doctrine of two centres of power within all political parties. The second is the resultant temptation to maintain democratic centralism within a party. Both of these ideas are often exclusively associated with the African National Congress (ANC). But by virtue of political parties existing within a PR system, all are afflicted in the same manner.

The notion of two power centres refers to the relationship between an elected representative’s loyalty to their party, on the one hand, and their responsibility to the state and its citizenry, on the other. Those elected to be legislative representatives across all levels of government remain first and foremost accountable to the political party that placed them in their position and can subsequently remove them. As long as this remains the case, the tension between those elected by citizens and those elected by party members will continue to exist.

The discord between these centres has afflicted all parties. Proportional representation remains an effective tool to ensure broad representation. But it incentivises political behaviour that maintains an electoral system that favours parties over citizens. This helps bring to light the second driver of this conflict of interest: the presence of democratic centralism within all parties. Democratic centralism is generally understood as an organisation’s ability to make the political decisions that are voted upon, through a predefined and accepted voting process, binding on all the members of that organisation. While dissent within a political party in South Africa is generally considered palatable in the short run, it remains intolerable in the long run. Therefore, the imposition of a constituency-based electoral system would require a complete overhaul of the internal logic of political parties. The ability to dissent from the party’s position because of the needs of your constituency would be antithetical to how political parties currently function within our country.

Our PR system places the party as a central organising figure within our political dispensation. This requires the party to maintain strong control over its membership, including those who happen to be their public representatives. Some parties may insist that dissent is welcomed within their ranks, But as long as the party, rather than the citizenry, determines your position as an elected official, the entire party system remains linked to democratic centralism.

Constitutional constraints

The design of our constitution and the nature of political parties makes any electoral reform almost impossible. The only avenue left to us to circumvent these issues is seemingly that of a referendum.

A further complication to any electoral reform in South Africa is our constitution. Various provisions within the constitution will inevitably constrain any proposed reform. For instance, the constitution states that a representative government should generally embrace a system of proportional representation. Furthermore, it requires that provisions should be made for the participation of minority political parties within the legislature. 
These two points create a unique binding framework for the debates on electoral reform. Any electoral system within South Africa must include some form of proportional representation, and minority political parties must remain represented. The ideal of both of these provisions seems to be geared toward avoiding the moral deficiencies of the electoral system under apartheid. But they also limit our ability to imagine a different democratic order. They beg the question of whether there is still a need for our democracy to be underpinned by proportional representation and the maintenance of minority rights if such a system does not allow for a more responsive government.

Have a referendum

The design of our constitution and the nature of political parties makes any electoral reform almost impossible. The only avenue left to us to circumvent these issues is seemingly that of a referendum. A simple vote to be made by the country’s citizens, not on whether a particular political party should be elected, but rather on what system of governance we want, that we believe would be best for us. The options for a referendum are currently uncertain and would inevitably require the acquiescence of our political parties. What is clear is that the options should allow citizens to choose a system that either maintains the status quo or allows us, and not our political parties, to introduce a fundamentally new system of electoral politics.

Rekgotsofetse Chikane is a lecturer at the Wits School of Governance and a researcher associate at the Wits Institute for Socio-Economic Research. 

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