Government shifts on voting reform

Helen Suzman Foundation | Aug 30, 2001
In May 2001 Mbeki agreed that the existing electoral system needed re-examination.

RESPONDING TO parliamentary questions in May President Thabo Mbeki agreed that the existing electoral system needs re-examination: "National politics without deep local roots can disempower people", he said. "We must carefully evaluate whether seven years into our democracy we have achieved the inclusivity we sought to achieve through the current system." He added that the anti-defection clause should be revisited. Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert is to head a task team that will investigate these issues.

It was a distinct change of tone in a matter of a few months. In February ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni had bluntly rejected an Inkatha Freedom Party appeal for a different system. Electoral reform was not on the ANC's agenda, he stated. Not long before that a private member's bill, sponsored by Colin Eglin of the Democratic Party, to repeal the anti-defection clause that prevents MPs from crossing the floor, had gone nowhere.

Why the shift of attitude on the ANC's part? Different types of electoral system can produce different outcomes and also affect the shape of the party system. Decisions about the type of electoral system are intensely political and ruling parties will assent to changes only if they can discern political advantages in doing so. In Britain the first-past-the-post system suited the Labour and Conservative parties admirably, as it did the National Party in apartheid South Africa. In the June election Labour won two-thirds of seats with only 41 per cent of the votes; under any one of the various forms of proportional representation (PR) the outcome would have been dramatically different.

The ANC has found list-system PR, in tandem with the anti-defection clause, highly effective: it gives the leadership a tight grip on the compilation of the lists and ensures that, once elected, MPs toe the party line or face expulsion from Parliament. But the system has also contributed to a sense of alienation among ordinary branch-level activists who have little say in nominating prospective MPs from their localities. The ANC's concern about the widespread decline of the party organisation at grassroots is the most likely reason for Mbeki's comments.

Ostensibly the ANC originally advocated PR for the laudable purposes of ensuring simplicity in the actual voting process and maximising inclusiveness. No threshold was imposed so that even parties winning minute proportions of the overall vote would gain a proportional share of seats. But it does mean that Parliament is cluttered with a number of tiny parties. In the 1999 elections nine of the thirteen parties that won seats obtained less than 5 per cent of the national vote. Had a 5 per cent threshold applied, as in Germany, none would have gained entry to Parliament. Highly effective parliamentarians, such as Patricia de Lille of the Pan Africanist Congress, would not have been elected.

Privately the ANC also favoured the simple list system for a less laudable reason: it enabled white, Indian and coloured South African Communist Party candidates - whose affiliation was not declared - to be placed in winnable positions on the ANC lists. Some of these candidates now hold key positions in government in numbers out of all proportion to demography or the strength of the SACP on the ground. In a purely constituency system it would have been, and remains, unlikely that non-African candidates could win seats in African constituencies.

The notorious "anti-defection" clause was inserted into the interim Constitution ostensibly as a means to ensure the cohesiveness of parties in the transitional phase of political development. It provides that a person loses membership of a legislature (national or provincial) if that person ceases to be a member of the party that nominated him or her. The logic was impeccable: since the ballot papers do not carry the names of candidates on a party's list, it is parties, not individuals, that win seats. But the clause is a massive weapon in the hands of party leaderships for ensuring docile compliance of parliamentarians and seriously undercuts the oversight role that the legislature is supposed to play. It is, in fact, profoundly anti-democratic.

It is worth noting also that legal counsel has interpreted the anti-defection clause as preventing the merger of the Democratic and New National Parties. Although operationally they now function as the Democratic Alliance, the formal merger cannot be completed until the eve of the 2004 election.

The anti-defection clause goes on to say that an Act of Parliament may provide, "within a reasonable period" after the final Constitution (1996) took effect, for the effective scrapping of the clause. Why the clause was carried over as a "transitional arrangement" into the final Constitution appears puzzling at first sight. Those close to the negotiating process report that it resulted from a deal struck between the NP's Alex van Breda and the ANC's Essop Pahad, now minister in the office of the president. Pahad, it is said, wanted to retain the leadership's controls inherent in the clause. In return van Breda, mindful no doubt of past gerrymandering of constituencies, wanted to avoid constituencies altogether.

"A reasonable period" has now surely passed and, if Mbeki is to be taken at his word, the task team headed by van Zyl Slabbert will begin its labours shortly. What the task team's terms of reference are, who its members will be, and what resources it will be granted, remain unknown. Whether it will be able to complete its task and prepare a generally acceptable bill for Parliament to enact in time for the 2004 election is unlikely, especially if the new system requires the demarcation of constituencies.

Kader Asmal, the minister of education and the ANC's leading authority on electoral systems, provided a clue about the likely timescale in a letter to the Sunday Independent (July 15, 2001). "There is a need for a debate on the nature of the electoral system after 2004", he wrote. Why this delay is necessary he did not explain.

The Constitution prescribes an electoral system that "results, in general, in proportional representation". Apart from the issue of undue control by party bosses, the major complaint about the existing system, voiced even by Nelson Mandela and Speaker Frene Ginwala, is the absence of a constituency element. Few voters know who their MP is: a 1999 survey by the Khululekani Institute found that 91 per cent of respondents did not know of or seldom used the informal, though state-subsidised constituency offices set up by parties.

Assuming that some form of PR will be used, there are a variety of options. The limiting factor, though, must be simplicity. Since approximately one-third of the 20 million-strong electorate is illiterate, more complex systems such as the single transferable vote, or even open party lists where a voter chooses from a list of a party's candidates, are likely to be ruled out. One could consider the German system where, at the national level each voter has two votes, one for a list and one for a constituency representative. Simplest of all would be multi-member constituencies returning a minimum of three MPs and, in the interests of greater proportionality, preferably at least five.

In his letter Kader Asmal correctly says that the list system accords minorities representation and that there is "an absolute necessity of avoiding any kind of gerrymandering". The demarcation of constituencies is obviously unavoidable in any system that involves constituencies. Ward boundaries demarcated for purposes of local government elections take the matter part of the way, but the need for a scrupulously independent and transparent demarcation authority is apparent. Unlike the demarcation process under the old order, which was subject to political influence, politicians should be kept well away.

David Welsh is an independent political consultant.