Why the electoral system should not be changed (from 2013)

IT IS now 10 years since the Electoral Task Team, chaired by the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, released its famous report on electoral reform. A Cape Town round-table discussion this week, organised by the Forum for Public Dialogue (FPD) and the University of Cape Town’s Van Zyl Slabbert visiting chair, Prof Roger Southall, met to contemplate the continuing salience of this report and to consider the relationship between electoral systems and political accountability.

The task team’s majority report, supported by Slabbert, championed a “mixed” system in which 300 out of 400 MPs would be elected in 69 multimember constituencies. Because constituency voting favours large parties — small parties cannot win any constituencies — a further 100 “top-up” MPs would be allocated to restore full proportionality between votes cast and MPs elected. The purpose was to create a link between MPs and constituents and so to enhance accountability. The government rejected this and concurred with the minority report’s judgment that a closed-list proportional system, without constituencies, should be retained.

FPD research commissioned for this week’s discussion suggests that the relationship between electoral systems and political outcomes is complex: institutions cannot simply be transplanted from one society to another. An element of constituency-based competition might allow citizens to engage with certain political events and arguments more closely than the present system allows. But elections are not strong instruments for holding politicians to account. Citizens do not know which politician has actually done what. This is especially so when the institutions required for an informed citizenry — effective education systems, free and accurate news media and strong civic associations — are lacking.

Reformers’ energies should arguably be directed towards these institutions and intrastate accountability systems, such as the auditor-general, the public protector and parliamentary oversight committees.

The changes proposed by Van Zyl Slabbert could also bring significant political hazards.

First, constituency competition might greatly weaken parties’ capacity to act coherently. Despite the African National Congress’s electoral strength, it is organisationally very weak. Local party barons are already plugged into provincial and municipal resource systems and greater autonomy would free them still further from party discipline. Those who believe strong and coherent parties are important for democracy therefore have reason to fear reforms that would disempower party bosses.

Second, constituency competition might introduce new political pathologies. The minority report observed that fierce local contests could “compromise racial and ethnic harmony”. The mobilisation of support around ethnicity would be almost inevitable. The present system, by contrast, obliges aspiring MPs to obey the nonracial doctrines of their parties.

Third, constituency-based elections would politicise boundary demarcation. As we have seen in Khutsong, this is a potentially fraught matter. In a postreform system, big parties would gerrymander and bus voters into swing constituencies.

Fourth, the personality politics that constituencies encourage can turn ugly. Business interests will want to buy constituency MPs; candidates will feel obliged to sell themselves. Every MP will be expected to bring resources to their constituents or even carry bulging suitcases full of cash for them ahead of elections.

Finally, local issues are already addressed in local elections (using very much the electoral system that Slabbert recommended for national politics). National elections should allow citizens to vote on manifesto commitments and on the overall quality political leadership, and not on a mishmash of local and populist concerns.

Given today’s political environment, constituency competition threatens to worsen tribalism, patronage and populism — all to secure accountability advantages that are at best unproven. The majority report’s recommendations should probably enjoy at least another decade of well-deserved slumber.

•  Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

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