Avoid presidential elections

The contest for the leadership of the UK’s Conservative Party has proved controversial — and not just because of the alarming cast of characters involved. A relatively small number of activists from just one political party will shortly decide who will become the next prime minister of their country. The skewed nature of the internal party electorate — relatively elderly, anti-European, and penetrated by hard right elements — is dragging political argument dramatically to the right and increasing the prospects of a disorderly Brexit.

In SA, many citizens also believe the people as a whole should take part in the election of their country’s leader. In their view, citizens could grant President Cyril Ramaphosa the mandate and authority the ANC supposedly denies him. The reality, however, is almost certainly otherwise. A cursory survey of the world’s current national leaders reveals a frightening array of populists with “personal mandates”. In the world’s richest country, a dangerous buffoon is on course for a second four-year term.

It is true that Indians have just returned a Hindu nationalist party with a strongman leader — and theirs is a parliamentary system. But SA has avoided the worst excesses of contemporary global politics in large measure as a result of its avoidance of direct presidential elections.

A presidential system — one in which the people directly elect the president — superficially promises accountability and “strong government”. In a properly functioning presidential system, however, there is a fierce separation of powers, with a separately elected legislature that shares power. This can result in gridlock between branches, or in a desperate party fragmentation, which forces a president to buy his way to legislative compliance.

Worse still, many presidents use their personal mandates to override checks and balances, often stoking their support with racial, ethnic, or nationalist appeals to “the people”. Where parliamentary systems in postcolonial Africa have adopted direct presidential elections, for example in Zambia and Kenya, hard authoritarian presidencies have invariably followed.

The organic link between parliament and the executive is the governing party — here the ANC — and this certainly brings some problems with it. MPs suffer tight party discipline and parliamentary oversight committees are mostly neutered. The party leader, who automatically becomes president, is rarely obstructed — or really even interrogated — by parliament. Moreover, because SA’s head of government is also head of state, he can draw on a well of national symbolism and authority.

The problem with Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma was not that they lacked a personal mandate to lead, and so lacked power. Indeed, they accumulated power at an alarming rate, and both were reticent to relinquish it when their terms drew to a close.

Yet Mbeki and Zuma were both dispatched by their own party, with the implicit threat of a motion of no confidence sufficient to bring about their resignations. This is the beauty, not the curse, of a parliamentary system.

The media refrain about Ramaphosa’s weakness is overdone. First, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was certain to defeat his challenge at Nasrec. Then Zuma was sure to serve out his full term as state president. As the national and provincial elections drew near, Ramaphosa was reportedly vulnerable to a postelection recall.

The new president, we were told, could never appoint his own cabinet: the ANC would force him to retain Zuma-era relics, such as Malusi Gigaba, Nomvula Mokonyane and Bathabile Dlamini. And the midterm national general council would anyway see to his ousting.

This week we have even been enjoined to fear the elevation of Supra Mahumapelo to the lofty position of chair of parliament’s portfolio committee on tourism. All this amid a media rumpus about the hitherto completely ignored position of “chair of chairs”. Whoever knew that the incumbent, Cedric Frolick, was such a towering force in the land?

The resignations of so many of the Zuma undead from parliament reflects the truth that in a parliamentary system the National Assembly is not really a site of power and opportunity. Mahumapelo’s new appointment is a personal humiliation rather than a threat.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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