How “independents” bolster existing parties

ANTHONY BUTLER: Independents could bring out the worst in politics

Personalised politics is likely to unleash a swarm of malevolent single-issue candidates

First published in BusinessLive

11 AUGUST 2022

“Independents” sound like the very best of our politicians. They might turn out to be the very worst.

This group of political hopefuls was championed by the Constitutional Court in a June 2020 ruling. Candidates for high office, the eminent judges maintained, should not be forced to join or form a political party. Instead, they insisted, the Electoral Act must be amended to allow such independents into national and provincial legislatures.

Independence is an attractive idea. It suggests freedom from external control and possession of an uncorralled mind. Surely it would unleash free agents who could transcend the muck and division of corrupt party machines?

Furthermore, independent candidates ostensibly appeal to “independent voters”, a group of citizens who believe their policy preferences are determined by their own upstanding personal moral values and their enormous cognitive capabilities.

However, personalised politics, uncontained by the discipline of party programmes, brings with it some obvious drawbacks. It would probably unleash a swarm of malevolent single-issue candidates. For instance, where there are many immigrants, xenophobia could be a route to success.

Where the boundaries of apartheid tribalism still divide citizens, independents could mobilise around fantasies of ethnic oppression. Where one racial group fears another, racial “swamping” would be the dog whistle an independent could blow.

Less widely understood is the way supposedly independent candidates could protect rather than challenge SA’s big political parties. If the drafters of the Electoral Amendment Bill have their way, independent candidates will have to assemble 12,000 signatures to get their names on the ballot paper. This achievement requires hard political organisation rather than benign intent.

Once in the race they will not get far without a campaign machinery that informs and mobilises voters. They will need researchers, communications teams, transport budgets, manifestos, documents and foot soldiers to interact with potential electors. Even independent candidates need to be represented by party agents at counting and voting stations to ensure elections are fair.

The structures and systems that allow success in elections are mostly found in existing political parties. The problems such mechanisms bring do not go away simply because they are not called parties.

Parliament has concluded that no cooling-off period is required before party members who have lost internal battles can run as independents. This will help parties solve a problem that has bedevilled them: how to manage internal factionalism and competition for positions and resources.

In the ANC, competitors for candidate or leadership positions resort to intimidation or even murder. When they lose, protest and disruption follow. In the DA, ambitious politicians denied advancement have opted for the nonviolent, but also disruptive, theatre of defection.

The creation of new splinter parties — such as the EFF or ActionSA — has provided a home for disgruntled factions of the ANC and the DA. Party processes are no longer a zero-sum game. Such formations run as distinct parties, but they remain natural coalition partners of their mother bodies.

Independents will be a fresh and equally useful instrument of party management. Losing factional leaders can run for election anyway, with the possibility of securing a legislative job. They can bring their hangers-on and organisers with them, all hopeful that their candidate may yet secure office and so access opportunities and resources through the politics of coalition government.

The activities of campaigning independents still cost money, even if the money is now circulating in “movements”, foundations and think-tanks that surround a candidate, rather than in a formal party. The consequent reliance on donors recreates the dependencies and malign influences that have discredited existing political parties.

Independents may not, in fact, be independent.

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

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