Material change to electoral system remains elusive

Would most South Africans’ lives change if the way in which Parliament and provincial legislatures are elected changes? Commentators who have reacted to the Constitutional Court’s ruling that independent candidates must be able to stand for election to Parliament and provincial legislatures insist that it will. But the ruling may make little difference. And, if it does usher in change, there is no guarantee it will give most voters, who live in poverty, any more say.

The ruling, which gives Parliament two years to change the law to allow for independent candidates, excites the commentators because they believe it will replace the current system in which voters choose parties, whose party lists decide who is elected, with one in which candidates are directly elected. This, they claim, will mean that the people who are elected will need to care more about what voters think than the wishes of their party bosses. They may be wrong on both counts.

First, the electoral system may not change much. The Constitutional Court did not say the system is unconstitutional – it said this only about the ban on independent candidates. So, can the system remain much as it is now while allowing independents to contest elections? It can.

At present, parties win seats in the National Assembly for each 0.25% of the vote they win (a bigger percentage is needed for provincial legislatures because they have fewer members). In the 2019 general election, about 30 000 votes were needed to win a seat.

One-seat wonders

If independent candidates won this share of the vote or less, there would be no need to change the system: if they managed to win a seat, they would be awarded it as if they were a party. It is unlikely that any independents would win more than the votes needed for one seat. In fact, they probably would not win that many, despite the excitement. Independents can stand in local elections but only a few are elected, even though, in local elections, they need relatively few votes to win.

Nevertheless, the rules do have to allow for the possibility that independents might be known well enough to win sufficient votes for a few seats. They could do this by allowing independents to submit a few names of people who would get the extra seats.

None of this would change much. Although the law insists that only parties stand, many very small parties are really vehicles for one person. The rules don’t insist on a minimum number of candidates on a party list, and in the last national election some lists consisted of only seven or eight names. There is no difference between this and an independent submitting a short list.

Wouldn’t allowing independents to stand in this way mean very long ballot papers? Not if they are subjected to the same rules as parties – in particular, the requirement that they fork out R200 000 for a national election or R40 000 for each province. This rule explains why this country has over 200 parties but only a few contest elections. Parliament might even increase these deposits to make it harder to stand.

Some have claimed that the ruling means voters can elect an independent as president. But voters don’t choose the president – Parliament does and the court did not suggest that this change. So if the parties now in Parliament want to keep the present system, they can. But what if they do change it to one in which candidates are directly elected? The Constitution says seats must be distributed proportionally, so a pure constituency system is not possible. But they could choose something like the current local government system, which mixes direct election and a party list.

More accountability? Think again

It is fashionable to say this would force the people who are elected to account to voters, but that is not what the evidence says. Around the world, candidates elected directly are not necessarily any more accountable to voters than those chosen on a list. South Africans should not need to be told this. Local elections use a constituency system and no one claims that local councillors are model servants of the people.

Whether elected politicians serve voters depends on factors ranging from who holds power in society to whether party leaders force their representatives to be loyal to them. This is why local government is no more accountable here than national and provincial, despite using the system the pundits favour.

Ironically, it may be a plus for most voters that new election rules would not change much. This country’s debate is for insiders only – people who earn a wage or salary. So when the insiders say they want a more accountable system, they mean one more accountable to them. That does not mean it would be more accountable to people living in poverty. Given the realities here, elected politicians more accountable to voters rather than party leaders could be more inclined to serve those who are better off; it may be easier to win elections if they do the bidding of those who pay for campaigns and influence what the mainstream thinks.

A stronger voice for people living in poverty depends on changing the balance of power in society, not the election rules. But this does not mean elections are irrelevant to the majority. In every country where politicians must earn votes from citizens, this can be an important lever in the hands of campaigns for social justice and of poor people’s movements.

A vote without a voice

Sometimes the voiceless can elect parties that speak for them, but this is rare. More often, the fact that there is competition for votes allows movements for change to gain a voice because politicians are afraid of losing voter support. This voice is not gained by aligning with a party – it relies on remaining independent of all parties so that none can take the voice of impoverished people for granted.

In this country, no party speaks for people living in poverty. This is underlined by parties’ attitude towards the fight against Covid-19. They have spent their time on an abstract and rather pointless debate about the merits of a lockdown in which, as usual, claims about the experiences of poor people are used only to make points. None came close to expressing the concerns of people battling to feed their families and stay safe in very difficult conditions.

Impoverished people are encouraged to vote for the current parties, but they are not heard by them. Despite this, the parties do need votes and, over the past few years, competition between them has made it harder for them to take voters for granted. In several municipalities, the fact that no party commands a majority and every decision is therefore up for grabs presents grassroots activists with a powerful lever. It has not been used. But if it was, it could give people in poverty a voice they have always been denied.

If that happens, how representatives are chosen may make some forms of influence a little easier, others a little harder. But a voice for people living in poverty depends on stronger organisation and new strategies, not how those who are meant to speak for people are elected.

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