ELECTION NEWS - The current crisis in British politics is significant for countries like South Africa where a change in electoral systems is needed.
The long-running political soap opera unfolding in Westminster over a decision taken two years ago in a referendum to leave the European Union has been the top running news story for months on end. The UK finds itself at an impasse, with members of parliament unable to decide how to proceed.
The crisis has raised fundamental questions about the country’s democracy. The biggest is whether the two-party system is now dead on its feet.
This question is pertinent in the UK, as well for other countries, including South Africa where voters will go to the polls on 8 May.
South Africans may enjoy seeing the imperial lion becoming increasingly decrepit. Yet it has few reasons for feeling smug. Like the UK, questions continue to be asked about whether South Africa’s particular proportional representation system is fit for purpose.
Under the system – designed to ensure inclusivity in the run up to the first democratic elections in 1994 – voters vote for party lists selected by the parties . As a result, members of parliament are wholly accountable to their parties, minimally accountable to the voters. Lack of accountabilityresults in the arrogance of power for which the African National Congress has become increasingly notorious.
South Africa should be alive to the reality that the failure of electoral systems to produce parliaments that adequately represent opinions on the ground can have disturbing consequences. One is the rise in right-wing populism being seen in a number of countries across the world.
The quandry of coalitions
South Africa’s national list proportional representation system was designed (wisely) to maximise representivity.
During the process of negotiation which preceded the transition to democracy, it was considered necessary to ensure that minority opinions should find voice in parliament, rather than being excluded. This, regardless whether they expressed interests of race, ethnicity, religion, region or ideology.
The country has avoided the complications of a national coalition government so far because the African National Congress (ANC) has consistently been elected with a majority of MPs. The results since 1994 have shown the party never getting less than 60% of the vote.
It’s probable that the ANC will secure another majority in parliament in the forthcoming election poll.
Yet if it does, it’s likely to have been elected by a smaller proportion of eligible voters than it was in 2014. Then it was elected by just 35% of the potential electorate. Large numbers of potential voters fail to register in the country.
Furthermore, each election brings predictions – which one day will be realised – that the ANC will fail to win an election at national level and will be forced to govern in coalition with a smaller party. Even in this year’s election, it is more than a little possible that the ANC might have to form coalitions if it wants to hang onto power in certain provinces. The most likely is the country’s economic hub, Gauteng. The ANC has already had to form coalitions for three big metropoles after local government elections in 2016 – Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg.
Many would welcome the ANC being forced into coalition. This is because the monopoly of power the party’s enjoyed since 1994 has resulted in a lack of accountability.
This lack of accountability is hard-baked into the way the country’s electoral system is set up.