Quote of the week

Although judicial proceedings will generally be bound by the requirements of natural justice to a greater degree than will hearings before administrative tribunals, judicial decision-makers, by virtue of their positions, have nonetheless been granted considerable deference by appellate courts inquiring into the apprehension of bias. This is because judges ‘are assumed to be [people] of conscience and intellectual discipline, capable of judging a particular controversy fairly on the basis of its own circumstances’: The presumption of impartiality carries considerable weight, for as Blackstone opined at p. 361 in Commentaries on the Laws of England III . . . ‘[t]he law will not suppose possibility of bias in a judge, who is already sworn to administer impartial justice, and whose authority greatly depends upon that presumption and idea’. Thus, reviewing courts have been hesitant to make a finding of bias or to perceive a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of a judge, in the absence of convincing evidence to that effect.

L'Heureux-Dube and McLachlin JJ
Livesey v The New South Wales Bar Association [1983] HCA 17; (1983) 151 CLR 288
19 March 2012

How can we solve problems with our electoral system?

In certain circles it is fashionable to complain about South Africa’s electoral system and to state that South Africa’s democracy will work almost perfectly if only we changed the electoral system. But although our electoral system is far from perfect, the changing of the electoral system will not magically turn our MP’s into fearless fighter for justice. Neither will it necessarily bring elected representatives closer to the people.

After all, half of our representatives at local level are directly elected in wards and no one is claiming that local government in all towns and cities is working perfectly. And, one suspects, many who yearn for the strengthening of the link between MP’s and voters would be horrified if MP’s actually started representing the true interests of those they represented and voted as their constituents want them to on all issues — including abortion, gay rights, the death penalty and gender rights.

Not that the present system is optimal. In South Africa, at both national and provincial level, we only vote for a political party, never for an individual. The political parties decide which candidates appear at what positions on their electoral lists and political parties therefore in effect decide who will represent us voters in the various legislatures. (Voters merely decide how many representatives from each party list will eventually go to the various legislatures.)

If someone appears at number 1 on the party list, that person is going to represent his or her party in the National Assembly as long as his or her party obtains at least 0.25% of the vote. If a party obtains 50% of the vote in the election, the first 200 names on its party list will go to the National Assembly.

Where the selection of representatives to party lists are done according to a system of internal party democracy and where the lists cannot be changed by party leaders — either before the election or after the election — and where MP’s cannot be removed from Parliament once elected, there is at least a semblance of democracy present in the selection of MP’s and in their post-election role. But where a political party change party lists more or less compiled in an intra-party democratic process (as is the case with the ANC) or where the members are never given a real choice but where selection of party candidates is done by an elite selection committee of party leaders (as is the case with the DA), ordinary voters have almost no say in who would represent them in Parliament.

This means that members of Parliament are not beholden to voters at all and have no independent power base and they have no incentive to listen to and respond to the wishes of the electorate in their informally allocated “constituencies”. Instead they are wholly beholden to the party bosses who can give them instructions on how to behave in the legislature, which Bills to vote for, and how vigorously to hold members of the executive to account.  As these MP’s can be removed them from Parliament if they do not behave as the party wishes, only the most brave or foolhardy MP’s will consistently act according to their conscience or the wishes of their “constituents”.

Both the ANC and the DA remove members from Parliament for various reasons or shift them around from one legislature to the other to promote or demote them. Not that ordinary voters would notice this, because we have no clue who represents us in Parliament. This is because MP’s first and foremost represent their political parties, instead of geographically defined constituencies, and can afford to ignore the voters in the area to which their parties assign them.

In South Africa the democratic nature of the system is further weakened by the fact that we have a Parliamentary government. The majority party in the National Assembly elects the President. If one party were to receive less than 50% of the votes, a coalition of parties will have to agree on the election of a President.

This means that ordinary voters has never gotten the chance to vote for the President and for the executive, who only remains in the executive for as long as the party they belong to can muster a majority in the National Assembly. THat is why Thabo Mbeki was never directly elected by the voters. He was indirectly elected by the MP’s of the majority party who elected him as President because he was selected as President of the majority party at a party elective conference where about 4000 delegates could vote (although his two elections as ANC President were unopposed so there was actually no vote by ANC members in favour of his Presidency).

Some ardent critics of this system argue that we should ditch the closed list proportional representation system in favour of a first-past-the-post system in which we elect one representative who obtains the most votes in each distinct constituency. It is argued that if MP’s were to be elected directly by voters in constituencies, those MP’s would be far more responsive to the needs of the voters in the constituencies and would be far more willing to ensure that the hopes and dreams of their constituents find expression in our legislatures.

Moreover, so it is argued, in such a system MP’s would have an independent power base and would be able to defy party bosses and act independently according to their conscience when they think this is required (say when they have to uncover a serious financial scandal or when they wished to vote against Bills introducing abortion, more controls over shoot-to-kill police officers to prevent them from murdering too many innocent civilians, or same-sex marriage).

But in South Africa it is far from clear that this will be the case and that MP’s will act in a more responsive manner — even if directly elected. MP’s are most responsive if they are scared that they will lose their seat in the next election. Where the support of major parties are concentrated in certain areas where their elected representatives will have unassailable majorities, the MP elected for his or her party will have little incentive to listen to his constituents because they will vote for him or her because he or she happens to be a member of the popular party in that constituency.

In most parts of South Africa, a ward will be either dominated by the ANC or the DA and no matter what happens (Jacob Zuma getting convicted of corruption; Helen Zille caught stealing a Billion Rand), the traditional supporters of these parties will vote en masse for their candidate and that candidate will be almost just as unresponsive to the needs of the voters than he or she would have been under a system of close proportional representation.

Moreover, where support for an MP is linked to support for the government of the day (as is the case in our system where the President is elected by Parliament and not directly by voters), it is far from clear that voters will change their electoral behaviour based on how much they like or respect an individual MP in their constituency.

Say an ANC MP works tirelessly for her constituents in Sandton and is much respected and loved because of her hard work, her fearlessness and her independent spirit, she will still lose her seat. This is because the dominant DA electorate is still not going to vote her back into Parliament because to form a government the DA would need a majority of seats in Parliament (or may need more MP’s to form a “wrong opposition”) and the voters would vote their party allegiance rather than for the individual MP. That is why individual characteristics of a Congressman or Woman in the USA (where the government is elected via independent Presidential elections) would matter far more than the individual characteristics of an MP in the United Kingdom (where the majority party in Parliament forms a government).

There is another point: In the USA, where representatives standing in elections are selected in primary elections by the voters registered as members of a particular party, the members of Congress are far more likely to respond directly to the wishes of their constituents. This means that the Congress will be far more likely to hold the executive to account and will not always agree to pass laws proposed by the President. This is different from our system where the parliamentarians are selected by party bosses or by an elite group within the party.

(Nevertheless, even in the USA, over the past 15 years the members of Congress and the Senate have become far more reliably split along ideological lines and even the most conservative Democrat is now just about as conservative as the most liberal Republican.) In the UK and in South Africa where the party leaders play a decisive role in deciding who MP’s will be, those MP’s are going to be more beholden to party bosses than voters — even if they are elected in single member first-past-the-post constituency elections.

All this suggests that changing the electoral system alone would not make a big difference in the way our MP’s operate. As long as our political culture valorises strong political parties and insists on strong allegiances to political parties and as long as political parties do not embrace full internal party democracy in the selection of MP’s, a change in the system will hardly make any differences.

And as long as voters vote for parties because of their emotional allegiance to the party, instead of voting for a party because of the ideological disposition of that party or the strong character of the representative of a particular party, the election will not produce highly responsive MP’s – no matter what electoral system is used. Here is a quick test: how many traditional white DA voters (who have voted for the party since at least 1999) have ever considered voting for the ANC? A large majority of white DA voters will vote for the DA no matter who the candidate is.

The only way to change this dynamic is to put in place mechanism to weaken party discipline over elected representatives. This can be done by enforcing internal party democracy on all parties, by protecting elected MP’s from their parties by providing them with job security for the life of the Parliament, and by introducing an element of direct representation via constituency elections. Introducing direct Presidential elections might also help, although this would provide the executive with its own mandate from voters that will strengthen the powers of the President vis-a-vis those of Parliament, leading to the potential creation of an imperial Presidency with all the concomitant dangers of abuse of powers that go with this (just ask Americans who remember the abuse of power by Richard Nixon).

There is no perfect electoral system. In the absence of a change in the political dynamics in South Africa and the watering down of party discipline, we are bound to end up with a legislature that will do the bidding of the party leadership, instead of the voters. Whether this is necessarily a bad thing is open to question. Many of the more progressive laws in South Africa would never have been passed by Parliament had it not been for strong party discipline. Progressives are therefore faced with a conundrum: in principle a more representative and democratically responsive legislature would depend democracy, but it may also well lead to a far more reactionary Parliament and government.

How do we solve this conundrum? For once, I am not at all sure whether I have the answer to this question. Maybe readers of this Blog have some suggestions?

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