SA needs new electoral system
The FPTP produces strong and stable majority governments able to take tough decisions, writes Rich Mkhondo
EACH democracy in the world has its own story, shaped by its own chain of events. Our system was born of an anti-apartheid revolution designed to topple white minority rule.
Unfortunately, over the years our elected officials as well as those in the public service have regrettably forgotten the sacred obligation that they are accountable to the people. This has slowly resulted in lethargy, neglect of duty, personal aggrandisement, corruption, cronyism and nepotism.
One of the fundamental problems of this political culture has been incidences of bribery and corruption on an ever-increasing scale in all sectors of our public life.
If we are to restore salutary criteria of morality transparency and accountability and our status as a Rainbow Nation, we need a new electoral system.
Our current Proportional Representation (PR) has served its purpose and now belongs to the dustbin of history.
Power accountable to political parties and party faithful has led cronyism and all kinds of people without any managerial or administrative ability to get elected on the basis of populist slogans.
Very simply, our 23-year-old PR system has seen all its built-in accountabilities mechanisms disappear as those in power use loopholes to line their pockets and those of their cronies.
For me, electoral accountability exists when there is clarity of responsibility for political outcomes and voters can effectively sanction those responsible for those outcomes. Our electoral system is slowly failing to offer political responsibility and accountability.
There are five types of electoral systems, each one of them shaped by the country’s chain of events and all trying to embed some accountabilities. They are First-past-the-Post (FPTP), majoritarian (second ballot and the alternative vote), Proportional Representation (PR) list system, the single transferable vote (STV), and the “two-vote system” PR.
In the PR system – used in most Southern African Development Community countries and in countries such as Austria, Belgium, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland – the party ranks the names on the list and voters vote for a party, not a specific candidate. This means we the voters effectively determine the order in which the candidates on the list will be awarded seats.
The system of proportional representation ensures that virtually every constituency will have a representation in the national and provincial legislatures.
But its biggest flaw is that the elected officials are accountable to the party, not directly to voters. This has opened the doors for personal aggrandisement, cor- ruption cronyism and nepotism and other ethical lapses and ills.
The Alternative Vote (AV), used in Australia and France is called preferential voting. Here voters rank candidates according to their preferences.
Voters add up all the first choices indicated on the ballots. If any candidate has gained a majority of those votes, that candidate is declared the winner. If no candidate gains a majority on the first count, then the one with the lowest number of first choices is eliminated from the count and their votes are redistributed on the basis of the second preferences indicated on the ballot. This process continues until a single candidate has secured more than 50% of the votes.
In the Single Transferable Vote (STV) used in Ireland and to elect senators in Australia, voters rank as many candidates on the ballot as they wish. Voters rank each candidate on the ballot in order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of first place ballots on the first count, he or she is elected.
If no single candidate gets more than 50% of the votes cast, the second choices for the candidate at the bottom are redistributed and the process repeated until one emerges with an absolute majority.
In the Mixed Member Proportional or “Two Vote PR system, used in Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales, voters cast two votes, one to directly elect an individual member to serve as their representative, and a second for a party or parties to fill seats in the legislature allocated according to the proportion of the vote share they receive.
A second vote, which allocates seats to parties according to the PR list, is used to compensate for any disproportionate results in the FPTP constituency part of the election.
Additional seats are awarded to qualifying parties where the number of constituency seats that they won fails to reflect voter support shown in both components of the election.
This system has worked well for Germany. For example, 299 members of par- liament are elected directly, in a first-pastthe-post system, while 299 other seats are allocated among parties in proportion to the total votes that the parties get.
In the FPTP, the winner takes all system, a voter casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides. Candidates must gain a plurality of votes to win.
The FPTP produces stable and strong majority governments able to take tough decisions. This is worth the sacrifice of the democratic principles of making every vote count and ensuring equal representation for every citizen. I like this system. It produces single-party majority governments, making it obvious which party is responsible and accountable for political outcomes.
Voters can thus inflict significant punishment on those who do not perform.
Our PR system does not perform as well on these criteria. First, PR tends to produce coalition governments, and where several parties control government it is more difficult for citizens to apportion credit or blame for political outcomes.
Second, the relationship between votes and seats under PR is neither as steep as under plurality rule nor so determinative of government status.
Clearly, we need an electoral system that translates votes into seats such that few votes are wasted, and all politically sig- nificant diversities and interests that exist in society are proportionally represented in the legislature.
An electoral system plays an important role in determining how representative and accountable a government is in practice.
Therefore, like Germany, we should consider a combination of First-Past-thePost and PR system. It’s so simple it can be summed up in one sentence: the candidate who gets the most votes wins.
Let our government be representative and accountable. It must be representative with policies aligning with citizens’ interests, and accountable and answerable to citizens for its conduct and responsive to their demands.
We urgently need the formation of an electoral task team to investigate and research how we can implement this hybrid system from the 2019 elections.
The recommendations of the task team should be tested in a referendum as the best way to reform the way we vote.
We need substantial change to our electoral system. The change must satisfy the popular conceptions of democracy, one that maximises both representation and accountability.
EXERCISING POWER: Voters queue to cast their ballots in Bekkersdal, near Joburg, on May 7, 2014. The writer says South Africa’s electoral system needs reform to foster a sense of accountability on elected leaders.