The limitations of a system
Africa’s democracy. Should MPs have the right to vote according to their conscience?
Universally, the rise of political parties alongside the expansion of parliamentary democracy inevitably came at the cost of the independence of individual MPs. It is rare today for any individual not belonging to a political party to secure a seat in any parliament. Belonging to a political party has become a necessity, except in the most exceptional circumstances.
In turn, belonging to a political party requires MPs or representatives to sign a Faustian deal. If they want to progress politically, they have to toe the party line, even when they disagree with party policy.
This is entrenched in the communist notion of “democratic centralism” – once the party has “democratically” made its decision, the individual is politically bound to implement it.
In practice, party systems are not always so rigid.
Parliamentary histories are stuffed not merely with internal party rebellions, but individual MPs voting against their own governments. Internal rebellions are prone to occur where party leaders lose the confidence of their backbenchers (who are usually relaying extra-parliamentary discontent). And individual MPs may choose to vote against their party’s line – often for religious or ethical reasons. They may also do so because they see themselves as representatives of constituencies or interests offended by party policy.
Political parties handle such problems in different ways. Often they will seek to fudge policies to contain intra-party differences. Alternatively, minority factions within parties may grow to become a majority and secure a change in policy.
Where parties are split down the middle, leaders may try to resolve difficulties by suspending party directives and allowing a free vote (as during the Brexit referendum debate). On key issues, individual MPs who threaten to vote against their parties may be bribed by promises of bounty for their constituents or compromises made to relevant policy proposals, although ultimately the threat of expulsion from the party lies in waiting.
Individual MPs may also be buoyed by the honour that accrues to them if they are perceived to be standing their ground on political or moral principles. They may earn the respect of political opponents as much as the brickbats of party colleagues.
The variations, inconsistencies and flexibility built into modern party systems stands as a challenge to the contemporary ANC mantra that MPs are slaves to their party’s requirements.
Yet the ANC position is by no means without logic. Under South Africa’s electoral system, MPs are elected as party representatives, and not as individuals.
National-list proportional representation allows for no individuality of candidates. Voters do not have individual MPs. They vote for a party. Under this system MPs are allowed minimal scope for conscience.
But, ultimately, the ANC has no answer to the popular expectation that on major issues, MPs should vote for what they think is right. They should vote against that which they think is wrong. They must be guided by their conscience rather than their pockets.
Voters seem to expect that when MPs refer to each other as “honourable”, they should embody honour. Equally, there is public distaste for blatant political opportunism, as displayed during the floor-crossing episodes of yesteryear. Voters expect MPs to respect the outcomes of elections.
Seemingly there is no consistent set of principles and practices that will satisfactorily resolve the tension between party demands and individual conscience. What does become clear is that there is more scope for flexibility, tolerance of dissent, and – yes – freedom of conscience in systems where MPs are directly responsible to constituents rather than wholly accountable to their parties.
Is this why the ANC so forthrightly rejected the recommendations of the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform, which recommended a mixed electoral system, where MPs would be elected on party platforms but from multi-member constituencies?
There is no escaping the necessity of party systems to get the job of government done. Voters understand the need for party discipline. Yet as the vote of no confidence shows, they also want MPs to have the courage to rebel. – The Conversation
Southall is Professor of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Members of Parliament prepare to vote for or against the motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday.