The lim­i­ta­tions of a sys­tem

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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.

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