We must reform the electoral system now

Jon Cayzer says that our strict party-list system of PR is the cause of many of parliament's troubles

Judging by social media, many young voters are concerned that they may not be getting who they voted for in the May 7th General Election. One party leader will not be taking up her seat in Parliament, and a number of others have gone off to do other things.

In juxtaposition, DA leader Helen Zille will be sworn in as the Premier of the Western Cape because she was her party's Premier candidate. The voters will be getting exactly who they voted for.

Amidst the confusion on the ground, it is important to understand this is not about the merits of the stellar personalities concerned. The problem is structural and is a result of our strict party-list system of proportional representation.

When our electoral system was adopted in 1994, it was designed to promote a strong and stable party system. This was why the anti-defection clause, modeled on a similar clause in the constitution of India preventing MPs crossing the floor to other parties, was crafted. This was understandable given our divided history and the need to establish a functioning parliament as the country's premier public square.

However, parliament slowly became solidified and debate froze over time. Power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of party managers. A distinct lack of, what Robert Kennedy called, "a quality of the imagination" took hold. ‘Cut and thrust' debate today remains the exception, not the rule. Many MPs across party lines are reluctant to examine complex public policy issues using evidence-based data and tools.

As an aside, one of the consequences has been that a serious parliamentary non-partisan research capability has not been built up. In most democracies, a MP is able to ask a parliamentary researcher a question or for a research brief. Quickly - usually within a few days - they receive a comprehensive response that is not filtered through the lens of a party ideologue.

Here, parliament's library is poorly stocked, and usually empty. While it is true that parliament's resources are scarce, South Africa cannot afford to skimp on independent quality research and information. While this is in itself not causal, it is a symptom of a system that is not working. iPads are not enough.

The diminished role of parliament over the last twenty years has sidelined legislators as drivers of public policy. Now, public policy largely emanates from the executive of the governing party of the day. Then parliament rubber stamps it.

This is why few private members bills have been tabled over the last twenty years. Those that are tabled are usually proposed by party leaders who are already established as ‘personalities' in the public square.

However, sometimes in life it is the proverbial ‘tricky customer' who sees what no one else does. There is an increasing body of academic evidence that public administrations are characterised by ‘group think'. This was a constant theme I looked at in case studies about the Anglo-U.S. intervention in Iraq at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government a few years ago.

The expected outcome or decision predetermines the decision-making process. The most senior, charismatic or the loudest voice inhibits the dissenting voice. This is why we need a strong parliament to bring out the best in the executive, as well as to be the place where public policy alternatives are born on the opposition benches (and within the ranks of the governing party itself).

MPs' individuality has been stifled in another way. In other democracies, they are accountable to a specific, geographically defined constituency. They raise their constituents' concerns in parliament directly with the head of government or ministers. It might be about a hospital closure, or a large business's relocation, a poor performing school, or even an individual's plight - even an illegal resident or a political refugee. This makes, to use the famous quote of the former Speaker in the U.S. Congress, Tip o'Neill, "all politics local".

A few MPs like the DA's David Maynier and Dene Smuts, and the IFP's Mario Ambrosini have gained a reputation for becoming experts on specific public policy issues. They were the undisputed stars of the last parliament. But, interestingly, no member has become well-known for taking up the cause of a specific community. In a liberal democracy, it is equally important that the voices of the minorities, and even deeply unpopular causes, are championed.

The elegance of a defined constituency is that it offers protection to the MP. If a MP takes up their community's or a constituent's case, they know they cannot be easily silenced. Of course, party discipline is a prerequisite of representation. A MP should also be equipped to defend their party's policies with vigour and flair.

A constituency element helps strike the right balance between party loyalty and a MP's individuality.  

It is for these reasons that the time is ripe to move towards a mixed electoral system: one with a constituency and ‘top up' party list element to ensure proportionality. The beauty of this system is that every vote counts from, say, an ANC voter in a DA vote rich ward, and vice versa. Simply put, the voter comes before the party.  

This was the system recommended by the commission chaired by the late Dr Fredrick Van Zyl Slabbert, and former leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). The commission drew upon the knowledge of experts in electoral reform from around the world and was widely representative of civil society, as well as political parties.

This is not an AGANG, DA or ANC matter. The issue of electoral reform is bigger than party politics.

When the then Minister of Home Affairs, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, mandated the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission, he stressed that "the electoral system is that which constitutes the terms and conditions of the contract between the voters and the electorate". The guiding principle was, and remains, that "no one single party can write a contract by itself and impose it on another".

In terms of upholding accountability and democracy, the only complicated bit of the mixed electoral system is the mathematics. Basically, under a mixed electoral system, different formulas are used simultaneously to allocate seats from a single election.

The mixed electoral system is used in many countries from Germany to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. And we already use it here at the local government level. There are various models such as the Additional Member System (AMS) or the Alternative Vote (AV) top-up.

The majority of MPs (up to 85%) would be elected on an individual constituency basis, with the remainder elected on a corrective ‘top-up' basis. This would significantly reduce the disproportionality and the geographical "divisiveness" - or spread - of South Africa.

The voter (x) casts two votes: one for a candidate to serve as an electoral district (or constituency) representative (person y) and one for a party list of candidates (party z).

The final seat tally for each party is calculated by subtracting the number of district (or constituency) seats (y) that each party wins from the total number of party (z) list seats to which it is entitled: that is according to the percentage of the vote it achieved.

So if a party wins, for example, ten constituencies, it may be allocated an extra four seats according to the votes it received in other constituencies across the nation, which it did not win.

The party list seats (z), therefore, are used to correct - or by ‘topping up' - any disproportionality produced in the single-member plurality (or majority) seats (y).

The big advantage of a mixed electoral system is that it uses single-member districts (or constituencies) and, therefore, retains a strong link between representatives and their constituencies.

Are there any drawbacks? They are no precise academic drawbacks, but some commentators have suggested that it may create a two tier electoral system: that the directly elected person (y) may feel that they enjoy greater legitimacy than the person who got elected on the party ‘top up' ticket (z). It is also tough on the persons who are on the cut-off borderline on the party list. 

So here, the onus lies with the political party to ensure that both representatives work as hard as each other.

Another drawback is that it can give third parties disproportionate influence by giving them the balance of power, and can make it difficult for one party to govern. But this continental European scenario seems unlikely in the SA context.

Ironically, if the system had been introduced in the last parliament, the present party of government might have received more seats. But the point is that the fibre of democracy would have been strengthened. We can only hope that in the fifth parliament MPs will rise above party politics to change how we do politics.

Jon Cayzer is speechwriter in the Office of the DA Leader. He writes in his private capacity.

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