Parliamentarians have squandered an opportunity to structure a people-centric political and party system and have instead opted to continue enriching themselves, writes Ebrahim Fakir.
Political parties represented in Parliament have squandered a rare opportunity to structure a political and party system that is people-centric. People-centric in terms of the performance of representative institutions and government, and voter centred in that the elections processes and procedures facilitate and maximise voter voice and choice. Parties claiming to be revolutionary and radical are, in fact, revanchist and recidivist.
Parliament and the parties constituting it had an opportunity to bravely design a system that empowers people.
Instead, they opted to continue empowering themselves. If any of them sloganeer “power to the people”, know that it is a hollow sham. Those parties must be rejected with contempt unless and until they reject the current Electoral Amendment Bill.
Untruths, lies and distortions
Their debates on the bill have been characterised by untruths, lies, deliberate distortions and, quite frankly, ignorant idiocy. Two throwaway examples of this: In Parliament’s programming committee, IFP MP Narend Singh requested that Parliament request a further extension from the Constitutional Court in addition to the existing one “because the executive brought the bill to Parliament late”. This when the Constitutional Court expressly asked Parliament to devise a new electoral system – NOT the executive. This is tantamount to excessive executive defence. And this from an opposition MP.
No wonder parliamentary oversight is blunted, and malevolent state capture proceeded without hindrance. This executive-mindedness was followed by the predictable hypocrisy of the EFF’s flip-flopping Floyd Shivambu, who in committee opposed the bill, and in the programming committee supported it. He claimed that anyone opposing the bill was an Oppenheimer and Soros-funded shill. But this is probably the EFF’s now hollow hallmark of destabilising and destructive chicanery – counting on the fact that this bill, when passed, will be tantamount to a constitutional challenge imperilling the orderly and transparent conduct of future elections.
It is unsurprising that the major political parties – who all face an existential crisis in any system that moves away from pure proportional representation – would wish to accommodate the three major organising principles of democratic politics and democratic government in designing a new system: firstly, effective democratic representation, secondly democratic governance; through representatives being responsive and accountable to citizens by exercising oversight over those in executive authority and extracting accountability from them; and thirdly, allowing citizens maximal space to participate in public affairs and in electoral terms having the greatest amount of space to deliberate on their choices and the greatest level of power and influence to give voice to their choice.
The current electoral system, and by extension, the current bill entrenches a system that takes away all power and influence from voters and citizens. It maximises political parties’ ability to continue unrestrained in evading public accountability and to remain unresponsive to issues of pressing public concern.
South Africa’s current electoral system, a simple party-list proportional representation was necessary to usher society through a period of societal transition from racially exclusivist, unequal and marginalising apartheid colonialism to inclusive, free, and equal democratic government.
Bill introduces further problems
The system was good for promoting inclusivity, diversity and fairness in that every valid vote is counted – promoting a good degree of representativity altogether, even if not always effective representation and, therefore, responsiveness. But the current system has been extensively criticised for blunting effective oversight and accountability.
Twenty-eight years later, it is clear that a greater balance is required between inclusivity, diversity, representativity and responsiveness, accountability and systemic oversight and to move away from a party and political system that has engendered a general crisis of democratic politics and democratic governance.
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There is no reason to entrench the worst effects of the current electoral system and entrench them further through the current, undesirable provisions of the Electoral Amendment Bill. Worse still, this bill introduces further problems and creates new inequalities and iniquities in the system.
Political parties’ mendacious behaviour since the Constitutional Court ruled in July 2020 that Parliament must devise a new electoral system within a two-year period displays absolute contempt for voters. Parties in Parliament have been so lethargic and slothful that they missed an entire two-year deadline and may risk missing the extension generously granted by the Constitutional Court to December 2022.
In fact, so pathetic have parties in Parliament been, that their MPs relied on the executive to devise a system rather than come up with one themselves. To make matters worse, the public hearings they conducted into the process were limited, haphazard, shoddy and inadequate, with very little notice given of the hearings, and which were in any event poorly organised sites of sloganeering rhetoric rather than sober reflection and deliberation.
The current bill envisages retaining the current overall PR system and adopts a crude, minimalist and malicious compliance approach to the Constitutional Court’s judgment in allowing independent candidates to simply be tagged onto ballots to compete on an equal footing with political parties. This is an obvious unfairness.
Distortion of voter choices
In a complicated calculation for what threshold must be achieved by independents to hold a seat, the threshold for an independent candidate will be almost twice that required by political parties. Moreover, criticisms of an earlier draft of this bill pointed out parties were able to contest both a provincial/regional election and a national one, whereas independents will be restricted to contesting only one.
The cure devised was to allow independents to contest both. But this subsequently introduced the absurdity that once an independent nominates to take up either one of the seats they win should they get the required votes, all votes in excess of the threshold and all votes cast for the seat they don’t take up, will be (re)distributed to a party. This is a manifest distortion of voter intentions and a disregard for their choices.
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Very little (or no) thought has been given as to how independent candidates will be regulated in relation to funding. Though a (refundable if elected) deposit amount must still be set, and regulated to weed out chancers, a more important consideration revolves around what disclosures independent candidates may need to make in relation to donations and funds they receive. In the absence of such regulation, it is entirely possible that proxies and shadow “independents” may be put up for election merely to bypass the regulatory infrastructure of the Political Party Funding Act, 2018.
There may be more cynical reasons, too, arising from the factional and fractional credibility crisis in political parties. Some independents would be genuinely independent, while others might emerge out of residents or ratepayers’ associations, and yet others as proxies emergent from within political parties themselves.
It is likely, and justifiably so, that the current bill will attract litigation which will serve to delay, obfuscate and create uncertainty among the parties and the public. This comes from a place of deep concern to give people the greatest influence and power in the political system, despite the oft-repeated paranoid delusional canard echoed by the EFF’s Shivambu that criticisms of this bill are an attempt to “undermine sovereignty”.
Undermines the IEC’s credibility
In a context of heightened political tension, with fractious, conflictual and immature political parties and leaders, this could prove to be a point of tension and conflict. But this is maybe what micro parties like the EFF are counting on, to explain away the electoral support ceiling they appear to have reached.
Settling on the unsatisfactory system this late in the day imperils the IEC’s extensive planning and preparations required for the conduct of the 2024 elections. Together with cuts in the IEC’s budget while maintaining onerous responsibilities on it while simultaneously obstructing its operations appears like a conspiracy to undermine the independence and efficiency of the IEC deliberately. It bears all the hallmarks of the institutional debasement and destabilisation that was the hallmark of corrupt state capture.
Of course, political parties are essential for democratic politics and democratic government, but they are merely contestants in electoral processes and not its primary beneficiaries. So, any system that is designed should accommodate them. But the focus of the current system seems to privilege the needs and desires of political parties exclusively, rather than the interests of citizens and voters.
Parties are, or ought to be, mere instruments in the hands of people. Reject the parties who think their supremacy must prevail over the supremacy of the people.
– Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio Economic Research Institute (ASRI). He also serves on the board of directors of Afesis-Corplan, a development NGO based in the Eastern Cape and on the Council for the Advancement of South Africa’s Constitution (CASAC).
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