Electoral Systems: Representation or Accountability?

By Joburg Post

Last week I questioned the importance of elections as the centre that holds a democracy together. What I sought to do was to present thoughts about how even though elections are great in giving a voice to the people’s will on who should govern them, an election is not enough in solidifying the idea of government by the people. Moreover, while free elections are critical for a quality democracy to exist, the failure of institutions and good governance, are a greater factor in determining how people value the political system. From this departure, my objective this week is to look at the value an electoral system as one of the determining factors of an effective democracy and moreover, establish what ramifications the said electoral system has on the citizens of a specific country. I will use South Africa as a case study. 

The two main electoral systems in the world are the proportional representation system (PRS) and the first past the post system (FPPS). The former entails the process when people vote for either a party or presidential candidate and the winner of the election is determined by who gets most of the votes (50%+1). On the other hand, the latter entails the process where the winner of a constituency is determined not by who wins most of the vote but who gets the most votes (the one who passes the post first). 

Now the PRS is good in that it presents the truest picture of the people’s will. This is especially true in a system where parliamentary or presidential elections are based on the nation being treated as one large constituency rather than multiple constituencies. If the voters are treated as one constituency as is the case with South Africa, it means that if the ANC gets 60% of the vote, it will gain 60% of the seats in National Assembly. The will of the people is reflected in the distribution of the parliamentary seats. Moreover, proportional representation in a one constituency electorate increases the chances that smaller parties can be represented in parliament. For example, it is estimated that a party in South Africa just needs approximately 40 000 votes in the upcoming elections to win 1 seat in the National Assembly (which houses 400 members of Parliament (MPs)). The CODESA talks were instrumental in choosing this system, as the need to build national unity and ensure all people, especially minority groups in South Africa were represented in parliament. 

Why didn’t South Africa choose the FPPS? Well, the answer to this question lies in how the FPPS works. Unlike the PRS, the FPPS operates mostly in countries where the population is divided into constituencies that make up the number of parliamentary seats, mostly in the lower houses of parliament. So, if a country has 100 constituencies, it will have 100 MPs, that is if its constitution determines that one MP represents a constituency. Now given this type of system, the person who gets the most votes are assumed the winner of the constituency and is duly elected as its MP. Now, the problem with that system is that if said MP only wins 45% of the vote, it means the will of the 55% who did not support the winning candidate is disregarded. The result, depending on the distribution of supporters in that country, creates a situation where two parties tend to dominate the electoral field even though neither party carries the popular support. This is the case in the United States. 

While Trump won the election based on the electoral college, he lost the popular vote by 3 million people to Hilary Clinton. In this case, the will of the system and not the general population triumphed. 
President Donald Trump & Secretary Hilary Clinton during a 2016 presidential debate

Moreover, even if there were third parties or independent presidential candidates, they would likely fail to carry any electoral votes because they simply don’t have the numbers needed to pass the post first. So, you could have a third party that does well in the number of votes obtained but fails to win seats in parliament due to not winning any constituencies. 

Now, this may present a problem in societies that have a bitter history of conflict based on race, tribal tensions or have a significant minority population like South Africa. The FPPS would in effect exclude these groups from policy-making and thus perpetuate a system of exclusion that defined the Apartheid regime. A party like EFF, would likely not win seats in parliament even though it would carry 6% of the vote, leaving SA politics to ANC and the DA and as a result, would likely see ANC’s electoral dominance being greater than the 60% it currently holds. 

Nonetheless, it does have good features. The FPPS allows the direct election of MPs unlike the PRS which allows the election of parties, which then determine who becomes an MP. Citizens in the FPPS have greater power and say in electing their representatives and can hold their MPs to account for legislation and policies that impact them. In many ways, MPs are also far more independent to their parties (ask Theresa May in the UK about the Tory headache she has in terms of Brexit) and rather focus to meet their constituencies interests above party interests. They know the failure to do that means they may lose their seats in the next election. 

I do wonder what would have happened to Zuma had ANC MPs been elected directly by their constituencies? Would their allegiance to him run so deep? 

In conclusion, the PRS allows greater representation and may be good for establishing the legitimacy of a system and government but the FPPS is good in ensuring greater accountability. It provides a better check to political power, while PRS gives a better voice to the general will of the people. 

So, while we debate whether South Africa and other African countries must change their political systems, let us be cognisant of the impact of choosing one electoral system over the other. Some have called for a mixed system that would see half of the MPs directly elected through the FPPS and the half are determined by a the popular vote, it would be interesting to see how this would impact election results but also the functionality of the executive and how the legislative arm of state keeps the executive in check. You decide!


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