Not ideal way to elect party leaders

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The ANC may need not a change of attitude, but a change of voting system.

A pattern at Mangaung which attracted much comment was a continuation of the winner take all politics we first saw at Polokwane – the almost total exclusion from the national executive committee (NEC) of the group which lost the election for the top six positions. The trend was even clearer at Mangaung – while two of the Polokwane top six losers made it onto the NEC, none did this time.

This is a problem for the ANC and for democracy.

First, it is simply undemocratic. About 25% of the ANC voted at Mangaung for the minority group but it has 6% or so of the NEC seats. We would not consider a parliament democratic if a party which won a quarter of the vote only won a few seats.

Second, it raises the stakes in elections and so makes them more polarised. If losing elections means being pushed to the margins, they will be seen as battles for political survival. And that means that they will be more bitter and will create wounds which may not heal. If this happens within a political organisation, it increases the chances that it might split because the minority feel there is nothing for them if they stay.

Organisations which practise winner takes all politics are sure to be weakened because they will not use all the talent and energy available to them. Energies which could be spent building the organisation are wasted on internal battles.

Most commentators have seen this as a problem of attitude – a sign that many in the ANC see those who oppose their slate as enemies, not rivals. These attitudes are a problem – many of the songs at Mangaung demonised Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and others who opposed the winning slate. It is safe to assume that, if those who sang the songs were in the minority, supporters of the other slate would have sung similar songs about them (remember those which the dominant faction in the ANC Youth League once sang about President Jacob Zuma).

Some believe that the ANC’s leaders are more tolerant than the delegates, others that the delegates are only acting on the messages they receive from the leaders. Either way, tolerance between rivals is now thin on the ground in the ANC.

It is also true that Zuma now faces an important test. He has been known as a conciliator, eager to keep the ANC united by including all groups and factions in its leadership – his Cabinet appointments tend to be carefully balanced to ensure that no one is left out. But now he is asked to retain in government the people who tried to unseat him. The signs suggest that he will keep them. If he does not, he could create problems for himself despite his large win at Mangaung.

But, while attitudes are important in deciding whether election winners are prepared to work with losers, they should not be blamed for the results of NEC elections.

Democracy is a system in which, among other elements, winners are meant to respect losers and work with them. But they are not expected to vote for them. And so it is hardly reasonable to expect those who won at Polokwane and Mangaung to vote for those who lost. The majority can hardly be blamed for supporting their favoured candidates.

One fashionable answer is that people should not vote for slates – ANC politicians now see a need to denounce slates even as they rely on them. But that is unrealistic.

We have all heard the argument that local government would be better off if we voted for individuals rather than parties. But, in the apartheid days, some white councils barred party politics: all that did was to make the parties disguise themselves – they did not disappear. Similarly, trying to end slates in the ANC would simply force people to pretend that slates do not exist.

So ANC delegates will continue to vote for those in their group rather than their opponents. This surely means that what is needed is a change in the voting system to ensure a fair result.

At present, delegates can vote for up to 80 candidates. This ensures the results we have seen in the last two leadership elections. It means that, in theory, a slate which has the support of one more delegate than its rivals can, if its members agree on who to support, win all 80 seats and leave its opponents with none. If a similar system was used in national elections, each voter would be able to choose all 400 members of the National Assembly and opposition parties might win no seats at all.

Obviously, another system is needed if 25% of the votes is to translate into 25% of the seats. One possible solution is to give each delegate less votes. Another would be to divide the delegates into provinces rather than to have one national election. Whatever the precise formula used, it should be possible to find one which comes as close as possible to ensuring that seats on the NEC reflect support within the ANC.

There is one other problem with the voting system – that we are still not sure how accurately the choices at party conferences reflect those of most voters who support the party. There are two possible solutions. If only party members are allowed to choose leaders, the voting could occur directly in branches so that each member has a vote. If people who vote for a party but don’t join it are to have a say, the law could allow any registered voter who signs a document declaring support for a party to vote for that party’s leadership.

We need a debate on which of these changes should be adopted. What we do not need is to continue a system in which the preferences of factions matter more than those of voters.

Picture credit: Business Day online

  • Steven Friedman is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. This article was published on The New Age.