Trouble of finding new voting system

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

There's good and bad in electing members of parliament in constituencies. Another View CHANGING the way we elect parliament won't magically change our politics. But it could create openings which will make democracy work better.

Reforming the electoral system has become a concern of opposition parties. Mamphela Ramphele argued that we should elect people rather than parties when she launched Agang and the DA has proposed a change which combines electing members of parliament in constituencies with our current system.

Since no issue in our politics can be debated without people falling into party camps, the ANC has rejected the DA proposal. But this is unlikely to be the last word: there are people in all major parties who believe we need a new voting system - and they are right. If we are to have the debate on voting systems which we need, citizens' groups which cannot be linked to a party will need to campaign for change.

What issues would they need to bear in mind? Currently, at national and provincial level, parties win seats directly proportional to their percentage of the vote. Nationally, it needs one quarter of 1% of the vote to win a seat. We vote for parties, which draw up lists of who will get the seats which they win.

This has two advantages. First, it avoids the injustices in some other systems in which parties' support is not reflected in the seats they win in Parliament. In a constituency system, you need the majority of votes to win the seat and there are no prizes for coming second by only one vote.

So a party could get 40% in each seat and still not win any. Parties can and do win elections without winning most votes. Second, it includes smaller parties - those which win, say, 5% of the vote are unlikely to get any seats if all members of parliament are elected in constituencies.

In our current system, they win around 20 seats. If we had a pure constituency system, it is likely that only the ANC and DA would be in parliament and the ANC would have a much bigger majority. But our system also has a huge disadvantage. Because we have no say in who the parties place on their list, we have no way of making sure that those we elect do what we want them to do.

In a constituency system, if there is a problem you want fixed, you can approach your member of parliament (MP). If they don't do what you want, and you have the support of enough people in your area, you can throw them out at the next election.

They know this and so, because they want to keep their jobs, they try to do what they can for you. Under our system, parties claim that MPs have constituencies - but no one takes this seriously, with good reason. Voters don't decide who their MP is and so they have no power to throw the person out.

This makes the fact that parties assign their MPs to look after constituencies a farce. Because voters can't remove them, they have no lever to ensure that they care about what voters think rather than what the party thinks. We need change so that MPs, at least in theory, have to worry about voters.

But we also need to keep the proportional system because this ensures that parliament has the party representation which voters want. Fortunately, there are systems which combine the two. One is used here, but only in local government. Half the members of a council are elected directly by voters in wards, half on a proportional ballot.

So we all have a ward councillor who we can try to hold to account, but smaller parties have a voice in the council. Another is used in elsewhere; multi-member constituencies. Imagine if this country were divided into 100 constituencies, each with four MPs.

If the voting system is designed accurately, this can ensure both that we all have MPs we directly elect and that parties are represented in proportion to their strength. Some small parties who win seats now would not be represented but more would win seats than in a straight constituency system.

We can also mix this system with proportional voting, which is what the DA is proposing: in their plan, 300 MPs would be elected in 100 constituencies electing three each while another 100 would be chosen by proportional representation. Any mixed system - which allows constituencies and proportional voting - is likely to improve our democracy by giving voters a potential lever over their representatives.

There is some evidence that, in countries with mixed systems, party leaders try to marginalise constituency MPs because they are not as loyal as those elected on the party list. Some therefore argue for multi-member constituencies only. But, whatever system is used, some form of constituency voting gives voters an important weapon. These changes would not be enough to ensure a deeper democracy.

A more accountable voting system makes it more likely that MPs will adopt independent positions rather than simply rubber-stamping what the party decides: evidence elsewhere in Africa and in other parts of the world shows that constituency MPs are more likely to challenge party leaders because they rely on voters to re-elect them if they do.

But it does not automatically mean that the government will do what most people want. Local government here allows for direct election but is hardly seen by most voters as a sphere which listens to them.

Yet, while its effect is not automatic, it does open opportunities. If citizens get together to demand that the government serve them, it helps to have a constituency MP because it is easier to pressure a representative who depends directly on voters to win re-election.

A better voting system is not a guarantee - it is only an opportunity. But, given how important it is to make sure that those we elect serve us, it as an opportunity citizens need to grasp.


Prof Steven Friedman is the director of Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and University of Johannesburg




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