Party lists stifling dissent in South Africa–closed party lists, that is

Via the Mail and Guardian, South Africa’s Country Self Assessment Report, prepared before the second African Peer Review Mechanism conference in Soweto, notes that

A wide variety of submissions noted the unintended problems of the nation’s party list electoral system, which stifles dissent and ensures accountability to parties rather than citizens.

It is important to add to this conclusion that the problem is not necessarily party lists, per se, but three more specific factors that, in combination, would be expected indeed to limit accountability of legislators and party leaders–including the executive–to the electorate:

    Closed party lists
    High district magnitudes
    A hegemonic party

Very few successful democracies have all three of these factors, or even the first two.

Closed lists mean that individual legislators depend for their ability to win election and reelection on the rankings given by the party organization, and not on the voters.

High district magnitudes mean long lists, such that a large percentage of legislators are likely invisible to voters.

A hegemonic party–the African National Congress, in this case–means that the lists are longer still (because in most of the large districts most legislators are coming off one list) and also that there is no other party to serve as a credible alternative for voters.

The South African combination of closed lists, exceptionally high magnitudes, and a hegemonic party is unusual, and worrisome for the country’s democratic development.

The report, cited above, notes:

power is concentrated in the presidency and because of his control of the ruling party and ability to appoint [provincial] premiers, directors-general, mayors and party lists, he can end the career of anyone seen to have embarrassed or disagreed with party policy. [my emphasis]

This description sounds very much like standard accounts of Mexico in the decades of hegemony of the PRI. One difference is that South Africa’s “president” is actually a prime minister, who could be removed by the legislative party; however, this is a distinction with little difference in the context of such top-down intra-party authority. Worse for South Africa in this comparison with PRI-era Mexico is that South Africa’s fused party-leader/executive is not subject to a single-term limit, as Mexico’s presidency has been ever since the 1917 constitution.* Also, it is worth noting that, for all the apparent top-down authority in the PRI, Mexico never had a fully closed-list electoral system. In fact, for most of the 20th century most Mexican legislators were elected in single-seat districts and there was much more local and state-level accountability within the party than is conventionally recognized. And much more than appears to be the case in South Africa.

Single-seat districts–for all their other limitations–usually inhibit the kind of stifling central authority that developed in Mexico, and presidents always had to negotiate with state and local leaders to maintain their temporary leadership of the party and government. The ANC could be evolving in a more Priista direction than the PRI itself.

Among established democracies that use PR, a fairly well kept secret is that very few have closed lists. Those that do, like Spain, have many smaller magnitudes as well as more competitive party politics. Others use closed lists alongside single-member districts, like Germany and New Zealand. Most European democracies use flexible lists, in which voters may (or must, in some cases) give preference votes that potentially change the list order. Still others–Finland and Switzerland, for example–use fully open lists in which the rank order of candidates depends solely on voters and not on party organizations.

South Africa has its national legislators elected in nine provincial districts with an average magnitude of 22. And then it has 200 more legislators elected from a national list. By contrast, the largest district using a closed list that I am aware of in a European “pure” PR democracy is the district for Lisbon, Portugal, which has fluctuated over the years in the 40-55 range. But Portugal as a whole has a much smaller average magnitude than even South Africa’s 22 for the regional lists (to say nothing of the 200!), and of course, Portugal does not have a single dominant party, so only a few Portuguese legislators are elected at ranks much lower than around 10th.

Among mixed-member systems, New Zealand has a very high magnitude for its PR tier (50+), but it also has 60+ single-seat districts. One can debate whether the “mixed” nature of the system ameliorates the accountability problem of the closed lists or not, but that is a topic for another thread. Germany’s MMP system is sometimes characterized as having a national PR district, but it does not. It has nationwide compensation on the interparty dimension, but only state-level allocation on the intraparty. And only one state’s PR tier is as big as New Zealand’s, while most are far smaller.

I have already noted the oddity of Ukraine’s 450-seat district with closed lists–a fledgling democracy that appears to have exchanged one severe accountability problem (the 225 deputies formerly elected in single-seat districts, often with little party attachment) for another. But Ukraine has no party close to hegemonic status.

Finally, how refreshing that there is a Self Assessment Report, as part of an AU democracy-strengthenining process, about the limits of South African democracy. Would that the OAS mandated the USA to undergo such a Self Assessment!

* As Alan notes below, the South African PM (“President”) is subject to a two-term limit, or ten years (and it could be up to just short of fifteen years in case of succession between elections). Tenure limits of any length in parliamentary systems are extremely unusual, though this is still a much longer period of time for one party leader to remain chief executive than was the case in Mexico’s PRI (6 years lifetime limit). Perhaps more importantly, it transcends across electoral terms. In Mexico, on the other hand, given their immediate “lame duck” status, presidents probably had to engage in more delicate intra-party negotiations to sustain the kind of control over other politicians of the party (of the sort described in the second quote above for South Africa).

0 thoughts on “Party lists stifling dissent in South Africa–closed party lists, that is

  1. The presidency is term-limited.

    Term of office of President
    88. (1) The President’s term of office begins on assuming office and ends upon a vacancy occurring or when the person next elected President assumes office.

    (2) No person may hold office as President for more than two terms, but when a person is elected to fill a vacancy in the office of President, the period between that election and the next election of a President is not regarded as a term.

    Their major problem is the lack of a viable opposition. The interests that would normally support the opposition to a party like the ANC are all hopelessly compromised by their association with apartheid.

  2. The term is tied to the parliamentary term (with limited provision for early elections) which means the maximum term is just under 14 years if the presidential succession happens early in the life of the first or third parliament and there is no early election. Mbeki has announced he will stand down at the end of his second term and ruled out a constitutional amendment to allow him a third term.

    This is only a guess, but many features of the SA presidency may have more to do with the availability of Mandela than with good institutional design, just as the availability of Washington is sometimes argued to have influenced the relative inattention the Philadelphia convention gave to the electoral college.

    It’s also worth noting a couple of factors against the PRI analogy. The constitution has an extensive and enforceable bill of rights. The Constitutional Court is genuinely independent in law and practice. The constitution guarantees the independence of other watchdog agencies like the electoral commission, ombudsman, human rights commission, auditor-general etc etc, although the record of the independent agnecies is much more mixed than that of the court. Two provinces are controlled by the opposition. There’s a developing civil society independent of the ANC.

    The Constitutional Court has found against the government on significant rights issues including capital punishment, the anti-defection rule, AIDS treatment, and same-sex marriage.

    For all this, I agree with the Power Inquiry’s Recommendation 13:

    The closed party list system should have no place in a modern democracy.

    This is especially true with a party as dominant as the ANC.

  3. Yet another call for implementation of MMP in South Africa:

    “Independent Democrats (ID) leader Patricia de Lille said: “Currently, Members of Parliament (MPs) owe their allegiance entirely to their respective parties, rather than the public at large. This is because our current electoral system operates on a strictly proportional representation (PR) basis.”

    “Whilst the PR system does encourage greater inclusiveness and diversity of political parties, it also breeds less independent and people-minded MPs. The latter are often not willing to put the interests of the electorate before that of their own party,” said De Lille.

    “This is particularly true in the case of parliamentarians from the ruling party, who, instead of holding the executive accountable to the electorate, are often whipped into following the party line. I believe that it is now time for Parliament to move from being the lapdog of the executive to being its watchdog. For this to happen, however, the electoral system will need to be changed, to allow for some measure of constituency representation.”

    “The ID would therefore like to see the majority recommendations of the electoral task team implemented. Its proposals are that we should have a hybrid electoral system that includes elements of the proportional and constituency systems. In this way we can keep the benefits of a proportional system, namely inclusiveness and diversity, along with the benefits of greater accountability that come with a constituency system.”

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  5. Actually, the electoral system proposed by the South African “Electoral Task Team” in early 2003 was not MMP (which was rejected), though that isn’t apparent from De Lille’s column.

    The majority proposal was to simply nudge the current system. The number of regional list PR seats were to be expanded to 300, but instead of using the nine provinces as districts, approximately 69 three-to-seven-member constituencies would be constructed. The remaining 100 seats would come from the national lists, all but ensuring overall party proportionality.

    The closed lists would be retained at both tiers, but the thinking was that the smaller district magnitude would in itself make the individual candidates more visible and accountable. Open or flexible lists were dismissed as being too complex for an electorate with many illiterate voters (bogus argument, or lack of imagination?). Probably though, the real concern was about gaining the needed support from parties (in effect, the ANC) to make the electoral system slightly less party-centralized. Indeed, the minority in the commission wanted to leave the current system unaltered.

    The Task Team itself was partly appointed by government departments and the Independent Electoral Commission, and partly made up of experts nominated by the government-appointed chairman, the veteran liberal politician Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.

    As far as I know, the report was politely received, even by the ANC. At any rate, the government stated that there was not enough time to implement the changes before the 2004 elections. That it is still dragging its feet on this issue, is worrying.

  6. Espen: “the thinking was that the smaller district magnitude would in itself make the individual candidates more visible and accountable, ” even with closed lists.

    Such an effect is certainly suggested by the tendency of higher levels of district nativity and prior electoral experience found in smaller magnitude closed-list districts than in larger ones (as discussed elsewhere on this blog recently).

  7. “Open or flexible lists were dismissed as being too complex for … illiterate voters…”

    There are several examples of open lists being used where literacy is low.

    Some have been discussed here:

    Sri Lanka

    I don’t know if that means the South African task force was making an argument that was bogus or simply lacking imagination. Well, both, probably.

  8. Yes, the proposal is on the surface quite cosmetic, but it may well be a real, first step towards some accountability for individual MPs. Or perhaps more accurately, it will give parties the ability and incentive to fine-tune their appeal locally, for instance by choosing more candidates who are popular among the local voters. As opposed to having the electoral system give parties the ability and incentive to hide cronies away as candidate number thirty-something, etc. (giving flexibility and strength to the national leaderships in the process).

    That appears to be what the ANC is worried about. Finding its majority secure, the concern is not maximizing that majority through the electoral system (which the ANC concedes would be destabilizing), but how those MPs are selected. Naturally, a party discussing electoral systems will often use, with varying success, all sorts of strange arguments rather than be frank about its own interests in the matter. An official commission, necessarily dependent on the parties for eventual influence, may sometimes echo rather than counter such arguments.

    Click my signature to get to some retrospective insights from the chairman of the Task Team, which I just stumbled across (there’s no by-line, but it’s him). I specifically recommend the ending.

  9. On the topic of party-list PR generally, I have been thinking about cases like South Africa and East Timor when the “national liberation” party (ANC, Fretilin) wins a huge majority even with a very low-threshold, low-quota PR system.

    I have a tentative, back-of-the-envelope proposal for constitution-writers in newly independent states, a way of institutionalising multi-party competition. I call it “limited-slate list PR”.

    Basically, you would cap the maximum number of seats (in a district, or nationwide) that any one list of candidates (or cross-district alliance of lists) can win. For example, even if Fretilin or the ANC wins 70% of votes, it can’t win more than (sa) 60% of the seats, plus 1. 60%+1 is more than enough for a governing majority! (ie, you would then allocate that party 60%+1 of the seats, then allocate the remaining 40%-1 of the seats proportionately among all the lower-polling lists).

    Notice I said “lists”, not “parties” as such. There would (and should) be nothing to stop ANC/ Fretilin running two or more separate lists in the same district, competing for votes. If each got 35% of votes, and +/- 35% of seats, and ANC/ Fretilin ends up with 70% of seats, well and good. The voters will have been given a choice among separate, competing lists of the same overwhelmingly dominant party.

    Without having to openly fracture or “oppose” each other (or, at least, to do so “because we hate our former comrades from the struggle”, which would be divisive and “poison the well”), the dominant party could discreetly divide, perhaps, into a list of those of its candidates who want a more planned economy and another for those who want unregulated markets.

    Over time, perhaps these lists could even split into separate govt aand opposition parties – much like India’s Congress Party or Ireland’s Sinn Fein (though hopefully without an Emergency or civil war, of course!). But requiring separate, competing lists (if the party wants to get more than 60% of the seats in total) is a way of kickstarting the process. Call it political “trustbusting”.

    Of course, the big question would be: which list “gets” Mandela/ Xanana? (or Nehru or Washington…) Perhaps an argument for adopting the Swedish rule (candidates can stand on two or more lists, and “belong to” whichever list gets them a seat first under highest-average allocation) over the Portuguese constitution’s rule that a candidate can’t stand on different lists at the same election.

  10. Tom, “limited-slate list PR” is an interesting idea for situations such as those you refer to.

    It would be similar to the various electoral systems used in Mexico since 1991, which have capped the share of seats one party may win at three fifths. Since 1996, there has also been a maximum over-representation percentage. (Aside from these provisions, the system is straight MMM, and not MMP as some sources claim.)

  11. Correcting myself:

    > ‘which list “gets”… Xanana?’

    The question seems to be very much, ah, resolved by the time of the second or third election. (I suppose even Washington had become a partisan figure by the end of his second term).

  12. Maybe perhaps South Africa should use the Single Transferable Vote although that electoral system wasn’t even consider as an option.

    At least with STV, ANC members can compete against each other and add some sort of internal democracy within the dominant party system of South Africa.

    It is going to take years before South Africa gets a competitive party system like India did with the Congress single party dominance given way to coalitions being formed by the Congress on one side and the BJP on the other.

  13. Well, everyone should use STV, everywhere! The only questions should be (a) district magnitude; (b) whether you offer a list- or ticket-voting option as well as “number individual candidates”; (c) whether you allow party labels and grouping in team columns, as opposed to non-partisan elections with all candidates in a single column; (d) whether ballot order is set by lot, or rotated as different batches of voting-papers are produced; and (e) whether you write numbers next to printed names of candidates, or write names (or ID numbers) of candidates on blank numbered lines, or some mix of the two.

    South Africa’s National Assembly system could be accommodated to STV by:

    (1) your ballot-paper lists by individual name only those candidates in your own Province (or large electoral district) – you can vote for any other candidates in the country, but only by writing their ID numbers in a dozen or so blank numbered lines

    (2) maximum number of preferences is capped at (say) 100

    (3) if you vote for a party ticket, those votes are used at each stage of the count to maximise the vote of the lowest-polling candidate of that party (rather than defaulting to the highest candidates on the party’s pre-lodged ticket, as with the Australian Senate, the Dutch and Belgian lower houses, etc).

    Simplified example:

    Of Party X’s 1,000 supporters, 120 vote for Candidate A, 80 for Candidate B, 140 for Candidate C, and the other 660 for the party as a whole.

    The average is 333 votes (1,000 div by 3).

    So of the 660 party-votes, 214 [are deemed to] go to A, 253 are credited to B, and 193 to C, to make their totals 334, 333 and 333 respectively.

    On the other hand, if (say) 400 supporters had given an individual first preference to A, with only 260 opting for the party “above the line”, then the totals would be 400, 300, 300 because A would already be above the average.

    Of course if adding “top-up” votes from the party pool meant that, say, B and C were tied for lowest place (333-333 or 300-300), you would eliminate whichever had fewest actual individual votes, rather than drawing lots.

  14. I guess I just didn’t think about the details of STV. I think South Africa, it would be better if the candidates were sorted by party and voters would ranked the candidates by numbers rather than use the party list or ticket option. They could rank just one candidate or as rank them all on the ballot.

    By the way, does any one know what is South Africa’s literacy rate? How do international surveys judge and determine by who is literate? I heard it is just by a person writing their name.

    I am just a big fan of STV because of the small district magnitudes and proportionality in each district, and the fact that it is the only system of PR that doesn’t have to use party lists.

    It would nice to see such a diverse country (South Africa) use such a system to see how the different ethnic groups would use the vote pooling system.

    STV is without a doubt the best electoral system for local government because it can be used without any party labels.

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  16. The Slabbert Task Team’s Report is not dead, says the Speaker of South Africa’s National Assembly:

    “She says . . it is wrong to assume that the work of the Slabbert commission into a new electoral system has been discarded. Commission chairman Frederik van Zyl Slabbert proposed a combined system of constituencies and proportional representation to better increase accountability.

    “That might still come. It is not something that has been totally dismissed. The ruling party had rigorous discussion and decided that the Slabbert model should not be thrown out of the window. It is still possible. The electoral system is not cast in stone.”

    Slabbert’s report recommended that South Africa should retain its List PR system but change it to a two-tier system, splitting the country into 69 constituencies electing between three and seven MPs, and keeping 100 seats as ‘compensatory’ national seats.

    A mixed compensatory system, which is a label sometimes (in Quebec, for example) used interchangeably with MMP, although it may be a more inclusive term.

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