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).