South Africa’s ballot and the role of the top-ranked candidate

Steven Taylor has posted an image of the ballot for Wednesday’s South African parliamentary election.

It is a classic closed-list ballot: no candidates’ names included.* Just the photo of the no. 1 candidate–the one who will become “President” if the party wins the majority or leads a coalition.

In a separate post, Steven discusses the patterns of national and provincial lists.

Regarding the no. 1 candidate on each national list: he or she is technically the party’s “presidential candidate.” Yet another of those subtleties usually missing from the media coverage is that the successful candidate, while having the title of President, is really a prime minister: the election is not direct (because becoming President depends on the outcome of the parliamentary election), and the occupant of the post is subject to removal by a majority in a no-confidence vote.

Of course, one party is going to get an overwhelming majority once again, and the leadership will have chosen the individual legislators–due to the closed list.

It is also worth noting that the President/prime minister is also head of state, which is rather unusual for a parliamentary system. The occupant of the office is also limited in tenure, which is also unusual. So the roles of head of government and state are fused, but South Africa is without qualification a parliamentary system.

* Elsewhere, some closed-list ballots do list some (or, if the district is small, all) of the candidates and not just the leader. But given that such ballots allow no candidate voting, there is no “mechanical” need to show candidates. That’s what I mean by “classic” closed list: just the parties (and their candidate for national executive). (I suppose one could say it would even more classic if even the no. 1 candidate were not shown. I am not aware of such a ballot, but perhaps one has existed somewhere.)

19 thoughts on “South Africa’s ballot and the role of the top-ranked candidate

  1. I’m an American, but I don’t like the US practice of fusing the roles of head of state and head of government. It seems to weaken political discourse in the US, because attacks on the government are attacks on the head of state, and the opposition knows this. It also creates a sort of “rally around the president” effect that translates into too much support for the president’s policies, up to the point where he loses all credibility. Also, I’m not sure the how the president can effectively run the federal bureaucracy with a daily schedule full of ceremonial events.

    I don’t see how the South African system avoids any of these pitfalls. It simply makes it easier to remove the fused head of state/ head of government than in the US, and put the legislature and executive in harness (under the US system the legislature at least sometimes acts as a check on the executive). But I wonder if the high voting percentage for the ruling party in South Africa is due in part from the fact the leader of the ruling party is also head of state. Just being ceremonial head of state seems to give politicians a boost in popularity that their policies don’t always warrant.


  2. I agree with Ed about the fused roles. John Howard, who could be described as using Rovian tactics as prime minister of Australia except that he as elected in 1996, subverted the separation of the two roles in Australia by pushing long and hard to assume the ceremonial functions of the governor-general, particularly in relation to the armed forces. Howard took his push so far that at one stage he floated a trial balloon to provide by law that there would be no federal assistance for the Sydney Olympics unless he got to open them.

    On the other hand, if you have an executive president where do you get your ceremonial head of state? A state governor picked at random for a short fixed term? Elizabeth II?


  3. Alan, I know someone who wrote in 1976 (when drunk) to Gerald Ford to go to the UK for an audience with the Queen and say, “We made a huge mistake.”

    There was a suggestion made by one contributor to a book (Separation of Powers – Does it Still Work) published by the American Enterprise Institute that there should be a ceremonial chief of state chosen by the Senate, which in that proposal was taken out of the legislature and transformed into a purely advisory body.

    Indeed, one proposal made in respect of South Africa by the non-ANC parties has been to separate the post of head of state and head of government.


  4. In the case of South Africa, they only became a republic in the 1960s, and then had a ceremonial head of state until the 1980s. Both the republic and the more powerful president were brought in to butress apartheid. I don’t see why they can’t reverse either of these moves, they returned to the Commonwealth after all. They could for example have a figurehead President elected by the provincial legislatures.

    As for the US, changing the constitution is very difficult. I would like to see a constitutional amendment making the cabinet responsible to the House of Representatives, and maybe also removing the bar on legislatures serving simultaneously in the executive branch. That would create a parliamentary system, and over time either the Secretary of State or the Secretary of the Treasury would emerge as a prime minister in all but name. But there is currently no political support for this.

    Under my proposal the President still would be powerful since he still would be kind of elected and presumably would remain as the head of one of the two parties. He still would have the veto and the ability to make alot of appointments, subject to Senate confirmation. But most of the president’s power in the US really comes from his ability to appoint and dismiss the senior officials at executive departments and to direct their operations. The president’s (and vice president’s) role has expanded as the federal government has expanded.

    The last president arguably functioned as more of a ceremonial head of state than an effective head of government and admittedly this didn’t work out to well.


  5. Israel has already shown that having a directly elected executive does not preclude having another, unelected, figure as a head of state. That hybrid experiment went badly, but the separation of these roles was not the reason. Various proposals since the 1960s to have the Netherlands head of government popularly elected have all assumed the monarch would remain.

    So there is no reason the roles have to be separate if the HoG is elected. And while South Africa’s dual-role “President” is not technically elected by the voters, it probably feels that way to South Africans. They certainly could keep every feature of the system intact, but one: create a ceremonial head of state rotated among traditional chiefs (like Malaysia’s king) or selected by a combination of the national and provincial assemblies (like many parliamentary heads of state, including those of India and Germany).

    Ed, your proposal on the US (which I broadly agree with) would not create a parliamentary system, but rather a semi-presidential system. The distinction is more than merely academic.


  6. > ‘But given that such ballots allow no candidate voting, there is no “mechanical” need to show candidates’

    I suppose it serves the purpose of keeping some, albeit very attenuated link between the consent of the voters and the make-up of the legislature. If you see a name on the party ticket that you absolutely detest, you can avoid voting for that whole list. Whereas if the candidates’ names were not all shown on the ballot, the link between voter intent and outcome would be stretched past breaking point.

    If all the fine print is shown on the standard-form, “take it or leave it” contract, you can be deemed to accept all the terms, even if you can’t vary or amend them.


  7. Or you could re-ignite the democratic spark of ancient Athens and pick a citizen at random for a 24-hour term.


  8. I suspect South Africa’s situation is mostly a product of terminology. The ANC would not have wanted it’s leaders to be ‘mere’ Prime Minister beneath a (even if ceremonial) President, when Apartheid’s last few leaders were fused head of government-head of state presidents.


  9. Which is ironic given that SA’s 1994 Constitution still divides power within the Executive, giving a portion of the Chief Exec’s power to – not a Vice-President who probably belongs to the same party, or a ceremonial President who probably belong to no party – but to Deputy Presidents and Cabinet ministers who belong to the Opposition parties. The Mineta Rule, entrenched.

    Ie, the SA President may occupy the top rung of the ladder, but the next few down are out of his control (sorry, mixed metaphor).


  10. Tom

    I suspect you are describing the 1993 interim constitution’s coalition provisions not the 1994 permanent constitution.


    I’m not sure you argument is persuasive because it assumes that the ANC would not have controlled a ceremonial presidency. There’s just no obvious reason to make that assumption.


  11. “I suppose one could say it would even more classic if even the no. 1 candidate were not shown. I am not aware of such a ballot, but perhaps one has existed somewhere”

    The portuguese ballots don’t have photos (except for the presidency)


  12. Miguel, no photos or names of candidates on Portuguese ballots? I must admit I thought Portuguese ballots included the name of at least the top candidate on the legislative list.

    Regarding my “I am not aware” statement: I might have noted that Venezuela’s old closed-list ballots had no legislative candidates named or shown. They had the presidential candidate endorsed by the party (even if the party was cross-endorsing the candidate of another party, which was common). However, obviously they were putting a face on the party, quite literally. (There were two identical ballot symbols side by side, a “large card” for president and a “small card” for everything else. Talk about a “psychological effect” symbolizing the intra-party dominance of the presidency!)


  13. Didn’t we forget about another country’s election just this recently? What about the Icelandic election?


  14. MSS, this is an official thread hijack. Punish me as appropriate. There may be a need for a floor-crossing thread)

    Of course I’m not unhappy that the Democrats have an additional senate seat and before the Republicans become too excited over losing a seat through floor-crossing they really should consider their own shenanigans in Minnesota.

    All the same, it seems to me a principle that in an ideal constitution, when you are elected for one party you should sit for that party, face an election, or resign.


  15. Vasi

    I see our host, whose persipacity is as great as his generosity, has planted a new Garden of Crossed Floors.


  16. Pingback: The political system of Guyana | Fruits and Votes

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