How unusual is South Africa?

[Update: I added in a comment a list of cases with streaks of four or more elections with largest party having over half the vote.]

Given the news that a proposed merger of two opposition parties in South Africa was called off, I was wondering just how unusual is South Africa in having had a string of elections in which one party won a substantial majority of the vote.

Querying a dataset of over 1000 elections in countries that can be considered democracies (including many developing countries and young democratic regimes), the answer is: quite unusual.

The mean vote share of the largest party in these 1,148 elections is .42. In South Africa’s four democratic elections to date, the ANC has averaged .64. Such a high figure is just beyond the 95th percentile (.63) of the worldwide distribution.

Of course, the failure of opposition parties to offer a clear alternative does not help the cause of “normalizing” South Africa relative to other democracies. On the other hand, the extreme PR system also is an impediment. While normally, the more extreme the PR, the less likely is a party with over half the votes, if your starting point is a hegemonic party, then extreme PR presumably inhibits the development of an opposition that could challenge the leader. That is, numerous very small parties can all win their share without unifying, and the benefits from unifying are less clear for parties than they would be in a country with either a less proportional system or direct presidential elections (or both).

Speaking of direct presidential elections, the distribution of the worldwide data does not change much if we focus only on parliamentary systems, although there is small (and totally insignificant) tendency for bigger shares for the largest party under presidential systems (mean .43, although 95th percentile .61).

South Africa electoral lists

This year is election year in South Africa, and the ruling ANC has set up an “integrity committee” to scrutinize the candidate lists with the goal of eliminating corrupt candidates.

IOL News quotes Malusi Gigaba, identified as the party’s “election head”:

The list conference has the final say and the integrity committee could actually recommend that some candidates could be pulled off the list for this and that valid reason.

Business Day Live offers its list of seven members it says should be purged, and claims that in the past the party has either “redeployed” to other positions those MPs who pled guilty to corruption charges, or even renominated them to Parliament. It argues that the electoral system is at the root of the problem:

South Africa does not have a constituency-based electoral system, so none of these people ever had to answer to the actual people who elected them to office. Instead, those people were forced to rely on the ANC, which draws up the lists, to take into account their concerns. That never happened in 2009. In 2014, the party has another chance to show how seriously it takes the public. At the forefront of that battle will be its integrity committee.

South Africa uses closed-list PR, with MPs elected from nine basic districts whose magnitudes range from 5 to 47 (mean 22.2), plus a 200-seat nationwide district for which there is a separate list. With the ANC dominant (just under 66% of the votes in 2009), it has some very long lists of candidates whom it can assure election through the ranking process.

The compiling of lists begins at a conference on 3 February.

of favourite sons and distant cousins

Next year South Africa faces a general election.

The absolute certainties are that the ANC will win a (probably reduced) majority in the national assembly and the opposition Democratic Alliance will win a majority in the Western Cape provincial legislature. After that, all bets are off.

Before 1994 South Africa was divided into the four provinces of The Cape, Transvaal, Natal and the Orange Free State. There were also a large number of bantustans. Both the old provinces and the bantustans  were abolished by the 1994 interim constitution and a new system of nine provinces was set up. In the time since the provincial boundaries have become set in stone. The ANC has always controlled all the provincial legislatures except KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. It looks like Gauteng, the province formerly known as Johannesberg, will be in play next year for the first time.

And then the story gets interesting. There is some talk of the DA running their strongest possible candidate, Hellen Zille, their national leader, a former mayor of Cape Town, former World Mayor of the Year,  and the current premier of the Western Cape. If the DA took Gauteng, or even gave the ANC a run for their money there, it would be a political earthquake. The earthquake would be magnified by Zille’s ethnicity. She is a very white former anti-apartheid journo who would be running in a very black province.

Interstate politician transfers are very rare in Australia, although one is being attempted at the next federal election. And Australian and American political observers would become mildly hysterical over the premier of one province running for premier of another province.

One list per party, please

With municipal elections in South Africa set for 18 May, Terry Tselane, commissioner of the Independent Electoral Commission, is appealing to parties to make sure they each submit only one list.

An excerpt, from The New Age:

“We know that political parties have issues of tension about who is actually a leader of that political party. It will have implications in terms of how we run our processes. It is on that basis that we are saying that political parties must submit the list of those people that will be authorised. We are trying to avoid a situation where in the morning you receive a list from political parties from one specific leadership and later on another one comes and says the person who submitted the list is not authorised,” he added.

Asked how they would resolve a situation like that in Cope, where there were two factions each claiming to be in charge Tselane responded: “We are operating on the basis of information submitted to us before the (2009) elections. Until such time that there are changes we will continue to operate on the basis of information they submitted to us.”

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.

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* 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.)