Party List System Needs to Change

By Wyndham Hartley
Published January 9th 2003 in Business Day (Johannesburg)

WHILE the nation has been spared a call for an early election and the resultant constitutional crisis in KwaZuluNatal, major election issues are still unresolved. The most startling fact is that at present there is no operational electoral law. The constitution made provision for the direct proportional representation on a party list system to be used in 1999, but after that a new electoral law had to be devised and placed on the statute book.

In pursuit of this objective Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi established a task team under Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert's leadership in May last year. The task team held international roundtable conferences and canvassed a wide range of opinion, including all the country's political parties. It was clear through the process that the weight of opinion was to move away from direct proportional representation on party lists to a combination of constituency and proportional representation systems.

It is worth remembering that the work of the task team comes against the backdrop of falling respect for elected public representatives from their communities.

One of the critical issues facing the team was to design a system that would put elected public representatives back in touch with the people who voted for their party.

The party list system makes them largely responsible to the party hierarchy and not "the masses of the people".

Parties will argue that the compilation of the lists through party structures from branches up to national structures provides for the voice of ordinary people, but that surely is not enough.

There is no question that the party list proportional representation system has served SA well in its first two democratic elections. With the African National Congress getting more than 60% of the popular vote in both these polls, it can easily be argued that with a pure Westminster style "first past the post" system it would have won almost all, if not all, the seats. There would have been no opposition voice at all.

While this would have spared us the floor-crossing debacles of the past year or so, it simply would have been bad for an emerging democracy to have no alternative voice at all.

The National Assembly, for instance, has 13 political parties represented from the lowly Afrikaner Eenheidsbeweging and the Minority Front with solitary MPs, to the ANC with its 266.

So, while it is undoubtedly a comfort to those who cast opposition votes to see some opposition MPs in the house, there also should be a mechanism that provides for accountability on the ground. Hence the combined system.

The task team was clearly split. Buthelezi's announcement that there was a majority report means that there was also a minority report. Word is that most of the 12strong task team favour a multiconstituency system combined with proportional representation, while a handful opted for retaining the party list proportional representation system used in 1994 and 1999.

From the participation of ANC representatives in the round table organised by the Slabbert team it was clear that it did not favour changing the system. Ironically the members of the team punting the status quo line the ANC line, if you like were from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

Apparently they did not argue the merits or demerits of a system that brought MPs closer to the people, but argued it simply would not be possible to get a new combined system up and running in time for the next poll which must be held in the first half of 2004.

Quite why this should be so difficult is not clear.

It is not clear what the split proposed by the task team would be and how many of the 400 MPs would be elected proportionally and how many in multimember constituencies. If it is simply half and half, this would mean many MPs who would comfortably have got onto the electoral list in a party list system will now have to go back to their communities and win nomination and election in order to return to Parliament.

Sounds all right to me and, after all, it would be in keeping with the ANC's declared intention of taking government closer to the people.

Some tough choices lie ahead for the ANC government. If, as is reliably understood, the task team has recommended that the combined system is introduced in 2009, then the practical arguments of the IEC fall away. There will have to be some really good reasons not to make the electoral system more accountable.