After four years of hard bargaining and
nearly four hundred years of ethnic conflict, South Africans are looking forward to
celebrating democracy with their first all-race elections in April 1994.
These elections for the Constitutional Assembly and Interim Parliament are to be held under a "closed" party list form of proportional representation (PR) system. Half (200) of the parliamentary seats will be filled by candidates elected from nine regional party lists; the other 200 seats will be filled from national lists. PR also has selected as the best electoral system for future local and municipal elections, although the specifics are still to be negotiated.
Early drafts of the electoral law set the threshold for winning seats at 5% of the national vote, but in a concession to the smaller parties, the ANC and South African government dropped this threshold to just 0.5%. In addition, those parties with 5% of the vote will be entitled to portfolios in the first "cabinet of national unity" designed to include all important factions in the country's governance.
Mitigating Conflict in a Divided Society
South Africa's adoption of PR is an important confirmation of the argument that PR systems help mitigate conflict and create a sense of national inclusiveness among all groups in divided societies -- in contrast to winner-take-all systems that encourage conflictual politics and accentuate the already damaging ethnic divisions of a pluralistic society.
In 1990, there was little reason to believe South Africa would adopt PR. The whites-only parliament was elected by the U.S.-style "First-Past-the-Post" (FPP) electoral system, while the ANC, in a powerful bargaining position, was seen to be advantaged if FPP were maintained. With white majorities in only five magisterial districts out of hundreds, the ANC with FPP probably could have turned 50-60% of the popular vote into 70-80% of parliamentary seats.
But the ANC did not opt for FPP because it realized that distortions coming with it would be fundamentally destabilizing in the long run for both minority and majority interests. Today, all major South African political parties support the principle of PR.
Possible Refinements in the System Before 1999
There are some problems with the closed list PR that will be used. First, it can lessen accountability between representatives and their constituencies, as voters will choose among parties, not candidates. Second, the large size of constituencies will lose the benefits of a degree of geographic representation.
Designing smaller constituencies and allowing for an "open" list (like Finland, for example) would mitigate these problems and still maintain the basic principle of proportionality. Such issues are up for debate over the next five years, when the Constitutional Assembly will draw up the permanent constitution.
Possible Barriers to "Free and Fair" Elections
Even with PR, the first non-racial South African elections will not be as "free and fair" as one would hope. Even if the Inkatha Freedom Party and the "white right" contest the elections -- very much in question -- there may be sporadic incidents of violence and intimidation where these parties are strong. The ANC has found it hard to campaign in certain areas, while the National and Democratic Parties can only safely canvass in white, Asian and so-called "coloured" communities.
Other problems may depress the black vote, such as voters' fear of violence at the polls, their fear that ballots will not stay secret, widespread illiteracy and lethargy on the part of the white government in issuing identity papers with proof of age and citizenship that are necessary for voter registration.
Despite such problems, it seems certain that the ANC will win by far the highest vote. Opinion polls are unreliable, but the ANC's own private polling which puts them at between 50%-55% is probably most accurate. Without Inkatha and the "white right" in the race, De Klerk's National Party may get 25-30% of the popular vote, and the rest will be split among minor parties. Of these, only the more radical Pan-Africanist Congress and liberal Democratic Party may win the 5% necessary to win positions in the "cabinet of national unity."
The elections will be a cathartic event and evidence that liberal democracy can give hope to a people denied free choice and free will. But at the same time, the next five years will be fraught with difficulties, alienation and disappointment, and it will be the task of the newly elected government to slowly patch the wounds that apartheid inflicted on South African society. The most interesting election may be the next one, scheduled for 1999 after the constitution has been ratified, parties have adapted to the new realities and black South Africans finally have been able to test their skills in government.
Andrew Reynolds is author of Voting for a New South Africa (1993: Cape Town, Maskew Miller Longman) and editor of A New Dawn: South Africa Votes (1994: Cape Town, David Philip).
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