All Sides Reject Winner-Take-All for First All-Race Elections

Andrew Reynolds

        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).


        "[W]e must move away from the winner-take-all system that we inherited from Great Britain. It works in homogeneous societies, but it is not the right system for a big country with vast regional interests and many language and culture groups. It is not a question of taking the prize away, but of ensuring that a government won't be able to do again what the National Party did with absolute power, merely because it had a majority."
• South African President F. W. De Klerk
Time magazine, June 14, 1993

        "The government must be democratic in the universally accepted meaning of the term. It must be the government of the people, by the people, for the people.... The legislature should be representative of the people as a whole, reflecting such differences of political views and interests as may be present in the community at any particular time."
• Draft constitutional principles
African National Congress, 1991

        "There shall be representative government, embracing multi-party democracy, regular elections, universal adult suffrage, a common voters' roll, and, in general, proportional representation."
• Constitutional Principle VIII
South Africa Constitution

        "Strong arguments for PR over plurality were made by the ANC despite the fact that the ANC, supported by a substantial plurality of the electorate, would be far more advantaged by a plurality system than by PR.         "The ANC asserted PR was the system to use because: 1) It encourages participation by groups which have significant followings. This is more satisfactory than forcing political or subversive activity outside parliament. Fringe parties would be excluded by imposing a threshold of 5% of the vote. 2) Votes in excess of 50% would count and hence be an inducement to vote in areas where one party is dominant. Similarly, losing parties in those areas would also contribute to their overall performance.
3) It leads to a more exact political reflection of the popularity of parties. 4) It avoids the time, expense and accusations of bias in the process of delimiting constituencies. This process can take months or years."
• "Choosing an Electoral System for the New South
Africa: The Main Proposals," Reynolds and
Grofman, Public Choice Program, UC-Irvine.

        "It is clear from the political debate in South Africa that seat distribution in any new electoral system should be an accurate reflection of the manner in which voters have expressed their preferences -- minority parties must be able to accept the result so as to allow scope for the growth of democratic processes and values.... There is almost full agreement that majority electoral systems and relative majority systems (plurality) are unsuited for the first and second levels of government in deeply divided societies. Such systems could possible produce a permanent majority in which the dominant group governs. A winner-take-all form of zero-politics is created in this way, which increases conflict....
        "[Under PR there] is a just relationship between the votes cast for a party and the number of seats obtained by that party.... [PR is a] representative system in which the individual vote is not easily distorted by factors such as geographic distribution, race or class...."
• Report of President's Council
(National Party organ), 1992

        "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve."
• Nelson Mandela, African National Congress leader


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