OPINION: A crisis of legitimacy

Norman McFarlane

Listening to talk radio in the lead-up to the May 8 poll, it is evident that many people have no clue for which party they are likely to vote.

A straw poll on Facebook the other day asked “Do you know who you’ll be voting for this time?”, and on Monday at 11am, 40% of respondents had said “Yes, I know exactly who”, whereas 60% had said “Nope. Not a clue”.

While it is hardly a scientific dip into the sentiment of the voting public, read with the on-going debate on social media and on talk radio, it does suggest that there is a great deal of confusion about where people will make their crosses, come the big day.

An intriguing question is, whether this was the case in 1994, and indeed, in the subsequent polls – national, provincial, and local – that have followed since.

In terms of electoral law, nothing has really changed since 1994. The proportional list system, with a hybird twist at local government, determines who gets into the legislature after the votes are counted.

A 2002 University of Cape Town research study of voter attitudes toward the proportional representation (PR) system* found that most respondents, across all racial groups, favoured the PR system, saying they were “satisifed with the way we elect our government” and felt that “the voting system ensures we include many voices in parliament”, both key objectives in implementing the PR system.

The minority of respondents felt that a greater degree of indiviudal accountability ought to be introduced whereby public representatives ought the be directly elected, in a constituency system.

The report concluded that what would probably work best would be a mixed member proportional (MMP) system, whereby political parties offer a list of candidates for each constituency from which voters may choose, to elect 75% of members of parliament, while the remaining 25% are elected from party lists.

Such a system would go a long way toward improving accountability of elected representatives, whlie still guaranteeing overall proportionality.

After considering the results of the study, the electoral task team which was reviewing the electoral system at the time, submitted a divided report to government: the majority favoured the introduction of an MMP system, while the minority favoured maintaining the pure list system.

The government of the day opted to maintain the status quo for the 2004 election, and said that “further legislation to consider an electoral system for the long haul, should be handled by the parliament elected in 2004”.

Thirteen-years later, we sit with the same electoral system, which, although it does not enforce any measure of accountability, does ensure broad representation in the legislature. It also just happens to suit the ruling party.

It is for this reason, that we sit with a ruling party list littered with compromised individuals, many of whom may find their way back into the executive or the national or a provincial legislature.

Significantly, the Mattes/Southall report concludes with the following prescient observation: “The evidence of this survey suggests that if, following the 2004 election, parliament stays with the same voting system, it will be an ‘opprtunity missed’ that could have ominous conseqences for South africa’s democracy over the longer term”.

Our electoral system is faced with a crisis of legitimacy as we head towards the May 8 poll, and that is clearly indicated by recent opinion poll results.

Thirty-seven percent of eligible voters feel that no political party represents their views, and 25% are not interested in politics or elections.

While we may have more registered voters in South Africa than ever before, that is more because of population growth than an uptick in the level of voter participation and interest. Ten million elligible voters remain unregistered, according to the Independent Electoral Commission, the highest proportion since the advent of democracy.

Even more concerning, is the proportion of young people who have registered for the May 8 poll. In the 18 to 29 age cohort, there are only 5.8 million registered voters, less than half of 12.9 million elligible voters reported in the Statistics SA 2018 population estimate.

The overwhelming majority of these voters were born after 1994, the so-called “born frees”, yet they seem utterly disinterested in the formal political process.

Predictions of what will be the likely voter turn-out vary, but even if it does reach the 80% mark, some polsters are predicting, how representative is the outcome if 10 million people have remained silent?

In a political system where pure numbers count, that significant “silent minority” has the potential to effect a change in government, but sadly, because they will not have their say, we will never know what might have been.

Perhaps after this election, the long overdue electoral reform that is needed to rebuild our trust in the electoral system will be effected, so that next time we vote, we will have a more direct say in who represents us, and have the mechanisms to hold them to account.

* Popular Attitudes Towards the South African Electoral System: Report to the Eectoral Task Team, Mattes R, Southall R, Democracy & Governance Occasional Paper 1, Human Sciences Research Council, Cape Town, 2002.