8 December 2008

South Africa: COPE's Calls for Electoral Reform Under Microscope


Johannesburg — THE call by the Congress of the People (COPE) for electoral reform has been widely welcomed in the media, yet should be regarded with considerable caution.

COPE's aspirations towards electoral reform feature an introduction of parliamentary and provincial legislative constituencies and direct elections for president, provincial premiers and mayors. The details of how such reforms might be implemented remain sparse, but the principal motivation behind such thinking is that the existing national/ provincial list proportional representation (PR) system has concentrated disciplinary power in the hands of party bosses and reduced the vast bulk of national and provincial MPs to voting fodder.

Firm evidence lacking, it may be presumed that COPE will call for the implementation of some variation of the recommendations of the Van Zyl Slabbert commission for the introduction of a mixed member proportional (MMP) system (featuring multi-member constituencies). If linked to direct presidential elections, such changes would provide for a thorough-going reform of the electoral system. COPE would argue that this would be good for democracy in terms of rendering both the executive and legislators more accountable to voters.

But while a strong case can be made for an MMP system, COPE's call for presidential elections is poorly thought out at best and dangerously opportunist at worst.

There are indications that direct election of the president (and premiers and mayors) would be popular. Sixty-three percent of all respondents to the survey conducted by the Van Zyl Slabbert commission favoured the popular election of the president.

Following the "recall" from the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, it is very possible that the proportion of voters favouring direct election of the president has increased. Indeed, COPE's position seems to be based upon a widespread perception that Mbeki's dismissal was undemocratic -- in that it was ordered by the small body of people who constitute the African National Congress's (ANC's) national executive committee (NEC) -- and that it undermined the spirit of the constitution.

Ironically, critics punting such arguments misunderstand the workings of Westminster-style democracy within which the removal of prime ministers customarily results from ejection by their own parties, which have lost faith in their ability to steer them to success at the next election. Only in exceptional circumstances will prime ministers under pressure risk the humiliation of the loss of a vote of no confidence in parliament. From this perspective, it cannot be maintained that the ANC's behaviour was either unparliamentary or unconstitutional. Such an argument presumes the capture of ANC structures (notably the NEC) by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) through a strategy of "entryism", which undermines the spirit rather than the rules of party electoral processes. However, a riposte to this would be that this was the outcome of Cosatu's and the SACP's exercise of the rights of internal party democracy.

Of more concern is the unstated challenge COPE's call for direct presidential elections presents to the current constitutional order, which was the outcome of a long process of bargaining and bullying by the various participants over several stages. It was a far from perfect process, and there are grounds for arguing that the 1994 and 1996 constitutions fall considerably short of the praise showered upon them.

Nonetheless, against the background of apartheid and the violence that preceded its demise, the present constitution cannot be wholly denied its epithet of constituting a "miracle" in that it provides a reasonable balance of majority rule and minority rights within a framework of liberal democracy. What is relevant here is that while the constitution is a carefully crafted hybrid between parliamentarianism and presidentialism, COPE's proposals would suggest a potentially dangerous lurch towards the latter.

There are numerous grounds for arguing that African soil was unsuitable for Westminster democracy. However, the dilution of parliamentarianism in one Anglophone African country after another by the post-independence introduction of direct presidential elections has had dubious results. At worst, by granting presidents personalised legitimacy at the expense of parliaments, it has provided the basis for tyranny and dictatorships; at best, it has shifted the balance between legislature and executive in favour of the latter. Yes, it can be argued that such "Afrominster" constitutions have become hybrids, yet the difference with the existing South African constitution was that the hybridity was deliberately crafted to ensure a balance of power.

The principal instruments of balance include: the election of the president by Parliament; the limitation of occupancy of the presidency by a single individual to two terms; the right of Parliament to overturn a presidential veto of laws that have passed through both houses; and the right of Parliament to pass a vote of no confidence in the president, passage of which requires the resignation of the government and resort to the electorate (with similar provisions operating at provincial level).

This is some distance removed, and deliberately so, from Westminster, with borrowings coming from a mix of constitutional systems. Ironically, however, the hybridity of the system is widely misunderstood with, for instance, some critics decrying that British prime ministers can serve as many terms of office as they can win, while South African presidents are limited to two.

In contrast, the record of unconstrained presidentialism in most of Africa has proved to be so utterly disastrous that, during the 1990s, newly democratic impulses in one country after another led to the imposition of term limits. Although there is no suggestion from COPE that the current two-term restriction should be abandoned, there are no indications that its call for direct presidential elections has been critically located either within a body of comparative African experience or within the context of a serious analysis of how it might affect the present balance of powers within the constitution.

After all, for all that Mbeki's ejection from the presidency may have been undignified, it singles SA out as one of the few African countries to have removed a sitting president by constitutional means. That, surely, is an important indicator of democracy.

Southall is professor of sociology at Wits University.

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