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Popular Attitudes towards the South African Electoral System

Year: 2002
Working paper number: 016
Author: Southall, Roger
Unit: DARU

At its simplest, any formal review of the type of electoral system that South Africa has, has three broad options. Firstly, it could conclude that things should be left as they are. Secondly, it could conclude that radical reforms are necessary and call for a shift to a fundamentally different system based only on constituency representation. Or thirdly, it could call for moderate reforms to address the weaknesses of a proportional representation system by infusing it with elements of constituency representation, while guaranteeing overall proportionality of legislative seats to votes. To what extent can the views of ordinary South Africans inform such a choice? The task of measuring citizens' preferences on this issue is daunting even to the most optimistic public opinion researcher. Certainly, those South Africans who have voted in both national and local government elections now have at least some exposure to different kinds of electoral systems, to which middle-aged and older white citizens add the memories of a purely constituent based system. However, the degree to which people have internalised what happens once they cast their vote, or its implications for the behaviour of elected officials and party leaders, is certainly open to question. In order to provide the Electoral Task Team with the most useful information on public attitudes, this survey of public opinion focuses, firstly, on measuring public views of the system they have in front of them and, secondly on assessing what they want out of a voting system in general. The responses reveal the following conclusions to the three broad choices outlined above. There would be little public support for a radical shift toward a first-past-the-post, single-member constituency system. This is good news for the ETT since the Constitution requires that any system result ´in general, in proportional representation´. In fact, South Africans appreciate the achievements of the current system that maximises many values that a first-past-the-post system would have difficulty providing, such as proportionality, and also maximum inclusiveness and fairness. There is minimal preference for the type of candidate centered, United States-style weak party system that a first-past-the-post system can encourage. Indeed, for the most part, people are happy with the present system. If South Africans are generally satisfied with what they have, does this mean that the ETT should say simply: ´If it ain´t broke, don´t fix it´? We feel the evidence provided by the survey answers in the negative. First of all, public satisfaction with the current system is neither consensual nor widespread. Significantly higher proportions are dissatisfied than one would prefer, given that a voting system is an integral part of the overall constitutional framework. Secondly, while South Africans appreciate that the existing system produces proportionality, inclusiveness and fairness, they also emphasize other values that a pure list-based version of proportional representation has difficulty producing: values such as independent-minded legislators accountable to local grass roots public opinion.  Finally, far from saying ´it ain't broke´, other survey results suggest strongly that the system is ´broke´ in at least one very important way. While Parliament has tried to address the lack of a direct connection between the people and the legislature by assigning putative constituencies to MPs, very few South Africans contact their MPs, and evidence from other surveys demonstrates that few people can even hazard a guess about who their MP is supposed to be. Perhaps most damning, this survey shows that just one in five South Africans think that national and provincial legislators listen to the opinions of ordinary citizens or look out for their interests. Left unchecked, such views threaten to turn into a cancer in the body politic that slowly eats away at public confidence in democratic institutions. The introduction of a constituency system would not, in itself, resolve all the issues giving rise to voters' perceptions that South Africa's politicians do not care about their needs or opinions. However, introducing some form of constituency system would provide a direct link between voters and their representatives, thereby enhancing the sense of obligation of the latter to the former. The responses reported in this survey suggest that voters would support the introduction of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, featuring the introduction of multi-member constituencies. Such a reformed system would maintain overall representativeness (as well as other favoured electoral values like fairness and equality) whilst simultaneously enhancing prospects for accountability.

Publication file: wp16.pdf