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ANC’s time running out, more political instability looms

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Picture: Reuters | Graphic Design: Timothy Alexander | African News Agency (ANA) ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa at an election victory rally held in Johannesburg following the 2019 national and provincial elections. Many small parties become ‘kingmakers’, who are able to exert pressure on larger parties, disproportionate to their voter support. Where their support changes, it can result in significant political instability, say the writers.

By Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister

The municipal electoral system has had five municipal elections, all of which have been declared free, fair and safe, with almost no disruption of the elections.

The elections have all been keenly contested. In the 2021 elections, some 324 parties were involved, among them 1,582 independent candidates contesting wards, with 51 winning a seat, out of the more than 9 000 councillors elected from parties.

The 2021 elections were conducted under exceptionally difficult circumstances due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Across the country, the major parties, the ANC, DA, EFF and IFP, dominated the electoral results.

At the same time, the increasing number of “hung” municipalities, from 24 in 2000 to 81 in 2021, has compounded instability. The high number of hung councils has highlighted the need to strengthen the guidance on the formation and management of coalition councils.

If there is persistent instability in such municipalities, provision is made in law for the dissolution of such councils and the holding of fresh elections. This has happened in only a few instances, although the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs and the National Treasury are working on several such cases.

The South African Local Government Association (Salga) has argued strongly for the adoption of a regulatory framework to guide coalitions and address concerns, improve political stability, ensure oversight and accountability, involve communities, and address the allocation of municipal political portfolios.

Salga also argues that coalition talks should not discuss issues relating to staff appointments and procurement decisions. The challenge with this, though, is that such frameworks may end up being worthless as they would be dependent on parties committing themselves to acting in good faith and abiding by such processes.

There are two areas in which it is possible to have electoral reform which, based on international evidence, would assist in making hung legislatures and executives more stable. The first is to remove the option of mayoral executive in municipalities and allow only for collective executives. This could be done easily and would reduce the focus of coalition agreements to be in positions such as mayor, speaker and chief whip.

The representation from the larger parties on executive committees would remain, irrespective of changes in the office bearer positions. Just over 50 percent of the 257 municipalities have collective executive systems. The remainder have mayoral executive systems.

In “executive mayor” systems, executive political authority and the bulk of decision-making power vests in a small number of councillors (the executive mayor and the MMCs, who tend to share party-political/factional/personal loyalties).

Research shows that while they are, in principle, accountable to councils, in practice, (executive) mayoral committees tend to take decisions behind closed doors and merely report these to council, while answering only to political party leadership structures (located outside democratic local government). In addition, and even more worrying, is that “executive” mayors often act as if they are heads of administrations and accounting officers which are areas that, by law, are the preserve of municipal managers.

Tension often arises as the political-administrative interface gets broached, resulting in poor governance and financial administration. However, executive committee systems would mean that all major parties could be included in the executive committee, irrespective of who the mayor is, and they would remain in place even if mayors or speakers change.

A second and possibly more impactful change could be to introduce electoral thresholds. The way thresholds work, for example, is that unless a party gets a certain percentage of the vote, they cannot be allocated any PR seats.

Some modifications exist such as where parties have won a ward/constituency seat, the threshold does not apply. Well over 50 countries that have proportional election systems have introduced election thresholds. These generally range between 3 percent and 5 percent. Work we have done, including examining international contexts, shows that such thresholds do work, even though they do reduce the number of parties elected to legislatures. Some may say reducing parties has negative consequences as having many parties represented in councils could be seen as creating a more inclusive political system.

However, it can also be argued that having many parties can create instability if coalitions are formed based on the dictates of what small parties require. Our argument, though, is that we should not focus on such subjective issues.

Rather, and more importantly, democracy requires implementation of the principle of “One Person, One Vote, One Value”. Unfortunately, on the score of “One Value” our electoral system fails us. However, our research shows that, and introducing a 1 percent threshold, would largely address these distortions, ensuring values for votes are far more equal across parties.

Currently, after the national elections, for example, two parties which have one seat each in Parliament, have average votes per seat which are 34 percent less than parties that have five or more seats in Parliament. And parties with two to five seats were elected to the seats based on around 31 percent fewer votes than the larger parties received for their seats.

This means that smaller parties require fewer votes to get a seat in Parliament compared to the bigger parties. A similar situation pertains in local government as the following examples show:

• In Johannesburg, the eight parties with one seat each received, on average, 39 percent fewer votes per seat than parties with five or more seats.

• In eThekwini, the 15 parties with one seat each received 23 percent fewer votes per seat than the parties with five or more seats.

• In Cape Town, the six parties with one seat each received, on average, 22 percent fewer votes per seat than the parties with five or more seats.

Clearly, our electoral system of calculating seats favours small parties and results in the serious distortions. Introducing a threshold for the number of votes required could address the issue. We believe that a threshold of only 1 percent if challenged constitutionally, would pass the constitutional principle that our electoral system must result in general in proportional representation.

The word “in general” is important because our electoral systems are not strictly proportional. In the past national elections, for example, 34 contesting parties (about 2 percent of the vote) failed to get seats. The votes are often referred to as “excess” or “wasted” votes because they do not result in a seat. Introducing a 1 percent threshold would possibly double the excess votes from 2 percent to just over 4 percent, but it would reduce significantly the small party seats that have been won through fewer votes compared to bigger party seats.

Many of these small parties become “kingmakers”, who are able to exert pressure on larger parties, disproportionate to their voter support. Where their support changes it can result in significant political instability.

Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister are Directors at City Insight