🔒 RW Johnson on SA electoral reform: Upgrade by voting for French-like Prez

In a recent survey for ENCA, a notable shift in public opinion towards electoral reform was uncovered. The demand for a constituency-based electoral system and direct popular election of the President has surged dramatically. Criticism of the current system’s complexity and lack of voter friendliness has intensified, echoing sentiments for change. Drawing parallels with historic reforms in France, proponents argue for a system that empowers the electorate and fosters personal accountability among political leaders.

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.

By R.W. Johnson ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

In 2019 when I was conducting a pre-election survey for ENCA I found that there was a significant, though minority demand for a more constituency-based electoral system and also for the direct popular election of the President. This year we repeated both questions and found that there were now large popular majorities in favour of both changes. 

It is certainly easy to understand the frustration with the present system. I have been wading through the electoral lists for all the parties for each of the now three ballots. It is the most voter-unfriendly experience imaginable. Almost no one understands this electoral system. It is an abomination that a party can, at any point, remove an MP from Parliament and replace them with a loyal toady. The one thing that the electoral system makes absolutely sure of is that there shall be no power to the people. The real slogan is “all power to the party executives”. The fact is that our Constitution was essentially drawn up by the ANC and the Nats. Neither of them were democrats and it shows.

Back in 2003 Van Zyl Slabbert’s commission on the electoral system recommended a mixed constituency+PR system along German lines. To Van’s chagrin it was never even debated either in the cabinet or Parliament. It remains the most rational alternative to the present awful system. 

The introduction of direct presidential election would transform our political system, just as it transformed the French system when General De Gaulle introduced it in France in 1962. Under the Third and Fourth Republics the party executives had ruled, deciding on coalitions and overthrowing governments at will. De Gaulle, called back to power to solve the otherwise insoluble Algerian problem, was determined to change the system irreversibly. He realised that a President who, alone in the country, enjoyed a national mandate, would be bound to be a dominant figure. The parties realised it too and resisted the change with all their force – but De Gaulle rammed it through thanks to a popular referendum. On the decisive second ballot of a presidential election only the two top candidates were allowed to run, so one of them must, by definition, get a popular majority. 

The parties had several objections. First, they were sure that power would flow upwards to the presidency and weaken Parliament. De Gaulle countered that no government could exist without a parliamentary majority. But even so, he was fed up with the irresponsible behaviour of many parliamentarians and thought that reducing their power would be no bad thing. 

Secondly, the parties objected that presidential politics meant personality politics. Inevitably, people’s choice would be affected if a candidate was too old, too ugly, or too aloof. Politics ought to be about principles and programmes and “you shouldn’t have to sell a candidate like you sell a toothpaste”.

This last objection was advanced most bitterly by the Communists and the extreme Right. The Communists regularly got over 20% of the vote and were an influential force in Parliament while the Right was smaller but had ambitions to grow. They both realised, however, that neither of them could ever win a presidential election. The need to win 50%+1 meant that the centre vote would be decisive. So in effect France would always have presidents from the centre-left or centre-right.

And thus it was. Parliament was weakened, as were the parties, the Presidency was strengthened and France had a succession of Gaullist and Socialist presidents until 2017 when the Centrist, Emmanuel Macron won. 

How would such a system work in South Africa ? Each party would, of course, want to have its own presidential candidate – but that might or might not be the party leader. Right now, for example, Thabo Mbeki is South Africa’s most popular politician and the ANC would be crazy to nominate anyone else. Indeed, in choosing their leaders parties quickly adopt the criterion of “would (s)he be an electable presidential candidate ?” As in France or America there would be an expectation that a President would be strong and drive the country along. A President seen as weak – a Jimmy Carter, Francois Hollande or Ramaphosa – would be quickly shown the door. That said, a presidential system need not be centralised: The US has a very strong form of federalism, after all.

Then there would be the question of alliances. Francois Mitterrand built his career on the promise to unite the whole Left, including the Communists, cunningly calculating that if the Left really could achieve unity the Communists would become a minority and lose leverage.  Mitterrand’s rival, Gaston Defferre, wanted an alliance of the left and centre – but the notion of left unity was far more appealing.

There would also be the question of an “untouchable” party. In France this was, for some time, the National Front. If its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it into the second presidential round, whoever the other candidate was, was bound to win as voters rushed to avoid Le Pen at all costs. In South African terms the EFF or MKP would both qualify as “untouchable”. They are both parties which can flourish only under a proportional system and which would inevitably wilt in a presidential system.

How different would our history have been under directly elected presidents ? No doubt Mandela would have won in 1994 but, had he lived, Chris Hani might have succeeded him though there would have been no stopping Mbeki from succeeding him in turn. That would mean three Xhosa presidents in a row which would thus have made a Zulu succession unavoidable. So it might not have been so different except it is hard to imagine that a Venda, lacking almost any electoral base, could have become President.

The chances are that each presidential election would see a centre-left candidate opposed by a centre-right one – ANC vs DA, though the DA would have long since had to build a multi-party coalition, not wait until 2023 to do so.

Perhaps the chief appeal of such a system is the sheer personal responsibility it implies: “the buck stops here”, as Harry Truman said. At every election an American President has to answer the question “Are the people better off than they were four years ago ?” – and woe betide him if they’re not. In South Africa real GDP per capita has been steadily declining for ten years and in that time we have heard no end of promises and excuses, all of them empty. Our politicians get fatter and richer but of personal responsibility there is no sign.

Read also: