Electoral Commission begins series of webinars to foster understanding on different types of electoral systems

The Electoral Commission today hosted a webinar for members of the National Political Party Liaison Committee (NPLC) aimed at furthering knowledge and understanding of the various families of electoral systems in use around the world.
The webinar was intended to help contribute to enriching the national discussion and debate around the electoral system as part of the process under way within Parliament to amend the Electoral Act.
In June the Constitutional Court found that the Electoral Act was unconstitutional in so far as it only allows individuals to contest national and provincial elections as part of a political party (New Nation Movement NPC and Others v President of the Republic of South Africa and Others). The Court gave Parliament two years to rectify the deficiency.

Speaking at the start of the webinar Electoral Commission Chairperson Mr Glen Mashinini noted that the webinar formed part of the Commission’s role in providing technical assistance to Parliament, as well as fostering a national debate around the best electoral system for South Africa.
The webinar is to be followed by further online engagements with other stakeholders including civil society organisations, business, labour and the public in general.

“The Commission is deeply mindful that the electoral system adopted by a country is a matter of significant national interest which will have far-reaching implications for its Constitutional democracy,” Mr Mashinini noted.
“For this reason the Electoral Commission believes that the process to review and reflect on the electoral system should be broad-based, inclusive and ideally emerge from national consensus
“In this process we should draw on inputs from all interested stakeholders including political parties, civil society, business and labour, Government, the electorate and the public at large.”
Mr Mashinini said the review of the current system prompted by the Constitutional Court judgment was “highly opportune given that we have recently celebrated 25 years of our current system”.

“Constitutional democracies are dynamic systems which evolve over time. As they mature and develop, the systems and processes in place to elect public representatives require review from time to time to ensure their continued effectiveness and efficacy in meeting the Constitutional principles.
“While the circumstances which prompt such reviews may vary from country to country, such reviews are natural and necessary in order to account for changing socio-political, economic and other conditions of that country,” he said.

Mr Mashinini reflected on aspects of the evolution of South Africa’s electoral democracy over the past 25 years including the considerable growth in the number of political parties contesting all elections: from 19 parties in 1994 to 48 parties in 2019 national and provincial elections, and from 79 parties in 2000 to 205 parties in the 2016 municipal elections. During this period while voter registration had grown considerably (from 18.17 million in 1999 to 26.75 million in 2019), it had not kept pace with population growth and had not always translated into higher turnout at the polls.
In addition, Mr Mashinini reflected on the findings of recent surveys which showed a concerning decline in the levels of satisfaction with the democratic system among the electorate.

“Our democracy remains vibrant and healthy and our participation levels are very much in line with international trends. But those of us directly involved in the birth, growth and development of democracy in our country over the past 25 years should take heed of the warning signs. In order for our electoral democracy to continue to thrive and flourish we must constantly seek to renew and re-invigorate our democratic processes,” he said.

Chief Electoral Officer Mr Sy Mamabolo then presented an overview of the various families of electoral systems in use around the world including single winner systems (also known as first past the post and “winner takes all” systems), multi-winner systems and combinations thereof.
Mr Mamabolo cautioned that a review of the electoral system was not “silver bullet” which could not provide a miraculous cure for all issues.

He said each system had advantages and disadvantages which should be discussed as part of the debate. Among the key principles which should help guide any amendment to the system.
These included:
• Proportionality: This implies that every eligible voter should have the opportunity to vote and that every vote should be of value. In other words, every vote has some relevance in the composition of and membership of the national and provincial legislature.
• Simplicity: This demands that the electoral scheme has to be accessible to practically every voter, easy to understand and easy to participate in.
• Inclusiveness: This implies that every attempt should be made to allow the widest possible degree of participation by various and diverse political preferences in the representative legislatures.

Mr Mamabolo said that while accountability was also an important value, public discourse has tended to elevate and place primacy on accountability as a key measure of an electoral system.
“It is accepted that an electoral system may encourage, but cannot ensure accountability to the electorate. Accountability has much to do with political culture rather than the system,” he said.

Responding to the presentations, guest contributor Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana of the University of Johannesburg provided a background on the history of the electoral system, noting that the current system had been chosen in response to South Africa’s apartheid history.
Among the key issues raised during discussions in the webinar included whether Parliament should take a narrow view of the Court judgment and focus only on incorporating independent candidates in national and provincial elections or whether it should use the opportunity to explore a broader review of the electoral system. The 24-month time limit imposed by the Court and the need to be ready for elections in 2024 were also raised as key factors to consider.

“The design of an electoral system is an intricate process, and the Electoral Commission will make known its position on the best electoral system going forward during the public hearings on the matter and avail its technocrats to assist with the design process,” concluded Mr Mashinini, reminding that above all, an electoral system is a means, not an end to the democratic process.

  • NPLC webinar introductory remarks by Electoral Commission Chairperson Glen Mashinini (PDF)
  • NPLC webinar presentation by Electoral Commission Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo (PDF)

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