Johannesburg - Before the 2004 elections, the African National Congress was happy with the electoral system - unlike this week, when secretary general Gwede Mantashe called for it to debate the PR system after its national support plummeted to below 54%.
At issue for the party is that it had fewer votes than wards in some councils, due to the system favouring smaller parties. As the results were being counted last week, for instance, the ANC in Nelson Mandela Bay boasted that the party had 36 out of the 60 wards.
In the end, however, the Democratic Alliance got 46.7% of the vote while the ANC mustered only 40.9%, translating into 57 seats versus 50.
On the floor of the IEC results centre in Pretoria last week, FF Plus parliamentary leader Pieter Groenewald explained the complex system of calculating PR seats on municipal level.
Not only the votes cast on the PR ballot paper, but also those cast for ward councillors affiliated to parties, are used in this calculation.
Votes cast for independent candidates are lost in this process, but smaller parties like the FF Plus stand to gain on council level.
That is why, Groenewald explained, the party put up candidates even in wards where these candidates did not stand a chance. They might get a few extra votes that would boost their total in a municipality.
This is also the tally of around 15 million that the ANC counted as actual voters nationwide, when in fact the live voting bodies were only half this number.
The defeat in Nelson Mandela Bay must have been somewhat emotional for the ANC, because Mantashe on Thursday suggested the PR system wasn’t working for the party.
Whether he was thinking of bringing back the constituency system that brought the Reunited National Party (HNP) to power in 1948 with only 37.7% of the vote is difficult to say. That system gave the sparsely-populated rural areas more say, which could probably favour the ANC in elections to follow.
It might, however, do the party better to conduct some introspection. Was the discrepancy in its ward and PR votes a result of a split vote, and where and why were voters doing this?
Changing the electoral system to favour the ANC would need a two-thirds majority, and the party would be hard-pressed to muster that now.
Back in 2004, when ironically, under the administration of former president Thabo Mbeki, the party rejected changes to the electoral system. These would have brought in an aspect of constituency-based voting to national and provincial level to get to the level of accountability required in the Constitution.
In effect, the proposed reforms would have made the national and provincial voting system a bit more like the local government system.
Diversity of voice
DA MP Wilmot James was part of the Van Zyl Slabbert commission on electoral reform. He told News24 “the ANC is not acting out of wisdom in the nation’s interest, but in an opportunistic manner”.
He said Mbeki’s government rejected the proposed changes and left it to the next administration, “and they’re only waking up to it now”.
In 2013, the DA tabled a private members’ bill with a simplified version of the commission’s recommendations.
Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi was home affairs minister at the time. The report in which he tabled the commission’s proposals in January 2003 was rejected.
In a 2009 newsletter, Buthelezi said: “Under the present system a voter can only choose a political party and its leader, and then relies entirely on the will of that party and that leader to choose candidates and hold them accountable. The voter has no control over who their representative will be and there is no one to contact to complain if they are not doing their job.”
The proportional representation system however gives a diversity of people a voice without giving the winners absolute power.
Former deputy chairperson of the constitutional assembly and National Party negotiator Leon Wessels said: “The old order (NP government) didn’t want to know about first-past-the-post and the-winner-takes all, because everyone feared the unbridled power of the simple majority.”
There was some urgency to hold the 1994 elections and no time to draw up constituencies. The understanding was that this would change by the 2004 elections, but the governing ANC chose to keep the system as it was.
Wessels said in a constituency-based system a substantial number of voters could go unrepresented.
“If it were only constituencies, the ANC would probably have more support, but the point is that the current system isn’t unfair toward them or the voter in general. The voter’s voice isn’t lost,” he said.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said Mantashe’s questioning of the electoral system was “out of order, because he wants to do a piecemeal change to achieve a skewed goal”.
He said a reform of the electoral system was on the list of coalition negotiation demands that four of the smaller parties, including his own and the Economic Freedom Fighters, gave to the ANC.
These demands were, however, different from the changes Mantashe had in mind. “If you want to change the electoral system, you have to look at it holistically and include party funding,” he said.
The electoral reforms the parties wanted also include the direct election of the president, he said. “We want a system where the president is elected directly by voters, rather than by a faction [of the ANC],” he said.
The outcome of this weekend’s discussions by the ANC’s national executive committee is likely to be known by Sunday or Monday.