When broad-based support bites

The local government elections system is designed to ensure direct accountability of representatives while ensuring that smaller interest groups can also be included, writes Michael o’Donovan.

Despite the attempts to get the best of both worlds the system gives small regional parties an advantage over those with broad-based support. This works to the advantage of political parties that, inter alia, draw their support from ethnically defined communities.

Half of the councilors elected in the local government elections will be elected as “ward representatives” and the other half will be drawn for the “Proportional Representative” lists. The PR lists were designed to ensure that parties with low levels of support stood some chance of being elected. That chance of any representative gaining a seat on the PR list in local councils (or in parliament) is equal to the proportion of the votes their party received in the election. Every party, for example, stands to obtain a single seat on the Johannesburg Council for every 0.75 percent of the PR votes cast in the metro.

By contrast ward representatives are elected on a first-past-the-post basis. Effectively the candidate with the most votes gets elected to represent the ward. This is a “winner takes all” system and only one candidate gets to represent the ward irrespective of how well represented the opposition parties are.

There are various strengths to each model. The ward councillor is chosen by a constituency and can be removed by it. By contrast the PR list candidates are chosen by the political parties. The advantage, for political parties of the PR system is that it allows the party to determine who represents it. It is on the PR list that chosen candidates are given preference and where gender ratios etc. can be readily set. When a party restricts the ward candidates to a particular profile they are prejudiced in ward elections if the person selected is not the most popular candidate available. PR candidates are not removed from office by the constituency but by the party they represent. The party in question can deploy the individual elsewhere or use other mechanisms to remove them from their list.

While constituencies may very well prefer to elect their representatives directly (and thus prefer a “winner takes all” system) the system does have its drawbacks. Not only do “winner take all” systems penalises smaller parties, it severely penalises small parties with a broad support base.

Parties whose support is geographically concentrated as a result of the issues they highlight or their ethnic profile can still win wards and municipal elections. Small parties whose support is geographically dispersed as a result of them appealing to the general population or their emphasis on national issues are, comparatively, far less likely to win municipalities, wards or even voting districts

An example of this was seen in the 2014 national election. In that election, the IFP gained approximately 440 000 votes. This ensured them the most votes in 489 voting districts. This in turn translated into victory in 63 wards and potential majorities in two municipalities.

By contrast, the EFF obtained over 1,1 million votes. For every vote the IFP obtained the EFF got 2.5 votes making it the third largest party in that election. However, their votes resulted in the EFF winning in only 15 voting districts. This corresponded to wins in only 3 wards and the EFF would have won no municipality had the 2014 voting been for local councils. Had the 2014 election been a local government election the ward system would have ensured the IFP of dozens of ward council positions and the, far larger EFF only three. Put differently, every 900 votes cast for the IFP secured it a voting district. By contrast, the EFF was only able to secure a voting district for every 73 000 votes cast.

The reason for the difference lies in the geographical concentration of support. IFP support is heavily concentrated in rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal (as the IFP is seen as being ethnically focused). In contrast, the EFF appeals to a voting population that is geographically diverse.

In general their support is drawn from among younger voters and others marginalised by the status quo. In 2014, the most concentrated region of EFF support was Rustenburg municipality. In that area a prolonged labour dispute contributed to widespread disaffection with the status quo. Those who then lent their support to the EFF included the disaffected from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds. Supporters included the unemployed, miners and educated youth. EFF support elsewhere in the country probably mirrored this pattern. The EFF base is clearly very broad – especially when contrasted against that of parties like the IFP.

A small party’s reliance on broad-based support will ensure that it is likely to fare far worse in the ward component of local government elections than it does in the PR component. The discrepancy may be overcome by the political party focusing on local issues. Unfortunately this calls for a level of resourcing and organisational decentralization, seldom seen in new small political parties.


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