By: Steven Friedman
THIS country’s politicians and pundits support democracy – unless they find it inconvenient.
We have been reminded of this by some of the ‘cures’ suggested by parties and talking heads to fix wobbly coalitions. None of them would solve any problem, but all would, eat into democracy, leaving the people less powerful than they already are.
The problem, unstable coalitions, is real although not as serious as we are often told. The standard cliché is that they make it harder to provide public services. There is no strong evidence that the rise and fall of coalitions does this – in most municipalities where this happens, the day-to-day routine seems to continue unchanged. Musical chairs in the mayor’s office might prevent local government coming up with plans for change but its powers are so limited that there is not much it can do to steer local areas in new directions.
But all this would probably change if unstable coalitions became a reality in national government. And, even if they remain a local problem only, the sight of governments falling regularly because some or other party has changed its mind – or another mayor has been found with a skeleton in their closet – won’t boost public confidence in democratic government.
This does not mean that the problem can be solved by the stock response of politicians and just about everyone else in the public eye – passing laws to stop it. There are reasons why many coalitions don’t last and none of them will be changed by passing a new law.
Why Coalitions Fall
One reason for wobbly coalitions is voters’ choices. The largest party, the ANC, is declining but most voters who no longer support it don’t feel comfortable voting for any of the other parties. So, even with a much-reduced share of the vote, it still wins more than double the vote of the second biggest party, the DA, and more than four times that of the third party, the EFF.
None of this might matter if the ANC had obvious coalition partners willing to govern with it where it falls short of a majority. It hasn’t; it often finds it difficult to assemble a majority even when it is comfortably the largest party. The obvious next option is a non-ANC coalition but, because no other party comes near its share of the vote, the only way to assemble a government without it is usually to include a string of small parties. This gives these parties much greater power than their numbers suggest – the power to make or break coalition governments.
The problem is heightened by the failure of some larger parties – the DA in particular – to value their coalition partners. Larger parties in a coalition may be entitled to more positions, but, since they cannot govern without their partners, they need to treat them with respect if they want them to stay in the fold – when they don’t, the smaller parties may ditch them in search of a more respectful coalition partner.
New laws cannot change any of these realities. The law cannot instruct voters to make choices which would produce stable coalitions, or tell parties that they must govern with the largest party, and it cannot command bigger parties to show more respect to smaller ones. And so, coalitions will change when politics changes, not when someone comes up with a law which will make them work well.
But that has not stopped the inevitable (in this country, anyway) rush to find legal solutions to political problems. The DA has tabled bills in Parliament which claim to deal with the problem and the ANC is reported to be considering legislating. The ANC has also declared its own views on coalitions – at this stage they seem to express only what it says it would do where coalitions are needed and not necessarily even that since it ignored one of its own principles days after announcing them. But, if it does decide to change the law, its stated view would no doubt shape what the law would say.
Cutting Down on Democracy
With one possible exception which has its own problems, all of the proposals would weaken democracy. Since they also would not solve the problem, they would take politics backwards.
One of the DA’s proposals is that a limit on no confidence motions. The obvious aim is to prevent the frequent use of these motions to unseat governments. But, if this is to have any effect, the restrictions would have to be strict – allowing only one or two motions a year. What happens then if most elected representatives believe an office holder is not up to the task – why should they have to wait before acting? This change would reduce the accountability of people who hold public office.
But this is a minor problem compared to its other idea – limiting further the number of parties who can win election to forums at which laws are made. It wants to achieve this by mimicking countries in which parties need a minimum share of the vote to win seats.
In this country’s current system, seats are won in strict proportion to the number of votes a party wins – if there are 200 seats, they need 0,5% (one 200th). If a floor is introduced, they might need 2,5% or more, however many seats are on offer. The intention is obviously to exclude some of the parties which win seats now.
The proposal fits the DA’s long-standing view that voters opposed to the ANC should be voting only for it. It often expresses this by telling opposition voters that a vote for any party but the DA will ‘split’ the anti-ANC vote, which is simply not true in this country’s voting system. But the prejudice against smaller parties is not its alone – it is widespread. It is justified by portraying small parties as one- or two-person vanity projects which simply get in the way of bigger parties. It has grown as coalitions have given these parties some power.
This ignores the thinking behind the constitution’s voting rules – inclusion. A purely proportional system would, it was expected, give anyone who could show significant support a voice in law-making bodies. It strengthens democracy not because it gives small party politicians a source of employment but because it gives citizens in important social and cultural groups a say and a stake.
Small parties in this country’s democracy include champions of important political traditions, such as Africanism (PAC) and Black Consciousness (AZAPO) and sections of the Christian (ACDP) and Muslim (al Jama-ah) communities. Parties such as GOOD and the Patriotic Alliance also speak for smaller but still important groups. To deprive any of a seat is to diminish the range of citizens who feel they have a stake in politics.
Nor is at as easy to gain seats as the anti-small party lobby suggests. Every national election is littered with examples of parties, some with a public profile, who do not make the cut. And, while it is easier to gain election in larger local governments, this too is impossible unless a party has a reasonable level of support. So, the small parties would not have any seats at all unless they represented significant groups who have the right to a say.
Making it harder for small parties to win seats will, therefore, deprive many of a say and so weaken democracy.
One of the ANC’s proposals shows a different bias against small parties – it insists that the largest party in a coalition should lead the government and occupy the top position. This makes sense only if we misunderstand coalition government. It is not a system in which smaller parties agree to help out a bigger one by joining its government. It is one in which parties agree to share government because they need each other to form a majority. That means that any coalition member can occupy the top posts if they are supported by the rest of the coalition.
In fairness, one ANC suggestion does seem to avoid weakening democracy – it says it favours the collective executive system in which parties share seats in government in proportion to their share of the vote. But even this seems to show a bias against small parties: since there are only so many seats in government, it surely is not possible to include all parties and the smaller parties may well be excluded.
All these proposals seem based on one idea – that we have too much democracy because parties can bring no confidence votes when they please or because parties which a prejudice has declared ‘too small’ are included or because coalitions can choose who they wish to lead them.
The real problem may be quite the reverse – not enough democracy because coalitions deals are always made in back rooms, far away from voters. We can’t change the way people vote or the choices parties make. But we can make coalitions work better by insisting that they include, and account to, the voters who put them in office.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor at the University of Johannesburg, faculty of humanities, politics department, and writes in his personal capacity.