Disc Dem

Disc Dem

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

In Search of Democracy

The outcome of the Brexit vote has been trumpeted as “a victory for democracy”, but a look at the UK referendum voting numbers gives pause for thought on what democracy really means in today’s world.

Needing 50% plus 1 vote for victory, the Bremain camp received 48.1% of the votes cast, and the Brexit camp received 51.9%. For the convenience of our generally abbreviated world, these have been rounded to 48% and 52% respectively.   
A close call, but nonetheless enough to constitute a clear statement by the majority of Brits, don’t you think?  Media coverage certainly compounds the impression that 52% of Brits will wake up happy, and 48% will stay awake worrying where it all went wrong.

However, if the results are adjusted against the total number of registered voters, and not just the 72.2% who turned out, the Bremain camp votes would translate to 35% support, and the Brexit camp to 37% support.  The balance of 28% would be made up of those who either couldn’t vote for one reason or another, idiots who thought the outcome was a foregone conclusion so didn’t bother to vote, and those who couldn’t care less either way.

Forget, for a moment, all the arguments relating to not crying about the result if you have not bothered to vote, and think about the bottom line.  In the UK referendum on EU membership it means that 38% of the voting population have decided the fate of the other 62%.  Looking at it this way, is it really a victory for democracy or does the result merely highlight that democracy is not working quite as well as we think it is, or as was intended?

In the same vein, in South Africa we have seen dramatic declines in terms of both registered voter turnout and, in particular, the percentage turnout based on the voting age population (VAP) which includes eligible, but as yet unregistered voters. 

In the first democratic national election in 1994, registered voter turnout was close to 87%, with a voting age population turnout of 85.5%, which are very good numbers indeed.

20 years later in the 2014 national election, registered voter turnout had declined to 73.5%, but of more concern is that it appears only 54% of the voting age population had bothered to register and vote.[1]

So while the ANC’s 62.15% share of the votes cast in 2014 sounds impressive, once you realise that this translates into a mere 34% of the voting age population,  it becomes another question mark over democracy as practised today. The situation is even worse when it comes to our Local Government elections where there are typically lower voter turnouts than for National elections.

Such numbers beg the question as to why so many people have apparently turned their backs on this hard won privilege. Is it general voter apathy that has befallen the world, in which case should voting be made compulsory to ensure that people fulfil their democratic obligation?

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance[2] has this to say about compulsory voting:
Advocates of compulsory voting argue that decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when higher proportions of the population participate. If democracy is government by the people, presumably this includes all people, so it is every citizen's responsibility to elect their representatives.
The leading argument against compulsory voting is that it is not consistent with the freedom associated with democracy. Voting is not an intrinsic obligation and enforcement would be an infringement of the citizens' freedoms associated with democracy. Furthermore, is a government really more legitimate if the high turnout is forced on unwilling voters? 

Surely, our history dictates that voting should be an obligation - to serve the memory of the many who fought so hard, and died, to earn full democratic rights for the majority of people? 

Two countries that are particularly admired by South Africans, Australia and Singapore, have compulsory voting. Australia will impose fines of $20 for a first offense, and $50 for subsequent offences, while Singapore removes non-voters from the electoral register until they apply for re-registration. Both countries wave the penalties if non-voters have good reasons for not voting.  As monetary penalties will not work in South Africa, removal from the electoral register is a more manageable solution.

Then again, is compulsory voting the answer, or is there a deeper seated problem with our political system that has caused voter apathy?

In our case, the answer to that rhetorical question lies in our much vaunted Constitution which entrenches our right to vote, but not to choose who stands for election.  Candidate selection, more precisely defined as cadre deployment, is considered to be the divine right of political parties and their leaders.  In effect, democracy, which should be a bottom-up system, has been cunningly morphed into a top-down system whereby politicians and not the people own our so-called democracy.

The state has most certainly been captured, not by commercial interests, but by unaccountable and greedy politicians who have created the environment where opportunists such as the Gupta family can thrive.

It is a great shame that the Local Government electoral system has not already been changed. Perhaps the tragic events in Vuyani and Tshwane could have been avoided. As it is, for the next 5 years, we will not only continue to pay at least twice as many pointless politicians than are needed to run a municipality, but the majority of us will suffer from decreasing levels of service delivery at a disproportionately higher cost. More fuel for the flames of service delivery protests.

One certainty is that before 2019 we must force electoral system changes which will reinvigorate our enthusiasm for democracy. Either we do that, or we may face consequences of a somewhat more “revolutionary” nature.

As for the Brexit result, it will be interesting to see the outcome of a 2nd referendum, if there is one. But even if the result stands, they can still take pride in their culture of accepting culpability, unlike our local leaders who think it is their duty to keep attorneys and advocates in full employment in order to avoid same.

[1] Source: Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?id=246  
[2] Condensed from an article to be found at http://www.idea.int/vt/compulsory_voting.cfm  

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Investing your vote

Jacob Zuma was recently quoted as saying “No one else is going to win the elections but the ANC. If you vote for any other party, what will you be voting for? They are not in government and they will never be so there is nothing that they will do for you. If you vote for them you are throwing away your vote, you are not investing it”.  

First of all, there is no such thing as a wasted vote. Even if your party of choice does not win, you have made a mark that might just translate into meaningful change. So NEVER give up on this right that is also a privilege. On the flip-side, looking at the fundamental numbers involved, JZ is more than likely correct in his assertion that the ANC will again be winners.

Even though they have been bleeding support for the last 10 years, generally shedding between 5%-7% in every election cycle[1], the ANC still holds a commanding majority in most local municipalities outside of the Western Cape.

For example, not counting the Metros of Buffalo City and Nelson Mandela Bay, there are 37 local councils in the Eastern Cape, 36 of which were won by the ANC in 2011. On August 3rd, shifts in support away from the ANC of 5%, 10%, and 14% will lose them their first three councils, but the next closest potential loss will take a shift in support of a possible, but unlikely, 22%.

A combined total of 63 councils in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Free State were all won by the ANC in 2011. It will take a decline in support of 16%, 18%, and 21% respectively for them to lose control over the first 3 local councils, one in each province. A 27% decline is needed to lose control of the Manguang (Bloemfontein) Metro, and 28% before another 3 local councils are surrendered. On the surface, not too much for the ANC to worry about in terms of control, but plenty for them to worry about in terms of the potentially devastating erosion in their support base.

The ANC seem to be most at risk in the Northern Cape where in 2011 they won 22 of the 27 local councils, but with smaller margins. A 2% shift will see them lose two councils, a 10% away shift and they will lose another one. The biggest change in control will occur at a 14% drop in support where they will lose an additional 7 councils. A shift in support of up to 18% will see the ANC lose 3 more, amounting to a potential loss of 13 councils across the province.

As the DA is traditionally weakest in these predominantly rural provinces, any drop in support for the ANC is likely to be picked up by the EFF or other smaller opposition parties. Even so, it still seems unlikely that the ANC will lose control over the majority of municipalities outside of the Western Cape - unless their campaigning completely implodes.

The real excitement of these elections, though, swirls around control of the Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro councils. The DA would have us believe that they will win all three outright, but can this ambition be realised? Unfortunately it seems destined to remain a pipe-dream, not because the swing away from the ANC is too big to overcome, but rather that the DA needs unrealistically large swings in their favour to take outright control of these Metros.

In Nelson Mandela Bay for example, a relatively small 7% decline in support will see the ANC lose control of the Metro, but conversely the DA requires a much larger 25% increase in support to fulfil their ambition of taking unfettered control.

Control of Tshwane requires a 13% drop in ANC support coupled with a corresponding 28% increase in DA support, while Johannesburg requires a 17% drop in ANC support with the DA needing an improvement of 44% over their 2011 result to take outright control.

Add the EFF’s inauguration into the local government power-shift equation and it can be reasonably assumed that, should the ANC lose control of any or all of these Metros, then coalition politics is the most likely outcome. An unfathomable aspect is who the coalition bed partners will be, and for how long they will remain faithful to each other, particularly in view of the ideological gymnastics needed to ally in the first place.

In Nelson Mandela Bay it is also difficult to fathom who will get on well enough with Athol Trollip to form a meaningful coalition, and Tshwane is a basket case that needs a serious political overhaul before any alliance might work effectively.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, a coalition between the ANC’s Parks Tau and the DA’s Herman Mashaba might be just what the City of Johannesburg, and the country needs. A demonstration that the ANC and DA can make things happen when the requirement is to think together, not just automatically contradict each other. 

These elections are without doubt the most important since 1994. Investing your vote wisely may or may not provide immediate returns regarding municipal control, but a hard enough hit to their support base may prove to the ANC that their only viable damage control mechanism is to recall JZ sooner rather than later. No matter what happens on August 3rd, if you keep investing your vote wisely, then positive returns will ultimately be realised.

Then again, after all the hype and hope has evaporated, focus must be returned to changing the electoral system for the next round of National and Provincial elections in 2019, and Local Government elections in 2021. Never forget that we have just voted, once again, to pay for at least twice as many politicians than are needed to run municipalities. This before a single cent is spent on service delivery.

[1] National & Prov: 2009 - 65.9%; 2014 – 62.15%.  Local Gov (PR Vote only): 2006 – 65.67%; 2011 – 62.93%