By Steven Friedman
First published on My Vote Counts
Academics who teach politics do not believe that their knowledge equips them to judge court cases or to represent parties in legal actions. But judges and lawyers tend to believe that legal training somehow equips them with a knowledge of politics greater than that of their fellow citizens.
This is a concern not because only scholars of politics should express political opinions — it is basic to democratic principle that everyone should. It is a worry because judges and lawyers usually present their political opinions as the product of special expertise and training. In most cases, a closer look shows that they stem from neither.
A topical example is the Zondo Commission report, which recommends that the president be elected directly by voters. This, it suggests, will ensure greater accountability to the citizenry. Despite the fact that the recommendation is not backed by a coherent argument, it has been seized on as the flavour of the month by campaigners. It is fast on its way to becoming one of those ideas that people in the public debate present as so obviously good for us that no-one reasonable would disagree.
But direct presidential elections will weaken democracy here and make it more difficult for citizens to ensure that the government does what they want it to do.
The perils of party?
The stated reason for direct elections is that the president would be directly responsible to voters rather than their party.
Direct elections were first raised as a serious topic in 2008, after the African National Congress recalled then President Mbeki. The president, we were told repeatedly, had been elected by the people, but was now being removed by a few dozen members of the governing party’s national executive committee. This theme was amplified during the Zuma years when it was repeatedly suggested that he and his allies remained in office because party delegates made the choice. The electorate, it was argued, would choose differently.
In theory, the argument makes some sense. Card-carrying, voting, members are a very small fraction of people who vote for a party, let alone of all those eligible to vote. In the run-up to the 2017 ANC election, surveys showed that Cyril Ramaphosa was far more popular than his opponent among the electorate. But he won very narrowly — had he lost, ANC delegates would have chosen a candidate with much less support among voters than the loser.
In practice, it misses a very basic reality. If voters directly elect the president, this does not necessarily mean that they choose the candidates. Unless the rules were changed to allow American-type primary elections — and no-one who wants a directly elected president has suggested that they should be — the candidates would still be chosen by the party delegate who are said to be obstructing accountability. Since 1994, the vast majority of South African voters have been loyal to their parties; loyal enough to vote for the candidate it nominates even if they don’t think much of the person chosen. If the system was in force in 2009 and 2014, the ANC would have nominated Jacob Zuma and he would have won.
Of course, times have changed and ANC delegates no longer have free reign to elect whoever they want, secure in the knowledge that their choice would become state president. Indeed, if recent by-election results are a guide, the ANC may not govern in 2024 whoever it chooses as president. However, this is not an argument for a direct election. It means, rather, that the problem which direct election is meant to solve is in the process of disappearing: if ANC delegates elect a candidate who the electorate dislikes, it will lose the next election.
Voters now enjoy far more effective ways of showing displeasure at a party leadership than voting directly for candidates chosen by parties. It is worth recalling that Ramaphosa won the ANC presidency because current deputy president DD Mabuza became convinced that voters would not give the ANC a majority if he was not president. So, the election was decided by what was considered necessary to satisfy voters. The electorate has sent messages to other parties too: the DA’s current leadership is less popular with its voters than previous leaders; the GOOD Party lost ground to the Patriotic Alliance probably because the party’s voters didn’t like the fact that its leader, Patricia de Lille, joined an ANC Cabinet.
Party primaries, as noted earlier, would give voters a say in who the candidates are. If primaries were introduced, voters would be able to register for a particular party’s internal elections and would vote to decide its candidates. But this does not need the president to be directly elected. Primaries also carry their own risks — they may increase the influence of money on politics as candidates raise cash to contest elections. This is already a problem in internal party elections: it would be much more serious if candidates were competing for many more votes and so would be looking for much more money.
In sum, direct election was once a non-solution to a real problem. It is now a ‘solution’ to a problem which no longer exists. None of this would matter if there were no costs to directly electing a president, but the price democracy would pay would be huge.
Directly electing the president changes far more than those who want this change seem to realise.
At present, the country has a president — but not a presidential system of government. The president is, in effect, a prime minister with extra status because whoever holds the office is directly responsible to Parliament and can be removed by a simple majority of its members. The same applies to the Cabinet — the constitution allows Parliament to remove it by a no confidence vote, after which an election must be held.
Directly elected presidents can only be removed between elections by impeachment — in presidential systems, this is usually a lengthy process which requires the support of at least two-thirds of members of Parliament precisely because members are overturning voters’ choice. The Cabinet is responsible to the president, not Parliament, and so there is far less public leverage on ministers who are unpopular. Many or most of the country’s politicians seem to think that we already have this system: the opposition wanted to impeach Zuma, a totally unnecessary action when they could simply vote him out of office (the penny dropped eventually, and they tried to unseat him through a no confidence vote). But that does not change the reality that the current system makes it far easier to get rid of unpopular presidents and Cabinets than one in which the president is directly elected.
This means, of course, that the change which Zondo and his cheerleaders believe would make the president more accountable would have precisely the opposite effect. The likeliest result of the change would be to ensure that presidents who were still chosen by party representatives would be much harder to remove than they are.
Citizens should not allow those who hog the public debate to foist on them an arrangement which claims to empower voters but does exactly the opposite.