Election Watch

SA democracy in trouble – all parties to blame

A local election, really?
Posters oe.jpg

Representative democracy is in trouble worldwide because of a growing divide between citizens and their representatives. In South Africa it has reached a particularly critical stage with the wheels coming off glaringly.

With the countrywide municipal elections now less than a month away, the candidates for election as local ward representatives – supposed to be the most intimate level of contact with ordinary citizens – are for the most part nowhere to be seen. Where one would expect candidates’ posters to appear on suburban streets, only the faces of national leaders of parties are to be seen.

The ‘municipal’ election has been turned into a popularity contest between national leaders and a fight over national issues, with national leaders of just about every political party taking central stage in campaigning.

It would be very interesting to know what percentage of voters at this stage know the names of the candidates in the wards where they live – even of the political parties they support.

I, for one, will only bring out a vote for the proportional (party) component of the election and definitely not for a candidate since I, at this stage, have not been informed by any of the parties who its candidate will be. In fact, after four years in the Cape Town ward where I currently live, I do not even know who the sitting representative is.

In fact, when I had a need to communicate with the representative a while ago, I could find no-one who could tell me who the representative is, bar saying they “think” it is a lady from a particular party.

Last week I travelled from Melkbosstrand, on the north western border of the metro to Newlands, almost on the southern border, passing through several wards. Not a single candidate’s poster or one addressing a municipal issue were to be seen. Judged by the posters that were displayed, we are heading for an election of a national leader.

Broader phenomenon

But this phenomenon of the diminished role and profile of elected or to be elected representatives is not unique to South Africa, neither is it restricted to local government representatives.

Looking back on the developments leading up to the referendum result two weeks ago in Britain, taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union – the so-called Brexit – some analysts have predicted, and now ascribe it in part, to the political alienation that has developed between ordinary voters and their representatives concerning decisions taken in Brussels.

In an opinion piece in the UK’s The Guardian the following statement was made last week about Brexit: “But even these understated the extent to which the role of parliamentarians has been eroded in the British political system.”

But this alienation also finds expression in declining voter turnouts across the globe. An article last week on the website US News reported that the average voter turnout in all presidential and parliamentary elections across the globe since 2010 is 66% according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

Although, on a 73.5% voter turnout in the 2014 general election not yet as bad as the UK’s 66.1% (2015) and the US’s 42.5% (2014) or Egypt’s 28.3%, at the bottom of the pile in 2015, the trend in South Africa is heading in the same direction. Voter turnout peaked in1999 general election at 89.28% coming down at every election thereafter.

Parallel process

Parallel to this process of declining voter engagement there is a worldwide increase of extra-democratic actions among populations. A major 2015 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that “Major protests have occurred around the world with increasing frequency since the second half of the 2000s”.

As if talking about present day South African political leadership, the report states: “A striking element of the responses to recent protests is the frequency and regularity with which leaders now blame foreigners for the protests. This reflects, among other factors, leaders’ inability to believe that there exists in their countries genuine civic sectors with legitimate, independent voices.”

While South Africa in recent years has been plagued by ‘service delivery’ protests  a recent opinion piece in Business Day noted that compared “to previous years when service delivery protests subsided with electioneering in full swing, things are different this time around”.

It then quoted from a telling 2012 survey by The Economist in seven European countries, saying “more than half of voters had no trust whatsoever in government”.

Dangerous SA development

Against this background it is crucial that those aspiring to positions in governing structures, including opposition parties, should take note of how, especially supporters of the ANC, reacted when they felt the party leadership rode roughshod over their expressed democratic preferences for certain representatives.

The violent nature of the protest that followed might just be a precursor to low voter turnouts and more violence after the 3 August election.

And, just this past weekend, a further five people died in KZN, including another AC ward candidate.

It has become critically important for the survival of democracy in the country that candidates not only “show their faces” now, but especially that when elected, they stay in constant touch with, and accountable to, those who came to the polling booth.

I, for one, would be delighted to be able to attend at least one report-back meeting by whoever of the presently anonymous candidates gets elected in my ward. It will go some way towards restoring my belief in the present system of government.

Also read: Greater test for SA’s democracy comes after 3 August

                   As politicians enfranchise themselves voters become disenfranchised


by Piet Coetzer

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