Marius Roodt: Maybe it is time to start thinking about an electoral threshold - News24

The news that the new mayor of Johannesburg, Thapelo Amad, comes from Al Jama-Ah, a party which won barely one percent of the vote in the city in the 2021 local government elections, has been met with consternation from some quarters. Many people wonder how a person from such a small party can now be the head of the city's executive.

The news that the new mayor of Johannesburg, Thapelo Amad, comes from Al Jama-Ah, a party which won barely one percent of the vote in the city in the 2021 local government elections, has been met with consternation from some quarters. Many people wonder how a person from such a small party can now be the head of the city's executive. 

At the same time, the post of speaker, another vital position in the city government, is held by a representative of COPE, a party that won only 0.2% of the vote in the last local government election in the country's biggest city.

Some may argue that Amad, and speaker Colleen Makhubele, are simply pawns in a bigger political game as the ANC and its allies work to regain political power in places where it has been lost, such as Johannesburg. At the same time, others will question how individuals from parties with such low levels of support can be thrust into such vital positions.

Incorporation of electoral thresholds 

Part of the reason is South Africa's proportional representation (PR) electoral system. PR systems are common around the world and widely regarded as among the fairest electoral systems in operation, as they are designed to ensure that the overall number of seats a party gains in the relevant legislature closely matches the proportion of the vote it receives. This is unlike the Westminster system (also known as the first-past-the-post system) where the party that wins the most votes in a constituency represents that seat in the legislature. This system often results in distorted outcomes, with the proportion of seats won by a party often being different from the proportion of the vote it secured.

While the PR system is used around the world, what is also common is the incorporation of electoral thresholds in these systems. These determine that that parties must win a minimum level of support to earn representation in the legislature. 

South Africa has something of a 'natural' threshold of about 0.2% (for the National Assembly), but there is no formal or legal threshold, which is common abroad.

For example, in Germany a party must win at least five percent of the overall national vote, or three directly elected constituency seats, to gain representation in the Bundestag. This threshold was first introduced in the 1950s in West Germany, partly to prevent the election of extremist parties as well as to prevent party fragmentation, which had played at least some part in the instability experienced by the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and 1930s.

New Zealand has a similar threshold, and most countries around the world that use a PR electoral system have some sort of threshold, normally between one and five percent. Israel, for example, has a threshold of 3.25%, while Denmark has one of 2%.

But thresholds can also be abused. Until recently, Turkey had a threshold of 10%, which was set so high primarily to keep parties supported by the Kurdish minority out of the country's parliament.

Enormous influence 

The lack of a threshold in South Africa allows parties with relatively low levels of support to secure legislative representation and often gain enormous influence in coalitions, which are now increasingly a fact of South African political life.

But perhaps it is time for South Africa to at least consider thresholds set at a relatively low level (perhaps one percent), to enable a multiplicity of voices to be heard, while ensuring that legislative bodies are not so fractured that nothing can be done.

Consider the example of eThekwini. In the 2021 local government election, 25 parties did well enough to win seats on the 222-seat municipal council. However, of those, a whopping 19 parties secured seats with less than one percent of the vote, ranging from the Active Citizens Coalition, which won 0.9% of the vote, to our old friends from Johannesburg, Al Jama-Ah, which secured 0.2% of the vote.

While the vote in Johannesburg was not as fractured, in that city of the 18 parties that won seats on the city council, nine did so with less than one percent of the vote. This included COPE, which won enough support for only one seat on the 270-seat council, but as noted above, enough to enable a COPE councillor to become the city council's speaker, an extremely influential and powerful position.

Some people will argue that having a threshold is fundamentally undemocratic and that as many voices as possible should be accommodated in the legislature. This may be true, but it is not unreasonable for parties to demonstrate a minimum level of support for them to secure representation in a legislature.

Coalitions at national level

In the 2019 general election over 300 000 votes were cast for more than 30 parties that did not win enough support to secure a seat in the National Assembly. Nobody would argue that the people who voted for these parties were disenfranchised because their chosen party did not win enough support to win a seat in the national legislature.

In a democracy, you have the right to vote for any party you like – however, you or the party that you support does not enjoy the right to be represented in a legislature if it fails to win a certain minimum level of support.

As our politics continues to fracture and with the ANC no longer enjoying the support of the majority of South Africans, situations like those in Johannesburg and eThekwini, where no single party has enough support to govern alone, will become common. The day is not far off when no party enjoys a majority in the National Assembly, and a coalition at national level will be necessary. This also means that the day is perhaps coming soon where a party with the support of relatively few voters, but which acts as a kingmaker, has a level of influence that is out of sync with its level of support.

That all said, the introduction of electoral thresholds will not be a silver bullet to fix our politics. It may go some way to reducing the influence of fringe interests and parties with low levels of support but many of our larger parties have shown that the needs of citizens and residents are secondary to what party apparatchiks want. Does anyone really believe that Amad was voted in as the mayor of Johannesburg with the support of the ANC and the EFF because they believed he was someone who could fix the serious challenges facing South Africa’s biggest city?

Implementing electoral thresholds may go some way to fixing some of the problems in our politics, but it is also up to our politicians to put citizens first. And ultimately, it is up to voters to not support parties and politicians who do not have the best interests of South Africans at heart.

- Marius Roodt is a writer and senior analyst at the Institute of Race Relations.