In a recent opinion piece, political analyst Steven Friedman wrongly accuses the Democratic Alliance of “misleading voters about the way the [electoral] system works”. He refers to the party urging voters, especially in Gauteng, against voting for smaller parties, as this will split the vote and allow the ANC to govern. Our message, he says, is “almost entirely false” because a vote for a party that is likely to win a seat in the National Assembly is not a wasted vote.
It is disingenuous of Friedman to suggest we are misleading voters. We realise the importance of a multi-party democracy and that our system is representational. The DA is the first to acknowledge the importance of a strong opposition to the ANC. But this should be a consolidated opposition. A total of 48 parties are registered for the national elections in May and this splits the vote to an extreme extent.
Ultimately only the ANC will benefit from this. Say the ANC received 55% in any given election; imagine how effective a single opposition party will be that gets 40% of the vote. Voters will seize the momentum and, for the first time, see the possibility of removing the ANC from power. Now they know it’s only 15% to go, instead of 25% or 30%. By splitting the vote in 48 pieces, it’s significantly more difficult to unseat the ANC.
Maybe the outcome of unseating the ANC is fundamentally what Friedman is actually scared of. But as an analyst, that should not cloud his thinking about the benefits of a competitive democracy, which the DA sees as very positive for our country.
Citizens do have the right to vote for a party of their choice but voting for a party that will have little to no impact does not make sense in the context of creating a strong opposition. Of course, a single seat can make a big difference. The example of DA forebear Helen Suzman opposing the Apartheid government vigorously from her single seat comes to mind. But today, many small parties are so small they make no impact at all.
What is worse is that many small parties receive votes, and those votes do not get them past the post to win a single seat. That outcome is where votes are wasted. And wasted votes, despite being for the opposition, do not add seats to the opposition collective, which in effect weakens the opposition in Parliament.
In 2014 a total of 29 parties registered to contest the national elections, only 13 garnered enough votes to get at least a seat in Parliament. Only the ANC, DA and EFF managed to get more than 1 million votes each. Together, these parties received 16.6 million of the 18.4 million valid votes cast, and this translates to almost 91% of the votes. The other 10 parties represented in Parliament got 1.5 million votes and the 16 parties not represented received 178,000 votes.
Even Friedman agrees that “if you vote for a party that [will not get a member in Parliament] the ANC might benefit”. Albeit not substantial, these 178,000 votes were indeed wasted. Voters have nothing to show for supporting them, as they have no say in Parliament. They are effectively disenfranchising themselves.
Now, let’s turn to the 10 smaller parties who got 1.5 million votes combined. We would indeed argue that these votes are also wasted. Let’s consider the purpose of being represented in parliament: it’s so that your chosen party can represent your views, not only in the National Assembly, but also in the portfolio committees.
Anyone with a grasp of the work of Parliament realises this is often where the hard work happens. Bills are discussed in the portfolio committees, ministers and entities are accountable to members and impactful reports are considered. It means very little to voters if you are not represented in these committees, or only show up to the so-called high-profile meetings and gatherings in the National Assembly.
Let’s take two examples:
- The APC received only 1 seat in Parliament, with their only member being Mr Nelson Temba Godi. He is a member of only three permanent committees (out of a potential 39 permanent committees) and sat on one ad hoc committee. Despite the relatively low number of committees he sits on, or has made an appearance at, he has an attendance rate of 45% for the entire duration of the fifth Parliament.
- The FF+ has four seats in Parliament and their average attendance rate is 47% for the past five years, with 2016 being their worst year when they attended only 38% of the meetings they were supposed to sit on. They have permanent representation on only four committees and the party’s chief whip Dr Cornelius Mulder has a mere 23% attendance rate. Even more shocking, in 2016 he attended only 6% of meetings (that’s two out of 32 meetings).
But what is more damning, making examples of two smaller parties, is the 2014 vote for the FF+ and ACDP in Provincial Legislatures. In 2014 the FF+ got 165,680 votes across all nine Provincial Legislatures, but only got seats in Gauteng, North West and the Free State. These seats came from 55.8% of the FF+ vote, and 44.2% of all votes for the FF+ went to waste.
Likewise, but even worse, of the 98,597 votes for the ACDP across nine Legislatures, only in the Western Cape did the ACDP win one seat. 76,901 votes for the ACDP were entirely wasted and didn’t result in a single seat, amounting to 78% of ACDP votes being wasted.
This alone proves the theory that votes for smaller parties are wasted, and do not contribute to the opposition benches.
Fundamentally, votes meant for the opposition are wasted, seats are not won, and the ANC is thus emboldened and, effectively, the ANC wins from this.
One can’t even make a sensible argument that these parties are at least representing their voters’ interest. The FF+ claims to represent the interest of farmers, but for the past five years they have had no representation in the portfolio committee for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and could not even attend one meeting. Compare this to the DA: We had at least one member at every single meeting and from March 2015 we consistently had two members present at every meeting.
Similarly, the DA has members on all the portfolio committees and are present at almost every single meeting. On most committees we have at least two members. Last year, our MPs had an average attendance rate of almost 88%.
This is why we urge voters to reconsider voting for smaller parties. It is not because we do not respect the right of voters to choose or because we are “misleading” voters. Over the past 25 years the ANC has shown itself to be a corrupt organisation that places its own interests ahead of the country’s. A strong DA is the only hope we have to defeat the ANC. It’s the only party with enough power to represent all our citizens.
This is a right of reply to a column by Professor Steven Friedman, Don’t let the DA mislead you about the voting system, published on Monday morning.
Natasha Mazzone is the Deputy Chairperson of the DA Federal Council.