The role of political parties and elections in consolidating democracy in societies, with special reference to contemporary South Africa

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Today it is universally accepted not only that political parties contesting elections in order to gain the authority to rule is the hallmark of any representative democracy, but also that these institutions act as major actors in consolidating democracy in the aftermath of the elections. In this regard South Africa is no exception. Since the transition to a constitutional democracy in 1994 South Africa has had five general elections in which a large number of political parties participated. During the first general election in 1994 19 political parties participated nationally. This number rose to 29 during the latest general election in 2014. These political parties have also participated during this relatively lengthy period to a greater or lesser extent in consolidating the new inclusive democracy. Despite the fact that the particular electoral system applied during these elections displayed shortcomings, these impediments were apparently not sufficient to derail the process in its entirety.

It is important to point out that although this article has as its primary aim the role of political parties and elections in consolidating democracy in societies, several other factors play an equally vital role in this process. In this regard reference should particularly be made to factors such as the experience of society during the transition to democracy; the existence of a democratic political culture (“democracy becomes the only game in town”); the economic system (not a command economy or capitalism but social democracy); a versatile state bureaucracy; and the constitutional dispensation (a constitutional state).

The phenomenon of political parties and political elections in their modern appearance originated in Europe, Britain and the USA during the 19th century. In the USA this development took place despite the fact that the founding persons of that state actively discouraged the formation of such institutions. Eventually, however, it was the USA’s two-party system that largely created its democracy and has contributed towards consolidating it ever since.

With the onset of the 20th century the phenomenon of political parties contesting elections in order to gain the authority to rule spread throughout the world. During the post-colonial period and the “third democratic wave” large numbers of new states appeared on the international scene. However, political parties in these new states differed sharply from their European and American predecessors. Most often these institutions were formed on the basis of relations or agreements between traditional, ethnic, tribal, regional or religious groups. Sometimes these parties were partially political and partially military. Furthermore, the elections held in many of these new states were characterised by electoral fraud, electoral manipulation and vote-rigging.

A development of special significance was the use of political parties and political elections by socialist and communist states. However, consolidating democracy in these states was never seriously considered. Each measure adopted had only a single aim, namely the reinforcement and strengthening of the undemocratic socialist authoritarian order. Indicative is the fact that only a single party was allowed to participate in elections in these systems of absolute rule.

In the recent past many democratic societies have elected political parties and leaders who would dismally fail in their efforts to fulfil the promises made during election campaigns. The rise of cartel parties in particular has contributed toward this development. These parties have not acted as agents of society but have wilfully mobilised the resources of the state in a collusive manner in order to retain their position in the political system. Even South Africa has suffered this fate.

The South African experience with political parties, elections and political leaders unable or unwilling to fulfil promises made, is shared by many other societies on the African continent. Indeed, such has been the adverse impact of the system of neopatrimonialism practised by political leaders in these societies that it has even been compared by some analysts to the legacy of colonialism.

The negative experiences by millions of voters in democratic systems worldwide as a result of the actions by political parties during and in the aftermath of elections have also led to an alienation between electorates, parties and elections. This development is also discernible in contemporary South Africa.

Despite the weaknesses of parties as well as the fact that the most recent democratic indices by both the Economist Intelligence Unit (2017) and Freedom House (2018) indicated that democracy is currently in decline worldwide, most of the world’s population is today living in democracies. Even although political parties and elections have been described by some observers as “inextricable weed in the otherwise neatly tailored democratic garden”, democracy cannot function without them.

With special reference to contemporary South Africa, this paper assesses the role of political parties and political elections in consolidating democracy in societies.

The approach is as follows: First, a theoretical foundation is provided that will serve as a lens through which the research question will be assessed.

Secondly, the article addresses the most important factors and trends identified by researchers in the international system that negatively affect the role of political parties and elections in consolidating democracy in societies.

Thirdly, the article focuses on those factors and trends identified by researchers in the African sub-system in particular that negatively affect the role played by political parties and elections in consolidating democracy in societies.

Fourthly, the focus shifts to the role played by political parties in consolidating democracy in South African society in particular. The investigation highlights factors such as the nature of political parties; the various types of party systems; the types of political parties; the manner in which voters exercise their political party choices; the functions of political parties; the location of power in political parties; the various types of personality profiles displayed by leaders of political parties; and the leadership styles applied by political leaders.

Fifthly, the role of elections and voting behaviour in consolidating democracy in South African society is assessed. The following factors are highlighted: the nature of elections; the importance and functions of elections; the alienation between electorates, parties and elections; the various types of electoral systems; the South African electoral system; the criticism against the South African electoral system; and the probability that the South African electoral system may be replaced or amended.

The paper concludes with a summary of the findings.

On the basis of the assessment made in this study it is possible to conclude that political parties in contemporary South Africa have played an important role not only in the transition to an inclusive democracy but also in consolidating that dispensation for almost a quarter of a century. Indicative are the following facts:

  • All parties actively participated over many years in the negotiating process that eventually led to the creation of the new constitutional democracy.
  • All parties have actively participated in the general elections held since the transition.
  • All parties have actively performed their articulating, socialising, balancing, activating, channelling and recruiting functions.
  • The majority of leaders of the ruling party as well as the official opposition have displayed personality characteristics typifying the democratic personality and the negotiator.
  • The majority of leaders of the leading political parties have displayed leadership styles epitomising transactional and transformational leaders.

However, political parties have not always had a positive impact on consolidating democracy in South African society. On the contrary, these institutions may even have contributed toward “de-democratisation” or “democratic backsliding”, given that:

  • the Constitution does not expressly make provision for the status, rights, obligations and functions of political parties
  • the party system is indicative of a dominant party system
  • the ruling party and a few opposition parties possessing a two thirds majority in the national legislature have displayed characteristics that epitomises cadre, catch-all, cartel, left-wing, populist and revolutionary (anti-system) parties
  • the ruling party is supported largely by voters exercising their partisan choices in a manner that typifies the party-identification, the sociological as well as the dominant-ideology models
  • all political parties are being affected by the iron law of oligarchy.

The general elections held since 1994 have also played an important role in consolidating democracy in South African society. However, two significant shortcomings have manifested themselves. Firstly, the electorate failed during the past four general elections to effectively hold the political leadership to account regarding the provision of security and the delivery of those goods and services vitally necessary for the creation of a stable environment in which socio-economic development can flourish. The scope and consequences of this neglect is evidenced not only by the security and socio-economic predicament in which South Africa finds itself currently, but also by the sharp decline in voter turnout during elections.

Secondly, the closed party list electoral system as applied in South Africa have not satisfied all the essential requirements pertaining to electoral systems in representative democracies. Some of these shortcomings are of such a nature that the system should actually be replaced or amended. However, given the advantages derived by the ruling party from this particular electoral system, as well as the fact that these advantages are apparently being condoned by the electorate, the chances of its being amended or replaced are very slim.

Keywords: consolidating democracy; democracy; elections; electoral systems; inclusive democracy; political parties; political party systems


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die rol van politieke partye en verkiesings in die konsolidering van demokrasie in samelewings, met spesiale verwysing na eietydse Suid-Afrika

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