Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Merits of Presidential Democracy
John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute of Race Relations writes a solid op-ed piece in the Business Day today where he discusses the merits of direct public voting for presidential candidiates, regardless of party.

His opinion, which I tend to agree with, is that direct voting of this sort will actually diminish accountability and democratic principles, the very characteristics its proponents hope to improve. Kane-Berman writes:
This is where accountability comes in and why parliamentary democracy is preferable to presidential democracy.

The US president, once in office, is virtually untouchable. Congress holds the purse strings and can thwart him in various ways, but he is not accountable to it. Nor is his cabinet. Congress has no means of removing him by a political process but only via the quasi-judicial process of impeachment.

In a parliamentary democracy, by contrast, the executive is directly accountable to, and can at any time be removed by, parliament, as noted in this column a fortnight ago.

For SA to shift to direct presidential election would almost certainly diminish accountability. It could even kill off Parliament as anything but a rubber stamp for legislation written by the executive. Given the critical importance of accountability as an ongoing process, and as part of the day-to-day mechanisms of government, what SA needs is a parliament that is stronger in relation to the executive arm of the government, not weaker.
The problem, naturally, is that our parliamentary strength is not that robust. With the vast majority of Parliamentarians being drawn from the ruling party, and with ANC party lines being so strong, there is little dissent from Parliament.

As Kane-Berman points out, there are two areas that need to improve; Parliamentary strength and provincial democracy strength.

Kane-Berman does make on statement that I don't agree with though:
The issue is complicated by all the noise surrounding the election by the ANC of its president at the end of the year. For the ANC to choose anyone other than Thabo Mbeki would have fascinating consequences, not least because it would be tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in him as president of the country. It would also be fascinating if Mbeki, when his term as president of the country is up, were to remain on as party president.
In my view, this is incorrect commentary. There is a precedent within the ANC, set by Nelson Mandela, that the ANC President gives way to the new annointed President after two terms, thus giving the prospective incoming state President the chance to gather the party and develop policy. When the Eastern Cape branch of the ANC suggested earlier in the year that Mbeki should stay on for the third term as ANC party president, there was much rumbling and consternation amongst other ANC branches. This is not the norm, and to state that not voting in Mbeki for a third party presidential term "would be tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in him as president of the country" is, in my opinion, flawed.