Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Politics

The Quality of South Africa S Electoral Accountability 1994-2014: Freedom, Flaws and Food Parcels

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Politics

The Quality of South Africa S Electoral Accountability 1994-2014: Freedom, Flaws and Food Parcels

Article excerpt

i Introduction

In April 1994 South Africa's first non-racial multiparty election took place. It marked an official end to the country's segregationist and authoritarian past and ushered in a new democracy, delivering not only the universal franchise but also formal equality before the law, avenues for citizen participation in governance and statutory institutions buttressing democracy (Muthien, Khosa and Magubane 2000). Twenty years later, on the 7th May 2014, South Africa fully consolidated its status as a young democracy when it witnessed its fifth national and provincial elections. All elections thus far have been declared 'free and fair' by a host of international and national election observers,2 but does this label necessarily reflect substantive electoral accountability in the country? In other words, to what degree have elections been free and fair and to what extent has the electoral system supported the deepening of democracy in South Africa over the past twenty years?

Electoral accountability, expressed through the act of free and fair elections and the contribution of political parties to the electoral process, is innate in a representative democracy.* * 3 So important are elections that, as Lindberg (2006, 1) notes, "Every modern definition of representative democracy includes participatory and contested elections perceived as the legitimate procedure for translation of rule by the people into workable executive and legislative power." After all, "it is through the ability of citizens, at regular elections, to retain or dismiss their elected representatives ... that the principle of popular control is made flesh" (Beetham, Byrne, Ngan and Weir 2002, 85). Through elections, citizens can make demands on their leaders which in turn implies the obligation that elected political leaders have to behave properly and lawfully or answer to the voters for their political decisions (Diamond and Morlino 2005). Political parties simplify the choices the public has to make by offering broad policies and different sets of politicians to choose between and in this way strengthen electoral accountability (Beetham et al. 2002).

However, it has also been noted that the holding of elections does not necessarily translate into good quality democracy. That is, while electoral democracies might be classified as democratic by virtue of the existence of elections, this does not guarantee that all traditional attributes of democracy are being adhered to (Bratton and van de Walle 1997). They may, in truth, be lacking in respect of a number of societal freedoms, such as poor civil liberties regimes, limited societal toleration, corruption, crime and violence.

In light of this scholars have increasingly turned their attention to ascertaining how well countries are sustaining their democracies by assessing the quality of their democracy (see, for example, Altman and Perez-Linan 2002, 85-100; Morlino 2011). Questions of degree are asked as to the various strengths and weaknesses that exist with the goal of determining how democracies can be improved and deepened (Beetham 2004; Beetham, Carvalho, Landman and Weir 2008). That is, to what degree are state democratic procedures experienced and the essential democratic principles realised? (Baker 1999, 273-274). For example, to what degree is the government committed to democratic values or to what extent do women and minorities participate in the politics of the state? This element of 'degree' helps to capture the overall quality of democracy within a state.

2 The quality of south Africa's electoral accountability

In examining the quality of South Africa's electoral accountability, this article examines the extent to which elections are held in a regular, universal, free and fair manner as well as the extent to which the existing party system is able to assist in the working of democracy. The criteria for assessment are derived from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance's State of Democracy Framework (International IDEA 2010) and Leonardo Morlino's Tool for Empirical Research on Democratic Qualities (Morlino 2011). …

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