The Independent Electoral Commission deadline for the registration of parties and submission of candidate lists came and went yesterday.
The selection of individuals to appear on party lists is the prerogative of political parties. Parties may decide on the internal processes that they undertake to make their selections. And the processes for the appointing of candidates onto lists varies from party to party.
Although voters do not vote for candidates directly but for parties, ultimately it is the voters who ensure the candidates’ election as MPs and members of provincial legislatures.
After the submission of party lists, voters will have the opportunity to scrutinise the lists and ask whether those contained in these represent the agenda, aspirations and values they would like to see in parliament and legislatures.
The IEC must publish party lists in the Government Gazette, publicise them in the media and make copies available for inspection at all its offices, in accordance with the electoral act.
They can evaluate whether they have the skills set, competence, backgrounds and commitment to realise the vision necessary to take the country forward through the legislative mandate.
Voters’ responsibility to know who the individuals on party lists are and the numeric positions they occupy on those lists should not be underplayed.
These are the people who will determine how effective parliament is in fulfilling its mandate to hold the executive arm of government to account. This is the constitutional mandate given to parliament.
But the tension between this constitutional obligation and the political imperative of elected representatives to toe the party line was not made clearer than during the wrangle over security upgrades at Nkandla (former president Jacob Zuma’s private residence).
This, as well as other scandals regarding the influence of the Gupta family over the former president that led to the public protector’s recommendation of a commission into state capture, led to numerous motions of no confidence in Zuma.
During one such motion, a challenge arose regarding the powers of the National Assembly speaker to allow for a secret ballot.
The Constitutional Court held that MPs had the right to vote in accordance with their conscience and that the speaker could allow for a secret ballot to protect MPs from reprisals should their vote go against the party line.
This means that at any moment, the candidates that appear on party lists can be called upon to vote their conscience on matters that may change the trajectory of the country’s future.
Voters have no recourse, even when MPs vote openly, to hold them individually accountable for their actions and decisions in parliament. The choice that the electorate makes during elections is all the more significant.
Beyond not voting for a party whose list may contain people who they deem unfit, citizens can not override the parties’ selections.
The onus is on voters to do their research. It is not enough to merely scrutinise party promises contained in manifestos but to judge parties’ seriousness about fulfilling these promises by looking at the quality of individuals they are putting forward. Doing this would be a demonstration of active citizenship.
Currently, the constitution and the electoral act are silent on requirements for political parties to conduct their vetting of candidates for elections publicly.
In the quest to entrench accountability in South African politics it could be useful to consider whether political parties should not be legally required to conduct the candidate election and vetting processes publicly.
This would enable voters to better compare political parties and judge for themselves which ones live up to the values and principles they proclaim.