Elected representatives should abide by their voters

A vote for a party does not mean agreement for all its positions. As such, politicians should be listening to the people who elected them, not following their consciences.

In many disputes that divide South Africa’s mainstream politics, it is safe to assume that all sides are wrong.

An example is a current dispute about the role of political parties. It began at the Zondo commission where a series of hearings were designed to show that the governing party does not exercise oversight over its ministers. This seems to have struck a chord with talking heads on the airwaves, most of whom like nothing more than a good echo of what other commentators are saying. It is becoming common for them to gripe that politicians are loyal to their party, not to their “conscience”. 

In response to the Zondo hearings, ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte complained that the judge and witnesses did not understand the importance of party discipline. She said that, as voters had given the ANC a mandate to govern, its representatives should do what the party wants them to do.

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The common thread between all these views is that while all would insist that they are democrats, none seem concerned with the core of democracy, that political decisions should reflect the wishes and perspectives of the people. 

Duarte has, predictably, been painted as the “bad guy”. She has been forced to apologise to Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo for taking him to task after he complained that oversight seemed to be left to opposition parties because the governing party was not interested in exercising it. And she has been condemned by just about anyone who has a platform in the media. One reason is the rules of South Africa’s public debate: denouncing the government is a ticket to respectability. The other is that what she argued for deserves to be condemned.

Fig leaf

Her article was a defence of “democratic centralism”, which has been a fig leaf for at least a century for undemocratic behaviour by people who claim to be on the Left. The idea, introduced by Leninist parties, is that once decisions are taken by the party leadership, all members and office bearers must defend it publicly and work for it. It is easy to see why this is centralism. It is also supposedly democratic because, in theory, everyone participates in the decision. 

In practice, there is nothing democratic about democratic centralism, wherever it is practised. Decisions are taken by small groups, usually without consulting the people on whose behalf they are said to be taken. Binding everyone to defend the outcome excludes the people for a second time, because it ensures that the decision cannot be debated.

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The fact that large numbers of people voted for the party that does this, does not make it any more democratic. A vote for a party simply signals who each voter wants to govern. There are very few voters who support every policy position a party takes. Most people support a party because it is closest to what they think. And so we can never assume that, because people voted for a party, they support any particular view that it takes.  

Much that parties decide on between elections is not covered by the positions they adopt in the campaign, making it even more of a problem to assume that the decision is what most of the people want. Duarte’s view is a licence for politicians to decide for those for whom they claim to speak.

Superior beings

But the chorus of disdain for Duarte ignores the fact that the other side of the argument also shows no sympathy for decision-making by the people.

Insisting that elected politicians follow their conscience sounds appealing, particularly when the issue is corruption. But who decides what a representative’s conscience should tell them? We would all agree that stealing or wasting public money violates conscience. But some (usually very well off) people claim taxes are theft because they take from the deserving rich and give to the undeserving poor. Some claim that spending on the needs of people living in poverty is wasteful, or that it is immoral to protect workers’ rights and particularly sinful to favour women and Black people to undo the effects of bigotry. So conscience might mean looking after the people. But it might also mean doing what wealthy people without a social conscience believe is fair.

“Elected politicians must follow their conscience, not the party” really means that they should do what people like the speaker want, whether or not that is what people who voted for them want. This view takes its cue from Edmund Burke, the Irish conservative who insisted that, as an elected representative, he should do what he felt was just, whatever his voters thought. 

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Burke believed people voted for candidates not because they wanted them to speak for them but because they recognised them as superior beings who would know better what needed to be done. There is a striking similarity between this and commentators who want to decide what representatives’ consciences should tell them.

One view presented to Zondo was a little less obviously hostile to democracy. It took representatives to task not for taking particular positions but for not reading documents, asking questions and the like. A discussion followed on whether clever technical tweaks could be used to change this. 

Strong oversight

What this ignored is that there have been times in this country’s Parliament when ANC members of Parliament (MPs) did exercise strong oversight over the government. This happened towards the end of the Thabo Mbeki government, when his opponents wanted to make life as difficult for him as possible in an attempt to force him out. It lasted long enough into the Jacob Zuma era to prompt the then ANC leadership to shift committee chairs into new jobs so that they no longer made life difficult for ministers. 

So, whether ANC MPs hold the government to account is about politics, not ability. This makes technical tweaks pointless, but the view behind them is worth noting: if democracy is not working as it should, the solution is not a different sort of politics but solutions designed by those who know what is best.

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A vote for a party does not mean agreement for all its positions, but it does show a preference and, in a democracy, the people’s preferences trump all else. Elected representatives should not be following their “conscience”, they should be doing what their voters want. If that happens, it will be the result of politics, not the wishes or technical solutions of those who say that democracy is their right to decide for others.

None of these views sees the real problem, which is the gap between voters and those they elect. The central role that Duarte wants for parties would be democratic if decisions reflected what the party’s voters wanted. But they don’t. The problem is not that representatives don’t vote their conscience or do their jobs properly. It is that what they do does not respond to what the people they claim to represent want.

South African democracy’s problem is that most people have little say over what those they elect do. The answer is not to rule by party apparatchiks, empowered middle-class commentators or constitutional engineers armed with new theories. It is a much greater say by the people in what is done in their name.

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