Allowing citizens to decide whether or not to extend a government’s tenure through regular elections is the principal mechanism of political accountability. It compels politicians to be more responsive to the electorate’s needs. Citizens use their vote to choose better governments and to structure incentives for the incumbents that should induce them to behave while in office. This paper explores these different aspects of voter behaviour to assess whether elections are an effective accountability mechanism in South Africa.
The paper finds that:
While voters are willing to withdraw support from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party if they disapprove of its performance, they are unlikely to move their support to another party.
Sanctioning government performance in the traditional sense is weak, makingpolitical accountability through elections more elusive.
The way political accountability currently manifests itself in the South African political system seems to encourage the entrenchment of one-party dominance, further reducing incentives for responsive and accountable governance by the incumbent party.
The influence of racial party images on partisanship has endured over time because voters’ images of political parties have changed very little in the first years of democracy.
The paper concludes with the following implications:
South Africa will remain characterised by a dominant party system in the medium term.
If elections are to act as a meaningful vehicle for popular control of government, people must be willing to look retrospectively at past performance and base their vote on whether they are satisfied with what government is delivering between elections.
Voters must also be prepared to move their support elsewhere, implying that they must perceivably have some degree of electoral choice.
Although citizens do sanction the behavior of incumbents in a rational manner bywithdrawing support, it rarely translates into support for the competition, further entrenching of the incumbents.
Many voters may recognise that the incumbent party has performed poorly on a number of fronts, but voting them out of office is not rational if opposition parties are deemed to be worse choices.
Political parties that have minimal support should broaden their appeal and moderate policy choices in the direction of what the electorate really wants.
As a party stays in government for prolonged periods of time, citizens are likely to become dissatisfied with the political system, and democracy itself, if they feel there is little chance of exercising accountability over elected leaders.