Tales from a parliamentary republic: South Africa

, by Jordan Barry

Tales from a parliamentary republic: South Africa
Federica Mogherini at a meeting with Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the South African Minister Of International Relations and Cooperation. Photo: European External Action Service / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I could write about how the perfect European federation would be modelled on the United States of America; after all, I have deep personal ties to the other side of the Atlantic and have studied their Constitution in depth. But Europe has a history of parliamentary democracy and it’s something we’re all fond of, so where then do we look for inspiration in creating our new continent? Does Germany have the answers? Maybe Canada knows something we don’t. Or perhaps we could turn to an unlikely candidate for ideas, South Africa. Before you start commenting on its relative political instability or potential corruption, hear me out.

Unlike many other parliamentary democracies, the Republic of South Africa has one person acting as both Head of State and Head of Government elected by the National Assembly (the lower house). This works well with our aim of merging the presidencies of the European Council and Commission, and it also ensures that the executive must maintain the confidence of Parliament in order to govern. Crucially, there is one key advantage of this over a US-style presidency: there shall be no gridlock between the Commission and Parliament. This flaw haunts the US political system time and again, and has contributed to the rise of populism as well as understandably fuelling a disconnect between the people and its politicians. People just don’t like watching governments achieve nothing. Consequently, the ability for the Commission and Parliament to be able to dismiss one another and receive a new mandate is vital to ensuring a smoothly running political system.

Whilst South Africa is not a de jure federation, it could be looked at as a de-facto one. Nine provinces are given control over agriculture, education, health, housing and other policy to ensure a clear division of powers between the national and provincial governments. Each legislature of the province is able to select six delegates for the National Council whilst the Governments select four delegates each to enable the representation of both the legislatures and executives of each province. In relation to Europe, this would be the equivalent of merging the European Council and the Council of the EU with an inclusion of national parliaments in the European Federation.

A strong upper house will enable representation of smaller states in the Federation, which is of key importance given that Europe has one of the largest differences in population between its smallest and largest state (Germany is over 180 times more populous than Malta). What this would then enable is the transformation of the current European Parliament away from degressive proportionality and towards a one-person-one-vote system potentially with a transnational list – however, MEPs should always be accountable to a specific geographic area, not the entire federation.

We must remember, though, that this is not a radical change from the current political system of the European Union, merely a reorganisation into something more coherent, understandable and accessible. It will maintain the voice of the national governments in decision making as well as even extending this voice to their respective legislatures, and guarantees this to all states equally. It allows for the Commission to gain its legitimacy from the Parliament where both branches can dismiss one another to prevent gridlock – strengthening the Spitzenkandidat process. Finally, we can have one President that all citizens can say has democratic legitimacy and can be removed easily if necessary.

South Africa may not be the first country you think of as a model for the political future of Europe but rest assured its Constitution sets out a fine example of de-facto federalism, sound bicameralism, parliamentary democracy and presidential governance.

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