n Institute for Security Studies Papers - Elections and accountability in South Africa




This paper explores different aspects of voter behaviour in South Africa to assess whether elections act as an effective accountability mechanism. It particularly examines voters' willingness sanction the incumbent African National Congress government by looking at its past performance and punishing the party by withdrawing electoral support if performance is perceived to be poor. The paper also examines voter perceptions of political parties to establish whether sufficient 'electoral market' exists in order to make selection among numerous political parties a viable option for voters. Finally, it examines cognitive mobilisation among the electorate to establish whether voters are sufficiently politically engaged and interested in politics to move their support elsewhere if they are to sanction government at election time. It shows that, while voters are willing to withdraw support from the incumbent party if they disapprove of its performance, they are unlikely to move their support to another party. Moreover, most voters typically lack the cognitive skills or political information that would enable them to shift their party support on the basis of ongoing party performance or policy positions. The paper concludes that elections as a mechanism to sanction and hold government to account in the traditional sense is weak, making political accountability through elections more elusive. Instead, greater attention should be given to the method of 'selection' as a means to control politicians.


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