Strong legislatures, alongside free and fair elections, are the bedrock of representational democracies. This importance is predicated on Parliaments as houses of elected representatives who, at least in theory, “re-present” the interests of the electorate and, in so doing, provide a counter-weight to the executive’s powers over the state apparatus.
On the African continent, colonialism bequeathed a legacy of repressive governance and weak institutions; it also forced disparate groups into single nations. Apart from limiting executive powers, legislatures should therefore have been important also for establishing deliberative forums for the mediation of conflicts within these diverse populations. Indeed, over the last five decades Parliaments established in post-colonial Africa have, to some extent, served deliberative functions, while their track records as institutions for public policy making has not been as strong, and their oversight role undermined by powerful executives.
The articles in this issue of Perspectives seek to reflect on the extent to which African legislatures have taken steps that mark their shift from being the “weakest link” of government to stronger, independent institutions. In essence, we ask – do African Parliaments really occupy the privileged position accorded to them in representational democracies? Are legislatures serving Africa’s democratic project, and if so, how well? Are the continent’s legislatures elite ventures, or do they allow the voices of “the people” into spaces of power?
At least on one level, the articles show that African legislatures have embarked on a new path. Mattes, Mozaffer and Barkan argue in their contribution that over the past two decades legislatures in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa have taken steps to develop into institutions capable of fulfilling representative, legislative and oversight functions. This has included the, often uneven, emergence of committee systems to shadow ministers and the building of professional staff. African legislatures increasingly scrutinise and amend bills, and in a limited way, involve civil society, especially where large urban sectors exist.
However, as reflected by other contributions (including that on Kenya), resources do not necessarily build genuine political will to represent citizens’ interests and countervail executive powers. Internationally, as our contributor Zwelethu Jolobe argues, the rise of strong and centralised political parties, interest groups, the media, corporate power, and an increasingly specialised policy-making machinery have eroded legislatures’ power. The rise of the “Occupy” movement in the US, and the popularity of “anti-establishment” political parties such as “The Pirates” in Germany, demonstrate, among other things, that in the so-called developed world, despite all its resources, legislatures are increasingly seen as non-participatory or the extension of an indifferent elite.
For African Parliaments, who largely serve impoverished constituencies and must still establish themselves as the “sine-qua-non” of democracies in the eyes of citizens, this raises important challenges. How could we re-imagine Africa’s legislatures so that they better bridge the gap between citizens and elites? How can legislatures more robustly contribute to institutionalising democracies? South Africa and Kenya’s constitutional requirements that legislatures contribute to participatory and not just representative democracies, indicate shifting conceptions of how legislatures should relate to citizens.
Relationships between citizens and legislators, and the electoral systems that govern them, underpin another important question threaded through this edition. Proportional representation (PR) systems give political party leadership extensive powers over members of parliament, and in so doing lessen the importance of constituency services while emphasising adherence to party political positions and agendas. Constituency systems, on the other hand, favour community services at the expense of “institutional” legislative and oversight agendas. In 2009, a high level report on South Africa’s Parliament strongly argued that mixing the country’s pure PR closed-list system with a constituency system is essential for strengthening Parliament. In this issue, paradoxically, the critique of Kenya’s Parliament indicates that stronger party discipline is needed to replace narrow sectarian interests; and Mattes et al. suggest that the most important breed of parliamentarians are those who prize ‘institutional’ work over their standing in particular voting districts. Both these features – partisan discipline and an ‘institutional’ work focus are discouraged by constituency systems.
Mattes et al. argue that the more Africa’s legislatures develop their capacity to robustly engage with legislation, the more civil society and citizens’ interest in them grows. Public engagement with Parliaments through participation and monitoring is vital. Electoral systems, technical capacity and institutional arrangements are only a part of the picture. At least as important is the capacity of citizens to “own” their Parliaments: to keep alive the notion that legislatures are to ensure that state power serves the public good.