Floor crossing is a system where a parliamentarians votes against their party mandate or moves to another party without losing their seats in parliament. It is a Westminster system has its origin from British House of Commons and was also adopted in various countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and even South Africa.
Some authors who are pro-floor crossing asserts that unlike developing democracies, mature and stable democracies are more tolerant of floor crossing because there is no need to restrict it for the sake of political stability. They argue that matured democracies appreciates freedom of parliamentarians as a matter of democratic principle where parliamentarians derives mandate from the people not political parties. However, those who are against the system argues that it is a betrayal to the voters and reduces the capacity of a political party to advance its policy positions and thus leading to loss of public confidence in political parties. The system has a potential to disrupt effective and efficient political party practices which will ultimately weaken the overall democratic system in the country and negatively affect the democratic stability of the country. The anti-floor crossing views the system as an enabler to patron clientelism in politics where political parties with resources lures members from small parties with promise of lucrative positions.
In 2002, South African Parliament passed the ‘floor-crossing act’, Act No. 22 of 2002. The Act amongst others, allowed members of a political party to leave the party under which they were elected in the previous elections, and either form a new party or join an existing party, without forfeiting their seats. In addition, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Fourth Amendment Bill, 2002, passed into law in February 2003, permitted members of the National Assembly and the provincial legislatures to change their commitment from one party to another, regardless of the fact that the members would have been elected on political party lists. Various political parties were against the system arguing that members of Parliament (MP) are elected by proportional representation, and are nominated by political parties on a closed party list before a general election. Voters thus vote for a political party rather not for an individual MP. There is no independent candidate in Parliament.
Some leaders of various political parties in South Africa labelled floor crossing as “an absolute mockery of parliamentary democracy and results in deception, suspicion, accusation and cheque-book politics”. Those who crossed the floor to other parties at some stage were labelled “crosstitutes”. United Democratic Movement (UDM) was a resolute campaigner against floor crossing system. The UDM unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of floor crossing system. Around April 2003 after 4 UDM MP’s used their conscience and crossed the floor, the leader of the party said “he felt betrayed by the defections of his senior leadership. The decision to challenge the floor-crossing legislation had been almost unanimous in his caucus.” On 15 January 2006 IFP leader Buthelezi said: “Floor-crossing is like the HI virus because it robs the political system of all honour, holding political parties hostage by rendering them unable to discipline their own members. It allows the emergence of careerists, self-serving politicians, which are a very strange breed because they do not honour the sanctity of the vote cast in the ballot box”. I submit that this argument also meant that MP’s cannot be voted through a political party in parliament and decides on their own what to do in parliament and not take mandate from their political parties. In case they decide to abandon their party mandate as part of their conscience they must forfeit their seats.
Floor-crossing is physical abandoning of the Party that brought the MP to parliament and joining another Party but not returning the votes back to the Party. The MP that crossed the flow continue to enjoy parliament perks but not carrying a mandate of the Party that brought him / her to Parliament. It was abolished after the ANC 2007 conference resolved against floor crossing and President Kgalema Motlanthe assented to the constitutional amendment on 6 January 2009.
Is the call for MP’s not to be dictated by party mandate when voting not a revised floor-crossing system? Are the current MP’s not in parliament as per political party list therefore deriving their mandates from their political parties? It is my submission that abandoning party mandate when voting in parliament as an MP is a temporary floor crossing which was labelled a mockery of our democracy by those who were opposing floor crossing and is a system practice by crosstitutes. A call for voting by conscience might be a call to a revised floor-crossing system that was campaigned against by UDM and other political parties.
Member of ANC and SACP
(Writing in personal capacity)