New challenges

2009-05-12 00:00

IF the general elections that are held every five years are the political equivalent of a military set-piece battle, then by-elections are the skirmishes that occur between small units at the front line of the conflict. Like their military equivalent, by-elections are rarely significant in themselves, but taken cumulatively they can provide pointers to the bigger political contest that is to come.

In South Africa a relatively large number of by-elections take place every month for the right to represent municipal wards in the various local government councils, which indicates the contested nature of the political terrain.

Before the 2011 local government election is upon us, it is worth pausing to consider what trends might be apparent from the 70-odd contested by-elections that have been held since June 2009, when among several other councils Msunduzi chose a new ward councillor for Ward 25. Since June, by-elections have taken place across the country in eight of the nine provinces, in all six metros and in a host of smaller municipalities ranging from Parys to Pofadder. Nearly 150 000 voters have participated, which is not far off the 192 000 who voted in 2006 in these same wards.

Unlike general elections, by-elections are mainly contested by those political parties that feel that they have a definite chance of winning or that feel some larger strategic objective is served by being visible to the voters in a particular ward. Parties usually feel obliged to defend wards that they won previously while they can exercise a choice as to which of their opponents’ wards they wish to target based on local circumstances.

The African National Congress (ANC) fielded candidates in most of these nearly 70 wards, with the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Congress of the People (Cope) contesting 30 each, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 25 and the smaller parties three or four each.

The actual voter numbers are not a proper basis for comparison as different circumstances operate in by-elections, but one statistic is extremely relevant and that is the percentage of the vote that is won by a party. Voter numbers may rise or fall from a national election to a by-election, but the percentage of the vote won is comparable from one election to another and from the local government election of 2006 to the 2009 by-election in a particular ward.

The DA can look forward to 2011 with a degree of optimism. Alone among the big parties, it has increased its average percentage share of the vote in a substantial majority of the wards that it has contested — 25 out of the 30. The ANC has enjoyed mixed success, increasing its share of the vote in most of the IFP wards in KwaZulu-Natal, but also losing voter share in some 30 by-elections where it has competed with the DA or Cope. The IFP has had a year that it would like to forget and its voter share has declined in 13 of the wards that it contested even though it still emerged as the winner in nearly a dozen wards. Cope has flattered much but delivered little — only one major win (in the East Rand metro, Ekurhuleni) and averaging only around 13% of the vote in all the wards that it has contested.

What then can a crystal-ball gazer make of 2011 based on these by-election results? If the DA can win wards off the ANC as it did in Atlantis in Cape Town, it will make for a fiercely contested terrain across all the metros and a number of the other larger municipalities­. The DA has also demonstrated in Mpumalanga the capacity to increase its vote to nearly 40% in a former ANC stronghold. Only the DA and the ANC can realistically win control of these large municipalities, with all other parties either supporting or frustrating their efforts. The Independant Democrats (ID), for instance, can still win some wards in the Western and Northern Cape but it will have to co-operate with the DA to play a larger role in future­.

The IFP faces a bleak 2011 result with its capacity to win controlling shares of municipalities steadily declining across KZN. Even in municipalities such as Newcastle where it was previously a force to be reckoned with, it is faced with further erosion of support and its strongholds in rural­ KZN are under threat from the ANC.

Cope must decide where to concentrate its efforts to achieve its best result. Taking on the DA in DA-supporting wards does not seem to be appreciated by opposition voters who want the focus to be on winning support away from the ANC. The party has done well in some Northern Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo and Free State wards, but it will need to make a conscious decision to deploy its resources where they matter.

By-elections are, at best, merely a predictor of general trends and the whole of 2010 has yet to unfold politically, but it is reasonable to predict already that the campaign for 2011 has begun and the political­ temperature will continue to rise.

•  Mark Steele is a Democratic Alliance member of Parliament.

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