Cape Town - With a month to go to the fifth democratic election, opinion polls and predictions are the order of the day.
Most analysts like to use the 2009 election as the benchmark for assessing party growth or decline in today’s polls.
However, the electorate did go to the polls in the local government elections in 2011 when the PR (proportional representation) ballot was the last major test of voter loyalties on a national basis.
In that ballot, the ANC trended downwards from 2009, scoring 62.9% of the vote compared with 65.9% in 2009.
Despite the relatively small 3% swing away from the ruling party this was a worrying drop in support for the ANC.
The real winners in terms of voter growth in 2011 were the DA whose vote bounced from 16.6% in 2009 to an impressive 24.1%. Given the surge in support for the official opposition that occurred in the 24 months between the two polls (and the addition of Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats), the DA began to envisage a clear target of 30% in 2014.
The smaller parties fared poorly.
Congress of the People (Cope) shed the rump of its support base declining from its 2009 7.4% to a paltry 2.2%. Similarly, the IFP went from 4.5% to 2.6%.
In other words, our base for projecting 2014 results should be the last major poll, that from 2011.
If we accept this, the ANC is defending a lower tally of 62.9% while the DA defends its better-than-expected result of 24.1%.
Since 2011, the best indication of how South African will vote has not been the few (and often controversial) opinion polls, but rather local government by-elections which are an excellent indicator of party performance.
And, in assessing these very broadly, there is little to suggest that either the ANC or DA has shifted dramatically from their 2011 totals.
Both large parties have been defending their turf well.
In fact, the DA has often upped their 2011 vote in non-traditional areas for the party suggesting that a result upside of 24% would be possible.
Even the ANC have managed to beat some of their 2011 results and seem to have arrested their decline in the Western Cape with some moderate growth possible in the province.
There are two caveats to what might’ve been a repeat run (at least percentage-wise) of the 2011 poll occurring on 7 May.
Firstly, the advent of the EFF attacks both the ANC’s projections but surprisingly, also that of the DA.
While clearly disgruntled ANC voters left behind from both service delivery and patronage opportunities are the natural constituency for the EFF, a broader disaffected electorate is open to Julius Malema’s message.
In the post 2009 period, the DA held a virtual monopoly on political opposition to the ANC but since last year, they now have competition from the EFF.
The DA’s original plans of making a breakthrough among an increasingly frustrated black constituency has been somewhat stunted not just by the party’s own internal controversies (BEE, Ramphele etc), but by another opposition movement born out of the ANC and with “struggle” links that still elude the DA.
While the DA might’ve suffered from policy confusion while trying to play it safe to an increasingly disparate support base, it now suffers from losing the monopoly of vocal opposition to Messrs Malema and Mpofu who are pretty much up to the task despite their populist message.
This therefore puts a brake on DA growth and is likely to keep it to its 2011 levels of 24% to 25%.
The second caveat affects the ANC to a greater degree than the DA.
Looking back on local election results and despite the fairly predictable voting patters, one phenomenon does stand out – the very low voter turnout.
Even in the last few weeks when by-elections were influenced by the big national campaigns more than ever, a trickle of voters turned out to vote.
While the ANC were able to record big victories amid very low turnouts, there remains a sold body of voters who are not participating in our democracy.
With Nkandla still gnawing at the ethical skin of the ANC, some of these voters can still swing their vote causing the ANC national tally to drop moderately to around 60% with the possibility of it dropping fractionally below.
The big winners in this scenario would be the EFF who could pick up between 5% and 7% of the national vote if they can position themselves in the critical final weeks of the campaign as the best option for voters wanting to send the ANC a message.
So as we enter the final straits, the irony is that a strong finish for the EFF can upset both the ANC and the DA.
The EFF (with the help of Nkandla) can push the ruling party’s tally perilously close to 60% and at the same time can create the impression that the DA is stagnating at a ceiling of a quarter of the electorate therefore showing no growth since 2011.
The EFF might well be the wildcard upsetting the best-laid plans of the bigger parties in this election.
But just as with Cope in 2009, their eventual tally may be less significant in the long run as other political players and personalities emerge in the next five years to test the cohesiveness and predictability of our politics.
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