Can the ANC’s grip on political power be weakened?

2016-07-28 07:08

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Lawson Naidoo

One would have thought that it would be almost impossible to knock the historic 1994 elections off its lofty perch. Yet many commentators are now almost speaking of the forthcoming local government elections in the same breath. It is being touted as the most important vote since the historic 1994 universal franchise that ushered in the Presidency of Nelson Mandela.

It is seen as a potential watershed moment in our electoral politics, with predictions of a significant drop in support for the ANC, simultaneously marking a break in the electoral fortunes of opposition parties. Is a game changer at hand? Can the ANC’s hegemonic grip on political power finally be weakened?

The ANC is arguably at its lowest ebb since 1994 when it was riding high on the euphoria of defeating apartheid and bringing democracy to a racially divided nation. It may have scored greater electoral successes in later elections (69% in the 2004 national elections) but it never had such broad support and admiration, locally and globally.

Now the ANC government presides over an economy in despair, sluggish growth, increasing debt, escalating unemployment and widening inequality. We are on the cusp of a ratings agency downgrade to junk investment status. We have a Minister of Finance under siege from alleged law enforcement agencies, and from some within his own party.

The ANC is also beset by myriad scandals – think of Nkandla, the governance failures at state-owned enterprises such as SAA, SABC, PRASA and Denel (to name but a few), state capture by the Gupta family, the proliferation of corruption at all levels of government, the fraud, corruption and racketeering charges faced by President Jacob Zuma in the "Spy Tapes" matter – that undermine its allure to many voters.

Those factors are compounded by a severe internal rupturing within the governing party that has seen the deaths of several ANC officials at branch and regional levels. This has been attributed to internal posturing by opposing factions, based not on policy or ideological differences, but rather who gains access to state resources.

There has once again been dissent over selection of candidates for these local government elections by the ANC, most visibly the Tshwane rebellion against the decision not to nominate the incumbent, Kgosientso Ramokgopa as mayoral candidate.  Similar protests have occurred in other regions too, and KwaZulu-Natal has witnessed a spate of killings.

Will all of these negative factors be sufficient for the ANC to lose significant support? It is probably fair to say that if the main opposition parties (DA and EFF) cannot benefit from such a set of electoral gifts then they are unlikely to be able to unseat the ANC any time soon. Are they able to offer the electorate a credible alternative to the ANC or are they merely a receptacle for a protest vote against ANC ineptitude?

These elections are therefore as much a test for the opposition as they are for the ANC. What does this mean for opposition parties – if none can unseat the ANC on their own, are alliances and coalitions the way forward? Is this what the SA electorate wants?

Opinion polls on voter intentions do not show a big enough swing to opposition parties, and even where they do it is likely that that ANC will recover lost ground before 3 August. In the 3 metro councils where the opposition is likely push the ANC hardest (Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay), it is possible that no party will win a majority of seats, leaving the smaller parties to hold the balance of power and possibly determine the formation of coalitions. Although opposition parties speak of coming together to form coalitions to keep the ANC out of power, such coalitions will not be without their difficulties – they display vast ideological differences and draw support from diverse constituencies that will challenge sustainable coalitions.

It may therefore be more likely that the ANC will hold the upper hand in securing coalitions, having the capacity to offer small parties more attractive trade-offs including in other councils where they hold bigger majorities.  

It is apposite to recall that after the last local elections in 2011 Athol Trollip, then DA Parliamentary leader, made so bold as to say "This election will spell the end of smaller parties and it is now clear that the race in future will be between the ANC and DA with Cope in a distant third." A week may be a long time in politics ...but 5 years! Mr Trollip now finds himself contesting the Nelson Mandela Bay metro against Danny Jordaan who in 2011 was then still basking in the glow of the 2010 World Cup. And Cope is almost a distant memory, eclipsed by the EFF.

Far from narrowing the field 2016 will see a record 200 political parties contesting the elections, up from 121 in 2011, 97 in 2006 and 79 in 2000. It seems that small parties are likely to be with us for some time to come.

Despite not faring so well in the polls thus far, especially in the highly contested metros, experience tells us that the ANC are strong finishers – elections are marathons, not sprints – and they are likely to gobble up a large portion of the floating or undecided voters. Many voters may return to the fold rather than venture into unchartered waters. If that happens what will Mr Trollip say on 4 August 2016?

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Read more on:    cope  |  da  |  anc  |  eff  |  local elections 2016
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