Guest Column

The Coalition Conundrum

2016-07-12 13:32

Daniel Silke

With Local government polling day just 3 weeks away, there are increasing signs that South Africa is likely to see a spate of coalition governments in both Metros and local municipalities across the country.

If opinion polls are to be believed (and they do hold many pitfalls including dubious methodology and exceptionally high proportions of undecided voters), it is entirely possible that either or both Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) and Tshwane might fail to elect a single majority party.

Should this be the case, both larger parties – the ANC and DA – will have a chance at forging a coalition with either the EFF or a host of smaller players (like the UDM, COPE & a variety of civics or independents) in order to attempt stable government.

And here’s the rub. The possible composition of such coalitions creates substantial political risk for participating parties. Not only in terms of functioning effectiveness but also on the internal cohesion of all those who enter into such agreements – small and larger parties alike.

Should this scenario come to pass, it will be the ANC that is on the back foot. A loss of overall control in any of the big, symbolically important Metros will itself have a devastating effect on the governing party, its morale, faith in future polls and ultimately confidence in leadership.

For the DA, holding the ANC to a result below 50% (together with the EFF vote which has yet to be tested in this sphere of government) will represent a victory. For Mmusi Maimane, the ability to forge a coalition to govern a major Metro outside of Cape Town will be his crowning glory as DA leader. It can cement him in his position.

Clearly, both major parties will be under pressure to do deals. The DA has a successful history in coalition building – having secured Cape Town with a multi-party – and ideologically diverse – 6-party coalition in 2006.

But this time, it’s not so easy. In both Tshwane and Port Elizabeth (and elsewhere), the EFF are likely to be kingmakers as a relatively strong third party. Although their support is likely to be under double-digits, this will be enough for them to push either the DA or ANC into the pound seats.

It is here where it gets murky. For the DA, a large body of that party sees control as the ultimate political achievement. And indeed, playing politics is about being in power and not being in Opposition. But the conundrum is clearly to what lengths do you go to take control – even if it means coalescing with another party that is the antithesis to you on virtually every aspect of policy and ideology.

In the past, the DA certainly has had theoretically incompatible coalition partners - the religious ACDP and nationalistic Freedom Front come to mind. But no one has yet worked with the EFF and their brand of disruptive politics coupled with the populism of Hugo Chavez and Robert Mugabe make them the DA’s most problematic option.

In the past, the DA largely found compatibility with its smaller coalition partners over a common adherence to some variation of a social market economy – somewhat removed from the EFF’s land distribution and nationalization ethos.

And ideology is not the only issue that’s problematic. As South Africa’s third largest political force – and probably growing, the DA confronts a very different partner. The EFF is confident and substantial. It’s not in decline or already so small that it needs the coattails of a larger party to offer patronage or survivability.

The DA’s coalition experience thus far has largely been with smaller entities – usually in decline. That characteristic has often allowed the DA to swallow up its political prey. In this case, the EFF will demand their pound of flesh in positions of practical and symbolic power. They know the stakes for the DA and as a result, their demands will be onerous.

Of course, the DA’s first prize (in the absence of an outright victory) would be to do well enough to be within a few seats of the majority. To this end, a more palatable coalition with COPE, the UDM and other smaller players would be the ideal fit. That might well spell the end of those smaller entities and be a useful further addition to the DA’s arsenal of expansion.

But it’s not all about the DA. The ANC have an equal shot of coalition building. Whilst not as experienced in the management of disparate partners, the governing party may indeed be closer to the majority threshold thus requiring fewer parties to cobble together a winning ticket.

And, reliance on smaller civics and independents might well stymie the DA’s aspirations. For lone councilors and community organizations, a collation with the ANC will be attractive – especially if there are positions to be doled out.

The ANC too has the option of making overtures to the EFF. Although that relationship is even more adversarial than the DA/ANC’s, the allure of governing with former comrades – and being welcomed back into the fold – might tempt Mr. Malema.

This temptation might be strong, but in doing so, the EFF would find itself either neutered by the larger ANC. For the ANC, the move might be highly divisive given the EFF”s intention to steer and even influence Luthuli House’s leadership positions – including that of the President. 

Finally, there is one option few seem to consider – or want to. An unusual pact emerges between the ANC and DA to provide a substantial ‘unity’ government in key local authorities. Moving beyond the smaller players, South Africa’s largest parties work for the common good.

Indeed, it all sounds rather unrealistic – and perhaps naive. Any such grand coalition would certainly divide both parties. And, heaven forbid, it might also shake the foundations of both entities to such an extent that old boundaries, prejudices and suspicions dissolve to forge a new centrist political force.

In this scenario, the co-operation forged at local government levels impacts the national sphere. Strangely, one could argue that there is already much more common ground between elements of the ANC and DA – after all, both parties support the ANC’s own National Development Plan and indeed, it often seems as through the DA is the stronger supporter!

Of course this is all conjecture. But South Africa does look as though it’s heading for more coalitions than ever before. Just how far the DA wishes to push the notion of Opposition at all costs will be crucial. And, just how rigid our party political system – and that of the ANC within it – will define strategies going forward.

Ultimately, if our economic and political crisis deepens and voters incrementally shift to a broader selection of parties, neither the ANC on their own nor a collection of Opposition parties together will have enough political will to implement change. Extraneous forces may forge strange bedfellows to cohabit in the years to come. Bringing together those who belong together may again become fashionable.

Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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