ELECTIONS BRIEFS: Why the much-vaunted DA shot blanks

2019-05-16 05:00
Mmusi Maimane, leier van die DA.

Two days out from the national election, on May 6, 2019, the DA's "war room" on the third floor of their national headquarters in Bruma, Johannesburg, was abuzz.

Internal numbers showed the party to be in with a fighting chance to keep the ANC below 50% in Gauteng, while at national level things looked cheerful too: the ANC was polling in the low, low 50s and the DA – fearful of losing as much as four percentage points – was polling north of 24%.

Campaign manager Jonathan Moakes and campaign chairperson Paul Boughey were giving running orders from their central workstation in the middle of the room, with every section of the campaign – analytics, social media, media, operations, opposition research – feeding data back to the nerve centre.

It seemed like the DA might just manage to pull this one out of the fire, putting to bed an horrendous 18 monts of infighting, uncertainty and litigation. But as the numbers started to roll in on Wednesday night and in the small hours of Thursday, it soon became clear that Mmusi Maimane's party, the official opposition, was going to have a 'mare.

For Maimane, the headline numbers make for depressing reading:

- This was the DA's first national election where they didn't grow but lost support.

- The party's steep growth trajectory – it went from 12,3%, to 22,2% between 2004 and 2014 – has now been stunted, with a regression in support to 20,76% this year.

- It lost more than 470 000 voters, with the Freedom Front Plus the main beneficiary of the DA's charity. The FF+ increased their tally by a whopping 249 000 votes.

- At a provincial level the party has lost support in five of the nine provinces, and even though it grew in KwaZulu-Natal was displaced as official opposition by the IFP.

- It has failed to substantially increase its support among black voters, treading water at 4,7% black support, an increase of 0,4% support according to News24 elections analyst Dawie Scholtz.

- The party lost support, nationally and provincially, in Johannesburg and Tshwane, both cities it governs as the head of a coalition.

In the immediate aftermath the DA chose to blame the voters, with federal chairperson Athol Trollip telling the Sunday Times that they "need to do some soul-searching", Moakes referring to the lost voters as "racial nationalists" and senior strategists saying the bad result was a "winning loss".

For the DA, as with the ANC, serious introspection will not be amiss. The party needs to realise that if it wants to grow and truly become an alternative to the ANC it simply cannot afford to lose voters. It actually needs to keep them. And the voters the DA lost were the same ones that supported it for two decades and gave it the numbers it needed in Tshwane and Johannesburg. Did they all of a sudden become racial nationalists, or were they just ignored by the leadership and campaign team?

But the biggest indictment of the party's leadership team is the fact that it showed a singular inability to profit from the ANC's debauchery over the last five years. If the DA cannot establish itself as a viable alternative to the ANC in a period of grand corruption, capture and the Zuma government's destruction, when will it be able to do so? The party didn't seem to have a coherent strategy to exploit the ANC's weaknesses and neither was it able to use its successes – if there were any – in the Gauteng metros where it runs the show. This frustration also led to fissures in the leadership, with some questioning why the party was being so lead-footed.

Beyond the lack of strategy and tactics – to use ANC parlance – the DA is also going to have to clear up what type of opposition it wants to be. How does it see non-racialism in a time of heightened debates about race? Can it give a clear alternative to the ANC's policies of economy and redress? And who inside the party is equipped to map this out and lead it?

The ANC has issues, but they're still in control of government. The DA is some way off and losing ground. This election result was quite a thump to the party's collective solar plexus. And they haven't yet come to terms with it.

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