Challenge of coalition politics

2016-08-11 06:00

A COALITION government is formed when a political alliance of two or more parties comes to power, or when a plurality, i.e. not a majority, has not been reached and two or more parties must work together in order to govern.

In the local government elections that took place last Wednesday, this occurred in the three metros, Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg.

The law and the Constitution require that a newly elected municipal council must meet within 14 days after the Independent Electoral Commission has declared the final result, in order to elect a speaker and then a mayor, both of whom must be elected by means of a simple majority.

This implies that any group of parties can agree to form a coalition, which can take on the form of merely an agreement encapsulating a political alliance, regardless of whether this includes the largest party in the council concerned. At the least, this agreement must involve agreement on the elections, respectively, of the speaker and the mayor.

If no coalition can be formed, the political situation will be very unstable, giving rise to a minority government, as Professor Pierre de Vos points out in his blog, Constitutionally Speaking.

In such circumstances, this results in such a situation that must endure for at least two years, in the absence of a workable coalition because a municipal council may only, by law, dissolve itself after at least two years have passed since the council was elected and only when two thirds of the council members support a motion to that effect.

Coalitions of all kinds, but particularly those cobbled together with smaller parties, are prone to inherent instability as a desertion by any one of them could result in a vote of no confidence, as was the DA’s experience in Cape Town, after the 2006 local government elections.

It is for this reason, as far as stability is concerned, that a two-party coalition involving, for example, the DA and the EFF, or the ANC and the EFF, would be preferable. However, it is reported that EFF leader Julius Malema is “playing it cool, denying there has been any discussion up to now, saying any deal would have to be about inter alia giving people land” (Independent on Saturday, August 6). He also said that “[t]he EFF would rather abstain from voting in council than be a front for white arrogance or rescue the ANC” (Saturday Star, August 6).

Although this can be discounted as typical Malema bravado, it gives an indication of just how difficult it is going to be to form and maintain coalitions, be it with several smaller parties or involving the EFF and the DA or ANC.

However, coalitions at local government level are concerned essentially with the service delivery of water, sanitation, electricity and housing.

These are essentially pragmatic issues that are less concerned with macro-economic policy, concerning which it may be easier to reach agreement on, than on national policy issues, such as the nature of the economic system and land redistribution.

Nevertheless, despite the inherent problematic nature of coalition governments, they can be successful. They can facilitate democratic participation, greater transparency, less corruption and greater social and economic justice, all of which are essential if we are to succeed as a prosperous and leading nation on the African continent and among nations of the world.

The ANC as a political party should engage in a period of profound introspection concerning its overall electoral decline as manifested in the results of the local government elections, which could lead to genuine renewal and invigoration. Involvement in coalition government could assist in this regard.

Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that the ANC, after being in office for more than 20 years, is in decline, as has occurred with other liberation movements, such as the Congress Party of India.

This state of affairs may not be easily arrested and as a result the national and provincial elections due to be held in 2019 are also likely to require the need for coalition government. What is happening now may well be a dress rehearsal for what will need to be replicated in two years’ time.

South Africa is a country of infinite potential with great natural and human resources. The results of the local-government election and the prospect of coalition governments in the sphere of local government, present us with a new and exciting challenge in our democratic experience. South Africa as a nation with its diverse communities, its leaders and people, must rise to the occasion.

• George Devenish is emeritus professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.


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