Coalition councils: Vat-en-sit or tying the knot?

DA, UDM, Cope and ACDP (Derrick Spies)
DA, UDM, Cope and ACDP (Derrick Spies)

Johannesburg - After the recent local government elections produced 27 hung councils, there was a matchmaking fest between political parties to see who would swipe left and who would swipe right in the scramble to hold sway in the council chamber.

Parties have a number of options available to them, ranging from collapsing the municipality to going into coalitions with each other and living happily ever after (at least until the next elections or, the next fall-out).

While the EFF went the informal vat-en-sit, no-strings attached route, because loneliness is not an option, being with the ANC – the big bad blesser – would have been worse.

The DA, knowing that it would always be blue, until it's not, decided to get hitched with five smaller parties, because the more the merrier, and this way it could establish happy families in some of the councils, notably in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.

So, what are the pros and cons of each approach?

Coalitions, or tying the knot

1.    The formality of signing a coalition agreement helps with predictability. Parties are more likely to vote together, so the council is likely to know which direction it's going on each issue.

2.    It also helps with stability. In a majority government it is easier to pass budgets, integrated development plans, and by-laws which need a majority of over 50% to pass.

3.    All parties are equal, small ones and big ones, FF Plus leader Pieter Mulder has said. This is because big parties need all the seats of the smaller parties to form a majority government, and have to listen to them too.

4.    Positions shared between the parties mean that small parties would not hold bigger parties to ransom with frivolous demands, as they all have a share in the government.

5.    Parties retain their identity and independence. A coalition isn't a merger.

6.    Coalitions on municipal level will give opposition parties a way of test-driving their relationships and establish principles ahead of possible coalitions in national government in future. "There is always a potential that we set ourselves up to govern nationally in this country," Maimane said on Wednesday.

7.    They are, however, "tricky and difficult", as Maimane has described the DA's coalition in Cape Town in 2006. The coalition contained parties as diverse as the PAC and the FF Plus, the ACDP and Al Jama-ah.

Minority government, or vat-en-sit

1.    Opting for minority government – voting with other opposition and smaller parties on a case-by-case basis – has been a great move for the EFF in terms of image. The party set high demands for possible coalition partners, which were not met, and has now set out to achieve its objectives in councils as an opposition party. Their councillors can follow the party's own agenda and walk out of any council meeting if they so choose.

2.    The EFF, as the third largest party, has enough seats in most cases to make or break a 50% plus one majority when councils vote on crucial issues like budgets or integrated development plans. The EFF can therefore threaten to vote against a budget or abstain if insufficient money is allocated to, say, toilets in poorer areas. It gives them great political muscle power.

3.    There was no formal agreement with any other parties in government, and the EFF did not receive any positions. They therefore appear to have maintained their integrity and, when they vote on issues in council, their supporters will believe that they do so in the best interest of the people and not for their own gain.

4.    Should the EFF change its mind and love the ANC again in a year or two (it seems unlikely, at this stage), the party can merely start siding with the ANC on issues, without having to formally break up with or divorce the parties it worked with before that time.

5.    In Tlokwe the ANC had governed the municipality as a minority government in the last three or four months, the North West University's Theo Venter told News24. The council was unstable, so instead of voting the mayor out all the time, opposition parties got together with written lists of demands for clean government, threatening a motion of no confidence against the ANC should these not be met. "This is a practical example of how minority government can function," Venter said.

6.    A minority government can function as a coalition government with parties voting together. This is likely to work better for issues such as electing mayors and speakers, which need a simple majority.

7.    The dilemma of a minority government is if you haven't got a fixed deal or if you don't have a meeting of minds, and there is a sudden crisis, parties have to go into lengthy negotiations similar to the coalition negotiations of the past two weeks, Venter said.

8.    Decision-making can be delayed and prolonged.

9.    The uncertainty in the system can be to such an extent that business and service providers lose confidence in the council’s ability to make decisions, and that can affect service delivery, he said.

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