Messy coalition politics may be the new normal

The 2016 local elections will be a game-changer. For the first time, the ANC faces a serious threat to its political hegemony. How it reacts to this will be the biggest factor in setting the course for the next 30 years.

The extraordinary thing is this: that, despite its ostensibly decisive and convincing victory in 2014 in the national elections, the ANC could wake up on August 4 and find that it only has a majority (that is, more than 50% of council seats) in one of the five big metros. For the ANC to have less than 50% of council seats in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth would be a huge jolt – a massive psychological shock.

So there is a great deal to play for. And the ruling party always leaves it late: like a powerful and crafty long-distance runner, the ANC will save its best for last.

There is a reasonably high chance of “hung” councils in at least two of the three cities, without a clear winner of a 50% majority of seats. Whereupon South Africa will enter uncharted territory: coalition government.

The nation has no real experience of it. Before 1994, of course, the National Party was completely dominant. There was a rather pathetic attempt at coalition government between the ANC and the National Party in the Western Cape after the 2004 election, but it was not a real coalition, because the National Party was in the process of allowing itself to be gathered into the commodious political bosom of the ANC.

It was more like a hostile takeover of an irrelevant competitor than a partnership between two contesting political forces.

So how will the parties play their hands if the city councils are hung? How will the coalition politics game play out in South Africa?

Let us assume for the purposes of this exercise that I am right in assuming that none of the minnow parties, increasingly squeezed as they are, will be able to play a kingmaker role to keep the ANC in power. In which case, there are three basic permutations: Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, EFF and ANC, and ANC and DA.

Which is the most credible? Importantly, and a very different question: Which would produce the most effective government?

The DA and the EFF have been collaborating wonderfully well in Parliament. The image of the opposition leaders standing outside the National Assembly after having lost their attempt to impeach President Jacob Zuma earlier this month is an evocative one. In the centre, DA leader Musi Maimane stands tall and proud. To his left, physically if not politically, is Julius Malema. To his right, the diminutive leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, Kenneth Meshoe. Behind him stands the United Democratic Movement’s leader, the father of the house, Bantu Holomisa, and Peter Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus.

  Ever since the ad hoc committee on Nkandla, in which the opposition planned and executed their strategy against the ANC in close co-operation, they have offered solid yet nimble opposition. In that committee, the Inkatha Freedom Party was represented by the capable Narend Singh and the Congress of the People by Mosiuoa Lekota. It’s a pity they were not part of the photo after the impeachment debate, because it would have better captured a wider, very significant point: that, in recent times, it is the opposition, en banc, which has looked like the real South Africa, not the ANC.

Can this be sustained into coalition government? Doubtful. It is one thing to collaborate against a common enemy – Zuma in the case of Nkandla – but a very different thing to jointly run the government of a complex city.

Besides, it may be asking too much of the liberal, free-market-inclined DA to get into bed with the populism of the EFF. It is not easy to picture them together in government, is it? Stranger things have happened in politics, but they usually end in tears.

During the year or so of their collaboration, the EFF has often taken the front seat, with Maimane and the DA “tucking in behind”. That can’t work for a city government, in which the bigger party has to show itself to be the boss. The tail can’t be seen to wag the dog. And Malema will certainly do his best to do the wagging.

The most enduring coalitions are formed on the back of a carefully negotiated programme of action based on common points of principle. Without one, the DA is in for a rough ride – the EFF will only support a DA city government on a piecemeal, one-issue-at-a-time basis. It will be pure torture for the DA. And it will seriously undermine its attempts to show it can govern better than the ANC.

Malema will take pleasure in it, too. It’s not in his interests to do otherwise.

So what about an EFF-ANC coalition? The ANC might be able to eat their pride – just – and do it because they understand that it will weaken the EFF brand. So, unless Malema senses that he is going the way of the other start-up parties of the past decade, and that he can do better by sharing a bit of power with the ANC, he will resist the temptation.

Which leaves only one remaining permutation: a DA-ANC centre alliance. Such a thing would have sounded impossible even two years ago, but strange things can happen in politics – especially in coalition politics. After all, there is very little real clear blue water between them policywise, though both parties might dispute this.

I don’t think the leaders and insiders of the respective parties are clear about their game plan. I don’t think they know how they would handle coalition negotiations.

This is dangerous. To reach a deal when everyone is exhausted after a long campaign can lead to unfortunate consequences. In countries with long traditions of coalitions (the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany) voters know what to expect; parties tend to inform the voters of what they plan to do if they are forced into a coalition to stay in power.

It would be wise – and right – for Maimane and Malema to do likewise.

In 2010, more than 30 years since the short-lived “Lib-Lab” pact of the 1970s that I recall from my teenage years in London, Britain again faced the prospect of a hung Parliament in 2010.

After 13 years in power, Labour was pushed below 50% of the seats in the House of Commons, and was unable to put together a coalition government with smaller parties such as the Scottish National Party. Instead, the Liberal Democrats found themselves as the kingmaker, having to choose between Labour and Conservatives. They negotiated hurriedly with both, reaching a very bad deal with the Tories that ultimately cost them dearly at the election last year – they lost 49 of their 57 seats.

The Lib Dems said they went with the Tories rather than Labour because they considered it to be undemocratic to go against the wishes of the majority, which had decided against Labour.

A similar consideration could apply in Pretoria or Johannesburg if the DA and the EFF find that the ANC is still the biggest party but has been pushed below a working majority. It may compel them to find a working accommodation with each other. This will test the mettle of both sets of leaders. Make it work and they will win the trust of the voters; mess it up, and the electorate may never forgive them – voters could scuttle back to the ANC quicker than you can say Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

One must be careful what one wishes for. There is a serious risk that coalition government will not work and that government will break down. Coalition government can, if the partners are mature and accommodating, produce measured, inclusive forms of responsive government that represents a wider cross-section of the electorate than when one party wins a narrow majority but behaves as if it has won with 90% support.

On the other hand, if there is no clarity about the rules of the (coalition) game, government can stutter along, paralysed at times, confused and contradictory at others, with the right hand appearing not to know or sometimes even to care what the left is doing – much like the current, bloated ANC Cabinet.

  Richard Calland’s new book, Make or Break: Why the Next Three Years Will Set the Course for the Next 30, will be published by Zebra Press in June

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