Could Cope be the sea change?

There is space in the electoral market. The only question is whether any opposition party can exploit the opportunity. The latest opinion polling from the bi-annual Afrobarometer released last week confirms as much: 59% of people say that unemployment is the single most important problem (a long way ahead of crime, in second place, with 32%), yet only 31% approve of the government’s performance in job creation.

The government is doing very poorly on the thing that matters most to people. Moreover, the number of people who ”identify” with the ANC — a far more significant long-term marker than the shallower, linear question of ”who will you vote for tomorrow?” — is once again on the wane. Having fallen steadily during the 1990s to around 33%, it began to rise in the early 2000s as the Thabo Mbeki administration got its teeth into service delivery, but from a high-water mark of 52% in 2006 has fallen sharply to 43% last year.

Add to these pointers a bunch of young people and it’s obvious this election has a fickle quality that is qualitatively different from 1999 and 2004.

But, will this amount to a sea change? And what would a sea change look like? In previous elections there has been evidence of a growing number of disenchanted voters who either declined to register or failed to vote; people who no longer identified with the ANC, but who could not find a new political home to go to.

The success of the ANC in the past two general elections was, in part, a measure of the strategic failure of the opposition. Either they had a good leader, but a policy shallowness (Patricia de Lille and the Independent Democrats), or a good leader with policies but no organisational capacity (Bantu Holomisa and the UDM), or organisational capacity and resources but the wrong leader and the wrong policies (Tony Leon and the DA).

More than anything, breaking the hold of the strength of the ANC brand was about not being able to compete with its inherent legitimacy as the party of liberation. Objectively, very little has changed. Many of Cope’s leaders are children of the ANC, but that, in itself, is not enough, as Holomisa — a man of integrity who has led his small party with distinction in very difficult circumstances — will attest.

But Cope has more money than any other new entrant to the electoral market since 1994, though not, I suspect, nearly enough. The ANC spends well over R120-million on its election campaigns; the DA around half that; and the rest have to manage on R5-million or less. It’s an unforgiving electoral terrain and without resources it is all but impossible to compete with the ANC. Which is why Holomisa is so justified in his criticism of Absa’s decision to withhold its donations to parties until after the elections, when, argues Holomisa, it will be too late for him and the other minnows.

The Helen Zille-led DA has two advantages this time. For one, she is not Tony Leon. Second, she has had in Cape Town the opportunity to establish a track record of government and, especially, of delivering good public services to all social groups and not just the middle class.

That she has the empathy that Leon so conspicuously lacked may count for precious little. And the fact that she has commendably brought much-needed stability to the governance of the Mother City may take longer to enter the collective consciousness of the wider electorate. Which is why I find it so perplexing that Zille is apparently so willing to swap her mayorship for the premiership of the province. Why abandon not just the city, but the chance of building a real bastion of DA-government there? And for what — surely she knows that the city has far greater powers than the province? I smell another strategic error in this.

So, while the gut instinct senses a watershed moment, with a partial collapse in ANC support, the head objects. Perhaps, as Anthony Butler says, this is a failing in the commentariat — that we don’t have the imagination to see beyond ANC hegemony.

The Afrobarometer figures do provide one nugget of evidence that will not improve the mood of the more querulous members of the ANC leadership: only 27% of people trust Jacob Zuma a lot (and 17% ”somewhat”). More than 70% want him to stand trial and one in five would approve of an amendment to the Constitution that would create an immunity against prosecution for a sitting president.

The reality is probably that the 33% of people who don’t trust Zuma at all are precisely the same one-third of the electorate who didn’t vote for the ANC last time. And, in any case, the figures show that people trust the ANC substantively more than they trust Zuma. So the question is, will their new leader be enough of a disincentive to stop people from voting for his party?

A sea change for the opposition would have them, collectively, garner more than 40%. This is how I do the electoral maths: even if the DA was to break through its glass ceiling of 12%, any real growth is likely to be nipped in the bud by Cope. But let us give them 14%, this time anyway, on the basis of Zille’s slightly broader appeal and her performance as mayor.

The IFP is a dwindling force, but this will be offset partly by the galvanising ”energy” of the election in KwaZulu-Natal, so, generously, let us say: 8% (up on 7% last time). The UDM, the ID, the ACDP and the Freedom Front Plus should all retain their 2% each, more or less.

That adds up to 30%.

And so to Cope: new parties get 2% to 3% of non-ANC voters in response to the hype around their launch. How much better can they do? A percentage point is likely to require 160 000 to 170 000 votes — 5% would be a solid achievement; 10% (1,7-million voters), remarkable.

My thesis is this: for every percentage point above 3% that Cope gets will be a point less for the ANC from 67%. These will be the real swing voters — those that move directly from the ANC to Cope. If Cope gets 10%, which is a reasonable possibility, then the ANC will get around 60%.

Cope is already a game-changer; get more than 10% and it will be a sea changer too.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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