Don't forget the prenup

Like romantic relationships, coalitions between opposition political parties come with baggage. The trouble is, this tends to emerge only when the parties are in too deep.

The DA, Congress of the People, United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Independent Democrats are now openly taking baby steps towards a coalition that will fight the ANC from a common platform during the 2011 local election.

Opposition voters want to support a force that can seriously challenge the ANC. But there is no indication yet that an opposition coalition will prove to be a real threat.

Each party would bring small but significant constituencies to a coalition or merger, but they also carry with them the baggage of their past.

Former DA leader Tony Leon says he still bears the scars of the nightmare alliance that the former Democratic Party formed with the New National Party. Other DA members say they saw colleagues cry when the merger with the party of apartheid was announced.
The loose coalition of the DA and the Inkatha Freedom Party during the 2004 election also proved stillborn, with the DA shedding votes in KwaZulu-Natal.

The party’s rank and file is, therefore, suspicious about new arrangements with other parties, insiders say.

The ID and the UDM took a beating during the 2009 elections, but they have small yet significant fan bases in some places, including the Western Cape, Northern Cape and the former Transkei.

Given that these parties are effectively built around personalities, it will be difficult for Patricia de Lille and Bantu Holomisa to forgo the veto power their party members say they have exercised so freely.

The new opposition formation may have to shoulder Cope’s leadership and money woes, which could cripple it from the start.

Opposition politicians told the Mail & Guardian that a coalition can become a force to be reckoned with only if parties are honest about their baggage and are willing to place it on the table. Among the key requirements, they listed the following:

  • Ensure that all parties sign a clear, written agreement that leaves little room for ambiguous interpretation;
  • Identify deal-breakers—the principles and values that the party cannot renege on without losing electoral credibility. For instance, if your party is based on Christian values, make your stance on such issues as abortion and prostitution crystal clear;
  • Hold a democratic leadership election as soon as possible. Cope’s internal ructions stem, in part, from the appointment, rather than election, of leaders;
  • Take your constituency with you, rather than entering a coalition during an election campaign without preparing followers. De Lille lost significant support when she was tough on the ANC before the election in 2004 and then joined forces with it at local government level;
  • Ensure that there is an agreed format for dealing with disputes;
  • Try to include as many opposition parties as possible, but agree on basic principles. The danger is that at critical times loosely connected fellow travellers can cross the floor to the coalition’s main enemy, the ANC;
  • Get a black leader. South Africa’s electorate still votes largely in terms of racial identity rather than issues;
  • Insist on audited membership records. In the NNP-DP merger, the NNP used fictitious membership figures to convince the DP of its strength; and
  • Rein in the teacher’s pets. In every party some individuals can do what they want, with the leader’s blessing, and they must be told to toe the new party line.

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