/ 3 May 2019

Elections 2019: It’s all a little below par

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)

The thousands of faded election posters that adorn the lampposts of South Africa are an apt metaphor for a jaded campaign. This is the most important election since 1994. Yet, strangely, it has been the most boring.

The lacklustre character of the campaigning may have something to do with a lack of liquidity. State capture inquiries and the passing of transparency legislation requiring both donors and parties to disclose donations has had a chilling effect on the flow of cash. As ANC campaign manager Fikile Mbalula coyly put it the other day: “We have had to cut out the frills.”

No frills, and few spills. And no single, pivotal burning issue on which this contest will turn: a lack of imagination in campaigning matched only by the absence of fresh, progressive policy ideas.

The electorate, especially new voters, has hardly been served a buffet of irresistible choices.

And yet the long-term importance of this election cannot be denied. In terms of political economy, investment, job creation and future political risk, the outcome will answer three significant questions.

First, can President Cyril Ramaphosa bring traditional ANC voters back into the fold, despite the manifest flaws of his own party, and thereby give himself more political room for manoeuvre, to drive his reform agenda more decisively in government?

Second, can the Economic Freedom Fighters increase its share of the vote to demonstrate that it is a sustainable political movement and that it will be sticking around for the long term?

Third, even if it adds little or even anything to its overall share of the vote nationally, can the Democratic Alliance do well enough in Gauteng to get into the provincial government and thereby give itself the opportunity to add to its track record in the municipal sphere?

Curiously, unlike the last five national elections, the result of next week’s polls has become more uncertain the closer we get to election day.

This is partly because of the limpness of the ANC campaign, which has failed to gather the velocity of previous elections. No doubt this is a reflection of the divisions in the party — evidenced most obviously by the ill-disciplined statements of its secretary general Ace Magashule in recent days — but also because this is the first election the ANC has fought without the wholehearted and comprehensive support of the majority of trade unions.

Turnout always matters in elections. In South Africa’s electoral system it matters even more, because every vote, from throughout the land, goes into one big barrel.

Moreover, as Dawie Scholtz — the best independent electoral analyst around — points out, differentiated turnout is a critical factor and something to watch for as the results come in. In the 2014 national election, the difference in turnout between voters in suburban areas and those living in township areas was just 7%; in the 2016 local government election it rose to 15%.

Because suburbanites are far more likely to vote for other parties, such as the Democratic Alliance, the bigger the gap, the worse the outcome for the ANC.

Thus, the biggest single deter­mining factor for Election 2019 is whether the relative popularity that Ramaphosa enjoys will be enough to inspire ANC voters, especially in township areas, to actually turn up and vote on May 8.

And this is where the quality of the campaigning and the energy and vigour of the party machinery is crucial. There is significant uncertainty about whether the ANC is up to the task, though at least one ANC leader told me that the lack of resources has compelled the organisation to return to old-school doorstep canvassing, and it has done so with “greater intensity” than ever before.

Gauteng is too close to call. I have access to survey data that strongly suggests that black middle-class voters in the country’s economic heartland (defined as a household income of R5 000 a month or more) are deeply disgruntled by the ANC and government’s performance, are increasingly fluid in terms of their voting intention and — if they are traditionally ANC voters who are thinking of taking their vote elsewhere — they are more likely to support the EFF than the DA.

With a slim majority of just a 53% share of the vote in the province to defend from last time, the ANC has its work cut out. Fortunately for the party, the DA looks lacklustre in its own way.

Despite the resources the DA has thrown at its Gauteng campaign, its seminal, existential ambivalence on core issues — most obviously transformation and black economic empowerment — weakens its offering. It is not clear what the core value proposition of South Africa’s biggest opposition party is.

Nonetheless, there is a good chance the ANC will lose its majority. At the moment, the only small parties with seats in the Gauteng provincial legislature are the Freedom Front (one seat) and the Inkatha Freedom Party Plus (one). These are unlikely natural coalition partners for the ANC, who will have to form a governing coalition with either the EFF or the DA.

So the problem for the DA is, even if the ANC loses its majority in the country’s economic heartland, the DA may not end up in government unless the ANC is willing to consider a “grand coalition” with it — an interesting strategic dilemma that the ANC may not have applied its mind to, as it regards talk of coalition-building as taboo.

In this regard, the most interesting tactical manoeuvre of the campaign has come from EFF leader Julius Malema, who has tacked away from the DA, with whom his party has inherently unstable “confidence and supply”-type arrangements in Tshwane and Johannesburg, towards the ANC. The EFF has not taken up seats in municipal executive committees, but maintains support for the DA minority government on an issue-by-issue basis.

This is a risky strategy for Malema. It may upset many of the “true believers” both in the party and in the electorate, who appreciate the EFF because it is not the ANC and because of its muscular anti-establishment stance.

Moreover, it may have played into the hands of the DA nationally — in the final weeks of the campaign the DA has been able to run what appears to be an effective “fear message” about the dangers of an ANC-EFF alliance, eager to hold on to voters who might be considering taking their vote to one of the smorgasbord of 45 registered smaller parties, especially in the Western Cape, where the outcome is now causing DA leaders to fret, at least in private.

Contrary to the dreary campaign­ing, there is everything to play for. Scholtz’s number-crunching indicates that on the basis of certain assumptions about differentiated turnout and voting patterns in both black and minority demographic groups, an ANC victory in the 56% to 59% range is the most likely outcome.

The starting point for this analysis is the 54% that the ANC got in 2016. Convert that to a more realistic national election turnout and you should start at 56%, argues Scholtz.

56, then, is par.

Earlier, I thought the ANC would be more likely to be over par than under. Now, my instincts are that the reverse may be true and if there is to be a surprise, it will be on the ANC’s downside — in other words, closer to 50%, which would necessarily mean, in turn, a significant increase in the EFF’s share of the vote.

Thus, for the longer term, the thing to really focus on after the final result is in, is the relationship between the ANC and the EFF lines on the time-graph: are they converging or diverging?

Convergence implies greater political risk in the longer term. Divergence would be good news for Ramaphosa, for his reform programme and for the prospects for the country.

At the start of this campaign, 60% was the threshold figure necessary for Ramaphosa to shed the shackles of his own divided party.

But a slightly lower number — one that arrests the decline of the ANC over the past four national and local government elections — would still represent success for Ramaphosa and the ANC.

In short, 57 is the new 60.

Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and partner in the political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group