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The pros and cons of coalitions in SA


South Africans go to the polls today in the first general election since President Cyril Ramaphosa came to power. While the ANC is set for another victory at national level, things are much tighter when it comes to provincial politics.

If opinion polls and early results are to be believed, the country may be set for coalition governments in Gauteng, the Western Cape and possibly also the Northern Cape. There is already a precedent for this of course — in the 2016 local elections, the Democratic Alliance worked with other opposition parties to remove the ANC from power at the local level in three of the country’s metropolitan districts: Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane. At the same time, the ANC was forced to form coalitions in order to retain control of a number of councils in places such as Ekurhuleni and Rustenburg.

But how effective can a coalition government be? Does it lead to more accountable governments and better public services? Or does it simply facilitate shady backroom deals and rampant corruption?

Coalitions for representation

There are a lot of reasons to think coalitions are good. They bring more parties into power which, in ethnically and racially divided societies, often means that they give a wider range of communities a taste of government. In a dominant-party system like South Africa, where the ANC has consistently won a large majority of the vote, this can bring into government parties that would otherwise be permanently locked out of power.

The presence of a number of parties in the same administration also means that there has to be a degree of compromise. One of the positive consequences of this is that some of the more controversial and popular policies of each party will be discarded, leading to a government that should be more acceptable to a greater proportion of the population.

Recent research suggests that these hypothetical benefits are often realised. For our book Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective, my two colleagues [Paul Chaisty and Timothy Joseph Power] and I conducted hundreds of interviews with MPs in nine countries that have experienced coalition government. In every country bar one, a majority of MPs agreed that coalitions had “permitted the representation of diverse social interests” and “enhanced the quality of public policies”.

This is certainly the way South Africa’s smaller parties have attempted to sell their efforts to force coalition government. At the DA’s final rally on Saturday, its leader Mmusi Maimane promised that his party would be “at the heart of coalition governments in this country, as we build a strong centre for South Africa, free from the divisions of the past.”

The dark side

The problem, of course, is that coalitions also have a dark side. While they may enable new parties to get a foothold in government, they can also be unruly.

The past few years have seen rising criticism of coalitions around the world. In the United Kingdom, the coalition between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats is often blamed for some of the political and economic challenges the country now faces. Despite being the junior coalition member, the Liberal Democrats fared particularly badly, slumping to just 8% in the polls as voters punished them for supporting unpopular legislation such as the introduction of university tuition fees.

Closer to home, the ruling coalition in Kenya made up of the parties of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto — now integrated into the Jubilee Party — has been dogged by accusations of corruption. One of the main reasons why the government has failed to bring graft under control is that its two main factions are effectively competing against one another to raise the most money in case the alliance splits ahead of the next general election scheduled for 2022.

Chaos in South Africa

South Africa’s experience of minority governments has contributed to popular scepticism. In the 2016 elections, the DA won 48% of the seats in Nelson Mandela Bay, 6% more than the ANC, but not quite enough for an absolute majority. It therefore relied on the support or at least acquiescence of smaller parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and the United Democratic Movement to wield power.

The problem with this was evident from the start. As Judith February has written, the ideological gulf between the centre-right DA and the populist EFF meant that the relationship was always likely to be strained. The absence of a formal coalition deal to set out a common policy position and agreement on how the two parties would operate was an indication of what was to come.

In the years that followed, disagreements over key policy issues led to a series of fierce political battles. After the DA disappointed the EFF by refusing to support land expropriation in 2018, EFF leader Julius Malema became increasingly aggressive, promising to bring down the then Nelson Mandela Bay mayor, Athol Trollip. After Malema threatened that: “We are going for your white man [Trollip] in PE [Port Elizabeth],” the DA accused him of racism.

As relations between the DA and EFF soured, Malema’s party switched its support to an ANC-led coalition. In an unexpected turn of events, this marriage of convenience managed to remove council speaker Jonathan Lawack after one of the DA’s councillors, Mbulelo Manyati, abstained from the vote, giving the opposition a majority.

In the chaos that followed, Manyati — who was facing criminal charges related to fraud at the time — announced that he would be leaving the DA. Party leaders then read out a letter stating that his membership had been terminated with immediate effect, and then Manyati’s lawyers presented their own letter, challenging his removal.

This incident, the recriminations and court cases that followed, and the subsequent installation of the UDM’s Mongameli Bobani as mayor — he has since been accused of fraud and money laundering — have understandably generated considerable public concern that the absence of an effective ruling party had exacerbated corrupt and unprincipled politics at the local level.

Our interviews with MPs in other countries support these worries where clientelism and corruption are concerned. A strong majority of legislators in every country bar Chile agreed that coalitions had encouraged “a style of politics based on the exchange of favours”.

There was equally strong support for the idea that coalitions lead to opportunistic politics and can actually undermine, rather than strengthen, accountability.

Presidential problems

Following the slump in support for the ANC under former president Jacob Zuma’s leadership, there has been growing speculation about when South Africa will see a coalition government at the national level. Given the gap between the ANC and the next largest party, it is much more likely that the ruling party will need to form an alliance in order to retain a legislative majority than that an opposition party will win power outright. The polls suggest that this will not happen in the next election, but it could in the next decade.

So what would a presidential coalition look like? Of course, South Africa has seen multiparty Cabinets, most obviously during the government of national unity from 1994 to 1997. But so far, the ANC has not needed a coalition to govern. If it did, what would change?

Some of the problems that have been identified at the local level might be reproduced, including those related to clientelism and corruption, but legislative coalitions put together by presidents are different beasts entirely. The considerable powers invested in the executive mean that disunity and chaos don’t tend to be major concerns.

Instead, other problems come to the fore. Perhaps most significantly, many of the MPs we interviewed told us that, by co-opting rival parties into the government on a semi-permanent basis, presidential coalitions prevent the evolution of a more effective opposition and actually weaken legislative accountability.

The coalitions of the future are therefore unlikely to look like the coalitions of today, but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be a boon for democracy.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggle for Political Reform

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Nic Cheeseman
Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. He mainly works on democracy, elections and development and has conducted fieldwork in a range of African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The articles that he has published based on this research have won a number of prizes including the GIGA award for the best article in Comparative Area Studies (2013) and the Frank Cass Award for the best article in Democratization (2015). 

Professor Cheeseman is also the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), and Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018). In addition, he is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics, a former editor of the journal African Affairs, and an advisor to, and writer for, Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. A frequent commentator of African and global events, Professor Cheeseman’s analysis has appeared in the Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Daily Nation and he writes a regular column for the Mail & Guardian. In total, his articles have been read over a million times. Many of his interviews and insights can be found on the website that he founded and co-edits,

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