The Democratic Alliance’s recent leadership difficulties are raising questions about the efficacy of coalitions in South Africa.
The varying ideological positions of parties in a coalition could be the cause of this. For instance, the ideological chasm between the DA and Economic Freedom Fighters has widened since the national and provincial elections in May. So far, both parties have not demonstrated a common policy position that would formalise their coalition deals. Instead, they have experienced unending inter-party wrangles over crucial policy issues, often leading to political fights among themselves.
The ultimate effect of these political battles has been the weakening of opposition parties to deliver basic services to the public effectively and sustainably wherever they are in government.
Given the recent DA and EFF coalition shake-up in Johannesburg, the citizenry is questioning whose interests coalitions serve. What role does race and ideology play in the formation and collapse of party alliances? What influence does coalition-related conflict have on intra-party dynamics? These questions are complex but some observations can be made. First, the lack of a common vision and constant battles between the parties in the coalition weakens their ability to exercise legislative accountability.
Second, pre-electoral commitments to the citizenry are difficult to deliver in an environment of political jostling in the coalition. In most cases, the ability to deliver basic services becomes strained. As a result, citizen’s confidence and trust in the system is weakened, leading to protests.
Third, decision-making processes are slowed down because of differing ideological positions. Political parties that have strategic benefit because of their size and ideological position determine who makes decisions. Dominance in the coalition comes before the interests of citizens.
Fourth, the political environment becomes a breeding ground for populist politics. The danger of populist politics is that it creates conditions favourable to nationalism and disdain for basic civil liberties and constitutionalism, among other aspects. This is politically risky for South Africa and should not be entertained.
Fifth, coalitions often fail to agree on the short- to medium-term economic vision and actionable programme aimed at addressing the pressing socioeconomic problems facing the citizenry. In the end, most of the promises made during the election campaigns are unfulfilled, leaving the electorate disillusioned.
Sixth, too little time is spent on designing policies that can stimulate domestic entrepreneurship, and creating favourable conditions for attracting private sector investment to stimulate the local economy and create jobs or turn wage earners into entrepreneurs.
To strengthen party coalitions so they can deliver to the electorate what is required and promised, the following aspects are worth considering:
l Formalise coalitions based on a shared vision agreed on and supported by all political parties involved;
l Establish mechanisms to ensure accountability and transparency;
l Strengthen the parties’ internal democracy. This is characterised by transparent, accountable and inclusive rules, organisation and processes. Political parties focused on transparency, accountability and inclusion tend to be better organised and able to find more resources. Open and inclusive structures allow parties to run more effective, dynamic and competitive electoral campaigns, and attract a broader base of talent as well as financial resources;
l Spend quality time designing pragmatic socioeconomic policies aimed at addressing the pressing needs of the electorate and establish monitoring mechanisms to guide implementation and reporting processes of those policies;
l Mutually develop and agree on mechanisms for holding parties in the coalition accountable in promoting their goals towards realising their mission; and
l Develop mediation and grievance-handling mechanisms to prevent conflict from derailing the coalition from its vision.
The aim of coalitions must be about ensuring they contribute to deepening democracy in South Africa, promoting good governance in all spheres and, more importantly, meeting the expectations of the electorate. This ideal cannot be achieved unless political parties in coalition governance unite in their mission.
Dr Paul Kariuki is the executive director of the Democracy Development Programme. He writes in his personal capacity