It’s possible: SA could have a minority govt in 2019. Here’s why

JOHANNESBURG — Next year’s national election is shaping up to be an interesting one. Many pundits and analysts are expecting the ANC to gallop away with a comfortable victory again. The margin of that victory, though, is what is up for debate, especially whether the party will go north or south of 55% of the vote. However, in this article posted below, Chuck Stephens takes a different view and thinks there’s the possibility that we could still see a minority or coalition government next year with the ANC falling below 50%. And Stephens thinks that such a government could still possibly properly function. – Gareth van Zyl

By Chuck Stephens*

Although it can be a bit nerve-wracking, some great periods of governance have happened under governments operating with a parliamentary Minority, as opposed to a Majority.

Specifically, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson in the 1960s did not seem to be able to muster a Majority for his Liberal party. However, they did win more seats than any other party, so they ran the government. In Pearson’s case, his survival depended on additional votes from the New Democratic Party. This was the Left wing party formed from the merger of the CCF (based in agricultural heartland “out West”) and the Canadian Labour Federation (based in the industrialized cities “down East”).

The NDP gave Canadian voters a third option. So instead of the Liberals being seen as the Left compared to the Conservatives on the Right, the Liberals were now see as Centrist with the “loyal opposition” party on the Right and the new third party emerging on the Left.

It was a marriage of convenience. The Leftists did not have the numbers they needed, but they held the “balance of power”. And they had the best ideas – for example, Medicare. So by teaming up with the Liberal minority government, they got a lot of socialist legislation through Parliament. Many of these new policies – like Medicare – have come to be seen as defining what Canadian society is, fifty years later.

This is very close to what is happening in Theresa May’s efforts to deliver Brexit. Although she technically does have a Majority, the truth is that she doesn’t. Because there is a rump of “Brextremists” who want Britain to make a clean break from the European Union, not to dwell in some twilight zone between being in and being out. So she is effectively operating as a Minority government.

In her case, the loyal opposition is the Labour party, who are die-hard “Remainers”. Her only answer to their baying like wolves is that the British electorate voted in favour of “Leave” in the 2016 referendum, so it is her remit to find the way out.

Like Lester Pearson, she is not really working with her own ideas. He got them from the late great Tommy Douglas and the NDP. She got her mandate from the 2016 plebiscite. The ideas are radical, not in terms of being Leftist, but in terms of re-inventing Britain and its web of relationships world-wide. Like Lester Pearson and his Minority government, she doesn’t have much “wiggle room”.

Read also: State Capture makes self-preservation the name of the ANC’s game – Chuck Stephens

But if your understanding of Democracy is “Let the people govern”, then she has a point. Brexit won the most votes. And in Britain’s constituency-based system, MPs are supposed to represent the people who voted them into office, in their respective riding.

So by the time Theresa May gets over to Brussels for the validation of the deal that has been sealed by her Cabinet, and then back to Parliament again, the electorate is likely to be beating the drum of “get on with it!” to their MPs. It is taking time to sink in. So did Medicare in Canada, it had many vocal critics. But it prevailed, and has come to define Canadian life and even identity.

We are facing the scenario of a Minority government in South Africa as well, starting in 2019.

The ANC has bungled governance badly. The economy is still shedding jobs and the Treasury has been looted shamelessly by corrupt officials, up to and including the ex-president. Government appointments were made more by patronage than transparent processes, allowing the plunderers to protect themselves in a clique. This has led to a split – there are clearly two factions within the ANC.

Read also: SA’s shifting political sands – how to avoid a pariah status repeat – Chuck Stephens

This is not unlike Theresa May’s Conservative party – split down the middle over whether to support the deal that has been sealed, or risk the cold turkey “No Deal” scenarios. President Cyril Ramaphosa is slowly culling the bad apples out of his Cabinet, but the 2019 elections are looming.

It rather looks like the ANC has done what Lester Pearson’s Liberals did in the 1960s – they stole the best ideas from the smallest party. In South Africa, that third party is the EFF, and its mantra is Land Reform. The ANC has internalized this imperative in an attempt to re-invent itself before the 2019 elections. It could even be betting on the EFF holding the “balance of power” after the next elections, like the NDP did in Canada in the 1960s.

By the way, the NDP has never been voted into power in Canada at the national level. It did climb to “loyal opposition” status once, and it has formed provincial governments in several provinces. (Canada holds provincial elections as well.) It is a safe bet that the EFF will remain the third party perennially. But if the ANC sinks below 50% of the seats in the National Assembly, the EFF could find itself holding the balance of power, like the NDP did.

The term “coalition” is not used in Canada. This is because voting is done by ridings – each constituency chooses an MP and sends him or her up to parliament. Whereas in South Africa, we use “the PR system” which leads to “cadre deployment” by the parties. There is patently less “representation” in this voting system – the people do not govern – the party governs.

That is why the Slabbert Commission recommended changes in the way we vote. It suggested a blend of both systems – half being sent up from constituencies and half by “cadre deployment” as always. This would make some MPs and thus the whole of parliament more sensitive to the will of the Electorate.

Cyril Ramaphosa or Mmusi Maimane – one or the other – could soon find themselves with a Minority, less than half of the seats in parliament, but more seats than any other party. Usually this leads us to think of forming formal “coalitions”. But Theresa May is showing us that you can still govern with a Minority. It’s tricky, but it can be done. Especially if you really govern with the best interests of citizens at heart. (As opposed to self-interest, which has been driving the ANC of late.)

Recent surveys have shown that Land Reform is not the top concern of MOST South Africans. Some, yes, for sure. But it is only in 13th place on an averaged list of priorities. That is why one has to wonder about the wisdom of the ANC having effectively stolen the idea of “expropriation of land without compensation” from the EFF. That was a big gamble. If the Majority is more concerned about other issues – like unemployment, state capture or run-away crime – we could conceivably see the DA winning more votes/seats than any other party.

But they are very unlikely to pass the 50% threshold. So they may have to govern with a Minority. Theresa May is showing that this can be done. If Maggie Thatcher was the “iron lady”, then Theresa May is the lady with “nerves of steel”. So was the intrepid Lester Pearson.

May the best woman win.

  • Chuck Stephens has written this article in his own capacity.