Election’24: Is the ANC-MPC coalition the “least worst option”? – Katzenellenbogen

In the tumultuous landscape of South African politics, the Democratic Alliance (DA) finds itself at a crossroads, navigating the delicate balance of power dynamics within the Multi-Party Charter (MPC). While maintaining a strategic silence on potential coalitions, DA leader John Steenhuisen hints at the possibility of an uneasy alliance with the ANC to stave off what he terms the “doomsday alliance” with radical populist parties. With the ANC’s power waning and internal strife looming, the MPC faces critical decisions that could shape the nation’s political future.

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By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*

The Democratic Alliance (DA) prefers to remain silent on the possibilities of a coalition, as whatever it says tends to upset other members of the Multi Party Charter (MPC), its pre-election coalition.

But DA leader John Steenhuisen told the Mail and Guardian that a DA-ANC coalition ‘might be the least worst option’ to prevent the ‘doomsday alliance’. That alliance would be the ANC and the radical populist parties: the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the uMkhonto we Sizwe Party (MK).

The official position of the DA is that such a coalition with the ANC will be discussed with its MPC allies should this come up after the election.

Should the ANC only fall a few seats short in the National Assembly, it is highly likely that it would put out the call to the small parties to join a government.

If the polls are any guide, an ANC-DA alone and an ANC-MPC coalition are certainly mathematically possible. Take the most recent poll conducted for the Social Research Foundation (SRF), which is not too far from the others in this election cycle. In this poll, the ANC received 38 percent, the DA, 25 percent, MK, 13 percent, the EFF, 11 percent, all the small parties, 9 percent, and the Inkatha Freedom party, 5 percent.

An ANC-DA coalition would, if this poll holds true on 29 May, have 63 percent of the vote, which amounts to a comfortable majority. In this poll, all the MPC parties combined, given a reasonable assumption about support for small parties, gained a 35 percent share of the vote. The vote for individual small parties does not show up in the SRF poll, as they lie within the poll’s margin of error of 2.8 percent. For the purposes of this exercise, assume that the DA’s small MPC partners and Inkatha, also an MPC member, bring in 5 percent each. That would add ten percent to the DA’s 25 percent, and allow the MPC to contribute 35 percent.

That is just short of the 38 percent the ANC obtains in the SRF poll, and would allow the MPC to exercise a fair amount of bargaining power.

Centrifugal forces

If parties in the MPC want to uphold their principles, they will have far stronger bargaining power by acting as a group, rather than individually. But in the face of centrifugal forces on the MPC generated by ANC lures of power and better pay for cabinet ministers, the MPC could splinter.

The SRF figures show that an ANC link-up with small parties alone could be a hard push, as it will only total 47 percent, if the SRF numbers are taken as a guide. That might force the ANC to woo either the EFF, MK, or Inkatha alone into its coalition.  An ANC coalition with the EFF and MK would have 62 percent support, if the numbers in the SRF poll hold. 

There are multiple problems with the MPC joining the ANC in a coalition. First, a decision will have to be made on whether this is a good thing.  The second problem will be to decide who gets what in the coalition. The best way to reach decisions on both would be to give each party a weighted vote based on the percentage received on 29 May.

If the DA does go into a ruling coalition or even a government of national Unity (GNU), what will happen to its core principles and policies?

 The DA is against Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, and wants Eskom privatised and the National Health Insurance project scrapped. It is against Expropriation Without Compensation.

DA and ANC positions on these core issues are in direct contradiction with each other. Would the ANC be prepared to compromise to get the MPC as a partner, or will the party go for its next best alternative?

Massive damage

The DA would do itself massive damage if those core ANC policies were implemented on its watch. After all, the very purpose of such a coalition would be to stop the radical populist parties being in government. 

And what sort of cabinet seats would the MPC obtain?

It should certainly refuse the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture and insist, with its near 50 percent stake in the coalition, that it gets a few key departments, like Home Affairs, Energy, Finance, and International Relations.

With the large number of ANC cadres deployed throughout the civil service, the MPC would face tough problems at the outset in giving instructions. But this is a battle that the MPC will have to fight anyway, whether they come into power as part of a coalition with the ANC, or one day, as an elected government.

The high-ups in the ANC are probably split over whether a coalition with the MPC or the EFF and MK is more desirable. President Cyril Ramaphosa, if he is in fact moderate, would probably favour a coalition with the MPC, but the Deputy President, Paul Mashatile, is reportedly close to Julius Malema, the EFF’s Commander in Chief.

The ANC is well aware that the DA runs things far better than they do, and having the MPC on board would be of great help in preventing state collapse. Business might be forthright and tell the ANC that it should work with the DA.

The DA would need to lay down stringent conditions if it were to enter such an arrangment. The conditions would include having the authority to run the departments in which they have ministerial responsibility without interference. The DA should also insist on appointing its own departmental officials. 

All parties

The ANC is not used to having conditions imposed on it. And to avoid internal arguments with a DA role, the ANC might rather offer all parties that obtain National Assembly seats a role in a GNU.

In a GNU arrangement, the ANC would have less power than it would in a coalition with either the MPC or the EFF and MK. A GNU would result in a substantial reduction in its power of patronage. But it would give the ANC the necessary majority to push through with its agenda, and even if a few parties depart from the GNU, the arrangement would not collapse.

Whatever the type of coalition government emerges after the election, ANC power will be reduced. That will mean the increased chance of further splits in the party.

Those with ambitions will increasingly be thwarted within the ANC, as the ANC will have less patronage at its disposal. They might think that the best path to power for themselves is to form a splinter party. Come the next election in 2029, the ANC might be a lot weaker.

With this prospect, the MPC might well be better off not joining a coalition after this election and might decide to wait for 2029.  But Steenhuisen is right, ‘the least worst option’ for now is to prevent the radical populists from having a role in government. The MPC can then at least say it tried to prevent the worst.

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Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*  is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission