Horse-trading commences – Political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga on likely coalitions, concerns about low voter turnout and democracy

In several European countries, the idea of an outright winner in elections is strange, especially in Italy and Germany. In South Africa, where single parties have loomed large, we are about to enter an era of horse-trading with smaller parties able to punch above their weight. As the results of the local government elections of 2021 are tallied, parties are already indicating opponents with whom they will and will not enter into coalitions. And the DA may come to regret that it could not keep Herman Mashaba in the fold. Political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga told BizNews there would not be kingmakers in this election and he has expressed concern about the low voter turnout and what it means for our democracy. – Linda van Tilburg

Ralph Mathekga on how low voter turnout helped the dominant parties:

I think the first indicator of what’s happening is the turnout, which is [turning] out to be quite weak. I mean, I live in Johannesburg. I was driving around the area, even if suburban areas have had quite a good turnout, generally, it looks a little bit more. It has to do with many other issues, but I think the turnout seems to be one of the main big issues here. It’s a question as to how the turnout will be distributed across parties, mostly lower turnout tends to help the main dominant parties. So, it seems the ANC is already struggling along those lines. And as for the Democratic Alliance, a small decline on the margins. The EFF seems to be growing in some areas but not to the point of taking over councils, but they are certainly consolidating as a party.

On the ANC’s performance in Johannesburg and who will be mayor:

Johannesburg is going to be very difficult. It is where the concentration of problems is for the ANC. I don’t see the ANC coming back in Johannesburg strongly. I see Mashaba taking a few seats here and there. I don’t think the ANC will be able to consolidate, in part because it will be almost like going against the law of gravity. There will be no explanation whatsoever for any growth of the ANC in Johannesburg. As for the DA, I think they worry a lot about Herman Mashaba and they should. It would have to be a coalition, there’s no other way it is going to be a coalition. The question will be, will there be too many partners or not? And who will be the main driver of this coalition? The point is that the ANC’s decline is under way. It means it is in nearly the same position as the DA when it comes to crafting a coalition; that the ANC no longer has an upper hand in terms of that big number because if you have got a bigger number, you can easily shop for coalition from smaller parties. But if your numbers are declining, you really need to raise partners for coalition, it will engage you in much longer discussions. That seems to be what the ANC is facing to get into a position where they could get a coalition but they might not get it being placed in the position of the DA. For the DA, it is quite good because it means that the DA is becoming a party to reckon with in those metros. For the ANC, it means that it has less and less of a say in governing [Johannesburg].

On what the local government elections means for the ANC support in future elections:

When it comes to local government elections, if you focus a lot on the national picture, you’re not getting what’s happening because you need to understand and take into consideration the distribution of the losses; that even if the ANC can lose in your metros, in Johannesburg, they will still remain relatively stable in certain areas, in most of the municipalities in rural areas. There’s no doubt about that, in my view. And then when you start to tally it, looking at the density in urban areas compared to those areas, you end up with the picture that says the ANC is below this percent. But if you start looking at the actual number of municipalities run by the ANC, they’re quite higher than others. So, we need to be very careful. Local government requires the disaggregation of those municipalities to understand the distribution of gains and the distribution of losses across metros versus your local municipalities.

On the smaller parties being the kingmakers:

The problem is, when you have the majority party losing more votes and you have the majority party – the once-dominant party – almost in a position of the opposition parties, potentially it could mean you have no kingmakers in this election. Especially if you have multiple opposition parties that can easily exchange and craft. And just remember, if the ANC and the DA are both closer to forming a coalition, it means they will be shopping in the same place but not necessarily in the same direction. They will be shopping across different parties. So, you have the main parties becoming weaker and it means they need more players in the coalition. It means you actually have multiple kingmakers. All oppositions count now.

On possible coalitions in Johannesburg:

We need to start with the mathematics of it, and it tells you the ANC will most likely get the higher number. Mathematically, it means it is the party that is quite well positioned to form a coalition. If you look at their relationship with the EFF, they can move in that direction. The EFF can work with the ANC without the EFF incurring liability. They’ve done it. But for the DA, it becomes difficult. Which side are you going to look for in the coalition in Johannesburg? Are you going to look in Mashaba’s direction? But Mashaba does not want to be followed back into the DA. It makes it difficult for him to work with the DA. Therefore, it means that the DA could end up being one of the most isolated parties with the higher number, but yet unable to craft a coalition. It’s complex. That’s what I’m trying to say.

On the reason for the low voter turnout:

Many issues have got to do with the mere fact that parties had only six weeks to start dealing with an unfamiliar campaign finance regime with the disclosure of finance. So, if you look for a single factor, you are not going to find it. The pandemic itself; people have got an attitude towards gatherings. Add to that the existing issue relating to local government, the general disaffection. These elections were in the most unfavourable conditions possible.

On how the IEC came out after reports of ballot boxes being stuffed with ballot papers, and Helen Zille being removed from a voting station:

It’s been tough for the ANC. The IEC has had to be told by the court it should go ahead with the elections while it expected the opposite, a postponement. It’s been tough from the get-go, unprecedented elections, indeed. But I think they held high. They held well. Those issues you’re pointing out are quite unfortunate. Do they colour the broader election? No. I think parties were almost all equitably unsafe by the circumstances.

The image [of the IEC] has not necessarily been tarnished. It takes a while; it does not take one election. I think people also need to understand the conditions that the IEC was working in. All of us, including myself. I mean, I was against the postponement of the elections but I expected it to be postponed because I thought it was a reasonable thing [to do]. So, for the IEC organising the election under the pandemic, I don’t really think it should get us to a point where we cross the line of the IEC. It will be under close watch because of these elections. I think there will be a much, much more intense look at the IEC’s processes in the next elections and this is just how democracy goes. But generally, do we have credibility problems with these elections? Not as far as I’m concerned.

On how low voter turnout and apathy impact the democratic process:

It’s a concern when people don’t show up. It shows that a nation that has had such a high turnout suddenly tends to be sceptical about the ability of democratic processes to bring about changes in their lives. This is an indictment on democratic processes and this is quite a problem. I’ve battled with the problem myself. But I think we need to seriously [consider] how much of the poor performance of government is a greater risk for democracy beyond a party [that] is a greater risk to democracy and how people relate to democracy. We are almost at that point. And again, you cannot [give] people three bad choices and expect them to go out there and exercise their choice. If they think the choice will not lead to anything, they’ve got the right not to vote; that is raising legitimacy questions about the system.


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