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Coalitions are turning out to be slightly less formidable and predictable than many assumed – but it’s early days and playing nicely, or at least constructively together, isn’t a discipline learned overnight. At a national level we’ve been a one-party state for decades. Provincially, it’s only really the Western Cape that has any real experience in this arena. What’s becoming clearer is South Africa’s political spectrum is rife with turncoats. Those willing to disregard formal agreements and bargain for greater position and power when the going gets tough. Perhaps that’s politics – it’s an ugly game after all. The DA-led coalition agreement has turned out not to be worth the paper it was written on as councillors from many of the smaller parties voted with their “conscience” and booted out their very own coalition partners in Joburg. The ANC and EFF – who have become somewhat closer in recent months – have smelt blood in the water and will be smiling all the way to their respective council chambers throughout South Africa where the DA leads, or in the case of Johannesburg, led a municipality. Motions of no confidence are being prepped and the DA-led coalitions involving COPE and the Patriotic Alliance now out of the fold can – barring some pretty slick politicking in the background – kiss those councils goodbye. The piece below by Jonathan Katzenellenbogen was first published in the Daily Friend. – Michael Appel
Coalitions and the problem of the small parties
By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen
The DA-led coalitions in metros across Gauteng might soon be history, for the time being, as the ANC puts its new support base in place. The anti-ANC and EFF coalitions proved fragile.
According to City Press, the ANC and EFF have done the deals to take back the three metros from the DA. Without support from Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance (PA), and Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA , the former anti-ANC, DA-led coalition in Johannesburg cannot be put together again.
The DA-led coalition had a margin of just ten votes in a council of 270. In the DA camp, the DA itself had 77 seats, ActionSA held 44, the Patriotic Alliance held 8, the IFP, seven, the Freedom Front Plus, four, the ACDP, three, and COPE, ATM, and UIM had one councillor each. The DA Mayor fell after the Patriotic Alliance plus some of the micro-parties in the DA camp went over to the ANC.
Despite a well-crafted coalition agreement in Johannesburg and lots of hope, it all fell apart, largely because there was a lack of good will from the start. Clearly some sort of better deal has emerged from the ANC and EFF for ActionSA, the Patriotic Alliance and the DA’s other former coalition partners, who accused the party of unspecified “arrogance”.
In an article on News24 over the weekend, Helen Zille argued that coalitions in the country are currently unstable due to the role played by smaller parties. To ensure greater stability, she suggested changing the law to allow only parties that achieve a certain threshold to be represented on councils and parliament.
South Africa is one of the few countries with a proportional representation system for elections that does not require parties to have a certain threshold of the popular vote to be represented. Most thresholds range from two percent in many countries to five percent, as is the case in Germany. To win seats in the Riksdag, Sweden’s Parliament, a party must obtain at least four percent of the national popular vote, or twelve percent in a constituency.
Zille wrote that the smaller parties tend to be more divided, and that is the primary reason they abandon coalitions. A small party’s participation in a coalition becomes an easy point of dispute, and then leverage, to try and get rid of a leader. Smaller parties know that the only way they can get close to power is by becoming part of a coalition. That is why they tend to be the easiest to buy, with promises of power and position.
If there had been a five percent threshold for election to the current National Assembly in 2019, the only parties that would have seats would be the ANC, DA, and EFF. Eleven parties which currently achieved a nearly six percent combined share would not have any seats. That would lower the number of parties from 14 to three in Parliament.
A lowering of the threshold of the popular vote needed for a seat from five percent to two percent would bring in just two other parties – the Inkatha Freedom Party, 3.38 percent of the vote, and the Freedom Front Plus, 2.38 percent. Setting the threshold at one percent of the vote would not bring in any more parties. Nine parties in Parliament were all unable to obtain one percent of the vote.
Based on last year’s election, there are presently 18 political parties on the Johannesburg City Council, but only the ANC, DA, EFF, and ActionSA would be represented if the five percent threshold were used. There are a host of minnow parties on the Johannesburg Council, many of whom might well disappear after the next election, only to be replaced by new ones.
A change in the electoral laws could be a big undertaking and might not find much support. The Constitution says an election should result, “in general, in proportional representation.”
That could mean that any changes to the Electoral Act which governs national elections, and the Municipal Systems Act which provides the framework for local government elections might be challenged in the Constitutional Court, says Mark Oppenheimer, a constitutional lawyer. The threshold could not result in the exclusion of the votes of too large a portion of the electorate if it was to win a challenge in the Constitutional Court. What “too large” would have to be is unknown.
Electoral threshold requirements for political party representation can work in various ways. If the portion of a party’s votes fall below a threshold, the share of seats might then be apportioned to other parties on the basis on which they achieved electoral support. Another method would be to allow fluctuations in the number of seats in a Parliament. Best of all would be a single transferable vote system which allowed voters to rank the parties, and if their first choice did not make it, their second choice might be counted.
But is it in the interests of the large political parties to change the system?
In last year’s local government elections, smaller parties ate away at DA support. That might be a good reason to see such parties throttled. Having a high barrier to entry could also act as a disincentive for voters to support smaller parties, as there is a high chance of a wasted vote. On the other hand the DA might take the view that the opposition to the ANC will be broad and many small parties could be a source of support for DA coalitions.
It is not clear that the smaller parties are the pack of wild dogs that can bring down the ANC, as many have shown that they can also switch sides. But in time, many could help bring down the ANC. So the DA should be very wary of trying to restrict them with the imposition of thresholds.
The ANC also has a great deal to be concerned about. While former ANC voters tend not to vote at present, many will ultimately go somewhere, and this might be to non-EFF smaller parties. But some smaller parties can clearly be wooed to keep the ANC in power.
If there is a large share of voters for small parties that are not able to achieve National Assembly representation, this could cause immense frustration. The ANC and the DA will have to play their cards on this one with immense care.
So don’t hold your breath waiting for thresholds to impose some order on South African politics. We will just have to live with the instability. Perhaps the greatest discipline for the smaller parties will come when the electorate punishes them for being part of ANC-led coalitions.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.
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