Now that the Local Government Elections 2021 (LGE 2021) has been concluded and the results proclaimed by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), a new democratic and political landscape has been set into motion, namely the manifestation of coalition arrangements. Whether it was the intention of the electorate to compel political parties into such engagements, a signal of frustration with the dominance of a single political party system or better yet a realignment of the political spectrum, South Africa has reached the next impetus in the road to consolidation of its democratic trajectory.
With that said, and considering the current state of affairs related to the protracted nature of coalition negotiations and the rigid dynamics that informs the posturing of the political parties, the challenge going forward is how political actors will reorient themselves and re-align their stance towards changes in voter behavior and adapt to an electoral setting that appears, for all intents and purposes, shifting away from a ‘winner take all’ mentality.
Several lessons that emerged from LGE 2021 illustrated that political parties have found themselves caught in their own existential dilemma of being unable to gauge the changing nature of the country’s electoral identity. Some of these are discussed below based on what this author felt was the missing middle that now informs the question: Ready To Govern: The Dawn of Coalition Politics?
Lesson 1: Muted references to Coalition Strategies
It was curious to see little, if any, reference to coalition strategies when political parties were on their treadmill of the election campaign trail. At this junction one would expect that with most surveys predicting a lower than normal voter turnout and commentaries and research insights pointing to coalitions becoming a significant feature for the LGE 2021, that the doyens of learned political parties (with their own internal machinery and sage advice) would have been able to assess the electoral structural conditions and, at least, reference what their coalition strategy would look like, even if it was in a broad outline.
To be clear a strategy is defined ‘as a plan of action to achieve a long-term or overall aim’ according to the Oxford dictionary. Add to this the concept of an electoral coalition strategy, then we are have a more complex definition which essentially points to ‘an adaptation or complex adaptations …. that serves or appears to serve an important function in achieving evolutionary success’. Though this is not to dismiss that principles, values, and rules serve as key characteristics of what a coalition strategy should look like. But so too should be indications of flexibility and understanding of what is the general direction of the coalition engagement.
While some of the above elements are present in the current coalition talks and possible arrangements, the underlying issue is that there was not enough focus and discussion or even emphasis of what the overall coalition strategy would be. At most political parties seemed insular, only referencing what their stance would be towards who they would align with based on their value propositions and, of course the non-negotiable position towards the ruling African National Congress as a possible coalition partner.
It appeared bizarre for political parties not being able to see the trees from the forest of what was to become an indelible shift in the country’s democratic positioning. More interestingly none seemed to consider the momentum of what was imminent and seize the opportunity to actually be innovative, ‘beat the odds’ and orient their election manifestos towards coalition politics and strategies. This was an ideal context for political parties to show their maturity but sadly one that was prematurely overlooked. As a radio show presenter remarked caustically when this point was raised: ‘maturity of political parties, really?’
This muted approach in actually providing a roadmap to coalition strategies has to be more than who will be consulted.
Lesson 2: Shifting away from Majoritarianism by Fragmenting the Vote
The second trend to emerge from the LGE 20210 is the shift away from a majoritarian rule of democracy. For the ANC this was at the heart of its traction in how it articulated and approached the negotiations of the political transition and the framing of its democratic identity. Now this approach has been put under the spotlight, not least for its viability.
But this does not mean that opposition parties have made inroads into recalibrating the status quo away from a majoritarian democracy.
Rather it is the electorate that is becoming more perceptive in how they interpret the dynamics of their electoral footprint. Since 2016 the signals were becoming clear that democracy by numbers or percentage of the share of the vote won is not a sufficient condition. And it is precisely that which has put the LGE 2021 election under the microscope regarding how many voters fragmented their PR and WARD votes between different parties.
This is where political parties have to be street wise and put their astuteness to work in order to understand that it is the electorate, which are actually the puppeteers that are pulling the strings and pushing coalition arrangements based on how they perceive who best serves their interests at the Council versus who comes closest at the Ward level to get things done. The notion that opposition parties single handedly pushed the ANC below 50% and hence broke the ruling party’s hegemonic and majoritarian electoral stranglehold is myopic at best, and smug in the least.
It is significant that political parties do not get caught in their own arrogance before realising when it is too late that they have suffered the same fate as the ruling party. Being humble remains the real test of character for a political party, not power. Power is
meaningless and relative since it is a fluid concept that can easily be taken away in a blink of an eye.
Lesson 3: What room for ideology?
The final issue that has remained fixed in the imagination of political parties is that ideology matters in coalition politics. The point of departure is whether you are on the extreme left of the ideological spectrum, at the centre or on the extreme right, the question that political parties need to be honest about is whether this actually captures the minds of the electorate.
It is unclear whether the electorate sees ideology in the same way as political parties do and who use it as their beacon of what sets them apart. Lets ask ourselves this question about the economy: what is the difference between a market economy and a social market economy. In both of the constructs, growth is key in stimulating the economy which can, in turn, lead to job creation, improve household income, increase the material living conditions of citizens and ultimately enable poverty reduction and generate sustainable socio-economic development. So if both interpretations of the economy are striving for the same expectations that voters want, how do political parties justify that the values they are pursuing are incompatible with those of their counterparts, despite them singing from the same hymn book.
What is blatantly frustrating is the bandying of corruption being the dealmaker in most coalitions talks. Yes corruption is horrific, especially when it reduces one’s life to an undignified existence. But can political parties really find a coalition arrangement that does not come with its own set of demons and political expediencies whether it is unscrupulous individuals who are power hunger and also want their ‘turn to eat’ or where ignorance seems bliss. And for the record can political parties really eliminate corruption, nepotism and patronage networks?
Ideology is nice but it does not solve everyday problems, whih continues to deepen the immiserating conditions of the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable.
The LGE 2021 has shown that the electorate is no longer complacent or can be taken for granted. If anything political parties can no longer be oblivious to the country’s evolving electoral ecosystem. The so called representatives of the people cannot be sea blind by their conditioning and reductionist approach, which defines electoral politics and democratic outcomes in a linear context. The time has come to recognise that it cannot be the usual rhetoric; song and dance that is going to appeal to the imagination of a discerning electorate.
Political parties have entered the eye of the storm in South Africa’s democratic shift when it comes to coalition politics. Their mettle will not be determined of whether they are able to establishing majority or minority governing coalition councils. Instead it will be judged on whether such coalition arrangements do not intensify voter dissatisfaction, push more
eligible voters to stay away from the polls or heightening innate views that political parties are more about their side of the mirror than realising that the mirror has two faces.
As the country waits to see how these acute coalition talks pan out, the bigger concern is whether actors in coalition arrangements are ready to govern.
Sanusha Naidu is an analyst based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed here are personal.