Electoral reform has become something of a clarion call of late as South Africa’s current political system experiences turbulence at different levels, giving rise to a plethora of reform debates. But arguably one of the more important aspects of potential electoral reform is getting far less attention than it deserves, namely, how to limit the damage wrought by multiple short-lived governing coalitions. With 68 mostly coalition governments at national level over the past 76 years, Italy can teach South Africa some valuable lessons.
While coalition governments are nothing new in South Africa at the local government level, developments leading up to next year’s national and provincial elections have for the first time brought about the very real prospect of coalition governments also at those levels. And, with the messy state of affairs with bed-hopping parties in a number of municipal governments setting a very poor example, the need to act pre-emptively to curb possible future coalition damage and governing paralysis has become all the more pressing.
However, most of the focus is currently on the ‘Van Zyl Slabbert model’ of adjusting the proportional representation system at provincial and national level, where political parties with their closed lists currently determine candidates instead of the voters and where the whole system is designed to give a voice in Parliament to parties from the smallest to the biggest on a proportional scale. Instead, those in favour of reforms are seeking a mix that will include more constituency-based, direct representation of the first-past-the-post kind. This will shift accountability and control from parties to voters, much along the lines of the dual system already in place in the local government space.
This has further been underscored by a Constitutional Court instruction to Parliament to make the proportional representation system more compliant with the Constitution by allowing non-party-appointed individuals to stand for election at national and provincial level. Legislation has been prepared in this regard but not yet enacted, and there seems to be no urgency on the part of either the governing party or Parliament, to a large degree, to do so.
Nonetheless, these two developments have caused political parties and legislators to take their eye off the coalition ball. The fact that coalitions are not working well at municipal level despite a dual proportional/constituency electoral system already being in place there, confirms the point that there is a strong case for electoral reform that specifically will limit the negative consequences of unregulated coalition-forming.
This has also been the experience in Italy where a purely proportional representation system brought about extreme political fragmentation in which majorities were hard to obtain. This resulted in minority coalition governments which were inherently unstable because they expected electoral rivals to work together. In turn this caused weak government and poor delivery, and the coalition members would often each pursue only their own interests or jump ship to the highest bidder. This is a pattern that has become all too familiar in South Africa. This instability also facilitated corruption.
In Italy this problem was only partly mitigated when the country’s electoral law was revised in 1993 to allow for a mixed system which included some first-past-the-post elements. While Italy’s coalition governments now on average lasted somewhat longer than before, the instability still continued.
However, short-lived coalitions don’t necessarily lead to instability and corruption, depending on the political culture that guides them. France and Germany are no strangers to coalitions, and since 1946 France has had 76 coalition governments, more than Italy, but the majority having been in the unsettled decade after WWII.
But in both these countries coalitions are more institutionalised and political parties have also been more bound by common objectives. They are steeped in a culture of shared national responsibility and interests, service delivery, and accountability, more so than was or is the case in Italy. In France regular massive civil society pressures have also helped keep the coalitions in line, while Germany’s political culture embraces a greater willingness among parties to act together in a cooperative way. The question is whether South Africa could achieve the same without a regulatory framework for coalitions.
Coalitions in South Africa
With South Africa having opted for a proportional representation system as enshrined in the Constitution, it was always inevitable that sooner or later we would evolve to forming coalition governments. South Africa’s first taste of coalition government occurred already back in 1994 with the multiparty Government of National Unity that succeeded the last apartheid government. And, in the early days of post-1994 democracy, KwaZulu-Natal was governed by a coalition government between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Then came the coalition in the then Cape Town unicity of the early 2000s between the New National Party (NNP) and the Democratic Party (DP) when they formed the Democratic Alliance (DA). Their rule was short-lived, and they were replaced by an ANC-NNP coalition, again short-lived.
In the 2006 local elections, after a brief period of ANC rule, the DA, now minus much of its previous NNP component which had merged with the ANC, emerged as the biggest party but without an outright majority. It became the governing party in coalition with other parties until it won an outright majority in the 2011 local government elections and now governed what had by then become the Cape Town Metro.
Already back then the first DA mayor of Cape Town, Helen Zille, correctly assessed that coalitions would be the future of electoral politics in South Africa. But it was a prediction on which the DA itself failed to act until now to try and regulate and stabilise the political coalition environment.
The municipal elections of 2016 proved to be a turning point as shifts in the political landscape diminished the dominance of the ANC to its lowest election result since 1994, and firmly introduced the era of coalition and minority governments, a trend that has endured since then.
The hitherto dominant ANC had lost substantial ground in both the 2019 general election and the 2021 local elections. This trend continues to be affirmed by opinion polls with some suggesting the ANC’s support could for the first time fall to well below 50% in the 2024 general election. If that occurred, the ANC would have to form a coalition government with another party – at present most likely the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – to remain in power.
To try and counter such a likelihood, the DA has come up with its idea of a pre-election Moonshot Pact in which opposition parties would form a collective with the aim of unseating the ANC or preventing an ANC-EFF government. Several parties seem to be open to the idea, but one party, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), said that it would not agree to entering a coalition before an election, thus raising an important point.
Until now, all municipal coalition governments have only taken shape after elections. In the process the most unlikely partnerships have been formed in marriages of convenience and power hunger; principles and policies flew out the window; and the driving force has unmitigatedly become the quest for power, positions, and control of access to resources, contracts and benefits. Ideology, policies, service delivery and the will of the voters have failed to feature. This could well be countered if political parties agreed to alliances or coalitions before elections and voters elected them on their shared ticket, knowing beforehand what they would be getting.
The absurdity of the current messy coalition dispensation is further demonstrated by recent developments in Gauteng where, much like their horse-trading Italian counterparts, the previously sworn enemies-for-life, the ANC and the EFF, have plotted together to successfully oust existing coalition governments in the province’s metros. However, this has unleashed a game of musical chairs whereby different coalitions have been slipping in and out of power, while good governance and effective service delivery have fallen in the gutter. Many observers believe this to be a precursor or practice run for a possible ANC-EFF national coalition government after next year’s elections.
Power of small parties
Another highly problematic facilitator of unstable coalitions is the extent to which South Africa’s proportional representation system allows the smallest of political parties, often no more than one-man parties, to win seats in legislatures with dismally few votes. Apart from enjoying huge salaries and excellent perks for basically doing nothing, these tiny or one-man parties gain power well above what they deserve, ending up as vital kingmakers in bringing one or the other coalition to power. This in effect has frequently allowed the tail to wag the dog. But they are also the Achilles heel of coalition politics, as they are easily lured away by better offers from a rival coalition, thus causing coalition governments to frequently collapse and change.
In their recent bout of palace coups in the metros of Gauteng, the ANC and EFF seem to have found a way around this weakness. Rather than just persuading small parties to come on board, they have recently placed the inexperienced leaders of tiny, unknown parties in the mayoral seat in two metros. To the ANC and EFF this does not really matter, as they will still be calling the shots behind the scenes for as long as they need these minor leaders, while these stooges cannot easily be lured away from their prized positions with better offers by rival parties/coalitions that would thus topple the ANC-EFF coalition. It also eliminates the likelihood of a bitter fight for the top position between the major coalition partners that would sink the coalition before it got going.
The dangers inherent in such an unregulated coalition environment when duplicated at the national and provincial level in the South African context, should be clear for all to see. Which is why increasingly a variety of entities are calling for a legislative review, a national conversation, or an advisory panel to address regulating the coalition environment.
To suggest that coalitions threaten South Africa’s democracy is nonsense. The democratic culture is by now strongly entrenched, and so is our Constitution. There are sufficient institutions as well as constitutional remedies and safeguards in place. However, chaotic coalitions as seen at local government level, poor governance and lack of delivery, and high levels of corruption, are some of the things that are causing South Africans to lose faith in our democracy, its systems and institutions. In the long term that could be dangerous. But a vibrant, well-regulated coalition environment could arguably only strengthen our democracy.
So, what are the elements that should be considered and possibly be regulated to elevate coalition governance to a more meaningful and productive space? Here are a few thoughts:
Introducing an institutional framework that promotes a political culture of interparty cooperation coupled to greater transparency;
Introducing an electoral threshold for parties to take up seats in legislatures, thus ending the opportunism and abuse of and by small parties to provide coalition majorities – however, this would be difficult to balance in the proportional context with the other current thrust of electoral reform that seeks to allow individuals instead of only parties to run for legislative office;
Readjusting the timeframe within which executive councils are obliged to form;
Finding mechanisms whereby parties would be forced to declare their potential coalition-forming intentions before an election, thus allowing voters to know in advance what they might be getting;
Publishing coalition agreements preferably before elections, but a least then after elections when coalitions are being formed;
Setting up dispute resolution mechanisms; and
Raising the bar for motions of no confidence whereby office holders are removed.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst and journalist. he writes in his personal capacity.