Municipal polls likely to yield more coalition govts than in 2016, say analysts

Coalition governments are a fact of life in South Africa, thanks to its proportional system of representation, while the impact of low voter turnout on the once-mighty African National Congress (ANC) makes hung councils more, not less, inevitable in municipalities across the country.

FILE: An Independent Electoral Officer (IEC) opens a ballot box as counting begins at the Addington Primary School after voting ended at the sixth national general elections in Durban, on 8 May 2019. Picture: AFP

CAPE TOWN - South Africa is likely to emerge from the local government elections with more hung councils than in 2016, which will trigger horse-trading and bartering for positions.

Stable coalitions can lead to more inclusive government and more accountability, with parties watching each other for malfeasance or missteps.

But they can also be fragile and unstable, where a single small party can hold bigger ones to ransom for powerful positions, or political spats can lead to their collapse, with consequences for communities as service delivery suffers.

When the election results start flooding in, and it becomes clear there are going to be metros or municipalities where no one party has the 50% plus one majority to form a government, the bartering and back-room talks get under way in earnest, often on the back of loose deals already sealed in the run-up to polling day.

Coalition governments are a fact of life in South Africa, thanks to its proportional system of representation, while the impact of low voter turnout on the once-mighty African National Congress (ANC) makes hung councils more, not less, inevitable in municipalities across the country.

But coalition governments have tended to be unstable and fragile, with shifting allegiances and walkouts leading to their sometimes repeated collapse, with dire implications for service delivery.

That’s probably the main reason that voters generally don’t like them.

Independent elections analyst Dawie Scholtz said that it was not set in stone, but the 1 November local government elections were likely to yield coalition governments in much the same metros as in 2016.

“Certainly Nelson Mandela Bay is quite likely, Tshwane is quite likely – Johannesburg is less likely but very possible – Ekurhuleni is less likely but very possible, and then an outside possibility is eThekwini. Cape Town would be a shocker; I think it’s unlikely.”

Scholtz says there are between 20 and 50 smaller municipalities scattered across the country that either already have coalition governments or where party majorities were very marginal.

“So if there’s a shift… there is a tier of municipalities that are close to flipping into coalition territory.”

Professor David Everatt of the Wits School of Governance said that a survey it carried out in May showed that 80% of respondents would prefer an outright winner to govern, rather than a coalition.

“The public opinion of coalitions is very, very low and hostility to them is very, very high. We posed questions from coalitions are the way forward to I never want a coalition, I want a clear winner. the latter question gets about 80% agreement.

“We’ve been doing coalitions since our first democratic government but I think that in the last five years, the local sphere has become so dysfunctional and so corrupt under a series of completely opportunistic coalitions, that coalitions and corruption are becoming synonymous.”

When the Democratic Alliance (DA) urges voters not to split the opposition vote by voting for other, smaller parties, it is because it wants to govern unfettered and be in charge of who gets to be mayor, deputy mayor and Speaker and decide who fills other key posts, like municipal manager or chief financial officer.

The party’s then-leader, Helen Zille, cobbled together a coalition with six other parties in Cape Town in 2006 and then managed it successfully, laying the basis for the party to win a majority the next time around.

But there’s been chaos in other metros – most notably Nelson Mandela Bay, where the United Democratic Movement (UDM), with only a handful of votes, held out for the mayoral chain after the 2016 elections, resulting in an executive that bore little resemblance to how people actually voted. Tshwane saw similar upheavals as the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) tried – and failed – to get along.

Professor Jaap de Visser, of the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), said that in countries like the Netherlands and in Scandinavia, there was clear evidence that coalition governments produced more stable and inclusive governments. But that’s not the case here.

“Coalition governments have been unstable and not good for service delivery or governance. My assessment is that parties enter into coalition negotiations and try to sustain coalitions with purely opportunistic behaviour.

“If you want to make coalitions work in the bigger scheme of things, you have to adopt the principle of don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you.”

De Visser said that parties went into coalitions thinking that it would be the first and last they would be part of and were determined to grab the most power they could, whatever the consequences.
By contrast, northern countries have, over centuries, developed ways to govern how coalitions operate.

There’s no legal framework governing coalitions in South Africa. Some parties might draw up coalition agreements, but these are never made public, something that the experts agree should change.

De Visser: “You can’t negotiate a coalition in public, it is simply impossible. But what they do demand [in other countries] is that once there is an outcome there is an agreement and that is made public, because that is essentially the programme of that government and citizens have a right to know.”

Professor Susan Booysen, research director at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) has edited a book, aptly called Marriages of inconvenience: The politics of coalitions in South Africa.

She refers to the “dark side” of coalitions, the backroom deals where minor parties can gain disproportionate power and also drive hard bargains for opportunities for patronage.

Booysen said that sometimes small parties used their leverage to dictate policies that would help their communities “but in many cases, these micro-parties that come in on these disproportionate power bases, just do not show any evidence for what they should be doing in return for the community.”

The upshot is often a council that doesn’t reflect the will of the electorate and where service delivery suffers because of destructive political battles.

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