Fewer voters predisposed to any party as historical loyalties wane
THERE’S MUCH MORE TO the “where’s opposition politics in South Africa headed” chatter currently being driven by Mosiuoa Lekota’s decision to lead a splinter party out of the African National Congress. Apart from the irony that, for all their work to the contrary, opposition parties have had nothing to do with a move they’re billing as SA’s historical post-apartheid political alignment, the future of opposition politics doesn’t hinge on whether Lekota’s proposed party will finally usher in an opposition that can do some serious snapping at the heels of power.
Doctoral research conducted for the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Social Science Research uses intense data-based studies to make one thing clear: Voters are looking for something new.
But despite a growing number of eligible voters (the pool increased by 5m in the first 10 years of democracy), fewer and fewer people are registering to vote and fewer are actually voting. Voter turnout in 1994 was 86% against 57% in the last national election in 2004.
Given the political machinations of the past few years, author of the research – Colette Schultz-Herzenberg – anticipates it’s currently at its lowest since 1994. While opposition parties have been the biggest losers in all this, when viewed in the context of dwindling voter turnout the ANC’s increasing share of the vote (69% in 2004) means only one thing: it’s being elected to power by a decreasing number of voters, says SchulzHerzenberg in her report A Silent Revolution: South African Voters in the First Years of Democracy 1994-2006.
Contrary to the muchtouted political presumption that loyalty – especially loyalty to the ANC – is a given in SA’s racialised political landscape, the degree of loyalty to political parties, especially the ruling party, fluctuates between elections and has declined among black African voters, figures in ShultzHerzenberg’s research show.
She says: “There’s a silent revolution under way among SA’s voters. Its characteristics may be found in the increasing number of ‘floating voters’ who aren’t overtly loyal to one particular political party, not guided by long-standing partisan ties. Where party identification was crystallised and reinforced in 1994 by historical factors there are now fewer voters predisposed towards any party.”
Furthermore, as partisanship declines, the majority of voters aren’t transferring allegiance to another party. Instead, they’re becoming non-partisan in attitude. That will make them harder to mobilise.
Party identification (PID) is a widely used indicator of partisan loyalty and measures the extent to which voters “identify with” or “feel close to” political parties, in much the same way that they identify with social groups.
Very high levels of partisanship after the 1994 “liberation” election (88%) started declining, Schulz-Herzenberg’s research shows. Since 1995 no more than 64% of the population has ever stated they feel close to a political party.
In most Western European countries 60% to 70% of voters identify at least somewhat with a party. It stands to reason that decreasing partisanship in SA corresponds with an increasing proportion of “non-partisan” or independent voters. By end2004 the percentage of partisans and independents were almost equal.
Schulz-Herzenberg concedes the lack of interest in political parties of the day doesn’t equate to a lack of interest in politics. In other words, it’s not the voters who are the problem, it’s the political parties who are lost in a quagmire of history, egocentricity and autocratic presumptions about their electorate.
Historical ties, especially the play on the ANC’s rich liberation history, are busy exhausting themselves. Half of the current voting population, according to the Independent Electoral Commission, wasn’t even eligible to vote in 1994 – which means they have no real memories of that history. Furthermore, the ANC itself has noted in recent documents aimed at preparing the party for next year’s election that urban, working class voters are growing increasingly disillusioned with what the freedom years have delivered for them.
“That’s good news,” says Schulz-Herzenberg. It’s a sign of life. The electorate isn’t dumbed out, she says. “Those (parties) that struggle to present genuinely inclusive racial and ethnic imagery will not attract widespread support (in future).” The very reason why the “floating” voters haven’t shifted support between parties is because they’ve moved, surveys show, away from the racial politics of identity and history the current parties find it difficult to move away from.
Spot the difference?