Par­ties face num­bers game

Horse trad­ing car­ries risks for small par­ties

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - CRAIG DODDS

FROM the mo­ment re­sults start trick­ling in af­ter Wed­nes­day’s elec­tions, po­lit­i­cal party strate­gists will go into an arith­meti­cal frenzy as they cal­cu­late the per­mu­ta­tions and their bear­ing on pos­si­ble coali­tions with other par­ties.

In ev­ery coun­cil where there is no clear win­ner, the hag­gling will be­gin.

In many cases vot­ers will be re­duced to help­less spec­ta­tors as the man­date they en­trusted to their party of choice is sold for the po­lit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of a bag of sil­ver – the chance to gov­ern.

In­di­ca­tions that the ANC will con­tinue the trend of grad­ual – but in metro ar­eas ac­cel­er­at­ing – de­clines in its over­all sup­port lev­els from one elec­tion to the next sug­gest this one will de­liver more coali­tions than ever.

But, if this sce­nario ma­te­ri­alises, smaller par­ties who see in it the chance to ex­er­cise real power in the un­wanted role of “king­mak­ers”, may wish to con­sider the risks that go with jump­ing into bed with one of the big­ger play­ers.

The most telling cau­tion­ary tale from this coun­try may be the coali­tion with seven min­nows the DA stitched to­gether to take con­trol of Cape Town in 2006.

Most of those par­ties no longer ex­ist – hav­ing been swal­lowed whole with­out so much as a belch of in­di­ges­tion by the DA – and those that do have been hugely di­min­ished by the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It’s a risky busi­ness,” said Pro­fes­sor Steven Fried­man, direc­tor of the Cen­tre for the Study of Democ­racy, “be­cause if you don’t go in you’re seen to be ir­rel­e­vant and very of­ten you’re seen to be be­ing dif­fi­cult be­cause it means how is a govern­ment go­ing to be formed in that area.

“To be blunt, politi­cians like be­ing in of­fice,” Fried­man said.

The prob­lem is the po­lit­i­cal risks are high – if not for the politi­cians, who would have a job in govern­ment, then for those who voted for them.

“They may well find they’ve just been ig­nored.”

Smaller par­ties, in par­tic­u­lar, would strug­gle to get their man­dates in­cluded in the pro­gramme of the new coun­cil, leav­ing their vot­ers feeling be­trayed.

Cau­tion­ary ex­am­ples from the 2014 gen­eral elec­tions in­clude a mooted Cope coali­tion with the DA that never took off be­cause the party mem­ber­ship be­lieved it would alien­ate its sup­port base and the ill-starred at­tempted coali­tion between Agang and the DA which brought an abrupt halt to Mam­phela Ram­phele’s fledg­ling po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

“Those two are cau­tion­ary tales, be­cause, never mind your vot­ers, your party struc­tures are not sim­ply peo­ple who are there to take in­struc­tions and go with what­ever the lead­er­ship de­cides,” Fried­man said.

At least some party mem­bers would be ask­ing whether a pro­posed coali­tion would strengthen the party or weaken it.

This was a par­tic­u­lar con­cern for the EFF, likely to find it­self in the king­maker role in a few coun­cils with the equally un­palat­able choice of ei­ther the ANC or the DA as a part­ner.

“Pol­i­tics is a strange an­i­mal,” Fried­man said, “but I’m not sure how they would be able to jus­tify a coali­tion with ei­ther the ANC or the DA.

“The ANC, you say it’s run by a cor­rupt, evil man, and then you go into a coali­tion with it, and you say the DA is a sort of lackey of white cap­i­tal and then you gov­ern with it.”

A “clas­sic cau­tion­ary tale” from world pol­i­tics is the Lib­eral Democrats’ coali­tion with the Con­ser­va­tive party in the UK which all but de­stroyed its sup­port base.

“First of all they went in, os­ten­si­bly, to get a ref­er­en­dum on pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and they were hu­mil­i­ated in the ref­er­en­dum – no­body seems to have thought about try­ing to work out if they were go­ing to win the thing or not – and then their base left them be­cause they said, you just rub­ber­stamp what­ever the Tories are do­ing and if we want to vote for the Tories we’ll vote for the Tories’.”

He said te EFF’s sup­port for land in­va­sions was another ex­am­ple of an un­ten­able con­tra­dic­tion it would bring to any gov­ern­ing coali­tion.

In the­ory this shouldn’t mat­ter be­cause this tac­tic, com­monly used in Latin Amer­ica, to gain power, might be dropped im­me­di­ately the ob­jec­tive was achieved.

“What some­times hap­pens in Latin Amer­ica, which I sup­pose would be an in­ter­nal prob­lem for the EFF, is that some parts of the party carry on do­ing it, be­cause they’re not in power,” Fried­man said.

Given all th­ese dif­fi­cul­ties, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing coali­tions in­volv­ing the “big three”, Fried­man said it was pos­si­ble there would be mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ments in­stead of coali­tions in some coun­cils.

This was pos­si­ble for as long as there was no no-con­fi­dence vote in the gov­ern­ing party and the bud­get was not re­jected.

It was a po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion by the other par­ties to al­low another party to gov­ern be­cause they re­alised they would not win a fresh elec­tion. “Then of course, which does make pol­i­tics very in­ter­est­ing, on all the other is­sues, if you want to win you have to go and lobby all the other par­ties and cob­ble to­gether a ma­jor­ity,” Fried­man said.

On the other hand, it was pos­si­ble they would form coali­tions re­gard­less of the risks be­cause of “the abil­ity of politi­cians to sim­ply ig­nore their con­stituen­cies”.


A wo­man gets help while cast­ing her vote. Af­ter the vot­ing the real ac­tion takes place as par­ties try to make coali­tions to grab power. And in many cases, vot­ers will be re­duced to help­less spec­ta­tors.

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