Parties face numbers game
Horse trading carries risks for small parties
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.