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21 December 2014 08:36 (South Africa)
South Africa

July by-elections: General election aftershocks and other observations

  • Wayne Sussman & Paul Berkowitz
  • South Africa
byelections-July-2014.jpg

There are problems with analysing municipal by-election data compared with, say, the data from a general election. The elections are sporadic and turnouts are low; the data also suffer from self-selection bias to a degree. That hasn’t stopped PAUL BERKOWITZ and WAYNE SUSSMAN from teasing out eight trends worth highlighting.

1. It’s an ANC and DA show

Political power, at least at the local level, is becoming ever more concentrated in the two big parties. Less than 5% of all wards are in the hands of smaller parties and independents, and that figure continues to fall.

Every so often there is a reversal of fortune, usually at the hands of an independent candidate with grass-roots support, but the general trend is for the ANC and DA to do one of three things: retain their wards; win wards off each other; or take wards off the smaller parties.

Running an election campaign, even for a ward by-election, requires resources. Increasingly, the ANC and DA are the only parties with pockets deep enough to campaign successfully, and there’s an increase in ward by-elections where they are the only two parties contesting.

2. The DA is improving its share of the vote

The DA fielded candidates in 17 of the 20 wards on Wednesday (the party didn’t contest in Ntabankulu, Endumeni or Hlabisa). In 15 of these 17 wards the party increased its share of the vote, compared with the 2011 elections.

Its share of the vote fell in only two wards: in the Mayfair ward which it lost to the ANC, and in the Knysna ward where its share of the vote fell marginally from 78% in 2011 to 75% on Wednesday. In the former ward there’s an argument to be made that the party faced unusual circumstances, losing a small chunk of the vote to an independent candidate in a ward where there is visible discontent.

The DA has been increasing its share of the vote in more and more by-elections, particularly over the last 18 months. Why is this? Its detractors could make a couple of claims that might explain this trend.

Firstly, they could claim that the party is merely shoring up its vote in wards where it has a safe incumbency. This is true in some wards but not all: the DA won over 75% of the vote in 2011 in seven of the 13 wards it defended, but it won 62% or less in the other six wards. Three of these wards were very marginal and there the DA received 51% or less of the vote in 2011.

Secondly, they could claim that the low voter turnout in most by-elections favours the incumbent party. The evidence for this claim is unconvincing: other parties don’t benefit from their incumbency to the same degree as the DA. In addition, the party increased the absolute number of votes it received in three wards on Wednesday (in Randfontein, KwaDukuza and Kai !Garib) in spite of the lower turnout in these wards.

Lastly, they could claim that the DA is campaigning harder in the by-elections than other parties do. It’s true that the party has increased its visibility and its ground campaign since the 2011 municipal elections but it’s impossible to quantify or compare the DA’s campaigning with other parties. In any event, the ANC and other parties also campaign strenuously in the lead-up to by-elections.

3. The ANC has lost ground in most wards

The corollary of the DA’s growth in by-elections has been the retreat of the ANC in most wards. The party lost a share of the vote in 16 of the 20 wards on Wednesday, growing only in two of the Ethekwini wards, in Kai !Garib and in Knysna. The biggest losses, in percentage points, were in two ANC incumbencies (Ntabankulu and Endumeni).

The ANC is by far the biggest incumbent across all constituencies and generally has the most to lose, but the party is losing too much ground both where it is in power and where it is in opposition. It’s difficult to extrapolate from by-election results, with their low turnouts, but the party should be worried.

4. The EFF is still not contesting by-elections

The party that has dominated the headlines for the last few months is invisible on the local government scene. The EFF hasn’t contested a single ward since it was formed.

The party may be building up its regional structures with a view to contest future local elections but there’s no evidence of this yet. If you go by media reports, the EFF is preoccupied with its upcoming national conference and its redefinition of the dress codes in various provincial legislatures.

Does this low profile hurt the party’s chances in future elections? It’s hard to say – until it decides to actually contest those elections.

5. The Minority Front continues to bleed, along with other small parties

The Minority Front (MF) lost two wards on Wednesday to the DA and it didn’t bother to field candidates in three other KwaZulu-Natal wards that it had contested in 2011. The party only won a handful of Ethekwini wards in the 2011 municipal elections and had lost a couple of those before Wednesday.

The future for the party is bleak, and it may not even contest the 2016 municipal elections if this trend continues. Other parties (such as COPE, the UDM, the PAC and the FF+) are faring just as poorly in by-elections. COPE lost a Northern Cape ward on Wednesday, the very province where it has its biggest constituency.

There are pockets of resistance – the PAC won a ward from the ANC in 2013 and the NFP took 7% of the vote in an Ekurhuleni ward on Wednesday, up from 2% in 2011 – but these are exceptions.

6. Turnout falls sharply, apart from marginal wards and contested areas

In the overwhelming majority of by-elections, voter turnout is lower than in general municipal elections. For the wards that have been contested in by-elections between 2011 and 2014, average voter turnout has been 38%, compared with a turnout of 58% in the 2011 elections for the same wards.

This average (38%) is skewed upwards by the minority of wards with persistently high turnouts. Most of the wards with high turnouts for by-elections are in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. In KwaZulu-Natal there is heated competition between the ANC, IFP and NFP, while the ANC and DA battle it out in the Western Cape.

By-elections are not held on a public holiday and lower voter turnout is to be expected. Where turnout is high there’s usually an interesting story to go with the ward – sometimes the fate of the ward can sway the balance of power in the municipality itself.

7. By-elections continue to be held for party reasons, not because citizens want them

In theory, elections provide a link between the performance of elected officials and the desires of their constituents. In practice, most by-elections are not held because of poor performance by a ward councillor.

At the moment, the aftershocks of the national/provincial elections in May are still being felt. In the latest by-elections, for instance, seven of the DA’s 13 incumbencies were left vacant when the ward councillors left for higher office in provincial legislatures and the national assembly. One or two more DA councillor resignations were triggered by unhappiness at being placed too low on party lists.

In general, and apart from the deaths of councillors in office, by-elections have been triggered by parties and/or councillors, but never at the behest of the voting public.

8. Beware of the independents

If the ANC and DA are doing well and the smaller parties are in decline, what is biggest threat to big party incumbency? It is the independent councillor, sometimes a breakaway from a political party and sometimes a community leader.

Not every independent does well. Many, if not most, tend to be non-starters. On average, you’d still do better to back them over a candidate from a smaller party.

On Wednesday, four independents contested three wards. Three of the independents won more than 25% of the vote in their wards. One independent took a cool 38% of the vote off the ANC in Ntabankulu. Another one helped the ANC to an upset in Mayfair, Johannesburg. The third one was almost unseated the ANC in Endumeni.

For voters that don’t have a home in the ANC and the DA, and have given up on the other parties, an independent candidate is a logical choice. Whether successful independents have any real power in municipal councils is another story. DM

A man makes his mark in a voting booth at the Orlando West High School in South Africa's general elections, in Soweto, South Africa, 07 May 2014. South Africans started voting in general elections expected to keep the ruling African National Congress in power, even if polls said it could lose votes over corruption and enduring poverty. About 25 million voters headed out for the nation's fifth general election since the end of apartheid 20 years ago. EPA/IHSAAN HAFFEJEE

  • Wayne Sussman & Paul Berkowitz
  • South Africa


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