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February by-election: reading the parties’ palms, not the voters’

February by-election: reading the parties’ palms, not the voters’

On Wednesday the residents of seven wards across four municipalities will go to the polls for the sixth round of by-elections since the 2011 elections. At least three of these races will be interesting, as these things go. PAUL BERKOWITZ tries to sex up the IEC numbers.

The IEC announced the details of the sixth round of by-elections earlier this week. Seven wards seats have become vacant. One of these, in Ward 9 in Metsimaholo (Sasolburg), has an ANC candidate running uncontested. The other six wards are in Tshwane (two), Ulundi and Polokwane (three). In one of the Tshwane wards and two of the Polokwane wards, the ANC is expected to retain the seats they won overwhelmingly in the 2011 election.

In the three remaining wards (Tshwane Ward 80, Ulundi Ward 13 and Polokwane Ward 20) the battles promise to be far less one-sided. In Ulundi, where the ward became open upon the death of the incumbent IFP councillor, there’s a three-horse race between the IFP, NFP and the ANC. The late IFP councillor received 47% of the vote, the NFP candidate 32% and the ANC 21%. The NFP has retained their candidate from 2011, Cebolenkosi Tholinhlanhla Gabela, to run again. This ward saw a 59% turnout of all registered voters in 2011, the highest of the seven wards. 

This contest might be a test of whether one of the IFP’s traditional strongholds is still so strong. The IFP has 28 seats in the 47-seat council. A loss would whittle their majority over any NFP-ANC coalition down from nine seats to seven. That’s still a healthy majority, for now.

In Tshwane’s Ward 80 the ANC candidate won with 65% of the vote to the DA’s 28%. That doesn’t sound particularly close. But this ward only saw a 27% turnout in 2011, and the DA campaigned for their candidate fairly heavily on the weekend. (So did the ANC – leading to an almost literal bumping of heads on the streets of Pretoria). The candidate in question, Phuti Kwenaite, also contended in the 2011 elections. She’s the only candidate, apart from the abovementioned Gabela, to achieve this particular double. In 2011 she received 912 votes to the ANC candidate’s 2,149 votes. The DA will be hoping that a lower turnout from ANC voters and sustained support for their woman will enable them to carry the ward.

In Polokwane Ward 20 the race may be the closest of all. In 2011 the ANC won the ward with only 48% of the vote. The DA received 41% of the vote, taking 1,527 votes to the ANC’s 1,772. Cope, the ACDP and the FF+ took 4%, 3% and 2% of the vote respectively. The ANC in the municipality organised a picnic attended by Polokwane’s mayor, Freddy Greaver, on Saturday. The ANC would still have a healthy majority in the municipality even if they lose this ward seat, but in politics, like comedy, timing is everything. How much political mileage could be made of a defeat in Polokwane, coming on the heels of the Treasury intervention into Limpopo and the ongoing Mathale-and-Malema show? Detractors of the ANC would use the defeat as evidence that the voters are tired of being a laughing-stock and are hungry for change.

Of course, it’s possible to read anything you want into by-elections like these. After this by-election there will have been 58 wards contested since the elections – a little over 1% of the 4,500-odd wards contested in 2011. The sample is too small to say anything meaningful. Even if the abovementioned wards change hands, there are other factors at play than just dissatisfaction with the incumbents. Bookended by its centenary celebrations and its elective conference, the year 2012 is going to be incredibly distracting to the ANC. This may hurt them in some of the by-elections, even if it’s only at the margin. The party may not be able to devote the resources that it has in the past to close by-elections.

In contrast, the DA can use the time to focus on campaigning strategically. For example, it’s only campaigning in three of the seven wards: the two mentioned above and the other ward in Tshwane, Ward 28. However, the DA only won 6% of the vote in this ward in 2011. If it’s not campaigning in Metsimaholo (Sasolburg), where it received 14%, why would it waste its time in a ward where it won less than half of that? The answer has to be that the DA is committed to building its brand and its presence in Gauteng, particularly in Tshwane and the City of Johannesburg. It may be talking up the Northern Cape for the 2014 national/provincial elections, and it may have a much better chance there than in Gauteng, but the metros remain the jewels in the local government crown.

The results of some of these by-elections may come as a surprise, but what’s interesting isn’t necessarily what happens after the votes have been cast, but what the parties have done in the lead-up. As such, we might learn more from future by-elections about those selling the political promises than those buying them. DM

Photo: Voters will go to the polls on Wednesday for the sixth round of by-elections. REUTERS/Rogan Ward.


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