DA’s 2021 election dilemma: Is the record of good delivery enough to win votes?
As political parties fire up campaigns for the local government polls, it is clear that a lot is on the line. While the ANC faces internal problems and a cash crunch, the DA may also find this a difficult election. It may not be able to improve on its previous performance, and might lose support.
This bad showing could have huge consequences. Already the party has lost several prominent black leaders. If it loses more black voters, the DA may well have to make difficult choices about coalition partners after this election. And those choices could have a big impact on how it does in the next national election in 2024.
With DA posters going up on lamp-posts all around the country, the party’s slogan “the DA gets things done” is being seen more and more often. The party obviously believes the focus on service delivery is correct and will win it more votes.
The one independent assessor we have of municipalities, the Auditor-General, is clear in her reports that the councils in the Western Cape are better run than in other provinces. And it is also obvious that service delivery in most other municipalities, run by the ANC, is almost non-existent.
DA members might well believe this sets them up to gain more support, that what President Cyril Ramaphosa called the “palpable sense of anger at the ANC” will surely help them.
Within all of this is the recent DA strategy.
The party challenged the Electoral Commission’s decision to reopen the candidate registration process after the ANC failed to get all of its candidates in on time. It lost that application. It has also complained to the IEC that it believes there is evidence that the EFF is lying about the amount of money it has, after it failed to register any donations above R100,000.
This suggests that the party is continuing its long-term policy of using the rules to win political battles. While many voters might have supported its long-running legal battles against former president Jacob Zuma, this strategy might not win more votes now. Instead, it may suggest the DA is more interested in using the rules to remove players, rather than just play the game.
It may also leave the party open to the long-standing claim that it is good at criticising the ANC, but does not necessarily propose proper alternatives.
To be fair, the DA has generally spent much time on efforts to produce alternative policies, and believes it has solutions to solve the country’s problems. But these can get drowned out by the debate around race-based redress.
It is worth restating that in a country where most voters may believe in race-based redress, opposing it is unlikely to help you win elections.
Worse, it allows the ANC and others to claim that the DA is not interested in real change and is defending the status-quo. The status-quo in this case will be defined as our racialised inequality.
Then there is the position of the DA’s leader. Steenhuisen is an experienced, clever and sharp politician. In Parliament he is very adept, and adroit at holding the ANC to account.
But there is no evidence yet that he is able to convince people who have never voted for the DA before to do so now. It may be that he is more comfortable with the DA’s base, or, to over-simplify, mainly with white voters.
This may be important in that the DA believes that it lost many votes in the 2019 election to the FF+ (considering the DA lost support and the FF+ grew this is very likely).
But it is also not clear that all of the white people who voted for the DA in the past will vote for them again. Some white people may well believe in transformation and affirmative action, perhaps even thinking that affirmative action is an acceptable price to pay for the privilege they have.
There may be some evidence that many people voted for the DA because they believed in the leadership of Mmusi Maimane. His life story, growing up in Meadowlands, marrying a white woman and bringing up mixed-race children in our society may have been a symbol of what some people believe the future of our country should be. And his mixture of constitutionalism, upbringing and current life experience may well turn out to have been important for the DA.
Now, to have Steenhuisen posing next to a DA poster in isiZulu may allow its political opponents to ridicule him, fairly or unfairly.
All of that said, what happens on the campaign trail does matter. In a low turnout election the importance of getting your voters to polling stations is amplified. The DA is probably better able to do this than other parties. Especially when the ANC is battling in many communities.
There are also the incidents within the elections and how the campaigning is done. Are there any mistakes on the trail, do the party’s leaders get sucked into identity debates, or can they keep on their service delivery talking points? These issues matter.
There is also scope for clever politics. The DA’s Cape Town mayoral candidate, Geordin Hill-Lewis is calling for the land occupied by Acacia Park, which houses MPs in Cape Town, to be released for public use. The person in charge of the land is the Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille. She is also the leader of the Good Party and former DA mayor in Cape Town.
This may be effective. Hill-Lewis can argue there is a shortage of land for public use in Cape Town, and why should MPs get to occupy it? Especially when there is widespread anger at the political class. De Lille has to defend the current policy. She has already donned her verbal boxing gloves, calling Hill-Lewis’ “stupid” over his suggestion.
But Hill-Lewis shoots back that De Lille supported the plan when she was the mayor. This puts De Lille under pressure. She now has the contradiction of her previous position while possibly having to explain her decision to join the ANC-led Cabinet.
Meanwhile, the DA may face some very tough decisions after the elections.
It is possible that the result of the polls is that the DA and the EFF together can form coalitions. Or that the EFF could attempt to repeat its 2016 policy of voting with the DA for the position of mayors and speakers, and then support its administrations on a case-by-case basis. But the DA may feel that one of the reasons it lost support to the FF+ was the perception that it was working too closely with the EFF after 2016, particularly in Joburg.
This means that it may be risky for the DA to be seen to be doing business with the EFF this time around.
In essence this could boil down to a choice between the short-term gain of being able to lead a coalition in councils and metros involving the EFF, and the long-term risk of some voters turning against the DA as a result in the national elections in three years’ time.
The DA may not be the only party to face difficult choices like this. Other parties may also find that the shorter-term decisions to make after the elections could carry longer-term risks.
But the big risk to the party is that it suffers a significant loss of support in this election; greater than the loss it suffered in 2019. If that happens, it may well be the end of Steenhuisen’s leadership, and the start of greater turmoil within the party. DM