After the reality check of low voter turnout, political parties now turn to strategic coalitions
The historic low voter turnout – it stood at 46.68% nationally on Tuesday evening – has had political parties doing some introspection. But as the vote count continued, politicians’ thoughts turned towards coalitions.
By Tuesday evening, the ANC seemed resigned that it would not clinch a 50 plus one majority in any of the three Gauteng metros – Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane – nor in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.
Still, with 52% of the vote counted by 8pm on Tuesday, the ANC had clinched control in 42 councils, and was leading in another 20, with 1,333 seats, according to the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) results released at its Tshwane national operations centre.
“Voters gave us a warning. It could have been worse; they could have taken their vote elsewhere,” ANC elections head Fikile Mbalula told Daily Maverick earlier on Tuesday.
“Voters used their vote to express the grievance ‘You only know us when it’s elections’, because we’ve become visitors among our people when we should be permanent residents.”
The low voter turnout meant coalitions, particularly in four, possibly five of the eight metros, are required. For the ANC, Mbalula confirmed, proposals will go to the ANC National Executive Committee, the governing party’s highest decision-making structure between national elective conferences.
Late on Tuesday evening, the IEC board at the Tshwane national results centre showed 35 hung councils, or eight more than after the 2016 municipal poll.
Coalitions take time to orchestrate, as evidenced by Germany, which, five weeks after national elections that produced no outright winner, remains in coalition talks. A centre-left coalition between the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats began in late October in the expectation that it will be in place by Christmas, according to Deutsche Welle.
South Africa’s national opposition party, the DA, regarded the low voter turnout as “obviously disappointing”, said DA national spokesperson Siviwe Gwarube.
“It requires deep introspection across party political lines in this very important democracy,” she told Daily Maverick. “While voters are legitimately rejecting the ANC, we have to convince them to vote differently and not to stay away.”
The DA retained Kouga in the Eastern Cape, and was on track to keep control of Midvaal in Gauteng and Cape Town. The DA was chuffed to have clinched its first KwaZulu-Natal council, uMngeni, off the ANC.
By Tuesday 8pm, the DA had scored 580 council seats and control in 10 councils, while leading in another 10 councils.
Earlier in the day EFF General Secretary Marshall Dlamini, speaking to the SABC at the IEC national results centre, said it had been a challenge to bundle what usually would be a year-long campaign into just four weeks.
But by Tuesday evening, the EFF had increased its share of voting support to 9.9%, up from the 8.3% it obtained in the 2016 municipal poll. And while not in control of any single council, its 131 seats could ensure kingmaker role in some municipalities, like Tshwane.
IFP national spokesperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa remained cautiously optimistic, particularly as the IFP campaign at grassroots seemed to have turned into votes, but acknowledged concern over the generally low voter turnout.
“This is a wake-up call for the ANC and DA. There has to be heightened accessibility from public representatives before election season,” Hlengwa told Daily Maverick. “The electorate wants to be heard.”
The Freedom Front Plus won council seats where it never had before, like in the Eastern Cape where it clinched three, while its tally in the Western Cape increased from five to 12.
FF+ elections boss Wouter Wessels was upbeat on Tuesday evening, when results showed the party had pretty much quadrupled its 2016 performance. That’s in line with the FF+ anticipation of a better local government poll performance on the back of its May 2019 election showing, when it increased its numbers from four to 10 MPs.
African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) MP Steve Swart was upbeat about voting gains made across the country, but shared concerns that the low voter turnout was a signal of disenchantment. “We need to accept responsibility as elected representatives as to why people stayed away.”
And while on Tuesday political parties signalled some introspection over the low voter turnout – voters had signalled their unhappiness, particularly with the ANC, over the past three elections since 2016 – it still must unfold whether such concern will actually turn into a qualitative change of South Africa’s body politic.
Political analyst and sangoma Gogo Aubrey Matshiqi said the focus should not be on voter turnout, but on participation rates.
And participation rates showed the overwhelming majority of South Africans had opted out of electoral democracy – sending a serious broader warning.
The point on democracy participation is crucial.
That young people largely opted out by not even registering as voters is crucial, with just 180,093 of those aged 18 to 19 registered and a little over 4.4 million 20- to 29-year-olds, according to the IEC.
Voter registration numbers compared to population figures show that more than 14 million South Africans chose not even to get into the starting blocks of electoral democracy. Never mind full participation in a constitutional democracy.
In a curious move, the IEC on Tuesday evening continued to mince around the overall voter turnout figures.
Asked why they would not present voter turnout numbers, particularly as 90% of the votes were expected to be counted and finalised overnight, IEC Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo only said: “Projections might be done. The commission will give you the official voter turnout when it declares [the elections].”
That’s scheduled to happen on Thursday.
For South Africa’s body politic the 1 November local government election is a crucial crossroads. Political party introspection about the declining voter turnout may be happening, but it could well be displaced by the push to ensure political control in councils.
Whether it’s power grabs, or better coalitions for the people in South Africa, remains to be seen. Those decisions will shape South Africa’s democracy. DM