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Small parties, big influence: What can be done about unstable coalition governments?

Small parties, big influence: What can be done about unstable coalition governments?
From left: A DA gathering. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach) | ActionSA members. (Photo: Gallo Images / Misha Jordaan) | An IFP community meeting at Gandhi Luthuli Peace Park in Durban. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart) | Supporters of the Good party in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais) | ANC flags at the party’s 2021 manifesto launch. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla) | The Economic Freedom Fighters manifesto launch at Gandhi Square in Johannesburg on 26 September 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Laird Forbes)

The instability of many coalition and minority governments formed at the local level after the 2021 municipal elections may well be replicated in the other spheres of government if no party wins an overall majority in the National Assembly, or in some provincial legislatures, at the next election. Reducing the number of tiny parties represented in the various legislatures by imposing an electoral threshold may help to limit such instability. But the drawbacks of such a move should be considered carefully.

A few weeks ago, a multiparty coalition led by the Democratic Alliance (DA) ousted the ANC-led coalition government in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, giving it its fifth change of government in seven years. Then, last week, the minority government of the Johannesburg metro, led by the DA, was seemingly ousted by an ANC-led group that will form yet another minority government — unless the DA’s legal challenge to the removal of its mayor succeeds.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

As Daily Maverick election analyst Wayne Sussman pointed out on Wednesday, power has changed hands in a quarter of the metros since the local government election on 1 November last year. If no party wins an overall majority in the National Assembly, or in one or more of the provincial legislatures, the governance instability we see at the local level might well spill over to the national government, or to some provincial governments.

Imagine having a new government with a new president every few months as elected representatives vie for perks and positions on offer to join a governing coalition or a minority government.

There are no quick-fix solutions for the political dysfunction, greed and lack of concern for voters that lie at the heart of the governance problems at all three levels of government in South Africa.

Electoral threshold

The introduction of independent candidature (or even direct constituency-based elections) is not the magic bullet that some commentators believe it is. But there is one, rather radical, change to the electoral system that could help to reduce the instability of governments in legislatures where no party enjoys an overall majority. 

This would be to impose an electoral threshold, requiring a political party to obtain a minimum percentage of the votes to qualify for seats in a legislature.

Some form of this system is in place in several countries in Europe, with the system in place for the German Bundestag elections often being held up as an example. The German electoral system is similar to the system in place for local government elections in South Africa. Every voter gets two votes — one for the candidate of their choice standing in their local constituency, and one for the party of their choice in a proportional representation vote.

Fifty percent of the MPs are elected from individual constituencies in a first-past-the-post election, and the other 50% are topped up from proportional representation party lists to ensure that each party is allocated the number of seats in the legislature proportional to the percentage of votes that party received for the proportional list.

But there is a catch. In German Bundestag elections, a political party must obtain at least 5% of the vote in the proportional representation election (or at least three constituency seats) to be allocated proportional representation seats in the legislature at all. This means a political party that wins 4.5% of all votes cast in a Bundesrat proportional representation election, and no constituency seats, will end up with no seats in the Bundesrat. 

Self-evidently, imposing such a threshold will reduce the number of smaller parties represented in the various legislative bodies in South Africa. The higher the threshold, the fewer parties are likely to be represented in each of the legislative bodies. For example, if a 2% threshold had been in place for the 2019 National Assembly election, only the ANC, DA, EFF, IFP and VF+ would have been represented in Parliament. The UDM (2), ATM (2), Good (2), NFP (2), AIC (2), Cope (2), PAC (1), and Al Jamah-A (1), would have failed to win any seats. 

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The possible impact of imposing a threshold is even more starkly illustrated when we look at the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Council. Currently, 18 parties are represented in the Metro Council, with eight parties having won only a single seat. If a 2% threshold had been in place for last year’s election, only six parties — the ANC, DA, ActionSA, EFF, PF and IFP — would have been represented in the Council.

Those who argue in favour of imposing an electoral threshold, argue that a reduction in the number of very small parties represented in a legislature is likely to reduce the possibility of government instability. This obviously only applies to systems like ours, where the stability of the government depends on the stability of the support for that government in the legislature. In this system, where the president/premier/mayor is elected by the legislative body and can also be removed from office by a vote of no confidence by that legislative body, the more parties that are represented in the legislative body, the more difficult it would likely be to cobble together a workable government when no party wins an overall majority of seats. 

Chances of chaos

Of course, the number of political parties in a legislature would have no impact on the stability of the government where one party enjoys an overall majority in the legislature — as the ANC has done in the National Assembly since 1994. But where no party obtains a majority, and the president/premier/mayor (and thus the government) depends on the support of several tiny political parties for its survival, things might turn chaotic very soon.

The potential problems are exacerbated when parties decide to support a coalition or minority government without entering into a formal coalition agreement, or when their support has nothing to do with advancing their policy platform, and everything to do with its leaders’ desire for money, power and status.

Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court (BundesVerfassungsGericht) confirmed a few years ago that the 5% threshold for the Bundesrat election was justified “largely because it is necessary to construct a stable majority for the election of a workable government and to maintain it in office, and this goal would be endangered if the Parliament were divided into many small groups.

“Therefore the legislator may qualify, to a certain extent, the aim of the system of proportional representation to ensure that voters’ political opinions are represented as thoroughly as possible”. (In that same judgment, the BundesVerfassungsGericht held that a 3% threshold for elections to the European Parliament was not justified, because the need for a stable government did not arise at the European level.)

Moderate threshold

There are other reasons why the introduction of a moderate threshold of 1% or 2% might be attractive in the South African context. Pertinent here is the emergence of small populist parties and parties that in effect serve as vehicles for the advancement of factional interests within the ANC, thus making them unpredictable. The reluctance of the EFF to enter into coalitions and thus to take on the responsibilities that come with being in government, has led to the formation of minority governments that have no guarantee that any of their initiatives (including the budget) will be approved by the relevant Metro Council.

In this context, in which the survival of a minority or coalition government depends on the continued support of a number of small parties, such parties are in a strong position to “blackmail” the government by threatening to withdraw their support for that government, and supporting a vote of no confidence in the president/premier/mayor if they do not get their way on any number of issues. This secures an outsized influence for small parties over government decisions — disproportionate to the electoral support they enjoy.

Other problems

But there is another side to this argument, as electoral thresholds may create other problems within the system. The most obvious problem is that imposing an electoral threshold may well be unconstitutional, as the electoral system is supposed to result, in general, in proportional representation. This means a constitutional amendment may be required before such a change to the system is made. 

Imposing a threshold will make the electoral system less fair than the pure proportional system currently in place, most notably because all the votes cast for parties that do not meet the threshold will be discarded and will therefore be “wasted”. 

In Germany, these votes are not reallocated to qualifying parties, but even so, the system benefits larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. In theory, it would also reduce the diversity of ideological perspectives in legislative bodies and may thus leave marginal groups without a voice in such bodies.

Thresholds also make it more difficult for new parties to get a foothold in the system, and it is sometimes used by dominant parties as a powerful weapon against their opponents, especially where the threshold is very high. For example, in Turkey, the threshold is 10%, which means that political parties who collectively obtain as much as 40% of the votes cast in an election, may not be represented in the national legislature.

But if the ANC loses its overall majority in the National Assembly, and if this results in the kind of instability we are seeing in metro councils, the imposition of a threshold of 1% or 2% may well have to be considered. DM

Pierre de Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he is head of the Department of Public Law. He writes a blog, titled Constitutionally Speaking, in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sam Shu says:

    Yet Israel has a threshold and has had multiple elections and governments and virtual gridlock for several years now. Not sure thresholds are the answer. The parties just figure out other ways to game the system

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    But wouldn’t it take aeons to pass parliament/ constitutional muster? By this time, the country may be so screwed by its dysfunctional parliament that there’ll be none left who can read, let alone make an informed decision about anything much.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    To change the constitution after elections or the rules of the game in the middle of the game is nothing less than political thuggery. The instability is a necessary evil after years of political dominance of a single party. The electorate is reaching maturity. I completely disagree with this hogwash as it would lay to waste millions of votes. To seek to babysit the electorate is incorrect when the outcomes of elections or coalitions do no suit de Vos and his ilk. The only changes to me we require is for every adult to be required to register as a voter as in many countries as the starting point. The second would be a requirement that every adult between the minimum voting age and 70 be required to vote. These also have implications for democracy but they are the minimum that a citizen should be required to do and all votes must count. That the DA is losing the metros you must blame it on its unparalleled arrogance.

  • Ryckard Blake says:

    The 25 to 40 names on lists of candidates for local elections is ridiculous.
    Let the rules cause rank opportunists to think very carefully about throwing their hats in. Ensure they are resident in the ward where they wish to stand at least since the previous election, and enforce a forfeitable deposit of at least one month’s benefits of the position they are competing for. Thus, about R25k per candidate for a seat in a metro council, and about 3 or 4 times that for a general election for one of the NA’s 400 seats. Deposit forfeited on failing to achieve 10% of the votes cast.
    For national elections, the minimum to qualify should result in 5 seats in the NA, i.e. about 1.25% of the total vote. In smaller assemblies, at least 3 seats or 2.5 to 5% of the vote.
    The Transferable Vote system (see STV at Electionbuddy) coupled with a threshold of 3 to 5 seats might address concerns about limiting voter choices to only large parties. But let’s still make it clear that long-chancers risk losing deposits which are not negligible.
    But under the CC’s current interpretation of the rules, SA is bound to descend in to complete political instability.

    • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

      Once you have every adult required to register and vote some of these problems will disappear. We need to give the electorate the time to mature so that it is able to make correct choices. Arriving at a point of coalitions in itself except in Cape Town took a long time. This impatience borders on social and political engineering to achieve certain outcomes. After years of a single party dominance it was inevitable that instability would be the next step. We have these situations in Italy and Israel that lead to regular national elections. This insult to the electorate and the electoral system by de Vos is unacceptable as he was quiet when one party was dominating. We need the chaos and out of it will emerge rationality and maturity from experience of the electorate itself not political analysts or some political parties who think they have arrived. The electorate has spoken and its voice must not be the subject of manipulation.

  • Heinz Eckart Klingelhöfer says:

    The system in Germany was introduced because Germany had the same problems between the two wars. In the “Weimarer Republik”, there were up to 15 parties in the Reichstag (the predecessor of the current Bundestag), 20 different cabinets from 1919-1933 (mostly minority coalitions) under 12 Reichskanzler before Adolph Hitler. In comparison, the Federal Republic of Germany has had 9 Bundeskanzler since 1949 until now; from 1961 until 1983, there were only 3 parties in the Bundestag.
    In this context, since the article is a little bit confusing with respect to the following: The Bundestag is the German parliament, its members are elected as described in the article. However, the also mentioned Bundesrat is “just” the representation of the 16 German Länder, its members are delegates, determined by the 16 Länder (their respective governments), but not elected.

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