YOUR VOTE COUNTS OP-ED
We should investigate potential legislation to manage conflict within coalition governments
The public needs to make it clear to political parties that our, and not their interests are the priority. For coalitions to be in the people's best interest, we must ensure the utmost transparency in the agreements reached by parties.
As South Africa approaches what many consider to be its most consequential elections since 1994, the formation of a government through coalitions (whether this is at provincial or national level) seems increasingly likely.
The ANC itself, while still publicly maintaining the position that it can contest and win a majority, has recognised that it may drop below 50%. Its electoral success has been on a steady downward trajectory since 2009 and given the various crises South Africa is currently experiencing, polls indicate this will continue next year.
This means that for the first time in 30 years, we will likely see the emergence of coalitions in national and provincial governments. Critically, there is no legislation in South Africa governing how coalitions should be formed or maintained.
There are many international examples of strong and stable coalitions, mainly in Europe where there are more mature democracies, but also in Africa and other regions. However, in South Africa, we have become accustomed to high levels of coalition dysfunction at the local level, where coalition agreements are fragile, often not based on shared visions and principles, and can break down and lead to government paralysis and political tugs of war.
When coalitions collapse, government can struggle to fulfil its mandate and the most essential of provisions, like basic service delivery, are negatively impacted.
This hits the poor and the marginalised the hardest.
We have already seen this play out in many metros, including Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and Nelson Mandela Bay and the outcomes are troubling. If we are to move into a political environment in which coalitions are a common feature at the national and provincial level, the impact could be far more wide-reaching. This is not to say that the absence of coalitions — the way that our national and provincial governments have operated until now — have resulted in the best government for the people. But given the experience at the local level, where parties often abandon their principles and will do anything to win power, there is the potential for dangerous instability.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Coalition Country
What proposals are parties making?
Given this context, there is a growing push for legislation that will govern how coalitions need to work to ensure their stability.
In 2021, the Dullah Omar Institute developed a Framework for Coalitions in Local Government for the South African Local Government Association (Salga). To date, this is the most significant contribution made by civil society on this issue, albeit limited to local government.
There have been other proposals made by civil society and academia, but there has not been much appetite from political parties until recently. And while it is significant that parties are finally beginning to see the need for us to have frameworks aimed at coalition stability, we need to question if their proposals are for their own narrower benefit, or for the good of their constituents.
The Democratic Alliance has taken the lead and has already gazetted two pieces of legislation for discussion (with a third to come after the new Electoral Act is fully finalised). Some of the DA’s proposals are to be welcomed, although many of them are not new or innovative and have been proposed by others previously. These include making coalition agreements formal legal agreements (something that the ANC agrees with, having discussed and made resolutions on coalitions at its recent 55th National Conference) and making them public.
The DA has also proposed the establishment of an independent registrar of political parties to mediate disagreements between parties in coalition agreements.
It is difficult to argue against these proposals. However, we could go even further and have parties, as part of their manifestos, indicate who they will potentially go into coalition with and under what terms, instead of only making this known after elections. Doing so will further enable the voter to exercise their political rights with the most information possible. Knowing who the party you support will possibly enter into agreements with post-election is a crucial part of the voting calculus.
Both the DA and the ANC have also voiced support for potentially more controversial things. The most contentious proposal is establishing an electoral threshold, meaning that parties would need to secure a certain percentage of the vote (whether it be at local, provincial, or national level) to win a seat in that respective council or legislature. At present, in the national parliament, a party needs to receive just one-quarter of 1% of the vote to win a seat. The DA has proposed this be increased to one or two per cent.
This is aimed at limiting the power of smaller ‘kingmaker’ parties and preventing coalitions made up of numerous parties that are harder to maintain. But, as analyst Ralph Mathekga points out, this is taking power away from smaller parties to be represented. It also removes agency from voters because in this scenario, unless a party receives above the threshold amount, those votes will be lost.
This proposal, while floated to ensure greater stability, can be seen as an effort to use the law to cling onto power and drive out opposition. Mathegka also questions whether such a law would be constitutional. However, Jaap de Visser, of the Dullah Omar Institute, argues that introducing thresholds at the local level would bring greater stability. There are also numerous international examples of electoral thresholds.
The DA has also proposed limiting how often motions of no confidence can be raised, although they do provide for exceptional circumstances when this would not apply. They have also proposed that more time is given after elections for a government to be formed, to allow for negotiation between parties. Both could be beneficial.
What needs to be done to ensure stable coalitions?
There are elements of the proposals that political parties are making that should be supported. However, it is imperative that the electorate and the public more generally ensure that any legislation serves the interests of the people and not only of political parties.
In May we already saw the ANC backtrack on its own policy of not supporting candidates from minority parties for mayoral positions to ensure that the coalition in Johannesburg was maintained. Parties have shown that they are willing to forego principles to be in power, and this is a dangerous precedent.
If parties are left to themselves to enter coalitions without taking into consideration the impact on governance, and these are not based on shared principles, ideologies, or visions, they will continue to be inherently fragile and can fall apart because of misunderstandings, alleged sleights, and the personalities of leadership.
It is likely that given the support from the ANC and the DA to develop legislation before next year’s elections, there will be the opportunity to engage with and give comments on the proposed laws. The public needs to make it clear to political parties that our, and not their interests are the priority.
For coalitions to be in the best interest of the people, we must ensure that there is the utmost transparency in the agreements that parties reach. Parties should also inform the public, as part of their election manifestos, who and on what terms they will consider sharing power with, if a coalition is necessary to form a government. DM/MC
Joel Bregman is the Senior Researcher at My Vote Counts, an NGO that strives for a democracy where every person has equal influence in all the decisions that affect them.