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COHESION VS CO-OPTION OP-ED

Coalition building is no easy task, South Africa should look carefully at success stories like Finland

Coalition building is no easy task, South Africa should look carefully at success stories like Finland
South African political party flags. (Photos: Gallo Images / Frank Trimbos | EPA / Nic Bothma | Gallo Images / Papi Morakeo)

For coalitions to succeed, and function, South Africa needs policy cohesiveness in setting them up and there must be an acceptable culture of cooperation. This is certainly new terrain for the country, and it will need to draw on the experience of those who have gone before, such as Finland.

Coalitions are a hot topic in South Africa. With general elections looming, the ruling party’s power and support are ebbing, largely due to corruption and load shedding. On the other hand, the opposition is steadily gaining support.

In a poll conducted by Ipsos in June 2023, it was revealed that the ANC’s support among all eligible voters has systematically been reduced – dropping quite dramatically by 6% in the last six months of that period. In contrast, the opposition has been steadily growing to the point where the combined opposition has now overtaken the ruling party.

The ANC does perform somewhat better when considering only registered voters. Realistically, although a lot can change before the elections which are expected to be held in May, what could be expected is a medium voter turnout in which the ANC will get about 50% of the vote at the national level. If it falls just below the 50% mark, it will require a smaller party to help it form a governing majority.

The opposition parties will battle to put a coalition government together, because under this scenario they will garner only about 39% of the vote. However, in three provinces coalition governments are almost a certainty. The EFF could play quite a kingmaker role in many instances.

That said, South Africa is clearly heading in the direction of a coalition government. But some analysts have suggested that the country is not yet prepared for this eventuality. Its legislation is not ready, and it simply does not have that culture in place, with the parties’ tendencies towards stubbornly pushing party agendas and using bullying tactics in government negotiations. And many people still vote based on tradition, history and loyalty, rather than on the basis of informed, rational decisions.

For more than 100 years Finland has had relatively successful coalition governments, with no party ever being even close to securing a majority of the seats in parliament.

For coalitions to succeed, and function, South Africa needs policy cohesiveness in setting them up and there must be an acceptable culture of cooperation. This is certainly new terrain for the country, and it will need to draw on the experience of those who have gone before, such as Finland.

In a high-level webinar – hosted by the Inclusive Society Institute, in conjunction with the Finnish Embassy in South Africa – held late in 2023, expert panellists were invited to share their knowledge on the Finnish experience with coalitions.

For more than 100 years Finland has had relatively successful coalition governments, with no party ever being even close to securing a majority of the seats in parliament. This stability is in part due to the party system being able to accommodate several different societal conflicts, but also due to the parties being able to evolve over time.

Radical ideas and those parties or actors willing to destabilise the status quo have been tamed through offering responsibility, and at the same time, willingness to take responsibility has been expected of them.

However, the South African context is significantly different from the Finnish context. With its fragmented society in terms of racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions, the South African experience has been a one-party dominated state since 1994. In this setting, power sharing in practice has often turned out to be, at best, co-option, if not direct repression, of the opposition.

The factions and their behaviours within most dominant parties and state party systems are remarkably similar, and include patterns of patrimonialism or clientelism which, in one way or another, can also be linked to corruption. And coalitions are not useful for the corruption appetites of dominant parties, since coalitions put a dampener on corruption possibilities.

In Finland’s case, parties are more or less medium sized, and they are not dominant. And although there are party loyalties among the supporters, there are also swing voters.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Coalition Country

So the parties are competing for power based on policy programmes rather than identity and political loyalty choices. Because of voter behaviour in South Africa, and with the country not being a mature plural democracy (yet), the coalition success being based on the competition for ideas is less probable than in Finland. Coalitions will more likely be formed based on the necessity of achieving a working majority in Parliament.

A key insight gleaned from the webinar was that coalition governments are both a result of and a precondition for inclusive political systems and institutions – which feeds the stability and legitimacy of the democratic system. In order to form a coalition government, and especially a majority coalition, a number of parties are required to cooperate.

Second, even though it is a case of the bigger the party, the more ministers and the more say they have in the government programme, it is still a negotiation, a coalition, so nobody gets to have all the power. And, since discussions take place within legislated spending limits, parties cannot come with outrageous promises since they have to work within that fiscal framework.

Trying to build democratic coalitions without the right attitude and political education is foolhardy and will not lead to stability.

Third, it is because the Finnish system of coalitions is very much reliant on the “rule-of-law” approach and mechanisms that sustain coalitions, that they are viable. It is these aspects that build trust between the political actors and among civil society. It allows parties that have had very little trust in each other to make the necessary compromises in order to build healthy coalitions to move the country forward.

Last, Finland also has long-held traditions involving civil society organisations, other than parties, in the political arena. In Finnish government negotiations, experts from various fields – from civil society to the ministries or administration and NG0s – are brought in to mediate, to help build common ground, and to level the playing field.

Coalitions are often thought of in terms of enabling a governing majority. However, coalitions might also be useful in diverse and fragmented societies, such as in South Africa, where it is not necessarily about forming a governing majority, but rather a way to increase social and political cohesiveness – of course, always guarding against the danger of co-option.

But, trying to build democratic coalitions without the right attitude and political education is foolhardy and will not lead to stability. South Africa would do well to draw lessons from the Finnish experience, and others, in preparation for the elections. DM

Daryl Swanepoel is chief executive of the Inclusive Society Institute. This article draws on the content of the institute’s recent webinar report, “Coalitions: Lessons from Finland”.

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