Government of national unity? Not easily


Government of national unity? Not easily

Strong ideological differences between the large parties and the political opportunism of potential coalition partners make the likelihood very slim, writes FANIE CLOETE.


THE latest survey by Prof David Everatt, head of the School of Governance at Wits University and an experienced political pollster, indicates that the ANC has even less support than was previously thought. The survey was conducted towards the end of last year at the request of Roger Jardine's new Change Starts Now (CSN) party.

According to the survey, only 39% of registered voters who took part in the poll indicated they would vote for the ANC had the election been held then, Everatt writes in Daily Maverick. On the other hand, support for the DA only came to 19%, with 16% for the EFF. In KwaZulu-Natal, 20% of respondents supported other, smaller parties, while the average support for all smaller parties in the other provinces combined was between 6% and 7%.

A total of 21% of respondents in the Western Cape did not want to indicate who they supported, while the average figure for such voters in the other provinces was between 7% and 12%. This has particularly negative implications for the DA in the Western Cape. The average abstention of respondents was 5%.

The only notable event since the survey that might further influence voters was South Africa's indictment of Israel in the world court in The Hague. The court ruled in South Africa's favour and this may strengthen support for the ANC from voters who sympathise with the verdict.

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The results of the survey confirm at least three important conclusions: The ANC is likely to fall short of 50% support, except in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. Coalition governments at national and provincial levels are likely to be a reality for the first time in modern history. And a fairly large floating vote on the left of the political spectrum in Gauteng, KZN, Free State and the Western Cape can swing either way on election day, depending on what happens between now and then.

Abstaining voters and those who indicated they were unsure or did not want to respond may decide not to vote; vote for their original parties despite their possible frustrations or differences with them; or turn to other, smaller parties. This will strengthen the need for majority coalitions.

The normal procedure with coalitions is that the party with the most votes has the best chance of forming a government in cooperation with one or more smaller parties. However, coalition rule is a difficult and unstable form of government and the best coalitions are usually made up of parties whose policy differences are quite small. The municipal coalitions between the DA, IFP, ACDP and FF+, all of which pursue free market-oriented policies, are examples of such fairly durable governing agreements.

The most difficult and unstable coalition governments are between parties that have large ideological differences. The abortive efforts of the liberal, free market-oriented DA, which tried municipal cooperation approaches with the black, nationalist and more socialist-oriented EFF in Johannesburg and other cities and towns, illustrate this complication well. Many secondary coalition partners who have fairly important policy differences with their primary partners are also notorious for their opportunism in playing  larger partners off against each other while trying to negotiate the greatest possible benefits for themselves and their members.

These factors make it difficult for the party that gets the most votes in an election to choose one or more coalition partners, and can cause negotiations on the composition of a governing coalition to take years, as we have seen in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Based on these considerations and the results of the Everatt survey, it is therefore likely that after the 2024 elections at national level, the ANC will first try to work with the EFF to get a majority of 55% in parliament.

The EFF's policy programmes do not differ significantly from the ANC's. Their strongest common denominator is probably their ideological support for more radical international groupings and policies that seek to strengthen the so-called global south's (BRICS++++) resistance against the still “colonial and imperialist West". Such an ANC-EFF majority will be sufficient for most legislative decisions, except for the approval of the budget, for which 60% is required, and amendments to entrenched provisions in the constitution for which at least 75% of the votes are needed. The ANC will then need to mobilise the support of a sufficient number of smaller parties to meet those thresholds.

However, Julius Malema's proven political opportunism in using his position of power as a strategic catalyst to press for certain concessions in exchange for his continued support for ANC decisions will make certain ANC members hesitate to cooperate with the EFF. For example, as has repeatedly happened in the past in his coalitions with the DA and other parties, if he does not get his way he could easily turn round and submit or support a motion of no confidence in the ANC in parliament. This also applies to provincial governments if the ANC tries to form majority coalitions with the EFF.

Based on the Everatt figures, the DA will probably have an easier task in the Western Cape in putting together a majority coalition with its traditional coalition partners, who do not disagree so drastically with DA policy.

Many people also wonder if the time is not ripe for a government of national unity (GNU) between the ANC, DA, EFF, FF+, ActionSA and possibly even other smaller parties. However, the strong ideological differences between these diverse parties, as well as the political opportunism of some possible partners, make that likelihood very slim. An effective and stable GNU is, in these circumstances, simply a utopian ideal that did not even work when Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk tried to launch an ANC-NP-IFP coalition in 1994.

Cabinet decisions are traditionally based on unanimity among  members. Those who cannot abide by a decision that the president normally proposes with the support of the majority of cabinet members are supposed to resign. This was what De Klerk did in 1996 when  Mandela was not prepared to accept several of his proposed policy decisions.

De Klerk, for his part, was not prepared to accept certain decisions that were supported by the majority of ANC members in the cabinet, despite the fact that all the other National Party (NP) ministers in the cabinet (with the exception of Dawie de Villiers) and in provincial executive committees were willing to do so. In 1996, the NP's federal council and congress supported De Klerk's proposal that the NP withdraw from the GNU.

The only province where an ANC-EFF coalition is unlikely to work is KZN. According to the Everatt survey, the ANC with 26% and the EFF with 12% will therefore need at least 12% more support for a provincial majority government there. According to the survey, the DA can count on 15% of the votes in KZN while all other parties have a total of 20%. These include the IFP, Jacob Zuma's new MK Party and other smaller parties.

The MK Party was formally established towards the end of December 2023, after the survey was done. It is therefore likely that the number of votes for the ANC and EFF will now be fewer, while the 20% votes for the other parties will increase. However, as many as 21% of the KZN respondents did not or could not indicate who they supported, and 7% said they would not vote. This makes any prediction of what may happen in the KZN election impossible.

The new MK Party for all practical purposes does not take issue with ANC policy and can therefore realistically be seen (with the EFF) as  a potential ANC coalition partner in KZN. This means the ANC will not need the DA, IFP or other more free market-oriented parties to establish a workable majority government in KZN. This will create a much more effective and stable provincial decision-making system there.

We are therefore further away from an GNU than one might think, with the possible but unlikely exception of KZN.

♦ VWB ♦

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