South Africa: There May Be a Set of New Rules to Learn Post 2019


As the ANC stumbles towards the 2019 poll, it looks like there is a very real prospect that it may lose the majority in at least one province and see it shrink even at national level, forcing it to seek uncomfortable partnerships. Meanwhile, other parties who are thinking they may be in with a chance should also realise it's not only about becoming kingmaker. Coalition politics could be put to good use in the country. Research by MIKE LAW may provide some tips for our parties to take on board as they enter this new political arena

As South Africa faces having to explore the turbulent terrain of coalition politics, this may be a good time to examine how coalitions have played out in countries where they have been commonplace.

Our parties need to be very clear on one thing: Coalitions are extremely difficult to build and maintain. Research suggests a few hints which our parties may find useful if they are going to work together for the common good and not only for that of their party.

Talk to your voters

It is exceedingly difficult for parties to manage the challenge of retaining the uniqueness of their identities and policies whilst making necessary compromises with other parties in the coalition. Voters will inevitably feel betrayed when their parties are forced to support policies that weren't in their original manifestos.

A coalition amongst parties in many ways necessitates a form of a coalition amongst their voters. One of the greatest challenges in worldwide coalition experiences has been for parties to educate their respective electorates on the rationale and necessity of entering into coalitions with a perceived political rival, or even enemy.

The 2003 co-operation between the ANC and NNP in the Western Cape inevitably resulted in severe backlash from voters whose apartheid battles were still fresh in their memory. Similarly, co-operation between the EFF and DA after the 2016 municipal elections has not been an easy sell to their respective electorates. South African politicians have even recounted death threats after entering into discussions with former political enemies.

One of the greatest challenges in worldwide coalition experiences has been the need for parties to educate their respective electorates.

Further afield, the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom suffered catastrophic electoral consequences with then leader Nick Clegg later admitting that a large factor for their near-demise was their decision to coalesce with the Conservative Party.

Small parties beware

Coalitions present smaller parties with the opportunity to wield disproportionate power and occupy positions in government that they would otherwise not be able to.

But international experience and research shows us that huge dangers also lurk for smaller coalition partners. The primary danger is that their identity runs the risk of being subsumed by the larger partner, and in many cases we have seen formal mergers by the smaller partner into the larger one resulting in them losing their unique identities, and the smaller party disappearing altogether.

It could be said that we have already seen this phenomena played out to an extent in South Africa. The NNP and ID's cooperation with the then DP in 2000 resulted in the former two parties being subsumed by the DP in what became the DA.

Collaboration over domination

The largest party in a coalition, especially if that party has experience in governing with an outright majority, often finds it difficult to accept that they must make compromises to smaller parties that they could have previously disregarded. The largest party in a coalition often adopts the attitude that it is doing the smaller parties a favour by allowing them to participate in government and they should pledge unconditional loyalty to their senior partner.

However, larger parties need to realise that in a coalition, their position of power is dependent on the enduring support of their smaller partners. Attempts by the larger party to dominate the coalition, rather than prioritise collective decision-making, is likely to antagonise their smaller partners who may move their loyalty elsewhere.

Put it all in writing and make it as clear as possible

A clear, written understanding of the terms of cooperation is almost indispensable to a successful coalition. However, precision is not always easy to obtain.

When a coalition is established based on expediency, bringing together two ideologically distant parties, one often sees an agreement that contains very weak commitments on policy matters (if any). With little time between the election results being announced and a new government being formed, parties will prefer to defer resolving their policy difference to a later stage.

The thinking seems to be "let's get into power first, and we can decide later what to do with it." Just two weeks passed between the results of the 2016 municipal elections being announced and Athol Trollip being elected as mayor in Nelson Mandela Bay. It is simply implausible to believe such ideologically differing coalition partners could agree on the policy priorities of the coalition.

From a governance point of view, such a legislature is likely to be characterised by deadlock and policy immobility. From a party-political standpoint, the coalition is likely to be unstable and susceptible to breakdown when their policy differences inevitably come to the fore.

What's to be done?

There are a couple of things which can be done. The first is the structural aspects of the coalition agreement need to be boosted considerably and be enforceable. Thus while the agreement cannot always stipulate the policies to be followed, it can prescribe the manner in which that decision will be made when it arises.

The second is to preplan and have preliminary coalition talks before an election actually takes place. South African political parties do not seem to do this and it comes back to bite them. They seem to think it is a sign of weakness to enter into coalition talks before an election which they plan to win outright. However, there is nothing wrong with envisaging more than one potential electoral outcome and planning accordingly.

Try and make the agreement enforceable

Coalition agreements are generally not regarded as legally binding or enforceable in a court of law. The agreement therefore needs to put in place other measures which can be used to enforce it. Without legal penalties, the best way appears to be to avoid penalising a party in breach and rather base an agreement on a shared understanding that it remains in each party's best political interest to abide by it. Inducing compliance is more effective than punishing non-compliance.

Arguably, the best incentive for political parties is power. The best way to induce compliance is to constantly ensure that each coalition partner is in a more powerful position than it would be if it defected. Therefore, it is often necessary to offer smaller coalition partners payoffs that are out of proportion to their electoral percentage, including the position of mayor, additional cabinet positions, the most coveted ministries or even the presidency/premiership. Payoffs usually reflect each party's proportional bargaining power during the negotiation stage rather than their actual electoral share.

Another way to try and induce compliance is to make the coalition agreement public. If a party is in clear breach of the agreement then rather the public see it ‑ instead of a public blame game emerging from private discussions about a secret agreement. Nobody wants to come out as the "bad guys".

Keep working on it

For coalition partners, running a coalition is almost like running a new political party. They need to be given daily attention.

For example, the Kenyan National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), which was initially very successful, created a structure that mimicked a political party. It had a joint decision-making council, a coordinating committee, an elections board and a parliamentary group. The coalition had a chairperson, secretary-general and treasurer. Similarly, German politicians have attributed a great deal of the success of their coalitions to similar meeting, consultation and decision-making structures which are adhered to almost without exception.

Focus on collective decision-making

In successful coalitions, parties have placed a premium on collective decision-making, and every effort must be made to reach a consensus rather than to reach decisions by a majority vote.

Larger coalition partners inevitably fear the idea that decisions should be taken by consensus as they do not want to be held to ransom by a party that received significantly less support. Anyway reaching absolute consensus is not always possible. The focus then needs to be on the composition and voting rules of the decision-making committee. They should be structured in such a way that reflects a degree of proportionality to each party's electoral share, but does not allow the will of one party in the coalition to override the collective will of the smaller partners nor to have an absolute veto power.

Break up your fights quickly and quietly

When parties come together with differing ideologies and ambitious - each trying to maximise their positions of power - conflict is going to occur. Disputes intensify as elections draw nearer. Coalition partners attempt to distance themselves from each other to promote themselves to the electorate as unique entities.

Coalitions therefore need to set up clear procedures which aim to mediate and resolve disputes. At times external mediators and arbitrators have and should be utilised - especially when the matter is a bona fide dispute over the interpretation of the agreement.

Coalition partners should make every effort to resolve their disputes in private. When internal structures fail or are ignored, coalition disputes get played out in public - either in the media or in the legislature through motions of no confidence, cabinet reshuffles and walk outs. We have already seen former coalition allies in South Africa resorting to public speeches and Twitter spats over matters that could have been resolved through the use of internal structures. This is destablising both to the coalition and the legislature in which they operate - and could have electoral consequences for the individual parties.

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