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Coalition Scenarios: The Future of South African Politics

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa attends Winnie Madikizelaโ€ฆ | Flickr

Written by Dylan Simpson with contributions from Li Zhi Rieken and Adrian Elimian

If all the polling is to be believed, South Africa has chosen to put an end to ANC majority rule โ€” a groundbreaking new phase in the countryโ€™s democratic dispensation. Amongst voters, the polls demonstrate a combination of approval and fear at the prospect of national coalition politics, with local level coalitions often in the news for being hotbeds of dysfunction, political conflict, and occasional violence. This new phase in South Africaโ€™s democracy brings great uncertainty and wider concerns about a new government that is worse than the previous one. Many, particularly outside South Africa, have predicted a coalition of chaos, instability or a nightmarish โ€œDoomsday scenarioโ€ if certain parties (often focused on the EFF) were to grasp national power โ€” which has resulted in someย  stoking fears of the end of South Africaโ€™s democracy. But how likely is this? Who will the ANC choose and why? Why is the ANC vote share so crucial for determining what coalitions are ahead? Looking at different polling scenarios, this article explains the different coalition partners the ANC may choose and why, analysing the possible political and economic ramifcations of such coalitions.

Minority Government

The first scenario to consider is actually not a coalition at all, but rather some form of an ANC minority government. Here the ANC would have an agreement with one or several parties in order to get enough votes in parliament for a government to be approved and, eventually, formed. After this, the ANC would stay in charge alone. For the ANC, this could be more beneficial as a deal with more moderate parties may make these parties seem like โ€œselloutsโ€ to their voters and/or force them to make political concessions they do not want to make, potentially giving away potential corrupt looting avenues as well.

However, a minority government would be a huge headache for the ANC in parliament. It could become incredibly difficult to pass legislation and, politically, the ANC would find it challenging to scapegoat a political partner for their failings in government as opposition parties would be perfectly placed to gain from any ANC failings (which would be inevitable considering the difficulty this new style of governing would bring). This scenario also relies on relatively high ANC support to be workable, likely between the 49-45% range, which is by no means guaranteed. 

Coalition Scenario 1: High ANC support

The first scenario to consider is what comes with a high ANC vote share around 47- 49%. This would be a result of the ANC squeezing the vote of other parties โ€” effectively getting their rural older base to turn out โ€” and for opposition parties, like the MK party, to underperform and fail to win many black voters. This would still represent a decline in ANC support of around 9-11%, the largest single decline for the ANC in any national election, but a less disastrous scenario for the ANC, and by no means a highly improbable one. The SRF daily tracking polls have shown that the ANC reached a high of 47.6% on 15 May in a scenario of 56% turnout. While this support has declined, it is not unlikely that it could reach this support again, especially if the MK party โ€” which initially brought the ANC consistently below 50% โ€” runs a poor campaign. 

For the ANC, this is an ideal realistic scenario. The ANC could form an easy coalition with a partner who lacks the influence and ideological differences to gain heavy unwanted concessions from the ANC, either in corrupt business dealings or in matters of policy. These smaller coalition partners could include: Al Jama-ah (Islamist), GOOD (centre-left), PAC (centre-left), COPE (centre-left), or PA (right-right).

These parties vary in ideology, but have all previously engaged in local coalitions with the ANC and shown, at some point, a willingness to have a national coalition. The PA is likely the largest โ€œsmallerโ€ party who could go into coalition with the ANC, with patronage and right-wing immigration policies (i.e., mass deportations) likely to be the concessions the PA would seek from the ANC in order to form the coalition. The changes to governance a coalition of this type would bring would likely be minimal, except in small areas the minority parties could get concessions from.

Coalition Scenario 2: Medium ANC Support 

This scenario is more likely, but would also prove far more challenging for the ANC. In this scenario, ANC support would sit around 44-47%. The ANC falling this low would come about as a result of opposition parties โ€” like the IFP, EFF, and MK party โ€” performing relatively well, taking away many ANC voters; however, it could also come about from the older ANC base not turning out in high enough numbers, possibly due to poor weather or lacklustre ANC organising.

This scenario poses far more problems for the ANC because they cannot rely on a few smaller parties to get past the 50% mark, they would likely have to lookย  for some slightly larger parties to do business with. The key option here is the IFP (conservative), and possibly some other smaller parties if the ANC gets around 45%. While the IFP has historically had a bitter rivalry with the ANC over all manner of issues, the government of national unity in 1994 which included the IFP and ANC cooled tensions between them. Both parties today could find a common cause in their mutual distrust of the EFF and MK party on ideological and personal grounds. There have been mixed signals about the possibility ofย an ANC-IFP coalition: in April, IFP leader Velenkosini Hlabisa said that he was open to some form of deal with the ANC as a last resort but Hlabisa changed tack in the days before the election, claiming that the ANC was not an option for them.

So what could a coalition of this type look like? Ideologically, it would be expected to moderate the ANC, with them having to appeal to a diverse set of ideologies in their government to reach a consensus. The IFP would likely demand much more federalism and other policies to appeal to their base to show that a coalition with the ANC has returned something of value to their voters. However, this kind of coalition may be hard for the ANC to manage, and could lead to damaging internal divisions within both the ANC and the IFP, with other opposition parties there to steal their votes if the country shows no signs of meaningful improvement under their rule.

Coalition Scenario 3: Low ANC Support

This scenario has the ANC suffering a catastrophic drop in support, that is any vote share below 43% with a decline in support of at least 14.5%. The lowest poll the ANC had recorded this year was 36% with the Fieldwork being done in late April and Early May by Afrobarometer however ANC support is highly unlikely to be as low as 36% as the ANC typically gains support as the election draws closer, which more recent SRF polls have demonstrated. But while very unlikely, it is not impossible for the ANC to collapse in such a manner and thus this scenario must be considered. It could make passing legislation on its own very difficult and would bring huge questions about whether Ramaphosa can stay on as leader of the party, leading to internal instability and a potential further fall in support.

At this stage, a coalition would be certain. But there are also only 3 other parties that would have the numbers to get them above 50%, those being the DA (liberal|centre-right), EFF (left-wing), and MK (left-wing|conservative) party. Many have assumed, particularly those outside South Africa, that the ANCโ€™s first option would be the EFF and/or MK party as both are (nominally) on the left side of the economic spectrum. But to understand why this is a vast oversimplification and likely not the case, we have to understand the circumstances of each party individually. 

For the EFF, their relationship with Ramaphosa has been strained for years, with MPs frequently getting into punch ups with the ANC in parliament. While the ANC and EFF have been in coalition at a local level, these have often been unstable and doused in poisonous division and gridlock even when they represent a balance of power which makes them fundamentally less difficult for the ANC to stomach than a national coalition. Political and economic divisions would also persist as Ramaphosa, an extremely wealthy pro-business politician in the economic centre, along with other cabinet members, would likely feel highly uncomfortable in giving the EFF many of the economic concessions it wants, even if the EFF would inevitably have to moderate. The left-wing factions of the ANC are weak and scattered. It is highly unlikely they can push the ANC into a coalition with the EFF and bring a governing coalition between them to the far left. Even if a coalition were to be formed, it would likely be beset by infighting and huge disagreements over policy that could hurt both partiesโ€™ long term prospects.

A similar picture of intense political divides emerges with the MK party, but personal divisions are an even bigger issue here. Ramaphosa and Zuma have been engaged in a shocking number of legal battles and personal spats over the years. Zuma largely sees Ramaphosa as personally responsible for his imprisonment and Ramaphosa has called Zumaโ€™s leadership of the ANC  โ€œ9 lost yearsโ€. Is it really likely a party with such huge divisions would go into government while Cyril Ramaphosa and the more centrist elements of the ANC are in charge? This is not even considering how difficult it would be if an ANC-EFF-MK coalition was on the table, with Malema and Zuma going from political allies and friends to fierce enough enemies that Malema alleged that Zuma had a plot to assassinate him.

The EFF and MK party as populist forces, whose vote is often a simple anti-ANC vote, would likely haemorrhage huge support if they governed with the ANC โ€” something which they might  not wish to do now if they feel they cannot get adequate concessions from the ANC. The EFF and MK party may also be reluctant to try to gain concessions from the ANC now, in hopes that  at the next election these parties may be in a far stronger position, with five more years of ANC rule further dwindling their support. This is not to say a coalition agreement between these parties is impossible, especially if the EFF/MK party are willing to make big concessions and are tempted by corrupt partnerships that could be on offer, but it is by no means certain or a tempting option for the ANC.

That leaves the ANC with an arguably much more appealing option, the DA. Without closer inspection it seems like a very unlikely partnership given their historical political rivalry and ideological divides, but senior figures in the DA, such as Helen Zille, have said they are open to the possibility while UIM leader Neil De Beer has stated that negotiations between the parties have already started. For the ANC, the DA would be the largest party possible, meaning that getting votes passed in parliament would be far easier, creating a culture of political stability. The ANC is likely open to a moderate platform the DA would offer, with federalism, economic liberalism and some other reforms on the table as well as the shared lack of deep social conservatism of the MK party. Coalition agreements may be difficult, but for the ANC, the DAโ€™s moderate platform and established governing record is likely far more appealing to them than the wildcards of the EFF and MK party.

For the DA, it could be enticing as the party would avert the crisis of a โ€œdoomsday coalitionโ€ involving the EFF or MK party and finally get them a real grip on national power. If they expect the ANC to continue to decline in support at the next election, without large losses for them, they may feel it could lead to them having both national governing experience and a strong negotiating position at the next election. If the ANC in this scenario is falling by around 15%, how much could that decline in five years time, especially if the DA outshines the ANC in government?

Investors and institutional figures would likely also find this coalition much more appealing than the others, with the ANC feeling this may help them generate growth and jobs the country desperately needs if the ANC wishes to regain its majority in the future.

Coalition Scenario 4: Government of National Unity

The last apartheid-era president F.W. de Klerk and his successor Nelson Mandela โ€” two members of the 1994 National Unity Government (Library of Congress)

The last scenario is that South Africa could embark on a coalition agreement between several large and small parties, dubbed a government of โ€œNational Unityโ€ based on the first government of South Africa in 1994; it would include several parties in order to create stability and support institutional structures. This coalition would spread out power and moderate the more radical views of various parties โ€” forcing cooperation between them. Markets would likely approve of this as well as institutions, limiting the damage that any one party or the coalition could do, with each party being a strong check on the others. Investors would see this as extremely reassuring, bringing crucial growth back to a country where it is badly needed. For the new parties involved, it would give them first-time experience in national governance, something which could be helpful for the future democratic prospects of the country.

However, the a national unity coalition may fail to bring about the structural changes the economy needs, with a steady status quo style of governing failing to shake up the abysmal economy and root out corruption. The possibility for infighting and instability is also immense, with the first government of National Unity facing significant difficulties when the NP dropped out of joint governance after only 2 years due to this very issue. Other opposition parties may not see the allure of a bland and likely un-transformative new government, and may opt out of involvement, seeing the potential gains they can make by criticising the poor governing records in opposition.

Overall, predicting coalitions is challenging due to the numerous uncontrollable variables involved. But what we can say is that coalitions will play a significant role in South Africa’s future political landscape and will have the potential to shake up the country’s future. Therefore, a deep understanding of coalitions is essential to comprehend South Africa’s trajectory, whether it gets South Africa on a path to hope and renewal or to further decline and despair.

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