Municipal elections: Do the eNCA’s polls demonstrate dramatic change for South Africa?

municipal elections 2 2016

This year’s municipal elections in South Africa have generated the greatest interest and controversy to date, long before the polls have been opened. For more information on these issues, you can read our previous blog.

The Constitutional Court ruled on 14 June 2016, that elections will go ahead on 3 August 2016, despite initial concerns that voters whose addresses were incorrectly recorded would be disqualified. The Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) was given 18 months to rectify the defects on the voters’ roll and to ensure that adherence to the law is effected.

In May, Parliament was told that the IEC did not have addresses of around 46% of more than 26 million registered voters in the August local government elections. Now that elections are certain, voters must prepare to understand procedures, make informed choices and also consider what a post-election South Africa could potentially look like. What are the prospects?

Importance of the eNCA polls

eNCA, a local television network, releases polls for the three key metros, every Thursday leading up to the municipal elections. These three municipalities include Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, where the political status quo is in the balance. The poll is based on more than 1400 cellphone respondents across the three cities.

After the first week of polling, as reported on 17 June, participants indicated that they would rather vote for the DA than the ANC, in both Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane. In Johannesburg, the ANC got the highest support, by a small margin of 2 percentage points. At that stage 17 – 21% of voters remained indecisive about who to vote for, leaving the field open.  The poll also gauged party sentiment; respondents in all three cities were asked if they felt positive or negative towards certain political parties. The DA scored highest for positive sentiment in Nelson Mandela Bay, with the ANC second. In Tshwane, following violent protests that made headlines, positive sentiment increased only for the DA. The unrest followed among ANC members after the announcement that former Public Works Minister Thoko Didiza is the ANC’s chosen mayoral candidate for the metro.

A week later, as reported on 24 June 2016, the DA was the leader in all three regions.

The impact of the Tshwane unrests came under scrutiny at the end of June; the rift between the DA and the ANC became much wider, with the DA subsequently leading the ANC in Tshwane by a margin of 19 percentage points. Negative sentiment against the ANC increased in Nelson Mandela Bay, with support dropping by 2 percentage points, with the DA scoring a 3 percentage point increase in positive sentiment.

Contesting their first local government elections, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have also gained support since their strong showing in the 2014 national elections. Most support for the party comes from Tshwane and Johannesburg, where the currently ruling party has experienced losses.

In all three provinces, most people selected the main reason to vote for the ANC as, “This is the only party for me/I believe in this party”, while the most popular reason to vote for the DA was, “This party can make a difference in my life/I believe their promises.”

In the leadership rating, Athol Trollip, DA mayoral candidate for Nelson Mandela Bay overtook Danny Jordaan, the ANC mayoral candidate.

On 14 July it was reported that the ANC lead the poll in Nelson Mandela Bay. The ANC still came in second to the DA in Johannesburg, with the DA leading by 42%. The number of undecided voters dropped slightly to 15%: this group remains large relative to the marginal differences among the leading parties; their eventual votes could swing the final election outcomes significantly in any direction.

For the first time in democratic South Africa, voters in many large regions of the country do not show dominant support for only one party. With many voters still undecided, it is not clear how the elections will change the political landscape of the country. Britain’s recent experience with the EU referendum also shows that polls do not always get it right, so that only the final result is certain. Regardless, in the tightest election yet, we should not discount the possibility of coalition governments.

Coalition politics in greater municipalities

Veteran journalist, Alistair Sparks, speculates that South Africa will soon undergo a dramatic change and move away from one party dominance. This potential development in the political landscape has been hotly debated for months now. In municipalities without clear winners, agreements between (sometimes ideologically different) political parties will likely be required to form coalitions. Parties with the most votes, albeit without a majority, have to form a partnership/alliance with another to obtain a combined share of the vote that exceeds 50%. This could be a new era for South Africa, as the degree of dominance that the ANC has achieved since it came to power will not, for the foreseeable future, continue.

Although South Africa has historically been governed by many coalitions, few were formed in the democratic era. Between 1994 and 1999 a Government of National Unity (GNU) was adopted in the interests of nation building after the first democratic elections were concluded: while the ANC won the elections outright, some cabinet positions were granted to smaller parties. The major partner in the GNU, the National Party, withdrew in 1996 after the adoption of the new Constitution. The DA’s seven-party coalition in the Cape metro (formed after the 2006 local government elections) and its 2011 provincial coalition in the Western Cape are the most well-known examples of “standard” local coalition governments. Up to this point, South Africa’s experience with coalitions is therefore limited, and the outcomes after this year’s elections are therefore speculative, at most.

Will coalition governments be good for South Africa?

How could coalition governments be good for South Africa? Coalition governments can contribute to ensuring that checks and balances are adhered to, and that dominant opinions do not overpower legitimate minority opinions. Sometimes, when two large parties are evenly represented, a third or fourth (smaller) coalition partner can cast the critical vote in the decision-making process. Slim majorities therefore often allow smaller parties to also exercise influence along with a larger partner. In such a scenario, democracy therefore protects all opinions.

On the other hand, coalition politics could be inherently unstable if partners agree on some important issues, but not on others. This is particularly possible when parties hold fundamentally different ideological views. Stability of coalition governments is at the greatest risk in polarized societies.

What can we do?

It is your constitutional right to vote. Our Constitution guarantees in section 19 (2) & (3) that “every citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections for any legislative body established in terms of the Constitution”. It also states that, “every adult citizen has the right to vote in elections for any legislative body established in terms of the Constitution, and to do so in secret.” However, it is also each citizen’s responsibility to vote.

CFJ appeals to each citizen to cast his/her vote wisely by making informed choices. Consider what a post-election South Africa could potentially look like and the difference every single vote can make in the new scenario of coalitions politics. For more information on parties’ manifestos and the validity of their claims, read the reports by Africacheck, by following these embedded links.

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