By Joel Bregman

Political parties have adopted an approach that views more laws and regulations as the solution for ensuring successful coalition governments. However, they are very conveniently glossing over how we arrived at this point, writes Joel Bregman.

Government may consider its recently concluded Dialogue on Coalition Governments to be a successful initiative that led to a degree of consensus. However, the gathering highlighted the deep divisions, distrust, and differences of opinion that political parties and others have on coalition government.

Further, the controversial and potentially unconstitutional introduction of electoral thresholds has split parties into two camps diametrically opposed to the other.

The objective of the Dialogue was to bring together political parties, academics, political analysts, civil society, and others to hear proposals and positions and chart a way forward. At present, there are no laws governing coalitions and arrangements are left to parties that are generally agreed to in secret.

The dysfunction we have witnessed with many coalitions in recent years, especially at the metropolitan level, underscores a crucial issue in our politics – that parties put their interests over those they are elected to represent.

Why are coalitions not working?

Coalitions are not a new phenomenon and have been a prominent feature of our politics at the local level since 2016. South Africa has 257 municipalities. According to the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) approximately 80 municipalities are currently governed by coalition governments, and of these, 30 are said to be dysfunctional. But this also means that there are places where coalitions are functioning and providing services to citizens. So, we need to ask: what are the causes of dysfunctional coalitions, what can we learn from places where coalitions are serving citizens, and what framework needs to be in place for them to function effectively and efficiently?

What are political parties saying?

The approach from political parties is primarily a legal one. Parties represented at the Dialogue generally agree on the following: coalition agreements should be public; parties should enter coalitions with shared values and a common vision; an independent panel should be established to mediate grievances between partners; insulating the public service from changes in government; and more time to form a government after an election.

The meeting of minds on these issues, however, belies the deep divisions on the proposal of introducing an electoral threshold, which would see parties needing to win a far greater share of the vote than they currently do to gain a seat in a council or legislature. The ANC and the DA are strongly advocating for such a measure, arguing that fewer parties will lead to greater coalition stability.

If a 1% threshold (that is being touted by the two largest parties) was in effect in 2019, instead of the 14 parties that we have today in Parliament, we would have five. Larger parties will benefit by consolidating power and for smaller parties, it would mean their demise in terms of representing voters. It would mean that far more votes are wasted each time we go to the polls.

We cannot over-regulate politics

Whether introducing electoral thresholds would be legal under our Constitution is another matter. Regardless, what is becoming clear is that parties have adopted an approach that views more laws and regulations as the solution. However, they are very conveniently glossing over how we arrived at this point. And the answer is simple: it is because of the actions of our political parties and leaders.  Our political culture, the way in which parties operate and approach coalition politics, cannot be discarded from the equation. Instead of a culture premised on serving the people, some parties may consider coalitions as an opportunity to seize power, gain influential positions, and get access to State coffers. And we are seeing the same type of narrow interest approach now as the discussions about coalitions continue. Parties will support measures that best serve their interests, not necessarily those of the people. We need to interrogate what political parties are proposing, because their interests do not always align with the public good.


Originally published on News24.