• As coalitions are set to become a more prevalent feature of South African politics, legislation for them has been mooted.
  • NGO My Vote Counts drafted a policy paper intended to place the interests of the people above those of political parties.
  • It does not support mooted provisions like limiting the number of motions of no confidence or an electoral threshold but supports making coalition agreements public and insulating the public service from politics.

Do not blame coalitions for governance failures, rather interrogate why coalitions break down and do not deliver, says My Vote Counts.

This as an under-pressure ANC has taken to advancing a narrative against coalitions, despite being a member-party to several coalitions itself.

My Vote Counts has released a policy paper on coalitions, acknowledging some legislative reform is needed but at the same time warning against over-legislating the issue.

“As South Africa approaches what many consider to be the most pivotal elections since democracy, political parties cannot be left to decide on this crucial aspect of the South African governmental architecture.

“With the ANC’s hegemony waning and coalition politics potentially becoming a feature across all three spheres of government, the interests of the people must be placed above those of the parties,” read the NGO’s policy paper by its senior researcher Joel Bregman.

“Government and the dominant parties have adopted an approach that views more laws and regulations as the solution.

“However, they are very conveniently glossing over how South Africa arrived at this point which is due, at least in part, to actions of the political parties and leaders.”

With several polls showing a high probability the ANC will fail to retain the outright majority it held in national elections since 1994, a national coalition government appears to be on the cards.

Many municipalities governed by coalitions have suffered from instability and service delivery failures amid the political horse-trading.

In a statement accompanying their policy paper, Bregman stated:

Over the past year, there has been a growing narrative emerging, predominantly from the governing ANC, that coalitions are a problem, arguing that having a single party in power is preferable.

“This despite the ANC being in multiple coalitions at the local level. Increasingly, it looks like the ANC will need to enter coalitions, in some provinces and even nationally, to maintain power.

“Instead of laying the blame for governance failures on coalition government itself, we need to interrogate why coalitions don’t always function well, why they break down, why they don’t deliver.

“We do need a legal framework, albeit a limited one. But all of this will be undermined if there is not a different approach to our politics, one premised on the public good.”

The government has legislation for coalitions in the pipeline, while the DA has introduced private member bills to that effect.

These bills will not be passed before the national and provincial elections on 29 May and will therefore not be in place for the expected political manoeuvres that is to follow to constitute national and provincial governments.

This lack of legislation has not gone unnoticed by My Vote Counts, which stated in the policy paper it “has led to agreements being formed behind closed doors by party leaders, with the public having little knowledge of their workings and the backroom deals that may have been brokered”.

“The South African political culture and 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.

“The same type of narrow interest approach is now evident 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 what is good for the public.”

The NGO has identified seven proposed provisions in the talks on coalition legislation, namely:

  • The introduction of electoral thresholds.
  • Limiting motions of no confidence.
  • Coalition agreements are to be made public.
  • An independent body for dispute mediation.
  • More time should be allocated to establish a government after an election.
  • Insulate public service.
  • Change the legal nature of municipal councils.

My Vote Counts does not support the inclusion of an electoral threshold or limiting motions of no confidence.

“The ANC and the DA have floated the idea of introducing an electoral threshold, for all three levels of government of 1% or 2%. This would drastically change the face of South African politics,” said My Vote Counts.

The NGO added if a 1% threshold was in force for the 2019 national elections, only five parties would be represented in the National Assembly, instead of the current 14.

“In addition, hundreds of thousands of votes would be wasted if such a system were to be introduced.

“Naturally, the dominant parties are pushing for this proposal and the smaller parties are vehemently against it.

“For parties that will not reach the threshold, supporting such a proposal would essentially be agreeing to their own demise in terms of representation.

“In a country like South Africa, with such a diverse population and a history of political disenfranchisement, it is important for people to have a wide range of parties to choose from, and they should pick those that they feel best represent their interests.”

As an alternative, My Vote Counts proposed only parties who obtained a certain number of seats could be allowed to participate in a coalition.

It added:

This approach is more palatable because it does not exclude parties from representation in a legislature and will limit smaller parties from holding a single or only a few seats and being able to wield enormous power.

While My Vote Counts agreed a constant change in government “does little to promote good governance, optimal service delivery, and trust in the government”, it did not agree with limiting motions of no confidence.

“There is a need for a more mature approach to South African politics.

“However, limiting such motions will allow poorly functioning government leaders to continue without citizens having the power to remove them.

“It removes power from the electorate and the public representatives’ ability to hold government to account.”

The NGO also does not support establishing an independent body to mediate disagreements between parties to ensure that coalitions do not fall apart.

“It will be impossible for parties in a coalition to foresee every possible eventuality that they may encounter.

“It will be problematic if upon every dispute, members of a coalition must approach a body for mediation. Rather, there may be benefits to coalition members forming a committee to solve disputes, as is done in Germany.”

My Vote Counts supports that parties make their coalition agreements public, preferably before elections, so “the electorate know which parties may join forces, what their joint positions are on policy matters, and how they intend to share power, because this is a key part of the voting calculus”.

“This will ensure that parties more carefully select their prospective partners. They will need to align with parties that have a shared vision and set of principles, otherwise they risk alienating their respective voter bases.”

If a coalition is formed, the agreements could also be used by voters to hold the coalitions to account.

The NGO also supports the proposal to allow more time after the election for the establishment of a government.

“The proposal being touted is to extend the 14 days currently provided at the local level, to allow more time for parties to negotiate and form coalitions.

“The rationale behind providing more time is that this will result in agreements that are better constructed and have the potential to be longer-lasting than a government cobbled together in too short a period.

“It is also possible that as a new culture and practice emerges in coalition politics, the coalition agreements that are developed before elections could make the formal establishment of coalition government a more streamlined process.”

My Vote Counts also supports separating the public service from political leadership, even if there are changes in political leadership, so that governance and service delivery can continue, and changing the legal nature of councils from a system of executive mayors to the executive committee system.

“Under the executive mayoral system all members of the council elect a mayor who then appoints their mayoral committee.

“This means that when a mayor leaves office, for example when a coalition breaks down, the mayoral committee must also leave. This can create political instability and chaos in the governance of the municipality,” read the policy paper.

“Under the executive committee system, the mayor is still elected by the full council, but the council elects the mayoral committee. When a mayor is removed from office the executive committee remains in place.”

This could lead to greater stability.