Election Watch

‘Undecideds’ and stay-away voters will be the real ‘kingmakers’

Municipal election 2016
Election 2016 two.jpg

With South Africa’s most unpredictable election since 1994 on 3 August only a matter of days away, all indications are that the ‘undecided’ voters and those who will not vote will have the biggest influence on the final result. (Read more)

That said, at the time of writing, with just short of 20 days to go to election day, the wisdom of British prime minister Harold Wilson in 1964 that “a week is a long time in politics”, looms large over any predictions.

For example, late last week the ANC-led ‘governing alliance’ showed further signs of splintering when labour federation Cosatu broke ranks with the ANC on the issue of the ongoing protests in Zimbabwe and expressed its support for the protesters.

In all the keenly watched metropoles – especially in Tshwane (Pretoria), Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay – where opinion surveys indicate there is no absolute majority support for any party – surveys record in the order of an 18% unknown factor. Only in Pretoria and Johannesburg, if all the unknowns vote for the Democratic Alliance (DA), will the result deliver an absolute majority of 50% plus.

And, to add to the uncertainty, it will only be applying to the proportional slice of the result. In individual wards, with the “first past the post” dispensation, the results from wards might differ dramatically from party to party.

Add to this the factor that the percentage of voter turnout might also differ dramatically from ward to ward, depending on factors like demographic profile and quality of individual candidates. At least theoretically it becomes possible for any party to win the poll the majority of the overall votes, but still end up with a minority of seats in the council.

In such a case we might just after the election see a return of the still unresolved issue, with possible court challenges of the absence of verifiable address for hundreds of thousands of voters.

To complicate matters further, one can at best only guess how big the voter turnout is going to be. Indications are that many ANC members and supporters, unhappy with many things, from service delivery to Mr Zuma’s leadership, will simply stay away from polling booths.

Stability of local government

This factor on its own can affect the stability of local government in some jurisdictions, as the history in the Tlokwe municipality has shown.

At the same time, many commentators, us included, are predicting that the results are likely to strengthen the widely welcomed trend toward coalition government in the country. It could be a precursor to a whole new political dispensation after the general national elections scheduled for 2019.

Many examples across the world, however, prove that coalitions do not always deliver stable governments.

The one historical South African example is Cape Town. Almost a decade ago negotiations between no fewer than seven political parties established a coalition government, electing Helen Zille by 106 votes to 103 as mayor. In that case it resulted in the DA establishing full hold on the council in 2009s municipal election.

But it would be unrealistic to expect the process to always play out so smoothly. Some volatile times might be awaiting many municipalities in the months following the election.

Role of high profile personalities

The success of the Cape Town experience largely depended on the quality of leadership involved, and the same factor will play a role in many municipalities.

While the election campaign at time took on the complexion, and still does to some extent, of a referendum about the leadership of the president, strengthened last week when DA leader, Mmusi Maimane positioned the 3 August election as, just about, a choice between him and President Zuma as the leader of government. 

The era of ‘personality politics’ came into full swing during the campaign over the past months.  In the process, the rank and file ward candidate has become almost invisible.

The situation has even spawned a, for South Africa totally new term, ‘mayoralism’ or ‘mayorality’. The municipal elections have in many instances become almost totally based on the personalities of individuals competing for the ‘mayorality’ of their town, city or municipality.

It is also the first time since his election as leader of the DA that Mmusi Maimane has been the campaign poster boy of his party. To him the result, if from a different perspective, is as important as it is for President Zuma.

One other thing seems to be sure, after all the uncertainties and new trends that came with municipal election 2016, politics in South Africa will never be the same again nor remain dominated by a single personality or party.

by Piet Coetzer

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