THE local government elections jolted us into considering what our political world might look like in the absence of ANC electoral dominance. As coalition governments take shape in our metros it is worth pausing to consider how the ANC’s decline mirrors the fate of dominant parties in other countries and what we can learn from those contexts.
The elections were remarkable. Across the country, though markedly more pointedly in urban metros, the ANC was offered an obvious rebuke from the electorate. Despite it still receiving a majority of the total vote, there is no doubt that its hold on the political landscape has slipped, having lost swathes of support in the country’s economic hub of Gauteng and the party’s own political home in the Eastern Cape. After decades of “business as usual” at election time, we now speak of coalition building and the next three years suddenly seem much less clearly defined. Yes, it was a remarkable election, but not surprising.
I say this not only because of the obvious leadership crisis within the ANC or the series of scandals that have so enraged voters. Rather a survey of dominant party democracies finds that the decline of the dominant party, as long as elections are largely free and fair, is ultimately inevitable. As we are all too aware in SA, a party that dominates electoral politics for long periods often becomes victim to its own success, growing increasingly lethargic, unresponsive and ultimately uninspiring.
Does this mean that the ANC is now on an inevitable path to a loss in a national election and declining support? Though this seems most likely in the current context, it is not inevitable nor is it likely to be permanent. Overlooked in discussions of dominant party decline is that those parties that do eventually lose often bounce back to electoral success very quickly.
The cases of the PRI in Mexico and the LDP in Japan are instructive. Two of the longest running dominant parties, both ultimately lost elections after painstaking party and coalition building by the opposition and widespread discontent with the incumbent. Despite the obvious differences in context, the road to their defeats has remarkable similarities with SA: a dominant party increasingly unable to deliver a better life for its people, and opposition parties capturing power at a local level and using their governance record as a path to broader support.
Yet, within a relatively short period in both cases, both parties were back in control of the country, having swept to impressive electoral victories. Why? There are two likely reasons. The first is that governing successfully is much harder than being a critical opposition. Whoever ultimately governs SA’s metros will find it difficult, and the lack of immediate transformation will jar against campaign promises. Being in power also means being subject to the real constraints of the international context and domestic structural obstacles; delivering change will take much more than being more efficient. An added complexity for opposition parties is that they will have to govern metros or town in provinces controlled by the ANC. The contest for resource allocation will be fierce and ordinary voters are likely to suffer.
The second and perhaps more interesting point is that it is not easy for opposition parties to break free from the ideological dominance of the dominant party. A case in point has been the DA’s apparent reliance on the ANC’s vision for SA, the argument being that only they can now deliver it. In the case of a revitalised ANC (apparently only possible with new leadership) and an increasingly stretched DA, there is no reason to think that voters will not entrust the ANC with delivering that vision again in future. Some will argue that the EFF differ here by providing a radically different vision for the country — yet there a lot hinges on leader Julius Malema’s political future, and it is not clear that this lies outside the ANC in the long term. Of course, the ability of “broad church” dominant parties to draw in potentially dangerous opposition has always been one of its key advantages.
Thus, despite this obvious setback, the ANC still holds an enviable position in our political landscape. The most immediate challenge facing it is to ensure that where it does become the opposition it doesn’t implode as it has in the Western Cape.
All of this speculation assumes a future where the democratic “rules of the game” are entrenched. We should not take this for granted. Although many within the ANC leadership have been gracious in conceding defeats in this election, there were worrying levels of political violence in the run up to the election, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, where 15 ANC supporters and candidates were murdered in political infighting. This is a window into the possibility of a descent into violent politics when the stakes are so high and access to political office is seen as so crucial.
In addition, President Jacob Zuma’s term has seen ever increasing power vested in the “securocrats”, an apparent increase in surveillance of activists, as well as the full power of the state being brought to bear on protesters. The ever present reference to foreign instigated regime change as a way to target civil society has shown that parts of the ANC may not respond well to further electoral losses. The intervening period now, including the formation of coalitions and new councils, will be a crucial test of this space. Whether the rule of law is supreme will be a litmus test for any future electoral changes.
What path is ultimately taken, and how the ANC responds to last week’s losses, likely ultimately rest on which faction is most harmed by the result. This has been the subject of many pages elsewhere. The ANC as a party still dominates South African politics in its ability to set the political agenda and opposition parties, despite inroads, still seem to struggle to capture the imagination of a wide enough group of South Africans. Despite this, if the ANC remains paralysed by the current listless and divisive leadership under Zuma, these local election losses will be the first of many. Further, without a change in leadership – it is unclear how the party can guard against these losses without turning to increasingly undemocratic tactics.
• Marchant is a research associate at the Open Secrets project, linked to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.