South Africa: A Stable National Coalition Government in South Africa? Possible, but Only If Elites Put Country’s Interests First

South Africa’s municipal government elections in 2021 produced a number of largely unstable local government coalitions. There’s now a strong possibility that the next government that’s formed at national level may be a coalition too. This would be the first since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

Elections due in 2024 will test the extent of the declining dominance of the governing African National Congress. Indeed, some polls suggest the party could fail to secure the 50% of the vote required to form a government. With no other party tipped to meet the threshhold, there might have to be a coalition instead.

Can South Africans expect a national coalition to be stable? The turbulence in coalitions seen in 2021-2022 suggests not. The disintegration and reconstitution of municipal coalitions in the past year indicate that many parties are using them as a political battleground between elections. The result is lack of attention to actually governing cities, and providing municipal services.

A host of international cases provide insights into what’s needed for successful coalition building. Austria, Germany, Japan, Malaysia and Chile are examples. But coalition building isn’t always plain sailing. In the new democracies of Eastern Europe and parts of the global South, coalition arrangements have often been politically unstable. There’s also been electoral volatility and highly fragmented party systems.

So, what helps or hinders coalitions? My own research on the international experience of coalition politics shows that South Africa can learn from the conditions in which coalitions elsewhere have been conducive to stable and accountable democratic government.

Firstly, coalitions work where there are minimal ideological differences between parties. It is often more challenging to build stable and durable coalitions when the parties involved cover a wider ideological range.

Secondly, it can be hard to build strong coalitions in countries that have a dominant party that’s been in power for a long time.

This leads to a third factor: weak and fragmented opposition parties. These make it hard to build strong coalitions. Smaller, weaker parties are more likely to be narrowly opportunistic or lack ideological coherence.

South Africa faces all three problems. It has a dominant party legacy. It has party dysfunctionality. And it has a fragmented opposition. If experience elsewhere is anything to go by, South Africa’s current political and institutional dynamics are unlikely to cultivate stable and accountable coalitions.

But there is a possible route to stable coalition building. International experience suggests that what tips the balance in favour of stable rather than polarised coalitions is the willingness of political elites to prioritise collective interest over political opportunism.

This means that coalition politics will be a severe test of the values of political leaders. It will also test the strength of democratic institutions to mediate conflict and ensure accountability.

Different approaches

Parts of Western Europe, such as Austria and Germany, have seen “grand coalitions”. Under this arrangement, governments are composed of the two largest parties in the parliamentary system.

Latin America has experienced “rainbow coalitions”. In Chile a multiplicity of different parties have united to form a governing alliance. For its part Brazil has historically seen a considerable number of “oversized coalitions”. These contain more parties than needed to make a majority.

The narrow victory of Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the end of October was arguably achieved through the building of a broad, but united, coalition against Jair Bolsonaro’s populist authoritarianism.

Japan and Malaysia have experienced periods of “coalition dominance”. This has involved a stable coalition of parties maintaining power for a prolonged period.

South Africa’s coalitions at local government level, in which smaller parties have increasingly become kingmakers, have been fractious alliances lacking programmatic alignment. It is difficult to see how this would differ at the national level.

The country’s dominant party legacy has prevented the forging of a competitive party system. As in much of Africa, this is reinforced by the presence in government of a long-serving former liberation movements.

Given the difficulties for newcomer parties in establishing organisational structures and consolidating support, this history has often increased the likelihood of coalition formation on the continent. But it has also produced unstable and volatile coalition arrangements (p.127-156), with limited ideological or programmatic coherence.

Some coalitions have managed the challenge of containing ideological differences by excluding contentious issues from the governance agenda. An example is Slovakia’s four-party coalition from 1998. It coalesced around the goal of integration into the European Union. But avoiding the policy areas on which parties clash is only a temporary solution.

Some solutions

First, the establishment of a system that can help manage differences is fundamental to maintaining coalitions. Formal coalition agreements cement a joint, published commitment on what the coalition will deliver.

Globally, the establishment of coalition committees or councils has been critical for resolving disputes, mutual supervision and accountability. This has been true for coalition partners as well as voters.

Underpinning the success of these institutions and processes is the second determining factor: the values of political elites. The history of successful coalitions in Germany and Denmark, for example, shows that political culture and the values of party leaders matter.

This culture needs to include an inclination for deliberation and mediation. Added to these is willingness to prioritise collective interest. Political scientist Richard Bellamy argues that accepting democracy means also accepting compromise.

Stable coalitions in South Africa will depend upon embedding these values among elites, and establishing a tradition of deliberation. Consensus and accommodation have been important in facilitating stable coalitions in both Denmark and Mauritius, p.451-476. South Africa’s own 1994 Government of National Unity was arguably steered by the need for reconciliation and, thus, mediation.

Third, the strength of surrounding institutions is important. Parliamentary scrutiny and legislative debate play a crucial role in ensuring accountability. Legislatures exert influence on behalf of both coalition partners and the opposition.

Fourth, stable and accountable coalitions engage party members and supporters in decision-making processes. This helps obviate the danger of political negotiations leading to compromises among elites. This can lead to the exclusion of ordinary voters. Disconnect from the electorate ultimately led to the decline of Chile’s longstanding five-party coaltion, Concerta├žion.

The possibility of a national coalition government in South Africa is approaching in 2024. The ability of political elites to prioritise collective interest over political power play will be a key determinant of coalition dynamics.

Embedding democratic values only comes with acceptance of the rules of the game. These include compromise and accountability.

Heidi Brooks, Senior Researcher and Associate, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection

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