Stable coalition governments: It matters how the cake is cut

Looming in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic is the 2021 Local Government (LG) elections that must take place within 90 days of the date of the expiry of the current term.

The Independent Electoral Commission recently stated that the earliest date for the LG elections is 4 August 2021, while the latest date is 1 November 2021. The pandemic has created some uncertainty about whether the elections will happen next year and if it does, whether the time is ripe for South Africa’s LG move to smarter elections through online voting. Notwithstanding this, the electoral system of LG comprises of 50% ward candidates and 50% proportional representation (PR). Collectively, the electoral system is one that results, in general, in proportional representation. Generally, PR systems are not designed to produce an outright majority. For this reason, hung councils may occur in municipalities where no political party obtains enough votes to secure a majority of the council seats. Consequently, political parties (parties) may pool their votes to constitute a coalition government. If the parties consider this option then the coalition negotiation or bargaining stage will follow shortly after the elections and last until the coalition government is constituted.

This article forms part of a series of articles on coalition governments, and it discusses how devising incentives for cooperation during coalition formation may facilitate cooperation and improve stability in the coalition.  After an election, the council must have its first sitting within 14 days after the election date.  Thus, any coalition bargaining process should be concluded within 13 days from the election date. However, negotiations will continue throughout the life-cycle of the coalition. Coalition partners will enter negotiations whenever they have to make decisions and resolve issues that were not foreseen and settled in the bargaining stage.

Status of coalition governance in municipalities

Many of the coalition governments that were formed after the 2016 local government elections became unstable. The municipal councils of some municipalities have been paralysed because of deadlocks in the council that made it difficult for the council to pass decisions, adopt budgets, and appoint office-bearers and municipal managers. The inability of the council to make these important decisions often adversely affected the delivery of services to communities. In the City of Tshwane, collapsing coalitions have been the root cause for the municipality being placed under provincial administration. Other municipalities with unstable coalitions include Bitou Municipality, Kannaland Municipality, Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) Metropolitan Municipality, and the City of Johannesburg.

Why are coalitions in municipalities unstable?

To ensure continued governance in the council, the councillors from the coalition government must cooperate. Cooperation in council requires that coalition partners attend, and remain in council meetings, and support the motions of the coalition partners. Their cooperation is necessary to establish a quorum required to take valid decisions or pass motions that require an ordinary or supporting majority vote as envisaged in the Municipal Structures Act. Often the instability in the council is a symptom of an underlying issue in the coalition government: the inability or unwillingness of coalition partners to work together.  The question, therefore, is what are some of the ways of ensuring that coalition parties continue to cooperate to produce a stable coalition?

Negotiating stable coalition governments

Coalition negotiations are by their nature confidential. What parties consider when they make concessions and agreements before entering a coalition government is often unclear to outsiders. Generally, the bargaining stage is used to identify potential coalition partners, to establish alignment around the political programmes of the political parties of the coalition, to allocate portfolios, and to devise written coalition agreements. These elements should be carefully considered to avoid a breakdown in cooperation after the coalition is in operation.

Seeking potential coalition partners

It less difficult for parties to cooperate if they share similar ideologies. A party’s ideological preferences influence the policy preferences and political decisions of that political party.  Conflicting ideologies are often the first starting point for inter-party conflict. Consider, for example, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA)’s proposed solutions to procurement-fraud. The EFF proposes to gradually abolish the tender system and instead employ residents to perform services that are provided by external services providers whereas the DA argues for more transparency in the tender processes. While both agree that procurement-fraud is a problem, they vary in how they will achieve this objective. Assuming that the two parties are governing together, how will they address the issue of tender-fraud before the council? Therefore the parties must, if possible, aim to find coalition partners with similar ideologies to avoid conflict that may emerge from this basis. However, in practice, there is only a limited number of parties to choose from, and they may not necessarily be the most compatible coalition partner. This also reinforces the need to devise incentives for cooperation.

Also, it cannot be denied that, given the apartheid history of South Africa, race is a divisive issue that can further complicate building and sustaining coalitions. Racial politicking is destructive to maintaining cohesion in coalitions. For coalitions to be sustainable, coalition partners must exercise their decisions within the confines of the Constitution.

Aligning the political programmes of the coalition partners

After the political parties have decided that they will enter a coalition together, the next step is to negotiate the programme for the government. Each political party must use this opportunity to include its main policy goals as envisaged in their election manifestos. The parties must determine which policy goals of the respective coalition partners will be included in the final coalition agreement, that will be fixed for five years or until it is renegotiated. In this regard, it is useful to determine areas of commonality that will be easier to pursue and to rule out policy goals that may give rise to conflict between coalition partners.

Devise a written coalition agreement

The coalition partners must devise a written coalition agreement to cement the full range of agreements and compromises made in the bargaining process. The coalition agreement must set out, among other things, the policy priorities of the coalition, how portfolios will be allocated in the coalition, structures and procedures for decision-making and dispute resolution (which may involve senior party structures), and the general rules of coalition behaviour.

Portfolio distribution: Consider portfolio saliency to the respective coalition partners

The distribution of portfolios deals with the question of ‘who gets what?’.  Portfolio distribution refers to the structuring of the mayoral or executive committee where each member will have control over a particular portfolio that corresponds with the departments of the municipality. In portfolio allocation, it is worthwhile to consider the brand of the political party in the coalition. The value that each party attaches to a portfolio is linked to its party-brand.   Therefore, the various portfolios must be evaluated to determine the degree to which the portfolio will enable a coalition partner to reflect their brand and achieve their policy goals. What is it that the potential coalition partner wants to achieve and how can the portfolios be allocated to meet this objective? For example, a local ‘Green’ party that campaigned on climate change may favour a portfolio over the environment where they can implement policies to address climate change as reflected in their manifesto. However, the party cannot do this if, for example, they receive a portfolio in corporate services and governance. In this case, cooperating in the coalition government may not be electorally rewarding to the Green party which may, in turn, cause the party to become uncooperative and potentially destabilise the coalition.  Conversely, if the Green party in the above example, is afforded the portfolio of socio-economic development, the party can likely achieve its electoral commitments whilst cooperating in the coalition government. Strategic allocation of portfolios, therefore, constitutes an incentive for cooperation in the coalition government.

How many portfolios can be distributed to a coalition partner?

Cooperation in the coalition may also be strengthened if parties feel that they are getting the best deal from their membership in the coalition. In distributing portfolios, there must be a proportional relationship between the party’s seat contribution and its portfolio share in the coalition. This is already a legal requirement in the executive committee system which does not apply to mayoral committees. However, according to Gamson’s Law, which is an empirical model used to study how portfolios are allocated in coalition governments, it was found that in coalitions of several countries, save for slight deviations to reward smaller parties, there is usually proportionality between seat contribution and portfolio share in coalitions. Coalitions with mayoral committees should consider retaining the principle of proportionality when portfolios are allocated in the executive.

Avoid the overcompensation of kingmakers

Smaller parties often wield significant bargaining power in hung councils where they are considered as the ‘kingmakers’. For example, after the 2016 LG elections in Bitou municipality, the DA and the ANC won 6 seats while the African United Front (AUF) won only a single seat. The AUF became the kingmaker because the AUF would ultimately decide whether the ANC or the DA would govern with the AUF in the coalition government. As the kingmaker, though electorally being the weakest party, the AUF obtained the mayorship position in the council. Placing the electorally weakest party in charge of the executive does not make for good democratic practice. If the AUF obtained one seat, can it be argued that the majority of the voters intended for the AUF to exert the most influence in the executive? It may be useful to reward the kingmaker with more portfolios at the expense of larger parties, thus suggesting a slight deviation from in the proportionality-principle.


With another round of LG elections set to be organised in 2021, there is a possibility that the elections will produce hung councils, as was the case with the 2016 elections. This means that political parties may have to form coalitions to constitute a government. Negotiating coalition governments in municipalities is not a straightforward process. Coalition partners should be forward-looking and must anticipate the possible issues of conflict that may hinder the parties from cooperating during the life cycle of the coalition government.  Coalition partners should use the negotiation process to align the political programmes of the coalition partners, allocate portfolios, and to devise a coalition agreement. The article highlighted the following as incentives for cooperation in the coalition government:

  •  the adoption of written coalition agreements;
  • the allocation of portfolios in a manner that will enable a coalition partner to achieve their policy goals in the coalition government;
  • the promotion of the principle of proportionality when allocating portfolios in the executive; and
  • to overcompensate kingmakers through rewarding them with a disproportionate portfolio share that may necessitate slight deviations from the proportionality requirement, but it is not good democratic practice to put kingmakers in charge of the executive.

The next article of the coalition government series will discuss whether the institutional framework of local government is receptive to the demands of coalition governance in municipalities.


by Jennica Beukes, Research assistant, and Doctoral Researcher


The publication of the Bulletin is made possible with the support provided by the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Bavarian State Chancellery.

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