Jaap de Visser | Mar 15, 2021

Webinar report: Coalitions in Local Government

On 12 March 2021, the Dullah Omar Institute (DOI) convened a webinar on “Coalitions in Local Government”. Close to 100 participants attended, and the panel comprised Jaap de Visser (DOI), Wayne Sussman (election analyst), Jennica Beukes (doctoral researcher, DOI) and James Selfe (Member of Parliament for the Democratic Alliance (DA)). Michelle Maziwisa (post-doctoral researcher, DOI) was the moderator.

Jaap de Visser started the discussion, by recalling how during the transition to democracy, the law compelled local authorities to be inclusive. For example, during the interim phase, between 1996 and 2000, municipal executive committees comprised all major parties, and the municipal budget needed a two-thirds majority. In 2000, the current system of the ‘winner-takes-it-all’ was introduced, and executive mayors installed in most municipalities. Wherever coalitions were needed, it thus became a numbers game, aimed at securing a majority. He also pointed out the irony that the international literature on coalitions (mainly focused on Western Europe), often asserts that coalitions are more inclusive, more stable and generally ‘good for democracy’. However, in South Africa, local coalitions are associated with opportunism, instability, and even violence in the council. So what is going wrong, and how can coalitions be made more stable?

De Visser emphasised that coalitions are here to stay. They are a function of our electoral system, which is not designed to produce outright majorities. Of course, political parties aim for outright control, and they may succeed. But there will always be those councils where there is no outright majority. Can legal changes make coalitions more stable? Perhaps more importantly, do we need new conventions or political traditions to make coalitions more stable? De Visser discussed three examples.

First, which party in the coalition should deliver the mayor? Is it in order for the smallest party or an independent councillor in the coalition to assume the position of the mayor, in return for making a coalition happen? Coalitions where king makers take centre stage in the executive, have proven to be particularly unstable. Countries that have practised stable coalitions for decades, such as the Netherlands and Germany have developed a convention, i.e. a firm tradition, that the biggest party in the coalition delivers the mayor. Secondly, is there a way to regularise the negotiations process? Currently, if an election produces a ‘hung council’, it is not clear who makes the first move, or what the process is. Can this be made more predictable without impeding on the political nature of the negotiations? Thirdly, can we insist on written coalition agreements that are made public? Would that enhance accountability and party commitment to the coalition?

Wayne Sussman presented an overview of trends in coalition politics. He reminded the audience of the outcome of the 2016 elections: ANC 54% (62% in 2011), DA 27% (24%), EFF 8% (did not compete in 2011), and IFP 4% (4%). The ANC lost control of Tshwane, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay, Mogale City, Metsimaholo, Thabazimbi, Modimolle-Mookgopong, Nongoma, Kouga and Kgatelopele and had to form coalitions in Ekurhuleni and Rustenburg. The DA initially managed to secure mayoral chains in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Kouga.

The ANC formed various coalitions with the AIC, Al-Jamah, PAC, IRASA (Ekurhuleni), BCM (Rustenburg) and KSR (Nama Khoi) while the DA formed alliances/coalitions with the EFF, IFP, VF+, ACDP, COPE, UDM, AUF, KOP, KDF, KGP, KCF, MCA, F4SD and some independents. To illustrate the challenge of king makers and their extraordinary power over coalitions, Sussman highlighted the ‘Nelson Mandela Bay Kingmaker’: the Patriotic Alliance’s Marlon Daniels. With a single seat in the 120 seat council, he was able to make happen, but then also topple, a number of successive coalitions in Nelson Mandela Bay. Sussman took the audience through the trials and tribulations of various local coalitions, the extraordinary power of individuals and kingmakers, and the erratic behaviour of smaller local parties, such as the Independent Civic Organisation of South Africa (ICOSA). He also narrated the impact of weak national party structures and the unpredictable alliance behaviour of independents.

In summary, he presented a picture of very little consistency in coalition formation. He also highlighted how one party may take radically different decisions pertaining to coalitions in one municipality, compared the next.

Jennica Beukes presented her paper entitled “Hung councils in SA: Theory and Practice of coalition negotiations”. After reiterating that they work well in many European countries, she asked why they are not working well in South Africa. She pointed to the absence of framework legislation on coalitions, and to the fact that political parties seemingly have no guidance on how to negotiate or manage coalitions.

With respect to the formation of coalitions she discussed a number of questions. For example, who must initiate the negotiations? In countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium, the biggest party is formally required to initiate negotiations. However, in other countries such as Norway, there is no formal requirement. Another question is: who leads the negotiation? There are various options, such as bringing in party leaders or specialised expertise. Beukes explained that the purpose of the negotiations is to (1) identify parties with similar ideologies, (2) divide offices, (3) structure the composition of the coalition, (4) establish a programme for government and (5) devise incentives for cooperation.

In the context of local government, dividing offices relates mainly to how many executive committee or mayoral committee seats each party in the coalition will occupy. She referred to ‘Gamson’s Law’, a principle often used in coalitions, which says that the number of executive seats must be proportional to that party’s representation in the council. Local government law already prescribes this for executive committees, but then extends it to the entire council. She recommended that this principle be used in mayoral committees and warned against the overcompensation of kingmakers. Lastly, she argued that the 14-day deadline for a first council meeting after a general election places too much pressure on coalition talks.

James Selfe provided insight into his, and the DA’s experience with local coalitions. He too explained that, in 2016, the DA concluded an overall coalition agreement with a number of political parties, as well as specific local agreements. Special arrangements were made with the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Inkatha Freedom Party. The latter were premised on a case-by-case approach.

He pointed to a number of important aspects that shape local coalitions. First, the electoral system produces many small parties, which complicates coalition building. Secondly, he pointed to the nature of politics in South African local government. One may expect political parties to be ideologically cohesive, but he finds that in practice they are often driven by parochial and individual interests. Thirdly, he made reference to the calibre of councillors, and explained that he often found councillors to be ‘ideologically neutral’ and unprincipled in their politics. Lastly, he highlighted that the job of an executive mayor is extremely arduous because local government is a very complex terrain. The job is even more complex in the context of a coalition government and it then requires extraordinary leadership skills. These are hard to come by.

Selfe also alluded to lessons that were learnt since 2016. For example, he agreed that a coalition agreement, with dispute resolution mechanisms, is important. He explained that the agreements that were concluded in 2016 were not always adhered to by the parties. He asked whether the IEC should play a role in enforcing coalition agreements. He also recalled that smaller coalition partners would complain about not being given sufficient credit for a coalition government’s successes. While acknowledging this problem, he said that it is also a function of how the media operates. Lastly, he indicated that the management of coalitions is difficult when political parties use their leverage for nefarious individual interests, such as for securing personnel appointments in the municipal administration, or for the awarding of contracts. According to Selfe, when the DA would resist these, the coalition would collapse, and the DA would take the blame. When entering a coalition government, it is important to set realistic targets. Selfe acknowledged that, in some DA-led coalitions, the targets were very high, while the focus ought to have been on getting the basics in the municipality right. He made it clear that, in a coalition, it is critical to communicate relentlessly, and treat all coalition partners with respect, something that he acknowledged the DA did not always get right.

A number of questions were raised by the participants to the webinar.

  • If local politics in South Africa is so focused on personal interests, and characterised by immaturity, will coalitions ever succeed?
  • How can a single party be so inconsistent that it enters into a coalition in one municipality and is the arch enemy of that party in another municipality?
  • Will political parties accept being regulated on their coalition behaviour?
  • Should there be more transparency and citizen input into coalition negotiations?
  • Is it feasible to charge the IEC with a role in enforcing coalition agreements?
  • If coalition negotiations are necessarily secretive, can it at least be agreed that the coalition agreement be made public? Is that something that the IEC could enforce?
  • Would it be constitutional to have a rule that prevents king makers from occupying mayoral seats?
  • Should the details of the electoral system be revisited and thresholds be introduced, to make it harder for smaller parties to win seats
  • Should hung councils be given more than the current 14-day period to convene their first council meeting?

These, and other questions were discussed by the participants and panellists. The recording and engagements in the chat box can be downloaded here. All in all, the webinar provided valuable insights in the theory and practice of local coalitions in South Africa.

De webinar was supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. Jennica Beukes’ paper was prepared with support of the National Research Foundation and the Cape Higher Education Consortium.

 

by Jaap de Visser 

 

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