Losing by-elections has issues for ANC

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For some years, ANC politicians have had to worry far more about each other than about voters. Is the tide turning?

Since we became a democracy, the ANC has won all national elections with ease. But recently it has lost municipal by-elections in areas where we would expect it to win comfortably. It lost in Marikana to an independent candidate. Now it has lost in Nkandla to the IFP.

For a while, we have been hearing that the ANC has been losing ground to the DA. Mostly, the claims have been exaggerated. The DA has won some by-elections from the ANC. But this has usually been in areas where slight shifts among traditional ANC voters, with the support of racial minority voters for the DA, were enough to swing the ward against the governing party. The ANC retaining a vast majority among black voters.

These last two by-elections have broken that mould.

Both were in wards where all voters are in the racial majority and which we would expect the ANC to win. For years, popular independent candidates in areas where all voters are black failed to win if they were not running for the ANC – the Marikana by-election changed that.

The fact that it occurred in the place where miners lost their lives obviously explains why voters deserted the ANC – but previously, local anger at the governing party did not prompt voters to vote against it.

Nkandla is, of course, in the KwaZulu-Natal rural areas where the IFP once dominated. But the ANC has won support in these areas over the past few years. The Nkandla result changed that – the ANC candidate lost narrowly but if we consider that the votes were almost evenly split between it, the IFP and National Freedom Party, it won only about one third of the vote in the president’s home area.

Does this mean the ANC is in for a real fight in the 2014 election? No.

Local by-elections tell us far more about what voters are thinking than public opinion surveys, but they are not a good guide to national elections.

Fewer people vote in by-elections and this tends to favour smaller parties. Also, voters who are angry but still loyal to their parties can send a message in local by-elections, because their party can lose these and retain national power.

National elections also force parties to spread their resources over the entire country. Independent candidates obviously can’t do that – neither can regional parties like the IFP. The only national party that can is the DA, which is yet to show that it can take anything like the required number of votes from the ANC.

About 2.5% of voters shifted from the ANC to the DA in the local elections – even if it triples that at the next election, it would only win one quarter of the vote.

The likeliest result of the 2014 general election is therefore that the ANC will lose some ground but remain the majority party by a large margin.

Nevertheless, if the ANC does not address its internal divisions and improve its relationship with its voters, the by-elections could begin a trend that should worry it.

If the tensions within the governing party continue, it seems likely that some of its politicians may seriously consider a split. But one obvious reason for them to stay, even if they are unhappy, is that it repeatedly wins – and so staying with the ANC means that politicians are more likely to win elections.

But the by-elections could begin a trend in which being in the ANC is no longer a sure ticket to election in the areas where most voters live. If that begins to happen, an important reason for remaining in the governing party falls away.

If we see more results like those of the two by-elections, this could also change the calculations of some ANC politicians.

Some might doubt the ANC, but they will argue that breaking away from the ANC is certain to land a party in the political wilderness, despite its poor results. This is not as obviously true as it seems. Cioe made serious mistakes even before it contested the 2009 election and still won more than 1 million votes. If it had not carried on making mistakes, it might have retained those votes and perhaps even increased them.

This shows that parties which come out of the ANC and are able to appeal to its traditional voters could do well.

But perceptions are all in politics. If ANC politicians believe a breakaway party will win only a small share of the vote, they will not consider forming one. But, if the by-elections begin a trend in which the ANC continues to lose ground, some in the ANC may decide that if voters can drift to opposition parties even when there is no prospect of them winning an election, many more people would change sides if they were offered an opportunity to vote for a party led by former ANC leaders.

Once a governing party that has been in power for years appears to be losing ground, politicians are less likely to stay with it, because the idea that it is the only political game in town seems less believable. It is this problem that could await the ANC.

So, although the ANC is not about to lose a national election, it may be in serious trouble if it ignores the voices from the ground in Marikana, Nkandla and other places where, in the near future, voters may send it the same message as the one it has now received.

If its politicians do not start taking voters at least as seriously as they take themselves and other politicians, then the by-elections could begin a pattern that will threaten its ability to win national elections.

Prof Steven Friedman is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University/University of Johannesburg

Source: The New Age