What happens inside the African National Congress (ANC) is still more likely to change our politics than the efforts of its opponents.
Last week’s municipal by-elections told an important story: despite all the buzz about opposition parties, the internal politics of the ANC is more likely to decide whether it risks losing an election than the efforts of its rivals.
Local by-elections are not a sure guide to general elections. Fewer voters vote in them, smaller parties can concentrate all their resources on a few local contests and independents do far better than they would in a national vote (it is a lot easier for a candidate without a party to win a municipal ward than a seat in the provincial legislature or Parliament). The two new parties that have attracted media attention recently did not contest the by-elections.
But by-elections offer a more accurate guide to where our politics is headed than the opinion polls that attract so much coverage, despite the fact that those who conduct them have usually never accurately called an election. They reflect real votes cast by real voters and so they send crucial messages, provided that we use them only as rough guides.
This election tells a story that could not be clearer: splits in the ANC do far more to break the political mould than opposition gains.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has pointed out that, in many wards, it increased its share of the vote dramatically. This needs to be placed in perspective.
First, in local by-elections, an improvement of only 100 votes produces a healthy gain in percentage terms, which would mean nothing in a general election. Second, the DA continues to gain more at the expense of other opposition parties than the ANC — in many wards where it did much better, the ANC vote dropped only slightly.
And in the Western Cape, with the exception of a couple of wards in which the DA put in a special effort because the balance of power in a council depended on it (in Oudtshoorn, and Plettenberg Bay), it lost ground to the ANC, suggesting that some voters become disillusioned with whichever party they vote into office, not only the ANC.
This suggests that next year’s election should see a similar trend to the 2011 local government elections — a modest swing from the ANC to the DA and a much bigger swing from smaller parties to the official opposition. The most likely outcome is that the ANC sheds a few percentage points, the DA adds 10 or so mainly at the expense of other opposition parties, and the ANC retains control of eight provinces.
All of this is rather modest compared with what happened in the Tlokwe ward contested last week: the ANC vote dropped from 90% to just more than 50%. The reason was not the DA, which doubled its percentage but still took only 13%, but the fact that the ANC was opposed by an independent, an expelled ANC councillor, who won 35%. This left the ANC clinging to the ward by its fingertips.
The obvious point is that splits in the ANC are the key to threatening its majority. The independents will not make a showing in a provincial or national election. But their success tells us that, when the ANC splits again, elections will become very competitive.
Party loyalties are far stronger here than in most young democracies. Most voters were brought up identifying with a political tradition, which they find difficult to abandon because it is so much part of who they are. This means opinion polls conducted months before an election are usually misleading because voters who are angry with their party start off planning to vote against it but may soften their resistance as polling day nears: in the end, they often give it another chance.
But it also means that voters find it far easier to switch from their party to one that is in the same tradition than to one they are used to opposing.
For ANC voters, this means that it is far easier to switch to a candidate or party who was previously in the ANC. It is why the Congress of the People, despite launching only a few months before the 2009 election and making serious errors, won more than a million votes. And why another ANC split is likely to do far more to shake up electoral politics than the gains of opposition parties.
None of this means that opposition parties are of no importance: splits within the ANC open opportunities for the opposition. The ANC in Tlokwe’s ward 9 was only a few dozen votes away from winning less than half of the vote: if two parties compete for the traditional ANC vote, it may fail to gain an overall majority and will need a coalition with other parties. The opposition would then, of course, become extremely important.
But it does mean that understanding the internal politics of the ANC is a key to grasping where we are headed — and that opposition parties need to do some serious strategic thinking on how they would position themselves if another ANC split comes.
BY STEVEN FRIEDMAN
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
Article Source: Business Day