Even a slight change in tomorrow’s outcome will be significant

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

WHY should we care about an election whose result won’t differ much from the last four?

Because small shifts can make a big difference in politics here.

It is becoming increasingly clear that, despite hype about massive voter shifts, this election will not differ dramatically from previous versions. As the poll nears, a consensus has emerged that the African National Congress (ANC) will not drop below 60%; the Democratic Alliance (DA) will continue to grow, mostly at the expense of other opposition parties, but will improve only marginally on its 2011 local election result; and the much touted Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will not do as well as the Congress of the People (COPE) last time. No provinces seem likely to change hands. Most smaller parliamentary parties will probably survive but not grow hugely.

None of this sounds very interesting. But there are at least two reasons to take the election seriously. Both have to do with the path we have been on these past two decades.

It is now evident the “new SA” is not as new as many of us think. Since 1994, what was before then available only to a small racial minority has been opened to new black entrants. That is in one way a huge change: it has produced a growing black middle class. But the patterns of the past remain. What whites enjoyed before majority rule survives, albeit with new black participants. This is a mixed blessing. We continue to enjoy the free and fair elections that were available to whites only. But the upper reaches of the economy remain the preserve of far too few.

This election is important as it will help to show whether the plus side of this reality is withstanding new pressure — and whether the minus side might face a challenge.

On the first score, one reason elections have run smoothly is that they were not competitive. This election is the most competitive yet and so electoral democracy is facing new pressures: this could be the first poll since 1994 in which some losers challenge the fairness of the results. If this happens, one reason may be the sour grapes of one party in particular, the EFF, which has boasted of winning nine provinces and won’t get anywhere near that in any of them. But there is also hard evidence that the electoral process really is under more threat than ever before.

Despite questions about the Tlokwe by-elections, the Electoral Commission of SA should again run a fair election.

The problem is what has happened during the campaign. Some of this is well known: the SABC appointing itself guardian of campaign advertising, the denial of venues to opposition parties, clashes on university campuses and violence preventing the president campaigning in North West. Other examples, because they affect only the poor, have come to light through the efforts of researchers: distribution of food parcels to voters or threats that people won’t get their social grants if they don’t vote “the right way”.

None of this is new — white election campaigns were marred by bully tactics and misuse of public resources. And it probably makes little difference to the result. In a new study by the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg, 95% of poor people interviewed knew they were entitled to grants by right, whoever they voted for; while 70% rejected food parcels as an attempt to buy votes. Both stick and carrot seem fairly ineffective. Campaign ads and rallies matter less than parties often think. But that does not alter the fact that rules are being bent as elections are more fiercely contested. This election will tell us how well democratic rules are standing up to the pressure — a pointer to the future, since elections will become more competitive.

Second, the ANC is more worried than ever before about retaining voter support. This is impelling it to take voters more seriously and one sign is that it is more interested in tackling poverty and inequality. Since it knows it can do this only by negotiating, it has begun staking out a bargaining position from which to engage business and labour.

Whether it retains interest in this may depend partly on the result. An ANC that loses five percentage points will probably continue to worry about voters, particularly since, some time between this election and the next, a workers’ party may emerge to pose the most serious challenge yet to the ANC vote. An ANC that loses few or no votes could decide there is no problem. We may then see more of what we’ve seen over the past five years: a governing party in which factional politics is more important than voters’ needs.

So a few percentage points may play a key role in deciding whether the society moves forward over the next five years, or stays in the same place.

Despite the likely result, this election is vital. It will help to show whether we are hanging on to what we need to keep — and whether we may have an opportunity to begin ditching that which is holding us back.

By Stephen Friedman

Source: Business Day

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.