Election preview: South Africa

South Africa goes to the polls today – polls close at 5am tomorrow, eastern Australian time (check here for results) – in its fifth general election since the black majority was admitted to political participation. The previous four all produced large majorities for the African National Congress, and today will be no exception.

Voting for the National Assembly is by nationwide proportional representation, with no minimum threshold (read a full description here). At the last election, in 2009, 13 parties won seats, but only four had more than 1% of the vote: the ANC with 65.9%, the Democratic Alliance with 16.7%, Congress of the People with 7.4% and the Inkatha Freedom Party with 4.6%.

The last two of those have since suffered major splits and are expected to fall sharply in relevance. The only new party that seems to pose much of a challenge is the Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist left-wing group led by Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ANC in 2012; it’s polling around 5%. For practical purposes, South Africa now has a two-party system, although given the big disproportion in their size it would perhaps better by described as a one-and-a-half-party system.

The ANC vote has been very stable over time, always polling between 60% and 70%, and no-one expects that to change. An opinion poll published on Sunday put it at 63.9% to the Democratic Alliance’s 23.7%. But it’s hard to argue that a couple of percentage points either way will make any difference, as long as the ANC stays below the two-thirds mark that would enable it to change the constitution on its own.

Denying it that two-thirds majority was one of the opposition’s big achievements in 2009; the other was winning a majority in one provincial legislature, Western Cape, where Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille became premier. Provincial elections are all held concurrently with the national election and show very little variation from the national results.

South Africa has a rather odd constitutional structure, being basically a Westminster system but without a separate head of state. The president is elected by parliament and remains responsible to it, effectively combining the offices of prime minister and head of state. There is no doubt that the ANC’s Jacob Zuma will be re-elected to that position when the new parliament meets, despite the various controversies that have plagued him during this term.

In fact, so little has changed that you might as well go back and read my report on the 2009 election. I concluded there that “South Africa faces major challenges, and its prospects for surmounting them can only be helped by the emergence of a strong opposition that will be a credible competitor for office. The ANC can be proud of its achievements over the last 15 years, but no record justifies remaining in power for ever.”

The BBC’s Andrew Harding offers some thoughts on why the ANC seems so immovable. Some are specific to the legacy of the liberation struggle, but most of them, fair or not, are the familiar benefits of incumbency. They don’t keep working for ever, but they can work for a long time.

For the foreseeable future, Zuma will have more to fear from rivalry within the ANC (which disposed of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in 2008) than from the opposition in parliament.

 

 

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