It took a while, but counting has been completed for last week’s South African election. The ruling African National Congress has recorded its lowest-ever vote but was still relatively untroubled, winning 57.5% of the vote (down 4.6% from 2014) and 230 of the 400 seats (down 19).
Its main rival, the Democratic Alliance, is competitive only in a fairly generous sense of the term. It actually went backwards slightly, losing 1.5% and five seats, to finish with 84 seats from 20.8%. The ANC’s move to the centre under Cyril Ramaphosa may have stolen some of its thunder.
The far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, contesting only their second election, seem to have collected most of the ANC’s lost votes: they were up 4.4% and 19 seats, for a total of 10.8% and 44 seats. But that’s still a long way short of displacing the Democratic Alliance as the official opposition party.
Voters on the right moved towards the extremes as well. The Inkatha Freedom Party finished with 3.4% (up 1.0%) and 14 seats (up four), and the far-right Freedom Front Plus scored 2.4% (up 1.5%) and ten seats (up six).
Another nine parties (one more than last time) collected the remaining 18 seats: four for the Christian Democrats and just one or two for each of the rest.
The Democratic Alliance held onto its one provincial government, Western Cape, with a reduced majority, taking 55.4% of the vote and 24 of the 42 seats. The ANC again swept the rest, although the most populous of them, Gauteng, was extremely close: it managed 50.2% of the vote for a one-seat majority, 37 out of 73.
That’s not as bad it might sound, since the ANC’s opposition is divided between five parties; it’s hardly likely that the EFF ( with 11 seats) and FF+ (three) would team up to replace it. But if this year’s trend continues, it may well be that next time the ANC will be forced into a coalition to retain Gauteng and possibly other provinces.
It also shows the power of proportional representation. In an Australian state election, a party that won half the vote and was more than 20 points ahead of its nearest rival would probably win a huge majority (as did, for example, the LNP in Queensland in 2012).
But South Africa, which in some other respects has the uncomfortable feel of a one-party state, can still teach us a few lessons about democracy.