28 Jan 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Tony Leon: Will a panicked and diminished ANC government then decide to veer sharply leftward economically?
ONLY in South Africa, and a clutch of other one-party-dominant democracies, would the possibility that a government in power for 20 years and facing multiple crises of misgovernance might slip below 60% of the vote in the next election cause much interest.
But a conflicting emotion might apply to the 60% conundrum.
Whether you are an opposition stalwart or even a disinterested believer in the constitutional virtues, it’s a no-brainer that "cutting the African National Congress (ANC) down to size" would be an unalloyed good.
It would make politics more competitive and hold out hope for more answerable government; who knows, it might even help arrest the decline of the battered rand.
The continuance of President Jacob Zuma in high office might be in jeopardy as an anxious party, at its next elective conference, decides to commit regicide again.
But what of the other side of your brain, the economic one, if the ANC dips below 60%? Will a panicked and diminished ANC government then decide to veer sharply leftward economically?
Enthralled by the rise of Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) — which will have to win more than 10% of the vote for the ANC-below-60% scenario to be realised — the ANC decides that it’s in a race to the bottom with its defecting left flank and lets go of the brakes. Of course, the government is hardly in danger of being accused of being business-friendly or pro-market.
But South Africa still has a long way to go until it falls off the cliff of populism a la Argentina or Venezuela, or even Zimbabwe.
Macroeconomic, if not microeconomic, policy here is still grounded in the world of reality and does not try to defy the laws of economic gravity, as is the case with certifiable failed states.
But what if the election results remove the restraints that have bound South Africa to the laws of investor attraction, give or take the tearing up of bilateral investment treaties, et al?
Then you are looking down the barrel of a spiralling current-account deficit, rampant inflation and the evils associated with fiscal and monetary incontinence. R11 to the dollar will seem like a happy memory.
But how likely is the ANC to fall below 60% of the vote?
For this to happen, obviously, the opposition in its various formations will have to get more than 40%.
The only significant double-digit contender at the moment is the Democratic Alliance (DA), which achieved 16.7% last time out, top performer in a combined opposition total of just less than 34%.
On paper, it is easy to see the EFF winning more than 7%, which means you arrive at a below-60% ANC.
But that presupposes that all previous opposition voters stay in the fold, which is unlikely, given the implosion in the Congress of the People and the continuing puncture of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Between them, they received 12% of the total in 2009, and recent by-elections suggest that many of their voters have migrated back to the ANC.
Therefore, if the DA does not get much beyond 25%, there is a real prospect that the ANC returns at about 60%.
Of course a lot can happen over the next four months.
And the variable here, and the real focus of the campaign, is voter turnout.
If many ANC supporters stay away from the polls, then these percentages can dramatically shift.
And there could still be some blockbuster candidates to be announced in the DA’s "confidential" candidates’ slots, which could move more voters.
But assume that the ANC returns in significantly reduced form to Parliament.
This happened before to a ruling party, the National Party (NP), in September 1989. Its 49% of the total vote (its worst result in a generation) could have obliged it to take heed of the big gainers in that election, the ultra-right Conservative Party (30%).
Instead, in his revolutionary speech at the opening of Parliament, FW de Klerk, who was president at the time, looked straight past the Conservatives, and announced (by mentally tallying up the NP and Democratic Party vote of 20%) that "South Africans have voted irreversibly for change".
So will a diminished but re-elected Zuma announce in his post-election speech that 85% of South Africans (the combined total of all ANC and DA votes) have voted in favour of centrist economics in the form of the National Development Plan and that the government is now proceeding, full speed ahead, to implement it?
This could be as interesting as the election. Or perhaps a case of wishful thinking.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA