Friday, May 16, 2014

Top three parties deserve an ‘A’ for poll showing

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13 May 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

The top three parties to emerge from last week’s election — the ANC, DA and EFF — can, with justification, each award themselves an ‘A’, writes Tony Leon

THE brilliant conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander — author of The Art of Possibility — uses a novel teaching practice. He tells all of his students on the first day of class: "Go ahead, give yourself an ‘A’."

Here at home, the top three parties to emerge from last week’s election can, with justification, each award themselves an "A".

Start with the winner, the African National Congress (ANC). In this column last week, I pointed out that it had never headed into an election since 1994 with so many negatives against it, from the broken unity of the alliance, the clouds of corruption, community dissatisfaction engulfing its administration and the stumbles of its president, Jacob Zuma. Despite these hurdles, it swept the boards by a distance of 40 percentage points from its rising challenger, the Democratic Alliance (DA).

Despite its slippage in five provinces, most notably in Gauteng, it ended where it began — in control of eight of them. Although its voter share is fractionally lower than it was in 1994, the combined opposition total vote has barely budged in 20 years, even though the forces of opposition have dramatically rearranged themselves since then. And here’s the thing: 20 years ago, when the opposition parties obtained 38% of the vote, it could be said that those votes were objectively against the ANC. But now the 6.5% total contributed to this column by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is far more ambiguous. It offers a version, more populist and radical certainly, of the ANC itself. The same could not be said of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which, with 10% voter share in 1994 was not simply an opponent of the ANC, but in ideological terms, from support for free enterprise to championing federalism, was its complete opposite.

This election has also strengthened Zuma. Once again, he has defied the political death spiral confidently expected by pundits, who opined that a below-60% vote would imperil him. In fact, as an ANC insider pointed out to me, even before the results were in, Zuma is incontestably in control of his party. On his national executive committee, populated with ministers, deputies and directors-generals, about 90% of its members owe their offices to his patronage.

In second place, the DA also gets an "A", and possibly in view of its increased voter share, even an "A-plus". While Ipsos and the Sunday Times did our democracy a great favour by publishing such precise pre-election polls, the missing factor in our analysis here is the absence of exit polls. So it remains speculative as to precisely where the DA additions came from. Were they disaffected Congress of the People (COPE) voters, or the newly registered, or ANC crossovers, or a combination? But the remarkable fact of the DA advance is that it happened in the face of huge demographic shrinkage of its core white base. Simply to have maintained its previous voter share, given white flight and mortality, would have been an achievement. But to grow beyond that meant breaking into new demographic markets, which it certainly did.

But the shock weekend announcement by DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko that, just as her caucus added 22 new members, she was leaving her post, has taken some shine off its electoral achievement. And in leadership terms, the ANC and DA now have opposite challenges.

Zuma has plenty of external negatives in the country and among investors abroad to rebut. The DA, on the other hand, is externally enhanced but internally divided with a hole in its key parliamentary slot. Since I left the party and parliamentary leadership in 2007, I have held the view that having two centres of power, one in Parliament and one outside, was problematic. Objectively, as she did on the weekend, DA leader Helen Zille can take full credit for the party’s vote having doubled under her. Equally, in the same period, the third parliamentary leader has just quit her post, suggesting a very high turnover in seven years that can be remedied only when the national and parliamentary leadership roles are fused again into one.

The EFF can also give itself, at least, an "A". Its debut result impresses, but its future is less assured than the big two. Most of the party’s support depends on its charismatic leader, Julius Malema. But both the criminal justice system and the South African Revenue Service are liable to be less forgiving of him than of his arch nemesis, Zuma. And one thing about parliamentary opposition work compared with campaigning can be gleaned, with adaptation, from a famous phrase: "You campaign in poetry, you legislate in prose."

Whether EFF MPs will affect this process is open to question. The past two decades of our Parliament have been extremely unforgiving of the third party finishers: just witness the vertiginous decline of both the IFP and COPE. Interesting days lie ahead for the winners and the 90% of voters who backed them.


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