Rise and fall of political parties

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iol news pic Cope Lekota eats his hat INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Cope leader Mosioua Lekota takes a bite out of his hat after his party did not get the double digits he predicted in the general elections. Picture: Masi Losi

While the PAC cites vote-rigging for its decline, Cope’s Mosiuoa Lekota keeps a low profile and the EFF prepare for Parliament, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

Johannesburg - ‘Sine proof, kodwa asina evidence,” said the general-secretary of the PAC, Bennet Joko. He was attempting to explain the party’s consistently dismal electoral performance in an interview with uMhlobo Wenene, a Xhosa-speaking radio station.

The self-contradictory statement – that they can’t prove, but have evidence of vote-rigging – was indicative of the party’s difficulty to explain away its endless misfortune. This time it received only about 30 000 votes, which may not even be enough to retain its seat in Parliament. But, rather than admit culpability – owing to leadership battles – Joko blamed their fall on some mysterious force that seems bent on destroying them.

To be sure, the PAC was not the only party that provided entertainment at the Independent Electoral Commission’s Results Operation Centre. People went around asking “if anyone had seen Terror Lekota”, the Cope leader.

Party leaders visit the centre especially in the evening of the day after the election, as the outcome becomes clearer. And they showed up on Thursday.

President Jacob Zuma walked around, in what seemed like a victory parade, shaking hands and chatting with other leaders.

Even AgangSA’s Mamphela Ramphele, despite her party getting a measly 20 000 or so votes, managed to make a showing. But not Lekota.

His no-show was not surprising. Cope experienced a spectacular dive from 7.3 percent support to less than 1 percent in just five years. I suppose he wasn’t feeling confident to face a crowd and answer the question: “What happened?”

He may not even take up the seat in Parliament. Who wants to face a five-year uninterrupted taunt from other members of Parliament, for decimating a party? Nor is he likely to find refuge in another party. He has no support to offer.

Cope’s is a well-deserved ending. Parties don’t exist for leaders, but to represent their supporters. And, values are paramount not only in attracting, but also in retaining those supporters.

Cope’s conduct violated its founding values. It did that from the moment it set foot in Parliament. Instead of pursuing the values it purported to stand for, it descended into a leadership battle. Leaders forgot about their supporters and thought that Cope was about themselves.

Through this dismal showing, Cope followers have simply conveyed their dissatisfaction.

The outcome could not have been any different from what it is. Lekota deserves it.

Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s IFP has been spared a similar fate. Instead of a total collapse, the IFP halved its national support. Its traditional Zulu voters seem reluctant to abandon their chief.

And Buthelezi, despite his advanced age, 40 years at the helm of the party, and the IFP’s persistent poor performance, hasn’t shown any intention of going anywhere. Those who dared suggest a change of leadership have all been chased out of the party. Buthelezi’s traditional appeal, however, doesn’t suggest hostility towards progressive values. Traditional voters can support progressive values.

This is shown in the National Freedom Front’s (NFP) impressive performance since 2011.

A break-away party from the IFP, the NFP is led by a woman, Zanele KaMagwaza-Msibi, and has been chipping away at the IFP’s traditional strongholds. Rural folks don’t seem to mind KaMagwaza-Msibi’s gender, voting for her over Chief Buthelezi.

Tradition’s supposed resistance to change is overrated.

Albeit progressive in one sense, the NFP is ultimately a regional party. Its poor showing beyond KwaZulu-Natal proves its regional concentration. Perhaps the attempt to go national, especially in its initial participation in national elections, was premature.

Local government support is not sufficient to build a national profile. It first needs to consolidate its provincial presence, which could, in turn, elevate it to national prominence. Expansion beyond provincial boundaries may even deny the party resources to consolidate its local base.

This is what Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement (UDM) seems to have realised. Holomisa put a lot of effort into the party’s Eastern Cape campaign.

The UDM’s last rally was held in Mthatha and Holomisa was the party’s premier candidate in the province. Holomisa was hoping to capitalise on his previous popularity as the erstwhile leader of Transkei.

And the UDM picked up some support, rising up above 6 percent. The spike is probably not as much as he had hoped for.

But Holomisa should be inspired by the DA’s example. The DA perfected the strategy of using a regional base as a stepping-stone to regional prominence. The party initially prioritised capturing power in the Western Cape, to build a governance record which it would then tout as it sought to expand into other parts of the country. This is exactly what it attempted to do in this election.

And, the attempt was not in vain, especially in Gauteng. This election saw the party growing by 11 percent from 22 percent in 2009 to 33 percent. The ruling ANC faces a serious threat from the DA, especially because its majority has dropped dramatically from 65 percent to the low 50s. And, provincial governance is likely to improve as a result of this fierce competition.

Unlike the other parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the new entrant to political life, has instantly been elevated to national prominence. Though commanding only about 6 percent of the national vote, the party has a nationwide footing. This is something to build upon. Its prospects are not bad either – it has a well-defined message, an identifiable constituency and eloquent leaders.

The danger to the EFF emanates from Parliament, which is not as exciting as canvassing. Parliament involves a lot of paperwork, back-ground reading and discipline. Most parliamentary work happens behind the scenes, away from the glare of the media, and is monotonous. There’s no crowd to cheer. Satisfaction derives from sheer hard work.

Tony Leon’s DA is a fine example of how to use Parliament to grow a party. It’s not clear how many of the fighters have what it takes to do parliamentary work.

If not the EFF itself, the ANC may just benefit from Julius Malema’s presence in Parliament. Malema will be an immediate and constant reminder of both the party’s major failure – economic transformation – and the worst that may follow if the government fails to change course.

The ANC’s performance in this election alone, a drop of about 3 percent – following a 5 percent decrease in the previous election – should be sufficient to spur the party into a renewal.

It is now proven that the status quo is costing the party dearly. If it persists into the 2019 elections the party will drop even further.

An election campaign is a five-year-long activity. It doesn’t start just before an election.

Parties cannot be mediocre for the most part of their parliamentary tenure and hope that a four-month campaign will put them in good stead. What they do most of the time defines them in the voter’s mind.

This is the lesson for the EFF. Their toughest test has just started. They will be the most-watched party in Parliament.

It will be free publicity, which they can take advantage of by building a good image.

How the EFF performs in future is entirely in their hands, but they have a solid start.

* Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of the Political Economy Faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent


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