OPINION: The good, bad and ugly of coalitions
Coalition politics at local level could spell uncertainty and instability. However, it could also bring more inclusive politics, says Jaap de Visser.
Cape Town - The local government elections have produced 27 municipalities without an outright majority. This list includes some of the largest municipalities in the country, such as Joburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay and Rustenburg. Then there are some of the smaller municipalities such as Modimolle, Laingsburg, Mtubatuba and Thabazimbi where no party won outright.
Coalitions have therefore become the buzzword. They insert ambiguity and uncertainty into local politics and are notoriously hard to manage. Just ask the residents of Swellendam and Oudtshoorn where erratic coalition politics wrecked the municipal administration.
But what is a coalition and why do you need it? The initial response is obvious: if no party wins a majority, a group of parties can help each other to get that majority.
But why and when do you need it? You need a coalition to gather the necessary votes to elect office-bearers and control the council assembly and you need a majority to take other council decisions. Municipal councils adopt budgets, approve policies but also appoint officials, decide on projects, determine tax rates, write off debt if need be etc. Municipal councils are thus different from national and provincial legislatures which focus exclusively on making laws and overseeing the executive. A solid majority is important at municipal level to ensure stable administration.
Councils take decisions by simple majority. The majority of whoever is present decide, as long as there is a quorum (50 percent+1).
However, important issues, such as the budget, by-laws, deciding tariffs and rates and raising loans can only be done with a majority of all elected councillors. This is an important difference, particularly in small councils where the presence and vote of every individual counts.
A coalition is a political agreement between parties that court each other with promises of influence and power. A fully-fledged coalition is ultimately cemented by the distribution of leadership positions among the participants.
What are those positions? The first prize is the mayoral chain. Even though there is no strict rule, it stands to reason it goes to the biggest party. In bigger municipalities there is also a deputy-mayoral chain which often goes to the second biggest party.
Secondly, there is the position of the Speaker and, in some municipalities, the Deputy Speaker. This is also an important position because the Speaker chairs council meetings and watches over the behaviour of councillors by enforcing the Code of Conduct for Councillors. Thirdly, there are the executive portfolios, i.e. the councillors that join the mayor in the municipal executive. Last, there are “smaller” sweeteners, such as the position of the Council Whip (who manages the political functioning of the council) and chairmen of council committees.
All these positions represent political power and leverage. But they also represent the difference between part-time and full-time remuneration. Part-time councillors receive decent compensation, but full-time office-bearers earn very good salaries. To illustrate this: in a small municipality, being a full-time office-bearer means the difference between R200 000 per year for a part time job or R650 000 for a full-time job.
The rules for coalitions, particularly with regard to the composition of the executive, differ from one municipality to another. Most municipalities elect executive mayors. The council elects a mayor who then appoints councillors to the mayoral committee. The mayor has a free hand to implement a coalition agreement as there are no rules for the political composition of the mayoral committee. The winner (or the winning coalition) takes it all. All large cities have executive mayors, except eThekwini.
About a third of our municipalities have executive committees and their rules are different. The committee is elected by the council and one member is elected as mayor.
Importantly, the composition of this committee must reflect the composition of the council. Municipalities have two options to realise this. The first is to implement “proportionality”, i.e. each party is represented relative to its strength in the council. So if the ANC has 40 percent, DA 40 percent and the EFF 20 percent, the executive committee follows the same division. The alternative is “fair” representation, a watered down version of proportionality.
In this system, all major parties must be represented on the executive committee but notnecessarily in proportion to their strength. In 2002, the DA lost a court case over this. The DA had 36 percent of the seats in the City of Cape Town (which at the time had an executive committee) but was only given 20 percent of the executive committee seats. The DA went to court to challenge the lack of proportionality but lost the case. The Supreme Court of Appeal held it was legal, as long as there was “fair” representation for the DA on the executive committee.
eThekwini falls in this category. The ANC won an outright majority so no coalition is needed. However, the majority does not rule everything. It will have to tolerate opposition councillors on the executive. The DA emerged with 27 percent of the vote and is entitled to fair representation on eThekwini’s executive. A number of the smaller “hung” councils also fall in this category. Mtubatuba, Modimolle and Thabazimbi are examples.
Joburg and Tshwane are particularly complicated from a coalition perspective. Both the EFF and the DA are unwilling to partner with the ANC and the smaller parties have too few seats to push any of the big three comfortably over the 50 percent mark.
If neither of them can overcome their antipathy, it could result in a stalemate.
In Joburg and Tshwane, no party can be forced to enter into a coalition because it operates an executive mayoral system. This would be different under the same system as eThekwini because, under the executive committee system, it is a legal requirement that the executive represents all major parties.
Ultimately, the decision to change a municipality from an executive mayor to an executive committee is not made by the municipality itself. The provincial MEC for local government decides.
This means that, as a last resort, Paul Mashatile holds the key to resolving an impasse. He has the power (after due process and consultation) to force Tshwane and Joburg to change into an executive committee system and thus be forced to elect an executive comprising all three parties.
Force hardly ever works under these circumstances and we are nowhere near that last resort yet.
As of the declaration of the results on Saturday evening, councils have two weeks to convene the first council meeting where office bearers must be elected.
Coalition politics at local level could spell uncertainty and instability. However, if managed well, it could also bring more inclusive politics. There is no better level of government to have more inclusive politics than local government.
Municipal decisions have immediate and real impact on basic services. They make the difference between communities having access to basic services and dignity or being condemned to exclusion. Those decisions will benefit from inclusive politics.
* Professor De Visser is the director of the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of the Western Cape
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.