CAPE TOWN - The DA has agreed at its federal council meeting to call in senior legal counsel to settle a divisive debate over giving provincial leaders more power in the selection of the party's candidates.

A five-member sub-committee of the party's federal executive met on Saturday evening and resolved to shelve the idea and seek legal opinion from Steven Budlender as to whether or not it would be in line with the DA's constitution.

The proposed amendment to the party's candidate selection regulations, put forward by the chairman of the party's federal executive James Selfe, raised tension ahead of the meeting, with one senior MP terming it a "red line issue".

In a letter to delegates mooting the amendment, Selfe wrote that many provincial leaders believed they should either be members of selection panels or have the right to fully participate in their deliberations to ensure that lists of candidates for parliament and provincial legislatures had the necessary "skills, capacity, and diversity".

But a group of 34 senior party members, among them DA chief whip John Steenhuisen and the provincial leaders of the Western Cape and the North West,  countered in a letter of objection that it would give provincial leaders unfettered power in the selection process and therefore raise the spectre of factionalism.

Members of the group on Sunday said they had effectively won the day, and the call for legal opinion was a face-saving exercise on the part of those who supported the amendment.

The sub-committee had also agreed that two provincial leaders who at present served on selection panels - Jacques Smalle in Limpopo and Nqaba Banga in the Eastern Cape - would immediately be removed from those positions.

Technically, Budlender has been asked to weigh in on whether a selection panel falls within the definition of a committee. It is a crucial point because the party's rules state that provincial leaders can serve on any party committee in the province.

The so-called group of "concerned delegates" said they were sure the opinion would fall in their favour. If not, "an amendment would still have to need to come before federal council and it is likely to be defeated again", one said.

At a media briefing after the council meeting concluded, DA leader Mmusi Maimane said the proposal - which had been dubbed the "patronage amendment" by its critics - had generated "healthy debate". He confirmed that provincial leaders would not serve on selection panels, pending Budlender's conclusion on the matter.

"This is a positive outcome for the DA, as our adherence to our regulations and constitution was confirmed, and our culture of open and vigorous internal debate was entrenched."

Maimane said the DA had ratified its campaign strategy for next year's general elections, where its goals would include becoming the biggest party in Gauteng and the Northern Cape. He said all provinces would have to finalise the selection process for their premier candidates by August 18.

This means that even if the solicited legal opinion were to find the proposal Selfe tabled above board, it would be too late to implement before the polls, as it would have to be ratified by the next federal council meeting which will take place in October.

Selfe, a long-standing and trusted chairman, has found himself under pressure over the manner in which the leadership's attempt to remove Patricia de Lille as Cape Town mayor failed.

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African News Agency (ANA)