By Troye Lund

Western Cape Premier and New National Party provincial leader Gerald Morkel cut short a trip to China to deal with the possible break-up of his coalition government shortly before former premier Hernus Kriel announced his defection to the official opposition Democratic Party.

Morkel was scheduled to return from China on Friday, but arrived home on Wednesday instead.

The tussle between the DP and the NNP broke out after disagreements between the parties about how they would contest local government elections scheduled for November.

The DP wanted the NNP to fight the election under the DP name and banner, but the NNP would prefer an alliance in which it kept its name.

A stalemate on this issue prompted the NNP to announce a reduction in the number of DP cabinet seats in the Western Cape.

The four DP cabinet ministers are Helen Zille (education), Nick Koornhof (health), Hennie Bester (economic affairs and tourism) and Glen Adams (environmental and cultural affairs).

The DP's refusal to entertain the idea amounts to the threatened dissolution of the NNP-DP coalition government.

Apart from forcing the DP to tone down its election takeover proposal, the NNP's plan to reduce DP cabinet seats is also a reaction to last week's public parade of 39 NNP councillors who defected to the DP.

Last week's scenario was repeated on Wednesday, when Kriel, a former NP minister of law and order, left the NNP for the DP.

While the NNP has made it clear that the decision to reduce DP cabinet seats in the Western Cape is "non-negotiable", it also emphasised that a coalition pact with the African National Congress in the province was not an option.

NNP leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk said adjusting coalition agreements was normal practice.

ANC Western Cape leader Ebrahim Rasool has declined to comment on a possible coalition with the NNP.

"We have not come to that bridge yet. But, our position remains the same as it always has been - we are interested in a government that can work for the poor. We are not seeking dominance but an equitable role for fighting poverty," he said.

Other former senior NP public representatives who could join the defection move, a senior DP source said, include former Western Cape MEC and MP Arnold De Jager.

"Problems between coalition partners will be sorted out between coalition partners," said the NNP.

But, knowing that the NNP will have no choice but to go into government with the ANC if the DP is kicked out of the coalition, DP leaders are refusing to consider the cabinet reduction proposal.

Western Cape DP leader Hennie Bester said: "The DP's position is clear: the coalition agreement is non-negotiable.

"I cannot believe that the NNP would play into the ANC's hands in such an unintelligent manner."

NNP leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk said the DP would "give the ANC the province on a tray" if it refused to accept fewer cabinet seats and left the coalition.