By Awonke Baba
What I would do if I were leading a coalition government, to build strong and resilient democratic institutions.
Coalition government can be a daunting form of governance if the involved parties are not prepared and familiar with the process. Coalitions have been part of the South African government since post-independence but on a small scale. However, in 2021 South Africa held its local government elections, these elections gave birth to coalition government in several municipalities in the country. The African National Congress (ANC), a political party that has been dominantly ruling since 1994 has - for the first time - received less than 51%, resulting in the establishment of the coalition governments.
The municipal government coalitions gave birth to governance challenges that affect the running of such municipalities. The challenges include instability in coalitions, political parties walking away from coalitions, breakdown of the coalitions, poor service delivery, and constant change of leadership. The more coalition parties are conflicting the more it takes longer for approval of municipal budgets, and this hurts the communities as it delays service deliveries.
There are strong projections by political analysts that the ANC in the coming National elections will fall below 50%. This will certainly lead to the establishment of coalition governments at the national level. If this happens, as the leader of the projected coalition government, there would be several checks and balance mechanisms that I would initiate to maintain the resilience of the government itself and the democratic institutions.
Firstly, for political parties to go into a coalition, they begin by having agreements with each other as to what each party they seek to achieve by entering a coalition. The meetings at which such agreements are made are held private, as such, the public is left out. It is only when conflict emerges that the parties go to the media to talk about fractured agreements and do the blame game this is what we have been witnessing in various municipalities. To prevent this, I would strongly legislate for the agreements to be made public, this will help rope in the public and therefore be able to hold parties into account. Moreover, this initiative will encourage political parties to uphold the rule of law, prioritize people's interests while protecting their political brand.
Secondly, the local government coalitions have shown us that a motion of no confidence can be used by political parties for their political gains. This also cripples the government. As the leader of a coalition, I would push for the limitation of the motions of no confidence, in doing this, but exceptional cases such as a violation of the constitution or law, misconduct, or the inability to perform the functions of office would be considered. This initiative would prevent the constant changing of leaders and therefore stabilize the government.
Kingmakers are not only contributing to the instability of coalitions, but they also pose an unfair reality to the communities...
Thirdly, the decline of the ANC in the local government elections saw the rise of ‘small’ political parties attaining votes and having representatives in councils. This trend was as the result of low current electoral threshold in the country. Kingmakers are not only contributing to the instability of coalitions, but they also pose an unfair reality to the communities where a majority of people voted for a certain party but get to be led by a different party that was voted for by a minority. To curb this, in my government, I would initiate an increase to the threshold from its current percentage to at least 3.0%. A threshold would mean that a party needs some minimum form of representation to secure seats in a legislature.
Moreover, the local government coalitions have also taught us that sometimes it's not about legislation and regulations, some coalitions break down as the result of member's ill-discipline and political immaturity. We have witnessed instances where parties would misbehave during council meetings and leave the council when meetings are in progress. There can be no legislation for discipline and behaviour except the code of conduct which already exists. In this case, as a leader, I would promote and encourage a code of ethics for coalition members through educational methods by relevant entities.
While these would be my proposed initiatives, they would be implemented in agreement with other stakeholders of course. Importantly, ideas for building a strong and resilient coalition government would have to be homegrown, they would need to speak to practical existing challenges, and equally important, leaders in coalitions would have to be willing to compromise and accept that they will not always get what they want. Above all, whatever legal framework that would prevail under my leadership, a space for political parties to decide who they go to coalition with would still be there, provided that South Africa is a democratic country.
The suggested initiatives would then contribute to stabilizing government and subsequently, the democratic institutions. After all, democratic institutions only stand strong when the government, through political parties, is operating effectively.
* Awonke Baba is a political studies student at University of the Western Cape. His work was chosen as the winning essay by the Presidency and UWC’s Dullah Omar Institute.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.