Thousands of ANC supporters gather at the FNB Stadium in Soweto at the weekend as parties wrap up their campaigns ahead of Wednesdays national elections. Picture: Antoine de Ras

Voter turnout will prove beneficial for each party in the political race, with Gauteng as the grand prize, says Jonathan Faull.

Johannesburg - For political parties, this is the endgame. After months of campaigning, rallying, poster-hanging and slanging matches, the elections are finally in sight.

Each party must sharpen its ground game to ensure the highest possible turnout of its voters. One cannot discount the importance of each party’s get-out-the-vote machinery.

It is all well and good if a party convinces a voter to support it, but useless if he or she does not go to the polls on the big day tomorrow.

The importance of relative turnout will be decisive in the race for Gauteng. Home to almost one in four registered voters, the province will also play a critical role in shaping the final national election outcome and play a disproportionate role in determining the composition of representation in Parliament for the next five years.

Registration data released by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) demonstrates the importance of the Gauteng race in the context of the national election: Of the 25 390 150 voters on the roll, 6 063 739 – a full 23.9 percent of all voters – are registered in Gauteng, the highest of any province.

Of the 2 208 153 new voters registered by the IEC in preparation for this week’s poll, 27.2 percent (or 601 767) were registered in Gauteng. One in ten voters registered there are registered for the first time.

The relative turn-out of these new and old voters will play a critical role in shaping the election’s outcomes.

If significant constituencies in a party’s support base choose to stay away and other parties mobilise their supporters effectively, the effect of the stay-away increases the proportion of votes won by their opponents.

A simple thought experiment demonstrates the importance of relative turnout: It is Sipho’s birthday and he is in the mood to celebrate. He buys a cake and invites 19 friends to his party. If all of his friends arrive, Sipho and his guests will each eat 5 percent of the cake. If only nine friends show up, the share of the cake increases to 10 percent.

The country’s system of proportional representation works in much the same way. All citizens of voting age are invited to register to vote and to cast their ballot.

The sum of the votes represents 100 percent and representation in national and provincial legislatures is tallied according to the percentage of votes won by each party.

This in turn depends on their success in getting their voters to the polls.

The importance of each party’s campaign can be understood by extending the analogy of Sipho’s birthday party. Let’s say he has two groups of friends who rarely mix, nine of whom are reliable and punctual and another 10 who are a bit casual about showing up.

If one looks at which friends came to the party, the share of the cake changes radically.

If seven guests at the party are in the reliable group and two are in the casual group, then the reliable group gets to eat 70 percent of the cake and the casual group just 20, despite the groups being roughly the same size.

Importantly, it would be because so many of the casual friends didn’t come to the party that the reliable guests got more cake.

For the first time in the democratic era, Gauteng appears to be in play. South Africa’s most populous province has historically voted the ANC into power with a clear majority, but opinion polls demonstrate that the ruling party will be fiercely contested tomorrow.

While the ANC brand remains strong in the province, President Jacob Zuma is deeply unpopular with many party supporters and the incumbent Premier Nomvula Mokonyane is unpopular within provincial ANC structures who want her to be replaced.

The DA and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have been able to exploit widespread frustration with Zuma’s rule and perceptions of misrule on the part of Mokonyane to their advantage.

Opinion data suggests that the Know Your DA campaign, the media coverage of the DA’s march on Luthuli House and the branding of the provincial contest around the personality of Mmusi Maimane, have been effective in framing the party as a viable contender to the ANC, creating the perception that the party will make inroads into historically ANC-aligned black constituencies.

While DA inroads into the black voters market would probably be relatively small, small inroads can be important, given the sheer size of Gauteng’s black demographic (77 percent of the population of the province).

These small gains and the probability of a high turnout among white, coloured and Indian DA supporters could result in the DA making healthy advances to take overall provincial support above the 22 percent achieved in 2009 and potentially, also dependent on turnout, into the range of 25-30 percent.

Opinion polls also indicate that the EFF is likely to do well in Gauteng and could win in the region of 15 percent or more of black votes in the province (8-14 percent of all voters provincially, dependent on relative turnout).

Given the new arrival of the EFF and the absence of established party structures and a funding base, a key wild card in the Gauteng race will be the ability on the part of the EFF to get its supporters to the polls.

The DA and the ANC will have attempted to squeeze the potential support for the EFF in the closing days of the campaign trail and the party may yet see support dissipate tomorrow.

In a scenario where the DA effectively gets out its vote, the EFF protects and mobilises the full potential of its base, the ANC loses support to the DA and EFF and ANC voters turn out in comparatively low numbers, the ruling party could see its vote ebb below 50 percent in arguably South Africa’s most important province.

This scenario would, however, be rare. All the parties realise the real and symbolic value of the race for Gauteng and have dedicated disproportionate resources to pushing their message and their voters to the polls.

In a worst-case scenario for the ANC, the party will still be in the strongest position to form a coalition government.

Whatever the outcome, this campaign and the new intensity of competition in the province presages an era of fierce contestation in the local and provincial elections.

Which party will have its cake and eat it? It all depends on who shows up to the party.

* Jonathan Faull is an elections consultant for the Institute for Security Studies.

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

The Star