Coalition talks for multipartyism, or only a strategy?

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Coalition talks for multipartyism, or only a strategy?
Coalition talks for multipartyism, or only a strategy?

Africa-Press – South-Africa. By Professor Dirk Kotzé

The season of coalition negotiations is upon South Africa. It is not new, because municipal elections have already created coalition options since 2006, and provincial elections since 1999.

Some experiences can therefore be applied to the current negotiations for new municipal governments.

The target date for these negotiations is about November 18, because the Municipal Structures Act determines that the new mayors must be elected within 14 days after the election results announcement. Mayoral elections will be very difficult if the coalition agreements are not already in place.

It is worth looking at the current negotiation dynamics of the different parties. In terms of the paradigm of Harvard University’s Roger Fisher and William Ury, parties can use either a positional negotiation approach or a principled (or interest-based) approach. For now, most parties prefer positional negotiation, which means that they state their starting position or make hard demands as a point of departure.

They emphasise their principles that are non-negotiable, the parties they will not negotiate with, as well as the point that they would rather be in opposition than be compromised in a government. This is a negotiation strategy to appear forceful and confident, and to develop some leverage power for the negotiations.

But once the negotiations enter a more complex stage, they might change to the principled negotiation approach, which is more effective in reaching agreements.

Parties have become more public in their approach to the negotiations than in the past. Now we have a good idea who is involved in the negotiations, and some of the parties have also announced their teams. In the early stages they have used the media to make public statements about their negotiation positions.

The ANC identified Paul Mashatile and Jessie Duarte as their main negotiators. The DA announced John Steenhuisen, Helen Zille and Dr Ivan Meyer as theirs. The EFF have decided on Floyd Shivambu as their negotiator, while ActionSA’s team is John Moodey, Vytjie Mentor, Makhosi Khoza and Abel Tau.

It is noteworthy that, except for the DA, the party leaders are not directly involved in the negotiations. They play rather the role of the principal to whom their team reports, and the person who updates their negotiation mandate as the process unfolds.

The parties’ strategies so far have revealed a number of trends. The first is that they want to present these negotiations much more in the public space than before, and therefore not as secret, closed-door negotiations. Its purpose is ostensibly to demonstrate their commitment to public accountability, and to show that the public can trust them more. ActionSA went so far as to conducting a public survey with 17 000 respondents about what their strategy should be and with whom they should negotiate.

A second trend is that most of the leading parties want to distance themselves in public from the ANC as a partner in these talks. Their sentiment is that association with the ANC would make them complicit in the government’s problems of unethical conduct, corruption and bad governance. They don’t want to be seen as having rescued the ANC from its plight and prolonged its term in government.

Linked to this point is a third trend of already looking at the 2024 national and provincial elections as a strategic consideration. Several parties have indicated that their positioning in the current negotiations is determined by what will be best for them for the 2024 elections.

For this reason, the DA and ActionSA indicated earlier that they are not desperate, and are willing to become part of the opposition, and not the coalition governments. Though it might serve their party interests well, it could be seen as self-centred and not supporting the current public interest in forming sustainable municipal governments.

The EFF’s Floyd Shivambu introduced a fourth trend, which ActionSA echoed. Both are interested in a package deal approach to the negotiations. It means that they don’t want to negotiate the councils one by one, but rather as a bigger package.

Shivambu, for example, stated that they want to see that the executive of one council is given in its entirety to one party and the speaker and other positions to another party. In another council, the executive is given to another party and the speaker to a different party. Only then, according to him, can parties account for their actions, while a multiparty executive would make accountability almost impossible.

Such an approach would, however, give a disproportionate benefit to small parties when they are not the leading party in the election results.

Closer towards the negotiation deadline all of this might change towards more flexible or pragmatic approaches and interest-based negotiations. The emphasis will move from principles to deal-making. The main criterion will be how to reach the 50%+1 milestone. As a theoretical issue, it raises the question of whether coalition negotiations, which are premised on compromise, are not changing the parties’ electoral mandate? If, for example, an EFF package deal is implemented, it can mean that the third or fourth party becomes the municipal executive and not the voters’ main choice.

At the moment all the parties present their positions with little consideration for whether they can produce a coalition agreement and not be stuck in a stalemate. There is, however, a guillotine hanging over their necks if they fail to form coalition governments. In the case of a stalemate, the most likely constitutional dispute resolution mechanism is to have a by-election in the municipality as a whole.

Section 25 of the Local Government: Municipal Structures Act identifies at least two options in this regard. The first is that a court can set aside the election of a council, and the second option is that the council is dissolved. By-elections must then be held within 90 days. The second option is also mentioned in the Constitution’s Section 139(1)(c). A council can be dissolved when “exceptional circumstances” exist, then be placed under administration, and within 90 days a by-election must be held.

This is not a hypothetical threat, because in two different circumstances it has already happened. In Nqutu (May 2017) and Metsimoholo (December 2017) stalemates were resolved by such elections.

The risk for parties will be that by-elections for the entire council could change their election results. Voters can punish them for not co-operating in coalition talks. It should therefore be very strong motivation for making a success of the coalition negotiations.

* Kotze is from the Politics Studies Department at Unisa.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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