Coalitions are increasingly becoming a fact of South African political life.
Until a few years ago very few of South Africa’s municipalities were governed by multi-party alliances, but now more than a quarter of our cities are, including metros such as Johannesburg, eThekwini, and Tshwane.
And soon South Africa will itself be governed in coalition. Either the Grand Old Party of South African politics, the ANC, will need the support of other parties to remain in power or a pack of ‘Wild Dog’ parties will unseat the ANC, and govern South Africa.
If a coalition of parties opposed to the ANC comes to power it will have a mammoth task ahead of it. Already we have seen how difficult it has been for coalitions in the Gauteng metros to turn the ailing municipal ship around. The rot is often so deep, with vested interests opposing any change in governance, that the task often seems impossible.
It may well be that if an opposition coalition does gain national power they will face a similar challenge. The task of turning the great ship of state around may either simply be impossible or the time it takes to do so will be longer than the five years before the next election.
This is a challenge that opposition coalitions which have unseated incumbent parties in other countries have faced. And it often results in the coalition being tossed out at the next election, with the voters believing they may as well let the previous lot back in.
The unseating of Congress in India
In India the Indian National Congress (commonly known as the INC or Congress) governed from independence until the 1970s. Public sentiment began to turn against the party and its Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi but rather the daughter of the country’s first post-1947 leader, Jawaharlal Nehru) in the 1970s. In a period known as the Emergency, Gandhi – in reaction to widespread unrest in the country – suspended a number of civil liberties, which also saw thousands of people detained or imprisoned for their political beliefs.
In reaction to the Emergency a number of political parties came together and formed the Janata Party to challenge Congress at the polls.
In the 1977 elections – the first held after the lifting of the Emergency – the Janata Party emerged victorious, winning 295 seats in the 544-member Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha. Morarji Desai subsequently became the first Prime Minister of India who was not from the Congress party.
However, this new anti-Congress front did not last long. Infighting between the various members (often on ideological grounds), made governing and reforms (especially economic reforms) difficult, and saw the public grow disenchanted. By the middle of 1979 Desai had to resign as Prime Minister, replaced by Chaudhary Charam Singh. However, Singh was unable to succeed where Desai failed and resigned after only three weeks, leading to elections in 1980.
Congress stormed back into power, winning 353 seats, with the Janata Party winning only 31 seats. A Janata splinter – the Janata Party (Secular) – came second to Congress with 41 seats.
Congress continued to dominate Indian politics for the next few decades. In the 34 years between 1980 and 2014 Congress governed for 25 of them, before being beaten by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. Congress is now something of a shadow of its former self but reports of its demise may still be premature, as they certainly were in the 1980s.
India is not the only country which provides a cautionary tale to prospective reform coalitions.
Peronism not easily defeated
Argentina has experienced something similar. In 2015 Mauricio Macri, a businessman and then-mayor of Buenos Aires, won the presidential run-off against Daniel Scioli, of the centre-left Peronist Front for Victory.
The election of Macri was seen as a victory for reformists in Argentina, after years of being governed by left-wing populists, most recently in the form of Nestor Kirchner and his wife Christina (Nestor was elected in 2003 and did not seek re-election in 2007, instead allowing his wife to run and win election as the country’s second female leader after Isabel Peron).
However, Macri faced a number of serious challenges when he came to power, many of them economic and a result of poor decisions made by previous governments. Despite his efforts the Argentine economy continued to struggle, with inflation and unemployment remaining high towards the end of his term.
Argentine voters decided they’d had enough of Macri at the end of his four-year term and voted the Peronists back in, with Alberto Fernandez (with Christina Kirchner as his running mate) defeating Macri in an election held in 2019.
The experiences in Argentina and India should serve as warnings for any potential coalitions that could topple the ANC in a future election. As in India, any prospective coalition capable of toppling the incumbent is likely to be made up of a diverse group of parties, which could struggle to work together. And we have already seen ructions in the governing coalitions running a number of our cities which could bode ill for any future coalitions at provincial or national level.
The enormity of the task of turning around the ship, SS South Africa, could also see what happened in Argentina repeated here. Voters who decide to throw their lot in with opposition parties, especially former ANC supporters, may be less patient with the Wild Dogs than with the ANC. If voters don’t see real tangible improvement in their lives while the opposition governs, many voters could well decide to choose the Devil they know slightly better.
The Wild Dog coalition could find that winning the election, and kicking out the moribund old government, is the easy part. The real work comes when sustainable reforms must be implemented and subsequent elections won.
Any putative coalition has its work cut out for it. But it must look abroad and make sure it does not make the same mistakes others made, not just in India and Argentina, but elsewhere, too. As a wise person said to me once: ‘A clever person learns from their mistakes. A very clever person learns from other people’s mistakes.’
Let’s hope that this will be the case leading up to 2024 and beyond.
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