The DA’s great coalition conundrum

Gareth van Onselen | Mar 20, 2019
The recent IRR poll reveals some shocks and surprises as to which parties people would like to see in coalition after the election.

So, coalitions - what a messy business. And, if you support the Democratic Alliance, things don’t get messier. There is the EFF, of course, a party with chaos and self-interest hardwired into its political DNA. And there is the ANC, a destructive monolith which has systematically reduced the country to rubble. What to do, the ANC or the EFF as a coalition partner? It’s not easy.

Up until now, it has been hard to properly gauge public opinion on the matter. One could turn to Twitter, to get a sense of how people feel, but that is a bit like asking people in a lunatic asylum how they feel about reason and rationality. The IRR’s latest poll, however, does seem to shine some light on where exactly voters stand.

We asked around 1,600 registered voters four questions about coalitions. Three of them we put to the national sample but the fourth one – and that is the one you will be interested in – we put only to Gauteng voters, because as things stand, that seems to the one province where there is a very real prospect of a coalition scenario, post-election.

But first, it is worth saying something about those three general questions, because they paint some helpful context. They were:

  • Q: In general, do you think a coalition government is a good idea, or is it a bad idea? And is that a very (good/bad idea) or quite a (good/bad) idea?
  • Q: Regardless of who you currently support, which of the following outcomes do you expect at the next national elections? Do you think the ANC will win or lose?
  • Q: If no party gets an outright majority at a national level and a coalition government had to be formed to govern South Africa, would you prefer to govern together? The ANC and the DA; the DA and the EFF; or the EFF and the ANC?

A summary of the main findings is as follows: 61% of all national voters think a coalition a good idea (73% of black voters and 57% of minority voters – and 73% of Gauteng voters); 60.9% of all national voters think the ANC will a national majority (32.6% think it will win that majority “comfortably”, 28.3% think will be win with “just over 50%); finally, at a national level, 37.7% of all voters prefer a coalition between the ANC and the EFF, 32.6% between the ANC and the DA and 16.8% between the DA and EFF.

So, those are pretty interesting. First of all, the number of people who think the idea of a coalition a good one is somewhat unexpected, given how disastrous or fraught they have proven in places like Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane. It’s encouraging that people seem to understand these sorts of arrangements are likely to be the future of government, at least at provincial level. 

Most people think the ANC will win nationally (the IRR’s February poll has the ANC on 54.7%, so it is looking on track) and, nationally, most people (although not by much – 37% is not a big majority) prefer an ANC/EFF coalition arrangement. But what about Gauteng, because voter opinion would seem to matter most there?

We asked all Gauteng voters: 

  • Q: And how about at provincial level? If no party gets an outright majority in Gauteng and a coalition had to be formed to govern this province, would you prefer  to govern together? The ANC and the DA; the DA and the EFF; or the EFF and the ANC?

This is what they said:

  • All Gauteng Voters: 41.2% preferred an ANC/EFF coalition (28.3% an ANC/DA coalition and 20.4% a DA/EFF coalition)
  • All Gauteng Black Voters: 54% preferred an ANC/EFF coalition (23% a DA/EFF coalition and 15% a ANC/DA coalition)
  • All Gauteng Minority Voters: 67% preferred an ANC/DA coalition (12% a DA/EFF coalition and 3% an ANC/EFF coalition)
  • All Gauteng ANC Voters: 54% preferred an ANC/EFF coalition (22% and ANC/DA coalition and 11% an DA/EFF coalition)
  • All Gauteng DA Voters: 50% preferred an ANC/DA coalition (26% a DA/EFF coalition and 13% an ANC/EFF coalition
  • All Gauteng EFF Voters: 65% preferred an ANC/EFF coalition (31% a DA/EFF coalition and 2% an ANC/DA coalition)

And now you begin to see how deeply the DA’s problems run: 50% of DA voters in that province prefer an ANC/DA coalition, but 54% of ANC voters and 65% of EFF voters in Gauteng prefer an ANC/EFF coalition.

Of course, forming a coalition requires a lot more than merely following the popular will. It requires a serious set of principles and values, mapped out in an agreement, that both parties must abide by. But voter sentiment does count for something – as a political party you cannot anger your base support too much. 

And strategically the DA has a problem too. If it chooses to work together with the ANC in Gauteng, it runs the risk of compromising its ability to oppose the ANC nationally as the official opposition. Every time it points out a problem, people will simply go, “But you work with the ANC in Gauteng”. If it works with the EFF, not only will it struggle to carry its support base with it, who are mostly opposed to that idea, but it risks the exact same sort of ongoing instability it has experienced at local government level. And that is bad for its brand as a service delivery party.

If you are in the ANC or EFF, things seem a bit simpler. The supporters of both parties seem drawn to one another, and there is evidence on a range of other indicators, that ANC and EFF voters have far more affinity for one another than do ANC and DA voters. Perhaps those two parties will simply do a deal and save the DA the pain of having to make a decision? Then again, the ANC will be just as weary of the EFF as the DA has become – give that party a hand, and it will take an arm. Its demands will be endless and disproportionate to its size, however well it does in the election.

What does the DA do? There is no clear answer, as things stand. And that is probably why the first it will do is nothing at all, but will wait to see where the final electoral chips fall, and takes things from there. It would be good for the DA to at least offer the EFF the chance of keeping the ANC out, even if it does not agree to the DA’s terms. That would both allow the DA to frame the strict conditions under which it would enter into a coalition and put the ball into the EFF’s court.

All will be revealed soon enough. A couple more months and we will know, but as conundrums go, the DA has a humdinger on its hands in Gauteng.

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