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Picture: Simphiwe Nkwali/ Sunday Times
Picture: Simphiwe Nkwali/ Sunday Times

As election day draws nearer attention is shifting to the post-ballot permutations and their implications. Though the bulk of the discourse has centred on the ANC’s strategic choices should it fail to achieve a majority, the DA must now also confront some potentially tricky dilemmas of its own.

Come June the DA may find itself having to square the party’s interests with the national interest, two agendas that are not necessarily aligned. What are the official opposition’s options, and why is the decision a complicated one? 

The first option is to prioritise the multiparty charter or moonshot pact, an 11-party coalition comprising the DA, ActionSA, IFP and other smaller parties. The charter is a loose (non-binding) coalition whose members will contest the election separately but have a pact to unite in the post-election government-formation period.

The reality is that the charter group is unlikely to garner enough of the vote to form an alternative government. A second option is for the DA to reprise its role as the main opposition party, in effect maintaining the status quo. Neither of these options is particularly controversial or novel, and would not meaningfully alter the country’s political trajectory.

However, there is a third option that is possible under a specific set of circumstances and would see the DA potentially join forces with the ANC in a coalition government. Supporters of this option view it as a pragmatic choice should the ANC achieve about 40% of the vote share. In this scenario, the ANC would not be able to cobble together a coalition with smaller parties, as this would be too messy and unwieldy to manage, while joining up with either the EFF or MK would likely be rejected outright by financial markets and be too damaging for the economy.

With few other alternatives, this leaves the DA as the ANC’s optimal partner due to its market friendly orientation and the greater political stability it offers. However, sceptics wonder whether the DA could legitimately exercise influence and find its voice as a junior coalition partner in this arrangement.

Taking a new trajectory would be a brave and bold move that could risk alienating its core constituency.

As intriguing as this option may be, it would create a conundrum for the DA. Having crafted a role as the main opposition party, assenting to join the ANC in government would necessitate a change in both the style and substance of its politics. Taking a new trajectory would be a brave and bold move that could risk alienating its core constituency, especially after campaigning strongly on a platform highlighting the need to keep the ANC and EFF away from power.

Though stranger things have happened and politicians are notorious for campaigning in poetry and governing in prose, this would require some fancy political footwork to sell. Hardline elements in the DA are said to be vehemently opposed to any such coalition, though others are seemingly more receptive to the idea, arguing that it would allow the DA to boost its relevance and showcase its credentials to the country on a national level.   

Assuming the third option is possible, questions arise around what a coalition configuration might look like. More importantly, what grand bargain would the DA need to make with the ANC to keep both parties’ supporters satisfied? This is where the DA will need to be streetwise and fully leverage its kingmaker role in a way that goes beyond the cosmetic. It cannot be seen to be simply making up the numbers in an ANC government.

The mechanics of any such an arrangement would not be straightforward. It is unclear exactly which ministries might be in play given the ANC’s senior partner role, but it is unlikely that the DA would gain control of the Treasury, public enterprises, defence or any other strategically important ministry. Deputy minister posts and oversight roles may be on the table, but questions then arise over how much influence the DA could exercise in this arrangement, and whether it would be content with the “less sexy” portfolios.

Then there is the question of whether the DA could remain an opposition party as a junior partner in a governing coalition. Or might it agree to support the ANC in parliament on issues where the two parties are aligned, without actually being part of the government? Though theoretically possible, this would feel like the DA was having its cake and eating it. The optics around the DA “babysitting” a majority ANC government are likely to fall flat for obvious reasons.

To be sure, there is credible argument in favour of an ANC-DA coalition. The ANC’s motivations are outlined above. From the DA’s perspective there would also be method behind such “madness”. The party is competing for a diminishing portion of the electorate, especially with the advent of ethno-nationalist parties such as the Freedom Front Plus and Patriotic Alliance, which have poached some who would normally be DA voters. Rise Mzansi and Bosa are trimming the margin of the black urban vote.

Considerable risks

The DA may argue that a coalition with the ANC would provide a shot in the arm for the country, and that it would provide a welcome governance boost at a time where dysfunction across the country is rampant and the DA’s skills could make a tangible difference in improving the quality of public services. 

All of this makes sense in theory. But tempting as it may seem, there are considerable risks associated with partaking in a coalition without clearly defined parameters, especially given the DA’s poor track record in coalition government, its ideological differences with the ANC, and its generally clumsy approach in engaging with external partners.

Any strategic miscalculations could prove costly and end up posing an existential threat to the DA, particularly if the ANC ends up cannibalising it, as it has done with other parties in the past. Indeed, the DA should be wary of becoming “useful idiots” in which it undermines its existing opposition role and has little to show for a potentially outsize gamble. The cases of the Liberal Democrats in the UK and the New National Party (NNP) closer to home provide cautionary tales.

In the UK, while some members supported the Liberal Democrat leadership’s decision in 2010 to join a coalition government with the Conservative Party as a way to influence policy, others opposed it and felt the party had compromised its principles for the sake of power.

For instance, despite promising to abolish tuition fees in its manifesto, the Lib Dems ended up supporting a significant increase in fees, leading to accusations of betrayal and damaging its reputation among younger voters in particular. This anger was reflected in the 2015 general election, in which the party suffered heavy losses, going from 57 seats to just eight in the House of Commons.

Similarly, in SA the NNP’s association with the apartheid system and its decision to join the government of national unity resulted in the loss of its political identity. In both instances the junior coalition partners were malleable and simply could not assert their influence under the dominant party. 

Today the Lib Dems are a shadow of their former selves and the remains of the NNP merged with the ANC. Both parties had to navigate the complexities and challenges of coalition politics, which ultimately affected their reputations and levels of political support. These lessons are relevant for the DA.

Against this backdrop the DA’s brains trust will need to think long and hard about its strategic calculus after the election. They will need to wrestle with two questions in particular: are they content with being an opposition party in perpetuity? And do they want to be part of a coalition government?

The decision the DA leadership makes could have long-term implications for both the country and the party’s place in the SA political spectrum.   

• Gopaldas is a director at African risk advisory firm Signal Risk.

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