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Picture: Kevin Sutherland
Picture: Kevin Sutherland

SA has historically had a majoritarian democracy, in which only one party held power. In a maturing democracy, coalition governments are a natural progression to breaking the monopoly of a single political party. Since the 2016 and 2021 municipal elections, SA’s major metros and some significant municipalities have started to produce results in which no single party attained an outright majority. The governance framework was thus moving towards coalition governments.

Coalition governments at the local level have been notable for their instability, infighting and inefficiencies. All these have negatively affected constituents as service delivery was often halted. The condition of some local governments is poor because the coalition configuration is unworkable. Are we likely to see similar instability at the provincial and national levels if the May 29 elections usher in coalitions in these spheres?

Answering this question requires reflection on the extent to which governments are elected. While governments are mainly formed through elections, elections account for a lower proportion of government terminations regarding coalitions. The possibility of a withdrawal of support by parliament in committing a government to call elections and hand over responsibility to voters is uncertain. The degree to which elections are decisive for coalition formation — that is, the extent to which any new coalition is the product of voters’ actions and not those of the parties in parliament — is crucial.

It can be challenging for voters to hold different coalition partners accountable for policy formulation and implementation. Still, if voters know which ministries are typically led by a particular party and if the individual components of the coalition take responsibility for producing specific policy outcomes, they can have information to work with. Even under coalitions, elections can remain a potent tool for government formation.

Written agreements are a vital aspect of coalitions. Coalition governments depend on them to govern, but their nature can vary, with pros and cons that must be considered. Tight policy agreements tie coalition partners to an extensive list of commitments, thus reducing the time it takes to consult partners and work out the policy agreements later. They also make the junior party look much more effective, ensure the partners have equal daily and provide greater accountability to voters and parties.

Personal relationships

On the downside, they may take a long time to negotiate after an election, encouraging parties to think of government as maximising “their” policies rather than forging a genuine partnership. Whereas loose policy agreements with a minimal list of policy commitments offer greater flexibility should the political environment change, they reduce the bargaining power of the junior partner.

Managing coalitions is fundamental to their success. There are many ways to manage multiparty governments. However, the most vital aspect of an effective, stable coalition is the relationship between the main actors. If they trust and understand each other, they can work together effectively. Nothing can compensate for the lack of personal relationships and shared values that allow a government to serve a term and achieve its policy goals.

When dealing with the challenges of coalition governance, it is crucial to grasp the strategic significance and fundamental nature of the associated power shifts and the overall environment. This understanding enables the development of guidelines, principles and mechanisms for good governance in coalitions.

SA must establish a legislative framework to bring stability to coalition governments. It must implement a structure that offers more consistent methods for forming and managing coalitions. It is essential for a comprehensive coalition legislative framework to be established, one that supports accountability and oversight at all levels of government. This is key to the stability of such forms of government. 

For a coalition government to function properly, the interests of the various political parties must focus on the electorate's lives. This requires the entire political system to realign to account for coalitions. In practice, a coalition functions when party leadership ensures that party members can get along and identify areas of agreement that allow for the policy compromises necessary to govern effectively. The coalition agreements must be transparent so that the public knows whether they have been implemented. 

The base of a well-functioning coalition is a solid legislative architecture designed especially for governing in partnership. The legislation framework should establish a transparency mechanism. It should start with a clear and straightforward formation process, followed by a cleanly delineated decision-making structure, all overseen by mechanisms for resolving disputes that help maintain the coalition's integrity. It can also provide specific mechanisms and processes that conflict-prone coalitions can use to handle conflicts. 

Though the failure of local coalition governments in SA may cause worry about the potential for similar failures at a national level, it is crucial to recognise that each sphere of government has unique opportunities and challenges. A national-level coalition government in SA can deliver good outcomes for the nation if it learns from past mistakes of local government coalitions, embraces co-operative principles, prioritises the common good, and is accountable. It will require a concerted effort and strong leadership. 

The political climate in SA is undergoing a transformation. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the local government level, where the dramatic change from single-party rule to governing coalitions occurs. This shift has drawbacks and handicaps, but the democratic process is not threatened. A coalition government might serve as a spark for a more efficient and inclusive administration. SA should see this as a chance to reinterpret political co-operation and usher in a period of shared accountability for a better country. 

• Makua is a researcher, and Ngozo a research manager, at the Financial and Fiscal Commission SA. They write in their personal capacities.

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