Democratic Alliance. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ MIKE COHEN
Democratic Alliance. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ MIKE COHEN

The skirmish in the DA over who chooses the candidates to represent the party in parliament and the provincial legislatures is the latest saga in the battle for the soul of the party.

The stakes are high, as those on either side of the party’s ideological divide — those pushing for diversification against those supporting a traditional liberal agenda — have a tangible interest in the outcome.

In SA, parties fill their legislative seats from party lists, which are drawn up ahead of elections.

The DA is waiting for a legal opinion from advocate Steven Budlender, which could shift the balance of forces in the party. Budlender is to advise on whether a panel within the DA can be considered to be a committee.

The question may seem technical, but it will affect the powers of the DA’s provincial leaders. As it stands, party leaders may serve on provincial committees. So if Budlender decides that a selection panel meets the definition of committee, it would give ammunition to those who support an amendment to the regulations on candidate selection.

Most DA provincial leaders are in favour of changing the regulations ahead of next year’s general elections to allow them to sit on candidate selection panels.

Not everyone agrees. A day before a July meeting of the DA’s federal council — its highest decisionmaking body between congresses — a group of 34 prominent party leaders raised alarm over the proposed amendment in an open letter. Referring to the "patronage amendment", they warn that allowing provincial leaders to take part in the selection panels would have far-reaching effects and harm the internal workings of the party in next year’s elections and beyond.

"The ‘patronage amendment’ will have the effect of making provincial leaders extraordinarily powerful in the candidate selection system, more powerful than any other person or elected body in the party," reads the letter, which is supported by only two of the nine provincial leaders — Bonginkosi Madikizela (Western Cape) and Joe McGluwa (North West).

The issue was kicked into touch when party members agreed to seek a legal opinion on the matter.

Those who determine decide who is on the party’s lists, can effectively control decide who wields power in national and provincial government

The issue of who determines the list is crucial. Career politics is a reality in the DA, especially as the party grows. Those who decide on the party’s lists — and how diverse those lists are — can effectively decide who wields power in national and provincial government.

A senior DA member believes the argument that provincial leaders’ inclusion on the panels will ensure diversity is a red herring; this is already done by each selection panel’s chair. The member says the move is about the consolidation of power.

Provincial leaders also already have the opportunity to address the selection panels — and they sit on the federal executive, which is allowed to amend 10% of the lists.

The counterargument holds that because provincial leaders are elected to their positions, it is their heads that will be on the block if their provinces — and, by implication, the party’s legislative representatives — do not perform well.

A senior leader who supports the amendment says issues raised around provincial leaders’ powers are not motivated by noble concerns such as trying to block patronage; those who raised them are merely worried about their positions on the lists.

The political mudslinging between the two camps — those who want the DA to stick to its liberal roots and those who want it to diversify aggressively to expand its voter base — has left the party in limbo, unclear over its identity and exactly what it stands for.

What it means

Most of the DA’s provincial leaders hope to have a say in the party’s electoral lists

The two camps are most clearly represented in the internal battle for a prospective Gauteng premiership.

Makashule Gana, who has run his own campaign for the candidacy and has significant backing in Gauteng, especially within the so-called black caucus, said ahead of his interview for the position that the DA will have to grow its support in traditional black areas such as Soweto if it wants to win the province — something he believes is entirely possible.

Asked about his political leanings, and whether the DA is a strictly liberal party and should remain so, Gana said no-one had asked him if he was a liberal before he voted for the DA for the first time in 2004.

Ghaleb Cachalia, who also has his hat in the ring and is supported by the liberal wing, is clear that the DA should stick to its traditional guns and fashion its message around the specific issues related to this.

Whoever ends up as candidate for the premiership will have to push the party’s policies as it campaigns ahead of the election and, once elected, will have to implement them.

What the party will push for in 2019, however, remains to be seen. The outcome of its power struggle could signify more of the same, or a shift.

Clarity ought to emerge sooner rather than later, as the road to 2019 looks long and arduous — particularly if the DA is set on taking questionable, populist decisions, such as supporting army deployment to fight crime in the Cape Flats.