Voter turnout at the polls is set to play a critical role in the forthcoming election on 22 April in South Africa. It is likely to determine the final outcome in many subtle ways as it shapes the balance of power between political parties. In addition, turnout reveals much about underlying partisan commitments and participatory democracy in general. Moreover, it has the potential to unleash new electoral trends into South African politics.
Often, however, its powerful effects are masked or obscured by the focus on the election results. Consider the electoral dominance of the African National Congress (ANC), which has steadily increased since 1994 from 63% to 70% in 2004. A closer study of turnout among eligible voters over time shows a different pattern, especially in terms of an active ANC electorate. While the number of eligible voters increased by around 5 million between 1994 and 2004 due to population growth, the number of registered voters did not grow proportionally. During these years the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) increased the voters roll by only 2.5 million people. Many millions of potential voters did not register. And the number of votes cast actually decreased by roughly 3.9 million since 1994, despite increases in the voting age population and registration. So, in spite of the ANC's increasing electoral margins from 63 to 69 percent, the size of the eligible voting population actually voting for the governing party has not increased or even remained static in proportion to population growth. In fact, its actual support decreased from 53 to 39 percent of South Africa's eligible voting population. By this calculation, in 2004 the ANC retained 72 per cent of its original 1994 vote share but lost approximately 28 per cent. In this regard, aggregate results have been quite misleading. So, by looking beneath the surface at voter turnout, the ANC's increases in the last two elections are somewhat qualified by decreases in actual support within the wider population.
Turnout also determines the vote share obtained by the governing party vis-à-vis the opposition. When opposition supporters fail to turnout to vote it effectively increases the percentage of the vote share that the ANC obtains, regardless of increases in the number of actual votes for the ANC. Similarly, if a large section of the governing party's voter base happened to stay at home on election day it would result in a disproportional increase in the percentage share for the opposition block, not because the opposition parties attracted greater numbers but simply because ANC voters failed to participate. Alternatively, a greater surge in support for opposition parties compared with increased numbers for the ANC, would simply depress the ANC's share of votes despite its increase in actual votes.
Indeed, relatively greater decreases in voter turnout for opposition parties at the 1999 and 2004 elections, and the related decrease in the oppositions vote share, helped the ANC towards its resounding victories at the last two elections.
Partisan loyalty matters little between elections. Without active engagement strong partisan sentiments are wasted. In fact, when a voter withholds their active support they effectively bolster the vote share of other political parties. In this way, turnout indirectly determines the composition of parliament and whether the governing party receives a two-thirds majority or not.
Afrobarometer data shows a clear rise in independents, or ‘floating voters', in South Africa. It is always difficult to predict whether these people do vote at elections, and for which party, since they don't hold a compelling party loyalty. Yet, this largely unpredictable block of eligible voters could further transform the political scene if they choose to go to the polls. Data suggests that floating voters disproportionately come from opposition parties, which experienced a much higher rate of partisan decline than the ANC over the years. Yet, given the demographic composition of South Africa, the significant increases in the numbers of floating voters seen among the black African electorate could become the key to future electoral realignments. Huge potential exists for parties to tap into this group of potential voters who are yet to be persuaded.
Turnout among certain social groups, such as young voters, could also fundamentally shift voting patterns. Younger voters, especially those entering the active electorate for the first time, are likely to have weaker partisan loyalties than their older counterparts. Young voters worldwide are recognized as being least persuaded by traditional political divisions. They introduce the possibility of the unexpected. Excessive turnout among this group could inject a new dynamic into politics in South Africa. Consider their numbers. The recent 2008 Labour Force Survey estimates that 18 to 29 year olds constitute a massive 23% of the population. The IEC recently acknowledged unprecedented registration levels among this set of voters. In the last two registration drives 73% were done by 18 to 29 years olds. The same age group now makes up 27% of all registered voters. What these people bring in terms of turnout and party choice remains key to the outcome.
Moreover, in highly contested geographical areas where partisan groups are relatively equal in size, turnout can make or break a party's fortunes. Even slight downturns in turnout for one or another party can scupper chances for victory. No surprise then that parties are going all out in closely fought provinces like the Western Cape not only to mobilize traditional constituencies but also to generate new support. In these contexts, every vote really does count.
Turnout tells us much about the bigger picture - particularly the quality of participatory democracy. Generally, high turnout is considered to be a display of legitimacy for the country's political system. Conversely, low turnout is often attributed to disenchantment, or political apathy. However, it may also be a sign of indifference or even contentment with government. Whatever the reasons, turnout remains crucial to the representation of parties after an election and can even shape the political system. Declines in electoral participation in terms of voter registration and turnout may be set to change in South Africa. The proportion of eligible voters registered to vote in the 2009 elections is now approximately 77%, up from 75% in 2004. The IEC reported a 3.16 million increase in the number of registered voters, with total figures at just over 23 million. The record number of registrations seen recently seems to suggest that voters want to make their mark, and certainly dispels the myth that South Africans are becoming disillusioned or politically apathetic. With more voters than ever, and many who are new to the political scene, the next election looks set to be the most interesting yet.
By Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, Senior Researcher, Corruption and Governance, ISS Cape Town