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Electoral Politics: From competition and contest to potential conflict

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Electoral Politics: From competition and contest to potential conflict

Ebrahim Fakir
Photo by Creamer Media
Ebrahim Fakir

7th October 2022

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South Africa is scheduled to hold an election in 2024. It is a much-anticipated one, since speculation is rife that the ANC may likely lose its overall majority and be forced to govern in “coalition”. But we can never know this until after the election is held.

Nevertheless, this is oft-repeated as a truism by political parties, uncritical reporters and commentators in the media, and by proponents of coalitions. This is presented as a fait-accompli without even waiting for the results of an election, let alone for the election to be held. This anticipation of the elections, coalitions and the ANC loss of its majority nationally (it has already lost these in one province and six Metro Municipalities around the country) is largely restricted to political parties, their members, and proponents of coalitions. The appetite, anticipation and interest amongst voters – the primary participants and beneficiaries of an election (the political parties and candidates are merely contestants in it) – is actually quite low. To the extent that their interest is peaked, it is as matter of sport and spectacle, rather than interest and engagement.

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This is borne out by the low rates of participation in elections, and the low levels of trust and confidence that people have in the electoral process.

Mistrust in Institutions and Declining Voter Participation 

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Elections frequently signal renewal and hope, or at least an opportunity for it – since 2009, there is a distinct sense that many citizens did not view the elections as such. Instead, it was accompanied by an air of despondency, characterised by institutional mistrust, social polarisation, economic decline, niggardly welfare expansionism and austerity, an extremely poor return on public investment in the education, health, basic services, and development sectors as well as political party organisational attrition and fragmentation and the flourishing of small special interest, proxy and shadow parties. 

When it comes to the trust that people have in political parties, parties are viewed as insular, parochial and self-interested. Reliable and methodologically robust surveys show that trust in parties where people choose the option of “somewhat or a lot” combined, is at 27% in ruling party and 71% choose “not a lot or not at all”. For opposition parties 24% choose “somewhat or a lot” while 72% choose “not a lot or not at all”. If this is taken over time, the time series decline shows that, from 2006 when trust in governing party was at 62%, by 2021 it had dropped to 27% and the opposition parties decline was less calamitous, where in 2006 it was at 29%, by 2021 it had come down to 24%)[1]. These turning points occurred between 2009 and 2011 when data shows that unemployment levels started creeping up in 2009 and poverty rates started increasing in 2011.

This has led to decreasing rates of electoral participation. A cursory glance at rates of participation of registered voters demonstrates this.  

Turnout:

1999 National / Provincial Elections: 89.3% / 18 172 751

2004 National / Provincial Elections: 76.73% / 20 674 929  

2009 National / Provincial Elections: 77.3% / 23 181 997

2011 Local Government Elections: 57.77% / 13 664 914

2014 National / Provincial Elections: 73.5% / 25 388 082

2016 Local Government Elections: 58.07% / 15 290 820

2019 National / Provincial Elections: 65.34% / 26 756 649

2021 Local Government Elections: 46.04% / 12 064 192

Research by Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, a political scientist at the University of Stellenbosch, also shows that voter turnout and voter participation in elections is in precipitous decline. This voter abstention, rather than mere political apathy is also driven - her research shows – by the fact that voters appear to have very few alternative choices in terms of political parties from amongst which to choose, instead of an increasingly distrusted ANC. This is an indictment on all political parties – the ANC and the opposition, alike.          

Problematic Politics and Problematic Political Parties

Survey Research conducted by Citizen Surveys asked a diverse and representative sample of South Africans about their perceptions about political parties. 83% of them said “political parties keep fighting with each other and [are] not solving South Africa's problems”.

82% agreed with the sentiment that “Political parties just want my vote, and afterwards do whatever they want” while 77% said “Most politicians are corrupt and cannot be trusted”.[2]

This is a consequence of seemingly schizophrenic political (and corporate) elites pursuing self-referential policies in detached public institutions, which are unresponsive to societal and citizen needs and engaging in a polarising and crude identity politics of revenge rather than redistribution and reconstruction. As is evident from rates of electoral participation, this is seeing citizens withdrawing from political and public life, and leaving unhinged parties unanchored to constituencies in society to pursue self-referential policies that are aligned either to solely shore up their own positions, or aligning with others to shore up their mutual interest/s. In this case, politics appears to have little to do with being responsive to social or citizen needs, leaving a vacuum in which politicians are left to pursue narrow self-serving agendas unrestrained by citizen demands for responsiveness and accountability.

In public institutions, the performance of parties on oversight, accountability and responsiveness is reduced to petty point-scoring, and "gotcha" exercises which are exclusively punitive in nature rather than a constructive exercise that seeks answers, assigns responsibilities, provides guidance and leads to rectification of error in government. On the other hand, governing parties crudely (ab)use their majorities to shield their members in the executive from any probity on maladministration, misconduct or malfeasance.   

Institutionally, parties appear to exist merely to pursue power as an end in itself, rather than to shape society for the better or create the conditions and agency for citizens to flourish. More perniciously, politics seems premised on the capture of power to serve narrow personal, recidivist ends rather than address the most urgent social, economic and political issues confronting society.

Because of this vein of politics, there is a constant and persistent shifting of alliances within political parties (factionalism & fractionalism), and between political parties in (minority governments & “coalitions”). Political parties, across the board, tend towards significant fragmentation and fracture, factionalism and fractionalism, and by turns either suffer from an ideological or other identity crises, or descend into projects of accumulation pursued through the politics of destabilisation & disruption. This has been clearly evident since 2016 in the instability and attrition experienced in municipal, especially Metro Governance. 

A Crisis of Representation and Responsiveness

This crisis of representation and responsiveness is manifested in a general crisis of democracy and democratic governance. This is manifested in low levels of trust and confidence in institutions. The Afrobarometer 2021[3] survey finds that two-thirds (67%) of South Africans would be willing to give up elections if a non-elected government could provide security, housing, and jobs. While the media performs slightly better, trusted by a majority of the country’s citizens – both independent (63%) and government (61%) have better levels of trust than others.

There is a tendency amongst parties to normalise conflictual politics in conditions of social abnormality.  After 2021, the precarious hold minority governments have had of councils, especially in the 66 hung municipalities and especially in 6 Metro’s, demonstrates that capricious parties and even individuals who may whimsically change allegiances could see stability and stable governance remaining tenuous.

In sum, the continuous declines in trust and confidence of public institutions, is leading to a concomitant decline in voter participation and turnout, which consequently results in uneven representation and responsiveness. This may engender an institutional crisis of credibility, and if prolonged may raise the spectre of a legitimation crisis at the local level, leading to “politicised uncertainty” and “institutional ambiguity”[4].

To worsen this already bleak situation is the generalised level of social and criminal violence present in South Africa society. While some argue that political violence specifically, may have subsided, this is not strictly speaking true. Though it appears to have lessened it hasn’t disappeared altogether and has assumed new contours manifesting in different ways.   

Elections and the economics of political violence[5] 

Trends in political violence and intimidation and intolerance appear to have changed over time. During the transition period of negotiations (1990-1994) and early years of democracy (1994-2002) political intolerance and political violence was high, especially that between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). In electoral terms, some parties were unable to campaign in certain areas of the country and the cities in what were called "no-go areas". Inter-party intolerance and violence were acute

By 2003, dynamics changed to increased intra-party intolerance & violence especially since competition for access to office within a dominant party (the ANC) increased. As the dominant party became increasingly factionalised, especially as it headed towards its highly contested and tense 2007 elective conference which by 2008 led to a breakaway party (COPE), intra-party violence and intimidation increased as fear and suspicion stalked internal party processes and usually healthy democratic competition translated into open conflict. The dynamic now changed from intra-party conflict to simultaneous inter and intra party conflict, intimidation and violence. This intensified after the EFF was formed in 2013. 

Political violence may no longer be about "political intolerance", per se, but economic competition instead, since political office is increasingly seen as an economic and income opportunity, not a public service.  And as the political dynamic changes and South Africa emerges from an era of malevolent "state capture" corruption, and the competition and contestation between political parties intensifies and borders on conflict, with no party guaranteed outright dominance, both inter- and intra-party violence, intimidation and conflict may remain a feature. This may be compounded by targeted assassinations of whistle-blowers on state corruption, and political rivals alike, as they become targets of violence and even murder.

Violence is compounded by protests over service delivery and unaccountable, unresponsive political leaders and poor government performance. On occasion, these spill over into the electoral period and target IEC infrastructure even though the source of disgruntlement may not be related to the electoral competition or the electoral process. 

Violence, intimidation, conflict and crime appear to be embedded in the social and political culture in South Africa – and official data and statistics often subsume this under the guise of generalised levels of criminal and inter-personal violence, obscuring its peculiar and particular nature.

To contain and curb aspects of electoral and political violence the electoral and attendant regulatory infrastructure has established mechanisms which have been well administered by the IEC. This includes the electoral code of conduct which is embedded in electoral legislation, conflict management panels and quite importantly multi-party liaison committees. But these may prove inadequate as mechanisms where there is heightened political tensions within and between political parties, political violence, targeted political assassinations and the recent insurrectionary impulses and in-fighting on candidate nomination processes within political parties. Since political office is seen as solely an economic pursuit, violence is increasingly directed to people who pose a threat to access political office as economic opportunity. The insecurity of political office then translates into an issue of economic insecurity. In such situations, processes such as the multi-party liaison committees (MPLCs) and other processes may prove to be inadequate as containment mechanisms stemming the tide of political violence tied to economic opportunity.  

These challenging circumstances coupled with the constrained political and economic context, the continuing instability in parties and local governments and the heightened political atmosphere, the lack of trust and confidence in the electoral and democratic process is a worrying feature of the current political context.

Drivers of the decline in trust in the IEC

This is worsened by the fact that the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) itself, having enjoyed extremely high approval ratings is also suffering a decline. Precipitous declines in trust and confidence in government and public institutions is infecting the IEC through contagion effect. In contra-distinction to the period coming into the 2021 local government elections, historically the IEC enjoyed unparalleled high levels of trust and confidence and a solid (even stellar) domestic and international reputation. The IEC has consistently received healthy approval ratings, with majority support from more than two-thirds (60%) of the adult population since 2001 till at least 2016, as shown by both the Human Sciences Research Council's South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) Afrobarometer. Worryingly, the Afrobarometer shows that by 2021 only about one in three citizens (36%) trusted the IEC.

This decline is partly attributable to the consistent denigration of the IEC by political party leaders and their supporters, and ‘social media users’. Whilst this is true, there have also been increased irregularities in electoral administration and management. There have been an increased number of court cases (including increasing number of complaints, objections and disputes) against IEC officials and processes alleging maladministration and irregularities against electoral officials from voting station level up towards provincial and national head office.  

Appropriate and legitimate complaints about the IEC and its management and administration have to be accurately catalogued and itemised to correct maladministration and irregularity, to ensure fair arbitration of disputes, and effective disciplinary processes, sanction and punishment where instances of illegality or egregious infractions of proper election management and administration arise.

Mistrust in the IEC is a matter of grave concern especially when the credibility of the election management and administration is challenged by political parties – who frequently do so without merit and for their own incremental narrow political purposes.

Political parties often do this in order to externalise the cost of their inability to mediate and manage their own internal conflicts. Otherwise, they pre-emptively excuse their poor(er) electoral performance relative to their and their supporters’ expectations, by blaming the IEC of bias.

This is of special concern, since the continued assault on the reputation and credibility of the IEC by political parties drives public sentiment, often without merit.

Cynicism: consequences of the toxic mix of poor politics and low trust

In a context of generalised declines in public trust of institutions of authority, public management and administration, finds rife cause for doubt and cynicism among the public. This makes accusations against the IEC seem legitimate and when the outcome of an election is disputed, it casts a pall of doubt on the outcome. Across the continent this mode of behaviour has been a precursor and predictor of intractable, disruptive and debilitating social and political conflict.

To return to the role of political parties' spurious behaviour, since the Constitutional Court ruled in July 2020 that Parliament must devise a new electoral system within a two-year period, parties in Parliament have been both lethargic and lazy in doing so. Their sloth resulted in them missing the deadline and requesting an extension till December 2022. In the interim, Parliament relied on the Executive to devise a system and Parliament's public hearings into the process was haphazard, shoddy and hopelessly inadequate. Relying on the two different systems devised by a Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), Parliament adopted the minority suggestion (The MAC devised two systems – one adopted by a minority of its members and another by the majority).  The minority supported system is now in draft bill form, but is deeply problematic. It retains the current overall PR system and adopts a minimalist approach in allowing independent candidates to be tagged on to the ballot to compete with political parties. The current bill effectively disenfranchises people/voters and privileges parties and further disadvantages independent contestants by making them compete with parties. This is unfair. There are other significant problems with the draft bill. For instance, it discards and disregards all the votes cast for independent candidates over the threshold they require to hold a seat. This is just a simple indication of the disregard political parties have for the welfare of voters and the accommodation of voter interests in the political system. It is likely to attract litigation which will serve to delay, obfuscate and create uncertainty amongst the parties and the public. In a context of heightened political tension, with fractious, conflictual and immature political leaders, this could prove to be a point of conflagration.         

In any event, settling on a system only by December 2022, imperils the IECs extensive planning and preparations for the conduct of the 2024 elections. Together with cuts in the IEC’s budget while maintaining onerous responsibilities on it, while simultaneously being an impediment to its operations appears like a conspiracy to deliberately undermine the independence, efficiency and excellence of the IEC. It bears all the hallmarks of the institutional debasement and destabilisation that was the hallmark of state capture. Instead of making the elections more about voters and voter centric, it appears the parties in parliament wish to keep the system party centric, fixating on the needs of parties rather than the needs of people.

With a potential new electoral system on the horizon for the 2024 election, the risk of unpreparedness and potential for precipitating political conflict are high. The link between election integrity, institutional credibility and political violence, are not tenuous or fragile and isolated and in societies of deep politicised conflict, future potential contestation over election outcomes where the political trajectory has been defined by latent and residual social antagonisms and cleavages - once socio-economic and political conflicts are exhausted, assaults on independent institutions begin. When there is a threat to power or influence, election management bodies, as independent institutions, face direct assault.

The integrity of the electoral process cannot be continuously safeguarded, in spite of the excellence of the election administrator and manager, and the electoral process cannot always be isolated from the broader currents of mistrust and distrust in institutions and the dynamics of exclusion and precarity in the economy.

Ebrahim Fakir is a Polity.org.za columnist and Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio Economic Research Institute (ASRI). He also serves on the board of directors of Afesis-Corplan, a development NGO based in the Eastern Cape and on the Council for the Advancement of South Africa’s Constitution (CASAC).

This article is based on a presentation made to the IEC, Electoral Commission of South Africa Research Seminar, “Safeguarding Electoral Democracy in the Age of growing mistrust” on 21 September 2022, Holiday Inn, Sandton. Johannesburg.          

 

[1] Moosa, M and Hofmeyr, J. “South Africans’ trust in institutions and representatives reaches new low”, Afrobarometer Dispatch No. 474, August 2021. Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Afrobarometer. https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Dispatches/ad474-south_africans_trust_in_institutions_reaches_new_low-afrobarometer-20aug21.pdf

See figures 1 & 12

[2] Omar, R.  Social Surveys. Presentation to the Electoral Commission of South Africa Research Seminar, “Safeguarding Electoral Democracy in the Age of growing mistrust” on 21 September 2022, Holiday Inn, Sandton. Johannesburg. Presentation available at https://www.elections.org.za/pw/News-And-Media/News-List/News/News-Article/RESEARCH-BY-THE-ELECTORAL-COMMISSION-REVEALS-TRENDS-ON-THE-SOUTH-AFRICAN-ELECTORAL-DEMOCRACY?a=AISDGvpz75ps1usOfX7oikxhsB7bURXLLkYT6B6erN0=

[3] Moosa, M and Hofmeyr, J. “South Africans’ trust in institutions and representatives reaches new low”, Afrobarometer Dispatch No. 474, August 2021. Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Afrobarometer. https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Dispatches/ad474-south_africans_trust_in_institutions_reaches_new_low-afrobarometer-20aug21.pdf

[4] Fakir, E., 2021. Continuity, consolidation and change: Local government elections lead to politicised uncertainty and institutional ambiguity. New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy, 2021(82), pp.12-17. https://ifaaza.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/NA-82_Continuity-consolidation-and-change.pdf

[5] Fakir, E. “Preserving the integrity of elections in SA - the 2021 municipal elections and beyond”, News 24. 30 December 2021. https://www.news24.com/news24/opinions/columnists/guestcolumn/ebrahim-fakir-preserving-the-integrity-of-elections-in-sa-the-2021-municipal-elections-and-beyond-20211229

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