Elections are an opportunity for political parties to appeal to voters by campaigning on the most important issues that concern voters. Likewise, voters have an opportunity to ensure accountability and shape public policy by choosing parties that reflect wider public opinion. However, it is less clear whether voting outcomes in the 2009 South African elections accurately reflected public opinion about key social and economic issues, and the governments handling of these issues.
Evidence suggests that policy issues were not key motivating factors for the South African electorate. First, there was very little relevant policy based information available with which to assess how, or indeed whether, parties pursue specific policy agendas. An assessment of media coverage and political party campaigns prior to the 2009 national and provincial elections shows a disjuncture between those issues voters cared most about and those the media and political parties promoted.
The public agenda
The state of the public mind prior to the 2009 elections was firmly on matters of personal and fiscal security and thus reflected the country's realities. In late 2008, when asked the by the Afrobarometer survey which important problems the government should address, South African voters listed them as:
Six months after the elections, during a post-elections Comparative National Elections Project (CNEP) survey voters again listed unemployment (44%), poverty (11%), and crime (7%) as the three most challenging issues facing South Africa. South Africans were also pessimistic about the state of the national economy and their personal economic conditions thanks to the global recession and the job losses. Data also shows that citizens rated government poorly in terms of it's handling of these priority areas with 71% reporting that government had done a poor job of reducing crime, creating jobs (67%) and managing the economy (56%) respectively.
Thus, the electorate had identified their lack of socio-economic well being as a priority area, which was in material decline, but which government had failed to adequately address.
The media's focus
The media play an essential communication function during an election period. Generally, the more quality political information people receive, the better their connection to candidate and parties. Simply put, voters can make more informed choices thereby holding government and opposition parties accountable.
Yet, an analysis of media content (by Media Tenor) highlights another critical disjuncture between voter priorities and issues that dominated the media before the April 2009 elections.
First, media coverage largely failed to cover issues of concern to voters. Instead media focused on personality and party politics - and this overshadowed substantive discussions about alternative policy platforms or key social problems like poverty and unemployment. A mere 12.7% of coverage focused on policy issues, a decline from 36% in the 2004 election. Of the policy issues that the media did cover, much of the content was not of priority issues as identified by the electorate. The most popular topic in the media was voter logistics (17.38%). The justice system attracted only 8.8%, party manifestos 6.31%, and poverty and unemployment less than 1% each.
Another example of this critical disjuncture was apparent in the media's coverage of incoming President Jacob Zuma's corruption trial. Recalling that corruption ranked a lowly 7th place in the public mind, this issue featured prominently in the media, overshadowing reporting of key issues.
The situation is aggravated by the electorate's use of media sources.Although most media focused on inter-party politics and the ongoing developments with Jacob Zuma's corruption trial, the financial media focused most on policy issues. However, significantly fewer South Africans access this media source compared to radio or television. An analysis of media usage during the 2009 elections, using CNEP data, confirms these traditional trends. So while television and radio were the mediums most frequently used by voters to get political information these mediums did not focus much of their editorial content on policy related issues.
Political party campaigns
When the CNEP survey asked how closely respondents had followed the 2009 party campaigns, almost half the respondents (49%) stated that they had not paid much attention, while 51% had followed it closely. Moreover, most respondents had always intended voting for their chosen party (51%) and 14% had made their voting decision before the campaign season had even started. Only 15% made their decision during the campaign season.
Therefore, only half the electorate professed any interest in campaigns and even less - roughly a fifth - was even likely to be influenced by the various party campaigns.
Voters that did consider party campaigns would have struggled to identify activities and rhetoric that focused on policy-based issues. In a similar fashion to the media, the two major opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Congress of the People (COPE) turned their attention away from discussing their party's policies and focused almost exclusively on the need to stop Jacob Zuma and the ANC majority, the policy failures of Black Economic Empowerment, and cronyism and corruption within the public sector whilst simultaneously failing to forward their own comprehensive pro-poor economic agenda.
The opposition's disproportional focus on Zuma, and corruption generally, did them few favors since the majority of the electorate was not overly smitten with the issue. It also allowed the ANC to adopt a relatively neutral position on economic issues and to fall back on its historical credibility as the party most likely to push a pro-poor agenda.
Zuma's negative ‘personality-based' coverage may have pushed a small percentage of voter support away from the ANC, but not necessarily into the arms of the opposition. On the other hand, for voters who were already inclined towards opposition parties, the negative coverage had an energizing effect, as the relative increase in turnout among opposition supporters suggests.
Overall, policy issues probably had a limited direct impact on voter's decisions, due, in part, to the shortage of quality information on policy related issues available to voters in media coverage and party campaigns. Instead, long-term factors, such as party identification, probably guided many voters, with individuals often deciding whom to support long before the actual campaigns began. Without quality information on how, or indeed whether, parties pursue specific policy agendas, voters are forced to rely on their long-standing partisan loyalties to inform their voting decisions and hold elected representatives accountable. To contest future elections seriously, opposition parties therefore need to be more attentive and responsive to the public's key priorities and how they market themselves at elections.
Written by: Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, Senior Researcher, Corruption & Governance Programme, Cape Town