What the election results of 2016 tell us about 2019

Posted 08 August 2016 Written by Gareth van Onselen
Category Politics

The 2016 local government elections offer a tantalising taste of what is to come in the 2019 presidential elections. The Democratic Alliance has promised it would become the dominant party by 2019, but to do that is a tough ask. The way to achieve this goal is to focus on reorganising Gauteng in the same way it did Cape Town, and create a model of governance that will peel away millions of voters from a decrepid ANC, writes Gareth van Onselen in Business Day.

The days that follow an election result are fraught with rhetoric and hyperbole, as political parties battle to frame the results on their terms. One needs to step away from all of this to provide a more sober reading of the numbers and what they mean. Typically, when one does this, the final statistics cut something of a contrast with the grand claims that mark the post-election environment more generally.

What do the results mean for the 2019? The top line numbers tell a particular story in this regard.

In the final analysis the DA secured 26.89% of the total vote. In 2011, it managed 23.94%. So, from the last local government elections, the DA has grown just 2.95%. That is hardly representative of any watershed breakthrough; in fact, it is an almost inconsequential increase in the big scheme of things.

Two stark facts put that growth into perspective.

First, between the 2006 (16.23%) and 2011 (23.94%) local government elections, the DA grew 7.71%. That is more than double the growth it managed in 2016 (arguably in a more difficult environment, as Jacob Zuma was not squarely on the scene).

Second, the DA predicted 30% in 2014. Two elections later, it is still 3% shy. It remains just under 30% smaller than the ANC, even in the face of that party’s relative collapse.

The ANC, by contrast, declined significantly. It secured 61.95% in 2011 but, this time round, managed just 53.91%, a decrease of 8.04%. Its final result is the worst national percentage it has ever achieved in any election, falling below 4% the 58.02% it managed in the 1995 local government elections.

Nevertheless, for the DA any growth is important. More important still, it must be weighed against what happened in Johannesburg, Ekurhurleni, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, where the ANC fell below 50% across the board and the DA stands a chance of forming coalition governments. That is a profound development that will fundamentally reshape local politics. Thus, it was the distribution of the DA’s increase, rather than the scale of the increase that is significant.

When placed side by side, it is the metro results that will define this election for years to come and in the public mind. On that count, this was the DA’s election. A triumph for the party and the momentum it needs to maintain the narrative that it is the only political force in SA able to challenge meaningfully the ANC nationally. And national power is the ultimate prize in politics. If 2016 was a curtain-raiser to 2019, the DA now has the full and undivided attention of many who never gave it the serious consideration it deserves.

But the key question remains, was the result in the Gauteng metros and Nelson Mandela Bay the consequence of the DA winning new votes, on the back of a message that resonates, or the consequence of alienated ANC voters staying away, as opposed to being won over by the DA?

The answer to that question will go some way towards determining the long-term growth prospects for each party, specifically with regard to the 2019 national and provincial elections, and so it is worth exploring. Turnout and Jacob Zuma are key to understanding it.

Let us use the PR (proportional representation) ballot for all analysis from this point, as it is the vote for metro governments and better illustrative of what national trends there were.

The DA secured 4,028,637 votes on the PR ballot. In 2011, it managed 3,216,006. So, an increase of 812,631 votes over five years. It is not fair to directly compare local and national government election results but, for the sake of context, the DA secured 4,091,584 votes in the 2014 election, so it more or less matched that number, falling just 62,947 votes shy of it.

By contrast, the ANC managed 8,124,223 votes on the PR ballot. In 2011, it managed 8,405,429; so, a decrease of 281,206 votes in five years. Again, by way of context, the party managed 11,436,921 votes in 2014, a massive difference of 3,312,698 votes.

This demonstrates that turnout differential played a defining role in this election. The DA managed, by some considerable distance, to get its potential voters to the polls on polling day. So much so, that it almost managed to match its 2014 national election result, a rare achievement. Opposition parties have, historically, always managed to do this in local government elections far better than the ANC, but it is the extent of the comparative difference that is telling. The DA is an operational machine on this front and it fairly destroyed the ANC.

But the missing 3.3-million ANC voters are worth dwelling on.

They cost the ANC its majority in the metros and, the question is, are they gone for good? The fact that they chose not to vote for the DA is one thing but, significantly, they also chose not to vote for the EFF, which, unable to compete with the poster, radio and television ad spend of the DA and ANC, faded badly in the last two months of the election and ended up with just 8.2%. They had available to them both options on the South African ideological spectrum: the social democratic politics of the DA and the radical socialism of the EFF. Both would have made for powerful protest vote options but they went with neither, choosing instead to stay home.

That suggests, going forward, they are not lost to the ANC. They are in a holding zone of a sort. True, there is an argument to be made they are now more available to both the DA and, to a lesser extent, the EFF. However, the choice not to vote for either of those two parties suggests they are available first and foremost to the ANC. No doubt Jacob Zuma had much to do with their decision. In all likelihood, he won’t be around in 2019. And that is the conundrum the DA now has to solve.

The ANC’s core constituency remains rural. Gauteng is an urban bubble in a sea of rural provinces. To the east of Gauteng, in Mpumalanga, the ANC secured 70.74% of the vote. The DA did not win a single council there. No party other than the ANC did. In fact, the DA declined, from 13.78% down to 12.93%. To the north, in Limpopo, the ANC secured 68.75%, again winning every council. The DA grew fractionally, from to 6.52% to 8.06%.

Sure, the ANC did not achieve the results of days gone by in these provinces but it remains the absolute, unchallenged and dominant force and the DA shows little sign of cracking the code to the rural ANC vote.

Come 2019, if it wants national power (and its Vision 2029 document says it will win national power in 2019) it has a lot of work to do on that front.

It is worth, for a moment, dwelling upon the DA’s national percentage. Remember, the DA ran this campaign as if it were a national one. It put President Jacob Zuma front and centre, telling voters this was their chance to unseat him. Indeed, DA leader Mmusi Maimane described the election as a "referendum" on Zuma. It relentlessly targeted the president and it had the full force of the media behind it. Fuelled by Nkandla, a deeply damaging constitutional court judgment, the prospect of corruption charges being reinstated against him and a thousand other controversies from a R4bn jet to internal party chaos, the DA grew by 2.95%. That is a fairly devastating summation.

BUT, and it is an all-important but, it did help drive down ANC turnout and, as a result, put firmly on the table no less than four metro governments. I say "help" because it is difficult to attribute even that low turnout entirely to the DA. You will recall, Gauteng is a province Zuma has struggled with for some considerable time. It was the place he was booed at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service and, ahead of the 2014 elections, the province where, according to a Sunday Times/Ipsos poll in December 2013, 56% of registered ANC voters believed he should step down as president, as a result of the Nkandla scandal. So ANC voters in Gauteng have had it in for Zuma for ages.

Did the DA grow among black voters? There is a complex answer to that question. The short version is yes, although not at a rate any more significant that it has achieved in previous elections. From 2011, certainly, there would have been growth. But the more complex answer is, it would have been in very particular areas (certain townships and rural areas) and, perhaps more importantly, highly influenced by turnout as opposed to actually making substantive and fundamental breakthrough into the black electorate via new black voters.

One cannot properly compare local and national election results but, in 2014, the DA also secured 4m votes. Then, by its own calculations it managed 760,000 black voters. Not all of those will have voted in 2016, so the party has captured some new black votes but, as the pool of DA voters was practically the same in 2016 (4-million votes), the proportion is unlikely to be significantly higher. Basically, in some areas the DA will have grown but high turnout (more DA votes across the demographic board) is likely to explain that, as opposed to growth among new black voters in particular.

Which brings us to 2019.

Here  is another telling question: What would the DA’s 2016 performance have looked like without Jacob Zuma or the benefit of massive disproportional turnout in its favour? Did it win the hearts and minds of significant numbers of new voters, or did it capitalise primarily on ANC apathy? The numbers strongly suggest the later, not the former. And, in 2019, they will be no Zuma and no high differential turnout.

If the DA wants to bring the ANC below 50% a few things need to happen. For starters, the EFF needs to do much better. Even if the DA does manage to bring some of those alienated ANC voters into the fold, they are not all available to the party. The EFF would have to eat into something of them from the other direction. It is, for example, the official opposition in Limpopo, where it secured 16.73% of the vote. The IFP too, would have to play a role on the margins. But the DA is central. If in the face of the ANC meltdown typified by Zuma, the DA has only managed 2.95% growth, the DA’s long-term viability as the right model to do this should be interrogated.

There is room for the fundamental realignment of opposition politics now: a new party, with the DA at its core and built on its infrastructure but able to bring on board ANC voters in a more serious fashion and, ultimately, win 35% to 40% of the national vote; enough to bring the ANC below 50%. If done properly, it can work. It is an option the DA should consider.

Of course, there are endless unknowns. The ANC might simply implode. It is on the path to implosion, to be sure. But, with the election of a new leader, there is also the possibility of rejuvenation and, with it, the chance that whoever that is will be able to appeal to and bring back those voters that have deserted the party.

If the DA is not prepared to entertain the possibility of realignment, the key to the party’s future and its prospects in 2019 now rest in Gauteng. If it can form a government there and deliver in the same fashion it has done in Cape Town, it stands a good chance of bringing the ANC down below 50% in the province in three years’ time. Three years is not long and the first five years of any new administration are the hardest. Cleaning house is a messy business, fraught with difficulty and the ANC has left behind unparalleled disorder. But the DA did it in Cape Town. In percentage terms it went from the forties, to the sixties to a two-thirds majority in that city in 2016. On the back of it, it won Western Cape. And even in Nelson Mandela Bay, which sits on the border with Western Cape, the DA would have benefited from its track record in its stronghold.

Coupled with that, the only thing more disastrous than the ANC in government is the ANC in opposition. It hasn’t the first clue. Once its hegemony is broken, it doesn’t seem to recover.

But it has 3-million potential voters lurking in the shadows now. The party leadership has said it will "listen" and respond to the unhappiness in its electoral ranks. That remains to be seen. Its absolute arrogance and disdain for what voters think has been its downfall in this election, and it has never properly made the transition from revolutionary party to formal, modern political party. That transition might well be forced on it now. Because any political party needs to have two things in its arsenal: the ability to perform in government, as well as opposition. The ANC can do only one of those and, at the moment, only in the loosest definition of the term. If it wants to bring those 3-million voters back into the fold, it is not just Jacob Zuma who will have to go, but a fundamental internal re-engineering needs to take place, where it learns how to be an effective opposition.

The good news is, it has an effective model to fashion itself after: the Democratic Alliance.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to argue the ANC did not lose this election; its own incompetence and arrogance combining with a poisonous president to decimate its vote in urban inner cities. At the same time, it is difficult not to argue the DA didn’t win this election; its relentless campaigning excellence matched by an unrivalled record in government, combining to seize on the opportunity and open the door to many new, long-term prospects. Both statements are true to one degree or another.

But, if 2019 is the ultimate prize, the DA needs to find a way to deal with those 3.3-million ghost ANC voters. Gauteng will help no end but it is a puzzle far bigger than just the urban metros. And 2016 suggests the DA is no nearer to breaking the code just yet.







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