Coalition governments are here to stay. Here are proposals for making them work better

But even with the best proposals, without a shift in political culture coalition governments will be unstable

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The upcoming 2024 general elections may see coalition governments form at provincial, perhaps even national, level. Archive photo: Masixole Feni

Much of the conversation about coalitions has focused on the municipal level. However, the upcoming 2024 general elections, in which the ANC is expected to fall below 50% of the vote, raises the prospect of coalition governments at the provincial, perhaps even national, level.

At local level, in August 2023 the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) found that 32 of the 82 municipalities that have coalition governments, including major metros, were not functioning well. How then to make coalition governments work better?

The most controversial and far-reaching proposal under consideration is to introduce electoral thresholds for a party to win a seat in a council or legislature. There is no clear indication of what threshold parties are considering for the local government level, but at the national and provincial level, the threshold being touted by the ANC and the DA is 1% of the vote to secure representation.

If there had been a 1% threshold for the 2019 elections, instead of the 14 parties we currently have in Parliament, there would only be five.

The DA has indicated it will propose legislation for thresholds for local government, provincial and national government. The ANC support this. Parks Tau, Deputy Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, indicated in August that his department was busy drafting legislation that includes thresholds.

Smaller parties are vehemently opposed to this idea, because it will lead to fewer parties in councils and legislatures and the larger parties consolidating their power.

Another proposal is to limit motions of no confidence that lead to the removal of a mayor, deputy mayor or other key council position, or at provincial level the removal of the Premier and the executive, or nationally, the President, Deputy President and Cabinet.

In October, the DA published a Local Government: Municipal Structures Amendment Bill to limit motions of no confidence. The party is also seeking to amend the Constitution to limit motions of no confidence at the national and provincial level.

There are two further proposals, not related to any specific sphere of government and suggested by various groups: the introduction of an independent body to mediate disputes between coalition partners, and to have coalition agreements published before elections.

Municipal government proposals

With regard to municipal government, the Local Government Municipal Structures Act provides for different types of local councils. Most local councils in South Africa have either an executive mayor system or an executive committee system.

Under the executive mayor system, all members of the council elect a mayor, who then appoints their mayoral committee. This means that when a mayor leaves office, for example when a coalition breaks down, the mayoral committee must also leave. This can create political instability, even chaos in the governance of the municipality.

Under the executive committee system, the mayor is still elected by the full council, but the council elects the mayoral committee. When a mayor is removed from office, the executive committee remains in place.

According to Prof Jaap de Visser, this approach can lead to greater stability.

In December 2022, the MEC for local government in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro announced a change in the law to move from a mayoral executive system to an executive committee system.

Another proposal aimed specifically at local level coalitions is to extend the time for a government to be formed following an election. At present this is 14 days after the results are declared. The DA has proposed legislation to make this 30 days, as it is at provincial and national level.

As debate on coalitions continues, proposals need to be clear about which level of government they seek to change, the reasons behind them, and what their impact will be on governance, coalition stability and the rights of the public.

Stability is not the only issue; coalitions need to be transparent and accountable.

But laws alone will not be sufficient to create the environment for coalitions to best serve constituents. We will need to see a shift in political culture, with power-sharing arrangements premised on shared principles, rather than efforts to secure power.

Joel Bregman is senior researcher at My Vote Counts

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp

TOPICS:  Elections Government Politics

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