SA Elections: who will have their cake and eat it?

Voter turnout will be a decisive factor in South Africa's elections, says Jonathan Faull.

For South African political parties, this is the endgame. After months of campaigning, rallying, poster hanging and slanging matches, the election is finally taking place.

Each party should have sharpened its ground game to ensure the highest possible turnout of voters. One cannot discount the importance of each party’s get-out-the-vote (GOTV) machinery. It is all well and good if a party convinces a voter to support it, but useless if he or she does not go to the polls on the big day.

The importance of relative turnout will be decisive in the race for Gauteng. Home to almost one in four registered voters, Gauteng will also play a critical role in shaping the final national election outcome, and play a disproportionate role in determining the composition of representation in South Africa’s Parliament for the next five years.

Registration data released by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) demonstrates the importance of the Gauteng race. Of the 25 390 150 voters on the roll, 6 063 739 – a full 23,9% of all South African voters – are registered in Gauteng. These numbers are the highest of any province. Moreover, of the 2 208 153 new voters registered by the IEC in preparation for this week’s poll, 27,2% (or 601 767) were registered in Gauteng. One in 10 voters registered in Gauteng have been registered for the first time.

Of the new voters registered by the IEC, 27,2% were registered in Gauteng

The relative turnout of these new and old voters will play a critical role in shaping the election’s outcomes. If significant constituencies in a party’s support base choose to stay away, and other parties mobilise their supporters effectively, the effect of the stay-away increases the proportion of votes won by their opponents.

A simple thought experiment demonstrates the important of relative turnout. It is Sipho’s birthday and he is in the mood to celebrate. He buys a cake and invites 19 friends to his party. If all of his friends arrive, Sipho and his guests will each eat 5% of the cake. If only nine friends show up, the share of the cake increases to 10% for Sipho and each of his friends.

South Africa’s system of proportional representation works in much the same way. All citizens of voting age are invited to register to vote and cast their ballot. The sum of the votes represents 100%, and representation in national and provincial legislatures is tallied according to the percentage of votes won by each party. This, in turn, depends on their success in getting their voters to the polls.

The importance of each party’s campaign can be understood by extending the analogy of Sipho’s birthday party. Let’s say he has two groups of friends who rarely mix, nine of whom are reliable and punctual, and another 10 who are a bit casual about showing up.

Since 2004, the turnout of voters in the Western Cape has followed an established pattern

If only nine guests arrive, then Sipho and his friends get 10% of the cake each. But if one looks at which friends come to the party, the share of the cake changes radically. If seven of guests at the party are in the reliable group, and two are in the casual group, then the reliable group gets to eat 70% of the cake, and the casual group just 20% – despite the groups being roughly the same size. Importantly, it was because so many of the casual friends didn’t come to the party that the reliable guests got more cake.

The relative turnout of supporters will critically affect the final outcomes of the national and provincial election.

For the first time in the democratic era, Gauteng appears to be in play. South Africa’s most populous province has historically voted the African National Congress (ANC) into power with a clear majority, but opinion polls demonstrate that the ruling party will be fiercely contested.

While the ANC brand remains strong in the province, President Jacob Zuma is deeply unpopular with many party supporters and the incumbent Premier, Nomvula Mokonyane, is unpopular within provincial ANC structures, who want her to be replaced. Both the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have been able to draw on widespread frustration with Zuma’s rule, and perceptions of misrule on the part of Mokonyane, to their advantage.

Opinion data suggests that the ‘Know Your DA’ campaign, the media coverage of the DA’s march on Luthuli House and the branding of the provincial contest around the personality of Mmusi Maimane, have been relatively effective in framing the party as a viable contender to the ANC. This has created the perception that the party will make inroads into historically ANC-aligned constituencies.

While the DA’s inroads among black voters are likely to be relatively small, small inroads can be very important given the sheer size of Gauteng’s black demographic (77% of the population of the province). These relatively small gains and the likelihood of high turnout among white, coloured and Indian DA supporters, could result in the DA making healthy gains to take overall provincial support above the 22% achieved in 2009, and potentially, dependent on turnout, into the range of 25% to 30%.

Opinion polls also indicate that the EFF is also likely to do well in Gauteng, and could win in the region of 15% or more of black votes in the province (8% to 14% provincially, dependent on relative turnout). Given the relative newness of the EFF, and the absence of established party structures and a funding base, a key wild card in the Gauteng race will be the ability of the EFF to get its supporters to the polls. Both the DA and the ANC will have attempted to squeeze the potential support for the EFF in the closing days of the campaign trail, and the party may yet see support dissipate.

In a scenario whereby the DA effectively gets out its vote; the EFF protects and mobilises the full potential of its base; the ANC loses support to both the DA and EFF; and ANC voters turn out in comparatively low numbers, the ruling party could see its vote ebb below 50% in arguably South Africa’s most important province.

However, this scenario is unlikely. All the parties realise the real and symbolic value of the race for Gauteng, and have dedicated disproportionate resources to pushing their message and their voters to the polls. In a worst-case scenario for the ANC, the party will still be in the strongest position to form a coalition government. Whatever the outcome, this campaign, and the new intensity of competition in the province, presages an era of fierce contestation in future local and provincial elections.

Voter turnout will also be pertinent in the race for the Western Cape.

Since 2004, the turnout of voters in the Western Cape has followed an established pattern. The DA, emboldened by the perception of ascendency within its core constituent groups, has managed to consume the structures and supporters of other opposition parties (New National Party and Independent Democrats) and ensure a relatively high turnout of its voters at the polls.

The African National Congress (ANC), over the same period, has been hamstrung by internal factional battles that have undermined its branch structures and depleted its membership base, debilitating the very structures that underpin a successful GOTV campaign.

The outcome of these trends is the growing share of the vote accruing to the DA, read superficially as a swing away from the national ruling party in favour of those occupying executive power on Wale Street.

The combination of rising apathy on the part of ANC constituents in the province will increase the proportional power of DA voters, who are likely to go to the polls in numbers consistent with previous elections. This trend, in conjunction with the further consolidation of opposition voters behind the DA brand, is likely to result in gains for the DA at the ballot box, and a more comfortable ruling majority in the Provincial Legislature.

Which party will have its cake and eat it? It all depends on who shows up to the party.

Jonathan Faull, ISS consultant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

This article was originally published by the The Star and Pretoria News.

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