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As power cuts continue, the economy falters, unemployment rises and the currency tumbles, South Africa’s political commentators tend to agree that support for the governing African National Congress (ANC) will fall under 50% in the 2024 national and provincial elections. If the party avoids a defeat, it could lead to a coalition government.
It’s only logical to expect that governance failures of this magnitude would send large numbers of dissatisfied voters into the arms of opposition parties.
But as scholars who have studied South African voter behaviour for decades, we warn opposition parties that they cannot count on disillusionment to drive voters towards them. Unless they convince dissatisfied voters that they provide a credible alternative, the ANC may still win a majority of votes come 2024.
How is this possible? Our argument is based on the confluence of two trends that have characterised South African elections for at least the past two decades. One is a decline in support for the ANC. The other is a steady decline in voter turnout.
Decline in ANC support and voter turnout
In 2006, 65% of all respondents in a nationally representative public opinion survey told Afrobarometer, the independent African survey network, that the country was “headed in the right direction”, and 52% “felt close” to the ANC. By 2018, however, those numbers had plunged to just 27% for those feeling the ANC was on the right path, and 29% who felt close to the party.
The decline in ANC election-day support over the same period has been far more modest. Though it receded from its historical high of 70% in April 2004, it still won 58% of the vote in 2019 and retained its dominance of the policy-making process. That was despite massive and widely publicised corruption over years of “state capture” – the deliberate diversion of state resources for private gain under former president Jacob Zuma (May 2009- February 2018).
The second trend relates to voter turnout. When measured as a proportion of eligible voters – the international standard – election day participation has declined much more sharply. It’s down by almost 40 percentage points, from a high of 86% in 1994 to just 49% in the last general election in 2019. We believe that this drop in voter turnout helps the ANC stay in power despite its dismal governance record. The 2019 turnout rate of 49% compares poorly to other countries. Unlike other established democracies, the gap between eligible and registered voters has steadily increased in South Africa.
The sharp downward trend in turnout is intimately related to the much more modest downward trend in ANC support.
In a new study (based on the 2019 South African Comparative National Election Study post-election survey, whose dataset is available to researchers) we found that 44% of respondents who said they had voted for the ANC in 2014 were dissatisfied with its performance in government by the time of the 2019 election.
But dissatisfied ANC voters switched their vote only if they held positive views of an opposition party. They were much more likely to switch if they believed that any opposition party was sufficiently competent to manage government affairs, or if they held a favourable view of the party leader, or saw it as broadly inclusive.
The problem for the opposition was that relatively few people held these views.
Among disillusioned 2014 ANC voters, fewer than half felt in 2019 that any opposition party “would do a good job running the national government if elected”. Of these, 49% gave this credit to the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), and 46% gave it to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the third largest party. Only 41% of disillusioned former ANC voters thought the populist, radical leaning EFF “would look after the interests of all people in South Africa” and just 34% said so about the liberal DA. Just 26% rated any opposition leader more favourably than ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa.
For some, the ANC was the “devil they knew” and they remained loyal to it. But an equally large proportion decided not to vote on election day. Their negative views of opposition parties, which they felt were ill-equipped to lead, govern or represent them, made them abstain, rather than switch votes.
Falling turnout is also related to declining interest in politics and increasing disillusionment with democracy – clearly things to be concerned about. But this analysis shows that voter abstention is also a result of dissatisfied ANC voters who feel they have no alternative. Unless opposition parties do something drastically different, dissatisfied voters are likely to boycott elections rather than switch to another party.
No viable alternative
For many years, scholars of democracies dominated by one party have tended to explain the ANC’s hegemony as due to, among others, its control of state resources, which enables it to shape the rules of party funding and provide patronage, or strong group identities, or voters who are unwilling to hold the party to account.
These arguments capture parts of the larger picture. Our analysis, however, points a finger at the opposition parties and the role they play in sustaining the ANC’s dominance. The evidence shows that erstwhile ANC supporters who are dissatisfied with its performance in government are willing to at least consider switching.
But, for that to happen, they must see one or more opposition parties, or their leading candidates, as an effective or legitimate alternative. Otherwise, withdrawal from the electorate becomes a rational option and the ANC may continue to win decisive election-day majorities from a shrinking electorate.