Coalitions: A real possibility in 2019 elections

South Africa - Pretoria - 05 April 2019 - Its a clash of campaign posters, with political parties fighting for pole position. Picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA)

The collapse of a number of coalition government and instability that comes with this form of government confirms that the legislations pertaining to coalitions were an afterthought in our democratic dispensation. With the general elections to be held in less than two months and the possibility of a coalition government being touted by certain political commentators, the truth is; our South African law was never designed to accommodate this form of government. In my study conducted in 2017, titled “The impact of the legal framework for local government on building and sustaining coalitions in municipal councils”, it was observed among other things  that  it is  essential for parties to prepare for coalition governments well in advance, and not to set them up as knee jerk reaction. The internal preparations made by individual political parties can have a significant impact on the prospects of a successful coalition government.

A coalition may be defined as a temporary combination of groups or individuals formed to pursue specific objectives through joint action for purposes of gaining more influence or power than the individual groups or parties can hope to achieve on their own. By focusing on common objectives, coalition partners can build on one another’s strength and gain advantage on issues of common interest. A common objective may be that of winning an election or referendum or forming a government. Coalitions may be formed before or after elections, and they are necessitated by an absence of a majority party capable of amassing enough votes to become an outright winner.

However, many coalition governments throughout the country have been experiencing instability, infighting within officials, and some have ended up being placed under administration. For example in 2018 the MEC of Local Government in Western Cape had already commenced with invoking section 106 of the Municipal Systems Act, in Bitou and Laingsburg municipalities, due to the alleged maladministration and fraud taking place in these coalition governed municipalities. The Bitou municipality was facing a crisis with the municipal manager under suspension, the mayor was facing a criminal investigation and a motion of no confidence in the deputy mayor and speaker had succeeded. Likewise the Laingsburg coalition was facing the challenges of its own. A mayor from a party that accumulated 220 votes, with no local government experience (his only experience is as a petrol attendant and a construction worker) had been handed the highest office in the municipality.

It is therefore imperative for this form of government to have clear legal framework that regulates its existence. Coalitions are founded on non-formal agreements between partners that are not legally binding. As a result, coalition partners find it easy or beneficial to them, to breach a coalition agreement in pursuit of better offers elsewhere. Furthermore, these agreements in most cases remains a well-guarded secret between coalition partners at the exclusion of everyone including the voters who put those political parties in power.

There are four essential factors that all parties will need to adhere to before forming a coalition government.

1.      Preparing for a Coalition

The internal preparations by individual political parties can have a significant impact on the prospects of a successful coalition government. Political parties that believe there is a possibility of a coalition government should plan well in advance before elections. This allows parties to develop well thought-out processes and strategies to approach the negotiations. For instance, the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom (UK) began working on a coalition strategy six months prior to the 2010 elections.

In most cases, parties who have not pre-planned for a possibility of a coalition government will have less time to focus on the details of the coalition agreement, which might affect the quality of negotiations. Political parties need to accept coalitions as a possibility and inform and educate voters about it.

2.      Coalition Agreements

Coalition agreements are not merely symbolic papers but represent an important policy document designed to facilitate inter-party cooperation and devise a policy course of the government. In countries such as Denmark and Germany there is evidence to support that a majority of pledges made in coalition agreements are transferred into cabinet decisions.

It must be noted that coalition agreements are not legally enforceable by the courts of law. It is not difficult for parties to break away from the coalition since there is no legally binding document in place. The only means available to the voters to hold the coalition government accountable for not meeting its commitments is through withholding their votes in the next elections. Factors that may contribute to parties breaking away from a coalition may include prospects of better promises elsewhere, policy differences or public demands.

The use of formal written agreements to underpin coalition government has become more prevalent across Europe. Clearly, there is no blueprint that can be identified and be transferred across countries, but there are aspects of coalition negotiations that appear to play an important role in underpinning healthy inter-party relations.

Coalition agreements serve the following purposes: they help identify and defuse conflict even before the coalition is up and running; provide a public policy agenda against which performance of the coalition may be measured and the governing coalition may be held accountable; make it more difficult for member parties to violate the agreement, especially if the agreement is public; and reduce the uncertainty for both the public and the coalition members, thereby providing some efficiency in government and stability.

3.      Regulation of Coalitions

In South Africa, coalitions are an agreement between partners, and they are not legally binding. However, in countries such as Kenya and Mexico various aspects of coalition building are regulated. Where coalitions are regulated, legislation may cover the definition of a coalition, requirements for registration, and timelines for submitting the necessary documents to relevant authorities. For instance, in Kenya, coalitions formed after an election must submit their agreement documents within twenty one days of signing a deal to relevant authorities.

Regulation may also require that coalition agreement address specific coalition building issues. For instance, Kenya’s Political Party Act outlines more than sixteen issues that a coalition agreement must address. These issues include: intra-coalition distribution of party subsidies, and how parties plan to allocate positions within a coalition. The legislation does not dictate how parties must elect their candidates but a framework outlining the procedure is required. The realisation of a stable coalition government is influenced by the applicable regulatory framework. That legal framework may promote or deter coalition building.

4.      Managing a Coalition

A coalition may be defined as a marriage of convenience between two or more political parties. It involves a compromise of ideological positions and principles between parties in a move to form a government. It is within the above context that by their very nature coalition governments are prone to disintegration if parties do not lay an efficient and effective coalition management framework. Coalition management should include appropriate structures for information sharing, coalition management committees that must meet on a regular basis, and a dispute resolution mechanism to diffuse any conflict and dispute that might arise.  

Coalition management is critical to any long-lasting existence of a coalition government. The stability and the success of the coalition is mainly dependent on its member’s intention, trust, tolerance and accommodation of different views. Trust between partners, subscribing to the same vision, need to be promoted and encouraged in every coalition government.

In conclusion, the 2011 and 2016 local government elections have asserted that coalitions are here to stay. Parties, voters and legislators need to accept this form of government as a permanent feature in South African politics. International experience has demonstrated that parties of opposing ideological views can work together, it all depends on the planning and attitude of members involved. There are few gaps in the law that may need to be revisited by the legislatures in order for coalitions at local government to progressively adjust to this form of government


Kwazikwenkosi Frank Dladla LLB (UZ) and LLM in State Law and Multilevel Government (UWC).