28/06/2018 04:31 SAST | Updated 28/06/2018 04:31 SAST

Why The DA Can't Play The De Lille Game So Close To Elections

With national elections less than a year away, analysts say the party needs to focus on recovering from its clash with Patricia de Lille.

Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille.
Gianluigi Guercia via Getty Images
Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille.

The ongoing clash between Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and her party does not bode well for the main opposition with elections less than a year away.

Analysts say the DA needs to resolve the matter with De Lille quickly, before further reputational damage is caused. If the onslaught continues, analysts say the DA may receive a lower voter turnout from its constituencies in the Western Cape and may battle to take the moral high ground over the ANC in its national campaigning.

The DA suffered another major blow in the De Lille saga on Wednesday, when the Western Cape High Court ruled in the mayor's favour, saying the DA's termination of her membership was illegal and invalid. Even more concerning for the party was that judge Andre le Grange found fundamental problems with how the party's Federal Legal Counsel, which made a decision to terminate De Lille's membership, was not properly constituted and flouted the party's own constitution.

University of South Africa political sciences professor Dirk Kotze said the entire De Lille "saga" will have an impact on the DA.

"This saga, especially the judgment [on Wednesday], undermines the party's moral high ground and authority on ethics. The DA is always pointing fingers at the ANC over constitutional issues and issues of ethics. It will be more difficult to do so now because the judgment essentially said the party did not follow their own constitution," Kotze said.

"But the DA is in a good position in the Western Cape. They have a large majority of support. There are no alternatives for the DA's voting constituency, they will not go for the ANC or the EFF. But the DA can lose votes through a lower voter turnout from their supporters. But the chances of the DA dropping below 50 percent in the Western Cape are slim."

He said the national impact may also be minimal.

"In Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, DA supporters may see this as a Western Cape issue rather than a national issue. But the DA's opponents will capitalise on this as far as they can."

Independent political analyst Molifi Tshabalala agreed that the judgment undermines the DA's ethical standard.

"They have also been taking the ANC and government to court over legal and procedural issues. Now they can be called hypocrites if this is not fixed ... It is likely this matter will drag on for a while with the DA indicating they want to appeal. It may drag on even after elections. This will cause continuous damage to the DA's reputation for as long as it drags on," Tshabalala said.

"In South Africa, we are talking less about party policy ahead of elections and more about race politics. This conversation will be difficult for the DA now. The ANC has also brought Ebrahim Rasool back to run their election campaign in Cape Town and Western Cape to contest De Lille's constituency. The DA must act fast."

In an interview with HuffPost shortly after the judgment was handed down, Gareth van Onselen, head of politics and governance at the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR), said the implications of the ruling today are more acute, as far as the DA is concerned, in Western Cape, where De Lille's support is strongest.

"It is unlikely to have any meaningful national repercussions, aside from some damage to the DA's brand as fair and impartial. As for the actual electoral consequences in Western Cape, it is almost impossible to say exactly what they will be in particular. The DA has a number of threats to its 60 percent majority in that province. The drought did damage, the fallout over Helen Zille did damage, the De Lille matter did damage; all of these are simultaneous threats," he said.

"De Lille will be a contributing factor, but quite where it begins and ends is difficult to determine without in-depth market research. As long as the DA and De Lille remain locked in a war of attrition with each other, the damage and threat will remain. One of the biggest consequences for the DA will be its effect on turnout. Voters hate messy internal disputes. It turns them off and tends to result in apathy on election day. It also means they do not register in such big numbers. All of this will eat into the DA's ability to win the province with a safe majority."

He said there may also be unseen internal consequences for the party.

"Importantly, there will also be unseen internal consequences for the DA. The party will want to know how the federal legal commission got this so wrong, and who is responsible. And there is already a lot of election pressure on the DA leadership — Western Cape is absolutely critical to the DA's national percentage. Along with Gauteng, it's responsible for 62 percent of all DA votes," he said.

"The whole thing represents something of an unsolvable paradox for the DA. It wants de Lille out, but almost every avenue it pursues seems to result in her becoming more entrenched in her position. A consequence for the public is a convoluted mess, where it is hard to tell who is right and who is wrong on any particular issue, and all that remains is the general perception that the DA is at war with itself."