THE BLOG
05/05/2018 08:44 SAST | Updated 05/05/2018 08:44 SAST

How A Coalition Government Could Actually Be A Success In SA

The German ambassador to South Africa on coalitions, appropriate footwear and political laws of gravity.

EFF leader Julius Malema (2nd L) speaks flanked by DA leader Mmusi Maimane (L), United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa (2nd R) and Corne Mulder (R) of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+).
Rodger Bosch/ AFP/ Getty Images
EFF leader Julius Malema (2nd L) speaks flanked by DA leader Mmusi Maimane (L), United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa (2nd R) and Corne Mulder (R) of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+).

"Coalition is the art of wearing your right shoe on your left foot without getting blisters". The French socialist Guy Mollet is supposed to have spoken these wise and orthopedically concerned words.

If Mollet is correct, most of Europe's political leaders should be hobbling around in inadequate footwear at the moment. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic Sea; from the Netherlands to Greece, Germany, and the Baltic states — a large majority of European countries are currently being ruled by coalition governments.

And while I cannot (and wouldn't want to) comment on the dermatological state of the feet of these European leaders and the existence or absence of blisters, I think one thing is fair to say: Most European countries have enjoyed stable, solid and capable governments over the past few decades — while coalitions have been their main form of government.

In my own country, we have had power-sharing governments almost throughout the post-war period (with very short exceptions). This is as a result of our proportional voting system, as well as the development of our party system over the past 70 years.

In Africa, we also find successful examples of governing coalitions. South Africa has had its taste of power-sharing — in metros such as Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg, but not (yet?) at a national level.

In fact, the absence of national power-sharing in South Africa until now is quite notable, as Leon Schreiber points out in his new book "Coalition Country". In only three of the world's 79 democracies — Botswana, Malaysia and Namibia — is there currently a party that has governed on its own for longer than the ANC, Schreiber says.

There's no magic recipe as to what it takes to build a successful coalition. But I think three aspects are crucial, at least – let's call them the three Rs: Responsibility, Reliability and Realistic Assumptions.

Schreiber predicts that this will change in South Africa over the next few decades, however, and this might start through the election next year already, at least on a regional level.

The building, maintaining and running a coalition is no easy task. Mayor Athol Trollip in NMB metro and his partners, old and new, would probably agree with this.

As might German Chancellor Angela Merkel, I presume. In Germany, it took the political parties about six months to agree on a governing coalition, following our most recent general election in September.

There's no magic recipe as to what it takes to build a successful coalition. But I think three aspects are crucial, at least — let's call them the three Rs: Responsibility, Realistic assumptions, and Reliability.

Parties have a responsibility towards the citizens they represent. It is the voters who have issued their party with a mandate through an election — it's the mandate to act, to take political decisions, to shape their country's future. The parties, therefore, have to prove that they are willing to assume that responsibility — and this might mean to at least consider the option of a power-sharing solution if there are no clear majorities.

The second crucial point is that all parties involved should have realistic assumptions — about what they can and cannot achieve through a coalition government. Negotiating a coalition deal doesn't mean that one should give up what one stands for. However, being realistic means that neither side can expect to attain everything it might have promised during an election campaign.

German coalitions have been successful, and less so – due to a variety of factors. We are not masters at coalition buildings, contrary to what some international commentators might claim. But we are very happy to share the bits that we have learned...

Like any alliance, political coalitions are about compromises — and a realistic view on what one is willing to compromise on. And remember: Politics is not ruled by the law of gravity. A small party can tip the scales; can become a kingmaker and get disproportionately high political influence in return.

The last point: Reliability. Winning each other's trust can be hard — particularly for parties that have not worked under a power-sharing agreement before. But trust can be earned and trust can be learned. And for that, reliability is essential.

That means that a given word counts. And that it will continue to count even when the going gets tough. Remember: You always meet at least twice, and the political balance of power might have shifted dramatically. Germany has experienced decades of coalition building, on a municipal, regional and national level.

German coalitions have been successful, and less so — due to a variety of factors. We are not masters at coalition buildings, contrary to what some international commentators might claim. But we are very happy to share the bits that we have learned — also with our South African partners. If we can be helpful on this path, we would be glad to walk along with you — aiming to avoid any blisters and foot injuries on the way.