Explainer: How political coalitions are formed

Michael o’Donovan

With the votes counted and council seats allocated the new local government administrations have to be established. The first order of business is for each council to elect a mayor and, where applicable, a speaker. These posts are filled by a simple majority of council votes.

In councils where one party has a clear majority, posts can be filled quickly. In councils where the largest party does not have a clear majority making the appointments will require that some opposition councillors support the nominees of the leading party. This can be accomplished by the leading party putting their nominations to a vote in the hope that enough opposition councillors support the individuals. This is an inherently unstable way of reaching decisions. The instability arises from the uncertainty of outcomes for the appointment of mayor and speaker and in every subsequent bill, budget, resolution or motion brought before council.

In order to deal with this, political parties can enter arrangements with each other to form a coalition. Under coalitions, each party maintains its separate identity but the parties operate (and vote) in concert. The key difference is that, prior to voting; the coalition partners caucus together and bring proposals acceptable to all partners before council. This way of working arrangement is established between coalition partners.

Council resolutions can also be passed by a minority party if a sufficient number of other council members support it. Resolutions can, in practice, be passed even when there is an adversarial relationship between the dominant party and the opposition. A key determinant is how opposition members were elected. All councillors elected on the ward ballot are able to vote according to their conscience. If they support any motion they can vote in its favour even when their party is opposed to it. PR candidates are not so free. Since they are appointed by the political party their failure to follow the party line can end up with them being removed from the list, or being fired. Their removal for the list does not result in a by-election as is the case when ward councillors vacate their seats.

The discretion available to members of parties like the EFF is largely limited, as most EFF councillors have been elected on the PR list. Greater proportions of ANC and DA councillors have been elected on the ward list and have wider latitude to use their discretion. However the extent to which such discretionary voting will be used in this era of coalitions is unclear and often calls for a change in party ethos in many of the larger parties.




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