Coalitions 101

Within 14 working days of the election results being formally announced local councils have to start functioning. This requires that the first meeting has to be held by 24 August. The first order of council business is the election of a “speaker” who then takes over managing council proceedings. The second order of business is the election of a mayor. Once these posts have been filled the normal business of the council resumes. This includes establishing working committees, passing budgets and adopting an Integrated Development Plan (IDP).

The election of a speaker thus becomes pivotal point in the start of an administration. The appointment of the speaker (or mayor) is on the basis of a majority vote in a quorum of councillors. When one party has a majority in council this will rarely present any difficulty and the business of administering the municipality can start. However in hung councils (where no single party has a majority of seats) it may not be possible for party to get the votes required to make the appointments. Moreover if the appointment of a speaker and mayor prove difficult it is unlikely that any subsequent votes (passing of by-laws, budgets etc.) will be any easier.

Councils unable to make the appointment of speaker and mayor rapidly face being dysfunctional. There is an onus on provincial (and national) government to intervene in the administration of municipalities when they are dysfunctional. In terms of s139 of the constitution provincial government is required to place dysfunctional municipalities under administration. Obviously this does not benefit of any political party and it is in the interest of all elected representatives to ensure that there is no such intervention. The surest way around the impasse is through the formation of coalitions – “a temporary alliance for combined action, especially of political parties forming a government”. Coalitions are by definition temporary and are entered into for specific purposes.

Under coalitions two or more parties agree to vote in concert on key issues. The structure and identity of coalition members do not change. The only thing that may change is their commitment on how to vote on particular issues. Usually the senior party in the coalition obtains the cooperation of the junior party by offering inducements and horse-trading. The horse-trading may involve commitments by the senior partner to promote certain agenda or to appoint members of the junior partner to selected posts. For example, a coalition of parties can be formed to ensure that a mutually agreeable candidates are elected as speaker and mayor.

While stability of the coalition is most desired by the senior party the essence of coalitions is that they are temporary and can be broken by any member at any time. Coalitions depend on the parties acting in good faith on an on-going basis. While the senior party seeks stability in coalitions their nature is such that the junior party can unseat the governing party by defecting at any time. This presents the junior party with the temptation of keeping the coalition fragile and repeatedly renegotiate the agreement.


The fragility of coalitions impacts on how partners are chosen. When the parties are ideologically close the senior party will have to make fewer concession of principle. Obtaining a coalition partner is then subject to the horse-trading over who gets what posts on council. However when there is a greater ideological distance between parties the concessions may have to be more fundamental (who leads the party, whether earlier decisions made by the senior party are reversed).


Coalitions require co-operation at the level of the local council and are usually formed at local council level. However much of the focus so far has been on how political parties form national coalitions (eg. the ANC’s agreement with the AIC and PAC). These national coalitions are referred to as “grand coalitions” and while formalised at national level they are implemented at local level. Under grand coalitions two parties agree to cooperate at a national level and coalitions are then formed in every council where both parties both hold seats.


To ensure stability of the coalition the senior party would rather the junior coalition partners hold PR council seats (as opposed to ward seats). As coalitions are formed between political parties it is important that the political parties can compel performance from their members. PR councillors are beholden to the party which appoints them and should their representative not honour the coalition agreement the party can replace them. Ward councillors, on the other hand, are appointed by the ward constituency and not the political party. Ward councillors are thus in a position where they can ignore the coalition agreement without losing their seat. Furthermore as parties can lose ward seats in by-elections coalitions with parties that are ward councillors tend to be somewhat less stable.


There are a few general rules when parties consider forming coalitions:

  • Coalitions formed with a smaller number of partners are more desirable (fewer concessions are needed).
  • Partners that give the coalition in a comfortable majority are more desirable than those that offer a slim majority.
  • While the largest party is able to form coalitions easier than other parties they have no entitlement to being part of the governing coalition. Any coalition that can cobble cobble a majority together can govern the council.
  • The two largest parties are the primary rivals for power and there are few reasons for them to form a coalition.


Michael o’ Donovan




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