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Unpacking political parties support in the metros

By Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, Stellenbosch University

Undoubtedly, the poor economic and political performance of the ANC over the past few years (and the low favourability ratings of President Zuma) pushed many voters towards opposition parties in the 2016 municipal elections. While this may seem obvious, evaluations of government’s performance have had little impact on the fortunes of opposition parties in past elections. Although voters do take into account government’s performance, research shows that if an ANC voter became disillusioned with the party, s/he is far more likely not to vote at all.

In past elections, disaffection with the incumbent party did not necessarily translate into a vote against it. Unhappy ANC partisans were more likely to become inactive at elections and simply move into the non-participatory electorate.

The support given by black African voters towards the EFF and DA in 2016 suggests that voters are increasingly discerning about the ANC performance in office. Support for the ANC among its many traditional constituencies no longer appears unconditional. Voters are more likely than ever to consider their personal situations and connect them to government’s performance. Consequently, since unfavorable personal economic situations are more likely to solicit a reaction than favorable ones, we can expect many more voters to adjust their partisanship and voting to reflect their political and economic evaluations.

A second explanation for the shifts in party support may lie with greater electoral choice available to voters. In the 2016 municipal elections, voters were confronted with a potentially broader array of partisan choice than ever before. While many black South Africans still regard the DA as a racially exclusive party or remain uncertain about whom the party represents, the party’s endeavors to rebrand itself seem to have paid off.

The 2009 and 2014 campaigns present a marked departure from previous campaigns that had merely aimed to consolidate the support of minority or middle class interests. Since then the DA has projected a more racially inclusive image in an attempt to broaden its support base in ‘non-traditional’ (black African) constituencies, and reach new audiences. The 2016 elections presented the DA with a real opportunity to test its ‘new’ appeal among the vast black African constituencies and it appears to have found some (albeit still limited) traction in urban black African constituencies.

The EFF is the newcomer to South African politics, and launched just before the 2014 elections, it made a strong showing in its first election establishing itself as the third-largest party nationally. The EFF’s emergence has effectively stretched the ideological distance between the main political contenders. Often the number of parties on offer to voters is often less important than the diversity of ideological choices on offer. The 2014 election results suggest an appreciation of the EFF’s more radical stance on pro-poor issues among black voters and the party has emerged as a legitimate alternative to the ANC for over two million voters in 2016.

A third and critical factor is the increased exposure of urban voters to political party campaigns. Opposition parties face limited resources with which to campaign. In 2016, much of their resources and efforts were concentrated in urban centres and through TV adverts. Urban voters are exposed to media and on-the-ground campaigning to a greater degree than their rural counterparts. It is in the metros where opposition party campaigns are most visible, more capable of changing voter perceptions about opposition parties, and thus enabled to penetrate the ANC’s traditional electoral market. Especially in urban centres, opposition parties had relatively better success reaching and persuading undecided voters through campaigns and media coverage. Confronted with spirited campaigns and a greater choice, a larger proportion of voters was able to decide on a party to vote for and was motivated to vote.

In contrast, in rural areas the ANC’s canvassing is far more prominent while the opposition parties struggle to cover vast rural provinces due to the expense. In 2014, the data shows that rural and semi-rural voters appear to have withdrawn from the polls at higher rates than their urban counterparts while support for the ANC dropped across most rural provinces. Thus, disillusioned rural ANC voters unmoved by the party’s 2014 campaign, were also unable to find an alternative political home. With few choices to consider, many disgruntled rural ANC voters simply chose to abstain from voting in 2014.

The argument here is that the combined effects of unfavourable evaluations for the ANC, increased political competition, greater exposure to more competitive election campaigns, and a wider variety of political options stimulated urban voters to consider new political alternatives. If this trend continues beyond 2016 the ANC may come to rely on the relatively uncontested rural vote to bolster its overall vote share (but in the context of a shrinking rural support base) while the urban territories become fiercely contested, multi-party environments.

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