The Republic of South Africa will go to the polls for its fourth national election since the end of Apartheid, with the election expected between April and June 2009. The election will see the African National Congress attempt to win a fourth term in office, the first under a new leader since the deposition of Thabo Mbeki as leader in 2007.
South Africa elects its 400-member National Assembly through a proportional party list system. 200 seats are filled on national lists, while another 200 are filled from provincial lists. Despite the fact that the President is the head of the executive government, South Africa resembles a parliamentary democracy, as the President is elected following each parliamentary election by the National Assembly and is reliant on support in the NA to remain in office, making him more like a Prime Minister. The constitution limits Presidents to two full terms in office, which in practice is about ten years.
Since the first multi-racial election in 1994, South African politics has been dominated by the African National Congress. The party has decisively won all three elections, winning 62% in 1994, 66% in 1999 and almost 70% at the 2004 election. The party was led into the 1994 election by Nelson Mandela. Mandela retired in 1999, and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, who remained in office until September 2008.
Because of the ANC’s complete dominance, much of South Africa’s politics that would be fought out between political parties in most countries takes place within the internal structures of the ANC. This has resulted in the ANC being a broad party with widely diverging ideologies between different sections of the party. This came to the fore at the National Conference in December 2007, when former Deputy President Jacob Zuma challenged Mbeki for the ANC’s Presidency, which is generally considered a precursor to becoming President of South Africa. Mbeki was defeated by Zuma. Zuma had been dismissed as Deputy President in 2005 over corruption charges and had a generally poisonous relationship with Mbeki. His supporters are considered to be the left wing of the party, including the South African Communist Party and much of the trade union movement, while Mbeki was considered to support more neoliberal economic policies and be supported by the right wing of the party.
In September 2008, corruption charges against Zuma were dismissed, and allegations were made of political interference in the trial by Mbeki and his supporters. In response, the ANC National Executive Committee, dominated by Zuma supporters, called on Mbeki to resign, which he did on 25 September. The South African constitution requires that a caretaker president be either a deputy president or a sitting MP. As Zuma was neither, Zuma supporter Kgalema Motlanthe, Zuma’s Deputy President of the ANC, was chosen by the National Assembly. Zuma will be the party’s presidential candidate at the upcoming elections.
While the ANC dominates South African politics, there are other parties who will contest the elections. While fifteen parties have representation in the Assembly, only three, including the ANC, have more than a handful of MPs. The Opposition is led by the Democratic Alliance, led by Helen Zille. The DA is the successor-party to the Progressive Party, which was the only white party in Parliament to oppose Apartheid for much of the 20th century. The party holds 47 seats.
The third-largest party is the Inkatha Freedom Party, or IFP. The IFP was originally an anti-apartheid rival to the ANC, and was once close to the size of the ANC. However, the party has done worse at each national election, polling 7% in 2004.
The only other significant challenger is a new party, Congress of the People, formed by right wing elements of the ANC who left after Zuma’s defeat of Mbeki. The party is led by Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbeki’s Minister of Defence, and is pursuing a neoliberal policy approach and is critical of Marxist elements within the ANC. It is hard to gauge their support levels, due to the lack of opinion polls and South Africa’s floor-crossing legislation, which only allows party changes for a few days every two years, and only if 10% of a party caucus agrees, making it impossible for ANC MPs to defect to the new party prior to the election. While it remains unclear if the new party will be successful in threatening the ANC’s domination, it appears to be the most likely path for South Africa to take to become a genuine multiparty democracy.
Breaking news: It appears that Zuma’s corruption trial may be back on, with charges possibly being reinstated today. Zuma has also released his party’s platform for the 2009 election, including a shift to the left on economic policies.