Why do party coalitions succeed or fail in Africa?

Mongameli Bobani and Athol Trollip, when the UDM and DA in Nelson Mandela Bay were in a coalition. August 16, 2016.
Mongameli Bobani and Athol Trollip, when the UDM and DA in Nelson Mandela Bay were in a coalition. August 16, 2016.
Image: Brian Witbooi

Over the past two decades in Africa there’s been a growing traction and interest in coalition government.

It all started in Senegal in 2000 when a group of opposition parties or groups joined forces, calling themselves Sopi (change).

The opposition coalition in Senegal defeated the incumbent president and ended 40 years of one-party state or one party dominance.

Kenya in 2002 repeated the formation.

During the 1992 and 1997 elections in Kenya, political parties that lost the elections cumulatively gained more than 60% of the votes.

The opposition parties grouped together and called themselves the National Rainbow Coalition.

They removed the party that had governed Kenya since 1963.

Pre-electoral coalitions have changed governments in countries like Senegal, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Madagascar, Gambia, Nigeria and Mauritius.

When Zimbabwe hosted its elections in 2018, there were hopes it would join the growing list of coalition governments.

Why do coalitions sometimes become more than the sum of their parts and generate a huge surge of support?

Why do they often fragment and collapse?

One of the most crucial indicators as to whether coalition government will succeed is how polarised the political landscape is.

Let’s take the Democratic Republic of Congo as a practical example.

The country has more than 600 opposition parties!

And each opposition party has a desire to one day lead the country.

Former president Joseph Kabila told Al Jazeera viewers there was no war in his country.

That was one of the most controversial analyses during his tenure as the president of the DRC.

How polarised the political landscape is will determine the degree to which parties are able to join forces coherently without undermining each other, their principles and own reputation.

Political scientist Nicolas van de Walle once said, “Opposition coalitions only work when they appear capable of winning and thus prompt members of the ruling party to defect.

“These defectors not only bolster the ranks of the opposition, but can bring supporters with them and sway undecided voters.”

The All Progressive Congress ahead of Nigeria’s 2015 elections was strengthened by mass defections from the ruling People’s Democratic Party.

This is similar to what happened ahead of Zambia’s elections in 2016, when dozens of defectors from the ruling Patriotic Front and Movement for Multi-party Democracy drastically improved the electoral fortunes of the United Party for National Development.

However, we should remember that this strategy is not always straightforward.

First, it is difficult to encourage members of the ruling party to cross the aisle.

Even if they do cross the aisle, it’ll be difficult for them to persuade supporters to vote for someone who was part of the government recently.

The deeper the political landscape, the harder it is.

The main opposition in Uganda, the Forum for Democratic Change, has defined itself in stark contrast to the ruling National Resistance Movement.

The main opposition in Uganda has emphasised the persecution it has experienced under the ruling party, which according to it is illegitimate and unjust.

In Zimbabwe, the political environment is more polarised between the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Zanu-PF.

The MDC sees itself as the saviour from Zanu-PF’s illegitimate authoritarianism.

Zanu-PF presents itself as the liberator hero to the MDC’s foreign subservience.

This sounds like the ANC’s attitude to the people of SA.

The Zimbabwean situation is more complicated, arising from the political hostility that stretches relations between some opposition parties.

Who will lead the coalition government?

Most coalitions fail in picking a leader.

Then again it’s always wise to remember than no transition has been smooth.

This contest is often keenly fought because the benefits of presidency in most African countries are fruitful.

At whose expense?

The decision on who should lead must be based on parliamentary by-elections.

Given the widespread failures of one-party dominance/government in Africa since the end of colonialism, coalition government should be explored, because of its inclusivity, diverse ideas and leadership capacity.

Many citizens fear that coalition government will end up in governing paralysis, more divided nations and policy uncertainty.

Then again, there’s growing concern that a bigger party in the coalition will be bolstered at the expense of smaller partners.

What often happens is that smaller parties get into bed with larger parties and alienate their supporters.

The post-independence governments have only produced paralysis and often more confused policies for the countries, and of course, divisions.

The failures of dominant governments have been stark: created conflicts among members, stunted development and ethnic divisions.

Most of Africa’s electoral systems are winner-takes-all.

In our beloved motherland, coalition government has the potential to bring more diverse ideas, skills and innovations to governing.

This form of governance brings together competing parties, and could bring diverse ethnic groups, regions and parties into government, which is currently lacking in almost all African governments.

Coalitions may also encourage African governments to govern in the widest public interest, and not only in the interest of a small elite, ethnic, religious or linguistic group, which has often been the case.

Zamuxolo Nduna is a masters student in comparative education at Zhejiang Normal University in China.