Election 2009: How well is the ANC doing?

Although the evidence is patchy and conflicting, the ruling party may do worse than expected

In Business Day on Monday UCT's Anthony Butler wrote a perceptive article explaining how the African National Congress has rescued itself from the fairly desperate situation it found itself late last year. There is a real possibility, he notes, that the ANC "will run away with the forthcoming elections" and even gain the symbolically and constitutionally important two-thirds majority.

Certainly, the deluge of ANC advertising is drowning out the campaigns of many of the other parties. The ruling party has recovered its internal cohesion for the campaign, and does seem to have all the momentum going into the final weeks of the election. The sense one gets from the media is that the ANC's support stands somewhere in the mid 60s. And, the Western Cape is the only province where the ANC is expected to be overtaken by an opposition party in terms of popular support.

But when it comes to objectively judging how the different parties are doing there is actually very little evidence to go on. The two sources of information we do have are opinion polls and by-election results. There are problems with both of these.

Unlike in the United States we do not have regular opinion polls in the run up to the election. The ANC and DA conduct their own tracking polls, the results of which they leak to the media when it suits them. While these may give some indication of shifting trends in voter support, it is not clear how accurately they can predict the ultimate election result. In a fractured country such as South Africa opinion surveys are time consuming, expensive and difficult to do properly.  Only two companies - Markinor and Markdata - have the kind of track record which inspires confidence in their reliability. Neither have recently published the results of a survey of party political support.

A relatively new polling outfit, Plus 94, conducted a survey of registered voters between March 11 and March 21 2009 - the results of which were published last week. According to a press release, "The study was conducted in all 9 provinces using face to face, in-home interviews. A total of 3500 homes were covered among registered voters." 60,8% of those interviewed said they planned to vote ANC, 15,9% said they would vote DA, 14,9% COPE, 1,8% UCDP, 1,6% IFP, and 1,5% ID. The poll seems to have been conducted in a somewhat hurried fashion, and some of the results, particularly at provincial level, are dubious. The IFP's estimated support in KwaZulu Natal (7%) is surely far too low, COPE's estimated support in Mpumalanga (19,9%) and Limpopo (33,7%) much too high.

Even the most rigorously conducted surveys can go wrong, if respondents are reluctant to honestly say who they will vote for. This has been a perennial problem for pollsters when it comes to evaluating the IFP's support. Shortly before the 1999 elections Markinor conducted a survey which found that the ANC enjoyed the declared support of 49% of those polled in KwaZulu-Natal. Only 17% of respondents said they would vote IFP, with 14% undecided. In the event, the IFP received 41,9% of the vote in the province, as opposed to the ANC's 39.4%. Another Markinor poll conducted before the 2004 elections found that 48,7% of respondents said they would vote ANC while 24,9% said they would vote IFP, with 13,2% undecided. This poll was more accurate when it came to measuring ANC support; it went on to win 46.98 % of the provincial vote on April 14. But it still massively underestimated IFP support: that party received the support of 36.82% of the electorate in KZN. It will be interesting to see whether the April 22 election will expose similar problems when it comes to accurately measuring COPE's support.

The other, more tangible, source of information about voter sentiments are by-election results. There have been three series of by-elections held across the country - on January 28, March 4, and March 25. The most recent round saw the ANC win back 19 wards it had won in 2006, the IFP hold on to one, and the DA hold onto three and win one off the Independent Democrats. These results have been hailed as a great victory for the ANC over COPE - but in reality the picture is more complicated than that.

The ANC's support declined in 19 of the 23 wards it contested. Its average support feel from 67,5% to 62,1% - or from 73,2% to 67,6% in the wards it had held previously. COPE meanwhile won an average of 16.1% of the vote in previously ANC controlled wards. The intriguing question is why the fall in ANC support was much less than the rise in COPE's?

This is partly due, in certain areas, to the pecularities of local government politics. In ward 21 in Alice in the Eastern Cape the ANC candidate Noyene Balangile (45,6%) narrowly defeated Zamikhaya Papu (44,5%) in the 2006 local government elections. In the ward by-elections last week Papu stood as the ANC candidate against Balangile for COPE - and won by a landslide (87,3%).

In the four by-elections held in Alice this year (three last week) the ANC has received an average of 80,3% of the vote, and COPE 19%. The ANC's support seems to be up from the 76,9% it received in these wards, on average, in 2006. But if these results are replicated across the municipality on April 22 this would represent a substantial fall from the 93,3% of the vote it received in this area in the 2004 provincial elections.

More generally, opposition parties with only marginal support in a ward will generally not contest by-elections. The DA, for instance, only put up candidates in five of the by-elections held last week, although it had fielded candidates in almost all of them in 2006. If there is no DA candidate the party's supporters generally stay away from the polls.

A useful illustration of the effect of this is provided by Ward 81 in Ekurhuleni on the East Rand. In the 2006 election the ANC won 5,681 votes (80,8%) and the DA 765 votes (10,9%). 702 of these came from a single voting district, in which 1044 individuals cast their ballots. In the by-elections last week the ANC won 4,255 votes (92,2%) in the ward. However, the DA decided not to put up a candidate and supporters of that party simply stayed away from the polls. The proof of this is that in that particular voting district only 91 individuals cast their ballots.

The absence of such candidates in the by-elections may well serve to disguise the extent of COPE's impact on ANC support. (Against this lies the fact that many of these by-elections were precipitated by an ANC ward councillor's defection to COPE - something which might skew by-elections to areas where the breakaway is likely to perform more strongly).

Over the three sets of by-elections held this year the ANC has been challenged in 61 seats it had held previously. It has managed to win almost all of these back (except for a couple in the Northern Cape). Still, its support dropped in fifty of these. It has received 66,4% of the vote, on average, in these wards - as opposed to the 76,4% it received in 2006.

In the 21 by-elections held in the Northern Cape this year the ANC's support has dropped from an average of 70,5% in 2006 to 54,5%. COPE meanwhile has won an average of 22,8% of the vote in these wards. If this level of decline is carried over across the province on April 22, the ANC will struggle to hold onto its majority there.

Elsewhere the by-election results suggest that COPE will help dent ANC support in all provinces except Mpumalanga and Kwa-Zulu Natal. In the 7 wards it has contested in the Free State it averaged 17,3% of teh vote. In the 5 wards in the North West it averaged 13,5%. In 6 wards it contested in Limpopo it averaged 12,9%. And in the 15 by-elections it has contested in the Eastern Cape this year it has drawn an average of 18,5% of the vote. One last question is to what degree the ANC is going to be able to make up these losses, by winning votes off the IFP in KwaZulu-Natal.

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