When the Congress of the People was launched in November last year opinion polls indicated that it could potentially win as much as twenty to twenty-five percent of the vote in the 2009 elections. Yet, 44 days before South Africans are due to go to the polls it seems likely that - if current trends continue - the ANC breakaway will come nowhere near reaching that figure. This would be bad for democracy in this country as the worse COPE does the closer the ANC is going to get to a two-thirds majority.
The breakaway did disappointingly in a series of by-elections in the Eastern Cape on Wednesday. Its eight candidates in Port Elizabeth - all of whom were the serving ANC councillors before they vacated their seats - all lost, winning only 19,5% of the vote on average. In the five by-elections in the Northern Cape COPE's candidates did marginally better with an average of 22,7% of the vote. There is no sign yet in the by-elections held so far of COPE making meaningful inroads into ANC support outside of the Cape provinces.
Current opinion polling - rough and ready as it may be - suggests that its national support has been in decline since December. The Mail & Guardian reported on Friday that according to Markinor's polling COPE is likely to receive between 8% and 12% of the vote on April 22. The Democratic Alliance's tracking poll meanwhile found that COPE had fallen "from between 10% and 11% in mid-January to between 6% and 8% now," according to party CEO Ryan Coetzee.
There are a substantial body of voters who are - or have been - in two minds as to whom to vote for. There are many IFP supporters who could be persuaded to vote for a Jacob Zuma ANC; many ANC supporters who are sympathetic to COPE; and many minority voters who might back the breakaway were they to come around to viewing it as the strongest counterweight to the ANC. Such voters still have to be won-over or won-back, they can't be taken for granted. So far COPE has yet to start competing for their allegiance. As Coetzee points out COPE has yet to start running a proper election campaign. It doesn't seem to have the capacity to push its message out to the electorate - if it had a message (which it doesn't yet.)
Some of COPE's difficulties can be attributed to the fact that they lacked the time other parties had to prepare and organise themselves - and the ANC is able to massively outspend them. But, if time was the only problem, things should be gradually getting better for them (not worse). It is hard to believe that COPE has less access to funding than the Freedom Front Plus. But on Friday evening there were FF+ posters on the poles along Oxford road in Johannesburg, but no COPE ones. The COPE election poster is a rare bird in the land.
One problem is that COPE is not doing getting the basics right. The current state of its media operation is perhaps illustrative of problems besetting the organisation. On Wednesday February 25 News24.com published an interview with COPE President Mosiuoa Lekota in which he tendentiously defended Mbeki's AIDS policies, and refused to give a straight answer to a question on whether he thought HIV caused AIDS. COPE needed this particular linkage with the Mbeki-era like a hole in the head. But instead of immediately issuing a statement "clarifying" Lekota's remarks, and thereby minimising the damage, COPE's spokesmen sat on their hands.