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Small Political Parties Matter:  Reflections on South Africa’s Government of National Unity

From South Africa, I’ve learned that small parties can be significant and valuable in parliamentary democracies with proportional representation

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In everyday life, as well as in geopolitics and electoral politics, size plays a significant role. Larger entities tend to receive higher ratings. In democratic systems, political parties come in various sizes—some small, others large. When we describe a political party as ‘big,’ we are referring to the number of seats it holds in the National Assembly, which reflects its popularity. Conversely, if a party is considered ‘small,’ it contradicts the aforementioned criteria.

A few days ago, the elected president of South Africa for the new term Cyril Ramaphosa announced his cabinet of the Government of National Unity (GNU), something South Africa has not experienced since the Mandela era, when the ANC formed a government with NP and IFP.

For context, South Africa held elections around May this year, and the ruling party, ANC, failed to secure a majority, ending up with 40.18 percent of the vote, which translates to 159 seats. An outright majority in South Africa’s parliamentary democracy requires crossing the 50.1 percent  threshold, equivalent to 201 seats.

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Given this context, the ANC decided to hold negotiations with the DA, the second most popular party in the election, and other small parties to form a GNU. The goal was to secure a majority and facilitate governance in both the provinces and the central government.

South Africa uses a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation, meaning votes translate into seats in the National Assembly. To lead, a party needs an outright majority or at least a coalition to cross the threshold. Coalition governments are akin to renting a house in your twenties, where people who don’t like each other are forced to live together because they can’t afford a place on their own.

Returning to Pretoria, Ramaphosa announced his cabinet, which took time due to negotiations and conversations with other parties. The cabinet reflects a broad coalition government, including small political parties that secured a few seats and received ministries. Parties like GOOD, VF Plus, PA, and IFP were included.

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What happened in South Africa could never happen in countries that don’t apply parliamentary democracy and use the first-past-the-post system, where the winner takes all. In the first-past-the-post system, a party can have even 42 percent of the vote but still be the only ruling party, with no rule requiring them to cross the 50 percent threshold.

In presidential democracies that use the first-past-the-post system, small parties often struggle to gain any benefits or make a significant impact. They rarely have a chance to secure seats in Parliament or participate in the government. However, South Africa provides interesting examples: Patricia De Lille, the sole MP of the GOOD party, received 29,000 votes and became the Minister of Tourism. Similarly, the VF Plus, with 219,053 votes (translating to six seats), saw its leader, Dr. Pieter Groenewald, appointed as the Minister of Correctional Services. Additionally, leaders of the UDM and Al Jama-ah, Bantu Holomisa and Ganief Hendricks, respectively, were given deputy ministerial posts in the GNU.

In proportional representation systems, even small parties play a significant role in helping a party form a majority to rule. In Israel, we see how the small United Torah Judaism party, with only seven seats in their parliament, the Knesset, made an impact by being in a government and helping Netanyahu survive as Prime Minister. 

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In Germany, the FDP is part of a coalition government with only 91 out of 735 seats in the Bundestag. In Belgium, De Croo’s outgoing government includes the Groen party as a partner, even though Groen has only eight out of 88 seats in the Chamber of Representatives.

From South Africa, I’ve learned that small parties can be significant and valuable in parliamentary democracies with proportional representation, a contrast to many African states that use the first-past-the-post system.

Lusungu Mubofu is a political analyst interested in political theories, elections and developmental politics especially of the Great Lakes Region of Africa. He’s available atmubofuwrites@gmail.com and on X as @theutdcode. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chanzo. If you are interested in publishing in this space, please get in touch with our editors at editor@thechanzo.com.

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One Response

  1. “elected president of South Africa for the new term Cyril Ramaphosa”

    Elected? Really? By how many votes?

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