The 1990s brought about competitive politics to the Southern African region. In most cases however, democratic elections brought into power politicians from dominant political parties which abused their dominance and created democratically elected despots whose only focus was how to entrench themselves and line their pockets. While this was part of the political journey, it brought about arrogance and corruption. The emergence of self-serving leaders was a result of that dominance which led some politicians to believe that elections were a route to their coronation rather than anything else. The dominant   party syndrome was bound to disappear as people became more conscious and sources of information became more dispersed.

In recent Southern African political history however, there have been indications that the dominant party system was declining. The decline was more noticeable in Lesotho where coalition politics at the national level came to the fore from 2012 to the present. Coalition politics is expected to be one of the main means of government formation in the region in the next few years. In South Africa, at least three metropolitan areas will have to be ruled by coalition governments as a result of the inconclusive Local Government Elections of 2016. The issue therefore is what role losing political parties have in government formation in divided societies?

Traditionally winning parties have had all the power after elections, but as the Lesotho case has shown, minor parties or those who have lost the elections can become even more dominant than the largest party in a coalition. As South Africa inexorably moves towards coalition administrations in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay and Tswane, there is a need to evaluate situations where losing elections gives losers more power than the winners of elections. It is unusual but experience has shown that through dogged refusal to submit to the majority party and refusal to bargain but grandstand, the loser can transform weakness into a temporary strength in a coalition.

The 2012 coalition government in Lesotho and the current coalition government have been dogged by the junior partner assuming more power and influence than the numerically senior partner. In 2012 no political party had an overall majority after the elections. Out of the 120 seats, the parties which formed the coalition had just 61 seats in parliament (ABC 30; LCD 26 and BNP 5). While the ABC provided the position of the Prime Minister, LCD insisted and got almost all the key Ministries of Finance, Education, Foreign Affairs etc. Sources indicated that the negotiations were always stymied by Metsing, leader of LCD who always insisted that no government could be formed without his support. For his efforts, Metsing secured the position of Deputy Prime Minister. His favourite expression then which I understand he continues to wield in the current coalition is “U ea ntlhoka!” That means that the senior partner cannot rule without his concurrence. Emphasis on being a king-maker rather than ensuring that the coalition achieves its objectives poses the greatest threat to the sustainability of any coalition.

Even after the coalition government had been formed, Metsing sought to exercise a veto on all decisions of the government on the basis that consultations are the only basis of moving forward on any issue. Clearly consultations are important in the sustenance of the government of that nature, but that does not remove the power of the Prime Minister under the Lesotho Constitution. What Metsing sought was essentially to be Prime Minister in all but in name. When that was not achieved he ensured that the coalition was brought down by working inside it to undermine and bring it down.

The 2015 elections which were a result of the collapse of the previous coalition government brought about another coalition. This time, the Democratic Congress (DC) was a majority party in the coalition with 47 seats. The biggest loser of the elections was the LCD which had lost more than 50% of its 2012 support (its seats were reduced from 26 in 2012 to 12 in 2015). It was however the second biggest within the coalition. Using the well known “U ea ntlhoka” stand; Metsing was once again able to manoeuvre himself into being Deputy Prime Minister and also the most powerful member of the government. He also ensured that he consolidated his informal control of the military to a formal control with one of his supporters as a Minister of Defence and National Security. It is under his control that the security situation in Lesotho has ended up being a subject of international scrutiny by SADC and other international institutions.

The power of the loser of the elections has become even bigger in the current coalition government. Indeed the dominance of the LCD in the present coalition is unquestionable. It is largely as a result of this dominance by LCD that the internal conflict within the DC is accelerating, with some in the DC beginning to question why a 10% support party has eclipsed their bigger party. In a recent radio interview, Litjobo, one of the youth leaders of the DC plainly indicated that their main gripe is that a smaller party is attempting to swallow a bigger one. It dominates the government and now is attempting to swallow the DC. The lure to retain power has not moved the top leadership of the party to heed the anguish the youth leaders feel. The loser of the elections is dominant.

As the results of the South African Local Government elections sink, the question of how coalition governments in the municipalities will be formed raises the spectre of minority rule as the Lesotho case demonstrates. In all the aforementioned municipalities, either the DA or the ANC can cobble a coalition government with the support of minor parties particularly EFF which got around 8% in the elections. In the initial pre-negotiations shot Malema, leader of EFF is reported to have said that he could only form coalitions with a party which will accept EFF’s principles particularly on the land issue. If he is to stick to this, it means that there is no possibility of genuine negotiations on what form of administration is needed for the municipality, but the submission of the bigger parties to EFF would be the prerequisite for agreement. Like LCD, EFF is fully aware that bigger parties in divided societies become so desperate to get to office without power. In essence this negates the power of the electorate who would have expected proportionate influence of the small party in a coalition.

The question however is whether the dominance of small parties in a coalition is sustainable? If the EFF were to emulate the LCD strategy of not only securing positions for its leaders, but also vetoes decisions in the municipalities, would that serve the community? Coalition politics at the best of times is difficult to manage, but people who go into coalitions must always go there with open minds. Without flexibility coalitions break down and service delivery suffers. Let us hope that EFF will not adopt the Metsing stand of “U ea ntlhoka”. If you don’t submit to my dictates, the coalition will be undermined and dissolved. Coalition governments are the only way forward in most of Southern Africa as the older political parties splinter and lose support.  Let those who were used to dominant political party model learn that they need to bargain with smaller political parties. At the same time smaller political parties must also learn to accept their status as small rather than to try to swallow bigger political parties.