New Bill aims to eliminate microparties, make coalition agreements legally binding

The Department of Co-Operative Governance and Traditional Affairs has introduced controversial legislation in an attempt to reduce the chaos of coalition politics and hung councils





May 22, 2024

New Bill aims to eliminate microparties, make coalition agreements legally binding

The Department of Co-Operative Governance and Traditional Affairs has published the Local Government: Municipal Structures Amendment Bill, 2024, aiming to tackle the governance issues arising from coalition politics within South African municipalities. Gazetted on 21 May 2024, the Bill proposes significant changes, including legally binding coalition agreements, a minimum electoral threshold, new rules for no-confidence votes, and a collective executive system.

The Bill, expected to be tabled in the National Assembly soon, addresses the surge in hung councils at the local government level, which has led to "unprecedented governance and service delivery challenges." The department emphasized the need for a robust framework to guide the formation and management of coalition governments.

One of the most contentious proposals is a 1% threshold for a party to qualify for municipal council seats, aimed at reducing the number of small parties in the political system. The Bill argues that the current system disproportionately favours smaller parties, allowing them to dictate terms.

Michael Atkins, an independent political analyst, criticized this provision, stating, "In a diverse society, thresholds are undemocratic, acting as a closed shop for established parties, shutting out new entrants and smaller demographics and interest groups." He further noted that such thresholds could disenfranchise voters and exclude smaller parties and independents from councils.

To stabilize coalition governments, the Bill mandates legally binding agreements between coalition partners, making these agreements a prerequisite for governing a municipality. The department believes this will enable constituencies to hold political parties accountable for service delivery failures.

The Bill proposes that motions of no confidence be conducted by a show of hands. This change allegedly aims to curb the buying of votes and influence peddling, which have destabilized coalitions, but by making it harder to vote in secret, make it easier for party whips or bribers to assess compliance with their wishes. The amendment also restricts the removal of speakers, council whips, or executive members to specific grounds or after two years in office.

Municipalities operating under a mayoral executive system without a majority party must transition to a collective executive system. This system allows the municipal council to elect an executive committee proportionally from its councillors, distributing executive authority across a representative committee rather than centralizing it in the mayor. The Bill argues that this shift will enhance governance stability by ensuring that the executive committee remains in place even if the coalition collapses and the mayor is removed.

The proposed changes have elicited mixed reactions. While some argue that the Bill will streamline governance and improve service delivery, others believe it undermines democratic representation and favors larger, established parties.

Michael Atkins, an expert in electoral matters, said "the Bill does not even attempt to differentiate between municipalities of differing sizes," adding that such thresholds could disproportionately impact smaller communities and diverse interest groups.

As the Bill moves towards parliamentary review, its potential to reshape local government dynamics in South Africa remains a focal point of political debate and public scrutiny.

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