NNP: The end of the road or a new start?

Prof Willie Breytenbach sees the upcoming election as a matter of life and death for the NNP.

Summary - The New National Party’s dramatic collapse in the last elections (it finished fourth with less than 7 per cent of the vote) raised serious questions about its future. Could it survive in the post-apartheid era or was it nearing the end of the road? The party has re-invented itself since 1997, adopting a new name, acquiring a new leader in Marthinus van Schalkwyk, and broadening its support base to the point where today an astonishing 51 per cent of its supporters come from previously disadvantaged (mostly coloured) communities. It has also changed direction, first entering into an alliance with the former Democratic Party and subsequently withdrawing from this arrangement to sign a co-operation agreement with the ANC. The NNP/ANC alliance now governs the Western Cape, the province where the NNP remains strongest, with Van Schalkwyk as premier. This alliance has not yet been tested among voters; the upcoming elections will therefore provide the first real measure of its popularity, as well as indicating whether the NNP’s realignment is in fact a new beginning or the beginning of the end. The vote in the Western Cape is highly relevant to that question, but the decisive testing ground could prove to be the close contest in KwaZulu-Natal, a province where the NNP has traditionally not fared well. The opinion polls, while remarkably consistent at national level (showing either a third- or fourth-place finish for the NNP, slightly ahead of or slightly behind the IFP), show huge variations in their predictions for these two provinces. Whereas the HSRC predicts that the NNP/ANC coalition will win 67 per cent of the votes in the Western Cape (NNP 40 per cent, ANC 27 per cent), the Markinor prediction for the alliance is only 47 per cent (ANC 32 per cent, NNP only 15 per cent). In this case the ANC could seek a third alliance partner in the UDM or the Independent Democrats. In KwaZulu-Natal the HSRC predicts that the IFP/DA coalition will win but fall short of a majority, while Markinor predicts an ANC victory. If the ANC gets less than 47 per cent of the vote and the NNP over 3 per cent, another ANC/ NNP provincial alliance is a possibility.

After the old National Party's good performance during the first post-apartheid elections in 1994 (finishing second after the African National Congress (ANC), and with 20,4 per cent of the national vote), its dramatic collapse in 1999 (finishing fourth after the ANC, the Democratic Party (DP), the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and with only 6,9 per cent of the national vote) raised interesting questions about the party's future. Was it the end of the road or could there be life after apartheid? Were non-Afrikaners prepared to support the party that excluded them from democracy for so long?

The party itself changed dramatically after 1997: it adopted a new name, the New National Party (NNP). It changed leadership when former president FW de Klerk resigned as party leader and was replaced by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, and it also changed direction when it first formed an alliance with the former Democratic Party (now the Democratic Alliance), only to pull out of this arrangement, and then enter into a looser alliance - through a co-operation agreement - with the ruling ANC. This NNP/ANC alliance governs the Western Cape, which is the province where the party remains strongest.

Was this the new beginning for the post-apartheid NNP? The coming elections of 2004 will give the verdict and the outcome in KwaZulu-Natal is relevant in this respect as will be explained later. And what about its traditional Afrikaner support base: for which party will Afrikaners vote this time, if at all? Also important for the NNP is the question about coloured support, as one of the most remarkable features of the first post-apartheid elections in 1994 was that after the 1994 election the former bastion of white minority rule (the old NP) was no longer an all-white party: only 49 per cent of its support base remained white with an astonishing 51 per cent coming from those who were excluded politically by apartheid - mainly from coloureds, but also from blacks and Indians. Not surprisingly, the old National Party with its mainly traditional Afrikaner and new coloured support in the Western Cape, won 53,3 per cent of the regional vote in the province in 1994 as opposed to only 33 per cent for the ANC and 6,6 per cent for the Democratic Party.

Then things changed in 1999. The NNP's share of national votes declined by almost 13 per cent and in the Western Cape it dropped by 14,9 per cent to 38,4 per cent. The NNP now came second after the ANC's 42,1 per cent in the Western Cape, but it was, however, still far ahead of the DP's 11,9 per cent. The DP seems to have caught up since then. The latest Markinor poll of January 2004 indicates that the DA may now be stronger than the NNP in the Western Cape. Since its withdrawal from the DA - formed through a merger of the NNP and the DP, the NNP had realigned itself to the middle of the political spectrum. It concluded a co-operation agreement with the ANC, both nationally and regionally in the Western Cape, which is now jointly governed by the NNP and the ANC, with Van Schalkwyk as premier. This scheme is as yet untested by voters, who are now asked to vote for the NNP "to make your vote count".

The pending elections in 2004 will be the first real test for this experiment and will provide the answers to some of the questions that have arisen since 1999: particularly whether the NNP's realignment was the beginning of the end or a new beginning for the party. Trends in the Western Cape are highly relevant to that question.

As the contest in KwaZulu-Natal will be very close, the NNP may find that this region is another testing ground for the exercise in co-operative government. The 2004 elections will therefore be a referendum on the future of the NNP (and may also be a referendum on the future of the IFP as it might lose power in Mangosuthu Buthelezi's twilight years).

What are polls predicting? ACNielsen and Business Day published a survey in September 2003 that predicted that the ANC would get 56,5 per cent of the vote, the DA 6,7 per cent, the IFP 2,4 per cent and the NNP 2,3 per cent. The United Democratic Movement and a host of other smaller parties will share only about 5,5 per cent among them, with about 30 per cent of eligible voters opting not to vote. But as only cast votes are counted in an election, the above percentages would be greater for all the bigger parties in any real election. An extensive survey by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) published in November 2003 predicted a similar outcome but with the top four parties winning bigger slices from the cake. Both the ANC and the NNP fared better than in the ACNielsen poll, with the NNP now in third position, after the ANC and the DA, but slightly ahead of the IFP in the fourth place.

Caution needs to be exercised in comparing the two polls because their methodologies differ. The ACNielsen poll discounts those respondents who have not decided which party to vote for, or who are not prepared to declare the party of their choice or who have decided to abstain from voting. The HSRC poll, however, using what it refers to as discriminant analysis, allocates the undeclared and uncommitted votes to the various parties according to the factors that determined the party political choice of those voters who had declared their preferences.

Thus while comparison between the ACNielsen and HSRC polls may be an interesting exercise, both the person making it, and the reader whose attention is drawn to it, need to be mindful of the limitations that the methodological differences impose when it comes to drawing conclusions from the manner in which the poll findings converge and/or diverge.

The HSRC survey predicts that the ANC would get 67,8 per cent of the vote, the DA 10,5 per cent, the NNP 8,7 per cent, the IFP 7,1 per cent, with the UDM and other smaller parties (e.g. the PAC, AZAPO, the ACDP and De Lille's Independent Democrats) sharing the remaining 5,9 per cent. This survey was conducted before the Freedom Front Plus was established in late 2003. No doubt the FF+ support will be exclusively Afrikaans. The Markinor poll of January 2004 predicts that the ANC will get 64 per cent of those expected to vote, the DA 11 per cent, and the NNP and Inkatha 4 per cent each. The remaining 17 per cent will be divided as follows: 11 per cent for the undecided voters, and only 6 per cent for the smaller parties, of which the UDM would fare best with 2 per cent.

Where the polls are remarkably consistent at a national level, regional outcomes in the two hotly contested provinces of the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal show big variations.

The HSRC results predicted that the ANC will retain control of the Western Cape, but this time as the junior partner of the NNP. According to the HSRC the NNP will get 40 per cent, the ANC 27,3 per cent and the DA 24,9 per cent. This gives the NNP/ANC coalition 67,3 per cent in the Western Cape.

But the Markinor poll indicates the ANC will be the strongest party with 32 per cent, the DA with 16 per cent and the NNP with 15 per cent. This leaves the NNP/ANC alliance with only 47 per cent, less than the HSRC's 67 per cent. If this were to happen, a third party - say Holomisa's UDM, or De Lille's Independent Democrats, could join the ruling coalition.

In KwaZulu-Natal there is also a ruling coalition, that of the IFP and DA, but they may lose power. The HSRC indicated the possibility of a "hung legislature" with the IFP/DA coalition faring best but falling short of a majority. Markinor predicts an ANC win. But even with slightly less, the ANC may snatch power through an alliance with any one of the smaller parties provided that the threshold of a 50 per cent majority is reached. This could create another opening - another new beginning, for the NNP's new thinking, where white and Indian votes could push the NNP into an alliance zone with the ANC. But the Markinor poll suggests this may not be required as the ANC will get 50 per cent of the vote with the IFP and DA 30 per cent in total. It predicts only 2 per cent for the NNP. If the ANC get less than 47 per cent and the NNP more than 3 per cent an ANC-NNP coalition is still a possibility. As mentioned, whites and Indians are key in this respect. According to ACNielsen, 17 per cent of Indians will vote for the NNP. Apart from the Western Cape, therefore, the white vote is hardly significant anymore, and this applies to the NNP as well.

White voters are scattered. Many live overseas and a significant number do not vote anymore. The elitist politicos will vote. According to ACNielsen 36 per cent will vote for the DA, 7 per cent will vote for the NNP, 5 per cent for the ANC and between 3 per cent and 5 per cent for the ACDP, Independent Democrats and the Freedom Front Plus. But as stated above, many will not vote. They say they cannot vote for the ANC because it stands for Mugabe, Haiti, land grabs and arms sales cover-ups. They are not sure that voting for the NNP makes any difference, they are puzzled as to how a vote for neither the ruling party nor the opposition could count. For them, the HIV/Aids debacle is not a big issue either; it is the death penalty and crime that matters. What also matters is a "good opposition" and this is where Tony Leon's DA comes in, the strongest party in the white and Afrikaans communities. Markinor states that 75 per cent of the DA's support base is white.

For the NNP the election results should therefore reflect a small share of the white vote while affirming the strength of the coloured vote in the party - with poorer coloureds voting NNP and richer coloureds voting ANC. It is therefore likely that the DA's inroads in the Western Cape will be at the expense not only of the NNP's white support but also at the expense of the ANC's richer coloured support base. But as the majority of voters in the Western Cape are Africans (60 per cent are Xhosas and other Africans), political parties neglecting the black vote will do so at their peril as most black people will still vote for the ANC. This is why a predominantly black party such as the UDM, or a white and coloured party such as the Independent Democrats (with 10 per cent according to Markinor) are the most likely contenders for participation in a tripartite regional coalition with the ANC and the NNP.

Whether this is truly a new beginning in South African politics, however, might not be tested in the Western Cape but in KwaZulu-Natal, where another co-operation scenario is a theoretical possibility given the probability of a "hung legislature" if the ANC fails to secure 50 per cent of the vote. If the NNP manages to win a larger than anticipated share of the vote (this is not guaranteed unless the NNP gets enough to sustain the coalition) it may find that the ANC needs the co-operation of its partner in the Western Cape for the introduction of a different ruling coalition in KwaZulu-Natal.

In this way, the real test of the NNP's realignment policies might not be determined where everybody expects them to fail or succeed (ie in the Western Cape) but in a province where the NNP has traditionally not fared well. For the NNP, the stakes are high. Its new beginning may or may not end in the Western Cape but it may find another start in KwaZulu-Natal. It might be shaky, but with wildly fluctuating polls in the two most contested provinces, the outcomes may be cliffhangers that offer the NNP the chance of a new beginning.