ANALYSIS: Can the FF+ accelerate away from its pedestrian growth?
It has been steadily losing support since 1994, but this year a low voter turnout might work in its favour
In the 1994 elections, when the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) was still the Freedom Front, it was the fourth-most popular party in democratic SA. With more than 2% of the national vote, the party had nine seats in the National Assembly, and it sat on seven of the provincial assemblies.
Five years later the party had lost two-thirds of its votes and national seats, as well as representation on the Limpopo and Western Cape provincial councils. The 1999 elections saw a significant realignment of white voters, who left the National Party and the Freedom Front for the Democratic Alliance.
The Freedom Front rebranded itself as the FF+ for the 2004 elections and arrested its decline on the national stage, but the party couldn’t hold onto its provincial seats. By 2009 it had representation in just the Free State and Gauteng provinces.
The table below illustrates the mixed fortunes of the party over five elections: modest national growth and a declining provincial presence. After the 1994 elections, 2014 has been the most rewarding year for the FF+, with 0.9% of the national vote and a reclamation of the North West provincial seat:
Can the FF+ accelerate away from the pedestrian growth of the last three elections, or is the party more likely to tread water than to gain ground in 2019? Do recent by-elections hold any clues? Could a splitting of the national and provincial vote by some FF+ supporters mean even more distance between its national and provincial outcomes?
When measured against the decline of most other small parties, the FF+ has done well just to increase its absolute number of national votes. Its base has remained remarkably loyal as other small parties have foundered. That’s the extent of the positives, as past and recent trends are mostly unfavourable for the party.
It remains below 1% of total votes, so its grip on its four parliamentary seats is firm but not solid. Thanks to the arcane rules of seat allocation it has held onto its fourth seat; if it were to slip below 0.8% of the vote it would risk losing it.
FF+ share of the national vote in 2014
The map below is interactive: you can zoom in and out or pan across the country. You can also click on individual wards and an information box will pop up with the name of the municipality, the ward number, and the share of the national and provincial votes that the FF+ received in 2014.
The same rules for seat allocations are aiding the party in the provinces, although it doesn’t look like it. The FF+’s solitary seats in the Free State and North West were won with smaller shares of the vote than simple division would suggest. In North West, for example, a full 5% of the vote went to 12 parties even smaller than the FF+, all of whom failed to make in onto the provincial council.
Historically, most FF+ voters appear to have been straight-tickets, meaning that voters in a certain area would vote for the party twice and not split their vote. In 2014, across most wards, the FF+’s shares of the national and provincial vote were within one percentage point of each other.
The exceptions are mostly in the Western Cape, where in some wards the FF+’s share of the national vote can be three, four, or even five percentage points higher than its provincial share. Voters who feel their ideological home is with the FF+ might still vote strategically for the DA at the provincial level. There’s fainter evidence of this in Gauteng, where the largest number of FF+ supporters live. If erstwhile FF+ supporters pick the DA provincially in greater numbers, the FF+ may even lose a provincial seat in Gauteng.
There are two rays of hope for the party. One is a lower overall turnout. The stability of the FF+’s national vote means that it should do better and better the more that total turnout falls – an incrementally larger share of a shrinking cake. The second possible fillip is dissatisfaction with the DA and a subsequent increase in the FF+’s national tally.
The DA is now a big enough political player to face a problem that the ANC knows too well – competitors nipping at both the left and right flanks of the party. The DA is stuck between courting new voters and satisfying its existing base.
How many disaffected DA voters and new recruits would the FF+ need to increase its presence in the National Assembly? There are 26.8 million registered voters. The table below shows how many voters are needed to guarantee one national seat at different levels of voter turnout.
By comparison, national turnout was 71% in 2014. Assuming a 69% turnout, or 18.7 million votes, any party would need about 46,200 votes to win one seat. Four seats, or 1% of the vote, would equate to about 184,700 votes. If the turnout drops to 65% then just over 174,000 votes would secure four seats, or about 43,500 voters per seat.
Given that the FF+ received just under 166,000 votes in 2014, a little bit of organic growth among new voters and absorption of Front National’s 5,000 votes, plus a low turnout could preserve the party’s national presence. Maybe the party can hope for even more tailwinds from sympathetic organisations: AfriForum claimed to have more than 210,000 members in July 2018.
About 210,000 votes would surely get the party closer to five National Assembly seats than four, and more provincial votes could win back lost love in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape. A good day out, well within the realms of possibility, would be a gain of one national seat and a reappearance in two provincial assemblies. A worst-case scenario for the FF+ would be further provincial losses without any countervailing national successes.
Maintaining the status quo is more likely than either growth or decay for the FF+. Even if the party were to win more seats at the expense of other opposition parties, it is more likely to vote with DA-led opposition coalitions than it is to support the ANC.
For many potential supporters, there is little to no practical difference in switching their votes, and possibly a downside to a provincial vote for the party. In Gauteng at least, the broader tent of the DA is likely to provide more shelter than the FF+’s rondawels.
• Paul Berkowitz is a researcher and writer who specialises in data journalism. He is the director of ED GIS (Pty) Ltd.