Opposition lagging behind

The Human Sciences Research Council survey published yesterday has done two key things for me.

The Human Sciences Research Council survey published yesterday has done two key things for me.

It confirmed that the ANC remains the most popular party in the country and it will win the national elections. In fact, I concur with political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi that equating the 47percent support the ruling party received in the survey with the votes it will get is "a gross underestimation".

Secondly, the survey confirmed that the newly formed Congress of the People (Cope) has captured the political space previously occupied by established parties like the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Independent Democrats --which received two and onepercent support respectively.

Having Cope doing better than these parties - within such a short space - does to a certain extent confirm the assertion that if there is to be any party effectively challenging the ANC, such a party must come from within the ANC.

However, of much importance about the survey is the gap that exists between the ANC and all the opposition parties. The next most popular party is the DA - at a mere seven percent.

The survey also shows that the ANC remains the most popular party in five out of the nine provinces. These include Limpopo at 79percent, Mpumalanga: 68 percent, North West: 57percent, and Free State at 52 percent.

Most importantly, the party has proved to be most popular even in Eastern Cape at 55percent,an area where there had been claims that Cope had mortally wounded the ANC. Instead, Cope vied for the second position with the DA at four percent.

The survey also shows that the ANC remains the most popular choice in Northern Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

The only contested province for the ruling party is Western Cape, where it has equal support with the DA at 20percent.

So what do these results tell us about the possible effectiveness of opposition parties - especially Cope in the context of the forthcoming election?

Firstly, it must be pointed out that the survey was actually conducted in mid-December 2008. It can be argued that the election fever was then at a low ebb - and this could have impacted on the manner in which people responded to the questionnaire.

Secondly, it must be borne in mind that surveys are not accurate. However, as pollsters have explained, "they capture a snapshot of the electorate".

Also, though not accurate, polls are nevertheless valuable information. For example, a poll ran during the US presidential election showing that Obama had a fourpercent edge - may be inaccurate and probably insignificant. But if it then showed that he had 89percent support of the American electorate - that would create a problem for the opposition.

In the HSRC instance, the gap between the ANC and the next most popular party, the DA, is vast - and most probably significant "at that point in time".

This situation does not augur well for the opposition. As for Cope, it means that although it has displaced the other established parties, it has failed to make the expected dent on the ANC support base.

The survey shows that the national support for the ANC is strong among people with no schooling at 63percent. The reality is that, generally, "no schooling" coincides with poverty.

Conversely, support for Cope and the DA increased with education levels.

Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni argues that Cope's bane is its mixed messages and the tendency to dwell on abstracts like values and respect for the independence of the judiciary.

"Well, try speaking to a hungry, unemployed, roofless voter about the importance of values," says Fikeni.

This means that Cope is barking up the wrong tree. Yes, it may attract the educated and the middle-class, but these form a minority of the electorate.

The ANC, on the other hand, has the resources and talks about pertinent issues like poverty alleviation and creating quality jobs.

What happened on a trip I took with ANC provincial chairperson and premier Paul Mashatile on a train from Orange Farm the other day most probably encapsulates why the ANC has won the popularity stakes in the poll.

Commuters Mashatile interacted with complained about slow service delivery - but they confirmed their loyalty to the ANC.

"We will always vote for you but please keep your promises," they said.

The question to be asked is, if the opposition cannot effectively challenge the ANC, where does the hope of holding the ruling party accountable lie.