The surprise choice of a politically inexperienced clergyman as its presidential candidate has exposed deep divisions within South Africa’s new opposition party weeks ahead of what had been expected to be the most fiercely contested elections since the end of apartheid.
The Congress of the People – formed in November following a split within the governing African National Congress – last week designated Bishop Mvume Dandala to challenge the ANC’s Jacob Zuma in an attempt to ease tensions between its two most prominent leaders, Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa. A party official on Sunday described the choice as “definitive” but it acknowledged that Bishop Dandala, the former head of the Methodist church in Southern Africa, had still not formally accepted and one prominent political analyst said on Sunday he could well turn down the nomination.
“This is not a done deal,” said Steven Friedman, director for the Centre for the Study of Democracy. “He has said he won’t do it without the party being united behind him.”
Mr Lekota, a former defence minister and ex-ANC party chairperson, and Mr Shilowa, a popular former ANC premier of Gauteng province, had been vying for the presidential nomination. However, at a heated meeting on Thursday other Cope politicians argued that both were too closely identified with policies and practices that the new party has criticised.
The party sees Bishop Dandala’s honesty and trustworthiness as an electoral asset in the battle against Mr Zuma, who faces multiple charges of corruption stemming from a multi-billion dollar arms deal.
But critics suggest the decision could create a sense of uncertainty and dithering and will make it more difficult for the Cope to win votes from the ANC in poor urban and rural areas. “If we had an electorate full of floating voters, choosing a fresh face might work but party loyalties are very strong in this country,” said Mr Friedman.
The Cope will finalise lists for provincial premiers and parliamentary candidates on Monday. Elections are due to take place on April 22.
When it was founded last year, backers of the Cope had hoped to make a serious dent in the support base of the ANC, which has won overwhelming victories in the three post-apartheid elections. But in recent weeks analysts have lowered expectations for its chances.
The formation of the Cope was triggered by the ANC’s decision in September to oust former president Thabo Mbeki, and represented the biggest schism within the ruling party for half a century. The move followed Mr Zuma’s defeat of Mr Mbeki in elections for the party leadership in December 2007.
While some of Mr Mbeki’s allies have thrown their weight behind the Cope, the ANC – which has promised to increase social benefits paid to poor South Africans – is still expected to dominate at the polls.