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Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 17:23 GMT 18:23 UK

World: Africa

Democratic Party return from the wilderness

The results have made happy reading for the Democratic Party

By BBC News Online's Justin Pearce

"Fight back" was the slogan on the Democratic Party's posters in the run-up to South Africa's general election.

And indications are that the DP has indeed fought its way back from the political wilderness to become South Africa's official opposition.

The party has gained a substantial lead over the New National Party - the former ruling party to which the DP's predecessors once acted as a forceful but tiny opposition.

The DP attracted the support of mostly white and some black middle-class voters. Its comeback has been attributed to:

  • A feeling that the ANC has not done enough to combat South Africa's high crime rates and unemployment
  • Fears that a two-thirds parliamentary majority for the ANC would give it the power to rewrite the constitution
  • White disenchantment with the NNP, whose past was recently laid bare by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and which is seen by some as having no clear vision for the future

Small beginnings

The DP's history goes back to 1959, when a number of liberal members of the United Party broke away to form the Progressive Party in South Africa's all-white parliament.

[ image: Tony Leon: A sizeable role to play in the new parliament]
Tony Leon: A sizeable role to play in the new parliament
In the 1961 general election, only one of these members was voted back to parliament - Helen Suzman.

Over the next 13 years, Mrs Suzman became something of a legend as the only MP speaking out against racial discrimination, and other human rights issues such as detention without trial.

In the 1970s, the Progressives gained support, becoming the official opposition after the breakup of the United Party.

But the party's fortunes declined in the mid-1980s. As black resistance to apartheid grew, many whites who had formerly voted Progressive were attracted to the NP, which campaigned on the security fears of white voters.

In the 1987 election, the far-right Conservative Party stole the PP's mantle as official opposition.

Various new groups soon sprang up in an attempt to revitalise liberal politics - in particular to attract liberal Afrikaners who saw the PP as a party dominated by English speakers.

In 1989, the Progressives merged with two of these new groups, forming the Democratic Party.

New challenges

In another all-white election in 1989, the new party managed to reverse some of the losses of the 1987 election. But months later, it faced a radically altered political landscape after the new President , FW de Klerk, lifted the ban on the ANC, setting in motion the process that would lead to South Africa's first all-race election in 1994.

[ image: Helen Suzman: Something of a legend]
Helen Suzman: Something of a legend
The DP and its predecessors had always had an uneasy relationship with the ANC and other liberation movements.

During its years in exile, the ANC and its allies had no time for parties which participated in the racially exclusive South African parliament.

Many in the DP were in turn unhappy with the presence of communists in the ANC.

The re-emergence of the ANC as a legal political player forced DP members to make a choice - to throw in their lot with the ANC, or to preserve their identity as an independent force.

A few DP left-wingers went over to the ANC - those members who remained with the DP came out strongly for a free-market economy, which still dominates the party's thinking on such matters.

The 1994 election relegated the DP to the status of a minor player in parliament. With black voters overwhelmingly supporting the ANC, and most whites standing by the NP, the DP gained less than 2% of the vote, leaving it with only 10 MPs.

Tough talking

After that setback, the party elected the tough-talking Tony Leon as its new leader, and set about reinventing itself as an opposition group befitting the new political order.

It tried to shake off its white image with a drive to recruit more black members - though its leadership remains predominantly white.

The DP has defined its new mission as "the fight for the protection of human rights and the extension of federalism and free enterprise in South Africa".

"Fight" is a word used frequently by the DP during this campaign - and it is a word which has captured the imagination of voters in a situation where rapid change has brought with it uncertainty about the future.

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