S. Africa ruling party faces tough campaign. Whites wary of giving blank check to undefined power-sharing plan

Running for reelection as a South African government candidate used to be so easy. You had an enemy: black power. A rousing battle cry: white domination. And a wonderfully tidy message: apartheid.

Yet the message this time around, explains Information Minister Stoffel Van der Merwe at his campaign headquarters, is fuzzier. He and 163 fellow National Party (NP) contenders for the country's May 6 white election are asking voters for what amounts to a blank check: to negotiate a yet-undefined plan of ``power sharing'' with the very blacks they have spent decades trying to exclude from national politics.

``The fact that we are asking for a vague mandate is costing us votes left, right, and center,'' says Mr. Van der Merwe. He, like many party candidates, is facing a dual challenge: from the liberal Progressive Federal Party, which sees NP efforts to ``share'' power without endangering white ``minority rights'' as a mere refinement of white supremacy, and from the far-right Conservative Party that views it as a recipe for a black takeover.

Few analysts doubt that the NP will retain a comfortable majority in Parliament, where it presently controls 127 of the 178 seats.

Still, the pundits - and Van der Merwe - expect that an unprecedentedly strong challenge from both sides will cost the NP seats. How many, and from which side of the spectrum, could determine the future of the NP's power-sharing plan.

A convincing victory, says Van der Merwe, would not only clear white political roadblocks to the party's power-sharing plan, it could also dent the unwillingness of black political leaders to join the talks the government has in mind. ``If we are seen [by blacks] to be losing our grip on the white electorate, it would be demotivating for reform,'' he says. ``You can woo [critics] only when they are convinced you are not about to fall on your face.''

The incumbent party has the best campaign machine. But, says Van der Merwe, ``While we have the organization, we don't always have the enthusiasm'' - a plentiful commodity on the extreme right.

It is toward the extreme right that he and other NP candidates are focusing their campaign fire. Internal squabbles among ultraconservative parties have shifted attention to the NP's liberal challengers, including a number of veterans who have recently disavowed the party.

Van der Merwe says liberals' criticisms can be handled after the election. But if the far right does well, ``We will lack an adequate power base to go ahead with reform.''

The far right has a compelling campaign pitch, the very sort of pitch that the NP has made repeatedly since 1948. Its gist is that the only way whites can prevail in a nation where the vast majority is black, is by a scheme of ``separate development'' that limits black political rights.

``The key is to see which will win the day: emotion or reason,'' says Van der Merwe. Emotion, he notes, used to be on the NP's side. ``Now, we've been searching for months for an emotional campaign slogan.'' The result - ``Reform yes! Surrender, no!'' - doesn't quite fit the bill. By stressing the refusal to surrender, the party is competing with the far right's own NP-era appeal to white fears.

But, says Van der Merwe, the primary call for ``reform'' is ``an appeal to reason.'' Citing a private address to NP candidates by regional party head Frederik de Klerk, he terms it an appeal to the middle road. ``To propose sharing power with blacks is a dramatic change,'' Mr. De Klerk said. ``Continued white domination will lead to a revolution that no one will be able to stop.''

Equally, power sharing must have limits. The one-man, one-vote system demanded by many blacks ``will enable a majority to take over and suppress ... minorities,'' said De Klerk.

But what, precisely, is the compromise between ``reform'' and ``non-surrender'' the NP envisages? This, says Van der Merwe, is the question he hears again and again from constituents.

His answer: only negotiations can decide this. ``When you move house ... you have a real estate agent take over the search. He sees what is available, works out the details. Then he comes back to you with a proposal,'' he tells voters.

That, he says, is what the NP hopes to accomplish in the arena of power sharing. And he argues that only the middle road it plans to travel can offer a peaceful transition into the future.

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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