Globally, democracy is in decline.
In April 2018, Foreign Affairs ran a special report entitled Is democracy dying? A global report”. On 7 May, the BBC’s Radio 4 ran a show titled The Death of Democracy. We are seeing a global rise of dissatisfaction with democracy and what it delivers, and this has led (in part) to the spectacular — and apparently destructive — protest votes of 2016, Brexit in the UK and the Trump election in the USA.
Anti-establishment politics has been rising globally as the worst effects of neoliberal politics and the 2008 financial crash make themselves felt locally in declining employment, shuttering local industries and growing concerns about migration and economic scarcity.
The consequences of these votes have already been felt globally, with declining trust in institutions, growing apathy and the economic and political shockwaves that they drove around the world.
In a spectacular show of disconnected sneering disdain, academics and analysts such as Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo, have argued that voters can’t be trusted to vote in their best interests and the solution is a political ‘means test.’ She suggests that voters should be required to undertake civic education prior to voting. Even worse, author Jason Brennan in his book, Against Democracy, argues for ‘epistocracy’ — the rule by the knowledgeable.
Such arguments are facile at best, and offensive at worst — highlighting how disconnected intellectual debates have become from the issues that motivate the voting behaviour of ordinary people.
In South Africa, the 2016 municipal elections were heralded as a great defeat of establishment politics — that for the ANC, it was the beginning of the end of its two-decade run as the governing party. This was supported by an IPSOS poll conducted in May 2017 — months before the crucial ANC conference that changed everything —which noted that less than half of South Africans polled intended to vote for the ANC in 2019.
This picture may well have changed in light of ‘Ramaphoria,’ but where might these voters place their votes instead? In 2014, the country’s fifth democratic general election, 74% of registered voters turned out to vote. But that represents just 57% of those who were eligible to vote — people aged over 18 years. In the 2016 municipal elections, only 41.6% of eligible voters turned out to vote.
As a country with a long history of disenfranchising voters, a place where people gave their lives for the ability to vote, South Africa still has high rates of voter turnout.
But as people’s commitment to the ANC wanes, driven by relentless corruption scandals and local governance failures, it isn’t clear that they are turning to opposition parties as new political homes. Many analysts have argued that the votes for the EFF and DA in major metros in 2016 didn’t represent a true shift in political allegiance, but rather an attempt by voters to ‘punish’ the ANC — much like the Brexit and Trump votes.
But not all voters are willing to vote strategically for other political parties. Instead, many voters are likely voting with their feet and withdrawing from the electoral process altogether as they are disenchanted with the state of governance, but can’t bring themselves to vote strategically for another party.
After the 2016 elections, then-Minister Fikile Mbalula tweeted that “The white racist political party DA must not claim easy victory the majority of our pple [sic] did not turn up. Simple check the stats you will see.” The trouble is that, due to how the electoral ballot is currently configured, political parties will claim easy victories based on a lack of information. Voting is a blunt instrument and parties cannot truly know if they received the votes that they did because voters were voting for them or voting against their opponent.
The DA and EFF claimed that voters had been converted to the cause and that was why their vote share had increased, while the ANC claimed that their voters had just stayed away. Parties can read voter apathy in two ways — the negative implication is that voters couldn’t bring themselves to vote because of the bad options on display. But the must more positive reading — that ruling parties generally subscribe to — is that voters were sufficiently happy with the status quo and believed that their preferred party would likely win regardless, so they didn’t come out to vote. Political parties will infer positive readings from limited data.
For those who are looking for a new political home in 2018 South Africa, the pickings appear a bit slim. With the fallout in the DA from the Patricia de Lille fiasco, as well as reports of corruption in Solly Msimanga and Herman Mashaba’s administrations, the DA’s self-burnished image as the reliable, honest anti-corruption party has begun to tarnish.
This can only have been further damaged — for different reasons amongst both white and black voters — by the public spat around leader Mmusi Maimane’s comments on ‘white privilege and black poverty.’ Finally, the DA’s brand of liberal, market-friendly economic policies and their inadequate stance on issues of social welfare make them unattractive to many alienated ANC voters.
The EFF has proven itself — depending on your political bent — to be an effective or disruptive force in parliament and a key opposition party to watch for in 2019. But the party’s leader is known for his controversial stances and statements as well as his divisive populist rhetoric.
While the EFF is making steady inroads at elections and will likely continue to do so, the results of the 2017 IPSOS poll suggest that the ANC’s loss isn’t the EFF’s gain. The poll found that although less than 50% of voters planned to vote for the ANC, just 5% suggested that they would vote EFF (21% professed an inclination towards voting DA). About a quarter of all respondents answered that they didn’t know who they would vote for — against a background that 44% of those polled in 2016 said that “there was no political party expressing their views.”
For voters, the 2019 elections present few good choices. While the ANC appears to be trying to regenerate, many severely compromised politicians remain in Cabinet and in the party’s upper echelons. So what can voters do to effectively signal their dissatisfaction with both the status quo and the other options presented to them?
They have the option to submit a vote for another party, but that will be read as an endorsement of that party’s policies. They can abstain from voting, but abstentions are often seen as an endorsement of the status quo. Finally, voters can spoil their ballots, but this is also frequently misinterpreted as a sign of inadequate voter education rather than a rejection of all the parties on the ballot.
In recent years, several countries — including India — have introduced a ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option on the ballot in general elections. This option is currently available in Colombia, Ukraine, Brazil, Bangladesh, Finland, Spain, Sweden, Chile, France, Belgium, Greece and some states in the USA.
When voters choose a particular candidate, they are implicitly or explicitly endorsing that candidate as their potential leader, but when voters choose the NOTA option, they are in effect withholding their consent from all of the candidates on the ballot.
NOTA makes political dissent and dissatisfaction measurable and reliable, potentially helping to avoid the kinds of dire consequences of an anti-establishment protest vote such as that of the 2016 US election.
This represents the clearest indication to political parties that voters desire a different party or approach, and that they don’t see their interests and beliefs represented amongst the mainstream parties. This, in turn, provides avenues for new political forces to emerge, as groups can cohere around an alternative political agenda.
Nicole Beardsworth is a postdoctoral fellow at the Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre (IGDC).