/ 18 June 2024

Political landscapes are shifting, but beware of anti-democratic forces

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Jacob Zuma, former South African president and leader of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK Party), during a news conference at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) national results operation centre in Midrand, South Africa, on Saturday, June 1, 2024. (Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A slew of recent elections have left incumbents in shock, changing and restructuring political landscapes. 

In India, the far right Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi had expected to increase its majority. Modi told voters that he was “sent by God” but when the votes were counted the BJP was stunned to find that it had lost 63 seats, and its majority in the Lok Sabha (House of the People or lower house parliament). With worsening material conditions, including rising food prices, many voters were not persuaded by hateful Islamaphobic rhetoric.

In Mexico, Claudia Sheinbaum, the candidate of the left, won a record breaking victory after her party had lifted millions out of poverty, raised wages and pensions, and doubled holiday time in its previous period in office under the leadership of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Coming after Lula da Silva’s election victory in Brazil in October last year, and the victory of Gustavo Petro in Colombia in June that year, the left is enjoying a revival in Latin America.

This is in marked contrast to Europe where the recent European Union parliament elections were, outside of Scandinavia, marked by a strong swing to the right. The elections dealt a blow to incumbents in France and Germany, both countries saw their electorates choose parties further to the right. 

President Emmanuel Macron of France has responded by announcing snap parliamentary elections in a desperate attempt to get a new mandate from the French people who had just rejected his party. Macron hopes the French electorate will shy away from the far-right at home and will extend their support to his centrist party. He has acted with democratic maturity and resolved to risk the possibility of a hostile parliament should his party, Renaissance, not win in these snap elections. 

Our own election was correctly called by the pollsters but still left many in shock, and certainly marked the end of an era. We have also seen democratic maturity from some key actors here at home, including President Ramaphosa and the ANC. The value of this should not be understated. 

National liberation movements in the formerly colonised countries have often turned to dictatorship when they begin to lose their hold on power. There are many tragic examples of this from across Africa, often leading to unnecessary bloodshed and political turmoil. 

But, of course, this is not solely a problem in the formerly colonised world. Former US president Donald Trump still maintains that he won the 2020 elections and that the election was stolen from him. He repeatedly tweeted that: “I won this election, by a lot!” As we all remember, this led to an insurrection on the Capitol building, scenes that shocked the world and proved that no democracy is infallible. 

Trump’s “big lie” has endured and gained traction among Republicans. This has had the net effect of undermining the rule of law and trust in democratic institutions. Trump didn’t wake up one day and, on a whimsy, start saying that the election had been stolen. In the years and months leading up to the elections he and those around him had been deliberately undermining the integrity of state institutions, including the state’s ability to hold free and fair elections.

This same trend was observed in South Africa when, in the run-up to the 29 May elections, certain political parties and their leaders began attacking the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). Implicit and explicit threats were made that there would be a violent response if these parties did not win.

The uMkhonto weSizwe party claimed, with no supporting evidence, that their party would win the elections with a 67% majority. The party did extremely well, better than most people who work in and think about politics had expected. Yet, because it did not get the 67% that it had promised its supporters it refuses to accept the election results. Many worry that the stage is being deliberately set for violence.

Like the US, South Africa has legal avenues for contesting election outcomes and putting forward any valid claims of impropriety that might change the results. These avenues are open to be used within set timeframes and evidence is needed for the legal system to be able to reach clear and impartial determinations. Trump and his supporters took the election process on review and had recounting done in some states, and took its complaints to numerous courts.

These recounts did not change the outcome. The court challenges did not give Trump the desired outcome he had hoped for. When he could not succeed in courts, where reason and evidence matter, he resorted to the public soapbox, where he could continue his evidence free diatribe against the democratic system.

It is preposterous that Trump is running for president again, despite his gripe with the system that might get him back into office. He cynically uses the system to further his own agenda, but dismisses it when it doesn’t suit his needs.

Despite being the presumptive Republican presidential candidate he still threatens violence should the electorate again not choose him. He decries the process and maintains that should he not win in the November polls it will be because of vote rigging

Trump is not alone in his willingness to use democratic processes and institutions for anti-democratic objectives. In many countries democracy is under attack from would-be authoritarians who want to overturn elections. In our own country there are those that undermine the very institutions that make up a democratic state, who would tear up the Constitution and put traditional leaders above it, who would move further and further to the right and restrict the freedoms that many have fought so hard to achieve and preserve.

America’s democracy and its institutions are older and stronger than ours and, although battered, they have endured. The ANC’s political maturity in this time of political transition, and that of a number of other parties, is a good omen for our democracy’s maturing and consolidation.

But we do have significant anti-democratic forces in our society and must keep a watchful eye on our democracy and ensure that those who would turn us against each other — those who threaten unrest, chaos and violence unless they get what they  want, when and how they want it, are not given the space and time to sow the divisions. History will not look fondly on politicians who would allow the blood of their compatriots to be spilled for personal gain.

Nontobeko Hlela is a research fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought & Conversation and a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.