This article appears on the FEPS website and draws heavily on the analyses by the FEPS Correspondents in India and South Africa on the recent elections in those countries and looks for common themes and insights for the European elections.
It would be interesting to see the statistics for deforestation at election time, as a plethora of columns floods the press offering analyses of various outcomes and the reasons behind them. 2014 must be a particularly egregious year for conservationists as elections take place in the India, South Africa and the EU, representing the interests of almost 1.8 billion people. It seems strange to assert that there are common themes given the vastness and diversity of the combined electorates. Yet this has been the case and each election offers lessons that should greatly concern those of us who care about democracy.
Along the banks of the Ganges, the Orange River and the Danube, citizens have grown disenchanted with the behaviour of those in power. Either through poor communication or outright misgovernment, political elites have alienated the people they purport to represent. Citizens have sometimes turned to populist, nationalist and communalist forces to seek redress for their needs. Others simply don’t engage with the system and a growing generation divide is reflected in the patterns of political participation. It seems the political systems of the so-called developed and developing worlds are not so different after all.
There is a common theme in much of the commentary, wherein the broader public is seen as alienated from the entrenched, plutocratic elites. FEPS correspondents in India and South Africa have regularly commented over the past year on the ills of corruption, graft and cronyism among the original liberation movements in those countries. In January of this year, Klaus Voll commented on the India Against Corruption Movement, which had begun as early as 2011. As more and more evidence emerged of corruption at the heart of the Congress Party, it seemed that its proud history would be undone in the eyes of the many who have been left behind and let down.
South Africa has had its own travails and the jeering of senior ANC politicians during Nelson Mandela’s funeral – as outlined by Arnold Wehmhoerner – underlined the widespread disaffection among the public. Zuma’s brazen use of taxpayers’ money for works on his personal estate and his general misuse of state resources led many to believe that the ANC might have a day of reckoning at the polls.
This week, the peoples of Europe will also go to the polls for the European Parliament elections. The context is different, but the fears of manifestations of democratic malaise are not so alien from those in India and South Africa. The protracted financial crisis and Great Recession has shone a spotlight on practices and power dynamics that may not have previously been so obvious amid the relative prosperity of Europe. However, the massive spike in unemployment – particularly among the young – as well as the perceived pressure on states and taxpayers to take on the debts of irresponsible financiers has led to a feeling among citizens that their representatives are serving needs other than those of the electorate.
The three polities have faced grave concerns about the growth of reactionary forces as people lash out at long-standing elites. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party has swept to power in a landslide victory under the leadership of Narendra Modi. According to Klaus Voll, many expect from Modi a style of governance which is “quasi-presidential” with even some “authoritarian tendencies”. Modi is a nationalist and has had a questionable history when it comes to interfaith relations. He was governor during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat and received much of his political education in the extremist paramilitary organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Of course, he avoided controversial topics during his campaign but there remains a fear that he will foster illiberal and majoritarian democratic practices. He appealed to a desire among certain constituencies for a strongman-style leader and had particularly high support among the youth, indicating some electoral sustainability for the BJP.
In spite of predictions of a rout, the ANC still secured 62% of the vote and Zuma has solidified his position as State President. Some had pointed to Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters party as a potential populist challenger to take advantage of the widespread unrest that currently exists in the mining sector in particular. Malema has advocated radical aims like the nationalisation of mines and the expropriation of land without compensation and appealed to a particularly disenfranchised sector of the population (40% of EFF supporters are unemployed and 44% are aged 18-24). However, their overall vote was just 6%. On the face of it, South Africa’s elections had an impressive turnout of 73.4% but this neglects the obligation to register to vote. There has been a sizeable increase in non-registration, particularly among the “born frees”. Taking the non-registered into account, according to Wehmhoerner, the ANC only has the support of 36.4% of the eligible voting population. Thus, while many cannot bring themselves to vote against South Africa’s liberation movement, they merely stay at home as apathy reigns.
While in India and South Africa, the focus has been on the rejection or continuing support of individual parties that have dominated their respective societies for decades, in Europe there is a fear of rejection of the democratic consensus. Parties of the centre-left and centre-right are said to have converged to such an extent that they are indistinguishable. The model of consensual decision-making at EU level is seen as the basis for technocracy and elitist governance in which alternatives are given little consideration. In the absence of a Cold War bipolar order, the points of reference for opposition movements are not so clear and many have looked to nationalism and populist rhetoric for an answer. Recent polls indicate that MEPs without group affiliations could grow from 33 to over 95, while the populist right wing Europe of Freedom and Democracy is also set to increase it’s representation by 25%. Many of these, mostly Eurosceptic, representatives seek to undermine the basis on which the legislative process works and advocate particularistic, nationalist interests.
The sad reality is that a long-standing democracy is not guaranteed to be a healthy one. The disaffection seen in each of these three polities indicates that apathy, disenchantment and reactionary politics are all products of political stagnation. Stagnation, in turn, can come from the long-term dominance of particular parties and movements, or from the perceived convergence of previously independent and oppositional political forces. De facto one-party rule and technocratic governance are not so different. Both work under the assumption that there are no valid alternatives to the dominant orthodoxy. To citizens this is a charter for disempowerment and discourages participation until a moment of crisis. Without renewal and reflection in the processes of governance, the alternative will be disenchantment and upheaval.