Much hand-wringing followed the recent victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential election, with some seizing on its as further evidence of a global surge of right-wing politics in the mould of Donald Trump’s presidency and Britain’s Brexit decision in 2017. While those inclined to hyperbole might call this something of a second coming of fascism, the reality is, as with most things, more complicated. The election of people like Trump and Bolsonaro can be seen as much as a backlash against political elites in their countries as an embrace of more right-wing ideas, or evidence of reawakened white nationalism.
Which is not to say there is no danger – and the risks are ones South Africans should be alive to.
In Brazil, many plumped for Bolsonaro not because of his right-wing views on the environment, or on the rights of gay people or people of colour, but rather because he had promised to make a stand against corruption, or because he was untouched by Brazil’s many recent scandals.
Consider, after all, that his closest rival was Fernando Haddad, of the Workers Party (PT). Having won every Presidential election since 2002, PT is the party of the establishment. PT’s hubris in initially nominating former president Lula (who is now in prison) as its candidate may also have made people decide to not vote for that party. The PT’s continued downplaying of corruption during its rule would have further disillusioned voters, many of whom might also have feared a leftward lurch by the party.
Thus, a vote for Bolsonaro was conceivably as much a vote against the PT as it was an endorsement of his own policies.
In the United States, Trump’s victory was only made possible by the vagaries of the American electoral system, with his Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton winning nearly three million more votes than he did.
Furthermore, one must remember that in the two immediate preceding presidential elections, the United States elected Barack Obama (with more than 50% of the vote), the first African-American to hold the office. In those two elections the proportion of white voters who voted for Obama was higher than the proportion who voted for Clinton. It is a strange bunch of white supremacists who are more likely to vote for a black person than a white person, but the 21st century has shown that old certainties no longer exist. Trump’s victory, rather than being the result of latent white supremacy among American voters, was rather the result of the Democrats having run a deeply flawed candidate who was seen as an insider of the elite politics of Washington, DC, as well as the vagaries of the American electoral system. Surprise wins by Trump, especially in states in the Midwest, such as Wisconsin – which Mrs Clinton barely campaigned in – were enough to give him the presidency.
And Trump’s mid-term performance reveals the extent of the restraining influence of moderate opinion.
The evidence from elsewhere shows that the claim that there is a surge in right-wing populism is flawed. Rather, voters in many countries are simply turning away from the old binary options of a centre-left and a centre-right party which take turns being in power.
The success of Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche! party in France show this to be the case. In the 2017 French presidential elections, Macron won nearly two-thirds of the vote against his rival, Marine le Pen, of the right-wing National Front (FN). Both Macron and Ms le Pen represented parties that were not seen as part of the old French establishment, yet voters chose Macron’s centrist, inclusive candidacy overwhelmingly. In the subsequent parliamentary election, Macron’s party, En Marche, won a comfortable majority, with French voters rejecting Ms le Pen’s FN, which secured only eight parliamentary seats.
Something similar is happening in Germany. The rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a hard-right Eurosceptic party, has many worried, understandably.
However, recent results in state elections show that the AfD’s rise can again be taken as an indication of voters looking for an alternative outside of the traditional left-right binary, rather than necessarily identifying firmly with their hard-right views. The rise of the German Green party in state elections held in October could be an indication that people are looking for alternate political vehicles.
In Bavaria, the Greens came second in a state election last month, finishing with just less than 20% of the vote, and almost doubling their vote share. The Christian Social Union (CSU), which has for many years dominated Bavarian politics came first, but suffered its worst election result in decades. The Free Voters came third (increasing their support by 30%), and the AfD fourth (with 10% of the vote). Initial analysis shows that the centre-right CSU lost votes in equal measure both to the Greens and the AfD.
In the second state election held last month, in Hesse, something similar happened. Once more, the Greens came second, again seeing their vote share nearly double. The AfD also came fourth here, with nine percent of the vote, with the Christian Democratic Union finishing first.
It is clear that the narrative that there is a wave of right-wing populism sweeping the world is wrong, and that the picture is more nuanced. What it does show is that people want more choice and parties that can offer new ways of doing things. The problem is that this vacuum is often filled by a person carried forward on right-wing populism, such Messrs Trump and Bolsonaro. However, the success of Macron in France shows that voters will also support a candidate with an inclusive and centrist approach, if they can provide a compelling message.
South Africa is no different. Voters here are losing faith in established parties and politics. Voter turnout is relatively low and declining – in 2014 less than 60% of total eligible voters cast a ballot, dropping to 42% for the 2016 municipal elections. The spread of violent protests across the country is further evidence of this. The rise of a dangerous demagogue like Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has only been possible because neither the African National Congress (ANC) nor the Democratic Alliance (DA) has been able to provide a compelling message. Although the EFF’s support is still far below that of the ANC and the DA, it has proved adept at controlling debates it deems important, such as the one around land and expropriation without compensation (EWC). The ANC’s decision to support EWC, after having opposed it for many years, is proof of how the EFF tail has managed to wag the ANC dog.
The rise of a strongman who appeals to the political extremes (but succeeds) is not impossible. A Bolsonaro-like figure could well emerge here – if we do not already have him in the form of Julius Malema.
But – as lessons from France, and to a lesser degree, Germany, show – alternatives which do not appeal to the worst instincts of voters can succeed. For South Africa to avoid going down a populist path, strong leadership from the centre, which unites the moderate majority of South Africans, is necessary. Whether such leadership exists in this country is the question. If it does not, we could be in great peril.