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Herman Mashaba’s ACTIONSA through the lens of Europe’s new parties.

The new political parties in Europe describe themselves as different. Some of them have achieved electoral victory in no time at all. The reasons for their success are varied and country-specific, but they also reflect a general shift in society. These parties not only change the party landscape, but also pose new challenges for the established parties. What does this mean for the future of party democracy and what opportunities do these changes afford to the established political parties?

In the Ukraine, the 2019 elections took people by surprise in various ways. Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky was elected as President. Zelensky was already in the public eye, but not in politics. Instead, he was previously a comedian and actor who played the lead role in a TV comedy series called Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People). In the show, he plays a history teacher who levels criticism against Ukrainian politicians and ends up being elected the country’s President. The next surprise was that Zelensky’s party, also called Sluha Narodu, became the strongest party in the Ukrainian Parliament. A party that was formed just one year before elections, and that most people had never even heard of a few weeks prior to the election, succeeded in mobilising enough support in the first ballot to win the election.

Herman Mashaba will no doubt be thinking of his new party, ActionSA, when reading about Mr Zelensky in the Ukraine, Italian comedian, Giuseppe “Beppe” Grillo, or the Polish rock musician, Paweł Kukiz.

It is with breath-taking speed that the new parties achieved electoral success. The mood of the times catapults them to the surface or takes them higher still. However, this is often done without a policy programme, party structure or organisation.

The main characteristics of Europe’s New Parties are as follows:

  • They are a crisis phenomenon caused by corruption, nepotism, lack of transparency or loss of confidence in established parties and institutions.
  • They are characterised by a strong leadership figure.
  • They often describe themselves as a movement instead of a party, and thus try to consciously differentiate themselves from the established parties.
  • They often consist of political newcomers and people who have entered politics from other careers.
  • Their structures and policy programme are initially weak.
  • They achieve rapid electoral success.

This will ring familiar to the people of South Africa when they give Mr Mashaba and his ActionSA their assessment.

How should South Africa’s established parties respond to ActionSA, which is likely the forerunner of a host of new charismatic political players?

Established political parties need to provide new ways for people to get involved in temporary and issue-specific priorities that are more in line with how they now relate to politics. They also need to stay abreast of new communication methods, otherwise they will be left behind by New Parties. This requires them to carry out the necessary reforms and rethink their outdated attitudes to party work.

Digitalisation creates unprecedented possibilities. Participation within the party and targeted offers for interested non-members, such as party-political discussion forums, platforms and apps that also have offers for non-members, could increase the attractiveness of established parties as well by heightening their presence. This assessment is doubly relevant during the uncertainties of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The established parties will also have to clearly demonstrate their problem-solving skills – especially in times of crisis. This is a major advantage they have over new parties. Established parties must show how their longstanding political experience allows them to recognise and solve the problems experienced by most of the population. And – they have to find ways of letting people know about their problem-solving.

If South Africa’s established parties manage to assume a role as anchors of stability the party system – which is being shaken up by new political actors – and if they are able to offer solutions to a wide range of problems, then South Africa’s party democracy will have a bold future based on the premise: strength through flexibility.

*blog prepared with liberal use of the language and ideas in the following article by Mrs Fislage that reflects on the New Parties in Europe:

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