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Will new parties surprise in the 2021 local government election thanks to non-voters? Considerations from international comparisons.

The polarisation of South Africa’s society and weakening of its political cohesion creates an opportunity for election campaigns that bring non-voters back into the electoral system.

Urban-rural contrasts, political preferences based on education level or employment realities, generation gaps, governance issues – these have always existed but now appear to be especially relevant fault lines, while virtually all of South Africa’s established political parties appear to be institutionally unable to speak about anything other than race and apartheid. This is especially true of the ANC.

Political surprises may appear through new political actors. Established political parties would be blindsided by such developments as they myopically focus on the shrinking pool of voters, rather then the population eligible to vote.

This echoes failed electoral expectations elsewhere in the world. Those who focus on Russia’s major cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg (and their young, cosmopolitan voters) will overestimate the opposition to Putin’s “United Russia” by failing to consider rural, traditional spaces, which can be reached with entirely different messages and where nationalism and church affiliation play a far greater role. In the so-called “Arab Spring”, the focus on those who congregated in the squares of the capitals led to an underestimate of the traditional orientation and organisational force of associations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, whose goals have nothing to do with the expected path to Western modernity.

New political parties may recognise that the most relevant fault line of South Africa’s society is no longer its history. Instead, it likely is outrage over institutionalised corruption and failed promises on the part of those in power, almost always in the guise of the ANC. Those who effectively protest this corruption and with sound tactics have a chance at electoral growth. The election in Belarus showed that protest movements can encompass various classes of society.

The response may be a danger to free and fair elections. In some places, fear of democratic change compels those in power to prevent a democratic election, to eliminate rival candidates, and to intimidate public and the media. A recent example of this is Hong Kong and, of course, Belarus.

An examination of the 2019 election in South Africa shows that established parties have failed to move with societal developments and failed to make themselves attractive for new generations and issues. As an example, the ANC’s NEC and branch representatives form elites that conceal and delay the ANC’s decline but do little to change the overall trajectory of declining turnout relative to the voting-age population.

Surprising new political players may also constitute a risk. Conflicts can arise so quickly after years of stability as to make the upheaval almost entirely unexpected, even though the underlying problems of social inequality and injustice are by no means a new phenomenon. A prime example is Chile. The result is often a completely fragmented political landscape that does not allow any projections to be made about future developments, especially when individuals have become much more important to elections than the preferences expressed on party platforms. Peru has long been an example of such uncertainty.

What is clear is that in South Africa, the most successful election campaigns of the future on not the ones that turn out their established supporters, but rather that convince the overwhelming number of non-voters to come to the polls in their favour. It would herald a second democratisation of South Africa.

*blog prepared with liberal use of the language and ideas in the following article by Mr Priess that reflects on voting and campaigns in times of polarisation: Interested in the South African non-voter? Read an analysis here.

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