Imagine a country where, due to the president and his party’s actions and policies, the currency crashes to a record low of 20 to the dollar; where neglected infrastructure and building projects beset by corruption cause damage and death; and the president’s bromance with Vladimir Putin leads to a flight of funds by foreign investors and bondholders.
And just for some insurance, the president and governing party have stacked constitutional, nominally independent, bodies with party cadres. Yet, despite this laundry list of political and economic failures, calamitous in scale and reach, both president and party win re-election convincingly.
You could credibly play this scenario as a high-probability outcome for 2024 in SA. In reality, though, this was the actual scoreboard — in terms of both background and polling outcome, in the parliamentary and presidential elections concluded on May 28 in Turkey.
In significant respects there is a gulf between Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdorgan, and SA’s Cyril Ramaphosa — not a synonym for bold leadership, despite the huge concentration of power vested in both places in the office of the president. Doubtless, Ramaphosa’s attendance last weekend at Erdogan’s inauguration ceremony in Ankara will lead to some home thoughts from abroad.
Happily for us, Ramaphosa does not lock up his opponents on trumped-up charges, nor does the ANC stifle or suborn the independent media here, and he certainly does not rule by decree — or at all, his critics contend — and he has not gerrymandered the constitution to achieve more than two decades in office.
Contra though, the Turkish economy, battered and suborned by a series of eccentric economic policies that have fuelled hyperinflation (85% last year) and stunted economic growth, is even on its worst days more than twice the size of SA’s ($1-trillion versus $420bn).
And while our distant geostrategic location is a logistical and political negative, Turkey literally straddles the crossroads of the world, between Europe and Asia, at the heart of the Middle East and in control of the straits that determine access and egress from the Black Sea and all shipping exports from Ukraine and Russia into the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
While SA talks up, with increased fervour and at great economic cost, its membership of the loose, soft-power conflab called Brics, Turkey has real hard power — membership of Nato, with a veto power, and the second-largest army in the 31-nation military alliance.
Recent soundings in SA suggest that the ANC could lose its majority in next year’s election, though whether it would actually lose power is more complicated. In Turkey, pre-election polls indicated Erdogan could be toppled despite a process dubbed “free but not fair”. And there are striking similarities too in his path to victory and possible outcomes here in 2024. These also find a disturbing echo in democracies of greater longevity and durability than in either country.
In another local parallel or “moon shot”, the fractious opposition in Turkey united for the first time under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who campaigned on restoring democracy and curbing corruption, posing with an onion, a Turkish food staple, to highlight the catastrophic cost-of-living crisis. And, most significantly, the opposition focused its message on the state’s inept response to the devastating February earthquakes, which killed more than 50,000, and the corrupted “zoning amnesties” that led to unsafe buildings that quickly collapsed.
Yet in 10 of the 11 most devastated earthquake zones Erdogan still won. I hazard a guess that here, in Hammanskraal, Gauteng, ground zero of the recent and entirely avoidable cholera outbreak, the ANC will likewise win the voting districts in 2024.
One explanation is that Karl Marx was wrong: it is not the economics or even an elitist out-of-touch government that determines voter choices. Rather, as a voter told The Economist of Erdogan: “We love him … For the call to prayer, for our home, for our headscarves.” Indeed, Erdogan declared rhetorical war on secularists, minorities, the West and used actual war, on a new battleship at least, to underline his nationalist credentials.
If you throw in race here you have a good proxy for the likely playbook an embattled ANC will use next year. Writing in the New York Times, Bret Stephens said of the Turkish results, “It’s God, tradition, values, culture and the resentments that go with each. Only a denuded secular imagination fails to notice there are things people care about more than pay cheques.”
It is entirely correct to posit both SA and Turkey as brittle, even at-risk, democracies. But what of far more enduring polities, such as the US? There, the politics of grievance, resentment and disdain for sensible economics, and even a celebration of misgovernance, is enjoying a storming comeback in the Republican Party.
Donald Trump is again the runaway favourite, despite outsize electoral losses, a chaotic term as president and support for the “fine people” who stormed the Capitol in 2016 to stop the certification of the last presidential election. Janan Ganesh pinpointed in the Financial Times why so many Republicans prefer Trump over the competent and extremely conservative Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who trails him badly. “Consider for a moment what Donald Trump gives to his average follower,” he wrote recently.
“Membership in a vast nationwide communion of like-minded people. A paternal figure in a confusing world … It is not clear that DeSantis understands this about populism … He trades in electability and administrative competence. But if either of these things were paramount for voters in Republican primaries, the contest would be over.” Trump is likely to prevail in the Republican primaries for many of the reasons cited above.
Here in parliament last week DA leader John Steenhuisen led a spirited opposition attack on Ramaphosa and his flailing government. He also cited a list of DA achievements and metrics in areas where it governs, each illustrating far greater administrative and ethical competence than the ANC. Proven by the stats, as the saying goes.
But, as results in Turkey and likely outcomes in the US prove, a deeper connection with voters than mere ability or even a record of achievement is needed. Or, as EM Foster famously wrote, “only connect”. Finding and then articulating that connection should be the first order of business when the moon-shot member parties meet soon.
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition and SA ambassador to Argentina, now chairs a communications company.