A flurry of elections — two just held and one next week — in three hugely significant geostrategic countries — tells us quite a bit about the universalism of current politics and some striking similarities between contests fought locally but felt globally.
Brazil is the sprawling giant of South America, and despite its sub-par growth and economic malperformance it is still one of the biggest economies in the world (ninth largest with a GDP of $2.4 trillion). Having lived and worked in neighbouring Argentina some years back I was acutely aware that Brazil is indeed the moon around which the tides of the region are pulled.
It also offers, with the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president, new meaning to the wisdom of Latin America’s most revered novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The Nobel Prize winning writer noted: “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old. They grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”
Lula, whose improbable and bitterly fought win to a third presidential term on Sunday after an absence from power of 12 years — including a detour in prison for corruption — is noteworthy for a range of reasons, not least his improbable political resurrection.
But at 77 years old, he seems an unlikely tribune for a country where 70% of the population is under the age of 65 and the average age is 33.5 years.
But septuagenarians seem set to rule in the other two countries where equally bitter elections have just concluded (Israel) or will be polling next week (US).
Though the results of Israel’s fifth election in four years were not known at the time of writing, the entire poll was fought around the personality and prospects of its long-term prime minister, currently leader of the opposition, Bibi Netanyahu. Unlike Lula, he hasn’t been jailed for corruption, but he is indicted for corrupt practices and is on trial. Doubtless, if he scrambles together a governing coalition, its first order of business will be to interrupt the trial or suspend it for the length of his premiership. Israel too has a young population (30.5 is the average age), yet Netanyahu is 73.
Then there is the even more divisive poll for control of the US Congress next week. Here the two leading party leadership figures in the ever-more-disunited States weigh in at 79 for President Joe Biden and 76 for Donald Trump, Democrat and Republican respectively. They aren’t actually on the ballot this time round, though both are front and centre of the campaign. However, the woman who leads the House of Representatives, speaker Nancy Pelosi, is a venerable 82 year old, while in the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is 80.
“No country for old men” is not a title to be applied to the political leadership of these hotly disputed political terrains. But if a gerontocratic leadership unites these three democracies, the politics of deep division is another common feature.
A recent study by the influential RAND Corporation in the US, investigated the domestic strengths that are the building blocs of international power. It found that “a common driving ambition uniting a country is a key driver”. This in turn spurs “a shared and coherent national identity”. And an equally binding characteristic is for a nation to “embody diversity and pluralism”.
Turning to the US, the study’s lead author, Michael Mazzar, writes: “If the US continues on its current trajectory it will risk weakening or even losing many of its traits that for the last 75 years have made it the world’s dominant power.”
A key threat in the US, according to Mazzar, is equally applicable to Brazil, Israel and a range of other democracies now and in future.
“The US shared national identity may be in even greater peril,” he writes. “Polling and other data suggest the country is becoming divided into mutually suspicious camps with little common ground. This national fragmentation has been accelerated by siloed information that allows disinformation and conspiracy theories to thrive.”
The recent Brazilian election offered ample proof that this proposition crosses hemispheres. Ousted president Jair Bolsonaro still racked up 49.1% of the vote despite, perhaps because, he peddled the idea that only a rigging of the election could lead to his defeat (he had yet to concede 48 hours after the results were known). He also peddled conspiracy theories on the Covid-19 pandemic, which explains why Brazil had one of the highest death tolls in the world from the coronavirus.
Back in the US, in the week before the important election for control of Congress, courtesy of Elon Musk, Donald Trump was restored to his mighty Twitter platform having been banned for more than two years due to his own conspiracy alleging the election “steal” of 2020. Trump’s followers on Twitter rose from an initial 300,000 to 88-million by the time he was barred from the platform.
His use and abuse of social media was pivotal to his political success. As his social media director, Justin McConey, later compared the turning point: “It was like the moment in Jurassic Park when Dr Grant realised that velociraptors could open doors.”
Trump will inflame the resentments of his followers and his opponents — just as another adroit user of social media, Netanyahu, has done in Israel.
National unity and other warm and positive attributes might be necessary for long-term national success. But often they don’t win elections in the short term — and most politicians are more concerned with next week than the next few years.
Richard Nixon, who knew a thing or two about election wins and losses and the dark arts that propel both, said, according to his aide, William Safire, “people react to fear, not love — they don’t teach you that in Sunday School but it is true”.
A recent book on the deep divisions in America, Wildland by Even Osnos, contains a chilling interview with the CEO of the notorious Cambridge Analytica, which had a lot to do with Trump’s win and the Brexit result.
Alexander Nix is quoted: “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but there are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, so long as they are believed.”
Depressing, regardless of the age of the political leader involved.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA