Political parallels

2008-09-05 00:00

The razzmatazz of the United States elections often feels more like Hollywood than serious politics. But the system has its advantages. This has become clear now that presidential candidates have been en-dorsed and their running mates selected.

Each presidential hopeful has strengths and weaknesses and has chosen a vice-presidential candidate accordingly. The aging war veteran John McCain, generally seen as a relatively liberal Republican, has gone for a young, very conservative woman, Sarah Palin. Youthful Barack Obama of the Democrats, short on foreign policy background but strong on visionary rhetoric, has the solid support of Joseph Biden with 30 years relevant experience.

Such tactics try to balance and broaden party appeal: both vice-presidential choices are reckoned to be attractive to blue-collar workers, floating voters in a tight election. The emphasis is on inclusivity and no one can deny that the process has been democratic. All registered party members had the chance, during an exhaustive campaign, to play a part in the choice of candidate.

South Africa’s general election will take place just six months after the U.S. In terms of process the differences are stark. Provided he can stay out of jail, the next president has already been chosen by a few thousand delegates who gathered at Polokwane after selection processes that were often questionable. The U.S. political system is far from perfect, but it does offer genuine mass participation.

However, there are encouraging signs that Jacob Zuma’s deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, is willing to provide his own distinctive contribution to the ANC party ticket. Working with a presidential candidate of doubtful suitability and a susceptibility to political expedience, he has come out strongly in defence of threatened principles such as the supremacy of the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary.

American voters are faced with relatively narrow choices between presidential candidates, except perhaps over foreign policy. Issues in South Africa are far more basic. Civil society is rallying to protect democracy against the destructive vanguardism of a self-styled revolutionary movement. And the fact that Zuma’s running mate is breaking ranks and adopting a broader consensus gives reason for hope.

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