The radical choice

2008-04-14 00:00

All elections, even where the stakes are minimal, are exciting. People are fascinated by winners and losers, the gain and the loss of power. However, some are more exciting than others, going from exciting to disturbing and precipitating actual or potential instability — Kenya’s elections, the ANC national and youth league elections, Zimbabwe’s unhappily-named “harmonised” elections and Egypt’s local elections. In each of these cases it almost seemed as if the rest of life stopped for those involved. During the ANC’s Polokwane election, especially as the crucial vote for the new party leader loomed, one wondered how the government would have managed if South Africa had been invaded. Would it have noticed and, if so, would it have been able to find the time to attend to the problem?

Hyperbole aside, in young democracies there often seems to be a dangerous raising of the temperature when the stakes are raised by an election in which someone who has previously been voted in might now actually be voted out. South African elections have gone smoothly after 1994. However, it has to be pointed out that the results were never really in any doubt. But consider the following scenario, an election or two down the line. Cyril Ramaphosa has founded his own party and is challenging the ANC establishment in coalition with the DA and other minority parties. The polls show that he and his allies might just pull off a victory and the ANC which, according to Jacob Zuma’s famous ipse dixit is going to rule “until Jesus comes again”, is facing the possibility of being out of office earlier than the Second Coming.

Would such an election be as routine as our elections post-1994? Somehow I doubt it. One can imagine just how high the temperature would climb. Some of the hotter heads (in the ANC Youth League perhaps) might conceivably make statements reminiscent of Zanu-PF’s utterances about never accepting an MDC government and Morgan Tsvangirai.

The fact is that democracy remains fundamentally a deeply radical system of government and therefore still a threat to the forces of conservatism. Traditional societies are such forces. In traditional societies leadership change is dreaded and so its structures reflect this, being designed for as much continuity as possible. Notable examples are the Swazi hereditary monarchy, the Chinese Communist regime or Putin’s neo-tsarist Russia. Continuity is their watchword.

In democracies, by contrast, there is the built-in possibility of a major change of leadership — and therefore political and economic direction — every four or five years. From the point of view of a traditionalist mentality in which continuity is high, this is an unacceptably radical and risky idea, especially for the traditional leader.

Tradition is not of course incapable of handling democracy. Some democracies combine elements of tradition with elections in which parties regularly fall from power. The British monarch would be one example. The problem is that politicians in any context will try every trick in the book to remain in office. Those old men around Robert Mugabe who are likely to lose so much are in the first ranks of the desperate, back-against-the-wall resistance to the MDC. And despite his disastrous economic policies and their destabilising effect on the region, SADC leaders simply will not ditch Mugabe because the democratic defeat of a liberation movement is their worst nightmare.

Democracy also radically challenges tradition in its lack of deference towards the great. The British electorate threw out Winston Churchill after World War 2 not because the British voters did not respect the old war hero but because they felt that he and his party were not the best qualified for the post-war reconstruction.

Democracy is even sometimes too radical for its own proponents. When religious parties won elections in Algeria and Gaza they were simply not recognised by the West. The religious party in Turkey is facing a High Court challenge which could kill it off legally.

In the light of the above reflections perhaps the fact that the ANC was able to show the door to such an established leader as Thabo Mbeki is a sign of hope even though it ironically replaced him with a traditionalist. As for Zimbabwe, if it can make a peaceful transition away from a country seemingly fated to be dominated by a liberation movement forever, it will have done societies in which democracy struggles in the face of a traditionalist reaction, an immense favour.

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