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Floyd Shivambu, Julius Malema and EFF secretary-general Marshall Dlamini. Picture: Denvor de Wee
Floyd Shivambu, Julius Malema and EFF secretary-general Marshall Dlamini. Picture: Denvor de Wee

For much of the 20th century, the political centre held sway in many democracies around the world, promoting stability and incremental reform. However, the early 21st century has witnessed a marked shift away from this centrist dominance, with extremist movements gaining traction across the globe.

Economic insecurity frequently underlies the appeal of populism as charismatic leaders tap into the frustrations of people facing economic hardship and those feeling marginalised by societal progress or threatened by globalisation and multiculturalism. 

The US provides a vivid illustration of this shift. Historically, American politics have swung between the moderate Left (Democrats) and the moderate Right (Republicans). However, in recent years there has been a stark polarisation. Donald Trump’s presidency epitomised this shift. His populist rhetoric and policies, such as aggressive immigration controls and trade protectionism, marked a significant departure from traditional Republican orthodoxy.

Even as the November 2024 elections approach, Trump continues to exert substantial influence over the party. It underscores the decline of centre-right dominance in US conservatism. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party faces its own struggles, balancing tensions between its progressive wing and centrist factions.

The gains made by the far right in the European parliamentary elections in recent days are the latest sign of the rising dangers of populism. In the continent’s largest nations, centrist parties have been outflanked by their far-right rivals.

In Germany, the centre-left Social Democratic Party, which leads the ruling coalition federally, came third, behind both the centre-right Christian Democrats and the far-right Alternative for Germany. In France, meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to rejuvenate the centre by uniting the Left and Right have instead driven the French to the political extremes.

The recent electoral showdown in Britain illustrates the pitfalls of centrist political tactics. Despite securing a strong majority, the Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, has struggled to improve its popularity since the Conservatives won a majority in 2015. Starmer’s strategic shifts away from his initial policies have led to a significant decline in public trust — polls undertaken by public opinion company YouGov indicate that 47% of respondents now consider him untrustworthy, compared with 20% in April 2020.

Historically, US politics have swung between the moderate Left and the moderate Right  However, recent years have witnessed a stark polarisation

The resurgence of populism in Latin America and recent electoral outcomes in Asia reflect broader global shifts in democratic governance.

In Latin America, Claudia Sheinbaum’s landslide win in Mexico, supported by the populist legacy of former president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, solidified the Left’s dominance. Argentina also witnessed significant political upheaval with the election of right-wing leader Javier Milei as president in November last year.

Across in Asia, India’s Narendra Modi grappled with political recalibration as his Bharatiya Janata Party lost its parliamentary majority, necessitating negotiations with coalition partners to sustain governance under a centre-right framework.

The local experience

Back home, the 2024 national elections marked a watershed moment in South Africa’s political landscape. In a historic first for the nation, the ANC failed to secure a decisive majority, leading to a coalition government with 10 other parties. This electoral verdict lays bare deep-seated public concerns about the efficacy of our democratic system, which has often failed to meet expectations.

Despite electoral losses, ANC chair Gwede Mantashe pointed to the enduring appeal of the party’s legacy, noting that combined support with ANC splinter groups — the EFF and the MK Party — amounted to 64% of the vote, akin to the ANC’s 1994 triumph. However, widespread discontent persists due to the government’s inability to address socioeconomic disparities and fulfil promises of inclusive prosperity.

This failure has fuelled a populist surge, as is evident in the increased electoral support for parties like the National Coloured Congress and the Patriotic Alliance. Charismatic leaders such as Julius Malema of the EFF and Jacob Zuma of MK have further capitalised on these grievances, promising transformative solutions to disillusioned voters.

Calls for abandoning the constitution will not solve South Africa’s underlying issues of poverty and inequality, and risk delegitimising the country’s constitutional foundations. The Progressive Caucus, in opposition to the government of national unity (GNU), ensures vital political competition to prevent economic benefits from favouring only the political and economic elite. However, there is a risk that divisive racialised politics could perpetuate historical social and economic divisions rather than bridging them.

ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula has acknowledged that parties involved in the GNU have responded to voter demands by shifting towards the centre. Nonetheless, the resilience of the political centre will depend largely on the new government’s ability to capitalise on the current opportunity to reshape the country’s political discourse under coalition governance.

South Africa has now firmly entered a political phase in which collective decision-making will be essential for effective governance. The stability of the new government will hinge on the political maturity of parties and their constituencies, with a commitment to placing the country’s interests first. 

* Packirisamy is an economist at Momentum Investments

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