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Beware the seduction of authoritarian populism – from Turkey to South Africa

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Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral scholar in gender justice, health and human development at Durban University of Technology.

We must be aware of the great danger that lies before us and learn our lessons from Turkey and elsewhere. Increasingly desperate South Africans might be seduced by authoritarian populists like Herman Mashaba and the EFF.

Turkey is in serious trouble. There is a rapidly escalating economic crisis and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime is becoming increasingly chauvinistic, repressive and imperialist. Minorities, intellectuals, lawyers and the organised working class all feel deeply threatened, and with good reason. 

Tens of thousands of people have been purged from their positions. There are increased threats to the media and to social media. Erdoğan’s regime has repeatedly harassed and jailed its critics, and torture is becoming pervasive. Although it holds elections, Turkey has a compromised democracy.  

Turkey’s strategic ambitions in Syria, Libya and Iraq come as no surprise. Of serious concern though is the alert raised by human rights organisations about extensive sexual abuse and extrajudicial killings. 

But now Erdoğan faces an armed insurgency, hostility from organised labour, growing international concerns and the complete loss of support among intellectuals and “Generation Z” – a term that refers to those young people born around the turn of the millennium. 

Much like the social media storm in response to ANC corruption, the Turkish youth have overwhelmed Erdoğan’s decreasing supporters on social media, creating a crisis of legitimacy for Erdoğan. This is not to suggest that hope lies with the secularists or the Gulenists. There are serious concerns with each of these factions, but that may be a story for another day. 

Erdoğan is a key figure in the wave of conservative authoritarian populists, which also includes Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Scott Morrison, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, and Viktor Orban. Some are more dangerous than others, and Erdoğan is certainly very dangerous. 

But he is suddenly looking weak. In country after country, the Arab Spring began with the youth condemning repressive governments on social media before moving to the streets. Erdoğan will be very aware of this, and there is a real risk that he will panic and escalate repression even further.  

And at the moment it seems that Donald Trump is likely to lose the American election in November. The road to Trump’s seemingly inevitable defeat was paved by popular organisation and struggle, beginning with the campaign for Bernie Sanders and then the massive support for Black Lives Matter.  

Modi, Putin and Orban – the worst of the new right-wing governments – all seem entrenched for the moment. But if Erdoğan and Trump go down, the right will be severely weakened.  

This period of right-wing hegemony has been devastating for the poor and the working classes, in terms of the rise of xenophobia and chauvinism, endless war in the Middle East and, in some cases, horrific levels of repression. 

Getting past the new right is an urgent necessity. But an important question arises – what comes next? This question was not asked and answered with sufficient clarity during the Arab Spring, and this failure had serious consequences down the road. Although we don’t confront a right-wing regime, the growing rage at the ANC’s descent into an outright kleptocracy has not evolved into a serious consideration of viable alternatives.  

A turn to growing support for the EFF would be simply disastrous. The EFF has revealed itself to be just as kleptocratic as the ANC, but far more authoritarian. An EFF government would look like Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe – wholesale looting accompanied by brutal repression. 

Neoliberalism was developed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the wake of the US-backed coup in Chile in 1973. Markets were opened, taxes on the rich decreased, the state removed from many of its welfare obligations, trade unions broken and protection for workers removed. The result, of course, was that the rich got richer and everyone else got poorer.  

At the end of the Cold War in 1989, with the US the undisputed global power, neoliberalism was imposed on countries across the global South by US-backed coups, the IMF and the World Bank. The results in the global South were devastating. Institutions collapsed, state welfare disappeared, and most young people were sentenced to a life of unemployment and precarity.  

It was these young people who drove the Arab Spring, and the recent wave of protests in Lebanon and Chile. In the United States, young people with foreclosed futures drove the campaign in support of Bernie Sanders and then the massive Black Lives Matter protests. 

But, simultaneously, many people, struggling with their diminishing income and prospects, have drunk the Kool-Aid and bought into right-wing ideas about migrants or minorities being the enemy of the nation. 

As the ANC’s support flatlines in response to the rampant looting of Covid-19 funds, an obvious question arises: What force will rise to challenge the ANC? Will it be a form of authoritarian populism, or a youth-driven push towards a more democratic and caring society? 

Not many participants in the student movement of 2015 went on to join social movements and trade unions. It is possible that the current explosion of anger against the ANC on social media will remain online and not result in major street protests. But, with three million jobs lost and scant prospects for new entrants to the labour market, the scale of unemployment may lead to a different outcome this time. 

If the youth do take to the streets in numbers, sustain their protests and link up with the social movements and trade unions outside the ANC, the ruling party could suddenly find itself in real trouble.  

But we must also be aware of the great danger that lies before us. It is possible that an increasingly desperate populace might be seduced by authoritarian populists like Herman Mashaba and the EFF. Mashaba has far-right views on economics and migration and is every bit as xenophobic as Trump. Widespread support for Mashaba would be a major setback for the progressive project in South Africa.  

A turn to growing support for the EFF would be simply disastrous. The EFF has revealed itself to be just as kleptocratic as the ANC, but far more authoritarian. An EFF government would look like Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe – wholesale looting accompanied by brutal repression. 

South Africa came to populism early with the support given to Jacob Zuma. We paid a very, very high price for that. But, as alluded to, now a new question arises: do we return to an even more dangerous form of authoritarian populism, or do we work towards building a democratic alternative to the ANC? DM

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