A few years ago it seemed to many that liberal democracy was on the ropes in much of the world as figures like Trump, Zuma and others, including Narendra Modi in India and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, rose to power. Of these four, only Modi is still in power, but of course Hindu fascism is a long-term ideological project with an organised popular base and a large intellectual apparatus. It is very different from the simple crudities of leaders like Trump and Zuma, and it seems unlikely that India will escape the agonies of Modi and his ilk anytime soon.
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And, of course, right-wing authoritarian populism continues to drive Israel in an increasingly extreme direction. The right also remains dangerous in countries like Spain, France and Italy. But it does seem that the heyday of the right-wing populists has passed, at least for now.
This does not mean that there is a shift to the left. Like Cyril Ramaphosa, Joe Biden is a centrist and, while the UK remains under conservative rule, it is significant that Rishi Sunak is a neoliberal technocrat and not a crude populist buffoon like Boris Johnson. It is only in Brazil that a left government has displaced a right-wing authoritarian populist.
When the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson and Zuma came to power, many analysts argued that the turn to dangerous forms of populism was driven by years of neoliberal economics that had enabled charlatans to claim to be outsiders representing “the people”. If this is correct, then a return to centrists like Biden, Sunak and Ramaphosa may not be able to hold off a potentially more malignant form of authoritarian populism.
For us, the situation is even more worrying in the sense that Biden and Sunak are competent politicians, while Ramaphosa’s administration has been a pitiful failure. South Africans did breathe a huge collective sigh of relief when Zuma was finally deposed, but given that Ramaphosa’s return to the centre has also been a failure, the question of what people turn to next is urgent.
Many commentators fear the rise of a more structured form of authoritarianism than the often chaotic Zuma project. Alarmingly, opinion polls show that most South Africans would abandon democracy for a dictator who could put an end to corruption and violence.
The only authoritarian contenders for political power who have had any meaningful success so far are Herman Mashaba and Julius Malema. Both men have the potential to wield deleterious influence in coalitions, but neither has the power to govern the country, or even a city.
Clearly, the best way to secure our democracy is to build a progressive political project aimed at building a more inclusive society, and that wins over enough people to take state power. But for some reason that seems out of reach. It is not just the left that has failed to offer an alternative to a society in deep crisis. There is not even a social democratic project on offer. If we don’t want new Trumps, Zumas and Bolsonaros to emerge we need to fix this, and fast. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.