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A disruptive populist wave washes across the world, from France to South Africa

populismThere can be no doubt that ‘populism’ has become the new standard-bearer of global politics. It is the catchword in all recent and current developments, all the way through from Brexit, to Donald Trump’s election, the French elections, in other global political developments, and right here in our own ongoing political drama in South Africa.

For many of us it often has a menacing connotation, something akin to ‘socialism’ or ‘revolt’. But if we consider the Oxford Dictionary’s definition – support for the concerns of ordinary people – it gains a much nobler value, right up there alongside ‘democracy’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘the will of the people’.

Perhaps the unease some of us may feel about the rise of populism derives from the fact that it, as Dr Benjamin Moffit of Stockholm University puts it, was once viewed as a fringe phenomenon based on the classic divide between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’. That’s enough to conjure up visions of the French Revolution. While it is still premised on that divide to a large extent, one may wonder whether the current presidential election in France is playing out as some modern-day, populist revolution without the violence and destruction of its 18th century predecessor.

The current rise of populism around the world certainly has many common connecting dots from Britain to France, the US and most other parts of the world. It is an expression of the middle and lower income populations’ disconnect with existing economic and political systems which they feel are failing them. They feel left behind by the technological changes brought about by what is now commonly referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Perhaps another factor causing much unease is that much of the current rise of populism is characterised by an inward-looking, nationalist and even isolationist trend that contradicts the tenets of globalism, global technology and a global economy that underscore the 4th Industrial Revolution. Populism, in its current global expression, has no ideological limits – it is found equally on the right and the left.

However, the more sinister petticoat showing under the populist dress, is the exploitation of the phenomenon by ‘populist’ leaders. While there is an understandable groundswell of popular discontent over current global and diverse national conditions, there is widespread concern – shared across the spectrum from the financial industry to human rights organisations – over the threat of exploitation by political leaders “trampling on rights in the name of the majority”, as Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth puts it. In this regard global ratings agency Fitch has labelled geopolitical risk as a major threat to Europe, a continent where populists have recently gained much ground in several elections.

As Carmel Rawhani of the governance and foreign policy programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), writes in an article published by Daily Maverick: “In principle, political sentiment that promotes the interests of the majority is completely unproblematic, but sentiment that is pro-majority at the direct expense of the minority – or at the expense of the rights of the majority – is inherently dangerous”.

Dr Moffit, author of the book The Global Rise of Populism, also points out that populism’s reliance on new media technologies, its shifting relationship to political representation, and its increasing ubiquity have seen it transform in nuanced ways; it is no longer one single entity, but rather a political style that is performed, embodied, and enacted across different political and cultural contexts.

Therefore, while the possible outcome of the French elections have in the media quite rightly been compared to Brexit and the US election – with possible similar consequences – there are also distinct differences. The outcome of the French run-off election on 7 May between the two candidates who garnered most of the votes in the first round, is very unpredictable.

Emmanuel Macron of En Marche, who won 23.75% of the vote in the first round, is a business-friendly centrist and former investment banker, likely to be backed by most of the mainstream French parties. He is also supported by most political leaders across Europe who hope to keep the European Union from breaking up. His rival, the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who won 21.53% of the first-round vote, is hoping to ride the populist wave into the presidency, exploiting fears and uncertainty caused by the wave of Islamic terrorist attacks across Europe. Like Trump in the US, and with some similarities to the Brexit vote, she wants to close the borders and stands on a France-first ticket. It is also feared she would take France out of the EU, resulting in similar turmoil in the markets as was caused by Brexit.

While the pollsters may have gotten it right in the first round, the current lead they give to Macron is not to be trusted, as Brexit and the US election have taught us. The shaky ground on which opinion polls find themselves these days is a direct result of the shifting nuances and dynamics of the populist phenomenon.

The result of the first round voting in France was met with positive reaction in the markets. On Monday the Paris stock exchange opened with the French index CAC40 gaining 4.12%, and financial stocks rising by 7% to 8%. Emerging markets were buoyed and South Africa’s rand too strengthened on news of the results, breaking through the R13-to-the-dollar level to a high not seen since this country’s disastrous cabinet reshuffle. Asset managers viewed the result as a relief, but caution would be wise until after 7 May.

populismWhat makes the French election even more unpredictable is the seismic shift it represents in which the two main parties that have dominated French politics since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, have crashed out in the first round. For the first time two previously excluded parties are facing off for first prize.

Disguising their authoritarian and discriminatory tendencies, populist leaders exploit the deserving concerns of a majority of ‘the people’ over issues such as inequality, poverty and unemployment versus an ‘elite’ usually presented as corrupt and self-serving, by bringing into the equation issues such as xenophobia, racism, nationalism, or religious intolerance. Which brings us closer to home.

South African politics also finds itself in the grip of populist battles, albeit at a two-dimensional level driven from different directions. On the one hand there has been a groundswell of popular discontent with a government seen as corrupt and self-serving, personified by President Jacob Zuma, whose fall this populist movement is seeking. Driven by civic organisations, it is exploited by political parties ranging across the full ideological spectrum. At present this is creating considerable and unpredictable political turmoil in the country, with serious repercussions for the economy.

At another level – that of exploitation by populist political leaders – the breakaway (from the ANC) party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), has adopted a populist platform premised on doing away with poverty and inequality through nationalisation of land and banks and directing this punitively against the white minority. Fearing the inroads the EFF may make into his own powerbase and that of his party in which he still commands substantial factional support, a beleaguered President Zuma has adopted his own populist counter-platform based on ‘radical economic transformation’.

Coupled to his fear of more urban, middle class support being lost to the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) on the other side, he is directing this, like the EFF, against the exclusion of blacks from the national economic pot by “white monopoly capital”.

And like their centrist contemporaries in France, Britain, the US, and elsewhere, mainstream opposition parties like the DA and United Democratic Movement are trapped in the middle, being forced into the populist cauldron or risk being left behind.

One way or the other, populism is set to play a definitive role in the future outcomes of South African politics. Unpredictable as it is, be prepared for a roller-coaster ride.

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