The Election Crisis (II): Over the Top.

July 11, 2013

Suppose, for the moment, that in the middle of 2014 the leadership of the ANC is looking at a strikingly poor showing in the late election. They have won, let us say, 57% nationally. In Gauteng they get, let us say, 55%. In the Northern Cape, 52%, alerting even the DA to the possibility that they might win if they put some effort into it. The mood in the National Executive Committee is glum. Even if outwardly optimistic, they know that unless they do something they will quite conceivably lose the next election and have to go into a coalition.

So what, if anything at all, will they do?

Even at this stage, the ANC does not really face disaster. An identical decline in the party’s fortunes in 2019 would force the party into coalition at national level and in several provinces, but the coalition could easily be with parties which were small enough to be easily controlled. More to the point, coalition with other parties would not mean coalition with parties of different ideological persuasions, since no such parties exist in Parliament at the moment. Therefore, danger is not immediate.

Zuma could not become President again in 2019 in any case without violating the Constitution, and while he might not shrink from that he would probably be prepared to retire – he will, after all, be very old and arguably no longer capable of serving his foreign corporate masters. The real issue, however, would be 2017. Would he want to keep control of the National Executive Committee by running for President of the ANC again, and thus – possibly – hold onto indirect control of the government? Above all else, Zuma needs to ensure that he does not face charges for his crimes; whatever he does in the intervening period to protect himself against such charges can always be undone by an unsympathetic government, as Silvio Berlusconi has discovered in Italy.

The trouble is that Cyril Ramaphosa is Deputy President of the ANC. It is possible that he would want to become President, simply because it is quite clear that the President of the party has more power than the President of the country. It is also likely that many of the big businesspeople who installed Ramaphosa at the Mangaung conference would prefer to see Ramaphosa in full control of the party. Of course, some of these big businesspeople would actually view Ramaphosa as a problem, because he is seen (in the business community, if nowhere else) as a competent person, and therefore one who would improve the image of the ANC – whereas of course they would ultimately like their party, the DA, to take power eventually. As a result, the Ramaphosa factor, which supposedly was going to protect Zuma against the perils of Kgalema Motlanthe, may place Zuma in danger in any case.

Another trouble is that once it becomes clear that Zuma’s regime is in any kind of trouble, all the forces of destabilization which Zuma employed against his former opponents are liable to be unleashed against him. For instance, Zuma will have no more guarantees of patronage once he ceases to be President of the country. As a result, it is possible that competing candidates for the party and for the nation will be able to argue that they should be supported because they can give people jobs whereas he cannot. This was a major factor weakening Mbeki’s control. Meanwhile, there will be people who will want to see Zuma fall merely because of what happened to Mbeki – and they may be stronger than Zuma realizes, if only because his inclination is to avoid things which he does not wish to think about.

Hence, there will be a terrifyingly wide variety of dangers for Zuma to face, which cannot be evaded or resolved by telling lies or bribing or bullying people. So what can be done?

One alternative would be to try to appeal directly to the people, to win public support for Zuma and try to use this against his gathering enemies. This would be an almost ideal answer, but it’s hard to believe that Zuma or his allies could do this. In order to appeal to the people, Zuma would have to establish public trust by taking action which would actually serve their interests – and that would mean that the people whom he currently serves would become distrustful of him. In other words, for Zuma or his allies to try to establish themselves with the people they would first have to endanger their current position. Which could not be tolerated by their supporters – it would be an invitation to massive conflict within the ANC.

A simpler alternative would be to carry on as before. Zuma’s recent decision to purge some potential opponents, such as Baloyi and Sexwale, and replace them with compliant stooges, shows the kind of behaviour which could be expected – reshuffles of people whose disappearance would not antagonize wealthy white people or foreigners, their replacement with nonentities increasingly dependent on Zuma or his allies. That might seem to be the royal road to peaceful dominance. The trouble is, however, that the people whom Zuma has purged over the past two or three years have all been people who seemed submissive nonentities or reliable stooges. After all, Mbeki once considered Zuma a submissive nonentity and a reliable stooge – whereas he eventually turned out to be a rebellious nonentity who wished to be a reliable stooge for someone else, a fact which Mbeki only recognized much too late. Therefore, carrying on as before will probably not prevent catastrophe. After all, the more purges you conduct, the more enemies you create and the more allies you make nervous.

But if Zuma actually cannot reform and cannot carry on as before, then there is very little for him to do. Perhaps he can strive to transform the system into one more controllable – but in a sense he has already done that in a way which only works provided that the majority are prepared to accept the system. If the majority rise up and defy Zuma, he will be in very serious trouble indeed, especially because the more he dominates the ANC’s political system, the more he discredits it and the more likely mass demonstrations against it are likely to win support from disgruntled, disenfranchised members, branches and regions – a problem which pervades the system at the moment.

The most likely response is a weak combination of all these things – unsuccessful attempts to win public support, unsuccessful attempts to bribe or bully allies into subservience, unsuccessful attempts to change the system into one less subject to control by others. The fact that all these attempts are likely to fail does not mean that Zuma will be defeated, but it does mean that any counter-attack against an almost inevitable challenge to Zuma’s authority (in the almost certain event of a substantial decline in ANC support) would have far less weight than the Polokwane stitch-up or the September 2008 purge of Mbeki’s supporters.

It would, however, have weight. One possibility might be that the first challenge to Zuma would fail – that it would fail to gain traction within the spineless National Executive Committee, or would fail to get any support from the provinces and the metropoles, so that even if the NEC were against Zuma, Zuma could appeal to a real or purported mass support base and attempt to overawe them. In which case, Zuma would be in a position to launch yet another purge, which he would be forced to go ahead with – but this would simply place him further out on a limb, with many of his supporters now facing the axe. Also, his supporters in the media and the big business community would undoubtedly begin to wobble, wondering if they were backing the right horse. Ultimately, the danger might then be that Zuma would be a weakened leader, one who was forced to pretend that he was strong, and to throw weight around which he actually did not possess.

However, if Zuma’s opponents succeed, what then? Then, presumably, there would be a lot of unhappy Zuma supporters around. Zuma would want to take revenge if he could, and equally presumably, forcing Zuma out would so disrupt the ANC as to make it difficult for members of the ANC to prevent him from doing them immense damage, either indirectly through Zuma supporters or directly through the immense amount of damaging information which Zuma possesses and can use against his opponents. After all, Zuma’s defeat would also mean the defeat of the security services who desperately want to retain their power and job security. There would be a lot of powerful people desiring either to see Zuma back in power, or else to see Zuma’s successors weakened.

Meanwhile, the people who had removed Zuma would not have done this because they particularly wanted to pursue a specific ideology which challenged his. Mostly, they would have removed him out of greed, desire for revenge, or fear that he and his allies might threaten them in some way. This is not a stable basis for building a coalition. There is actually no firm alternative to Zuma in the way that Zuma provided a spurious firm alternative to Mbeki. Hence, any post-Zuma administration within the ANC and within government would be extremely vulnerable – and would be conscious of this fact, meaning that it would be continually paranoid and self-justifying, and therefore eager to conceal its existing flaws as well as any new flaws which developed.

Thus, given the probability that the ANC will trip over its untied shoelaces in 2014, the likely consequence of this happening will be an intensification of the present problems of the ANC – weak and unpopular governance and a lack of coherent goals. This is rather unfortunate, because about that time (looking at watch) South Africa should be facing some really serious economic – and therefore, social – problems.



Another Weary, Turgid, Foul Election Rigmarole.

March 17, 2008

They are having a Presidential election in the United States. You may have heard. Why do they bother even going through the motions? Why does anyone even bother showing up?

The record of the past twenty years is discouraging. In 1988 the choice was between a feeble cipher with a pretty but alcoholic wife, and a scion of the American nobility named Bush; the aristocrat won, and proceeded to get his country into two murderous aggressive wars. (His internal policy was, however, no more repressive than that of his predecessor.) In 1992 Bush was challenged by a manifestly dishonest philanderer who was also a scion of the American nobility named Clinton; the philanderer won, and massively intensified internal repression, especially political repression — although the economy grew, and although the poor gained no benefit they told themselves it was all right.

In 1996 Clinton was challenged by an opponent named Dole who junked all his principles to become acceptable to the right wing, and who had a reputation for psychological instability; Dole lost, whereupon Clinton junked all his principles, adopted more right-wing policies, and got the country into some more wars (one of which, the proxy war in the Congo, killed about three million people). In 2000, Clinton’s Vice-President ran, a corporate gasbag and scion of the American nobility named Gore.

Gore was distinguished for having had a book ghostwritten for him about how everyone had to do their utmost to save the environment, after which he became the second most powerful politician in the world and did bugger-all to save the environment, so everyone knew what principles he had. He was running against a scion of the American nobility named Bush — playboy son of the ’88 winner — who was a recovering drug and alcohol addict who had never held a proper job and, like Gore, was a front-man for big oil companies. As a result the election was a dead-heat, although Gore’s party threw the contest (probably anticipating a bad recession, which indeed materialised) allowing Bush to take over.

Bush started some more wars, eventually killing almost as many people as Clinton had, and also introduced some even more repressive laws. Detention without trial had been on the statute books for half a century, but Bush made it respectable. Political assassination had been made nominally illegal in the 1970s, but Bush restored it to favour and also gave it his full support, taking personal responsibility for the murders, which he obviously enjoyed.

Since the country appeared to be on the road to a very dangerous future (Bush was even flirting with starting wars with nuclear powers) it seemed vital to get rid of him, so in 2004 the opposition put forward a man married to a scion of the American nobility (the relevant family was the Heinz dynasty, though the man was called Kerry), a flabby-looking figure who had helped found the Vietnam Veterans Against The War, but now abandoned all those principles to run on the basis that he had fought in that war, which retrospectively became a Good Thing. Kerry was also distinguished by having been so stupid that he had tried to investigate the Bank of Credit and Commerce International without apparently realising that it was a CIA front for funding international terrorism. So he lost — although some observers claim that he won; it was close enough that, as in the previous election, fraud could well have played a part.

What conclusions can we draw from this sorry history? One is that there was extraordinary continuity between the two allegedly opposed parties over the twenty years of Bush-Clinton-Bush. Aggression abroad and repression at home, together with ever-growing social inequality and endless gifts to the rich — that’s basically about it. Everybody hates trade unions and foreigners. Everybody loves outsourcing jobs overseas. There are differences in ways people behave and sometimes in the ways they express themselves, but these are mostly cosmetic.

Another is an extraordinary dependence on a few families. Clinton bears the same name as a nineteenth-century Vice-President. Gore was a long-standing political family. The Bushes come from a huge corporate family. Now, in 2008, there is admittedly some oddity; a black man named Obama, which doesn’t sound like a scion, running against a woman — the wife of a Clinton, as Kerry was the huzband of a Heinz. (Neither of them has any real policy, however.) And McCain and Huckabee and Romney, who were the Republican alternatives (and whose policies are rather disturbing; Huckabee and Romney are religious fundamentalists of extreme stamp; McCain has been distinguished from the rest by his opposition to routinely torturing captives, although he has abandoned these radical principles), are also outsiders in a sense; so this is the first time in a long, long while that one of the Imperial Families is not going to be running things. It really is a bit like the Roman Republic; it’s rare that a “new man” gets ahead of a patrician.

All this seems to suggest that American politics is a whole lot less democratic than it looks. Which, no doubt, helps explain all that continuity, and the well-founded arguments that America is really a one-party state. It is, however, worth asking how in the world all this is justified to the American people, who are solemnly and incessantly assured that they live in freedom in the greatest state in the universe. Why can’t they see through the facade, and if they do, why don’t they drag all those offensive leaky sacks of dysentery they call politicians down the Washington Mall by the ears?

Let’s consider the way in which Presidential candidates are chosen, for it is quite weird. Firstly, although candidates have to belong to either the Republican or Democratic parties to have any hope of winning, neither of these parties is a party in the conventional sense of the word — an organisation dedicated to a particular, coherent, political ideology and constituency, like the Conservative Party in Britain, the Communist Party in Russia or the Democratic Party in South Africa. Instead, these parties are amorphous entities for channelling funding and the opinions of their functionaries.

Both parties extent across disturbingly broad ideological spectra, although one can usually say that the Republicans are to the right of the Democrats (but there is a lot of political cross-dressing). The parties have no real leaders; they have chairs, but the chairs are not ever likely to seek political power. Structures are decentralised and disunified. At state level the parties may have constitutions (Texas has a famously fascistic Republican constitution) but this has no wider meaning (if it has a meaning at all — the constitutions are usually ignored).

So how do they choose their Presidential candidates? Not from the leadership of the Parties, because there is no such leadership which swings any political weight. Instead, at state level people have their names put on the ballot, on the basis of relatively small support-bases. Once this is done, there is a state-level poll, the “primary” to determine which of the people on the list will gain delegates for the eventual Party conference.

Think about how that works in practice. In theory, anybody could be on the ballot, so it sounds democratic. However, the people turning out to vote are registered Party members, and usually only a small number of them in comparison to the state’s electorate. As a result, the Party has a lot of potential control over who votes for who. It’s rare that a complete maverick squeaks past; in most states, only the approved candidates get anywhere.

And who are the approved candidates? The ones who have plenty of support in campaigns. Which means, the ones who have money to make and buy media advertisements and produce other publicity material and travel around a lot. This requires an enormous amount of money which has to be raised individually by the candidate. As a result, the candidates have to sell themselves to people who have that money, before they can begin to sell themselves to their electorates. In other words, the ruling class gets to pre-approve the candidacies. That’s pretty outrageous, but nobody in the United States seems to notice.

Then, of course, the candidates in each primary are pursuing essentially the same policies — of course, because they are in the same party. They may have real problems with their party’s policies, they may want to change them — but they can’t criticise the party, as that would potentially alienate voters. So in primary campaigns it is almost inevitable that issues are discarded. Instead, what matters is the presentation of the candidate.

This also means that the candidate’s image has to be clean. This is difficult, because every politician is a crook to some extent. Hence every candidate needs an enormous legal fund for self-defense, or at least stalling or covering up. The candidate also has to have a powerful research agency digging up dirt on potential competitors — not necessarily to use, but to hold as a deterrent against the competitors revealing dirt against them. Of course, talk radio and trash TV can be used to spread lies about candidates, lies which are invariably retailed by the established media. (Sometimes, embarrassingly, the lies turn out to be true.) If you don’t have plenty of money you have no defense against smearing.

Public relations trumps everything else — which is also splendid for the ruling class because it again means that the one hiring the best (or most expensive) public relations agency has the best prospect of winning, another capitalist hurdle against non-affluent candidates appearing. But all this means that for a large part of the campaigning season, nothing of any substance gets said — instead, the candidates blather about nebulosities like “Change!” [in what, not stated] or “Experience!” [with what, not stated] or “Straight Talk!” [about what, not stated]. It seems like a deliberate effort to humiliate the American people by emphasising just how appalling the American political system has become.

And this is how the finalist is chosen. By the end of the process there is usually an anointed leader who comes to the Party Convention with enough delegates to win fairly easily. Occasionally it takes longer. Sometimes someone thinks he has everything sewn up and then the other potential candidates combine against him. But mainly, on the basis of nonsensical rhetoric, dishonest public relations and under the almost total control of big business and party machines, a leader is chosen who will contest the national election. And then, of course, the bullshit really starts, in endeavouring to anoint some shallow, subservient sleazebag with the simultaneous mantles of Washington and Lincoln.

Is it any wonder that such a leader is invariably someone you wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lift with? Fortunately, at least during the campaigning period you don’t have any danger of that; the Secret Service, the Presidential bodyguards, make sure that nobody gets into a lift with any potential candidate. But after the campaign season is over, most of those candidates go back defeated into their normal lives.

What lives, in the name of Ahura Mazda, what lives can such hideous excrescences possibly lead?