Protest voting is reshaping the political landscape, giving rise to the unknown. Voters are becoming more prepared to take a gamble and reject the established political class without necessarily knowing precisely what they are voting for. In their eyes, a vote for change, whatever form it takes, is better than the status quo.
The UK referendum on its continued membership of the European Union (i.e. Brexit) was a symbol for everything that voters felt was wrong with the current UK government – it was a reaction to austerity policies and individual political personalities rather than a vote for or against the EU per se. As usual, the debate was also hijacked by fear – the pro-exit campaign capitalised on issues around immigration and security bubbling just below the surface.
The principle of the free movement of people, a key pillar of the European Union, was used to stir up public fears about security following April’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, and in Paris in 2015.
A month before the referendum, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that net immigration increased to 330,000 in 2015 in the UK, with a 20,000 increase in December 2015 compared to the previous year.
This contributed to voters’ perceptions that they were being failed by the government – reneging on its election promises.
Another issue was the number of people who felt that their vote wouldn’t count, and voted for the option which they did not necessarily believe in, but voted for simply to make a point. As the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said, “Many people who voted ‘Leave’ wanted to register a protest and it wasn’t. It was a decision vote.”
Of course, dissatisfaction with the political establishment is nothing new; and neither is protest voting. However, what could become an increasing trend is the impact on the status quo and the wider global economy. Protest voting is gaining ground and becoming the weapon of choice for the disgruntled electorate who want to see “real” change, although, sometimes, without thoroughly appreciating the consequences.
The United States is also on the brink of substantial political change made possible by the power of the protest vote. Anger directed at the establishment for economic and social woes has led to the rise of the wild card Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
Originally dismissed as a joke, Trump has been making political headlines for over a year – and not for the right reasons. His populist comments on women, Mexicans, religious and other ethnic groups have widely been criticised, with many of his peers in the Republican Party refusing to endorse him. His abrasive style and lack of consistent policies has not stopped his rise in popularity, an indication of the dissatisfaction with the current political class and a sign of the desperation and frustration with living standards. Trump emphasised the similar underlying issues of unemployment, immigration and security as was done with the pro-exit campaign in the UK.
His mantra of “make America great again” resonates well with working class Americans who seemingly have not felt the benefits of the slow economic recovery.
It has also given rise to some amusing retaliatory memes on social media.
In South Africa, municipal elections will take place across all nine provinces tomorrow (3 August). While the ANC has been the ruling party since 1994, public sentiment in support of it is waning. According to Afrobarometer’s survey published in May 2016, trust in the current President has dropped by almost half since 2011, from 62% to 34%. This is the second-lowest level since their first survey in 2000. The survey also showed that public trust in the President was “lower than in any of the other political institutions and leaders it had asked about”. A damning result for any politician.
The South African electorate is clearly frustrated by corruption, minimal progress to improve widespread inequality, as well as Zuma’s resistance to step aside after several prominent mistakes – including violation of the Constitution. As with the UK and USA, there are again the comparable concerns around immigration and unemployment, but the pressure is much higher as broad-based unemployment is around 35% and South Africans have engaged in several instances of widespread xenophobic attacks against African migrants.
As with Trump, Zuma has played a divisive role in his party, as several senior politicians publicly called for his resignation. Party division was demonstrated in Pretoria last month after the National Executive Committee overruled the choice of mayor of the regional branches, which led to violent protests and two deaths.
These factors could play a role in the fortunes of the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), in the municipal elections tomorrow. At a lecture at the London School of Economics in June, keynote speaker, Mmusi Maimane, leader of the DA, spoke about the challenges that South Africa faced, yet stated he was never more positive about the future of his country. According to Maimane, he wants to prove above all else that South Africa has a functioning model of democracy and that it should be protected.
Even with a patchy track record in governance, the ANC is still able to take advantage of Nelson Mandela’s legacy which has made any other choice of party very difficult to subscribe to. Although, this advantage is no longer clear-cut as the DA referenced Mandela’s outspoken calls to keep political parties accountable – even the ANC – so much so that accountability vis a vis Mandela has become central to their municipal election campaign.
Given South Africa’s complex history, there is still distrust of the DA based on perceived racial affiliation. Mmusi Maimane, just like Brexit and Trump, is therefore a wild card candidate who represents a protest vote against established politics.
No vote – opt out or cop out?
The choice not to vote as a form of protest is an emerging trend in South Africa and the US. In the US, “Black Lives Matter” advocates and some celebrities announced they will not vote because neither party cares about people of colour. In South Africa a large number of voters who would traditionally vote ANC are choosing not to, but will not vote DA because they feel it is historically a white party.
Having fought so hard for civil liberties, the absence of perceived viable alternatives to the current political candidates means they will forgo their right to vote as a form of protest. This creates an ethical conundrum because relinquishing a hard-won right – in protest or not – is still relinquishing a responsibility to take a role in determining what politician will be exerting authority in one’s country. While a no vote is certainly strong social commentary, the reality is that social commentary without the backing of action remains just that.
In the United States, Donald Trump was propelled into the limelight because of the increasing frustration with old-style politics and distrust in the established political class to deliver results. Likewise, in South Africa, deteriorating public trust in the ANC could drive its traditional supporter base to cast a vote for the DA or other parties. This would see the beginnings of a seismic shift in the political landscape, particularly against a difficult and challenging history.
With Brexit actually happening, the chance of Trump being the next US President is no longer seen as a total impossibility. Filmmaker Michael Moore gave five reasons for a likely Trump victory, one of them being that people will vote for Trump because they can, calling it a “good practical joke on a sick political system”.
People inherently don’t like being told what to do. The Brexit result was a signal to the establishment that they were ready for a change even in spite of the unknown and unintended malign consequences.
The political elite can no longer assume that a protest vote will simply cause a few ripples which they can ignore. Very much the opposite, the protest vote has become the ultimate game changer. Politicians need to be able to find better ways to communicate with the electorate and listen and respond to their concerns.
Brexit, the emergence of Donald Trump and the rise of the first serious political challenge in more than 20 years of ANC rule, demonstrates that the protest vote has a far greater impact than ever before.