Supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters partyThird and smaller parties such as South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters are gaining unprecedented resilience in young democracies [credit: EFF Facebook]

In young democracies, political parties are waking up to the fact that in today’s fast moving digital society, voters interpret political rhetoric differently than they did in the early post-independence era.

Post-independence, voters understood that near political fiefdoms needed to be created in democratic institutions to effect meaningful change from political systems and governance structures designed to exclude them. Not today.

Years ago voters expected partisans to control all avenues of political influence to consolidate party gains against inequality. Not today.

Across the Commonwealth, the electoral margins of traditionally populist political parties are diminishing as are the number of persons turning out to vote. Voters appear to be increasingly of the view that some of the main political parties are locked in a worldview that is the antithesis of accountability. Consequently, in various jurisdictions, we are witnessing the emergence of smaller political parties with dynamic and compelling leadership finding a space in parliaments, and their message that they are necessary to hold the establishment to account is gaining traction. Third and smaller parties are gaining unprecedented resilience in young democracies.

EFF’s seismic shift

South Africa’s Julius Malema formed the Economic Freedom Fighters in 2012 and no one predicted the seismic shift that has since occurred in South African politics. A number of small island developing states now have coalition governments and traditional parties are having to shore up their margins by joining with these smaller parties to make policy and influence concessions.

In the Caribbean region, St Kitts and Nevis now have a coalition government after smaller parties joined together to end the 20-year rule of the St Kitts and Nevis Labour Party. In Guyana, a coalition of parties ended the People’s Progressive Party 23-year run in office. In Trinidad and Tobago, the United National Congress concluded a term in office as a coalition government in September 2015. In the Pacific, coalitions of smaller parties have frequently formed governments and Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu have coalition governments. In Africa, it is currently Lesotho and Mauritius.

The fundamental premise of most populist political messaging is that social and economic decisions should be made by the people and that the people should have a direct input into the way they are governed. It is now rare to find political parties that do not advance populist policies and rhetoric. This has caused a crisis of identity and operational viability for some political parties that are experiencing that their ideas and message are losing resonance with the public.

Political identity crisis  

At various levels of intensity, this crisis of identity is predominantly being experienced by political parties that have become used to being handed a high trust quotient from voters to control the means of production and power on behalf of citizens. Where these parties once had the trust of the majority of citizens to guard the means of production and distribute its proceeds, citizens are now demanding more oversight over the political guardians themselves.

Further, political parties have a greater challenge to ensure that, when elected, they do not centralise power within the party to the detriment and exclusion of citizens. Today’s political paradigm demands a constant system of transparent political dialogue and public consultation beyond that expended by politicians to get first-past-the-post. While the commitment of the traditional ‘base’ to the ideology of their political parties might not have changed much, the relationship of trust between the ‘base’ and its political guardians has shifted significantly. The ‘base’ now requires more stringent accountable and transparent actions from the political party in exchange for its loyalty.

Political messaging

There are many postulations about repackaging political messaging and revisiting core ideological positions to address the disconnect between voters and political parties. However, results gained from such limited efforts will be short term. When the ideological lines between political parties are blurred, as they are in many jurisdictions today, it is the political party’s demonstrated attitude and commitment to accountability, transparency and engagement that will prevent the ‘base’ from further attrition. Political parties hoping for longevity in electoral office must grasp the essence of this new voting paradigm that is rooted in the public’s desire for just and honest governance in government and in internal political party affairs.

Under the steady and fierce glare of the digital era, political parties that continue to be locked in rhetoric and the insular methods of the past, that speak predominantly to their ‘base’, and that allow party insiders to coalesce power among elite groups will find out that they are blundering their way into significant loss of voter confidence and into a slow demise.

One would think that showing up at the polls is the best way for voters to express their views on the type of governance they desire. Conversely, we are continuously witnessing increasing voter apathy. Where political parties have the same messages and articulate half-hearted platforms for the administration of effective governance, the public will have little incentive to turn up to vote. Some political parties subtly encourage this state of play by employing tactics that actually suppress the vote. However, when even the party base begins to display voter apathy, political parties should take quick notice that they must run campaigns that stand for something and, when elected, they should organise accountable teams to administer their policies transparently.

The savvy political party must actively show that while it is committed to protecting the poor and vulnerable and improving the lives of its citizens, it is reasonably responsive to feedback from outside its core group. The grounded political party must also project and demonstrate that it is prepared and ready to be watched over by strong and independent institutions.

Strong independent institutions matter. Strong anti-corruption policies and mechanisms matter. Separation of powers and accountability in government is important to build resilient societies and maintain a strong social contract between elected officials and citizens.

Thanks to a more open society and the digital age, even the committed voting base of political parties now knows this. It is a foolhardy political organisation that mistakes the resilience of its citizenry for loyalty.