Dutch politics were shaken last month when a party, barely four years old, emerged as the single biggest in the country’s provincial elections.
The BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB) or Farmer Citizens Movement won nearly 20% of the vote in the country’s provincial elections, making it the single biggest party. This was only the second election it had participated in, after having been founded in 2019. In 2021 it had secured one seat in the Dutch parliament, having won 1% of the vote in that year’s general election.
Provincial elections are significant for the Dutch Senate, as members of the body are indirectly elected by the legislatures of the Dutch provinces. This means that the BBB will have significant influence in the Dutch upper house.
The BBB was formed in October 2019 following widespread protests by farmers over moves by the Dutch government to cut nitrogen emissions through interventions such as halving the number of livestock. Although the party was initially formed to protect the interests of farmers, it soon began to secure support among people who perceived that it protected traditional Dutch values.
Dutch politics have always been more fractured than those in most of the rest of Western Europe, partly as a result of the type of proportional representation system that is used (similar to the type of electoral system that South Africa uses). This has meant that the rise of insurgent parties, such as the BBB, has been a not uncommon phenomenon, with the emergence of Pim Fortuyn in the early part of the century being an example. The openly gay Fortuyn was a colourful character, known for his anti-Islamic views, and was assassinated a few days before the 2002 election. Despite this, his party won 17% of the vote and was the second-biggest party in the Dutch parliament.
But the Netherlands is not the only place where insurgent parties are making inroads as voters turn away from ‘business as usual’.
In France the old parties of the centre-right and centre-left, which dominated French politics for years, are almost now political non-entities. In the last election in France, the Presidential candidates of these two parties (the Republicans and the Socialist Party) could barely muster 10% of the vote between them. Their parliamentary representation is not much better, with the two parties controlling about 15% of the country’s parliamentary seats.
In Ireland, Sinn Fein, which had long been on the fringes of formal parliamentary politics in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, is now the biggest single party in both territories. Sinn Fein won nearly a quarter of the vote in the last Irish election. This was only the second time that it had won more than 10% in an Irish poll.
And in Australia, a number of loosely affiliated independent candidates won seats in the Australian parliament, running on an environmentalist platform.
Closer to home in Namibia, an independent, Panduleni Itula, won nearly 30% of the vote in that country’s 2019 presidential election. This was the best-ever performance by a candidate that was not from the governing SWAPO. Rarely has the person coming second in a Namibian presidential election won more than 10% of the vote.
It is clear that across the world, people are increasingly moving away from ‘establishment’ parties or candidates and are looking for parties with fresh offerings.
But what relevance does this have to South Africa?
Even in this country people are increasingly moving away from larger parties to smaller ones. In the 2021 local government election, about 78% of voters cast a ballot for one of the three biggest parties – the ANC, DA, and EFF. This may seem like the Big Three have the political market cornered. That may be so, but in 2016 about nine-in-ten voters had cast a ballot for one of the Big Three. South African voters are increasingly looking away from the big established parties.
And there has been a plethora of new parties being launched in the past few weeks, from Songezo Zibi’s Rise Mzansi, to Bongani Baloyi’s Xiluva. Can any of these parties be a South African version of the Dutch BBB and shock the political establishment?
South Africa has had its fair share of parties which tried to shake up the political establishment, ranging from COPE to the UDM and Agang. Most have failed. Arguably the party that has fared the best in changing the face of South African politics is the EFF, but they are still effectively simply an external wing of the ANC and not truly a new political party, seeking to do things differently. The growing co-operation between the two parties in Gauteng seems to support this hypothesis that the EFF is simply a wing of the ANC.
But even though an insurgent party has not shaken up South African politics in the way the BBB has done in the Netherlands, this does not mean that it cannot happen.
When something unexpected has happened, in hindsight it can often seem inevitable. The end of apartheid is a lesson from our history here. At the time, most observers believed that a bloody end to apartheid and a race war was inevitable. History unfolded differently, as we know, and looking back, much of what happened does seem to have had an inescapability about it.
Perhaps South Africa won’t have an insurgent party any time soon. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that because something has not happened yet, it will never happen.
Politics in this country is changing, and changing quickly. The old certainties are crumbling and South Africans need to be ready.