Elections were recently held in two countries which have some similarities to South Africa – Turkey and Thailand. And South Africans would do well to take some lessons from these two recent polls.

South Africa, Thailand, and Turkey are, in broad strokes, fairly similar. All three are developing middle-income countries, with similar-sized populations, and histories of repression and autocracy. All three countries are also ‘middle’ powers, important players in their region (although South Africa’s prestige on the world stage is disappearing more quickly than the value of the rand).

In addition, all three countries are facing crises of varying severity. South Africa is on the brink of an economic disaster, while Turkey’s economy is under even more stress, and there is also concern about the continued erosion of democracy there. Thailand has been governed by the military for nearly a decade, and there is growing dissatisfaction with the role the monarchy plays in the country’s affairs, which has seen street battles between loyalists and pro-democracy activists in recent years.

Thailand and Turkey both recently had elections, with differing outcomes, but with lessons for South Africa.

Defied the polls

In Turkey, long-serving leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan defied the polls and went on to win a third term as President. He has been leading the country for twenty years now, first serving as Prime Minister and then becoming President when the constitution was changed to make the post of President an executive one rather than a ceremonial one.

He achieved a relatively small margin of victory in the second round of the presidential election held at the end of May, but in parliament his party, and those allied to it, secured a relatively comfortable majority. In elections held for parliament, two weeks before the second round of the presidential vote, the People’s Alliance, of which Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is part, won 323 of the 600 seats up for grabs.

This victory came despite Turkey being in the midst of an economic crisis, a few months after a large earthquake in the east of the country killed 50 000 people and saw a botched government response to the disaster.

In the face of bizarre economic policies (such as keeping interest rates low to fight inflation) the Turkish lira has crashed in value from about 4.50 lira for one US dollar in 2018, to more than 20 in recent days: a crash to make even a South African’s eyes water. Currency analysts believe the fair value for the currency is at a level of about 25 lira for one US dollar.

Inflation is also rocketing. It was over 80% last year and stabilised somewhat before the election, but was still above 40%, according to the most recent numbers, and is likely to rise again this year.

Despite this, Erdogan managed to win another term as president.

Opposed to military control

Thailand’s election told a different tale. This was the second election since a military coup in 2014 and saw parties opposed to military control of the government do exceptionally well.

Here the incumbents were defeated. A new party, Move Forward, led by a 42-year-old Harvard-educated businessman, Pita Limjaroenrat, was the largest party in elections held in the middle of last month. It secured 151 of the 500 seats available in the lower house of the Thai parliament. Subsequently Pita said that he would form a coalition with five other parties, giving this coalition a comfortable majority of more than 300 seats.

However, Pita will face a serious battle to become Prime Minister. Under the constitution, which was rammed through by the military in 2017, a person must win a majority of the combined vote of the lower Thai parliamentary house, as well as the Senate, to become Prime Minister. However, the 250-member Senate is made up only of people who have been appointed by the military. This means Pita will have to secure the support of a number of senators who are in their position because of the military. It may be difficult for him to secure the necessary number of votes from senators.

Furthermore, Pita and the Move Forward party have already had to soften some of their manifesto promises to secure the current coalition in the Thai lower house. While most of what Move Forward said it would like to achieve has remained in its coalition agreement with its partners, it has notably backed down on its opposition to the lese majesté law, which has been a key bone of contention in Thailand in recent years, especially for younger Thais.

The results in both these elections hold a lesson for South Africa. Turkey shows that despite a country with a collapsing economy, the incumbents can still win by appealing to something less tangible than a person’s economic situation. Erdogan’s win was at least partly because of the advantage he had as the incumbent, but also because of how he appealed to more conservative Turks, often from the country’s poorer, more rural areas, who feel they have little in common with the country’s secular elites. Erdogan promised that he would help protect Turkish values against the enemies of secularism, the West, and the Kurds.

South Africa’s opposition should take heed of this, especially those parties which oppose the ANC’s statism and move away from non-racialism.

In next year’s election campaign the ANC is likely to avoid talking about the economy. Rather it will talk about how it alone was responsible for the ending of apartheid, how it is the party of Nelson Mandela and other prominent people who fought against apartheid, and how the opposition parties are sell-outs, will bring apartheid back, and reduce or do away with social grants in their entirety.

Rural areas

And like Erdogan, the ANC will be able to rely on voters from the rural areas, rather than the cities. In only two of South Africa’s eight largest cities did more than half of voters support the party in the last local government election.

Thailand’s election, despite the opposition win, also holds lessons for us. Vested and calcified interests are standing in the way of reform in that country, while the biggest opposition party has already had to change at least some of its reform agenda. While South Africa obviously doesn’t have an issue of an appointed senate as in Thailand, any non-ANC government at national level will face serious challenges from ANC cadres who will try to foil a reform agenda. We have already seen the evidence of this in cities where the ANC was voted out in favour of DA-led coalitions. Municipal employees have stood in the way of fixing what is broken, and these are not necessarily just people aligned to the ANC. It is quite possible other vested, possibly criminal, interests have managed to establish themselves in some of our municipal governments.

In addition, any reform coalition will have to make compromises to secure a majority in order to govern. Parties may have to backtrack on some promises, or not honour them at all, in order to secure the support of other parties in a putative reform coalition.

Change is possible but it is a difficult task, as our counterparts in Thailand and Turkey are finding.

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Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.