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Op-eds

Did I vote right?

  • Geoff
Amidst the complicated post-election analyses going on in South Africa and Israel, ordinary people are often confused. And, notwithstanding the intellectual analyses, most people actually voted on a “tribal” basis. By this, I mean that when they got into the voting booth, their emotions dominated their intellect – that’s where they placed their cross.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | May 16, 2019

There was a time when politicians were easier to understand and categorise than today. To the ordinary person, they were either left or right, and their politics accorded with these labels. That’s not the case now: left and right can hardly be defined effectively.

Yet, still, the most common division in politics everywhere remains what analysts call “right” and “left”. It’s all relative – even during apartheid, when all South African political parties were essentially racist for participating in the white-controlled racist system. At the time, the more accommodating white parties were called the left wing, and the most unyielding, the verkramptes (extremists), the right wing.

In this system, renowned anti-apartheid politician Helen Suzman would be considered a leftist. However, today, many blacks regard her as a white racist for being willing to sit in a racist parliament with total control over blacks.

The terms left wing and right wing originated from the era of the French Revolution. The seating of the ancien regime (political system) of France from the 15th to the 18th centuries was arranged in such a way that commoners sat on the left, and aristocrats on the right. Thus, leftists became associated with working for the good of the ordinary folk, and rightists with dominance and power over ordinary folk.

The left-right battle is always complex, even if the terms aren’t easily definable. The contemporary era is characterised by the rise of what are called right wing, neo-fascist groups worldwide, who emphasise ethnic nationalism above egalitarian politics.

Even in Israel, this phenomenon is evident, as seen by the closeness developing between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to authoritarian rulers in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. An example of this is Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the ruling Fidesz Party of Hungary, who recently visited Israel. The nation-state bill passed recently by the Knesset defining Israel as the national home of the Jewish people emphasised this movement.

How dominant is this trend? A leftist visitor to South Africa, from the Meretz party in Israel, tried on Tuesday to unravel for a Johannesburg Jewish audience why the Israeli left, which advocates accommodation and compromise with Palestinians, performed so badly in elections. It has never spoken with one voice, and its percentage of the vote has progressively decreased from one election to the next. But the right, led by Netanyahu, which is determined not to yield to Palestinian demands, is better at marshalling diverse elements to form a formidable bloc to dominate the political landscape.

The South African far-left often labels Israel an apartheid state. On the contrary, Israeli democracy within the 1967 borders is nothing like apartheid. Instead, it is vibrant and strong, with a totally free press and full judicial authority in the Supreme Court that has traditionally been quite leftist in its rulings, including on women’s and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights. At times, the court has overturned government decisions. This is just one of the powerful democratic elements.

Whatever the context, things are so complicated today that care must be taken in labelling someone leftist or rightist. It’s just not that simple.

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