2024: Year of the Paper Ballot

Andrew Donaldson on the polls due to take place next year, here and abroad


ACCORDING to the Chinese horoscope, 2024 is the Year of the Wood Dragon. The woo woo would have us believe that this will be a time of fortune and abundance, with lashings of wealth, power, great leadership skills and all manner of good luck for attractive personalities everywhere. The year will supposedly also bring favourable conditions for growth and progress.

On a more realistic note, change of sorts will definitely come in 2024; voters in no less than 40 countries go to the polls in national elections in a year bookended by crucial contests in Taiwan in January and the US in November. According to Bloomberg Economics, voters in these countries comprise 41 percent of the world’s population and contribute to 42 per cent of its gross domestic product. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

How they vote, particularly in India, Russia, Taiwan and the US, will have an effect on Chinese foreign policy, analysts say. There may be more to this Year of the Dragon stuff than the horoscopes suggest, and not all of it’s good news, either.

China’s presence in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to increase, particularly as its central bank forges ahead with plans to “internationalise” the renminbi in a bid to challenge the cross-border wallop of the US dollar. Despite the Chinese currency’s poor performance and its depreciation against Western currencies, it is finding a foothold on the continent, with the Bank of China planning to use Zambia as a launching pad to increase regional trade in the remnimbi.

Further afield, there are fears that Beijing may step in to assist Moscow in its war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is almost certain to be returned to office in March and, without significant opposition, the Kremlin will plod on with its stalemated military campaign. Dismaying as Chinese aid may be in this conflict, there is some hope in the West that Beijing’s influence will somehow temper Putin’s reckless nuclear urges.

In Taiwan, meanwhile, it’s quite likely that its current vice-president Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai) will be elected as the country’s next leader. Lai has already been denounced as a “separatist” and a “troublemaker” by Beijing, who have suggested that any formal declaration of independence would be met with invasion to “reunify” the island with mainland China. 

Lai and his Democratic Progressive Party insist such a declaration is unnecessary. As he put it, “We must abide by the truth … which is [that] Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent country called the Republic of China. It is not part of the People’s Republic of China. The ROC and the PRC are not subordinate to one another. It is not necessary to declare independence.”

A Lai victory could feasibly ratchet up the tension in US-China relations for years to come, according to Bloomberg analyst Jennifer Welch. As it is, she believes both Democrats and Republicans will be taking a tough stance on Beijing in the run-up to the US elections.

China’s border dispute with India will continue. In New Delhi, Narendra Modi’s nationalist government, likely to be returned to power next year, will ramp up its hard line against Beijing. 

Other significant countries heading to the polls for national elections in 2024 include the United Kingdom (where a Labour victory is almost certain), Austria, Belgium, Finland, Iceland, Romania, Mexico, Panama, Uruguay, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Algeria, Botswana, Chad, Ghana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda and Tunisia.

On the home front

Somewhere among that lot, of course, is South Africa, which will go to the polls, it’s rumoured, either on May 8 or May 22. The ruling party, it is fair to say, has a battle on its hands. Most observers agree that the ANC faces the prospect of losing its overall majority, thus ushering in one of two possible coalition governments.

One is an ANC-EFF partnership, which will be as fractious as a sackful of alley cats and likely to collapse following any number of policy disagreements. The other is the more agreeable Multi-Party Charter, the coalition of opposition parties that came together under the stewardship of the Democratic Alliance’s John Steenhuisen.

There’s been a fair bit of media excitement regarding the entry of former FirstRand chair Roger Jardine into the political fray and the recent launch of his party, Change Starts Now. The Sunday Times has led the charge here, reporting that Jardine has met with DA leaders about becoming the “face” of the MPC and “possibly South Africa’s next president if the coalition can garner more than 50 per cent of the vote” in 2024. The MPC have since stated there have been “no discussions relating to a joint presidential candidate for the Charter”.

The newspaper also claimed that the MPC’s financial backers are insisting that the group be led by a candidate “with the necessary gravitas and credentials”, which Jardine appears to have, given his anti-apartheid activism. 

That said, he is certainly not a well-known figure, as Daily Maverick has noted,  although there is much about his moustache that may remind older voters of Pik Botha. On a more substantive level, there’s little that differentiates Jardine’s political principles from those of other opposition parties. And he’s made it clear he’s striking out on his own, rather than supporting anyone else. As he was quoted as saying:

“To join an existing party is to buy into an existing platform. I’m not a career politician. Given the urgency of the situation, we are very open to talking to other parties and structures. What we would like to see is South Africans coming together so we can shape a progressive political party…”

One factor that counts in Jardine’s favour is the anger and displeasure he has stirred within the ANC. Fikile Mbalula, the ruling party’s small and shouty secretary-general, has accused the newbie of poaching ANC veterans to shore up Change Starts Now’s “struggle credentials”. Which, in Mbalula’s opinion, Jardine sorely lacks.

“Roger Jardine’s family played a big part in the liberation struggle,” Mbalula has said, “not him. He is a beneficiary of BEE, he was made by capital and capital has chosen him. So he's a puppet of capital. We know a number of veterans like, [former UDF leader] Murphy Morobe, are being approached one by one.”

Murphy is a senior member of Jardine’s team. So is the Progressive Health Forum’s Dr Aslam Dasoo. In addition, and prior to launching his party, Jardine had also consulted with Mavuso Msimang, the ANC stalwart who recently quit the party in disgust, much to the chagrin of Mbalula, who accused Msimang and others of being bribed to abandon the ANC.

Msimang, who has described Mbalula as an “embarrassment” when compared to the party’s previous leaders, has demanded an apology. But Mbalula has denied making the accusation and insists therefore that no apology is necessary. In his usual comical manner, Mbalula took to X (formerly Twitter) to make noises with his face.

“There will be no apology because there is no accusation Dr Mavuso Msimang has been bribed,” Mbalula said. “There’s none of such in our articulation yesterday and as a result there will be no apology. Secondly, it is normal, in a position of secretary-general, you can be compared to stalwarts and forebears of the ANC at any given point in time. To that, we’re not allergic to it. We too are held accountable and accept that we too will be compared. But, like Fidel Castro said, history will absolve us…”

But history may also be terribly unkind. That, of course, is a fervent wish for 2024, one hopefully written in the stars. 

The will of the people

It was a “political earthquake”, one that stirred intense debate about the “future of one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world”. This according to The Times on the recent elections in North Korea where, surprisingly, ruling party candidates did not win 100 per cent of the votes. 

Well, when we say “elections”…

The country has long held regular showpieces in which members of the Workers’ Party of Korea stand unopposed for office in local assemblies and are obediently chosen by every single North Korean voter. But last month the unthinkable happened: official Pyongyang mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, reported that some voters had rejected officially-nominated candidates. This was the first time since the 1950s that the state media has reported the existence of any form of electoral dissent.

Again, when we say “dissent”…

Of the provincial assembly votes cast, 99.91 per cent were for nominated candidates and 0.09 per cent against them. In voting for city and county assemblies, dissent was even higher at 0.13 per cent.

What’s more, and despite voting being mandatory, KCNA also reported a drop in voter turnout. Numbers were down from 99.98 percent to 99.63 percent. The Times, which has done the math, explained the significance of this: “North Korea has a population of 26 million so even a fraction of a per cent of the adult electorate amounts to more than 10 000 people.”

We fear for these dissenters. The authorities know who these people are. There’s no secrecy in North Korean polling booths. Ballot papers don’t provide a choice of candidates, but instead are merely dropped by voters in a green box approving a single candidate or a red one for rejecting them. Officials are thus immediately able to identify those opposing the will of the party.

Of course, no one is predicting any sudden seismic shifts in North Korean politics. Kim Jong-un, the world’s only third-generation communist ruler, won’t be too upset by these results. Supported by his powerful banshee sister, Kim Yo-jong, his tyranny remains unchallenged. 

On the down side, though, it’s quite probable that, by the end of the 23rd century, these people will have been done with the Kims, by then an imbecilic dynasty enfeebled by generations of inbreeding and capable only of hopelessly soiling themselves. 

Besides, and given the Kims’ habit of slinging up monuments to themselves, it just as probable that, by then, North Korea will have run out of space in which to erect yet more statues of pudgy moon-faced tyrants with silly haircuts.

Happy holidays

This is the last Grouse of 2024. Along with the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), I’ll be back in the new year. Until then, stay safe.