Did I vote right?

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Do you work for the good of the common people? The ancien régime in France before the French Revolution of 1789 had opulent aristocrats enjoying privilege and the finery of life, divorced from the masses stooped in rags.  The term for political left and right derives from this:  the ‘left’ were commoners, the ‘right’ aristocrats. These terms influence how people vote today. In the picture, a member of the church, the aristocracy and the commoners

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, in the sense that when they got into the voting booth, their emotional feelings dominated their minds and that’s where they placed their crosses.

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, the more accommodating white parties were called the left wing, and the most unyielding – the verkramptes –  the right wing. In this system, the renowned anti-apartheid politician, Helen Suzman, would be called leftist, although 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 French Revolutionary era, where the seating of the ancien régime of France from the 15th to the 18th centuries was arranged in such a way that the commoners sat on the left, and the 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. This 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, such as 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 the Palestinians, has 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 who 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, an aspect which was raised on Tuesday. On the contrary, Israeli democracy within the 1967 borders is nothing at all like apartheid: it is vibrant and very strong, with a totally free press and full judicial authority in the Supreme Court which has traditionally been quite leftist in its rulings, including on women’s and LGBTI rights, and at times it has overturned government decisions; and it has other, powerful democratic elements. It is in the occupied territories with their 600,000 Jewish settlers, where the apartheid analogy may apply, with 2 million Palestinians with no voting rights. But even there, there are significant differences.

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

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

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