Two dominant political parties just received electoral shocks.  The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the African National Congress in South Africa will remain in power but neither retained a parliamentary majority in recent elections.

Their decline, unexpected in the BJP’s case, is a reminder that powerful, seemingly unassailable political forces, can and will inevitably deflate.  It also is an encouragement as to the resilience of democracy, even in our current time, when authoritarianism seems ascendant globally.    

The ANC has had dominant power since South Africa’s first fully democratic elections in 1994.  The BJP has ruled since 2014 and had hoped to gain a super majority of over 400 seats out of 543 that would allow it to change the constitution in its favor. Instead, the BJP lost 63 seats, falling to 240 seats. The ANC’s voter share fell to 40 percent, or 159 seats out of 400, having had 57 percent in 2019, and reaching nearly 70 percent in 2004.

Both the ANC and BJP now must form coalition governments with other parties, limiting their power.  The BJP, as a Hindu nationalist party, has frightened Muslims and Christians, among others in India, for potentially turning India from a secular state into a Hindu confessional state. Prime Minister Modi, in his electioneering, had demonized Muslims in a bid for wider Hindu support, a gambit that failed. Many Hindus seemingly voted based more on economic issues than religious identity.

The ANC, of course, was the decades long underground movement for racial liberation for South Africa’s black majority, from which Nelson Mandela emerged.  This history propelled and kept the ANC in unquestioned power across 30 years.  During that time, the ANC, like any party in power for too long, became arrogant, domineering and corrupt. Also, it developed divisions within itself, which undercut its authority and ability to win landslide elections.

Somewhat similarly, the BJP displaced India’s own longtime ruling and founding liberationist force, the Congress Party, in 2014. The BJP was hailed as possibly the world’s most important political party, as it governed without a meaningful opposition, as India rose in global influence, with a growing economy, and a strong prime minister who dealt with other world leaders as an equal or more.  Modi sought an image of inevitability as India’s natural leader.  That since of permanence is now reduced if not shattered.  The same is true for the ANC, although its dominance and mystique are more based on history than on the current president.

The humbling of the ANC and BJP usefully reminds us that all political reigns are episodic.  Proud leaders and movements typically self-congratulate themselves on their victories and power, which they declare epic, and implicitly assume are somehow permanent. They never are.  Some of course do last for decades, in dictatorships.  China’s Communist Party has ruled since seizing power in 1949.  Cuba’s Communist Party has ruled since seizing power in 1959.  Vietnam’s Communist Party has ruled since seizing power in 1954.  Syria’s Baathist Party has ruled since seizing power in 1963. 

Some parties in democracies aspire to permanent rule, such as the Justice and Development Party under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has ruled since 2002. Hungary’s Fidesz Party under Viktor Orban, ruling since 2010, is similar. Despite obstacles, opposition in both countries continues, successfully gaining power in Turkey’s local elections most recently.  Eventually these leaders and parties will fall. Not comparable to either, Britain’s Conservative Party, operating in a stable democracy, of course does not have authoritarian ambitions.  It has ruled for 14 years, across five prime ministers, is now cranky and unpopular, facing a momentous defeat next month.  

Fourteen years of power is likely too long for any political party.  Parties inevitably become stale and ineffective with time.  In healthy societies, ruling parties lose power after 5-10 years, allowing fresh oxygen into governance, and forcing the ousted party to refresh. In less healthy societies, parties gain power and refuse to let go, becoming ever heavier handed, arrogant, cynical and corrupt.  Dictatorships, real or aspiring, claim that only the ruling power legitimately can rule, while all opposition is treasonous or disqualified based on their beliefs or adherents.  The most idealistic and dynamic parties inevitably become jaded, selfish and inward focused is in power beyond their expiration date.

Human nature demands the resilience of constant challenge and opposition.  In a healthy society, political parties civilly oppose each other, relinquish and take power routinely and peacefully, see defeat as opportunities for renewal, learn from their mistakes, and look to earn power in the next election.  They see their opponents not as illegitimate or threats to their existence, but partners in democracy. 

Setbacks for the BJP in India and the ANC in South Africa bode well for democracy and stability in both countries.  Hopefully these setbacks lead to eventual outright defeat for both parties, forcing them to operate from the opposition, and allowing fresh voices to take power. 

Electoral defeat, in a healthy society, is not an existential crisis, but a providential time for recalibration. In democracies, at their best, the cycle of victory and defeat generates stability, trust and partnership. Defeat often teaches more than victory. Importantly, in politics, no defeat or victory is ever final.