In the Journal

On the Dangers of Conceptual Blinders: The Case of Foreign Policy Role Theory

Role theory has had a big impact in Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA). Initially developed in the 1970s by Kalevi Holsti, and taken up by scholars such as Stephen Walker in the following decade, role theory lay dormant until a new generation of scholars—including Cameron Thies, Marijke Breuning, Juliet Kaarbo, and Sebastian Harnisch—breathed new life into it in the 2000s. Foreign policy role theory is now a vibrant IR sub-sub-field, and is unlikely to fall dormant again any time soon, as a dynamic group of young scholars are showing the empirical and theoretical purchase gained from analyzing state action as the result of conceptions about their country’s role, or roles, in international affairs held by policy-makers and elites hold and the ideas other states’ leaders hold.

Foreign policy role theory is unquestionably a success story, one to which I have been fortunate to contribute. In my recent article in Politics, however, I pose a challenge to it. Put simply, I challenge foreign policy role theorists—myself included—to face head on the task of distinguishing between political contestation over a state’s role in the world, on the one hand, and political contestation over other—often domestic-focused issues—which has clear implications for foreign policy, but is not about a state’s international role, or roles. In the first scenario, foreign policy outcomes are well captured as a struggle over foreign policy roles. In the second, the “action” is elsewhere, and while foreign policy role theorists might develop accounts based on foreign policy contestation, they might well find themselves barking up the wrong—or at an only adjacent—tree.

I illustrate this challenge using three “cautionary” historical examples: the Marshall Plan, the 2016 UK Brexit vote, and recent U.S.-China relations. The Marshall Plan is a particularly good case. Typically understood as the result of a victory for American leaders hoping for the U.S. to adopt the hegemon role over an isolationist role, I show that the Plan was the result of mainly domestic-oriented political contestation, with foreign policy a somewhat unintended consequence. The Marshall Plan actually followed a rapid turnaround in U.S. foreign policy after 1945, from demobilization and the resumption of a more detached international role, to a potentially open-ended commitment to “free peoples everywhere”—in the words of the Truman Doctrine (1947). Absent from what a role theory account as currently practiced would foreground, are the non-role based domestic political struggles that underpinned the Plan’s formation. The Plan was a contingent outcome of intra- and inter-party contestation ranging across international and domestic policy—from foreign aid to labor relations and the relaxation of wartime economic controls. Specifically, concerns with the activities of militant labor during the massive 1946 strike wave became interlinked with support for Truman and his hardening policy toward the Soviet Union. Struggles over the liberal state were therefore central rather than peripheral to the adoption of American hegemony after 1945. The Marshall Plan case is thus one in which domestic political contestation had important implications for foreign policy and role performance, but was not the direct product of foreign policy-role contestation.

Readers will recognize here a general danger in social science—one we might term that of “conceptual blinders,” or the reification of our conceptual categories. In short, because foreign policy role theorists are attuned to contestation over roles, they are likely to see them everywhere, much like Marxists often must shoehorn the complexity of social life into preconceived conceptual categories like class struggle. What is to be done?

The first step is to recognize the problem, I suggest. More specifically, I argue that foreign policy role theorists should carefully distinguish between role contestation, non-role based political competition with role implications, and role performance. Since after all is said and done, our aim is to develop the most accurate accounts of foreign policy action we can, it might be best to complicate our stories to capture their non-role based features. It is my hope that, far from weakening foreign policy role theory, highlighting non-role based contestation with implications for role selection promises to enrich the approach by bringing it closer to the domestic determinants of state action.

Satisfaction with democracy in Turkey

Our recent article published in Politics explores the determinants of satisfaction with democracy in Turkey. We believe our article is an important contribution to the literature as the global recession of democracy over the last decade is accompanied by increasing dissatisfaction with democracy in different parts of the world.

There are different sources of people’s satisfaction with democracy. These factors include but not limited to people’s conceptualizations of democracy, income and education, election systems, and electoral integrity. We focused on four specific factors, which we argue, are relevant to Turkey’s current social, political, and economic context: being a political winner or loser, people’s perceptions of electoral integrity, ethnic identity, and people’s conceptualizations of democracy.

Our analysis of a national survey yielded that in Turkey, being a political winner has the largest effect on satisfaction with democracy, indicating high levels of political polarization based on party identity. We also found that in Turkey, the lower one’s perception of electoral integrity is, the less likely one is to be satisfied with democracy. This is an important contribution to an emerging literature on the relationship between citizens’ perceptions of electoral integrity and their satisfaction with democracy.

Ethnic identity does not explain satisfaction with democracy in Turkey. In other words, being a Kurd or Turk does not have an effect on citizens’ satisfaction with democracy. Kurds’ negative perceptions of corruption and media freedom in Turkey might have contributed to this result. That is, when Kurds’ perceptions of corruption and media freedom were taken into account, their ethnic identity becomes a less important predictor of their satisfaction with democracy.

We also found that people’s conceptualizations of democracy do not have an effect on their satisfaction with democracy when perceptions of corruption and media freedom were taken into account. This might be due to the fact that people could have expressed their opinions stronger when asked about a concrete dimension of democracy such as media freedom. We argue that this is a legitimate reason to suggest that future research on the determinants of satisfaction with democracy to include concrete measures that have relevance to the political and social context of the country under consideration.

The global recession of democracy requires more studies because we need to be better informed and equipped against this process and the increasing citizen dissatisfaction accompanying it. As our article is one of the very few empirical studies on satisfaction with democracy in Turkey, it is an important contribution to this literature. Furthermore, our article has policy implications since it demonstrated that policymakers in Turkey should particularly focus on the effects of political polarization, perceptions of electoral integrity, corruption, and media freedom on citizens’ satisfaction with democracy to improve regime’s standing with the citizens.

Decolonising the political theory curriculum

Events during the summer of 2020, including the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, have reignited debates about Britain’s colonial legacy. In universities, these debates touch on issues not only of symbolic representation – such as what should be done with the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford – but also on what we teach and how. Calls to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ are especially relevant to political theory. It is in the teaching of political theory that we claim to introduce students to the foundational thinkers, theories, and concepts of our discipline. Yet the traditional canon of political theory is dominated by white men. The issues of colonialism, imperialism, and race are frequently ignored and the explicit racism of canonical thinkers such as Kant, Locke, and Mill often goes unmentioned.

To assess what – if any – progress has already been made in decolonising political theory curricula, in my recent article in Politics I examined modules at 92 UK universities, choosing one module from each university. I was interested mainly in the modules that are called things like ‘History of Political Thought’ and which introduce students to the canon of political thought from Plato to Rawls and beyond. Looking at module descriptors and – where available – reading lists, I searched for the presence of non-white thinkers and authors and any mention of themes related to colonialism and its legacies, including imperialism, slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement.

I found that most of the 92 modules examined contained no reference to race or race-related themes and no readings from any non-white thinkers. Only about 20% of the modules had what I call a ‘significant reference to race’, in which at least one week was dedicated to a non-white thinker or race-related theme and at least one of the essential readings came from a non-white author. (As might be noted, this is still a pretty low bar.) In other words, notwithstanding a handful of examples of good practice, when students in UK universities study the canonical thinkers and foundational theories of Politics, more often than not they read only white thinkers and they are not asked to reflect on colonialism and race.

Why does this matter? There are at least two reasons. First, our students are not exclusively white. Some have argued that there is a moral case for students to see their own cultural and ethnic identities reflected in their curricula. But there is also a more pragmatic case: there is a risk that BME students – whose attainment currently lags behind that of their white peers – may disengage if they are confronted with a curriculum in which only white people are given a voice. Second, an all-white curriculum implies – absurdly – that only white people have contributed to the ways in which we think about and conceptualise politics. Even if – for whatever reason – one wanted to teach only ‘Western’ political thought, this would not be a reason for teaching only white thinkers and ignoring colonialism. Not all ‘Western’ thinkers are white, and ‘non-Western’ thinkers like Gandhi and Fanon were subjects of the very Western empires that their works opposed. Colonialism is central to the history and construction of ‘the West’, and even the white thinkers of the traditional canon cannot be understood if their relation to and views on colonialism go undiscussed.

Left politics and popular culture in Britain

In 2018 the left-wing journalist and commentator Ash Sarkar appeared on ITV’s flagship daytime show Good Morning Britain. There followed a tense exchange in which host Piers Morgan, addressing Sarkar, referred to “your hero Obama”. Sarkar promptly pointed out that Obama was not her hero: “I’m literally a communist, you idiot” she retorted. Clips of this incident were soon circulated across a range of media platforms. Left-wing media outlet Novara began selling T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Literally a Communist”, and Sarkar herself went on to be interviewed by a number of media outlets – most famously Teen Vogue – about her political views. By recent historical standards, this was a curious and surprising sequence of events: left-wing politics in general, let alone “communism”, had long been marginalised in mainstream British political debate. But the incident was, I suggest, testament to an important yet often overlooked element of recent British politics, namely, an increased traction and visibility of left-wing ideas and people within mainstream British media and popular culture, particularly during left-winger Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader in 2015-19. In a recent article in the journal Politics, I develop the category of “popular leftism” to help make sense of the cultural and media aspects of left politics during the Corbyn years. I draw on Stuart Hall’s famous account of the politics of popular culture and I also discuss and extend feminist cultural studies scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser’s illuminating account of the phenomenon of “popular feminism”.

In so doing, I suggest that “popular leftism” should be seen a distinctive cultural and political formation in which left-wing politics has – to some extent at least – reoriented itself towards the mainstream of British cultural life. It exhibits four key features. First, popular leftism entails a heightened cultural and media visibility of left-wing people, politics and ideas, in mainstream news media, as well as celebrity culture, popular music, film and television. Second, the rise of popular leftism occasioned a turn towards humour, light-heartedness and irreverence, via the use of memes, gifs and other forms of socially-mediated visual humour. Third, the “popularity” of popular leftism reflects a shift in the ideas and tactics of left politics. Prior to 2015, left politics was often a rather marginal, specialised pursuit with its own distinctive vocabulary, habits and aesthetics. During the Corbyn era, however, there was an attempt, albeit uneven, to move left-wing practices and ideas out of the margins and into the mainstream of British political and cultural life.

Fourth and finally, popular leftism must be understood in relation to neoliberalism. Although “popular leftism” is ostensibly critical of neoliberalism, it has been profoundly shaped by, and embedded within, the neoliberal cultural context in which it emerged. This has served to limit popular leftism’s ability to unsettle the neoliberal parameters of the wider cultural and political terrain in which it exists, a problem exacerbated by the outcome of the 2019 General Election and Corbyn’s subsequent resignation. So, while a consideration of media and culture is crucial for understanding Corbynism – and indeed recent British politics in general – ultimately popular leftism has failed to offer a meaningful or coherent counter-hegemonic challenge to neoliberalism.

Inflation and states’ priority on monetary independence over exchange rate stability

Stable exchange rates and monetary policy autonomy are both desirable macroeconomic policy objectives for states. On the one hand, exchange rate stability promotes investments and trade flows by reducing transaction costs. On the other hand, monetary policy autonomy enables a government to respond adequately to domestic economic challenges without regard for other countries’ monetary policies. However, states cannot adopt both measures when capital is internationally mobile. If a state fixes its exchange rate, the state’s nominal interest rate should be equal to the world rate in this situation. Therefore, when setting macroeconomic policies, a state can have either a stable exchange rate at the expense of its capacity to use independent monetary policy or monetary policy autonomy that risks a fluctuating exchange rate.

Regarding these two policy objectives, the extant literature demonstrates that rulers whose political survival depends on citizens tend to choose monetary policy autonomy. While exports and foreign investments are crucial sources of a nation’s economic growth and revenue, scholars stress that a majority of citizens are engaged in domestically oriented sectors and prefer monetary policy autonomy to stable exchange rates. Therefore, despite the presence of a small export-/internationally oriented interest group that prefers exchange rate fixity, in a democracy where the public determines the leader’s tenure, the leader is more likely to prioritize median voters’ interests and choose monetary policy autonomy over exchange rate stability. Conversely, nondemocratic rulers who channel resources mostly as private goods to their relatively small coalition of elites tend to choose exchange rate stability, which can incentivize more investment and trade flows at the expense of monetary policy tools.

Facing such different domestic macroeconomic preferences, what happens to state decisions when there rises an economic challenge? More specifically, what happens to how different domestic preferences are reflected in states’ macroeconomic policy choices when inflation increases? In my recent article in Politics, I argue that states become more likely to relax exchange rates when inflation increases. Because inflation affects citizens’ daily lives through cost of living, high inflation makes citizens dissatisfied with the incumbent ruler. In the case of democracies, a rising inflation rate will make a leader pay closer attention to the frustration of domestically oriented median voters. Therefore, the leader will become more willing to forgo exchange rate stability to independently utilize monetary policy, which helps states appropriately respond to external shocks to the domestic economy.

Moreover, I argue that rising inflation has the same impact on nondemocratic states. An increase in the inflation rate imposes greater financial burdens on citizens than on relatively well-off elites. Therefore, as inflation rises, a nondemocratic ruler faces an increasing threat of popular challenges. Thus, despite a nondemocratic ruler’s usual tendency to prioritize elite supporters’ preferences, given the increased risk of popular challenge to political tenure, a nondemocratic ruler will be more likely to pay attention to citizens by securing monetary policy autonomy to respond to high inflation at the expense of a stable exchange rate when inflation increases. As a result, I hypothesize that states become more likely to relax both nominal and actual exchange rate arrangements when the inflation increases.

I statistically test the hypotheses with unbalanced panel data of countries covering the period 1982–2007. Interestingly, empirical analyses suggest stronger support for the hypothesis regarding nondemocracies. The findings from the main analyses (using binary logistic regressions) are robust i) when I use the alternative independent variable of the ratio of the inflation rate to the GDP per capita growth rate; or ii) when I use an alternative analyses (ordered logistic regressions).

Findings of this study suggest that states are more likely to prioritize regular citizens interests and consequently choose monetary policy autonomy over exchange rate stability in times of economic challenges such as increasing inflation. Consistent with many studies, this study suggests that there may rise circumstances in which nondemocratic rulers pay closer attention to regular citizens’ interest/preferences when making policy decisions. Moreover, this article also makes a broader implication that sometimes the increased odds of collective challenges may make a ruler’s commitment (e.g., declare to relax exchange rates) credible even in nondemocracies.

EU’s exceptionalist militaristic peacebuilding turn: the trading of good-governed for military-capable states

How is militarism changing EU peacebuilding? In my recent article in Politics, I show that the EU is downplaying the goal of state reform, based on good governance and human rights, and is now concentrating on providing military capacity in order to uphold sovereignty, even if that means the suppression of rights.

This is not an unusual move in the current state of peacebuilding affairs (see here, here, here and here). Nor does it seem unusual, considering that the EU has been grappling with how to be more effective in achieving peacebuilding goals. Several authors (for example, see here, here, here and here) have already pointed out the EU’s new pragmatic and resilience-orientated approach and its governmentality consequences. But since the perceived value of the military and the institutionalisation of war and war-preparation are central to pragmatic, resilience, and capacity-building shifts in EU peacebuilding, how has militarism shaped recent transformations and what are its consequences, require further scrutiny.

Following Mabee and Vucetic, my article’s main argument is that EU peacebuilding has gone from a nation-statist militarism (based on building state security and defence alongside social and economic development) to an exceptionalist militarism (boosting sovereignty and military capacity to exercise control and coercion) while maintaining a liberal militarist framework in which military investment and humanitarian and development actors are central.

Militarism has always been constitutive of EU’s peacebuilding. Yet between 2003 and the late 2000s, war, based on an expansive technologically and industrial defence investment, added to a broad reform agenda, were seen as a solution to the problems of conflict and so-called state failure. From the late 2000s until now, sovereignty does not need to be intervened, but actually defended, even if that entails the suppression of rights.

The evidence of this new EU peacebuilding practice is based on the most important and current peacebuilding tools – Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), including the Capacity Building for Security and Development (CBSD). It also explores briefly the case of the Sahel (Non-interview data can be accessed here).

The study of CSDP missions show a rise of military and training missions make up 42% and 71% of the total respectively, and a fall of rule of law missions. The wording of mandates has dropped a focus on good governance whereas military-capacity building has become prominent. For example, rule of law is mentioned an average of 6.21 times in pre-2010 missions, but only 1.38 times in post-2010. Conversely, Capacity Building with regards to military-capacity has gone from an average of 0.08 times to 1.3 times. This illustrates a ‘fetishization’ of states’ coercive power as a way to suppress any challenges to state sovereignty.

The study of IcSP and CBSD illustrates a turn from a concern with institutions of government and the security sector to a concern with military support, even if non-lethal. IcSP programmes have been increasingly pushed to support CSDP missions and appease social challenges to state authority and military deployment, showing that humanitarian and development actors, and not only military actors and political elites, have been the engines of a new militarism.

However, these changes have been problematic. The case of the Sahel shows that EU-boosted security forces have increasingly engaged in human rights abuses. While other development programmes are deployed in this region, they are the necessary extension of a central policy that places sovereignty and means of coercion as a requirement for development.

This new approach does not denote a transition from a non-militaristic to a militaristic peacebuilding practice. Rather it indicates a transition to a different variety of militarism, with important but also problematic new developments in EU’s security and peace policies, which are likely to define EU peacebuilding in the following years.

When do coalitions form under presidentialism, and why does it matter?

The literature about coalition cabinets has been marked by three main “analytical wages” which led to increasing diversification and sophistication. This extensive production has contributed to bringing about a significant update in the understanding of how and why coalition cabinets form in multiparty presidential regimes. Also, most of the literature has focused on explaining coalition agreements duration or survival, that is why some coalitions are more durable or less brittle than others. Unsurprisingly, the most common arguments presented deal with institutional factors (see, for example, here, here, here and here).

However, very few works have risen the when question. This issue is quite relevant as the presidential system seems to bring a high visibility and predictability to election results, as the winner of the presidential election automatically becomes president. However, when explaining the phenomenon of coalition cabinets, the most common observation made is that they happen because the president’s party could not reach a majority. This statement assumes that coalitions are a product of post-electoral agreements whose objective is to confer to the president a majority that could not be obtained in the election. The main evidence to support this argument amounts to highlighting the minority status of the president elect’s party. According to this argument, the agreements for the forming of coalition cabinets are expected to be short-lived, as they would have been concluded more by necessity than through willingness.

However, although a president’s party may have had no majority in parliament, this situation could be the result of a bargaining strategy, after a previous pre-electoral agreement. Hence, the timing of the operationalization of this type of coalition agreements would be pre-electoral. In other words, the president’s party could not reach a majority alone, because it formed an electoral alliance.

As a matter of fact, in my recent article in Politics, I point out that this situation is far from being causal. Indeed the first descriptive finding of this paper is that, actually, coalition cabinets are – generally – the product of pre-electoral agreements. I present a six-stage timing of coalition agreements, including four degrees of precocity. Secondly, I set out that earlier agreements are relevant conditions for producing enduring coalitions. Last but not least, I show that the most common conditions driven out by the literature (i.e. institutional arguments) seem to have been overrated, when including the timing condition into the model.

Is populism essentially an anti-EU discourse?

The study of populist parties and populist discourses is on the rise in political science. However, populism is a catch-all word generally alluding to several dimensions of the political behavior and identity of political actors. In recent research of populism, there seems to be a consensus that pundits and academics should understand populism as a type of political discourse, a thin ideology or a mode of communication consisting of dividing the symbolic field between the people and the elites. While the thin ideology approach tends to consider populism as a set of established beliefs that are combined with full ideologies producing more or less stable configurations, the discourse-oriented approach focuses on the contingent articulation between the populist discourses and other semiotic ensembles. What remain unclear in both approaches are the implications of this discourse, thin ideology or political communication for other dimensions of political action. Is the populist discourse relevant enough to shape the political orientation of political actors in other dimensions such as fiscal policy, redistribution, EU politics or foreign policy?

In my recent article in Politics I took a discourse-oriented approach to this topic and explore in particular the power of populist discourses to shape the orientations of political parties in EU politics. To do so, I analyzed two parties, generally classified as populist in the literature, located at the opposite extremes of the left-right ideological spectrum: Podemos in Spain and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany. First, I looked at how the populist discourse is formed in both parties; that is, how this opposition between the people and the elites is constructed in its form and substantiated in its content. In a second step, I sought to unearth the relationship between the populist discourse and the representations of Europe and the EU in both parties.

This paper yields relevant findings for the literature on populism and EU contestation. First, it confirms the differences that previous comparative studies found between left-wing and right-wing populist parties in constructing the people and the elites. Second, and perhaps more importantly, this paper empirically substantiates two key features of the relationship between populism and EU contestation with important theoretical implications for populism studies: the ambivalence and the contingency of the relation between populism and EU contestation. On the one hand, populism may lead to confrontation against EU elites fueling EU opposition but it can also stimulate a pro-European view in defense of European peoples and in favor of grater social integration of EU member states. It is, therefore and ambivalent and not unidirectional relation. On the other hand, the relation between populism and EU contestation is proven to vary over time in the case of populist parties. I find a clear influence of populism shaping EU contestation only in the case of the left wing party Podemos. In the case of the AfD it is not populism what determines the forms to represent the EU but the ordoliberal ideology that is central in the discourse of the German party. Even in the case of Podemos the findings indicate that the centrality of populism varies throughout the various stages of the party development (2014-2018).

Based on these findings, it is necessary to be cautious in future research on populism and revise the unproblematic association between populism and EU opposition. As this paper shows, a more complex and contingent relation between populism and EU contestation should be the starting point for the further comparative investigation of this topic.

How do institutional and contextual factors influence the parliamentary entry of new parties?

The entry into Parliament of a new political party has the potential to influence established patterns of electoral competition and government formation and to affect existing policy-making coalitions. New parties can increase responsiveness and accountability by focusing on issues previously ignored by mainstream politicians. Or they can generate more confusion for voters and further weaken their ability to identify what political competitors stand for, as the existing parties might adapt their positions to respond to the challenger. This emphasizes the relevance of improving our understanding of how institutions and political contexts facilitate new party success.

In our article published in Politics, we rely on a sample of 351 elections held in young and consolidated democracies from 1960 to 2013, to examine the likelihood that new parties gain parliamentary representation as a function of electoral system permissiveness and contextual factors that shape political entrepreneurs’ perception of political opportunity. However, not all new parties are the same, and their likelihood of gaining parliamentary representation and subsequently their impact on the party system is likely to depend on their origin.

We acknowledge this caveat and our article adds a new layer to the literature by distinguishing genuinely new parties from both splinter and merger new parties. We also illustrate that distinct factors drive the parliamentary entry of the three types, except for higher district magnitude, which increases the chances of representation for all types of newcomers.

Our findings indicate that the electoral formula and the proportionality of the electoral system shape the ability of new splinter parties to gain parliamentary seats, but do not affect the other two types. Conversely, genuinely new parties and new parties resulting from mergers are much more likely to enter Parliament in the first elections organized after the (re)foundation of a democracy than later on.

While previous research has suggested that coalition infighting and frequent changes in government drive protest voting, our analyses show for the first time that genuinely new and splinter new parties are significantly more likely to enter Parliament when the previous governmental cycle was marked by instability. Further research is needed to explore the mechanisms behind this effect beyond our intuition that governmental instability creates demand for alternatives, which astute political entrepreneurs are quick to identify as a window of opportunity to launch new parties.

Another exciting avenue of further research concerns the role of limited programmatic diversity of existing parties for the success of new parties. We found evidence in favour of this hypothesis only for the analyses ran on the post-communist sample, which is remarkable in itself, given the relatively widely held opinion that ideological appeals matter less in Eastern Europe and ‘newness’ is sufficient to attract voters without the need to advocate for new issues. Future studies might want to take into account not only programmatic coverage and diversity, but also attempt to measure the quality of how existing parties represent salient issues and ideological positions.

What is driving political party protests in South Africa?

Over the past two decades, South African politics have increasingly been shaped – and perhaps even defined – by contentious politics. Citizens have taken to the streets to protest corruption, inadequate service delivery, and ineffective leadership. This rise of protests and riots has occurred during a period of political transition, where the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost influence while opposition parties have grown. As historical party loyalties dissolve, political parties have adopted a strategy of directly engaging in and leading protests themselves. Given the many options that political parties have to communicate their messages – rallies, speeches, traditional media coverage – why have they opted to engage in protests?

In my recent article in Politics, I show that in a time when traditional partisan solidarities are breaking apart following a quarter-century of inefficient government and corruption, political parties see protests as a credible means to communicate their commitment to South African voters. Words and slogans are cheap, and voters are increasingly frustrated with the inability of the government to make good on its promises. Party-led protests, which entail all the costs of mobilizing large groups of people, serve several functions. First, they are costly signals of a party’s commitment to following through on its claims. Unlike other venues for such promises, such as rallies or political advertisements, party-led protests require the physical mobilization of groups of people and often include the threat of physical confrontation with political opponents or the police. Such protests, then, serve to demonstrate that a party is willing to pay a potentially high price to align itself with the needs of the people. Second, engaging in protests allows political parties to communicate their commitments through the language of contention. To the increasing number of South Africans who take to the streets but forsake the ballot box, protests provide evidence that parties understand that the time for simple platitudes and promises has passed.

Using counts of party-led protests at the municipal level corresponding to the 2004, 2009, 2014, and 2019 elections, I demonstrate that for South Africa’s opposition parties, protests correlate positively and significantly with increased vote share. The analysis demonstrates that political parties target their existing strongholds for such protests. Yet, while the established opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and the insurgent far-left Economic Freedom Fighters both benefit from such contentious engagement, the ANC does not. Deeper analysis indicates that this is due to the fracture within the ANC; less than half of its protests focus on social issues. Rather, most of the ANC’s protests centre on in-fighting and attacking the ANC’s opponents. The results indicate that if the fault lines of South African politics continue to shift, political parties are likely to continue engaging in protests to attract popular support. The move from traditional political messaging to contentious engagement reveals a deep weakness with the South African political establishment; a quarter-century of failed promises have led a country’s citizens to trust insurgent – and often violent – contentious engagement over the promises of political leaders.