Why you should care
Because this is a new model of upstarts entering politics.
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Yusuf Mohammed Tailor knew the odds were stacked against him when, two years ago, he contested elections to a vacant provincial seat in the western Indian state of Gujarat. An independent candidate standing against well-oiled political parties, he was trounced, winning just 86 votes against the eventual winner, who secured 5,579 votes.
Yet the then-29-year-old says he felt vindicated. He had stood on behalf of a community defined not by religion, caste, region or any of the standard identifiers that politics in India ride on. He had stood as a candidate representing a group that had felt neglected for decades. But Tailor hadn’t really run as a new political party. Rather, he’d run as a businessman — specifically, as a tailor, with a platform against “open electrical wires” and “pools of water breeding mosquitoes.”
The Tailors of Surat aren’t alone. Independent electoral candidates promising little more than to make their local communities fairer for their particular small economic interests are sprouting up in a range of democracies like India, Malaysia and the U.K. Even communist China, with its experiments in controlled democracy, isn’t immune. It’s a trend playing out globally, along with the rise of deepening democratic traditions at community and village levels in postcolonial democracies and a hunger for local reform in places like the U.K.
Though these candidates may not win, they might pressure established candidates to address their concerns.
That localization is only a few decades old in some of the countries where it’s picking up now: India, for instance, first held local elections in its rural countryside — where two-thirds of the country lives — in 1992. Malaysia, where a single party has ruled the country since its independence from the British in 1957, has allowed local communities to pick their representatives only since 2005. Greater middle-class assertion coincides with growing disaffection with mainstream parties, and combines with the spread of social media to give independent candidates a shot locally — instead of battling national election conglomerates, “all you need is to use the local network,” says Donald Wittman, a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who researches electoral candidate motivations.
Though the federal election commissions in most major democracies — including India and the U.K. — don’t keep records of municipal elections, some research has shown a rise in the past decades. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the number of independent nonparty candidates has more than doubled, from 702 in 1962 to 1,691 in 2012, according to the federal election commission’s data. In the U.K, research shows even steeper rises between the 1980s and 1990s.
Though these candidates may not win, they might pressure established candidates to address their concerns. In Surat, for instance, the eventual winner and the runner-up both tried to counter Tailor’s challenge by also promising regular garbage collection, better sanitation and a new fire station, says Parag Shah, a community worker in the Gujarat city. Previously, Tailor argues, no one cared about his neighborhood’s community of tailors and small artisans because they were “politically fractured, and aren’t rich. Now, the parties know we exist politically.” (Nishith Patel, the runner-up in the election Tailor lost, tells OZY that this group indeed needed a leg up, and that while he’s “always stood by the weaker sections of our society… our political messaging fell short.”)
In some cases, people may end up creating a sustained coalition for small-business interests, as Amin bin Ali, one of five grocers from Sepang (outside of Kuala Lampur), tried to, in order to address rising rents of shopkeepers. Other times, an entire company puts up a candidate for office — just this past June, the Kitex Group, a textile firm based in the southern Indian state of Kerala, tells us it decided to field candidates for elections to a local village council that had denied licenses for its manufacturing plant. “Kitex believes it is a part of the local community,” the company said in a statement to OZY. In still other cases, like China, where candidates need only 10 signatures to contest elections (though the Communist Party vets all nominations), independents are homeowners battling government plans to demolish buildings or build public infrastructure on their property.
But of course, like any candidate, the story may be less about the issues and more about publicity, says Kaushik Bhattacharya, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Lucknow, India. Sure, many stand for causes they believe in, “but some see elections as a chance at advertising their business at limited expense,” says Bhattacharya, who specializes in comparative studies of independent candidates across elections. What’s new there, though? We wonder how much sales of Donald Trump’s business best-seller have jumped since he joined the Republican fray. A new form of advertising indeed.