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March 26, 2017
Monday, March 20, 2017

Are we witnessing a new wave of populist anger?

By Sybil Rhodes
For The Herald
Over the past year we have grown accustomed to hearing that the expression of popular fury in the Brexit vote in June 2016 foreshadowed Donald Trump’s victory in the United States presidential election in November. Many analysts have worried that Trump’s victory has further fanned the flames of right-wing xenophobic populism throughout the world, and especially, in Europe. Some of these concerns extend into fears that the idea of liberal democracy itself is threatened.
Upcoming elections in several European countries this year will help determine whether worries that anti-democratic populism has indeed gone viral are valid or not.
Before speculating about the results of the pending races, it is worth considering whether elections in one country can really have much of an impact in others. All countries are undoubtedly unique — and so are their elections. Given the idiosyncrasies of each case, can there really be such a thing as diffusion of electoral outcomes?
History and political science suggest that the answer is yes. Diffusion, or learning and copying, can produce a demonstrative effect; that is, people see that something was achieved in another country that they would like to happen in their own. Witness the electoral revolutions that liberalised countries in East-Central Europe, the Balkans, and the post-Soviet states after the Cold War.
We know from the post-Communist experience that electoral diffusion occurred in part because diverse publics viewed themselves as having a history of oppression by a common enemy (in this case, the USSR).  It was also significant that public and private institutions from Western countries, particularly the United States, provided significant aid to societal actors who worked to promote liberal victories.
Similar elements may be identified in the current situation. Under right-wing populism, the “enemy” is most often foreigners, albeit different types of foreigners in different countries. There is also foreign intervention. Evidence of Russian support for extremist parties in Europe, and Russia’s apparent hacking and leaking of Democratic Party emails in the US, seems intended to discredit democracy further, and improve the standing of illiberal authoritarianism. There are also still plenty of organisations promoting liberal values (although in some countries, notably in East-Central Europe, populist leaders have cracked down on foreign foundations and NGOs).
However, although in recent months populist parties and candidates have appeared to be on the upswing in the polls, the latest reports portray a different picture. For example, in the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ PVV is running behind the centre-right, so it may not even achieve the symbolic triumph it had hoped for (it has never had a chance of joining or forming a government as the other parties will not work with it). The National Front party in France, led by Marine Le Pen, is also down in the polls. Analysts do not believe she can win a second-round runoff by any stretch of the imagination. Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) has a vote share of around 10%, far less than the major parties enjoy. The Italian Five-Star Movement appears to be doing better (27 percent) but elections there are not likely for several months. We all know the polls can be wrong about right-wing populism of course, but even if they are off by a few points the decline in populists’ chances seems to be a clear trend.
Some of the downward shift may even be explained by learning and copying. People around the world may already be seeing some of the aftermath of Brexit and Trump which, at a minimum, have not produced instant solutions to the problems that had enraged voters. Inside the countries engaging in populist experiments some of the same realisations will surely occur. At the same time, more moderate parties on the centre-left and centre-right everywhere will be forced to incorporate some of the concerns of citizens who support extremists into overall more respectable political programmes, in order to compete.
Thanks to European voters and the self-correcting mechanisms inherent in liberal democracy, there is a good chance the global centre can hold.                                                        w
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