Populism is threatening democracy

Dhaka,  Thu,  23 March 2017
Published : 12 Mar 2017, 21:03:02 | Updated : 12 Mar 2017, 21:05:56
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Populism is threatening democracy

Muhammad Zamir
Democratic political paradigm has been disturbedin certain parts of the worldboth by populist beliefs and autocratic approaches in the implementation of law and decision-making. These two factors have consequently been identified as dual threats to global democracy. 

In the 'overview essay' titled Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy in the US-based Freedom House's Freedom of the World 2017 report, Arch Paddington and Tyler Roylance have pointed out that in 2016 "populist and nationalist political forces made astonishing gains in democratic states, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, and grave atrocities went unanswered in war zones across two continents". The latest findings of the Freedom of the world show that a total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains. This marked the 11th consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements. What is even more significant is that unlike the past years, where such regression had taken place mostly in countries with dictatorships, in 2016, such decline was evident in more than 12 European countries. 

This downward trend, to a great extent, has been influenced by anxiety and indecision arising out of several developments. Donald Trump's unusual approach towards foreign policy has raised questions about how the United States will respond towards crisis in different parts of the world. BREXIT, caving in of the Italian government following the referendum on constitutional reform and the less than democratic approach in Poland are also enhancing fears. 

In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is trying to increase government influence over the media, judiciary, civil service, and education system. It has also proposed worrisome regulations on NGOs. Such steps have been similar to the ones taken by the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary since 2010. Both governments appear to have moved away from liberal values, attacked the institutions of pluralism, and sought to use the economic power of the State for partisan political ends. While the PiS has focused on providing economic benefits to its core constituents, Fidesz has manipulated laws and state contracts to enrich an affiliated business elite that can buttress its future political dominance. Such spread of "illiberal democracy" in Central Europe and the Balkans is having an osmotic effect on the orientation of major figures in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Serbia, among others. 

Meanwhile, the German authorities have underlined once again the determination of Chancellor Merkel to uphold democratic accountability in governance despite the growth in support for the Alternative for German party and its anti-refugee sentiment. During the last year, 10 attacks a day took place on an average against refugee-shelters in Germany. Such anger appears to have resulted from Chancellor Merkel'spolicy of welcoming nearly 890,000 refugees and thereby polarizing the country and fuelling support for populism.

We have seen the effect of populism nearer to home in Myanmar. The atrocities carried out on members of the minority Rohingya Muslim community have been examples of gross abuse of human rights. There are also examples of failure of democratic institutions in Central Europe, Brazil and South Africa. 

The evolving situation has grown in complexity because of atrocities perpetrated by the IS and Boko Haram terrorists. This has created an inverse response in most parts of the world and that has activated a populist tendency with regard to migrants, especially those of Muslim background coming from violence-affected areas in the Middle East and Africa. Several European governments have reacted by adopting laws that gave enhanced powers to security forces. More significantly, possibility of upsurge in terrorist attacks has stoked public hostility toward Muslim minorities and immigrants, deepening existing social rifts and threatening civil liberties. One may recall here that Donald Trump used this factor during the US presidential electoral process. On more than one occasion he promised to prevent Muslims from entering the United States, deport Syrians already in the country, and carry out "extreme vetting" of the beliefs of refugees and immigrants. We have seen since then further attempts by his Administration in this regard and the efforts of the US Judiciary not to permit any discrimination. That has been an example of democracy at work. 

A careful analysis of the political environment in Europe clearly indicates that over the past decade some European authoritarian political powers have formed loose coalitions to counter the influence of the United Nations and other transnational bodies associated with efforts to enforce global standards on democracy and human rights. Recently, these authoritarian regimes are trying to reach out to sympathetic parties, movements, and political figures from democracies in Europe and elsewhere. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's National Front, frequently praises Vladimir Putin and is alleged to have received financial assistance from Russian sources. She has called for France to align with Russia as a counterweight to the United States. Populist politicians in the Netherlands, Britain, Italy, and Austria also meet regularly with Russian officials and do not hesitate to criticize the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU after Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine, and support Russia's interests in votes at the European Parliament. 

However, polls still show that Europeans regard Russia as repressive and dangerous. Nevertheless, many are expressing doubts about certain core values that underpin the European idea. They are increasingly questioning the economic and social benefits of European integration and democratic solidarity in general.

Political strategists have pointed out that the principal casualty of this nationalist and populist wave in the developed countries has been the de facto two-party system with its traditional division of the political spectrum into two mainstream parties or coalitions of the center-right and center-left. Such an arrangement has ensured, since the end of the Second World War in 1945, stable government and a strong opposition in much of the free world. Currently, the scenario is slowly changing whereby in its place is appearing dominant ruling parties with few checks on their power because of fragmented parliaments with no governing majority, or an infusion of radical factions whose core constituencies provide them little incentive to moderate or compromise in the public interest.

A classicalexample has been Spain.  It has been without a fully functioning government for most of 2016. This has been the result of major gains by two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos. They have denied a majority to both establishment parties-the conservative People's Party and the center-left Socialist Party-and none of the four have been able to form a coalition.

In Britain, the ruling Conservative Party after the BREXIT referendum has adopted a more populist and nationalist direction under Prime Minister Theresa May. In the meantime, the main opposition Labour Party has suffered internal rifts because of its shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. This in all likelihood will weaken Labour's national election prospects, already badly damaged by the rise of the pro-independence Scottish National Party. These changes will serve to cement the Conservatives' political dominance for the foreseeable future.

In Germany, ruling Christian Democrats, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, is facing a serious challenge from the right headed by the populist Alternative for Germany party which has gained ground in subnational elections. It may be mentioned here that right-wing nationalist factions have continued their march from the fringe to the heart of governing coalitions also elsewhere in Northern Europe. In France, a close contest is emerging between hard-line conservative François Fillon and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front.

It would be appropriate at this juncture to refer to the unfolding scenario in the Balkans. Over there, fair election processes and the rule of law have deteriorated because the EU has neglected its role in promoting democracy among aspiring member-states. Leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, according to reports, have been ignoring constitutional procedures even as EU accession talks are continuing. There is a concern that progress toward democratic standards is being replaced by a toxic mix of nationalism, corruption and governmental dysfunction. 

We need to remember that if we cast aside universal values and international law then we will be left with a scenario where international affairs will in all probability be only governed by force.



The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.muhammadzamir0@gmail.com

 
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