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21 March, 2017 00:00 00 AM

Nationalist populism threatening democracy

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
Muhammad Zamir
Nationalist populism threatening democracy

Democratic behavior as understood through the upholding of the principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights is being affected most unfortunately in certain parts of the world. Correctness within the political paradigm is suffering from both populist beliefs as well as autocratic approaches in the implementation of law and decision-making. These two factors have consequently been identified as dual threats to global democracy. 
An incisive article published recently by Arch Paddington and Tyler Roylance have drawn attention to how  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”. Recent reports have indicated that in many countries spread throughout the world, individual leaders are pursuing their own narrow interests as identified by their prejudiced prism. This approach is subsequently creating a dynamics that is evolving into a source of danger for shared global peace, economic development, basic freedom and civil liberties. In fact, latest findings as described in the ‘Freedom of the World ‘report has revealed 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. 
Analysts are now claiming that this downward trend, to a great extent, has been influenced by anxiety and indecision arising out of several developments. The recent electoral victory of Donald Trump and his 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 resulting out of the referendum on constitutional reform and the less than democratic approach within Poland are also enhancing fears. 
In Poland we have seen sustained attempts by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to increase government influence over the media, judiciary, civil service, and education system. The government has also passed legislation that has politicized public media, neutered the constitutional court, handed the security services sweeping powers of surveillance, and restricted the right of public protest. 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 also having an osmotic effect on the orientation of major figures in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Serbia, among others. 
There have also been advances by xenophobic nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe and that is casting long shadows on the ideals associated with democratic governance. 
One needs to take recent revelations about Germany made public by the Interior Ministry of Germany as reported by AFP. Transparency in this regard by the German authorities has underlined once again the determination of Chancellor Merkel to uphold democratic accountability in governance despite the growth in support in that country for the Alternative for German party and its anti-refugee sentiment. Apparently, during last year, 10 attacks a day took place on an average against refugee-shelters in Germany and hate crimes from 3,500 attacks injured more than 500 asylum seekers, including 43 children. 
Such anger appears to have resulted due to Chancellor Merkel welcoming nearly 890,000 refugees and thereby polarizing the country and fuelling support for populism. This welcoming mat was later reduced in size and 2016 saw the entry of less than 280,000 refugees due to travel restrictions on the Balkan overland route and the EU deal with Turkey. In this context, one must laud Ulla Jelpke, an MP for the socialist Die Linke party for courageously blaming anti-migrant violence on proponents of the country's far-right and urging the government to take stronger action.
We have also 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 and completely contrary to our expectations from a civilian administration in a country where peace and peaceful resolution of problems have been reiterated within that country’s pre-dominant Buddhist faith. There is also growing 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 or Africa. Several European governments have reacted by adopting laws that gave enhanced powers to security forces and eased constraints on surveillance. 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 can recall here that Donald Trump used this factor during the US presidential electoral process and used it at various times. 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 by the EU after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, and support Russia’s interests in votes at the European Parliament. 
However, currently, such affection for authoritarians like Putin probably represents a minority view in Europe. Polls still show that Europeans regard Russia as repressive and dangerous. Nevertheless, many have come forward and started 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. Such political leaders are also tending to regard sovereign states rather than supranational entities as best equipped to address problems like economic inequality and displacement, surging rates of immigration, and humanitarian crises. 
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. Nearly all would agree that such an arrangement for a long time, since the end of the Second World War in 1945 has ensured 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 classical example 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’s shift to the left under leader Jeremy Corbyn has caused internal rifts. 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 multiyear march from the fringe to the heart of governing coalitions also elsewhere in Northern Europe. In France, the effect of populism is already also evident in the election process where a close contest is emerging between hard-line conservative François Fillon and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front.
It would also be appropriate at this juncture to refer to the unfolding scenario in the Balkans. Over there, fair election processes and the rule of law according to observers, have deteriorated even further. Thia has taken place because the EU has neglected its role in promoting democracy among aspiring member states. While there might have been deference to EU norms in the past, leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, according to reports have been ignoring constitutional procedures even as EU accession talks are continuing.. Analysts have expressed concern that progress toward democratic standards is being replaced by a toxic mix of nationalism, corruption and governmental dysfunction. 
This growth of populism or the existence of such behavior might be understandable in the context of war-torn areas in the Middle East or in Africa or even with regard to certain countries in Latin America but it becomes a source of anxiety when it surfaces in developed Europe or in the USA. 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.

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.  He can be reached at


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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