More than 150 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, a new spectre is haunting vast swathes of Europe, Asia, Africa and America in the 21st century. It is the spectre of populist nationalism, that thrives on exploitation of popular sentiments and undefined fears, with ominous portents for the very idea of liberal democracy. The Tony Blaire Institute for Global Change, in its report “European Populism: Trends, Threats and Future Prospects”, published in December 2017, has mentioned the unprecedented changes in Europe’s political landscape, describing them as the biggest transformation in European politics since the end of the Cold War. Over the last two decades, populist parties have experienced a surge in their support base and populists have succeeded in entering most national Parliaments across the continent. In many countries, they have even succeeded in taking over the reins of government.
What is the hallmark of this populism? According to the authors of the Report, “populism is not a deep ideology but rather a logic of organisation”. At its core lies a sharp distinction between friend and enemy, in which populists’ supporters are portrayed as the legitimate people while the opponents are debumned as opportunists. Populist parties and politicians claim to represent “the true will of a unified people” against the domestic elites, foreign migrants or ethnic, religious or sexual minorities. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of populist parties in Europe have almost doubled ~ from 33 to 63, and they include both Left and Right wing populists. While there are important differences between these two types of parties, the combined effect of the Eurozone crisis and mass migration seems to have blurred the rigid distinction between the two.
Between 2000 and 2017, the number of European countries with populist participation in government has doubled ~ from 7 to 14, and right-wing populist parties have thrived in Eastern Europe, while the Left populists have thrived in Southern Europe, particularly in Greece, Spain and Italy. In Hungary and Poland, populists have used their position of power to weaken democratic norms and undermine independent institutions and have tried to disempower their political opponents through intimidation in Western Europe. Populist parties may be fewer and less powerful, compared to Eastern Europe, but they have made important inroads, as is evident from the rise of Marine le Pen in France, who qualified for the second round run-off against Emanuel Macron in the 2017 Presidential elections. In Germany, the AfD (Alternative for Deutschland Germany) replaced the Social Democrats as the second largest party in Bavaria and in much of East Germany, in the 2017 elections.
In Britain, the Brexit debate has opened up opportunities for the populist parties to emerge as significant players in the ultimate decision either to leave the European Union or maintain links with it (for example, through a common Customs Union). This may reduce the damage to Britain’s economic interests, rather than leaving the EU abruptly, without any agreement with Brussels.
In the summer of 2015, The Daily Telegraph reported that a group of business leaders and economists had called for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, if Prime Minister Cameron failed to secure a veto over European laws that adversely affected British interests and win back the country’s control over employment rules, and protection of the city from Eurozone regulations. The overall tenor of the report was skeptical of the value of the UK’s membership of EU. The Financial Times, in a survey conducted in 2016, found that the supporters of the Remain camp had a different view and thought that Brexit would adversely affect Britain’s medium term economic prospects. Britain was supposed to leave the EU by 29 March 2019, but that date has been twice extended because it has failed to take a final decision on the nature of its relationship with the EU. The country has been embroiled in a severe political crisis. The impending 23 May elections for Membership of European Parliament (MEP) has witnessed the emergence of new parties ~ Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and a new anti-Brexit party called “Change UK”, formed by breakaway MPs from Britain’s two mainstream political parties ~ that ‘are eating into the vote share of the old guard who are struggling to retain much of their support’, to quote Patrick English, a lecturer at the University of Exeter (The Statesman, 29 april 2019). Farage’s party is expected to do well as it is picking up support from Brexit supporters, and if the party succeeds in queering the pitch for Brexit, that may ultimately influence the choice of some other members of the EU, particularly Greece, thus delivering a blow to the European leaders’ attempts to build a peaceful Europe, out of the ruins of World War II.
The Brexiters led by populist leaders such as Farage (and also by others from the grand old parties, such as Boris Johnson) are campaigning, in effect, for the idea of “Britain first” ~ after all, it is the fear of “others”, the jobseekers from other EU states, that is being exploited, besides voicing concerns about the ever expanding jurisdiction of the EU, encroaching on the “sovereign” rights of states. The electoral victory of Trump in the US, is another example of the triumph of populism. One of the techniques that Trump followed during his election campaigns was to misrepresent facts and propagate lies, and as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her essay Truth, Politics and Lying, persistent substitution of lies for factual truth ultimately results in the lies being accepted as the truth. If moderately educated white Americans are worried about losing their ‘middle class’ employment, populist politicians like Trump, taking advantage of their anxieties, blame it on the immigrants and the import of foreign goods, as the reasons for the loss of jobs for Americans, without mentioning the fact that it is due to the twin effects of globalisation of trade and investment and technological automation of old jobs. This creates an antiimmigration feeling among segments of the population who have been worst affected by the loss of jobs. The attack on the immigrants ~ even on those educated immigrants who migrated to America legally and have contributed to the country’s economic/technological development ~ is the direct consequence of this anti-immigrant rhetoric. The President’s insistence on building a wall on the US-Mexican border to stem the flow of migration, and especially, the policy of segregating the children from their parents who crossed the US-Mexican border illegally, is an example of his anti-immigrant stance. It is reasonable to argue that it is not possible for any state to accommodate an endless flow of immigrants, as recently happened in the US in the wake of the Venezuelan crisis, or as the European states had to face, in the context of turmoil in West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. But the problem has to be dealt with in a humane way as some European leaders tried to do, though that policy had also led to tensions in relations between members of EU, with some states flatly refusing to accept any immigrants at all.
President Trump presents a perfect example of a populist leader. His “America First” policy, his anti-immigration rhetoric and intolerance of those who are critical of his policies branding them as anti-American, and above all, the style of his governance are inconsistent with liberal democratic policies. His “unilateralism” in foreign policy ~ for example, the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 and the subsequent decision to impose sanctions on Iran unilaterally, and , his “trade war” for protecting American manufacturing industry, are not only accentuating differences with China, but also alienating the USA’s European allies and other friendly states with whom it wants to maintain geo-strategic partnerships. All this has been done to boost his image as a President who can protect and promote American interests, although some his policies have also been criticised not only by the Democrats but also by a section of the Republicans, Populism is likely to remain a significant feature of US policy, at least in the near future. In contemporary India a new brand of “nationalism” is fast developing and it is identified with religion (Hindutva) as propagated by the Sangh Parivar; it has become the rallying point for garnering votes as was demonstrated by the Assembly elections held in Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.
The writer is retired Professor of International Relations and Dean, Faculty of Arts, Jadavpur University.