Trends of 2016: Protest at the ballot box

Trends of 2016: Protest at the ballot box
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2016 has been a tumultuous year for democratic politics. The rise of populism, nationalism and anti-establishment election results have increasingly dominated news headlines.

This has been the story of the year. Trying to explain the multiple and complex reasons how, for instance, Donald Trump became President of the United States or Britain voted to leave the European Union or why European social democratic parties continue to shrink, has morphed seamlessly into a more straightforward narrative: populism and authoritarianism are on the march.

Furthermore, the victory of liberal democracy – the End of History – after the Cold War was, apparently, simply an interlude. Closer examination of the so-called triumphs of populism in 2016 reveals familiar, as well as much more recent, trends. The story includes flawed responses to the 2008 financial crisis, an associated convulsion against both social and economic liberalism, the rapid changes of globalisation, a hapless use of referendums, and the complicated role played by the media.

Searching for answers

A consistent theme in the analysis of populism in 2016 has been that voters in democracies have been revolting against elites. There is something in this. Much of today’s turmoil is due to the long hangover of the 2008 financial crisis. Having led the global economy to the precipice, the banking and financial system received huge government bailouts. Despite greater regulation and capital requirements, to many it looks as though the main culprits have continued, more or less, with business as usual. Taxpayers have borne the brunt of the ensuing austerity politics, which has been pursued with fetish-like dogmatism by many governments, particularly those under pressure in the Eurozone.

The resulting stagnation of real wages and standard of living has created a space for alternative, often deceptively simple, answers by insurgent politicians. That working class voters have, to use the United States as an example, rejected the elite by voting for a billionaire business man in Donald Trump, however, suggests the relationship is less straightforward. In Britain’s EU referendum, Michael Gove claimed that voters had “had enough of experts”. With the Leave campaign led by the likes of Boris Johnson and David Davis, as well as by many on the neo-Thatcherite wing of the pro-business Conservative Party, “experts” can hardly be a substitute for elites or the establishment. What we can say, however, is that many voters were thumbing their noses at the status quo.

Frustration at the governing orthodoxy has manifested itself in a variety of ways. Traditional parties have tried to pick up voters who are now more receptive to the fringes of both left and right. Long-term trends, such as the decline of manufacturing jobs in rich economies, have been exacerbated by rising inequality in most countries. The exposure of many communities to the forces of globalisation has fostered a feeling of helplessness.

Modern Western governments have told their voters, essentially, that there is ‘no alternative’ to a liberal, market-based democracy in a globalised world. This was tolerated when incomes were rising and consumer products were cheap but as the economic environment has looked increasingly fragile, the policy prescriptions – such as fiscal austerity – have looked less and less credible.

Security threats have multiplied since the turn of the century. The inflammatory issue of migration has bubbled under the surface of Western political discourse, particularly in the tabloid press and shriller parts of social media. Taken together this contained all the ingredients of a perfect storm, but each country has been unique in its response.

A populist protest at the ballot box

Populists have offered simple answers to intractable issues, invoking a particular version of nationalism and often offering some kind of protection, either against economic or social forces.

The biggest upset in 2016 was the election of Donald Trump. To reduce migration he promised to build a border wall with Mexico, to reduce terrorism he promised to ‘bomb the shit out of ISIS’, to retard globalisation he would tear up NAFTA, and so on. In the Philippines, strong man Rodrigo Duterte – elected in May – has offended world leaders like Barack Obama with his coarse language, whilst claiming he personally carried out – or at least condoned – extrajudicial murders.

Germany’s right wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) shocked observers by making gains in Germany’s state elections and there are fears – particularly after a number of terrorist attacks – that they could improve on this in the 2017 Bundestag elections. Right-wing parties have gained power in Poland and Hungary by embracing populist themes, including anti-immigrant rhetoric, traditionalism and growing authoritarianism. In Europe, railing against Brussels, the EU and the ECB has also proven a vote-winner. Victor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, perhaps articulates this movement best with his phrase ‘illiberal democracy’.

The examples above are lurches to the right, often rejecting social liberalism. A number of left-wing politicians are offering alternatives to economic liberalism. This is reflected in the success of Podemos in Spain, the governing Syriza party in Greece, the popularity of Bernie Sanders in America’s Democratic primary campaign, and the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party. Nevertheless, it is traditional social democratic, centre-left parties that have been most damaged by populists.

This is because the economic protectionism that used to be the territory of the left has been co-opted into a programme defending traditional ways of life, both economic and social. Thus we have seen a new situation where working class voters have supported right-wing candidates. Donald Trump, for instance, won Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio in the presidential election. UKIP’s new leader Paul Nuttall is targeting Labour supporters in Britain, while France’s Front National (FN) leader, Marine Le Pen, counts upon working class voters as her core followers. Traditional political divisions are blurring as new categories abound: open and closed, liberal and illiberal, metropolitan and provincial, and those with and without university education.

Dictators and demagogues

Nowhere have we seen populist-induced panic more acutely than  in the string of referendums called in 2016. Supporters of the method claim referendums are a pure form of democracy in action, critics decry the illusion of a binary choice. Margaret Thatcher once said, quoting another Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, that referendums were the “device of dictators and demagogues”.

In 2016 their use pointed to something different. Former Conservative Party Chairman Chris Patten accurately observed that: “On the whole, governments only concede [referenda] when governments are weak.” This certainly applies to David Cameron’s calamitous decision to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU. Cameron vainly attempted to head off long-standing Eurosceptics in his Conservative Party, while simultaneously trying to prevent voters (and MPs) defecting to UKIP. The same could be said for this year’s referendum in the Netherlands, which rather obscurely asked voters to approve of the EU’s decision to offer Ukraine a free trade association agreement. Another country where right-wing populists are breathing down the neck of the government, the Dutch said no. In Italy meanwhile, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s gambit to alter the country’s constitution was again rejected in a referendum. The insurgent M5S Party led the opposition to the amendment and is now – at least – second in most Italian opinion polls.

Whether centrist parties attempt to incorporate populist grievances into their platforms, for instance with watered down anti-immigrant rhetoric or so-called ‘identity politics’, or offer leadership with viable alternatives while retaining liberal values, will be one of the key developments of 2017.

(Un)happy new year

2017 promises to be another turbulent year. France holds its presidential elections in the spring, Germany its parliamentary elections in the autumn. There are fears that the AfD and FN might be the next populists to taste success. Meanwhile the world holds its breath to see how a President Trump will govern, and Turkey holds a referendum on granting the President more executive power. Nevertheless, there are some signs that all might not be as gloomy as many commentators fear.

In November’s United States election Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. In the second election for the Austrian Presidency, the right wing candidate Norbert Hofer was soundly beaten. In Spain the rise of the anti-corruption, liberal Ciudadanos party may force reform upon the governing conservatives of PP. The main alternatives to populism in France’s presidential election are taking a surprising (economic) liberal direction, from Francois Fillon on the right and Manuel Valls on the left to the centrist Emmanuel Macron. Western voters have not abandoned liberal democracy just yet.

2016 has demonstrated that the business as usual orthodoxy is no longer an option for many voters. It remains to be seen how mainstream politicians respond in 2017.

About Author

Robert Ledger

Robert Ledger is an analyst on European affairs, with a particular focus on the Balkan and Caucasus regions. He has an MA in International Relations from Brunel University and a PhD in political science from Queen Mary University London.