Sober times for liberal democracies

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

The world faces a stark and urgent choice between democracy and the lure of populist demagogues, xenophobia and division, Barack Obama told the United Nations General Assembly last month.

The American President is right. The world is divided. Times are rough for liberal democracies and for liberal democrats. Everywhere you look, tough-talking guys and girls are in the ascendant.

Once, the threat came from nasty authoritarian regimes in far-off lands. But those challenging liberal democracy today are no longer “out there”. They are entrenched deep inside “mature” Western democracies.

The Republican candidate in the United States presidential election, Donald Trump, is upending all norms of liberal political discourse. His Democratic opponent for the White House, Hillary Clinton, may have got a boost following last week’s television debate, but with two unpredictable TV debates and five volatile weeks ahead, Trump could soon be taking his explosive brand of xenophobia and isolationism into the Oval Office.

Many young people seem to think it would be nice to have a “strong chief” or a “big man” with a simple message and easy solutions

Here in Europe, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, leads his Visegrád bloc allies in proclaiming a belief in “illiberal democracy”. While many in the West may see the results of Sunday’s referendum on EU refugee quotas as a defeat for Orbán, the “strongman” himself has shrugged off the embarrassing outcome and vowed to insert the result into Hungary’s constitution.

Western Europe isn’t doing at all well either. The result of the Brexit referendum showed the power of a simple and powerful (but misleading) slogan. With elections coming up in many European countries next year, populists like France’s Marine Le Pen, Dutchman Geert Wilders and Germany’s AFD leader Frauke Petry are snapping at the heels of the political establishment.

Their xenophobic, anti-Muslim and anti-Europe message strikes a chord with angry men and women who feel uncertain and uneasy in the face of change. Le Pen is expected to do exceptionally well next year, and the AFD has already made massive gains in recent regional elections in Germany.

Unsurprisingly, liberal democrats are feeling depressed. At a recent symposium in the European Parliament to mark the “International Day of Democracy”, the mood was sober, self-critical and reflective. Gone were the self-congratulatory speeches and back-slapping that would have marked such occasions in the past.

There was consensus that almost three decades after Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “End of History” and the victory of Western liberal democracy as the best form of government, liberal democracy, human rights and democratic values are increasingly being questioned and challenged.

In the West, surveys show a fall in the level of support for democracy among young people. Many seem to think it would be nice to have a “strong chief” or a “big man” with a simple message and easy solutions.

There is agreement that a toxic mix of slowing economies, austerity, inequality and unemployment is making people ever more suspicious of politicians. There is a widening gap between the political classes and the electorate. And as political parties lose credibility and relevance, populists step into their space to start spinning their tales of woe and hate.

Let’s worry – but not despair.

First, those who believe in liberal democracy need to be as stubborn as Angela Merkel and as persistent as Hillary Clinton. They must stand up and be counted and fight for what they believe in.

The EU has to get serious about tackling the danger posed by Orbán and his band

They must understand, connect and engage with those who disagree with them – but they also be proud of their message. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has shown that there is nothing wrong with being open and tolerant or spreading “soft” messages of peace, love and human rights.

Buying into the populists’ poisonous rhetoric – as many mainstream politicians, such as French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, are doing across Europe – just amplifies their power, voice and attraction.

There is also a message in this for the European Union. The EU has to get serious about tackling the danger posed by Orbán and his band. It’s important not only for the state of democracy in Europe, but also for the EU’s standing in the world.

The EU can hardly criticise and sanction foreign autocrats if it remains unwilling or unable to take any real action against those posing a danger to democracy in Europe itself.

Finally, democracy is not for the faint-hearted. It does not stop unscrupulous politicians, liars and fear-mongers from winning elections. A government of the people, by the people, for the people requires strong democratic institutions, checks and balances, and the rule of law.

But above all, it needs politicians whose belief in liberal democracy is backed up with commitment, courage and conviction.

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