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A long shadow on democracy

  • Published at 07:00 pm March 18th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:46 pm March 18th, 2017
A long shadow on democracy

Correctness within the political paradigm is suffering from both populist beliefs as well as autocratic approaches in the implementation of law and decision-making. Democratic behaviour as understood through the upholding of the principles of democracy, rule of law, and human rights is also being affected most unfortunately in certain parts of the world. A dynamic that is evolving into a source of danger for shared global peace, economic development, basic freedom, and civil liberties is being created.

What is even more significant is that, unlike past years, when 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 electoral victory of Donald Trump and his unusual approach towards foreign policy also raised questions about how the US will respond to 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 also seen sustained attempts by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to increase government influence over the media, judiciary, civil service, and education system. It has also proposed worrisome regulations on NGOs.

Such spread of “illiberal democracy” in Central Europe and the Balkans has 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 polarising the country and fueling support for populism. This welcoming mat was later reduced in size and 2016 saw the entry of less than 280,000 refugees.

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.

Growth of populism or the existence of such behaviour becomes a source of anxiety when it surfaces in developed Europe or in the US

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.

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 UN and other transnational bodies associated with efforts to enforce global standards on democracy and human rights.

Recently, these authoritarian regimes have been 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 US. Populist politicians in the Netherlands, Britain, Italy, and Austria also meet regularly with Russian officials and do not hesitate to criticise 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. Currently, the scenario is slowly changing to 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.

In Britain, the ruling conservative party after the Brexit referendum has also adopted a more populist and nationalist direction under Prime Minister Theresa May. In the meantime, the Labour Party’s shift to the left has caused internal rifts. This 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 France, the effect of populism is 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. In the Balkans also, fair election processes and the rule of law have deteriorated even further. This has taken place because the EU has neglected its role in promoting democracy among aspiring member states and 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 behaviour 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 US.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]