Rise of European populism opens door for Putin’s ethno-nationalism


The rise of populism is the most important European political development of the 21st century, argues William A. Galston, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. It has eaten into support for traditional center-right parties while dealing a knock-out blow to the center-left. The result is the end of the center-left/center-right duopoly that has dominated European politics since the end of World War II, he writes:

Party systems throughout Europe have fragmented, and most have shifted toward the right. And the rise of populism has opened the door to increased Russian influence throughout Europe…..Because President Vladimir Putin’s embrace of ethno-nationalism and religious traditionalism has proved attractive to populist movements, their rise has strengthened Russian influence throughout Europe. He offers an attractive model of renewed, unapologetic patriotism and national confidence.

Putin “has shown that when liberal democracy is not deeply rooted, democratic governance failures can open the door to authoritarianism that enjoys widespread support, despite the erosion of individual liberties and the rule of law,” adds Galston, a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Britain is especially vulnerable to the illiberal contagion because it “has weak formal defenses against authoritarian populism,” The Economist notes:

It is one of the few countries, along with New Zealand and Israel, that doesn’t have a codified constitution to protect basic rights. Since Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, European law has filled that void. But, as Vernon Bogdanor of King’s College points out in a new pamphlet, Brexit will remove those protections. Britain is the only advanced country that is weakening rather than strengthening constraints on legislative power (Israel, for example, is at work on a codified constitution). It is doing so just as illiberal populism is on the rise.

Nothing was as important as poverty in determining why the Five Star Movement won Italy’s election, data analysed by the Financial Times show:

Sunday’s vote produced a starkly split map of the country, with Five Star triumphing in the poorer south and the anti-immigrant League helping a conservative and centre-right coalition dominate provinces in the north. But even within those regions, economic distress was linked to votes for Five Star, whose leader Luigi Di Maio now hopes to play a part in forming the next government. The party scored 32 per cent of the national vote.

No other socio-economic measure had a similar relationship with the election outcome for Five Star — or for any party, the FT adds.

Italy is now a poster child for the three big trends that are undermining democracies around the world, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks:

  • First, the erasure of the informal norms of behavior. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue in “How Democracies Die,” democracies depend not just on formal constitutions but also on informal codes. You treat your opponents like legitimate adversaries, not illegitimate enemies. You tell the truth as best you can. You don’t make naked appeals to bigotry.
  • Second, the loss of faith in the democratic system. As Yascha Mounk writes in his book “The People vs. Democracy,” faith in democratic regimes is declining with every new generation. Seventy-one percent of Europeans and North Americans born in the 1930s think it’s essential to live in a democracy, but only 29 percent of people born in the 1980s think that. In the U.S., nearly a quarter of millennials think democracy is a bad way to run a country. Nearly half would like a strongman leader. One in six Americans of all ages supports military rule……
  • Third, the deterioration of debate caused by social media. At the dawn of the internet, people hoped free communication would lead to an epoch of peace, understanding and democratic communication. Instead, we’re seeing polarization, alternative information universes and the rise of autocracy.



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