The Ugly Return of Populism

Prof. As’ad Abdul Rahman

Today the world is living an ugly era with no end in sight. The dominance of radical nationalists, racists, conservatives and hardliners has increased, particularly in the wake of the election of the US president Ronald Reagan. Others include the prime minister of Hungary Viktor Urban, the president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, the prime minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki and Brazil’s newly-elected rightist president. Jair Bolsonaru.

Their view of nationalism involves fascist standards that divide society into two homogeneous and hostile groups: “pure people” and “corrupt elite.” Hence the danger of the populist movement, which is strengthening its position in the countries of the world, where racist discourse is at the front rejecting any contrary views.

Since the American presidential election in 2016, the hate discourse has escalated and became overwhelming, so that populism has hit some of the major democracies in the world, such as Brazil, whose president does not hide his sick nostalgia for the restoration of dictatorship. He has threatened his people with a firm iron fist: “We cannot continue courting socialism, communism, populism and the extreme left “, he said, vowing to rule the country following “the Bible and the Constitution.”

But the extreme right in Europe before that was the scene of the rise of the extreme populist right. The return of the right has increased in many countries, even though it did not rise to power, it became a significant force in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Holland, Spain, Greece, Denmark, Britain, Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia. Indeed, some of these parties no longer hide the fact of being Nazi-oriented and call for fascist and totalitarian regimes in the event of coming to power. The democratic system in these countries is witnessing a clear crisis, for no democratic state in the world is immune to the rise of populism. Their common denominators and variables are considered by these rightist parties as threats to security and economic stability which forced them to reject the other. With a pessimist look, American columnist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times saying: “The main point is that we are suffering from the same disease (the white racism sweeping the world), which has destroyed democracy in Western countries, and we are very close to the point of no return.”

The Guardian newspaper published an analysis on the extent of European support for right-wing populist parties based on the data of political transformations of hundreds of parties in Europe. It shows that “they have been able to triple their supporters in the past 20 years, in 31 European countries.” The data collected by the British newspaper indicate the large difference between the support received by the popular parties in general (right, leftist or other) in 1998, which amounted to about 7% of the total votes in the parliaments of Europe, and what these parties get today; “more than a quarter of all votes in all recent polling operations in these countries.”

But what gave populist parties and movements a center of gravity in the European political arena? The causes are many and even play different roles from one country to another. A comprehensive report issued by Human Rights Watch organization in 2017 came under the title: “The Dangerous Increase in Populism, Attacks on Human Rights Values around the World”. Referring to reasons behind the phenomena, the report explained: “The popularity of populists has grown as people are increasingly angry at the current conditions. In the West, many feel they are lagging behind because of technological changes, globalization of the economy, and growing disparities. The horrific events of terrorism are instilling fear and anxiety among people, and some feel uncomfortable in their more ethnically and religiously diverse societies.”

 “There is a growing sense”, the report indicated, “that governments ignore peoples’ concerns. In this mix of discontent, some politicians thrive and hold onto power on the grounds that rights only help those accused of terrorism or asylum seekers at the expense of security, economic well-being and cultural preferences of the presumed majority. Thereby they make refugees, migrants and minorities scapegoats. The truth is often a victim, whereas nativism (the policy of protecting the interests of native- born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants), xenophobia, racism and anti-Islam are on the rise.”

Despite the insistence of many countries on attributing the rise of populism to the financial crisis and the influx of large numbers of refugees, it must be indicated that the trend within the European community has been growing since the eighties of the last century. According to a study conducted by Yascha Mounk of Harvard University in cooperation with the Institute for Global Change, headed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “the average populist vote in the European Union in 2000 was 8.5 percent, but reached 24.1% in 2017. “

Populist parties, movements and trends are on the rise throughout the world, but the deep-rooted system of values still, hopefully, stands in their way with principles of openness, tolerance and anti-racism, values originally shared by most of the civilized nations of the world.