Photo: Jayantha Dhanapala. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2016

Populism is Counterfeit Democracy

By Jayantha Dhanapala*

COLOMBO (IDN) – The bipolar Cold War contest between capitalism and communism appears in hindsight to be, frightening as it was, far more simple than the conflicts and tensions of the modern multipolar world. It was a struggle between two clearly identifiable ideological alternatives entrenched in two nuclear weapon armed military alliances wedded to a Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine.

Today the situation is not as clear-cut. A global revival of nationalism – especially economic nationalism – laced with a complex mix of populism, anti-immigration policies and extremism of various forms transcends national boundaries together with rampant consumerism encouraged by globalization.

We are being reminded that the nation state which emerged with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia in Europe, and which we thought was being subsumed within regional organizations and a growing culture of multilateralism, remains the building block of international relations.

We are seeing with widely disparate events like Brexit in the UK and the emergence of Trumpism in the USA, Le Pen in France, Urban in Hungary, of Duterte in the Philippines – a backlash to globalization and the 2008 Wall Street induced global economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the ‘underclass’ is protesting their exclusion, as the unemployed and the dropouts of societies – who lack the capacity to participate in the global feast of the good things of life advertised so gaudily by the mass media – are claiming their space. The unethical and unsustainable contradiction of opening borders to goods and services while closing them to people come into sharper relief.

This is causing a loss of faith in democracy leading to the “illiberal democracy” now being preached in Hungary, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe as a likely prelude to fascism. Fear of the refugee and migrant influx from Syria and other countries in 2015 brought about immigration controls despite a clear demographic need for an increased work force in European countries. Traditional reservoirs for left wing support are moving right out of fear and a need for security and jobs.

Demagoguery flourishes in this political climate. The over promise of liberalism and the losers in the globalization process have led to a mood of disenchantment and mistrust. The impact of this in Asia has not yet been as pronounced as in Europe, the USA and Latin America.

Yet we are seeing terrorism, fuelled by religious extremism, spilling over national boundaries. Its impact on international relations is widespread. Climate change also hangs over us all and even the fulfillment of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the recent Kigali Amendment will still not be sufficient to avert adverse consequences. Estimates of refugees from climate change could engulf Asia and Latin America as well. The faith in regional organizations and trade pacts is also weakening.

At the same time there are indications of a new Cold War between the USA and the Russian Federation arising from containment policies of the USA, the expansion of NATO and from Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its policies on Ukraine and Syria.

With the USA’s pivot to Asia in recognition of China’s rising power and the territorial disputes in the South and East China seas, a new Cold War between USA and China remains incipient. Proxy wars – a hallmark of the old Cold War – have reappeared in Yemen, Syria and other places especially as the Big Powers decline to have boots on the ground except as “special forces” or “advisers”.

Intra-state wars also continue with a heavy toll of human life. In such a climate, it is small wonder that as we observed in 2014 the centenary of the beginning of World War I, many commentators saw parallels between the global situation of 1914 and 2014.

Drawing upon his own scholarly and diplomatic experience, Dr. Henry Kissinger’s latest book on World Order has provided us with a historical analysis of a quest for a rule-based global order. His special focus was the European Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars. That quest has now to be undertaken in a world where, in his words,

Chaos threatens side by side with unprecedented interdependence; in the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the disintegration of states, the impact of environmental depredations, the persistence of genocidal practices and the spread of new technologies threatening to drive conflict beyond human control or comprehension.

Thus in this Kissingerian vision of our world today, a rule-based world order seems even more remote, especially considering the diversity of emerging players and problems with no apparent centre of gravity.

Democracy, which has the potential to contribute significantly in meeting great international challenges, is under siege. Sir Winston Churchill said it most famously in a House of Commons speech two years after his historic electoral defeat in 1945: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Sir Winston, who led Britain in World War II in its triumph over the fascist dictatorships of Germany and Italy, was referring here to the well-known weakness of democracy in the efficient delivery of goods and services to the people. However supporters of democracy consistently affirmed that the basic freedoms and fundamental rights of that system more than compensated for this deficiency.

The late Samuel Huntington, the Harvard political scientist better known for his “clash of civilizations” hypothesis, saw three waves of democracy – first a surge in the early 19th century till about 1922 when fascism emerged; next, the period after World War II; and finally, the much celebrated third wave after 1974, and especially after the Cold War ended, with more countries becoming democracies. Some talk, unconvincingly, of a fourth wave with the Arab Spring (which turned into a winter of discontent in most places) and developments in Myanmar.

Several decades after Churchill, Francis Fukuyama reached his controversial conclusion about the end of the Cold War. “What we may be witnessing,” he wrote, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Today we see a very different global landscape from that which Fukuyama had predicted. Fukuyama later suggested that good governance and democracy are not synonymous. For a political scientist who saw liberal democracy and free market capitalism as the final phase of the evolution of human society, this is a major act of apostasy.

Writing in the March 2013 issue of the journal “Governance”, Fukuyama focused on the need to measure good governance as the ability of governments to make and enforce rules, and deliver services irrespective of whether a country is democratic or not. So we are back to the old argument that if the trains run on time and the people are provided with the essential services then indeed all will be well.

The common definition of good governance – a term that originally emerged in the literature on economic development – is the enlargement of the choices before the people and providing efficient delivery of public services meeting their political and economic needs. Good governance must be sustainable and only accountability, transparency and predictability can ensure this.

It is perhaps true that the dynamism and unpredictability of democracy make it vulnerable to periodic or recurring crises. Yet ultimately, democratic institutions – including the independent Commissions – are what guarantees good governance. Lack of accountability ultimately renders it unsustainable. But bad governance will destroy democracy very quickly. Inequality, corruption and poor public services erode legitimacy.

Populism is there in places as varied as Europe, Latin America and Africa and at different periods of history. It has typically arisen when socio-economic conditions are stressful and emerged around charismatic leaders. But it has also been anti-pluralist.

Populism offers simplistic solutions to complex problems. It is based on an antagonistic relationship between “we” and “they”, which sometimes translates into “we the genuine patriots” and “they the foreign funded agents of imperialism”. Political scientists do not regard populism as an ideology but see it as a strategy. Peron in Argentina was the archetypical populist leader.

Populism, being inherently anti-institutional, challenges the institutional safeguards of democracy beginning with the Constitution itself, which has to be amended if it cannot be flouted. It seeks, cleverly, to conflate authoritarianism with leadership while ensuring the ascendancy of the individual at the expense of the Institution.

The separation of powers, so fundamental to any democratic system, is blurred if not eliminated as the Executive emerges to be the dominant branch of government on the basis of being the elected representatives of the people who are indisputably sovereign.

Similarly, parochial political interests of the party in power are articulated and projected as the national interest without attempting consensual approaches through compromise.

Thus the independence of the judiciary; human rights safeguards; a free media; and independent Commissioner of Elections; civilian control of the military and other well-known features of the modern liberal democratic state must give way. Bureaucracy is partly to blame for not ensuring that initiatives are encouraged from the people, especially women and youth, rather than from the leaders. The staff of public institutions and independent commissions have a special responsibility to observe the rule of law by upholding the Constitution and rejecting illegal orders.

The defence of democracy in the face of populism depends ultimately on public vigilance. Political parties must also play a crucial role in educating public opinion against the undermining of democratic space.

A similar role can be exercised by non-governmental organizations, university teachers, professional leaders, the clergy of all religions, women’s organizations and other traditional leaders of society. Social media which has recently empowered the youth has a vital constructive role.

The challenges to democracy arise from new sources and not always from the more conventional coups d’état, revolutions, terrorist attacks and other extra-parliamentary sources. Democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction although, at the same time, it is a system capable of renewing itself. Over eight decades after 1933, it is important to recall that Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany was achieved through democratic elections.

We are caught in a cusp of change. Our institutions – whether democratic or otherwise – are incapable of capturing the new currents of opinion and new voices, especially the voices of the youth, released by digital technology. Political parties misread signals; do not anticipate grassroots resentments; and are trapped in codes of political correctness, originally instituted to maintain a floor for free discourse but which is now increasingly viewed as hypocrisy and dissimulation.

In many developing countries, a new middle class uncertain of identity, and a new media that seeks to entertain as much as to comment, finds ballast and profit in hyper-patriotism and populist enthusiasms. There is little patience for critical debate or alternative thinking. The real guarantors of good governance are a shared prosperity, public education and accountability under law. Equitable service delivery is a key element in a rapidly urbanising and articulate world.

Franklin Roosevelt had it right when he said: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Populism, ultimately, is counterfeit democracy.

*Jayantha Dhanapala is a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador for Sri Lanka. The above are sections excerpted from his Gamani Corea Memorial Oration in Colombo delivered on November 10, 2016. [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 November 2016]

Photo: Jayantha Dhanapala. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

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