Far right confounds expectations in election whirlwind

Far right confounds expectations in election whirlwind

With over four billion people going to the polls, political trends have never appeared more erratic (File/AFP)
With over four billion people going to the polls, political trends have never appeared more erratic (File/AFP)
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Will Europe ever be the same again? President Emmanuel Macron has called snap legislative elections in France after a crushing defeat for his party and other moderates in the European Parliament elections that concluded on Sunday. Far-right parties, including Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, were runaway winners, taking about 40 percent of the vote.

The hard right also outperformed expectations in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. The quasi-fascist Alternative for Germany managed an unexpectedly strong showing, despite an outcry over a TV interview, in which a party official doubted whether genocidal Nazi SS officers were criminals, and investigations into funds received from the Kremlin.

Far-right nationalists are already integral parts of coalition governments in seven EU member states and are dominant components of regimes in Hungary, Italy and Austria. With right-wing nationalists coming out on top in the weekend’s Belgian general election, liberal Prime Minister Alexander De Croo was forced to resign. Six months after an election in the Netherlands, the far-right Party for Freedom last month finally succeeded in cobbling together a coalition described as the most right-wing in modern history. Bucking this trend, the fascists and xenophobes of the authoritarian right were at least temporarily cut down to size in elections in Poland, Portugal and Spain.

Right-wing populists’ destabilizing impact on Western politics is defined by anti-immigrant hatemongering and fanciful attention-grabbing policies — such as seeking to reduce net immigration to zero, with damaging consequences on economies dependent on cheap foreign labor and on revenue from foreign tourists, students and investors. Racist culture war narratives have poisonous consequences for social cohesion across multicultural, diverse societies, recalling the polarization and violent extremist tendencies of 1930s Europe before the Second World War.

The planet has never been in greater need of far-sighted leaders willing to do what is necessary to address fundamental global issues

Baria Alamuddin

In a symptom of the brutal toxicity of populist politics, Denmark’s prime minister was attacked last week and the Slovak prime minister survived an attempt on his life. Conspiracy-mongering, disinformation and fake news pumped into election ecosystems, mostly from China, Russia and Iran, exacerbate democratic volatility and unpredictability.But has the world reached peak populism elsewhere? In a unique year for elections, with more than 4 billion people — over half the world’s population — going to the polls in more than 40 countries, political trends have never appeared more erratic or fragmented.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gambled heavily on provocative religion-baiting themes, seeking to mobilize the majority Hindu electorate, but his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party ended up with a dramatically smaller share of the vote. Ordinary Indians cared far more about living standards, competent governance and public services than they did about rabble-rousing Islamophobic diatribes.

A chastened Modi remains in power, but without an overall majority, far less the “supermajority” he had boasted of, and he will need to substantially moderate his agenda to retain coalition partners. A buoyant opposition described the outcome as a mandate to “save democracy.”

Authoritarian strongmen have been struggling elsewhere, too. In Turkiye, significant opposition wins in local elections were a stinging rebuke to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Iran, there was a dire turnout for legislative elections in March and May, sinking to just over 20 percent in Tehran, and there is little public enthusiasm for this month’s vote to replace the late President Ebrahim Raisi. Efforts to muzzle the media, reduce civil freedoms, hamstring the judiciary and criminalize political opponents only mobilize people against antidemocratic elites. In Mexico, leftist candidate Claudia Sheinbaum won a landslide presidential election victory and in South Africa the corruption-mired African National Congress lost its electoral majority after 30 years of dominance throughout the post-apartheid era.

As recently as 2019, a jingoistic pro-Brexit narrative was a surefire vote winner in Britain. But public opinion has sharply reversed, leaving the opposition Labour Party all but guaranteed a majority after next month’s parliamentary election. The Conservative Party has been outplayed by its own populist-right, culture-baiting, anti-migrant rhetoric. Labour now occupies the center ground, while the xenophobic Reform UK squeezes the Conservatives out of existence from the right flank.

However, the year’s most titanic battle between democratic values and unabashed demagogic populism will occur in November. Donald Trump’s self-serving, divisive record and his criminal convictions should have made his candidacy inconceivable, but because of Joe Biden’s age, unpopularity and missteps over Gaza, many observers regard a second Trump presidency — with all its accompanying traumas and risks — as highly likely.

Election results in recent months have been driven less by a public lurch toward the left or right and more by universal dissatisfaction with the status quo. In the US, most voters express scant enthusiasm for either candidate. The common denominator for voters — whether in Britain, India, South Africa, Iran or Turkiye — is anger over falling living standards and the failure of ruling elites to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives.

As the Gaza, Ukraine and Sudan conflicts drag on, the planet has never been in greater need of far-sighted leaders willing to do what is necessary to address fundamental global issues of injustice, instability, inequality and environmental degradation.

Demagogues such as Le Pen, Trump and Viktor Orban have no answers to these challenges, despite ruthlessly exploiting the blind anger expressed by people who feel left behind by their political systems.

Electoral victories often come relatively easily for shameless populists, with deceitful, divisive political programs that mobilize supporters against immigrants, minorities and other disfavored demographics. These are dangerous and unpredictable times, driven by volatile public sentiments, and protest votes about the dire state of party politics risk making the situation infinitely worse.

Only citizens awakening to the populists’ morally bankrupt, racist lies can pave the way for leaders who are genuinely committed to making the difficult decisions that are necessary to change the world for the better.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state. 
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