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Post-socialism Europe: Populism benefits from centre-left defections

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: September 11, 2017 20:31:33 | Updated: October 22, 2017 22:32:05


Centre-left party pressure has become a transatlantic malaise, and not necessarily because the centre-right parties possess the magical 21st Century political formulas: they do not, but their status-quo mindedness opens pathways for populists; nor have the energetic left-leaning voters enough steam left, or their traditional platform relevant to matter. As the previous series piece observed, the US Democratic Party is completely lost at sea because a spent platform, supporter defection, and an arrogance-ignorance combo of US issue-relevance permits the centre-right to push status-quo mindedness to a resurrection-driven battle cry. Since populist growth benefits precisely from disillusioned centre-left defections and over-adrenalised centre-right jubilation, with far more nuances (therefore choices), European countries have their work cut out for them.

Minus the star-studded US Democratic leadership, Britain's Labourites share similar ailments, like the collapsing welfare system actually serving as a magnet for low-wage workers, immigrants (both legal and illegal), and a refugee influx running out of control, that too amid a terror threat. Indeed, terrorists have capitalised on the associated opportunities supplied by those human inflows more productively than any British political party: they have used those flows to enter Europe (as evident in the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo Paris incident), but apart from reacting, no party has any other formula/strategy to iron out the wrinkles. Brexit supporters rolled a loaded dice by raising the question if leaving Europe would be more costly than revamping the welfare system. In the best case scenario, Europeans abandoning Britain could open jobs for alienated youths, helping London reclaim its pre-eminent global financial position (making Britain more of a global than European player). At worst, a costly European exit with no or delayed global perch for Britain to latch on to would haemorrhage Britain's job market beyond repair. Either way, whereas possible terrorists benefit one way or another, edgy Brexit supporters could possibly drag the European continent with them.

Dutch and French voters in the 2017 March and May elections glaringly exposed Britain's missed opportunities. Against a similar predicament, while Dutch voters boosted the populist legislative presence of Geert Wilders's Party for Freedom (PVV), they critically left policy-making levers with Mark Rutte's centrist People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), even though, as this is being written, the CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal) and D66 (Democrats 66) coalition is in rough waters.

Their French counterparts more decisively rallied around a relatively unknown centre, called the En Marche!, but in the process

(a) halted the Marine Le Pen-driven Front National threat, not just within France, but also similar mindsets spreading to Europe;

(b) dealt a significant blow to the established Fifth Republic parties, from both the right (the Republicans) and the left (Socialists), carrying a message that should not be missed by British and US politicians;  

(c) reinsured Emmanuel Macron's spell-binding victory with a legislative mandate to do for France what British and US voters stopped short of demanding of their own elected officials: to adjust to 21st Century demands and twists through discourse, legitimately and legislatively, rather than through the values of yesteryears, segmentation, and an inward-orientation; and, most importantly,

(d) resurrected the sinking European Union flagship.

Leadership mattered, markedly shown in France and the Netherlands. Britain's and the US lack of centre-left leadership of the Macron/Rutte sort could become a crucial factor.

Getting to Point B from Point A in a straight line will not be all that straightforward for Macron, the second centre-left transatlantic leader to boast a convincing popular mandate this century after Justin Trudeau in Canada. He boosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel's electoral chances in September (though her own personal credentials should be sufficient), and may alone be credited for sparing Europe today's ghost: the socio-political consequences of vanishing economic competitiveness that these European countries took for granted. It is unlikely competitiveness will return as before for Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, or Spain, among others, but so long they do not fight the good market fight by erecting walls, building fortresses, and pigeon-holing every player, from factory workers to profit-makers, whether at home or abroad, they might still influence global outcomes.

Many African, Asian, and Latin American countries have built economic clout to matter globally, in turn, aggravating Atlantic woes. Trump's administration has challenged them with an 'America first' battle cry, Theresa May's European stance suggests a replication, while Macron offers a suitable alternative. Which side prevails may shape 21st Century developments.

It is not that both Britain and the United States stand to miss the bus into 21st Century developments. Their own electorate has not been sufficiently learning that what is at stake is not patriotism or a British/US-centric global political economy, but that the price of becoming a developed country today must be paid a long way down the road (through higher wages, export prices, and shifting comparative advantage, that is, leadership): until innovative breakthroughs swing the pendulum back, the free-trade that made them pre-eminent has shifted to their contenders. It is a tough pill to swallow for any politician, let alone coach, and convince a public about its virtues, particularly the most recent and most unexpected losers: the educated unemployed and the factory pink-slip holders.

That is where advanced democracies remain stuck. Technological advancements dictate swallowing that pill if the prodigious welfare system initiated in this part of the world is to survive: retraining the youth and laid-off workers costs less, becoming remunerative over the long-haul; but directing public moods against low-waged imports and foreigners opens a vicious cycle, as every negative gesture invites reciprocation, worsening the bilateral relationship. For a virtuous cycle to begin and become self-sustaining, political candidates must now (a) eschew not just their traditional ideological differences, but also their guerrilla tactics against each other; and (b) determinedly bring external factors into their electoral calculations and calibrations, since this is pivotal for functional democracy and welfare in the tumultuous 21st Century.

Against these monumental challenges, both West European countries and the United States alone face yet another threat: terrorism. Whether home-growth or lone-wolf, terrorist perpetrators impose exogenous controls over elections, which, in an uncompetitive economy, produce a lethal cocktail: displacing economic competitiveness with terrorist incidents drains the baby of political stability with terrorism's dirty bathwater, reinforcing the very blind populist mission to decapitate the centre-left. Macron was "the right man at the right time," according to the Economist (June 17, 2017), for fostering optimism over two formidable obstacles: unemployment and reinvigorating German relations, not anti-terrorism moods.

Like Canada's centre-left Justin Trudeau, Macron has shifted the onus away from terrorism, as he must, to grapple with domestic ailments. Their success might be impeded less by terrorism, populist barks, and trade-union resistance, than the failure to shift to, and anchor upon, the very centre of the populist beast's claws, that is, by recreating socio-economic spaces within the country commensurate with the global dynamics.

Critical to this outcome is partnership abroad. How participating in global economic growth entails other major compromises, for example, over democracy, its restoration and relationship with liberalism, becomes the next article's subject-matter.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

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