The Financial Express

The rise of populist authoritarianism: A global trend

The rise of populist authoritarianism: A global trend

Populist authoritarianism is increasingly becoming a global trend. This is a term generally used in the political discourse as a world view that is anchored in order, authority, distrust of the other and social reengineering. To put it simply, a populist authoritarian regime is characterised by very strong central power and highly tailored limited democracy. Populist authoritarian leaders can ascend to power using democratic process as has happened in Europe and the US, but once in power they subvert it. In recent times the world has seen the rise in the number of authoritarian regimes from the Americas, Europe and Asia in countries such as the US, Brazil, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Italy, India and the Philippines. Most of the present-day populist authoritarian regimes have fairly strong right-wing political views. In fact, there is a surge to right-wing authoritarianism in world politics.

Most authoritarian regimes are also populist, though two are not always linked. In fact, the world has seen twin advances of both authoritarianism and populism over the last decade or so. Politicians leverage populist movements to capture power but once in power they begin the process of dismantling or discrediting the institutions designed to check their power such the judiciary and the media.

Populism is primarily based on a calculated political strategy to appeal to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people. The term is derived from Latin word "populus'' which means people or nation. So, populist political and ideological discourse is centred around "the pure people''. They create a dichotomised world of "us'', the pure people and the "other'', the enemy. The other may be the elite or ethnic, linguistic  or religious minority or immigrants. The core populist message is "us'', the true people, have been damaged by the "other''. That fuels a great sense anger among "the people'' who are continually battling "the other''. This "other" may be within an ethnic or a religious or a linguistic minority or lie outside like immigrants invading the country or as encapsulated in Samuel Huntington's apocalyptic prophecy of civilisational clash between the secular West and Islam.

The political rhetoric of populist leaders is marked by repudiation political pluralism and more ominously anyone who is not part of "the people'' not only does not count but is to be excluded. Champions of liberal democracy now appear to be hamstrung in their efforts to counter these forces. In effect, in many countries, especially in Europe where centrist or right-wing political parties are in power, adopting populist policies rather than attempting to push back them.

THEORETICAL FOUNDATION OF POPULISM: Populism is fundamentally anchored in exclusivist or more precisely, in antagonistic politics. The theoretical foundation of antagonist politics was propounded by Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), a German jurist, political theorist and a prominent member of the Nazi party. His critique of classical liberalism and constitutional democracy has led to theorising or more precisely, articulating displacement of the concept of voluntary cooperation (i.e. democracy) with the idea of antagonism.  Schmitt, a staunch anti-Semite, identified the Jews as the perpetual enemy.

Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014),  further extended Schmittian dogma   by designating "the other'' as "the enemy of the people'' to enable the leader to muster a  coalition strong enough under his/her leadership to capture state power. Laclau then goes on to add far more toxic elements into his discourse on populism by suggesting that to unite  disparate and inchoate demands, their deep-seated prejudices and grievances need an "effective investment'' or more precisely, an emotional engagement. Such an emotional engagement will enable the leader to command adoration of the "people''; while fuelling the hatred of "the other'', the enemy.

The credibility of liberal democratic values and norm has seriously been undermined by the countries which have championed them like the US and the UK. Both the countries have a long record of subverting democracy in Iran and many other countries. These two countries and their European partners destroyed countries like Iraq and Libya through aggression and occupation in the name of spreading "democracy''. Now these countries are running proxy wars against Syria and Yemen and propping up theocratic and autocratic dynastic rulers in the Gulf region and arming them to fight their wars in Syria and Yemen. The US in particular has a long history of aiding and abetting ruthless dictatorial regimes in Latin America, Asia and Africa and it continues to do so even today.  By their actions they have seriously undermined the spread of liberal democratic norms and values. Their actions have actually emboldened modern-day autocrats to perpetuate and consolidate their political power, in most instances with extreme degrees of political repression and violence.

THE RISE OF DONALD TRUMP: Now the spectre of democracy in retreat is very much visible in the US itself, which is highlighted by the rise of Donald Trump. Trump's choice of target to build his "true people'' needed to identify the enemy. In pursuit of identifying the enemy to consolidate his authoritarian rule, he used a right-wing Christian (according to the Pew Research Centre, 25 per cent of US citizens are considered to be fundamentalist Christians) variant of authoritarianism like that of secular variant of authoritarianism which is also equally anti-migrant and anti-Muslim. He then drummed up a sense of collective insecurity stemming from seemingly uncontrolled immigration and Muslims. Once he has identified the "enemy" - migrants and Muslims who pose a threat to national security which needs to be dealt with urgently, he can  now galvanise the base to action to come to his side and vote Republican candidates.

He was very lucky, the "true people'' have already existed for decades but right champions never came along in the past. They now found in Trump their champion and he knew what would stoke them. He preyed on the collective anxieties of white working and dwindling middle class, his base, to create an urgency to vote for him and Republican candidates to deal with the situation. Once in power, he was swift in declaring to build a wall across the US-Mexican border to stem the flow of immigrants and issued an executive order banning people coming from seven Muslim majority countries. He has successfully meshed populism with nationalism and politics of insecurity.

Once in power, Trump lost no time to undermine democratic values and institutions. He called much the US media as the "enemy of the people'' and the purveyor "fake news'. He is now out in full force to delegitimise the media, one of the institutions that can hold him accountable. He describes protesters against him as "paid professionals''. In rallies he riled large crowd to jeer at and shout against four elected female members of the Congress. The crowd further demanded to send them back to their ancestral homeland. He frequently uses executive orders  bypassing the Congress in major decision making. His elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court vacancy was guided by his desire to shape the court to suit his political outlook. Trump displays aggression, lack of concern for others and amorality but dressed up in a contrived caring image for his base.

MODI AND HINDUTVA: Closer to home in neighbouring India, Narendra Modi's populist campaign led his Hindu supremacist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to a spectacular second-term victory in the national election in June this year. Modi's electoral victory is considered as the victory of Hindutva ideology, a majoritarian fascist political ideology and a far-right movement that uses religion as a justification for atrocities against Muslims and other non-Hindu minorities. Hindutva promotes the term 'Hindu' as equivalent to India. Therefore, any people objecting to being called Hindus should be regarded as anti-Hindu, therefore anti-Indian.

A combination of religion with nationalism in particular is very advantageous to supply a populist narrative along with identifying the enemy within that narrative. That full narrative is provided by Hindutva ideology. It considers especially Muslims, accounting for about 15 per cent of Indian population, as an alien element grafted onto the current political order who can not be absorbed into the Hindu social and political order.

Since 1947 violence against Muslims has increasingly been used to consolidate cross-caste Hindu alliances. Behind the violence against Muslims lies the Hindu nationalist narrative with the strategic thrust to physically eliminate them, as the Gujarat riot of 2002 revealed and this is a solution that is to be pursued as and when an opportunity arises. In effect, violence against Muslims in India has become routinised and normalised. While the state security apparatus has been important element in the repression and violence against Muslims, the special role is increasing being played by mob violence.

The surge in populist authoritarian leaders like Trump, Orban, Duterte and similar others  are exploiting voters' simmering discontent with the existing economic, social  and political order and using that to their advantage. Underneath such political manoeuvres, long-term historical factors are at work affecting economic, social and political environment not only of individual countries but also of the world at large. Trump and others like him are the outcome of that protracted economic, social and political processes rather than creators of those processes. But Modi is a very different ball game. The Indian writer and political commentator Arundhati Roy  in a recent TV interview with Mehdi Hasan commented that Donald Trump is the effluent of a system that went wrong  but Modi is a whole system, that has been coming since 1925 and has arrived. Now India will have to go through it before it could come out of it.

Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.








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