Volume 3, No. 9, September 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The concept of ‘illiberal democracy’ introduced by Fareed Zakaria has enjoyed a notable currency. While Zakaria defined this concept negatively, considering it as a valid description for countries lacking a strong constitutional-liberal tradition, some authoritarian leaders have proclaimed ‘illiberal democracy’ as a positive and justifiable notion. Presented as an ‘anti-core’ voice of the periphery against the supposedly elitist, bureaucratic-technocratic, liberal democracy that favoured the upper classes of western countries, illiberal democracy is presented as a majoritarian, bottom-up, re-politicised democratic alternative to democratic governments.
Interestingly, the phenomenon of populism has led many scholars, social scientists, journalists and academia to jump on the bandwagon of Populism Studies. Journalists especially are prone to overusing ‘populism’, labelling it as a phenomenon for which other synonyms like ‘nationalism’ or ‘nativism’ could be used. Denoting lazy thinking, it feels safe nowadays to call all sorts of things ‘populist’ because we’re told day and night that ours is “the age of populism”. It is also a consciously ideological attempt to discredit ‘dangerous populism’ or what might, in fact, be legitimate criticism of the powers-that-be.
Use of the term ‘populism’ is more in vogue in Europe due to the issues of identity, refugees, and the economy, where it carries particularly negative connotations. In the US on the other hand, remnants of the late nineteenth-century meaning of ‘populism’ remain as a largely progressive movement, defending workers, and especially farmers, against Wall Street.
Examples from a broad group of authoritarian states and ‘illiberal democracies’ demonstrate the trend towards the rise in populism. The chief espouser of liberal democracy, the US, had taken a turn towards semi-authoritarianism under President Trump, who had shown some (not so) secret admiration for strong leaders. Now, many other countries are following in the same footsteps, where authoritarian trends are unmistakable due to a lack of faith in western liberal democracy that has unleashed the forces of inequality, moral decline and military adventurism. The past quarter century has shown that quasi-dictatorship in general is not about to disappear and authoritarian systems seek to survive and weaken and defeat democracy around the world.
As an illustration, the Great Crash of the stock market in 1929 and economic decline created societal chaos. There was resentment against the elite republic and people wanted a strongman to take charge. The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent global recession were nowhere near as painful as the Great Depression of the 1930s but the effects are somewhat similar. The heady economic growth of the 2000s led Europeans and Americans to believe they were on firm economic ground. The shattering of banks, real estate markets and governments in the wake of the crash left tens of millions of people at sea, angry at the institutions that had failed them, above all the politicians who claimed to be in charge.
Why, the voters asked, did the government allow so many bankers to behave like criminals in the first place? Why did it then bail out these banks while letting car factories go under? Why is it welcoming millions of immigrants? Are there separate rules for the elite, defined by a hyper-modern liberal worldview that ridicules the working class – and their traditional values – as yokels? The US’s election of President Donald Trump and his policies attacking immigration, cuts in aid, open support for Israel and sometimes admiration for authoritarian leaders may have contributed to this anti-western thinking and disenchantment.
In the US and Europe, the rise of anti-establishment movements is a symptom of a cultural shock against globalised post-modernity, similar to the 1930s’ rejection of modernity. The common accusation by the ‘masses’ is that liberal democracy has somehow gone too far in fomenting ills, that it has become an elite ideology at the expense of the common man. Marine Le Pen, chief of the French National Front, calls the normal folk ‘les invisibles et les Oubliés’ (the ‘invisible and the forgotten’).
In the Middle East, after the heady days of the Arab Spring (from 2010), countries are reverting back to leaders with despotic trends after the dictatorships that collapsed. The wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan are a major cause of discontent and heartburn in the Islamic world.
In South Asia, the Indian parliamentary elections (April 2019) have demonstrated populism as the anchor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies called Hindutva (Hindu versus Muslim) politics. Although Indian democracy may bungle along, given its multifarious problems, many are casting doubts on the ‘largest democracy’ because of discrimination and violence against minority groups. Ironically, India is seen favourably by the west for its military and economic clout, anti-Muslim agenda, and facade of democracy. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal too, as smaller powers in South Asia, are affected by authoritarian trends and disaffection with the workings of democracy.
Turkey, Italy, East European countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovenia are being followed down the authoritarian path by many other countries, where authoritarian trends are unmistakable due to a loss of faith in western type liberal democracy.
Psychologically, the power of nostalgia in nations gets stronger when circumstances turn difficult. It is easy to say that people need to accept the new realities and work toward feasible reforms. Yet most mainstream parties haven’t done so, at least not in a compelling way. Instead, they bicker and fight among themselves and see the rise of demagogues as a solution to their problems, not a threat to their nations.
Today, as in the 1930s, we are seeing the failure of the mainstream parties to respond to the serious challenges. In the so-called ‘new Europe’ of human rights and democracy, erstwhile Communist states’ economic aid and investments are considered more important. For the Balkans countries, entry into the European Union (EU) is a tortuous and time-consuming process with hundreds of stringent laws and regulations. Unsurprisingly, China is more welcome as an investment partner since it does not raise ethical questions. Ukraine, a beneficiary of Chinese aid has, for instance, termed 2019 as the “year of China”. Likewise, Greece, Italy, Spain, Albania and Romania have sought Chinese investments in building ports, railways, dams and other infrastructure, unimaginable with the EU or the US. China provides money while Russia gives strategic direction to increase influence. Also, China is not as hard-driven as Russia but is not bothered by public opinion.
The writer has been Visiting Faculty, Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Chairman Department of IR, NUML, former Adviser COMSATS and Acting President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute