Why the fearful, the vulnerable and the confused are attracted to ‘illiberal’ politics?
While hopeful voters headed to the ballot boxes in a number of Arab countries, politicians and pundits around the world, especially in the West, voiced concern that liberal democratic ideals are under assault.
Alluding to the growing appeal of populist and nationalist movements in Europe, reflected in recent Hungarian and Italian elections, French President Emmanuel Macron warned European MPs recently: “There is a fascination with the illiberal and it’s growing all the time.”
In Western countries, commitment to democratic values remains very strong. There have always been authoritarian and even fascist niches that expanded or shrank depending on the moment. Across the board, however, the lessons of pre-second world war Europe remain in force: 93% of Germans polled said they oppose any notion of a “strong leader” in power, a late 2017 Pew poll indicated.
Economic and security issues can influence the political agenda more than the goal of expanding liberal democracy. Fear, be it related to insecurity or joblessness, is too often the driving force behind “illiberal” thought in the West. Wariness about terrorism or illegal migration tends to fuel support for authoritarian politics, even in countries with long democratic traditions.
It is therefore not surprising that populist politicians cynically find an opportunity in fear to mobilise support.
A recent poll commissioned by the European Commission stated that most of the population in Central European countries that have witnessed strong populist showings in recent elections have limited experience with migrants. Interestingly enough, the level of “comfort” with foreign migrants is higher in European countries with more first-hand experience with migration.
US President Donald Trump often gets attention as an example of an authoritarian political persona but his populist message during and after his election in 2016 did not come out of a vacuum. There is a niche for authoritarianism in the United States. A recent survey claimed that three out of ten American respondents said they favour a more authoritarian form of government in the United States.
Among supporters of the far right in Europe, there is even a constituency for military rule, which reaches 31% among members of France’s National Front and 23% of the United Kingdom’s UK Independence Party, Pew said.
Pro-authoritarian constituencies in the West see “strong men” as shields against the dual threats of radical Islam and foreign migration as well as the ultimate solution to the overwhelming complexities of political gridlock and corrupt special interests that seem to control the countries’ capitals. Outside such authoritarian constituencies, however, analysts see a more general risk in the West of a drift away from the liberal status quo ante.
Jihadist terrorism, in particular, can lower citizens’ expectations in Western democracies and make all kinds of concessions, even those at the expense of liberal ideals, palatable.
In the wake of the terrorist attack in March in Carcassonne in southern France, an opinion poll indicated that 61% of French citizens asked said they were in favour of new exceptional measures even if that meant “restricting their own freedoms.”
Varying majorities of French respondents approved of the detention of all security suspects and the expulsion of foreign nationals among them. Almost 90% of respondents said they supported the proposal of former Prime Minister Manuel Valls that Salafism be banned in France, although many of them had no clue if that proposal could be implemented.
The traditional liberal establishment is seen as not being responsive to the needs and fears of the average man in the street. Political correctness is increasingly challenged.
Global democracy promotion, an activity that consumed much Western public diplomacy after the fall of the Soviet Union, is predictably not a priority anymore.
The elevation of China’s Xi Jinping to essentially president for life and the election of Russia’s Vladimir Putin to another 6-year term as president hardly provoked any whimpers in the West. Economic interests are diluting much of the criticism of Chinese and Russian politics.
Consumed by its own internal concerns, the West is much less interested in exporting its values than it was a decade ago. Former US President Barack Obama’s push for including Islamist parties in democratically elected governments is a thing of the past. For many in the United States and Europe, preserving Western value systems at home comes first.
Even the US president’s newly picked foreign policy hawks are no neocons. They are political ultraconservatives more interested in showdowns with America’s enemies than in re-engineering them in the West’s image. John Bolton is no Elliott Abrams and never was a member of George W. Bush’s “Democracy Doctrine” crew.
There is reason to see the West’s change of heart about democracy promotion as a nod, if not a blank cheque to authoritarian rulers everywhere, but it remains to be seen whether the shift in priorities can be an opportunity for countries outside the West’s zone of influence to build their own systems and undergo their own transitions or if it will lead to more old-style illiberal autocracies.
The constituencies for authoritarianism are larger than one expects elsewhere in the world. A late 2017 Pew Global survey said that 26% of the world’s people polled said they would prefer to be governed by a “strong leader,” with 48% of Russians and 52% of Indonesians supporting that idea. One-in-four African and Asian respondents said they see value in military rule.
The debate is pertinent to the Middle East and North Africa region, especially since the “Arab spring” of 2011. During the past seven years, the Arab world has turned inward, with citizens concentrating on trying to survive or make ends meet.
Even in countries with freer political environments today, such as Tunisia, non-negligible segments of the population see “strong men” as offering a way out of the uncertainty and anxiety, which many feel in the face of upheaval.
The authoritarian construct seems at times to offer an easy answer to the messy situations that freedom of political choice and the exercise of democracy can themselves unavoidably create.
This is all the more true when a democratic transition is fairly recent. Lebanon has the highest favourability rating for democracy in Arab publics polled by Pew (85%). The Lebanese seem to appreciate the peaceful dividends of democratic coexistence after having gone through a bloody civil war.
Tunisia, which is credited with being the most successful democratic transition in the Arab world, has the lowest favourability rating for democratic governance (only 53%), the same survey said.
In fact, 39% of Tunisians asked said they perceive democratic rule as “bad.” Many other domestic and international polls show that misgivings about democracy in Tunisia are the result of lacklustre economic performance and declining standards of living. Commitment to freedom, however, remains stronger than ever among Tunisians. It would be wrong to presume this commitment is less than irreversible.
There is, however, nostalgia for and reinvention of the past. The Pew poll points out that, in countries with a history of military rule, there are likely to remain more residual constituencies for autocracy.
In times of stress and confusion, people are tempted by the reassuring mystification of the past. Data show this tendency tends to be more prevalent among the less educated and the more socio-economically challenged.
Social media, one of the key venues of free expression, are increasingly seen as posing an additional problem for the MENA region and the rest of the world.
Democracy “will continue to retreat unless rich countries find ways to reduce inequality and manage the information revolution,” Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote recently.
Eroding civility and spreading messages of incitement and fake news are hardly synonymous with the constructive and mutually respectful exchange of views that a free and democratic debate is supposed to promote.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted earlier this year at the Munich Security Conference that “netizens are gradually corralled into small ideological ‘echo chambers,’ exacerbating biases and diminishing opportunities for healthy debate.”
In the Arab region, already deeply divided along ideological, sectarian and ethnic lines, social media are leading to further “ghettoisation” of society.
For populations used to centralised power and controlled information, the spectacle of irreverential discourse towards authority during times of democratic transition can be deeply disconcerting. To many, unaccustomed to the sight of authority being challenged every minute of the day, a fettered debate with less dissonant voices is ironically more reassuring.
In times of pervasive confusion and sense of loss of control over one’s destiny, the myth of the strongman as saviour comes alive naturally, even when the roots of today’s disarray lie in the “good old days” of strongmen’s rule. Selective memory allows for the reinterpretation of the past as being more stable and secure.
Whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, freedom, with all its shortcomings, is likely to continue constituting a universal human yearning, even when democracy as a political system delivers unsatisfactory results and is put in doubt by the fearful, the vulnerable and the confused.