Populism: a threat to democracy

Some Nationalist diehards are beholden by the idea that Muscat’s methods are akin to a type of populism... I do not agree with this assessment

Tackling the Mintoff regime on the democracy front was a super-human effort recalled by older people like me with a certain degree of nostalgia
Tackling the Mintoff regime on the democracy front was a super-human effort recalled by older people like me with a certain degree of nostalgia

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, (‘How Democracies Fall Apart – Why Populism is a Pathway to Autocracy’ written by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz) a comparison was made between the rise of populism and fascist dictatorships in the past and the current way such dictatorships are established.

Until recently, coups have been the primary threats to democracy while in the last decade, populist-fuelled authoritarianism has been on the rise. Populism is difficult to contradict because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce. 

And in cases in which vocal critics do emerge, populist leaders can easily frame them as “fifth columnists”, “agents of the establishment”, “enemies of the people” or provocateurs seeking to destabilize the system. Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.

Moreover, because populist leaders enjoy substantial popular support, they tend to have broad approval for many of their proposed changes. In Argentina, for example, Juan Perón was elected president in 1946 and leveraged his popularity to consolidate control over the political system. More recently, Turkey’s Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party claimed a resounding victory in the 2002 national elections and continued to attract increased vote shares in 2007 and 2011 and then last week won the referendum approving a new Constitution that gives him extraordinary powers. Such broad public support provides such leaders with a perceived “mandate” to rule. This type of political development gives rise to “personalist dictatorship”: a particular brand of autocracy in which power is highly concentrated in the hands of an individual. 

Even in countries where populist-fuelled threats to democracy have not fully evolved into autocracy, such as in Hungary and Poland, dominant leaders like Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski enjoy a disproportionate share of power. 

After winning the last election in Israel, Netanyahu gave himself the communications portfolio, giving him the last word on any media-related legislation and unprecedented leverage over Israel’s television and telecommunications networks, which have grown apprehensive of doing anything to alienate the Prime Minister.

Erdogan’s victory in last week’s referendum, described by The Economist as ‘The slide into dictatorship’ follows the trend. Checks and balances, so necessary in a true democracy, are viewed as obstacles to strong government and therefore the ruling party has a right to subvert institutions such as the judiciary and the press.

In the case of Hungary and Poland these developments are happening in two EU member states. EU membership therefore, is not proving to be a strong restraining force to avoid such anti-democratic stances, although what happens now in these two countries depends on future free elections. 

In Malta, we were on the precipice of such a development during the Mintoff years – except that in some notable cases, the Maltese judiciary proved that it had the strength to rein in breaches of the Constitution and human rights, and the section of the press that did not agree with the tactics of the Mintoff regime soldiered on. In the end, however, it had to be the strongman himself – Dom Mintoff – who redeemed himself and rescued Malta from the edge of the precipice.

Given this sort of background, talk of a reversal of the democratic rights achieved by the Maltese people as a result of Joseph Muscat’s way of doing things seems to be far-fetched and stretched.

Yet some Nationalist diehards are beholden by the idea that Muscat’s methods are akin to a type of populism leading to a similar fate and that in Malta democracy is on the retreat. I do not agree with this assessment. More so when some insist that Muscat allows the trappings of democracy so as to cover up his sinister intents. To me it seems as if these diehards feel more comfortable living in a time warp. 

Tackling the Mintoff regime on the democracy front was a super-human effort recalled by older people like me with a certain degree of nostalgia. But the world has moved forward and – I believe – the Labour Party has, by and large, learnt its lesson... even though there are also Labour diehards who hark for Dom Mintoff’s bullying methods.

Not that Joseph Muscat has not made very serious mistakes. We should consistently insist on our democratic rights and keep remembering that ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’.


May’s June election

The morning after the June general election that she announced on Tuesday, Theresa May could become the most powerful British prime minister since the Second World War. 

Polls suggest that the Conservative party is on course for a landslide victory that would greatly increase her party’s working majority the House of Commons. The ‘poll of polls’, a time-weighted average of seven pollsters’ most recent polls calculated by the Financial Times, currently gives the Conservatives an 18-point lead over Labour. 

Writing in The Guardian on Tuesday, the conservative columnist Matthew d’Ancona noted that calling a snap election was “self-evidently the smart option”. A victory for May and the Conservatives, he wrote, “would kill off the idea of a second (Brexit) referendum, and close down the argument that the electorate had not given consent to withdrawal from the single market.” 

Will the election result shut up the voices that are insisting that the Brexit decision was a big mistake? Or as The Daily Mail headlined it “crush the rebels”?

Writing in The New Yorker, John Cassidy puts it this way: “In other political systems, the obvious solution would be for the progressive, internationalist parties – in this case, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the S.N.P. – to form an electoral alliance, formal or informal, against the nationalist conservatives. Given the gravity of the situation, and the narrowness of the result in the Brexit referendum, there are strong, perhaps overwhelming, arguments for this to happen. At this juncture, however, it looks like a fantasy.”

What a pity. This is the last realistic possibility of stopping the Brexit process. 

May’s strategy is obviously aimed at smothering it.

For better or for worse, it is Theresa May’s name that will be forever linked with Brexit – not that of Boris Johnson or of Nigel Farage.

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