London Calling: How does India look from afar? Looming world power or dysfunctional democracy? And what’s happening in Britain, and the West, that India needs to know about and perhaps learn from? This fortnightly column helps forge the connections so essential in our globalising world.
‘The genie is out of the bottle’. So declared Dutch politician Geert Wilders last week after the surprise election victory of his hard right anti-immigrant party in the Netherlands. For decades he’s been shunned and reviled. Now this flamboyant politician with bouffant blond hair and a spectacular comb over (remind you of anyone?) will lead the biggest single party in the Dutch parliament.
The Netherlands is not a touchstone for global political trends. But it is by most standards a strong and stable democracy which avoids political extremism of right or left. When the populist right makes inroads here, the rest of the world needs to sit up and take notice. And in the same week, another right-wing populist (with another dubious hair style), Javier Milei, also achieved an against-the-odds election victory to become the new president of Argentina, one of Latin America’s larger nations.
This is not a uniform global trend, of course. The centre left is in power (for now) in two of the west’s major democracies, Germany and the United States; in Brazil, the leftist Lula da Silva succeeded in evicting the hard right Jair Bolsonaro last year; and in Britain, the social democratic Labour Party is likely to return to power next year after 14 years in opposition.
But across much of the world, voters are turning to populists who are intensely distrustful of the institutions on which liberal democracy is built: fair and unfettered elections; an unrestricted media; religious tolerance; and political pluralism. At times, this feels like a rerun of the early 1930s.
Wilders is not likely to emerge in the aftermath of the Dutch elections as his country’s prime minister. His party will have 37 seats in the 150-seat parliament – the largest party but a long way short of a majority. The initial signs are that centre right parties will refuse to enter a coalition with Wilders on the grounds that one shoudn’t deal with the devil. That will allow Wilders to moan that the political establishment has closed ranks to keep him out of power – which of course will incense his hard-line supporters.
But Wilders’ policies are not simply right of centre; they are, by any standards, extremist. His party stands for cutting net immigration to the Netherlands to zero and banning mosques and the Quran. He has a conviction for inciting hatred. There is a rank odour of Islamophobia and intolerance about him and his party.
Look across Europe, and the populist right is on the rise. Italy’s Prime Minister Georgia Melon began her political career in movements which sought to resurrect Italian fascism, and her current party, the Brothers of Italy, is regarded as the most right-wing to govern the country since the collapse of Mussolini’s dictatorship 80 years ago.
There have been pockets of hard right influence in Eastern Europe for a while – notably in Hungary and Poland – where arguably democratic traditions and institutions are not as strongly embedded because of the decades of Soviet domination. In France, the hard right Marine Le Pen has been runner-up in the last two presidential elections.
And the right’s shadow is getting bigger. In Germany, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) has more than 70 seats in the national parliament and is a serious electoral contender. In Scandinavia too – a model of political moderation for many decades – the right is on the rise with right-wing populists being the second biggest party in the national parliaments of Sweden and Finland.
These movements are not a cohesive political group: some are principally nationalist; others racist or reactionary; others again are Eurosceptics, wanting to build on Britain’s example – in part shaped by the populist right – and withdraw from the European Union.
The root cause is the unease of those who feel they will lose out on jobs and housing because of large-scale immigration, exacerbated by economic stagnation and an unsettling level of global turbulence.
Milei’s victory in Argentina is a reminder that populism continues to pack a political punch in Latin America after the eclipse of Bolsonaro. Argentina has something of a tradition of maverick political leaders – after all, this is the home of Peronism – and its economic meltdown is much graver than in most other major democracies, but again sirens are ringing. Or they should be.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a huge boost to populism around the world. If he returns to power next year, that will be an even bigger fillip to the far right. The polls suggest that he would have the advantage in a rematch with Joe Biden. That’s in spite of his alleged role in inciting what many regard as insurrection and the vehemence with which he disputed his defeat in 2020 without any substantial evidence to back up his complaints of election fraud.
From afar, it might be tempting to smile on indulgently as western democracy threatens to consume itself. But the pandemic of ultra-nationalism, racism, protectionism and intolerance which could be unleashed will be visited on every one of us. That genie is best kept with the cork tightly in place.
Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and a former BBC India Correspondent.