The spectre of populism: The Dutch escape; Modi’s magic and menace; Trump in checkmate
by Rajan Philips (Island)
The Dutch people have warded off the spectre of xenophobic populism that is haunting Europe. With 85% voters turning out, the Dutch have spurned the darker angels inherent to every polity and stayed true to their ‘consociational tradition’, electing for government an alliance of parties that spans from the centre all the way to the green-left. After Brexit, Europe was bracing for a possible ‘Nexit.’ Netherlands has resoundingly voted to remain in, and not emulate the fragmented British vote to exit the European Union. It is Brexit that is now in trouble, tormented by buyers’ remorse among the English, and threatened by a new Scottish referendum (what would they call it, Sexit?) to exit not the EU but the UK.
Cartoon googled and added by TW
Populism is not only in Europe. Nearer home, Indian Prime Minister Modi has confounded both followers and haters by leading the BJP to a phenomenal victory in the Uttar Pradesh state election. Away in the Western Hemisphere, President Trump is proving himself to be more a lying blusterer than a governing leader, and is turning America from being a superpower into a super circus.
The term and its significations have been around for a long time in Europe and the Americas. In its current release, populism stands for nativism and anti-elitism, and against immigrants and their ‘politically-correct’ sponsors and defenders. Populism is the west’s internal reactions against globalization and free trade that western establishments imposed on the world. As far as I know, populism was never identified as a political phenomenon in Sri Lanka or South Asia, although the term has been used in its literal, or pejorative, sense. Rajni Kothari, for example, saw the reaction to globalization in the global south – not in populism but in the waxing politics of ethnicity, which has since waned quite considerably.
Yet, there is a tendency to view populism as a new law of political gravity everywhere. There are seemingly common threads in the manifestations of populism in Netherlands, US, Britain, and even in India. But there are also significant differences in the contextual causes and the responses to political questions in every country. The point of political understanding is to provide a political response; and not like in religious theology, where – ‘to understand is to believe and to believe is to understand’. And the metrics of measuring political responses have not changed. They should remain the same everywhere: fairness, equality, justice, tolerance, decency and respect for diversity.
Neither inevitable nor permanent
Alongside the tendency to view populism as a new organizing political principle, there is also the tendency to overestimate the strength of its constituency and its consequences. The opposite error is to underestimate them and fail to use effective electoral tactics to deal with them. The Hillary Clinton campaign was guilty of the latter error despite its formidable resources and handsomely compensated professional managers. The American voters did not let her down. At 65 million votes, she holds the record for white American presidential candidates. The only person who surpassed her is Barak Obama, the African American President. He polled a whopping 69 million votes in 2008 and 65 million in 2012.
The Dutch people and their myriad of political parties have been smarter. The voters were also conscious of their responsibility and their duty. 84% of them turned out to vote, a significantly higher response than the usual 70%. Contrast this to the smug Londoners who had better things to do on Brexit day, or the starry eyed American millennials who either stayed home in protest or voted in protest for third party candidates. One would have thought that with all their education in American history and politics they knew what to do in a close presidential election.
Not to make too much of a value-comparison of electoral systems, it would seem that the system of proportional representation and the political culture of consociationalism in the Netherlands is far more suited to absorb and channel competing political forces in a non-destructive way than the American electoral college system that forces multiple political contentions into a binary contest. Rather than dividing themselves into an Either/OR fallacy, the Dutch voters have been able to elect representatives from the far-left, encompassing political socialism and environmental sustainability, to the far-right that stands for closing not only the Dutch borders but also the Mosques inside. In between are 26 other parties of varying sizes, significance and messages. It is far better to give representation to extremists of every hue and let them vent in public, in parliament, than to shut them off to make mischief in the fringes.
The incumbent Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, will continue in office but with a new coalition of parties. His Liberal Party lost 10 seats in the election from 41 to 31 – still the top seat count, but his former coalition partner the Labour Party (here’s a parallel to Britain) lost massively 30 seats in all and will have no effective say in the new government or parliament. The predicted winner, the anti-immigration Freedom Party led by Geert Wilder, the Dutch clone of Donald Trump (Cartoon googled and added by TW) and his ilk in Britain and France, came up terribly short. At twenty seats, the Freedom Party gained five more from its current total, but its vote dial stayed at 15% as it has been for the last few years. Two other pro-European parties performed much better capturing 19 seats each. The cynosural winner is the Green Left Party that quadrupled its strength from four to sixteen seats.
The Green-Left’s charismatic leader, Jesse Klaver (Pic googled by TW), is the son of a Moroccan father and a Dutch-Indonesian mother. The old Empire really strikes back in beautiful ways. Mr. Klaver has been compared to Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, for their looks and youthfulness. There are other aspects as well. Mr. Trudeau, quite different from his rigorously exacting father, has managed to find a cordial working relationship with the new Trump Administration in Washington. The Canadian Prime Minister’s ministerial signals are tellingly revelatory: the Minister of External Affairs is a Canadian of Ukrainian roots and Canada’s new Minister of Immigration (Ahmed D. Hussen – Pic Googled and added by TW)
arrived in the country as a young refugee from Somalia.
The kind of populism that triumphed in the US, and in Brexit, however freakishly, has been pushed back in the Netherlands. But the socioeconomic reasons and deprived experiences of people that generate populist anger and resentment should not be lost sight of even as simplistic political leaders who exploit the situation should be called out. That is the lesson from the electoral success of populism in Britain and the US, and its setback in Netherlands. Narendra Modi is one leader who articulates both the magic and the menace of populism. He is more moderate in his rhetoric than Donald Trump, and he is also more respectful of the institutions of government than Trump is. He took India by storm as a political outsider, but unlike Trump he did not parachute from outside politics.
On the other hand, Indian commentators see parallels between Trump and Modi in creating divisive electoral coalitions and exploiting the ‘post-modern’ social medium of communication. He is the latest consummate beneficiary of the good old (and British) first-past-the-post electoral system, winning 312 seats for the BJP (and 13 for its allies) in the 403-seat Uttar Pradesh state assembly. He has masterfully managed to divide and conquer the grand non-Hinduthva constituency that has hitherto thwarted BJP attempts to win power in India’s most populous state. He has divided the Backward Classes along caste lines, the Dalits along class lines, and everyone against the Muslims. The redeeming aspect of Modi is his discipline against corruption and his willingness to play by the rules of the Indian Constitution. That is a key difference with the Trump presidency.
No one has accused Trump of corruption, but the co-mingling of Trump’s business and government is a new experience for everyone. As well, the unfolding Trump Administration is a clear illustration of the resilience of the checks-and-balances in the American constitutional order that has evolved through two centuries of experience. Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump is finding out that governing is a little too complicated for his liking. In fact, it is a lot more complicated than deal making in real estate business and bulldozing in construction.
The American judiciary is having a field day in checkmating its President as he and his team of neophytes struggle to find a legal way to implement his most outlandish electoral undertaking: to ban Muslims from entering America. The waggish footnote is that Muslims have been arriving in America from the time of its modern founding by Columbus, and long before Trump’s paternal grandfather went there from Germany in 1885. His newly proposed budget, mercilessly slashing funding for foreign aid and environmental protection agencies, has already been rejected even by Republican Senators – as “dead on arrival.” All in all, Trump’s power is not unlimited and its effects will not be permanent.