The world in 2019: Populist problems, abdication and Brexit
Authoritarian populism is coming to define the politics of this era – and it could have staying power
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images
Brazil began a sombre new era on January 1st with the inauguration of its new president, far-right 63-year-old populist provocateur Jair Bolsonaro, an open admirer of torture, military rule and Donald Trump.
Globally his inauguration marked another milestone: act three, in the onward march into power of an authoritarian populism that is coming to define the politics of this era. The mounting tide is the outcome of converging processes: the crisis of economies, political systems, and institutions of representation after the global financial crisis that started in 2007 and the hijacking of mass discontent by the far right.
It is a current of politics that has also brought us Brexit, whose big moment comes at the end of March, when the UK leaves the EU. Or is supposed to. The twists and turns on this road are such as to make that outcome impossible to predict with confidence. What is clear is that Theresa May faces an impossible vote this month in the Commons, and then all bets are off.
Bolsonaro marches in the swelling ranks of a rogue’s gallery of fellow “elected” autocrats or would-be autocrats: Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Donald Trump, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Egypt), Matteo Salvini (Italy), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Xi Jinping (China), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Narendra Modi (India) ... all share a dangerous contempt for the rule of law and a hatred of the multilateralism on which the post-war peace has been built, all in the name of respective nationalist versions of “America first”.
Some, notably Trump, are more constrained by national constitutional rules than others. Brazilians hope that will be the case with Bolsonaro. But, writing in the Folha de São Paulo, political commentator Celso Rocha de Barros warns that “The catastrophe that struck Brazil ... cannot be downplayed … We have the most extremist leader of all democratic nations.”
And that’s some yardstick these days.
Bolsonaro, who has a strong attachment to his country’s old military dictators, and their methods, also shares with several of that number the kleptocratic tendencies that Orbán and his circle have refined in Hungary or with that the older ANC leadership in South Africa under Jacob Zuma brought theft of state assets to levels unseen since Vladimir Putin’s entourage came to power.
Ironically, in many cases, populists have come to power, in Trump’s words, “to drain the swamp”, only to reveal themselves as deeply compromised as those they pledge to purge.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro, deeply implicated in corruption, soared in popularity by riding public anger against the “Car Wash” scandal, a giant scheme of kickbacks from construction contracts that implicated much of the country’s political class, including ex-president Luiz Inácio da Silva. In Italy the populist Northern League has long railed against corrupt politicians in “thieving Rome”.
South Africa sees important parliamentary elections this year, when it is expected the ANC will pay a heavy price for its toleration of corruption in its ranks and particularly of Zuma. In 2018 South Africa got a new president, two new finance ministers and slumped into a recession. This year might be even bumpier.
India’s Narendra Modi also faces a first serious parliamentary challenge. Modi swept into power four years ago by promoting a populist brand of politics that mixed rabid Hindu nationalist views with lofty economic promises. He has been criticised as too soft on violent Hindu extremists, including mobs that have lynched people for slaughtering cows, which are revered in Hinduism.
But in late December his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, got walloped in races held across five states. In April or May this country of 1.3 billion people – who speak dozens of languages and live across an incredibly varied landscape from Himalayan mountaintops to tropical isles – is set to hold national parliamentary elections. Modi may find his time is up.
The magazine Atlantic has surveyed populist regimes over the past quarter century – 46 populist leaders or political parties that have been in power across 33 democratic countries between 1990 and today – to look at their ability to survive, their longevity.
“The results are alarming,” the magazine says.” Populists are highly skilled at staying in power and pose an acute danger to democratic institutions.”
“On average, ordinary democratic governments remain in office for a brief span of time: three years. Six years from their first election, four in five non-populist governments have already been booted from power. Populist governments, by contrast, manage to sustain their hold on power for a significantly longer stretch; on average, they hold on for about 6½ years, or more than twice as long as their non-populist rivals,” the Atlantic warns.
We may be in for a long and difficult haul, and democrats may have to give the new mini-Caesars a helping hand to depart. Among populist leaders who entered office between 1990 and 2015, only a small minority left office as a result of the normal democratic process.
“In fact, only 17 per cent of populists stepped down after they lost free and fair elections, “ the magazine reports. “Another 17 per cent vacated high office after they reached their term limits. But 23 per cent left office under more dramatic circumstances – they were impeached or forced to resign.”
This year is likely to see a continuation and intensification of resistance to the new populists by various means.
In the US the Mueller investigation into Trump’s engagement with Russia has already brought down and jailed several former associates and is coming ever closer to the president, whose loss of control over the House in the midterm elections will hamper his ability to govern – a lockdown of government agencies over Christmas is only a taster of what is to come this year.
With Democrats now a majority in the House, there will be further spotlights shone on the New York billionaire’s conduct both before and since he announced his at-the-time long-shot candidacy in 2015.
And over the holidays new tensions emerged as markets took fright, plunging dramatically, on rumours the president was going to sack the chief of the Fed. Nervous Republicans, who have calculated until now that there were sufficient “adults” in the administration to constrain Trump, watch bewildered as the turnover of senior staff rises inexorably.
Can they continue to support an out-of-control president? Impeachment is by no means out of the question.
In Hungary street protest movements against Orbán and his “illiberal democracy” have escalated over Christmas and are likely to continue into the new year in the wake of new moves by the prime minister to “reform” the courts and introduce draconian labour laws.
But the EU’s action in the Court of Justice of the European Union against Poland – also facing elections this year – have apparently caused the latter to think twice about its legal reforms. Similar cases against Orbán’s government are coming down the tracks, and Hungary may find itself in the next few months having to make hard choices about its continued membership of the union.
The Commission is also introducing new financial controls in the next budget that may help to curtail some of the Budapest regime’s frauds against the European taxpayer.
Brexit will continue to provide an important backdrop for EU politics. The elections to the European Parliament in May will see a swathe of candidates reflecting the same rejectionist nationalism, although it is not clear that they will succeed in uniting under one banner despite the efforts of former Trump acolyte Steve Bannon, who is trying to create an alliance of the far right.
But the crushing defeats faced by Europe’s social democratic parties in recent years leave the field remarkably open for a variety of nationalist far-right parties. The centre-right European People’s Party is likely, however, to re-emerge as the new parliament’s dominant force.
There are national parliamentary elections in the EU in Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Estonia, Finland, Portugal and Poland. In the UK, local elections in May will provide an important test for the government of its handling of Brexit, not least in Northern Ireland.
The Romanians took over the presidency of the EU on January 1st somewhat under a cloud. Demonstrations on the streets about corruption and political infighting have led some in Brussels and other European capitals to question whether Bucharest has the capacity to manage the EU’s agenda for the next six months.
The presidency is going ahead, nevertheless, building to a major EU summit in Sibiu in May, six weeks after the UK is supposed to be leaving the EU, at which leaders will hope to set the agenda with a bold vision for a modernised post-Brexit union.
Also in May, closing an important page in Europe’s history, British troops will leave Germany, having been stationed there since the second World War.
Other major elections will be held in Argentina, Indonesia and Nigeria, while the Israeli government has also just announced snap elections for early April .
These are largely seen as being aimed at bolstering public support for prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu as he battles multiple corruption investigations. The government has become increasingly precarious since hard-line defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned and pulled his party from the governing coalition in November, leaving it with a slim majority in the 120-seat parliament.
The government also faces major problems, with new laws forcing conservative Jews to serve in the military.
At the end of April, Emperor Akihito will undertake the first abdication by a Japanese monarch in about two centuries.