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What we must do to save liberal democracy

Triple lock of free elections, independent judiciary and free press no guarantee against populism

The rise of populism in Europe and the Americas over the last decade has led some to speculate that we are witnessing a rerun of the European politics of the 1930s. If so, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, an attack on a democratic country by a dictatorship, suggests that we may have arrived at September 1939, echoing Hitler’s invasion of Poland, a trigger for the second World War.

But history doesn’t repeat itself; events may chime with the past, but comparisons offer only limited use. The reasons for the surge in nativism differ slightly in each case but, collectively, they have given rise to that most terrifying conceit: the post-truth era. How can those of us who remember the sacrifice to rescue democracy made by our forebears, 80 years ago, resist this seemingly relentless assault on our values today?

One obvious contrast to the 1930s is that populism is infecting countries with long-established traditions of democracy, including America and the United Kingdom, nations that fought so hard to resist the Nazis and later forging the backbone of Nato, an alliance of democratic states resisting the then communist empire. So why doesn’t the triple lock of free elections, an independent judiciary and a free press make those same three bulwarks of democracy impregnable?

Laws designed to protect democratic freedoms are abused, in order to dismantle them

The answer lies with the law, or more precisely the application of the law. Populism, a misnomer as it seldom represents the majority, shows scant regard for the law; its ideology is based on fear: fear of change, fear of being usurped, and fear of losing power. The very laws designed to protect democratic freedoms are abused, in order to dismantle them. The judiciary is assailed, politicised and replaced with compliant judges. Poland and Hungary have been so determined to stack the judiciary that they are now barely democratic countries. The super-majority of extreme conservatives on the US Supreme Court now makes that institution little more than a cudgel for the Republican party.


So afraid was the EU of pushing Poland and Hungary into Putin’s sphere that the breach of the EU’s rule of law by both countries has not been effectively challenged by Brussels which completely misread their historical relationship with Russia. Poland is finally being fined €1 million per day for implementing a controversial mechanism for disciplining judges, a fine it has refused to pay. I wonder, with the pressing need to bolster Poland’s resistance to Russia, whether all will be forgotten. Hungary, on the other hand, seems to slide by any threat of EU sanction.

Immigration is the single issue that binds together all populist movements. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government bars refugees seeking asylum on its borders; fewer than 2,000 refugees from the Middle East have been allowed entry. Orban has also given Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries to boost his electoral constituency. His Fidesz party is greatly funded by Russian money and his constituents are bribed with EU subsidies, blatant breaches of EU law.

For all of Poland’s heroics in sheltering some two million Ukrainian refugees, it shamefully keeps hundreds of refugees from Syria in a no man’s land between Belarus and its own border, preventing them from claiming asylum. Unlike the Ukrainians, those refugees are not Christian and have a different skin colour. Poland is not sanctioned.

The UK government is paying Rwanda to take refugees applying for asylum in Britain, breaking several international treaties (the Northern Ireland protocol is but one of many agreements Boris Johnson has broken); a policy that does nothing to deter the people-smugglers, simultaneously condescends to the asylum seekers, the Rwandans and anyone who has ever successfully found refuge in the UK previously (including my family). I cannot remember a UK policy that is quite so racist since the incarceration of German Jews on the Isle of Man as enemy aliens, during the last war.

Populism in Ireland looks to be one general election away

In Ireland, which has so far resisted the siren call of populism, a recent poll has suggested a majority here want a cap on the number of Ukrainian refugees entering the country. Recently, Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn deliberately conflated the mica compensation issue with the money being spent by the Government on housing Ukrainian refugees. Alarmingly, populism in Ireland looks to be one general election away. A caveat to the electorate: populists are much easier to elect than remove.

The attack on the process of free elections is the most dangerous threat to democracy. The British Vote Leave campaign was found to have broken campaign finance rules and was fined £7,000. Russian money had corrupted a freely held election but the result of the election was not challenged; the Department of Public Prosecutions was too scared to challenge “the will of the people” who had cast their vote.

If we are to save liberal democracy from this unprecedented heave against it, then we must understand that democracy, by its very nature, is a fragile condition; that it needs constant maintenance, reform and protection. An independent judiciary is the keystone. But democracy needs to be fought for every day, even in countries where it has existed for decades or even centuries.

Ninety years ago next year, the Nazis swept away the Weimar Republic, the most sophisticated democracy in Europe. Within six years its Jewish citizens had been stripped of all their basic rights and were being murdered with impunity. For a number of years, my mother, a Holocaust survivor from Poland has told me that she sees her life coming full circle. I wonder if we can afford not to believe her.

  • Oliver Sears is the founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland