The voters in two of the world’s largest democracies have spoken – and their message is clear.
Elections in India and the European Union in recent days have resulted in gains for politicians with strident nationalist messages. In some EU countries the out-of-touch elites are savaged. The middle ground is crumbling.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi easily secured a second term, shrugging off a challenge from the Congress Party, which attempted to paint him as a threat to India’s secular pluralism, as voters responded to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) doubling-down on Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Across parts of the European Union, some populist, euroskeptic and anti-immigrant parties benefited at the expense of the establishment over the weekend. In the UK – where most voters never expected to be taking part in these elections – the Brexit Party, led by arch EU critic Nigel Farage, swept the board. A similar result was seen in France and Italy, where Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) and Matteo Salvini’s League came out on top.
Those results come hot on the heels of an Australian election in which voters contradicted months of polling and chose to retain the right-wing government of Scott Morrison, an evangelical Christian climate change denier.
Across the world there has been a consistent shift to the political right, as voters abandon the center-left and centrist parties, which once held power in many democracies, after years of austerity and economic downturn.
In Europe, the turn to the right – with Britain perhaps being the best example – has been fueled by a desire to recapture past glories. Pro-Brexit lawmakers often talk of their project as if they are revitalizing the British Empire, exaggerating not only the role Britain plays today, but the one it would likely have as a small country detached from the wider EU bloc.
In India, Modi’s continued success has not been about yesterday’s successes, but tomorrow’s. Indians see themselves on the verge of becoming the next superpower, with Modi and his stridently nationalist BJP the best people to lead them there.
What these movements share, however, is an antipathy and even hatred for “the other” – more often than not a poor, religious minority.
There has been concern about the spread of violent Hindu nationalism since Modi came to power, while European countries have seen increased visibility for anti-Muslim and pro-Nazi groups, as well as mass protests against immigrants.
Rise of ‘populism’
Much of the focus around the European elections, in particular, has been on the rise of so-called populism across the continent.
Political scientist Cas Mudde has defined populism as a “thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite.’”
In general discourse, however, this often involves the suggestion that wildly disparate parties – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the UK, say, with Salvini’s far-right League – are somehow connected by similar policies, which upon inspection often boil down to: appealing to broad swaths of people in a way that media elites disapprove of.
As Anton Jager, an expert in political history at the University of Cambridge, wrote last year: “Historians and journalists have been quibbling over the exact meaning of the term populism – and who should and shouldn’t qualify as one – for at least 60 years.”
“Despite its ambiguous connotations, the word populism has always been more acceptable than labels like racist or extreme right,” Jager added, meaning it can be easier for media concerned about the appearance of objectivity than equivalent terms which appear to carry with them value judgments.
The general shift towards “populist” parties – right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-elite – has been under way for several years. Time Magazine shortlisted “The Populists” as its person of the year for 2016. The grouping, which included Farage and Le Pen, eventually lost out to US President Donald Trump.
While the trend has often been portrayed as the rise of the right, more often than not it is caused by a collapse in support for center-left parties, many of which were the traditional parties of government in their respective countries.
“The rise of the populist right has coincided with a catastrophe for the center-left,” William Galston, a governance expert at the center-right Brookings Institute, wrote last year. He pointed to the decline of France’s Socialists, Labour in the Netherlands, Italy’s Democratic Party and the Czech Social Democrats.
“Even in Scandinavia, long a bulwark of social democracy, the once-dominant center-left parties are in decline, and nationalist parties with nativist tendencies are growing,” Galston noted. “Under pressure, center-right parties have felt compelled to adjust by shifting toward populist policies and rhetoric.”
Modi’s success in India has been largely at the expense of The Indian National Congress, the center-left party which governed the country for most of its post-independence history. Congress leader and political scion Rahul Gandhi failed to make any gains against the BJP juggernaut, even losing his own race.
In seeking to capture an imagined greatness, Indian and European voters are reacting to societies struggling with economic disparity, inequality and issues of secularism.
The risk for many in marginalized and minority communities however is that in doing so, voters double down on exclusionary, majoritarian politics that leads to societies that are more hostile and less open.
Nor do these democratic giants exist within a bubble. The influence of their newly returned governments could have a major effect on the trend of global politics, and on reaching international consensus on issues with global ramifications such as climate change.
Parties which traditionally pushed back against that trend have failed in recent years to make much headway. There are many reasons for this – austerity policies, poor economic performance, foreign policy catastrophes – what remains to be seen is whether they can reinvent and recover in time to stop their countries swinging further towards the populist right.