The rise of right-wing populism

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BY: Miftah Ismail

The anti-Muslim riots in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 claimed the lives of about 2000 Muslims. They have been called “organised political massacres” of Muslims, and many independent observers have placed the blame on then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, for instigating the riots or at least for his active neglect as Muslims were being massacred.

Yet in 2014, Modi, a man who has defined his politics through Hindu chauvinism, was elected prime minister of India, a country where religious minorities are 20 percent of the population.

In 2016, the Philippines elected a right-wing populist Rodrigo Duterte, a man who is blamed for hundreds of extrajudicial killings of alleged petty criminals and for souring relations with leaders around the world due to his ego and intemperate language.

In America, voters elected white nationalist Donald Trump as president in 2016, a man who cannot let a week go by without insulting women or some minority group or foreign leader. His own cabinet ministers have described him as someone with the “understanding of a sixth-grader”. He based his campaign on white nationalism and his rhetoric is replete with xenophobia.

In Brazil voters just elected the far-right Jair Bolsonaro as president. His campaign was unmistakably misogynist and homophobic and showed disdain for civil liberties.

In Europe too, the nativist right wing has done well electorally. In France Marine Le Pen, the ultra-nationalist leader reached the final round of voting in the presidential elections and gained 34 percent of the vote. In Austria, right-wing young leader Sebastian Kurz got elected chancellor. And in Britain fear of foreigners prevailed as the voters chose Brexit – an exit from the European Union.

And at home, Imran Khan’s PTI won elections this year after being an obscure party from 1997 to 2010 and only winning 33 seats in the 2013 general elections. It’s been argued that the RTS system surreptitiously not working on the day of the elections and the eviction of polling agents from the vote-counting process made a big difference. And of course the vote share of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) also helped the PTI, perhaps decisively. But still there is no denying that the PTI polled a lot more votes in 2018 compared to 2013, and that with the combined votes of the TLP and the PTI there has been a rightward shift in Pakistani politics.

So from Manila to Rio and Washington to New Delhi right-wing populist and xenophobic politicians are doing better than they have since the First World War. I asked some friends why that was the case.

A sociologist friend said “[The’ popularity of right-wing populism is a function of several factors, including: elite manipulation of real insecurities (economic, cultural or religious), the hollowness of existing parties (causing alienation), the incoherence induced by the overflow of information and disinformation”.

In his view “populist voters are usually those that have pre-existing authoritarian and socially conservative tendencies, which manifest when sufficiently prodded by political actors and the opportunity structure allows the prodding to become successful. Otherwise prodding happens all the time, but the stars have to align.”

Another friend, a pollster, added “if you want to examine what’s common in the popularity of right-wing messengers across the world, there are some outstanding characteristics. One of those is that they are deliberately and successful invoking ‘identities’. Left wing populists, on the other hand, are less successful because they invoke ‘values’.

The most successful messengers in theory are the ones combining identity and values (like Khadim Rizvi of the TLP) where the message has broad resonance and emotional salience. Those movements are resilient. The Trumpian resistance for instance doesn’t have much resilience without the undercurrent of white nationalism. Right-wingers are using identity-based fear very well.

Expanding on this, a bureaucrat friend said: “Besides studying how identity masquerading as ideology and the politics of xenophobia help populists, we should also consider that populists are policy witch doctors who come up with simplistic solutions and sell them unabashedly. They create a crisis even if there is none – immigration or corruption, for instance. Populists overpromise and under deliver and resort to dictatorial tendencies in the name of these imaginary crisis”. We can think of Trump promising to “drain the swamp” of corruption from Washington and talking about rapists coming from Mexico when he himself was accused of sexual assault and financial fraud.

I asked: why is the right-wing successful (and not left-wing populists.)? A lawyer friend explained that “the traditional left-wing solutions stand too firmly debunked in the popular mind for winning movements to emerge. The swing in Brazil from former president Lula to the neo-fascist Bolsonaro may well be due to little confidence in the left wing’s working”.

Another friend added: “the left wing doesn’t offer any coherent theory of change. Right-wingers cater to the yearning for a world that elicits tradition and stability and the way things were. A return to the old and a repudiation of what led society ‘astray’, including in their thinking consensus about free trade and international cooperation”.

This explains the ascendency of the right-wing populists internationally but what about the rise of Imran Khan. So another friend added: “people now have an issue with corruption and lack of justice. PM Khan has a long record of showing commitment to those issues. Yes he is hypocritical and mistake-prone. But he’s not perceived as a crook. And others in politics have either de-legitimised themselves through lack of delivery or been de-legitimised by outside actors. Another friend added ominously: “and mark my words, Imran Khan is not Pakistan’s moment of rightward shift. That moment is in the future. And it will be dramatically more grim than anything the PTI can muster”.

The lawyer friend explained: “in a post ideology world in the West all one is left with is identity and in our part of the world the notions of an Islamic utopia built on fury against the corrupt and the debauch”. The pollster friend added that “the success of Islamist politics lies in the fact that Islamic utopia will always largely be an aspiration, always an ideal not achieved but towards which progress can be claimed on account of the efforts of the pious. The claimed distance from the promised utopia is what keeps the faithful charged.

A banker friend said: “religion in our environment allows you to channel the anger of those left behind. It’s this anger that is demonstrated when Mr [Khadim] Rizvi is applauded for using foul language against the elite. Seen from that angle, PM Khan is merely a catalyst that is likely to usher in more perilous times.”

Even though my learned friends are pessimistic, I for one remain optimistic both for Pakistan and the world. I believe the political equilibrium in Pakistan is an open, progressive and democratic society and we may sometimes stray from that equilibrium, but eventually we will revert to it.

Courtesy The News

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