Increased threats of populism

Ezzat Ibrahim
Sunday 8 Mar 2020

Under heavy clamour in the international arena in 2019, the term “populism” came out of the domain of political science, and into the public sphere

The term “populism” became associated with influential politicians on the international scene, such as: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Bernie Sanders, Narendra Moody and Viktor Urban for years.

Last year was best described as “the era of turmoil.” Despite the volumes of literature written on populism, the contemporary context has evolved in the past years, after the election of Trump in the US, and the British vote to leave the European Union (Brexit). Populism now indicates that politicians can speak directly to the masses through social media, without resorting to traditional media.

That is in addition to the exploitation of right-wing extremist parties, such as the Alternative Party in Germany, the National Front in France and Fox in Spain, of austerity measures, economic stagnation and the refugee crisis to continue to fan the streets to reap political gains by awakening national sentiments.

Hence, there are two dimensions of populism in today’s world: the first feeds on economic conditions and inequality; and the second exploits cultural factors and nationalism.

Some researchers believe that the rise of populism is a reaction to events that occurred in the past decade, the most important of which are: the global financial crisis in 2008, the failure of the eurozone and failed military interventions, especially the Iraq War that perpetuated global mistrust and unleashed repercussions of international magnitude. 

For example, populist, leaderless movements and mass uprisings emerged in 2019 against the ruling elites, as was the case in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria and Iran in the Middle East. Critics of traditional government policies believe traditional political elites spread the fear of popular movements that express their anger by
going out on the streets.

The same applies to voters in democratic countries who have lost confidence in major political parties, against the backdrop of their failure to raise incomes or provide jobs in the past two decades.

Peter Baker expressed this trend in The Guardian in January 2019, saying: “We can’t really talk about populism without talking about our conflicting conceptions of democracy – and the question of what it truly means for citizens to be sovereign.” 

But populists in different societies do not represent a homogeneous or united bloc, nor are they united by one opinion, logic or current. They extend from the far right to the far left. 

However, what unites them is presenting the people as the ultimate holders of truth in the face of the existing policies or in the face of the other – those who are politically, ideologically, ethnically or religiously different in certain cases.

In the foreseeable future, populist policies are expected to gain the support of larger sectors around the world, in light of the increasing crises of the global capitalist system, imbalances in capital flows and globalisation. These factors will give populist movements more power, and will exacerbate economic and cultural conflicts between elites benefiting from the existing order and the majority suffering from marginalisation and economic hardships in various parts of the world.

Therefore, the relationship between populism and the emergence of national identity will come in the limelight in 2020. The emphasis on national identity has become a strong reaction to the frustrations that the existing international system poses, and an opportunity for national governments to divert attention from internal failures.

However, populist governments that came to power failed to offer convincing economic alternatives, just as much as traditional elites failed, which portends greater chaos at the international level due to the absence of convincing alternatives. 

There is a great diversity in the growing global manifestations of populism. Playing on identity, as is the case towards white ethnic nationalism by Trump and Johnson, in what is called “Western sphere”, may increase in the coming months before the US presidential elections in November and the UK’s scheduled exit from the European Union in a few months.

Likewise, the largest democracy in the world, India, is witnessing a raging dialogue about identity after its Prime Minister Narendra Modi, disclosed policies that support the ideas of Hindu nationalism. In the same manner, the Arab region is witnessing the continuation of fundamentalist currents in an attempt to raise the issue of Islamic identity, whether in the face of the ruling regimes, or to gain international supporters.

In light of the global economic downturn, and the failure to confront corruption, the atmosphere is conducive to the continuation of. leaderless demonstrations in the main squares in a large number of countries, as happened in 2019. The middle classes and the working and industrial classes that do not feel an improvement in economic conditions are equally enraged. Politically, the populist ’parties’ gains in the past year represent a threat to the centre-right and left parties in Europe and other regions.

Despite the economic promises and social welfare policies that populist parties from the right and left wings pledge to garner votes, many liberal intellectuals at present see that it is not only the issue of inequality that drives the wave of populist election. They believe culture is the main driver of popular votes, and that there is an increasing trend to include the politics of identity and culture in the public ballot in the next decade, putting populism at the forefront of global debate in the coming years.

Identity questions the world over take populist currents to new levels in the new year, and between them lies the Middle East, struggling with questions of sectarianism, doctrinism and ethnicity, as well as interventions by foreign powers, some of which say they are trying to prevent the reasons for the growth of populism in their countries.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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