6 June 2018

Populism's Next Victories

The spread of populism has continued, with an increasing number of countries moving towards the enactment of political, economic and social policies that can be classified as falling under the populist category.  In recent years, politicians and political parties that have moved to enact populist policies, on both the right-wing and the left-wing, have scored some major victories and are now in power, or leading the political opposition, in many of the world’s leading countries. 

The most obvious, and impactful, victory for populism was in the United States, where Donald Trump took control of the Republican Party and later became president on a platform of key populist policies such as nationalism, protectionism and isolationism.  Likewise, Europe has seen populist political leaders and parties make major gains in recent years.  Brexit is a good example of this, as a traditionally-centrist country such as the United Kingdom opted to withdraw from the European Union for reasons related to nationalism and opposition to immigration.  Italy’s recent national elections were another victory for populists and now, the world’s eighth-largest economy is run by a highly-populist coalition government.  Elsewhere in Europe, populists on both the right and the left have made major gains in recent elections as anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment rises across that region.  In fact, populist policies such as nationalism and protectionism are gaining support in many areas of the world and now play a major role in global affairs, a role that could dramatically destabilize international security and the global economy in the coming months.

As populism has become a leading force in global politics, it is likely that populist policies and platforms will be used by leaders and their parties in all corners of the world to either enhance their existing grip on power, or to win power from more centrist leaders and parties.  One area that is seeing a major increase in support for populist policies is Latin America, the region with more crucial national elections than any other this year.  In fact, populist candidates are leading in the polls ahead of upcoming presidential elections in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, with their support boosted by concerns about rampant crime and corruption in each of those countries. 

Asia too has seen an increase in populist sentiment in recent years, While East Asia’s strong economic performance in recent years has tempered the rise of populism somewhat, the economic struggles and security problems in the Middle East and Central and South Asia have allowed populism to flourish in those regions and this will have a major impact on upcoming elections in Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  In the United States, November’s mid-term elections will largely be a referendum on the populist policies pursued by President Donald Trump, and, even as the president lags in the polls, his core support has held firm.  In Europe, a lack of major elections later this year will slow the rise of populist parties, but a looming economic slowdown and lingering concerns over immigration could fuel a new rise in populism in the coming years.

The prosperity and security enjoyed by many areas of the world has been under-pinned by a number of factors that are now under threat from populism.  First and foremost, the Pax Americana that allowed for major global powers to avoid conflicts with one another, and for a deeply inter-connected global economy to spread wealth around the world, is now under threat from the policies being pursued by the Trump Administration.  Without the US’ economic and military power guaranteeing the international system that has worked so well for so many in recent decades, the system could collapse as there are no other powers capable to replacing the US in this role at this time.  Moreover, since the world economy is now so inter-connected, any disruption to global trade and investment could be catastrophic, particularly for those countries dependent upon exports for their growth, and for businesses that are dependent upon global supply chains and sources of labor. 

Such disruptions could reinforce the rise of populist policies such as isolationism and protectionism, even as these policies would be at the root of any such global economic crisis.  Even without such a crisis, it is hard to imagine that the level of support for these types of populist policies will decline in the years ahead.  Factors such as migration, climate change, automation and social media will all remain in place in the coming years, and each has contributed in some way to the rise of populism in the 21st century.  As such, it appears that populism is here to stay, and this is worrying news for the future prosperity and security of the planet.