The Drift Right Continues: Electoral Results for 2015 and their implications for progressive politics in 2016 and beyond.
Kevin P Clements.
There were 16 national elections over the course of 2015. Ten of these resulted in centre right, right wing or ultra right wing political parties gaining power. Only six resulted in centre left or left wing political parties achieving power. This means that 63% of all national elections in 2015 resulted in the election of governments generally committed to austerity neo-liberal growth models, authoritarian rule and an enhanced role for national security, police and military institutions. This does not bode well for reducing poverty and inequality; radical action on climate change or nonviolent responses to political threat. It many cases it also represents a triumph of the politics of fear and xenophobia over the politics of inclusion and tolerance.
The year began with the election of a new President in Sri Lanka. The Singhalese nationalist and authoritarian leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s nine years in power ended in January, when he was beaten by his one-time ally Maithripala Sirisena. Despite the fact that Sirisena is committed to democratic governance in Sri Lanka the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) coalition can be classified as a Centre Right administration . Sirisena continues to direct a heavy military presence in the North of Sri Lanka and has been continuing some of the arbitrary detention and torture of his predecessor.
In Zambia, which is beset by a dramatic drop in the international price of copper, drought and energy shortages, Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front was elected to power. This party is now the major governing party in the country and is a consultative member of the Socialist International. But it is paralysed by a stalled economy and growing political disquiet. Instead of coming up with positive solutions to the declining currency the President ordered national days of prayer!!
In Israel Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected Prime Minister, despite the fact that four different (mostly) Arab parties ran together as the “Joint List”, and became the third-largest party in the Knesset. As in the UK this election result was a big surprise with the polls predicting a draw with Labour. Netanyahu played on the politics of fear , however, and as election day drew near he delivered a warning that “the Arabs are coming to the polling stations in droves”. This false and racist statement stimulated voters to vote in favour of Likud and its right wing allies with the result that this is now the most reactionary, racist and right wing government that Israel has ever elected.
Muhammadu Buhari was elected President of Nigeria in March. He is a military man and ruled Nigeria from 1983-1985 in one of its many 20th century military regimes.During this first term in office he systematically repressed freedom of expression, and imprisoned journalists, intellectuals and student protesters. He claims to be a democrat in 2015 but was elected largely because the country wanted another “strong man” at the helm to tackle Nigeria’s multiple problems. He has started tackling corruption and is stepping up military activity against Boko Haram. But his instincts are essentially authoritarian and militarily inclined.
Here in the United Kingdom, The Conservative Party beat pundit’s predictions and managed to win the elections with a small majority of 16. In the process it wiped out the Lib Democrats, trounced Labour in Scotland and helped catalyse the emergence of the Scottish Nationalist Party . After the elections, Labour elected Jeremy Corbyn to replace Ed Milliband as leader which has precipitated bitter infighting between the left and Blairite wings of the party. UKIP failed to transfer votes into seats.
The result is that the UK is currently lead by an establishment cabinet of old Etonians and Oxbridge graduates. They are committed to the politics of austerity, expanding defence and security spending, cutting welfare, gerrymandering electorates, emasculating the House of Lords, removing financial support to opposition parties and paring back as much as they can on welfare and education. They rule with a sense of inherited entitlement and will do so as long as the left remains divided and unfocused.
There was a very dramatic swing right in Poland this year. The Civic Platform Party was replaced by the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party. The PiS is deeply socially and politically conservative and managed to win in almost every part of Poland and across different demographic groups. Key government positions have gone to controversial candidates some of whom, (eg Antoni Macierewicz), have been and are explicitly racist and anti semitic. The party is moving to controls the Polish Constitutional Court which means that Poland will continue to move in a reactionary , nationalistic and euro-sceptic position . It is also promoting a very socially conservative Catholicism. Poland , for examplejoined other East European countries in resisting EU requests to provide safe haven to Syrian refugees. .
Denmark, also moved right this year with the Liberal-Conservative bloc beating the Social Democratic party of Helle Thorning-Schmidt. The Liberal leader Lars Lokke Rasmussen was only able to form a government by joining forces with the right-wing Danish People’s Party. They are pulling Rasmussen in a reactionary direction and represent a growing, fearful right wing constituency emerging across Europe.
The Guatemalan election yielded another surprise rtesult with Manuel Baldizon of the Renewed Democratic Freedom (Libre) party losing to a populist comedian by the name of Jimmy Morales. Morales is a political outsider who has tapped into a global skepticism about politics and politicians. He represented the yearnings of Guatemalan electors for an end to corrupt politics which benefit elites at the expense of the masses. In doing so he reflects the skeptical political mood of many electorates around the world. It remains to be seen which political direction will be adopted by these populists. They have to satisfy needs for political transformation while delivering economic and social conditions that benefit the people. Whether they are given a chance to do this by the people or by the security establishments of their countries remains to be seen. The Guatemalan election represents a populist rejection of business as usual but conservative forces are ready to fill any political vacuum that might emerge.
Greece had two elections in 2015. The first resulting in a rejection of austerity measures by Alexis Tsirpas leading a radical left party. The second , under great pressure from Europe resulted in the re-election of Tsirpas to power but with a party committed to reimposing austerity in return for an economic bailout from the rest of Europe!! The Greek elections raise some important questions about the utility of left/right political distinctions in the face of powerful economic dynamics . This election confirmed the relative dependence of most politics on national, regional and global economic realities.
The Singaporean people once again re-elected the People’s Action Party (PAP) to power . Singapore remains a conservative centre right, one party state. The people voted for economic stability, growth and wellbeing and believed that the PAP was the best party to deliver all these things. There are social and political movements that continue to agitate for freedom of the press and a looser political system. But as with many of the other elections of 2016 the drivers that mattered were economic, bread and butter issues rather than debates about different political and social values.
There was political change in Canada. Three-term prime minister Stephen Harper, mounted an election campaign that was driven by the politics of fear and xenophobia. While Harper managed to hold on to his conservative base he was not able to prevail against Justin Trudeau who campaigned with more optimistic politics and more progressive social and economic policies ( e.g legalisation of marijuana). Trudeau demonstrated a different kind of politics to those which seem to be gripping Europe at the moment. He managed to tap into and mobilise young, diverse , cosmopolitan constituencies towards left of Centre politics while older, white working and middle class constituencies voted for Harper. The Canadian election, therefore,is an important learning for political parties in the West seeking to shape a new political narrative for the 21st century. Instead of being wary of tolerant , inclusive, empathetic and compassionate politics, the political parties that embrace them ( if Canada is anything to go by) will do well. They will provide the next generation of 18-25 year olds with values to embrace and fight for and replace the politics of fear and pessimism with politics of optimism and compassion. Trudeau is a worthy successor to his father Pierre who captured the same enthusiasm.
This same optimism did not apply in Turkey. The June election resulted in a Pro Kurdish leftist party, the HDP passing the 10% threshold to enter parliament and prevent Erdogan from passing Constitutonal changes that would entrench him in power. But the HDP was unable to forge a viable coalition against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a snap second election was called for November. In the interim, Erdogan not only played the fear card , he created the conditions under which many Turks felt uneasy and afraid. Erdogan used the Turkish army and police to crack down on Kurdish majority areas, causing numerous civilian casualties in the process. He got embroiled in the Middle East conflict on the side of any group that had an anti-Kurdish policy. There are rumours that he might even have initiated the bombing of demonstrators in Ankara. All of this meant that the AKP and Erdogan won an absolute majority in the November elections. The result of this is that Erdogan is now moving Turkey in a more militaristic, draconian and authoritarian direction. Turkish politics –particularly opposition to Kurdish independence- will continue to cast a malign shadow over the Syrian and Iraq conflicts.
There was a rejection of military rule in Myanmar this November. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory. Its not at all clear how this will work out in terms of political rule since Aung San Suu Kyi is prevented from holding Presidential Office. But she has said she will “play a role above the president” so the situation remains fraught. In the context of Burmese politics, however, this was undoubtedly a progressive election and a rejection of military rule. The challenge facing the party, however, is how to tread the tightrope between the scylla of keeping the army happy and the charybdis of governing for the country as a whole including all of Burma’s many minority groups. Aung San Suu Kyi has not been noticeably progressive in relation to treatment of the persecuted Rohingya . So it remains to be seen whether the NLD victory will generate a politics of inclusion, tolerance and unity for the whole country and support for critical social, economic and political transformation in the face of intensive and pervasive military surveillance and oversight.
In Latin America, Argentina , has moved in a right wing direction with the election of Mauricio Macri as President. His coalition called Let’s Change, ran on a platform which challenged movements for equality, justice and human rights and focused on mobility, achievement and a neo liberal growth model. It represents a shift right in the politics of Argentina but it also captures a more conservative mood afflicting parties and peoples across the whole of Latin America . He will not be able to dismantle the welfarism of the Peronists without a struggle but will quietly move Argentina in a more reactionary direction.
As in Argentina, the electorate in Venezuala put an end to the 16 year reign of the late Hugo Chavez’ socialist party.The opposition right wing party under the leadership of Henrique Capriles won 2/3rds of the vote. Here again, in the face of desperate food and basic goods shortages the people turned to right wing parties to restore law, order, put an end to corruption and generate non-partisan court systems. If there is any serious effort to unravel the welfare system that Chavez put in place it is likely that there will be a back lash from the “Chavista’s” . This may mean more reliance on police and security forces to impose order over the next 5 years and could also result in the re-emergence of military rule if political systems are unable to ensure the realisation of individual citizens goals and objectives.
The final election for 2015 was in Spain. The political system had been under some stress as the country reeled from the economic shocks of the 2008/09 global financial crisis. The election of December 15, however, failed to deliver a clear majority and the two main political parties, the ruling People’s Party and the Socialists were both badly shaken by the populist leftist party Podemos. The upshot of the election is that there is no obvious parliamentary majority; nationalist independence movements are on the resurgent and no clarity about how to deliver economic and social stability over the next 4 years. If this results in high levels of economic, and social instabillity, its possible that Spaniards might turn to more reactionary parties and a strengthened military to impose order and promote growth.
Progressive left forces everywhere, must, therefore pay attention to the rightward political drift in many Northern as well as Southern democracies. The right wing parties and leaders that have come to power in 2015 will continue to promote a politics of fear; will continue to rely heavily on national security systems to maintain and consolidate their power; they will utilise negative wedge politics and ideological spin to give a positive flow to failed policies and they will adopt callous policies in relation to the big global needs of 2016-refugees, displaced persons, global climate change and armed conflict. This is the time to start learning from the few places where left of Centre parties came to power in 2015 in order to devise a progressive,popular movement for new politics and new political systems for the 21st century.
If we don’t do this we will be condemned to growing democratic deficits and worse find ourselves confronting regimes that are far too reliant on national security systems for their maintenance in power.