Conservatives of the world unite

The increasingly visible conservative turn of democracies might be part of a political cycle


British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: AFP
British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: AFP

In the end, it was all blue.

The colours of the winning party in the UK general election and the mood among pollsters, with little exception, failed to predict the success of the conservative party and, of course, the scale of the win.

In the run-up to the UK elections, the only consensus was that no political party would win a majority and the British would be faced with the prospect of a hung Parliament. Once the results started coming in, the shock of how wrong opinion polls were was probably greater than the shock of seeing conservatives winning. They won 331 of 650 seats in the House of Commons.

Something similar played out in another recent election.

In March, Benjamin Netanyahu won a closely contested election to retain his position as prime minister of Israel. Just as in the UK, opinion polls did not predict a win for Netanyahu’s Likud party, but unlike in the UK, where a hung Parliament was the most likely scenario, in Israel, pollsters were sure that Netanyahu would lose to Isaac Herzog’s centre-left Zionist Union party.

There is another similarity between the two victories. Both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Netanyahu belong to centre-right political parties.

A recent edit in Mint argued that democracies are increasingly taking a right turn. A look at political trends in countries that have held elections in the last four years might well corroborate that claim.

Take a look at the world’s 20 biggest economies which account for all forms of government in practice today.

Of the 16 democracies in the list, 10 have governments that have centre-right political parties in power. Five have centre-left governments, while one has a liberal government. Of the non-democracies, Russia is ruled by a party that believes in Russian brand of conservatism and is authoritarian. Then there is Saudi Arabia and Iran, whom one can definitely not accuse of being liberal, and finally there is China, which is run by a party that is communist only in the name.

Cycles of history

Why are voters across so many countries, with few commonalities among them, voting in conservative governments?

Each country has its own tune and rhythm of political change. It is rare for local events to be linked across countries except in unusual circumstances, for example war, extreme economic distress and other external dangers. This is what makes this conservative shift in global politics remarkable. There is no one grand theory to explain these changes, but there is one rather interesting possibility.

In 1939, American historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. proposed the cyclical theory of American politics that explained the fluctuation between liberalism and conservatism based on the national mood. Schlesinger argued that discontent with present conditions drives voters towards newer ideas in the hope that they would serve as a corrective. These preferences become the swing between liberal and conservative political choices. Schlesinger downplayed ideology and individuals and stressed on economic reasons for the electoral choices made by voters.

Schlesinger’s theory is a useful reference point to examine the recent trend in political choices in democracies.

A report released by the Norwegian Refugee Council earlier this month said that increasing violent conflicts have led to a record 38 million people being displaced across the world. Last month, around 400 migrants drowned as they were trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy from Libya. The European Union is drawing up plans for military attacks on Libya to prevent migration.

How are conflict, migration and political choices connected?

Rapidly spreading and intensifying conflicts in the extended Middle East (from the Western end of the Persian Gulf to North Africa) are forcing thousands to flee their homes and immigrate, legally and illegally, in the hope of a better life in the West. Western economies are, however, not in a position to accept and allow an influx of migrants even as they try to meet the economic needs of their own citizens.

Conservative governments are promising voters tough immigration laws and limiting economic benefits exclusively to citizens.

This is one possible explanation for the conservative cycle of politics that the world, especially Europe, is witnessing now. While it is important to remember that politics and political choices in each country are determined, and made complex, by a variety of often-discernible reasons, the general conservative turn among democracies is unmistakable.

Global Roaming takes stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.

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