Democracies are taking a right turn | Mint
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Business News/ Opinion / Democracies are taking a right turn

Democracies are taking a right turn

After a long run of populism, democracies are embracing different ideas

Illustration: Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

German political philosopher Hannah Arendt once said, “the most radical revolutionaries will become conservative the day after the revolution." If recent events in the domestic politics of many democracies are any evidence, people are either tired of waiting for the revolution or don’t care much for it. Interestingly, the reasons for the newly energized conservatism are global. Israel, Brazil and India are good examples of these changes.

Last week, Israel voted Benjamin Netanyahu’s centre-right Likud party back to power. Netanyahu is on his way to becoming Israel’s prime minister for the fourth time. The election result was largely unexpected as multiple opinion polls had predicted Netanyahu’s defeat, with the election even being dubbed, prematurely of course, a referendum on the Israeli prime minister. Isaac Herzog, leader of the centre-left Zionist Union party, Netanyahu’s closest competitor and favourite to win the election campaigned extensively about the economic woes facing Israel under Netanyahu’s rule. Recent data revealed that from 1992 to 2010, the number of Israelis living in poverty has doubled, from 10.2% to 20.5%. Herzog, then, was attacking Netanyahu where it should have hurt him most. Yet, Netanyahu’s entire campaign was about security and the threat from Israel’s external enemies. A central issue in elections in any Western democracy, the economy, was completely ignored. And his strategy paid off well.

In another corner of the world, the script is different but the end game might fall in line with this trend. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff is facing countrywide protests as disgruntled citizens are demanding her impeachment over a corruption scam in the government-owned oil company Petrobras. Brazil is a classic case of leftist dreams colliding with harsh reality. Brazil was held up as a shining example of a welfarist state which prided itself on the propriety of government-owned firms. The scam at Petrobras has dented that image badly.

One part of the trouble with the Rousseff brand of populism was its intimate linkage to export earnings from oil. When oil prices began to tumble, so did Rousseff. The scale on which the largesse was spread ensured that corruption would be impossible to check. As things stand, Rousseff’s troubles are creating space for Brazil’s conservative parties to reassert themselves in the country’s politics after 12 years of rule by the centre-left Worker’s Party. An article in described a scene of protesters in Rio de Janeiro with placards that read, “‘Against the Bolivarian dictatorship’, referring to the colonial-era revolutionary figure held dear by Latin America’s left, and…placards calling for ‘Less Marx, more Mises’, citing the late Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises." (Greasing the Path to Dilma’s Downfall, 16 March). If Brazil’s population wants a radical change in its country’s politics, it might yet witness a revolution, albeit of a different kind.

One could say it was the idea of a similar change that propelled Narendra Modi’s victory in the general election in India last year. The previous Congress party-led government tied itself in knots by thinking it could spend its way to an election victory for the third time. It mistakenly assumed that by handing out dole it could wish away all the mistakes it had made in the last 10 years in power.

Do these specific, national results hide a larger trend? One way to look at these changes, especially in developing countries, is to look at events in the past quarter century. 1991 is a convenient date. The so-called Washington Consensus—free markets, withdrawal of governments from economic activities and the end of socialism—began around that year. A decade later, the reaction against these policies and globalization set in. In 2003, socialist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became the president of Brazil. He remained president until 2011 when his protégé Rousseff took over. In India, the Congress-led populist coalition took charge in 2004 and bowed out only last year. Israel is an outlier, as economically it was always more pragmatic. A similar rhythm can be seen in Europe, one that has only been broken in southern Europe now due to the intensity of the economic crisis. Greece is the best example.

It is tempting to conclude that these shifts are largely determined by global forces. While this may appear to be too strong a conclusion, the fact is that even local issues across these countries are similar. In Brazil and India, governments of a similar complexion fell victim to the same problem: corruption.

If global forces shape economic performance, and the flow of ideas and goods, politics cannot remain immune from these trends.​

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Published: 25 Mar 2015, 06:19 PM IST
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