How patriotic populism empowers authoritarian politics
March 11th 2017 | The Hague | Melih Uzun
Photograph by Getty Images
Ever since Donald Trump was elected into office, critics have been suggesting that it is an indication of the global rise of right-wing populism, with similar rhetoric set to emerge victorious in European countries as well. The upcoming elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) tops the polls, could prove to be a major trial for this hypothesis.
Islam and integration
Geert Wilders is arguably one of the most polarising figures in Holland. He is infamous for his outspoken anti-Islam views and has been a constant source of controversy for over a decade. The numerous death threats he has accumulated over the course of the years have even led him to require full-time police protection.
Besides religion, he is also often accused of inciting hatred against ethnic minorities – especially the local Moroccan community – over issues related to violence, crime, and lack of integration. In 2014, his Freedom Party held a meeting in The Hague that was illustrative of the polarising rhetoric adored by many, while leaving others trembling with indignation.
Having asked his audience whether they wanted to see more or less of the European Union and Labour Party, both questions were met with chants of “less, less, less”. He then went on to ask them whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans and – upon hearing them chant the same answer once again – ensured his supporters that he would “get it done”.
Photograph by Fabrizio Bensch
Hundreds of people filed police complaints and he was tried for charges of incitement to discrimination. Wilders was finally found guilty (but not penalised) in December – a decision which he vowed to appeal against.
Wilders enjoys the support of a substantial part of the population. However, he is also widely criticised for his evasive tendencies, for his preference of bold statements over elucidated plans (his election manifesto is just a single page), and for shying away from settings which would allow his agenda to be questioned.
He has withdrawn himself from public debate on two occasions, the most recent of which was caused by a feud with a media outlet. The hosting TV station had contacted Wilders’s brother earlier for an interview, which angered the PVV politician. Wilders, however, maintains that the boycott is a matter of principle, claiming that his privacy was violated and rejecting any allegations about him “dodging” the debate.
Make the Netherlands Ours Again
As much as Wilders is accused of being evasive towards the media, British journalist John Sweeney managed to land an invitation to interview him for BBC Newsnight. Upon meeting Wilders at the House of Representatives, he was quick to ask him a frank question: “are you going to do to Holland what Mr. Trump is doing to America?”
Wilders rejects the notion that he is merely a Dutch copy of Trump, but he has admitted that there was “indeed, a patriotic spring going on”. He considers Brexit to be a turning point, where Brits supposedly reclaimed their country “even though the political elite made sure to scare the people away from voting in favour of leaving the European Union”. The same applies to the US, where “despite all the rhetoric of the elite, Mr. Trump won the election”.
Furthermore, Wilders confirmed his admiration of Trump by stating that he hopes to “repeat the same thing, because once again, the people want to be in charge again”. According to his vision: “It’s not only America first; it’s also Holland first, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Photograph by Yves Herman
In an attempt to gauge his stance on threats of terrorism other than those stemming from radical Islam, Sweeney asked Wilders what the biggest loss of Dutch lives (by terror) has been in the last few years. His response was that the Netherlands have been “lucky not to suffer the kind of attacks that Germany, France, Belgium, and even the United Kingdom” have faced.
Wilders was caught off guard by Sweeney’s prompt mention of flight MH17, referring to the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, killing everyone on board. The lives of 193 Dutch citizens were lost that day, and Russia remains the prime suspect – despite denying any such allegations. Sweeney hinted at this attack to illustrate why he believes Wilders might be obsessed with “one element of the spectrum” (Islamic extremism) while ignoring more pressing issues such as “Russian fascism”.
Wilders chuckled slightly and asserted that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with freedom. Therefore, he says “the Islamisation of Dutch society needs to be stopped, or we will cease to exist”. His critical outlook on Islam is reflected in the PVV’s ideology, which is further characterised by staunch Euroscepticism and nationalism.
These ideas became apparent once again in Wilders’s rebuttal of Sweeney’s concern about slogans like America First or Holland First, which he considers reminiscent of the zeitgeist of Europe at the brink of the Second World War. Wilders dismissed this as fearmongering by politicians to distract from the establishment of “another totalitarian institution, which is called the European Union”.
Fake news and fake Parliament
The BBC journalist was clearly taken aback by Wilders’s characterisation of the EU as a “totalitarian institution”, but perhaps remarks like these need not come as a surprise from somebody whom he likened to Donald Trump – a man who is no stranger to stirring up controversy.
By his own admission, Wilders admires Trumps victory against the “political elite”. This quintessentially populist pretence of aligning with the people as opposed to the elite seems to be a part of both of their success formulas.
Experts attribute Trump’s popularity to his unconventional ways that distinguish him from the archetypal politician. Despite being a billionaire, Trump won the hearts of millions of ordinary Americans by presenting an eccentric anti-establishment alternative to the tired, old, sophisticated-sounding candidates people had grown increasingly sceptical about.
Photograph by CNN
Likewise, the fact that Wilders is one of the longest-serving Members of Parliament doesn’t keep him from condemning the “political elite”, whom he deems to be ignorant of the life of the average Dutchman. On one occasion, he even denounced the National Assembly and its MPs altogether, calling it a “fake Parliament” that does not represent the will of the people.
Wilders’s position to lecture an elected parliament on democracy is questionable at best, as he is de jure the only member of his Freedom Party, allowing him to single-handedly dictate their entire policy agenda.
This statement bears another striking resemblance to Trumpisms, and more specifically to his unfounded denunciation of various media as “fake news”. Both politicians evidently see no issue in arbitrarily delegitimising institutions such as media outlets – or even the House of Representatives.
What makes this most worrisome is that this mindset, when sufficiently empowered by populism, could lead to dangerous forms of authoritarian politics. After all, if there is any common ground between the regimes of countries like China, Russia, and Turkey, it would be their aversion to voices of dissent.
Patriotic spring or Democratic autumn?
Whilst some may argue that it is a bit of a stretch to compare populists like Trump or Wilders to real authoritarians, there is much more to it than meets the eye.
In fact, concerns that have been raised thus far are arguably just the tip of the iceberg; an investigation initiated by the Dutch Bar Association uncovered a multitude of proposals from the PVV’s one-page election manifesto that were found to be detrimental to the rule of law.
Their programme was found to be at odds with EU and International Law (including the United Nations’ Refugee Convention), as well as the Dutch constitution, as it intends to endanger freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of education, and the right to a fair trial. One cannot help but wonder if Wilders was being ironic when he named his party.
Diagram by Peilingwijzer
His disdain for the establishment runs much deeper than his attack on parliament suggested, because his objection goes far beyond feuds with fellow MPs. He has publicly accused judges and prosecutors of being politically biased against him and his party, which is a straightforward denunciation of the entire justice system and the separation of powers.
There is no apparent limit to the lengths Wilders would go to in order to play the victim of an arbitrarily defined set of forces and institutions – or rather the “political elite” – who are unanimously set on conspiring against him and his beliefs.
With just a few days to go until the elections, Wilders’s popularity in polls appears to be stagnant, but his Freedom Party may still win up to 28 out of 150 seats. The PVV is matched with the governing Conservative Liberals (VVD), who have a fair chance at retaining the largest number of MPs, despite a projected decline from their current 41 seats.
However, the sitting government is a coalition of Liberals and the Labour Party (PvdA), and the latter is set to face an even sharper decline from 38 to a projected 14 or even 9 seats. Other parties who are expected to receive a considerable amount of votes on March 15 include the Christian Democrats (CDA; ~19 seats), the Liberal Democrats (D66; ~18 seats), the Green Party (GL; ~16 seats) and the Socialist Party (SP; ~14 seats).
Europe marches on
Most mainstream parties have vowed to exclude the Freedom Party from coalition talks. This offers consolation, as it seems their vision for the Netherlands will never see the light of day.
However, given the distinctly fractured state of Dutch politics, forming a coalition without the PVV might also prove to be a challenge. Furthermore, excluding Wilders from government will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire, contributing to his narrative of fighting for the neglected common man.
This seemingly prolific narrative, as employed by Donald Trump, may pave the way to a milestone for the Freedom Party in this election, as well victories for other right-wing movements like Le Pen’s Front National. But only time will tell if this patriotic spring, as Wilders calls it – a staggering resurgence of nationalist and populist rhetoric – will lead to an actual victory in the name of freedom.
During the 2016 US Presidential Election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server has been one of several hot button issues. However, it may be the one that is ultimately glossed over more than any other in the face of her bombastic, demagogic competition.
Clinton has been criticized from both the left and the right. Republicans have gone so far as calling her deliberately dishonest and a criminal, while more left-leaning Democrats have used this as a chance to offer their candidate of choice, Senator Bernie Sanders, a second chance — unfortunately for him, to no avail.
A serious threat to national security
As it stands, Hillary Clinton has officially clinched the Democratic nomination, and she will face no retribution for her failures. This, however, does not make the situation any less interesting.
The FBI investigation began in March 2015, when it was uncovered that her and her staff had been using a private email server, which could have created serious security problems were the server to be hacked.
Clinton’s email server was hosted in the basement of her home in Chappaqua, NY, although this information was not disclosed to the State Department at the time. After its stay in her home, the server was then moved to New Jersey, and then to Denver, where it was finally investigated.
While it is highly irregular for Clinton to have her own server, the investigation concluded that it was not actually illegal. And while many claim that her server was undoubtedly hacked by foreign actors, the forensics showed otherwise.
Photograph by CNN
Whether the server was breached or not, it is difficult to deny that its mere existence posed a real security threat. The question then becomes: why was what Hillary Clinton did so wrong? And what does it say about the United States’ criminal justice system?
The FBI investigation’s final recommendation was not to move forward with any criminal prosecution against Clinton. However, it did shed light on her actions, stating that her private server was a legitimate security risk and calling her “extremely careless”. In a statement addressing the conclusion of the investigation, FBI Director James Comey announced that the FBI identified 7 separate email threads which contained information which had been classified as “top secret”.
Using a private server for such sensitive emails is in fact illegal, and could have given foreign states or actors access to information that could put US national security into a state of turmoil.
Gross negligence, but somehow not criminal
Despite these findings, the FBI’s decision not to recommend charges against Clinton was justified by the lack of evidence that her actions had been intentional, as well as the lack of any evidence that the server had actually been compromised.
During his statements, Comey did say that Clinton had demonstrated gross negligence, and provided evidence which proved that her amended statement that she had “never knowingly sent or received classified emails” was a lie. This is damning information and, by all rights, she could have faced charges, but she did not.
Although Hillary Clinton’s political tenure is riddled with inconsistency, the criticisms against her never seem to stick. A few years ago, she claimed that her private jet had landed under a thicket of sniper fire in Bosnia, yet a video of the landing shows her smiling, waving, and shaking hands with children upon arrival. Despite having clearly engaged in dishonesty, she simply shrugged it off as a misstatement.
Photograph by John Moore
Clinton seems to be bulletproof from the public’s acrimony, and many critiques of her wrongdoings are immediately labeled as false or exaggerated, when it is clearly not the case. Perhaps this is a product of her Correct the Record campaign, which set out to create thousands of fake accounts on social media in order to push the narrative in her favor.
Her history of foreign policy decision-making is perhaps the most damning of all her missteps. Her attempts at state-building in the Middle East have played a direct role in the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS, and she has found herself in league with donors from the Persian Gulf who, while supporting terrorist organizations, were also benefactors of the Clinton Foundation.
During her husband’s tenure as president, she pushed him away from intervening in a genocide in Kosovo to push her healthcare agenda. So why is she fit to be president?
Above the law, or above Donald Trump?
Comey’s testimony illustrated one thing very clearly: Clinton is too big to jail. One could speculate about the multitude of reasons why she was not charged, but the answer is rather simple.
Some have tried to do so by claiming that she has deep-seeded ties to intelligence officials and lies snugly in the pockets of the FBI, whilst others believe she has orchestrated some other grand scheme to avoid the reprisal of the American justice system.
Ruminating on these political motivations would be a fool’s game, and would also be ignoring the larger issue. What this situation really highlights is the way in which the US justice system treats such matters. US politics is somewhat of a “members only” club. Those who are deeply entrenched in it are hard to criticize, and even harder to reprimand. Hillary Clinton is a perfect example of the systematic “armored plating” that exists all over the country.
Photograph by John Moore
Truth be told, in any other election, this may have had more severe consequences for Clinton, but Donald Trump is the best case scenario for her. Throughout the process of the election, his unbridled sexism, racism and mobilization of hate-filled Americans has made him an easy target and a person that this country simply cannot elect. Thus, it is the moral duty of free thinking Americans to keep him out of office, no?
That’s what a majority of Democratic voters would have you believe, and to a certain degree they are right. This dilemma is further explored in Bernie or Bust (TSH).
But, alongside the American justice system, this election cycle has also highlighted the shortcomings of the long-defended American two-party system. Freedom of choice has become the freedom to pick between a sociopathic businessman who represents authoritarian populism, and a self-serving career politician who represents corruption.
These are heavy accusations, but they hold true under any standard of intense scrutiny. Hillary Clinton may be the lesser of two evils in this election, but it is still important to understand who you are voting to lead our country when November comes around.
November 15th 2015 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez
Photograph by Mark J. Terrill
Anyone following the US Presidential Elections 2016 has no doubt heard the name: Donald Trump.
To the surprise of many, the real-estate mogul, TV personality, and professional controversy artist entered the Republican race in June. The media, and especially comedians across the US and the world, were all excited for what was to come.
However, as time flew by and summer continued, jokes became comments, and comments became policy. Trump’s rallies started increasing in size, his interviews became more frequent, and his endorsements started piling up. Now, he is leading the polls, with 28% percent of Republican primary voters supporting his candidacy.
Although there may be no need to worry about his national electability, the situation is somewhat concerning. The fact that a candidate who claims he will build a wall between Mexico and the US is leading the polls, followed closely by Dr. Carson who described Obamacare as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”, says something about today’s Republican Party. Really, what ever happened to the GOP?
The Republican Party
The answer is two-fold. The current situation the party finds itself in is a direct result of its response to Obama’s nomination and policy agenda.
The President’s healthcare bill, his stimulus package, and his general liberal stances and charisma, have cast an unbearable burden over the relationship between his administration and the GOP.
As Mitch McConnell, Republican majority leader of the Senate said: after Obama’s nomination, “the GOP’s top political priority should be to deny Mr Obama a second term”.
That statement best summarises the party’s stance today. Rather than focusing on a genuine conservative agenda, the Republicans have adopted an anti-Obama agenda, causing a political gridlock that has crippled Congress throughout the Obama years.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had tried to delay and defund Obamacare by strong-arming the Democratic-led Senate and Obama administration on the federal budget. With neither side backing down, the government was unable to agree on a budget in time and was forced to shut down for 16 days.
The GOP was, in a way, pressured to follow this strategy by the Tea Party movement. Having emerged in the aftermath of Obama’s plan to give financial aid to bankrupt homeowners (a sin in Republican ideology), the Tea Party movement quickly spread and became a loud minority within the Republican Party.
Its followers divided the GOP by pushing mainstream politicians (usually dubbed “the establishment”) and members of congress further to the right, or rather, more anti-Obama, by threatening to challenge their seats in congress (which 40 congressmen lost in 2010).
Trump and Carson
It is in this context that Trump appeared. By calling politicians “losers” and “all talk but no action”, he touched the minds of many disillusioned citizens, especially Republicans who saw their party as incompetent.
The Republican Party had spent the good part of these last 8 years picturing Obama as a dangerous president whose policies would ruin the entire country. Their depiction of an evil Obama administration made Republican voters see their party as incapable of standing up to fight this “danger”, especially when Obama continued pushing his policy agenda despite the gridlock in Congress.
Trump and Carson, seen as “outsiders” of the political spectrum, carry a simple, yet powerful message: “I will get the job done”. Their campaigns have proven to be entertaining, and it seems unlikely they will receive the nomination, but their success says a lot about today’s Republican Party.
As Bill Maher said when addressing Republican commentators, “this is the Frankenstein monster that was created with the Tea Party, this is your worst nightmare”.
Diagram by Fox News
This diversion, however, follows a long-term trend within the party and its policies. Indeed, the GOP has greatly diverted from what it was, or what it could have been, in the last decades. Many commentators, including conservatives in the US, have argued that legendary Republican figures like Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower would have no place in today’s GOP.
The Republican Party’s most prominent politicians have lost touch with the party’s supposed core values, and in doing so, they have been losing many voters.
Most Republican congressmen are climate change deniers, consistently doubting the proven facts and unanimous scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is a man-made phenomenon.
Last February, Sen. James Inhofe even threw a snowball in Senate to prove that since there is still snow, the planet is clearly not becoming warmer. This issue is one where the Republican Party diverted, and made a huge mistake by doing so.
Had the Republican Party stuck to the message that we must take care of our environment and react when it is in danger, instead of spreading misinformation, they would have more credible amongst voters today.
The Republican Party, at its core, believes in “small government”: the idea that the federal government has no business intervening in your private life.
This libertarian concept has many positive aspects, and is even used by some advocates of marijuana legalisation. Yet, the GOP consistently criticises and attacks this stance, claiming that marijuana is as dangerous to society as any other illegal drug.
Republicans have enacted and supported harsh laws against its use, putting thousands of people behind bars. In fact, 55% of federal and 21% of state prisoners found guilty of drug offences are incarcerated due to marijuana, and some are even sentenced to life in prison.
Diagram by Kegler Brown
This, along with other drug policies, have increased the amount of prisoners in the US to a point where it is now the largest prison population in the world and second highest per capita.
Some republicans like Rand Paul have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy behind the Republican Party’s support for such policies regarding drugs, since they have greatly expanded the intervention and cost of federal government.
The average cost of incarceration for federal inmates in 2014 was $30,619 – money that could be much better spent elsewhere.
Separation of church and state
The GOP has always been the conservative party which believes in traditional values. However, it has also been the constitutional party.
Republican politicians have argued that the Constitution should be followed as narrowly as possible, and that by following the Constitution the country would avoid dangerous and harmful policies.
Yet, the Party has diverted from this clear and (somewhat) reasonable stance, by consistently ignoring the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.
Photograph by Bartu Kaleagasi
This amendment, established in the 18th century, clearly states that the US government is never allowed to identify with one religion.
Despite this fact, The Republican Party has time and time again proclaimed that the US is a Christian country, and that government must abide by traditional Christian values.
They have argued against the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion, criticised the idea that a Muslim could be president, and consistently cited the bible and their Christian values as an argument against marriage equality.
Another deviation relates again to the idea of “small government”.
Instead of sticking to the message that the American people are better off if the government does not interfere in their lives, the GOP has supported the NSA in the national debate regarding their mass surveillance program.
As Rand Paul said, “Republicans don’t like big government until they like big government”.
Photograph by Dado Ruvic
According to most Republicans, it is not right for the government to expand in order to provide entitlements to the American people, yet it is right to expand in order to provide greater powers to the NSA and other intelligence agencies, allowing them to spy even on their own citizens without needing approval from a judicial entity.
In any democracy, in order for the national debate to progress, all sides must indulge in rational discussions, arguments, and policies. It is not enough for Democrats to laugh at a possible Trump nomination or look at current Republican policies and feel relief.
If the country is to go forward, a real debate must happen during these elections. This is unlikely to happen when one of the largest parties cares more about appealing to a loud minority within its voters than about representing its core values. Doing so simply alienates the majority of Americans and reduces the potential for national debate.
As to us Europeans, we are left watching and enjoying the race. However, we should not get too comfortable either, since we all know what happened the last time America elected a questionable President.
On 11 September 2015, every eligible Singaporean will be able to vote at a polling station, and most will be deciding between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and alternatives like the Workers’ Party (WP). For the past 50 years, the PAP maintained a stronghold in Parliament, steadily winning the vast majority of seats in every GE until 2011.
The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who led the PAP until the 1990s, was a charismatic and strong-willed leader who believed that ruling leaders “must have the iron” in them. His foresight in economic matters and foreign affairs has been hailed as the key reason for Singapore’s rapid growth from third world to first. With Mr Lee’s passing earlier this year, GE 2015 will officially usher in a new political era and be a major testing ground for current Prime Minister and PAP leader, Mr Lee Hsien Loong.
Recent changes in the political landscape
In GE 2011, Singapore’s most recent “watershed election”, the dominant opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP), won 7 seats including 1 group constituency, creating an unprecedented crack in the PAP’s strong walls.
GE 2011 also saw the retirement of Mr George Yeo, former Minister for Foreign Affairs and PAP candidate, from the local political scene. It was a difficult decision for Singaporean voters in the Aljunied constituency, not unlike the decisions that may be made in this GE’s “hot” constituencies, including the East Coast and MacPherson constituencies. Was choosing WP the right move? With rigorous debate over the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council saga dominating the early stages of GE 2015, the jury is still out.
Although the political scene in Singapore is relatively young, it is evolving. In GE 2015, there have already been some obvious changes. Opposition parties, including smaller ones like the Singapore People’s Party and Democratic Progressive Party, are now fielding more educated candidates with distinguished professional backgrounds than ever before, touting them as competent spokespersons for the people.
Diagram by Channel NewsAsia
Certain opposition candidates, such as SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan, have also been emphasising that their parties offer many viable alternative policies to those currently in place by the PAP. A more regular use of statistics and studies to back up such policies has given the impression that they are well researched, albeit not tried and tested in Singapore yet.
Compared to previous elections, the number of credible alternative media websites has increased substantially, allowing the electorate to have a more informed understanding of all political parties and candidates.
Divisiveness and debate
At the end of the day, the PAP’s narrative is simple. The PAP is a cruise ship: vote for the PAP, and the party’s competent and incorruptible leaders will continue to make Singapore an exceptional nation. Vote for the Opposition, and you will get “a mouse in the House”.
In response, WP’s leader, Mr Low Thia Khiang, agreed that the PAP is a cruise ship, but “[its] name is Titanic” (alluding to its fallibility). In this regard, the PAP has repeatedly emphasised in its manifesto and rallies that it has a strong track record and has delivered on its promises to the people.
Regardless of who is correct (or wrong), this divisiveness in politics and policies has generated great interest in opposition rallies, and accordingly, the crowds have been large.
What lies ahead?
In all likelihood, the PAP will continue to form the next government. The election is more a matter of how many opposition members and parties, if any, Singapore will see in its new Parliament. Will the people continue to trust and support the PAP, or will the desire for cross-party checks and concerns over pensions, cost of living, and immigration policies prevail?
GE 2015 will be hard fought. In three days, Singaporeans will either witness yet another renewal of the PAP’s legacy, or a continuing shift in the tides of political control. However, to many, these are empty words; perhaps the bread-and-butter issues are the only real concerns.
Ultimately, to vote for the Opposition is to take on a certain risk – it is to depart from the familiar and enter new territory. Whether this is a risk worth taking remains squarely up to the judgement of Singapore’s increasingly vocal and astute electorate.