âA collapse of the centerâ: why fringe movements are winning around the world
Centrist political leadership, which broadly governed world affairs for the last seven decades, is collapsing around the world â" and potentially dangerous fringe movements are taking its place.
Two events within the last 24 hours underscore that trend. On Sunday, Brazilâs Jair Bolsonaro â" a far-right firebrand who has expressed fondness for his countryâs past military dictatorship â" won Brazilâs presidential election. And on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she would be resigning imminently as the head of her center-right party and stepping down from power completely in 2021. That coincides with the rise of anti-immigrant parties in her country and Europe more generally.
Itâs the latest sign that status-quo leaders (who typically believe globalization leads to economic and social progress, for example) have lost their foothold.
âThereâs a collapse of the center, or more accurately the political establishments that arenât able to respond to voter concerns,â says Mathew Burrows, formerly a top US intelligence official who identified global trends for the government.
People from Europe to Latin America are increasingly concernedabout their economic well-being and general safety, experts say. The problem is that it seems only fringe movements â" especially those on the far-right â" are the ones offering new solutions for how to meet those needs.
âThe center is thinning out and the left and right are filling the void,â says Alina Polyakova, an expert on far-right movements and European politics at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
âVoters are looking for clear ideasâ and donât want to h ear from âbureaucrats who have been spouting the same talking points for decades,â she says. Even if the fringeâs solutions are unpalatable, they are at least offering a future vision whereas the center has little else to offer, she adds.
In effect, the kind of global governance espoused by centrist movements â" the kind that promotes countries working together to improve the worldâs economy and security â" is severely under threat, and thereâs little sign of that threat abating.
A âperfect stormâ in Europe
After World War II, there was a US-led effort to create what is now known as the âliberal international order.â Countries basically agreed to give up some of their sovereignty and abide by global rules, mostly on how to stabilize the world economy and defuse tensions before a new war broke out.
Europe has taken this to heart. Nearly 30 countries have joined the European Union, which acts like one mega-country by allowing the free movement of people and money. The EU is one of the vanguards of globalization, where countries become more economically and politically linked over time.
But the 2008 financial crisis, an uptick in terrorist attacks on the continent, and millions of refugees moving into Europe fueled a backlash to increased glo balization. Fringe political parties in Europe that already believed in curbing globalization took advantage of that growing sentiment.
âItâs not a new phenomenon,â Polyakova tells me. âIt may seem like this is a sudden, surprising burst of momentum,â she continues, âbut these crises have just given more fodder to parties that are able to mobilize support in a way the center is not.â
That led to Merkelâs downfall. For 13 years, she has promoted policies in line with the EUâs mission and global governance in general. Germans, however, clearly want change. Her coalition government, composed of a center-right and center-left party, handedly lost in two October regional elections.
The leftist Green Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), meanwhile, both gained support. That continues a trend for the AfD, which finished third overall in Germanyâs 2017 national elections. And so on Monday, Merkel said during a press conference that her days in power will end three years from now.
âIt is a matter of the public getting tired of the same old leader in power,â says Burrows, whoâs now at the Atlantic Council think tank.
Germany is not alone in this trend. Hungary, Poland, Austria, Italy, and others have seen growing far-right movements. The historically powerful center-left Socialist Party in France lost big in the May 2017 national election and may take years to recover. And in Spain, the countryâs traditional two-party, left-right structure has been upended by the emergence of two outsider parties.
The fringe movements in Europe, then, may not be on the fringe for much longer. âThis a perfect storm for a complete restructuring of politics around the world,â Polyakova says, âand the center left is more to blame that anyone else.â
What Bolsonaroâs win may mean for Latin America
The failure of a major left-leaning party in Brazil helps explain why voters just ch ose a far-right candidate to lead them.
âBolsonaroâs election in Brazil is best explained as a backlash against the Workersâ Party,â says Jana Nelson, a Brazil expert at the State Department from 2010 to 2015, referring to the left-leaning political party that had been in power for more than a decade. âThe election of a brash, anti-minority, and sometimes misogynistic president is mostly the result of anger against, and rejection of, the left.â
As Voxâs Jen Kirby reports, voters in Brazil have grown frustrated with the status quo due to a slew of political and economic crises. The current center-right president, Michel Temer, is deeply unpopular in the wake of a struggling economy and a massive corruption scandal that has engulfed ministers in his government.
Temer took over for Dilma Rousseff of the Workersâ Party, who was impeached in 2016. Her leftist predecessor, Luiz InÃ¡cio âLulaâ da Silva, is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption c harges. Heâs still popular in Brazil, and he tried to mount a reelection campaign from prison. But Lula was ultimately barred from running; had he been allowed to stand for office, he might have been the favorite in the presidential election.
Under the Workersâ Party leadership, crime skyrocketed. And the country saw an average of 175 homicides a day in 2017 â" a 3-percent increase from the year before. Itâs perhaps not such a surprise, then, that Brazilian voters opted for a radical â" if unpalatable â" change.
Some experts see Bolsonaroâs win as part of a greater trend in the region.
âBolsonaroâs win signals a shift toward populism in Latin America,â Nelson tells me. âIt is no longer an issue of left or right. Rather, it is an issue of strong personalities above institutions.â She points to Andres Manuel Lopez Obradorâs presidential victory this year in Mexico, ushering in an era of left-wing populist leadership.
But Fabiana Perera, an expert on Latin American politics at George Washington University, isnât so sure. Colombia this year elected Ivan Duque, a center-right politician. And next year the region will see presidential elections in Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay. âSo far, no Bolsonaro-inspired politicians have announced their intention of running,â Perera says.
The problem is voters in Latin America and elsewhere must feel that political institutions, usually protected by centrist leaders, are trustworthy â" but fringe leaders continue to attack them.
Will the fringes run the world?
The question now is whether the fringes will come become the mainstream and disrupt decades of global norms. Steve Bannon, formerly Donald Trumpâs chief strategist, certainly thinks thatâs happening.
âThe populist revolt now burns like a prairie fire from Europe to North America to South America,â he told the National Interest on Monday. âReal change is happening â" worldwide â" whether the establishment Party of Davos like it or not.â
Of course, Bannon is working to usher in just such a future, so his assessment of the populist movementâs success is not exactly impartial.
Experts disagree with Bannonâs assessment. âThe liberal order is under severe str ain,â says Kori Schake, an international relations expert at the UK-based IISS think tank, but âthe sinews of cooperative security and prosperity remain strong.â
One person challenging the core of the liberal international order is the leader of its creation: Trump.
âIâm a nationalist,â Trump said at a rally last week. âRadical Democrats want to turn back the clock. Restore the rule of corrupt, power-hungry globalists.â His rhetoric and actions, including cutting off immigration and curbing free trade, bruise any efforts to maintain the status quo.
So even if populist movements â" whether left or right â" have yet to take over the world, thereâs very little sign that theyâre going away any time soon.
âThe post-World War II international order was already fading,â Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me, âand these developments will only add to the unfortunate momentum.â
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