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An old enemy has returned to haunt democracy



An old enemy has returned to haunt democracy

Liberal democracy is under increasing pressure from populist movements in many countries.

In recent years, populist leaders have been in power in Latin America, Europe, North America and Africa. A running study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change found 20 populists were in power between 1990 and 2018.

Populism, both on the left and right makes two basic claims. First, the real, good or true people are in a life-or-death battle with outsiders such as immigrants, elites or religious and ethnic minorities. Second, nothing should constrain the will of the ‘true’ people of a nation. It overrides the rights of outsiders. Both claims often lead to havoc.

The ransacking of the supreme court, parliament and presidential palace in Brasilia in early January is the latest example.

It seemed to follow the script established in the USA a year earlier. In Germany, police arrested more than 25 people in an alleged ultra-right-wing coup attempt last December.

Populists often frame a single common good for the people – a policy that cannot be debated because it derives from the common sense of the people. As a result, they are generally intolerant of opposition. Democracy on the other hand proposes politics as a competition between different policy positions.

Populists argue that a nation’s establishment elites are corrupt and self-serving cartel that does not represent the interests of the true people and are indifferent to the common good. 

Reliance on rhetoric

What makes populism risky and dangerous is the reliance on rhetoric to gain and hold power. It is divisive and seems to thrive in the conspiracy. Lacking an underlying economic philosophy, it looks for enemies everywhere, is intolerant of opposition, and plays up external threats.

Political scientists and economists are struggling to explain the global resurgence of populism. And while it may offend many liberal sensibilities, populism is raising fundamental issues, otherwise, it would not be attracting voters. 

Why is liberal democracy not producing the improvements in peoples’ lives promised by its neoliberal promoters? Globalisation for one thing. And while some countries, notably China and India have lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty, the benefits of globalization have passed Africa by and hurt working classes in the industrial west.

Second, economic governance not working well. Countries no longer pursue full employment as the primary goal of economic policy. Rather, inflation targeting and maximisation of shareholder value have taken centre stage. The balance is now skewed towards capital and away from labour.

The combined effects of globalisation and a focus on shareholder value mean that companies are not re-investing in innovation, leading to stagnation or low productivity growth. Without increases in productivity, real wages have remained stagnant for decades, and wealth and income inequality have increased. 

Kenya has in recent years grown its economy through the rapid expansion of infrastructure. But the stagnation in productivity means most Kenyans are not experiencing this growth where it matters the most. In their pockets. This has created the perfect conditions for blame, finger-pointing and divisions.

Kenyan political parties need to reflect deeply on these issues and develop credible policy platforms that will go beyond populism. Without solving these seemingly intractable problems, both democracy and the republic will fall to ruin in short order.

@NdirituMuriithi is an economist

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