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For governments right and left, a season of discontent

By John Lloyd | November 29th 2018

Democratic governments are rarely popular for extended periods, and often have to grapple with with low polls, noisy demonstrations and constant pressure from the media.

These patterns are not new. They only seem so now because administrations of every kind are under increasing, and new, pressures – and the challenge of recession looms.

In France, some 300,000 citizens wearing yellow safety jackets came out in force last weekend to protest against fuel price prices. French President Emmanuel Macron's popularity ratings have hit an all-time low.

President Macron argues that the high fuel prices are designed to prompt a shift to more environmentally friendly vehicles. But faced with the choice between cleaner air or lower prices, the protestors have chosen the latter – and at least one poll shows that 73 per cent of the country supports them.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin's popularity has sunk to 39 per cent. The major reason is another sharp rise – this time in Russia’s retirement age, from 60 to 65 for men and 55 to 60 for women.

Austerity measures

In Egypt, the falling popularity of the President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stems from austerity measures he introduced in 2016 after a US$12 billion IMF loan specified cuts and other painful reforms. This year he won the presidential election with 97 per cent of the vote; after his only opponent made it clear that he was a Sisi supporter.

In China, protest is tightly suppressed as President Xi Jinping continues to press the Communist party to both spread his political thoughts – now formally written into the constitution – to every one of China’s 1.4 billion population, and to ensure he has total control of the country.

But although China's growth is still over 6 per cent, this is significantly lower than in the past several years, and is still falling. Xi seems to be anticipating unrest as budgets have been cut and defence spending increased.Economic slowdowns always have social and political consequences, sometimes violent.

A new recessionary period is in the offing. The Economist noted last month that growth will slow this year in every other advanced economy other than the United States, and that emerging markets will bear the blunt of this slowdown.

When this happens, countries, both free and not-free, are likely to struggle to contain the effects. The rise of populism exacerbates this. Populists do not just introduce tougher immigration rules and prompt revolt against liberal institutions; they give shape and organization to deep chasms in both rich and emerging economies.

In Brazil, last month’s election of the former army officer Jair Bolsonaro as President is testament to a large nation, governed by the left for more than a decade, now expressing its fear of rampant crime, disgust with corruption and discontent caused by the country’s dismal economic performance.

Mutual incomprehension

In Brazil, as in France, the United States, Italy, the UK and beyond, the haves and have-littles regard each other with mutual incomprehension, often with contempt. It is most evident in the United States because President Donald Trump likes to stir it up, as he did before the congressional midterm elections by stoking fears about Central American migrants heading for the United States.

But it does not end there. Populism’s best energy comes from a refusal to acquiesce in the inequities of the world – once a motor force of the left, more often now found on the right.

At times, the success of the national populists render the formation of government itself impossible – as in Sweden today, where neither the center-left nor the center-right coalitions can govern alone.

Nor will these social chasms be filled, even where populist administrations fail. The distance is not just between the parties, but among the citizens – one which will only get larger when recession comes.

Commentators, scholars and politicians call for new beginnings, new parties, new policies. But the required trust does not exist for broad, radical, cross-community action in democracies. And in authoritarian societies, repression will have to be ratcheted up clamp down on protests.

Mr Lloyd is a writer and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.


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