London (CNN)It is often hailed as the beacon of a civilized society — but is democracy in danger of failing the very people it is supposed to protect?
From Brexit to the US election and beyond, recent exercises in democracy have been driven by divisive political rhetoric, delivered razor-thin margins of victory, and led to the results being contested not only in the courts but in the streets.
“The reputations of the world’s largest democracies have been tarnished,” Arch Puddington, Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies at Freedom House, told CNN.
“There may not even be a clear solution to the problem.”
Anger at the status quo
Perhaps the biggest cause of the political turmoil of recent years is the growing contempt that millions of people have for the version of democracy offered up to them by establishment leaders in the West.
In France, Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, is aiming to capitalize on the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant vote as she pursues the French presidency on a platform that she hopes will appeal to those who believe they have been left behind by globalization.
If elected, Le Pen has promised to curtail immigration, hold a referendum on whether France should leave the EU, and protect France from the twin evils of “Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism” and politically correct liberalism, although she would face major parliamentary and constitutional hurdles to do so.
It’s an agenda that has allowed her to make it through to final round of voting on May 7 along with independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.
The result of the first round amounted to a comprehensive rejection of traditional politics in France. It was the first time since the establishment of the fifth French Republic in 1958 that no candidate from the two main political parties of the left and right has made it into the second round of the presidential vote.
“There is a very strong anti-establishment feeling moving across Europe,” Sophie Gaston, Head of International Projects & External Affairs at Demos, told CNN. “There is also a sense that there is someone is to blame, and that’s why we’re seeing this relationship between immigration and far right populism.”
“It is true that the insecurities are on a few different levels,” she said. “Politicians have been terrible at managing that change.”
The winds of change may be sweeping through France, but the political landscape of many European countries have already been transformed.
Voters in Poland, Hungary and Turkey have thrown their support behind populist governments who have become increasingly authoritarian in recent years.
“Autocrats claim to have solutions — they may not do, it may all be a fantasy, but they portray themselves as people of action and people with plans,” Puddington said. “They present themselves as people who will make their country great, and some [voters] are convinced.”
Brexit, like the US election and the Turkish referendum, ended with a result that left the country bitterly divided.
The vote, won by the Leave campaign with a slim margin of 52%-48%, led to protests, a long period of national introspection, and the end of David Cameron’s tenure as Prime Minister.
Cameron’s successor Theresa May was charged with leading the UK through the aftermath of the referendum and invoking Article 50, the trigger for divorce proceedings with the EU.
But the fallout from the result has continued, with court cases, mass protests and hours of debate in both the House of Commons and House of Lords.
Similarly, in the US, Trump lost the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes but prevailed through the Electoral College System. The election of Trump — who promised to wall off Mexico and ban all Muslims from entering the US — also led to rallies and legal challenges, and was blamed for a spike in hate crimes across the country.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan squeaked out a 51%-49% victory in a bitterly fought constitutional referendum that will grant him sweeping new powers — a much narrower victory for the popular leader than predicted.
The conduct of the vote was criticized by international monitors, who said that “the legal framework remained inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum.”
All three results were met with angry demonstrations, calls for the authorities to invalidate the results, and cries of dishonesty, “fake news” and foul play.
“The thing about populist leaders and campaigns is that they can run fast and free with the truth because their rule is to be outside of the establishment,” said Gaston. “They don’t necessarily need complex policies in the way mainstream parties do. What they need to offer is a feeling of safety.
“They campaign on control and exclusion,” she added. “We saw this in the Brexit campaign. It was not a fluke that the campaign message was ‘take back control.'”
Democratic power grabs
Taking back control is what Theresa May is attempting to do — not just in Europe but at home too.
Last week May, an unelected Conservative prime minister, announced a snap general election, which was originally scheduled for 2020.
Observers believe the move was designed to allow her party — currently enjoying a healthy lead in the polls — to crush the opposition at the ballot box and silence dissenting voices in Parliament as Brexit negotiations pick up speed.
May was outspoken in her criticism of opposition parties in Westminster, claiming they had jeopardized her government’s task of negotiating the best deal for Britain with the EU.
“Our opponents believe, because the government’s majority is so small, that our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course,” she said. “They are wrong.”
Britain’s populist, pro-Brexit press rode in to support May the morning after the announcement. The Daily Mail hailed her call to “Crush the saboteurs,” as the paper put it. The Sun declared that the snap poll would “kill off Labour” and “smash rebel Tories too.”
Some critics said the election made little sense given the public’s apathy for another vote, less than a year after the pain of the Brexit referendum. Others noted May’s seeming anger at the fact there was any opposition to her Brexit plans at all, despite the narrow margin of victory for the Leave campaign.
“It’s a power grab,” said Ian Dunt, the author of a book about Brexit. “She’s acting as if it’s giving her some sort of mandate for her Brexit strategy.”
“May talks indefinitely about the country being unified over Brexit now but it’s not really the case. It is pretty much the same as it was on the day of the referendum. There was a split down the middle — some people think it’s a good thing, some people think it’s a bad thing.
“She’s taking this imagined will of the people and acting if she has a monopoly over it and that’s a very common tactic used by dictators across the world. Any opposition to her is an opposition to the country. She’s doing a very watered down version of that.”
From democracy to dictatorship?
A rise in nationalist and populist movements has been accompanied by a decline in political and civil liberties in established democracies, according to the American NGO Freedom House.
In its 2017 report, the group singled out countries like Poland and Hungary, who have used democratic means to achieve undemocratic aims in recent years.
“While in past years the declines in freedom were generally concentrated among autocracies and dictatorships that simply went from bad to worse, in 2016 it was established democracies — countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system — that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks,” according to the Freedom House report, titled “Populists and Autocrats: The dual threat to global democracy.”
Poland’s right wing Law and Justice party has only been in power since 2015, but its leaders have already managed to restrict the right to protest, grant extra surveillance powers to security services, and curtail the powers of the country’s constitutional court. It has also proposed tough new legislation on NGOs while cracking down on media.
The developments in Poland have been similar to those in Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz party under Prime Minister Viktor Orban has created what Freedom House has labeled an “illiberal democracy.”
Earlier this month Orban caused outrage by attempting to force the Central European University in Budapest — founded by Hungarian-American billionaire and democracy advocate George Soros — to move out of the country, which led to mass protests on the streets of the capital.
Orban’s actions have caused consternation at EU headquarters in Brussels, which has threatened legal action against the Hungarian government over the proposal.
The university flap heaped more tension onto Hungary’s already fractious relationship with its neighbors. The EU and Budapest are currently locked in a dispute over migration quotas and the treatment of refugees inside camps on the Hungarian border.
Orban, in power since 2010, has sailed upon on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in Hungary in recent years. He has justified his hardline stance on migrants by labeling them “a Trojan Horse of terrorism.”
But Orban is not the only authoritarian leader to have a frosty relationship with the EU.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has clashed with Europe over a number of issues, including a contentious deal designed to prevent Syrian migrants from reaching the continent. More worrying to some, however, is the increasingly autocratic tone emanating from the presidential palace in Ankara.
Erdogan’s victory in this month’s referendum, which will allow him to assume sweeping new powers, has been fiercely criticized by those who believe he has exploited democratic processes to tighten his authoritarian grip on the country.
While he has rejected the accusation that he has become a “dictator,” there are plenty who disagree.
Under the revised constitution, Erdogan will be able to abolish the post of Prime Minister and assume broad new powers to rule by decree. The new arrangements give him the power to appoint a cabinet and some senior judges. The power of Parliament to scrutinize legislation is curbed.
Erdogan has already transformed a largely ceremonial office into a strong powerbase, instituting a widespread crackdown on dissent that intensified after a failed coup last year. More than 47,000 people have been arrested since the foiled coup, and nearly 200 journalists are behind bars.
While 49% of voters mourned the loss of the referendum Sunday as the death of democracy in Turkey, one Erdogan supporter had a piece of advice for the President’s critics.
“This is a message to the world to shut up,” she said. “Turkey is getting stronger.”
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