Politics in crisis?

by Sheila Moorcroft

Traditional politics in western countries have been facing growing challenges for many years. A combination of economic circumstances and austerity measures plus new technology is giving rise to very different political realities, new parties and new approaches; but also disenchantment and loss of faith. Should we be worried about an emerging political crisis having as big or even greater impacts than the financial crisis?

What is changing?

Populist parties have been gaining ground – support, votes, seats and influence, the latter often far beyond their size and popularity. They draw on the concerns and fears, especially since the financial crisis, of growing numbers of people on any number of fronts: about remote elites who do not listen; the lack of transparency and revelations of poor practice at best, corruption at worst among political parties in power; austerity budgets that are seen to affect the poor the most, bringing calls for greater fairness; promoting national identities, in danger of tipping over into xenophobia, in the face of faceless bureaucracies.

These parties and movements take many forms and although their support is fluctuating, their influence continues. Examples abound: the Tea Party Movement in the USA, whose local groups often hold disparate and sometimes conflicting views, has contributed to the stalemate and brinkmanship of recent US debt and tax discussions; Golden Dawn in Greece, which has become almost an extension of the police as well as politics, has 14% of the vote and significant influence; the Five Star Movement in Italy, which has brought complete political novices into parliament, eschews the roles of leaders or being on the left or right and would not form a formal alliance to form a government; the Freedom Party in the Netherlands forced an election and radicalised the discussion of the EU budget, before losing many seats; in Hungary the Movement for a better Hungary is now the third largest party and the True Finns has 39 MPs in the Finnish parliament; in the UK UKIP has achieved significant success, albeit small in total numbers, in the most recent local elections; even in Germany a new anti EU party, Alternative fÜr Deutschland, has emerged but not yet faced the polls – although 24% say they can see doing so. And so it goes on.

Meanwhile overall membership of political parties is declining fast and anti EU sentiment is rising. Across the 27 nations of the EU, with two exceptions in Austria and Cyprus, the ratio of membership of political parties has fallen below 8% in all countries, but in the new European democracies is lower still; in Poland and Latvia it is below 1%. This raises the question of whether political party membership is a valid form of civic society.

Faith in institutions such as national governments or the EU is also declining. Trust in the EU – the average across the 27 nations- has fallen from 50% in 2004 to 33% in 2012; trust in national parliaments and governments has fallen from 38% and 34% respectively, to 28% and 27%. Negative views of the EU have risen from a low of 15% in 2006, to 29% in 2012, with positive views falling from 50% to 30% over the same period; indifference, or neutrality, has risen to take up the difference. Views of personal and general futures are not positive.

Why is this important?

Globally, there are some 75 million people under 25 without a job; about one third of those are in the OECD. And youth unemployment is continuing to rise – 23% on average across the EU, but in small pockets such as in Dytiki Macedonia hitting 72%. Although circumstances have changed, unemployment in the 1930s provided a rich breeding ground for extremism. It is doing so again today.

Many of the mainstream political parties are seen as part of the problem, unable to find or suggest solutions. They, in turn, have also often dismissed the rise of the new parties – most recently in the UK where senior members of the Conservative party dismissed UKIP as clowns. But these ‘clowns’ have captured the mood of the times for many; they are radicalising the debate so that previously unimaginable events, such as Italy’s or Greece’s withdrawal from the EU, the end of the Euro, and rejection of the EU budget, are discussed openly. While the reality of Italy or Greece leaving the EU may still be low, its possibility has crept closer by dint of it being discussed in these terms.

Wide ranging engagement and discussion are essential to vibrant political debate and processes. And the success of using social media to recruit and galvanise the Five Star Movement and discussions of iDemocracy bypassing mainstream politics to engage directly may be early indicators of new political realises emerging. But with those new realities are also coming more nationalism, more populism, less willingness to compromise to find solutions. Will people draw back – as the Dutch did in the face of radical views – or are we seeing the emergence of new radicalism and direct politics? Is the stalemate of US politics going to become more widespread, leaving millions feeling let down, ignored and forgotten by remote political elites? If democracy is in crisis in the West, how can we hope to promote it effectively to the rest of the world? Could the fragmentation of politics and the rise of nationalism, given the current economic circumstances and levels of unemployment, result in a crisis as significant, if not more so, than the financial crisis from which we are trying to recover?


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