Political parties have been shaken by populism but not stirred

Political parties have been shaken by populism but not stirred
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A murky Shakespearian hellbroth with a far too bitter aftertaste. 

During the last decade it has been very tempting for political parties — even in established mature democracies — to blend this toxic political cocktail on authoritarian leadership and wide-ranging versions of political populism. In Shakespeare’s infamous play, Macbeth, drinking from the hellbroth brings terror, violence and eventually, destruction.

Even before the coronavirus brought the world to its knees, authoritarian political parties governments and leaders were on the rise. Corruption, state captures and opaque party organizations have undermined public confidence in political parties around the world, fueling democratic instability and weakening global institutions. 

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Their advancement is a global tragedy that far too many countries have witnessed. Freedom House found that 2020 was the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom and the Global Democracy Index also concluded an unprecedented rollback of democratic freedoms last year. 

It is clear: democracy, multilateralism and pluralism are under assault on a global level with its 50 shades of authoritarian leadership. From Rodrigo Duterte to Viktor Orbán, Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinRussia says 24 diplomats asked by U.S. to leave by September Is Ukraine Putin's Taiwan? Democrats find a tax Republicans can support MORE to the Ayatollahs of Iran. In China and in Russia. Around the world, illiberal forces are pushing back against democracy and populists are stoking distrust in multilateral institutions.

The culmination of the violence on Jan. 6th in Washington D.C. ought to serve as a wake-up call for all democratic parties worldwide. We must see the illiberal leaders, populist parties and the far-right demagogues for what they are: a global threat to liberal democracy for democratic political parties — regardless if they are liberal, conservative, leftist, green, social democratic, centrist, or find themselves outside the traditional ideological spectrum.

Other findings from the report include:

  • The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006. 
  • The long democratic recession is deepening. 
  • The proportion of ‘not free’ countries is now the highest it has been in the past 15 years

Yes, the Freedom in the World report is tragic to read. But at the same time, we must not miss the rays of hope and freedom that actually do exist.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely exacerbated the global decline in freedom. Crises usually provide populist parties plenty of opportunity to gain support among disgruntled voters. Populists blame crises on the political elite for failing to protect the interests of the people. But the populist parties, especially in Europe, have not been that successful in gaining support. Polling data from different countries show no significant upward trend in support for populist parties since the start of the pandemic. With their inconsistent and contradictory approaches to the virus, illiberal and populist parties appear untrustworthy and opportunistic. 

On the global arena, 2021 provides us with many tools to restore the faith in democracy and multilateral institutions. President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Biden vaccine rule sets stage for onslaught of lawsuits MORE’s coming Global Democracy Summit is an ample opportunity for democratic nations to strengthen not only their multilateral ties, but also to show unity. To walk the talk back home and support democracy worldwide. It is hard to be a global role model if you are not performing top quality back home. For every democratic backlash on home turf, authoritarian regimes gain an additional counterargument to respect peoples’ democratic rights. 

For the last four years, the European Union has been the global force for liberal democratic values with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronFrench parliament approves COVID-19 passes for restaurants, domestic travel WhatsApp chief: US allies' national security officials targeted with NSO malware US athletes chant 'Dr. Biden' as first lady cheers swimmers MORE at the vanguard. Despite the ordeal of being exposed to hawkish tariffs, Brexit and increasing pressure from Russia and China, the EU stands its ground. 

But the EU and the US still have their problems. It is hard to be a global role model if you are not performing top quality back home. The current attacks on fundamental human rights in EU countries like Hungary and Poland and the American Trump era shows the importance of walking the talk back home if you want to be seen as the champion of democracy worldwide. For every democratic backlash on home turf, authoritarian regimes gain an additional counterargument to respecting people's democratic rights. But together the EU, the U.S. and democratically committed countries globally will and can make a difference. 

A new multilateral partnership, Friends in Defense of Democracy, was formed last year by United Nations member states from four continents. In addition, Sweden launched the Drive for Democracy strategy in 2019 with support from the UN, the EU and the African Union. These initiatives share a common goal: to support democratic processes worldwide.

At the National Democratic Institute we encourage global leadership. We are working tirelessly with democratic political parties around the world to strengthen democratic development. And decent democratic parties need to unite cross-party globally to defend democracy. We continue to fight for democracy even when it's hard. Because much is at stake.

To paraphrase James Bond, democracy might be “shaken,” but “not stirred.”

Democracy has been shaken during the last few years, but not deeply enough to change our behavior or way of thinking. 

Birgitta Ohlsson is director of Political Parties at the National Democratic Institute and is a former Swedish minister of European Affairs.