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Lessons Learnt From Right-Wing Populism

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Populism leaves its supporters spellbound, but it’s not sustainable. It’s a powerful explosive charge that sends taboo and politically incorrect, yet critical, subjects flying on to the discussion table. But politics and governance need the persistent drive of a steadily running engine with a set direction to achieve the promised goals.

Despite my initial fervor and admiration for right-wing populist leaders, my confidence in them seems to be fizzling out.

The UK Independence Party (Ukip) was formed on the express platform of getting Britain to leave the EU and reclaim its sovereignty. Nigel Farage oversaw the rise of the party from its scratchy beginnings to becoming a commanding voice that shaped the British mind on the issue of ‘To Leave or To Remain.’ Under his leadership, the party was able to build a platform for popular British issues like immigration, jobs, and culture, and talk people of all stripes around to the central issue of leaving the EU.

A lack of a coherent ideology and the absence of concrete plans on matters of governance didn’t deter Ukip from capturing the minds of the British populace. Nigel Farage’s eccentric moments became sources of amusement and the excesses of other members, like Godfrey Bloom, were met with tolerance, if not tacit acceptability.

Now that Britain elected to break away from the EU, Ukip is like a lost soul looking for new ideas to campaign on. Of note is Mr. Farage’s remark, “We are the turkeys that voted for Christmas.”

Since the Brexit referendum, Ukip’s shepherd and prophet – Nigel Farage – has stepped down; the party is plagued with internal feuds, financial troubles, dropouts, and loses in key elections. It’s not the end of the line for Ukip, but without well-defined positions, strategy, and structure, the Conservatives and Labour Parties are eating into Ukip’s voter base.

Lesson 1: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t build a movement on a few lone issues; and if you do, have a bunch of other issues to pivot to, once you have achieved your primary goal.

Across the English Channel, in France, Marine Le Pen, with her strong French pride and disdain of speaking in English, ran on the ‘French first’ platform raising concerns about sovereignty, immigration, culture, Islam, globalization, and the French working class, and promised to put the interests of French people before everyone one else’s.

Ms. Le Pen’s rallying of French support depended on the principle of social grouping, portraying external entities (out group) as threats to the national culture, integrity, and sovereignty (in group), while positioning herself as the deliverer.

Emanuel Macron, the winner of the French Presidential contest, had a refreshingly optimistic and cheery manifesto. Eschewing the tactic of singling out particular groups and foregoing grievance-based narrative, Macron’s message was a plain and simple one – rebuild France and make it better.

His support for the EU was accompanied with a call for EU reform, which made for a very optimistic message, regardless of its impracticality. Most people would prefer a known hell than undertake an unknown expedition. The unfeasibility of his Europhilic narrative was overshadowed by the comfort and relief it provided. Not to mention, support for EU was steadily growing in the run-up to French elections, which eventually made Le Pen soften her tough stance on the EU.

Macron was also gentle on immigration, especially asylum-seekers, for whom he promised to formulate an integration program. He came out strongly against the veil ban on university campuses, buttressing his position with allusion to France’s intensely secular cultural underpinnings.

As a gentle insinuation to the socialist-minded youth of France, he also promised to outlay £500 on a culture pass for every 18 year old to facilitate cultural edification. These positions were music to French ears and minds, who idolize secularism, welfare state, socialism, and integration.

Le Pen’s entrenchment of her politics in euroscepticism and an ‘us-versus-them’ strategy didn’t pay her the desired returns, as she lost in a landslide to Macron. The constituencies where she held a sway were predominantly working class and poorly educated; she couldn’t conquer the minds of the much sophisticated, economically prosperous, and well-educated Parisians, who seemed to love the gregarious Macron.

Lesson 2: Lead people on with optimism; cut back on finger-pointing.

Lesson 3: Populism works if you are popular. Study your customers, their preferences and likes and dislikes. Getting behind a position, popular only with a minority, isn’t populism.

Cue stateside politics: Donald J. Trump ran on a truly populist platform that sought to end establishment chokehold on Washington, rejuvenate America’s economy, whittle down unthrifty foreign policy, bring back jobs, get rid of the quagmire called ‘Obamacare,’ crackdown on illegal immigration and scale back legal immigration, and cut taxes – every thing that Americans love and nothing they loath.

Regardless of his politically unconventional behavior, his mortifying remarks about rivals and people he disliked, his lack of concrete plans, and his dearth of knowledge on several key policy issues, the vast majority of Americans ate up everything he said.

His shortcoming: he didn’t work his talking points into a dominant ideology. His presidency so far hasn’t been about pulling off an ideological plan; it has been about implementing a personal pledge, upon which rests his image and pride.

A lack of ideology also meant that he surrounded himself with people from across the spectrum with competing interests. His daughter and son-in-law, who are avowed liberals, didn’t get along well with the likes of his ex-chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, a prominent alt-right chum and anti-globalist, who in turn was loathed by the establishment types like the military generals.

A mix of subordinates with conflicting interests and a lack of ideological vetting before hiring meant internal feuds, erratic hiring and firing, flip flopping on campaign promises (most recent of which was the decision to put more troops in Afghanistan), and political gaffes while responding to sensitive events.

More importantly, Trump’s brand of populism and political ineptitude has, not surprisingly, left him at loggerheads with the establishment as he went after his own party members and censured his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who has been his long standing and most loyal supporter.

The alienation and administrative chaos means very little, if any, of his agenda gets underway. Granted that Trump isn’t solely responsible for delays caused by a Republican establishment that resents him, dillydallies on reform, and pretends to be powerless in passing important legislation. But a modicum of political dexterity and sophistication could have helped Trump in rallying the languorous establishment in implementing his agenda. After all, Obama, despite political and public opposition to some of his policies, was able to ram through his manifesto.

Lesson 4: Popular issues need to be co-opted and realized into an ideology to make it marketable to the establishment and to avoid counter-productive administrative decision-making.

 

Lesson 5: Iconoclasm is good; but it should be kept in check with political skill and diplomacy.

An ex-dentist and a business graduate who is greatly influenced by American conservatism and western values. Having born and brought up in a non-western, third world country, he provides an ‘outside-in’ view on western values. As a budding writer and analyst, he is very much stoked about western culture and looks forward to expound and learn more. Mr. Malkar receives correspondence at saurabh.malkar[at]gmail.com. To read his 140-character commentary on Twitter, follow him at @saurabh_malkar

Europe

Europe tells Biden “no way” to Cold War with China

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Amidst the first big transatlantic tensions for the Biden Administration, a new poll shows that the majority of Europeans see a new Cold War happening between the United States and China, but they don’t see themselves as a part of it.

Overwhelmingly, 62% of Europeans believe that the US is engaged in a new Cold War against China, a new poll just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations found. Just yesterday US President Joe Biden claimed before the UN General Assembly that there is no such thing and the US is not engaging in a new Cold War. So, Europeans see Biden’s bluff and call him on it.

The study was released on Wednesday by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev at the European Council on Foreign Relations and found that Europeans don’t see themselves as direct participants in the US-China Cold War. This viewpoint is most pronounced in Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Portugal and Italy, according to the study. The prevailing view, in each of the 12 surveyed EU member states, is one of irrelevance – with respondents in Hungary (91%), Bulgaria (80%), Portugal (79%), and Austria (78%) saying that their country is not in a conflict with Beijing.

Only 15% of Europeans believe that the EU is engaged in a Cold War against China. The percentage is so low that one wonders if there should even be such a question. It is not only not a priority, it is not even a question on the agenda for Europeans. Even at the highest point of EU “hawkishness”, only 33% of Swedes hold the view that their country is currently in a Cold War with China.  Leonard and Krastev warn that if Washington and Brussels are preparing for an all-in generational struggle against China, this runs against the grain of opinion in Europe, and leaders in Washington and Brussels will quickly discover that they “do not have a societal consensus behind them”.

“The European public thinks there is a new cold war – but they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Our polling reveals that a “cold war” framing risks alienating European voters”, Mark Leonard said.

The EU doesn’t have the backing of its citizens to follow the US in its new Cold War pursuit. But unlike the views of the authors of the study, my view is that this is not a transatlantic rift that we actually have to be trying to fix. Biden’s China policy won’t be Europe’s China policy, and that’s that, despite US efforts to persuade Europe to follow, as I’ve argued months ago for the Brussels Report and in Modern Diplomacy.

In March this year, Gallup released a poll that showed that 45% of Americans see China as the greatest US enemy. The poll did not frame the question as Cold War but it can be argued that Joe Biden has some mandate derived from the opinion of American people. That is not the case for Europe at all, to the extent that most of us don’t see “China as an enemy” even as a relevant question.

The US’s China pursuit is already giving horrible for the US results in Europe, as French President Macron withdrew the French Ambassador to the US. The US made a deal already in June, as a part of the trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia, and stabbed France in the back months ago to Macron’s last-minute surprise last week. Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that it is Macron that is actually arrogant to expect that commitments and deals should mean something: “Back in February, Macron rejected the idea of a U.S.-E.U. common front against China. Now he complains when America pursues its own strategy against China. What’s French for chutzpah?” What Boot does get right is that indeed, there won’t be a joint US-EU front on China, and European citizens also don’t want this, as the recent poll has made clear.

The US saying Europe should follow the US into a Cold War with China over human rights is the same thing as China saying that Europe should start a Cold War with the US over the bad US human rights record. It’s not going to happen. You have to understand that this is how ridiculous the proposition sounds to us, Europeans. Leonard and Krastev urge the EU leadership to “make the case for more assertive policies” towards China around European and national interests rather than a Cold War logic, so that they can sell a strong, united, and compelling case for the future of the Atlantic alliance to European citizens.

I am not sure that I agree, as “more assertive policies” and “cold war” is probably the same thing in the mind of most Europeans and I don’t think that the nuance helps here or matters at all. Leaders like Biden argue anyway that the US is not really pursuing a Cold War. The authors caution EU leaders against adopting a “cold war” framing. You say “framing”, I say “spin”. Should we be in engaging in spins at all to sell unnecessary conflict to EU citizens only to please the US?

Unlike during the first cold war, [Europeans] do not see an immediate, existential threat”, Leonard clarified. European politicians can no longer rely on tensions with China to convince the electorate of the value of transatlantic relations. “Instead, they need to make the case from European interests, showing how a rebalanced alliance can empower and restore sovereignty to European citizens in a dangerous world”, Mark Leonard added. The study shows that there is a growing “disconnect” between the policy ambitions of those in Brussels and how Europeans think. EU citizens should stick to their sentiments and not be convinced to look for conflict where it doesn’t exist, or change what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears in favor of elusive things like the transatlantic partnership, which the US itself doesn’t believe in anyways. And the last thing that should be done is to scare Europeans by convincing them they live in a “dangerous world” and China is the biggest threat or concern.

What the study makes clear is that a Cold War framing against China is likely to repel more EU voters than it attracts, and if there is one thing that politicians know it is that you have to listen to the polls in what your people are telling you instead of engaging in spins. Those that don’t listen in advance get the signs eventually. At the end of the day it’s not important what Biden wants.

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Europe

Germany and its Neo-imperial quest

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In January 2021, eight months ago, when rumours about the possibility of appointment of Christian Schmidt as the High Representative in Bosnia occurred for the first time, I published the text under the title ‘Has Germany Lost Its NATO Compass?’. In this text I announced that Schmidt was appointed to help Dragan Čović, the leader of the Croatian HDZ party, to disrupt the constitutional structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina and create precoditions for secession of the Serb- and Croatian-held territories in Bosnia and the country’s final dissolution. I can hardly add anything new to it, except for the fact that Schmidt’s recent statements at the conference of Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft have fully confirmed my claims that his role in Bosnia is to act as Čović’s ally in the latter’s attempts to carve up the Bosnian Constitution.

Schmidt is a person with a heavy burden, the burden of a man who has continuously been promoting Croatian interests, for which the Croatian state decorated him with the medal of “Ante Starčević”, which, in his own words, he “proudly wears” and shares with several Croatian convicted war criminals who participated in the 1992-1995 aggression on Bosnia, whom Schmidt obviously perceives as his ideological brethren. The question is, then, why Germany appointed him as the High Representative in Bosnia? 

Germany’s policy towards Bosnia, exercised mostly through the institutions of the European Union, has continuously been based on the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. The phrases that we can occassionaly hear from the EU, on inviolability of state boundaries in the Balkans, is just a rhetoric adapted to the demands by the United States to keep these boundaries intact. So far, these boundaries have remained intact mainly due to the US efforts to preserve them. However, from the notorious Lisbon Conference in February 1992 to the present day, the European Union has always officially stood behind the idea that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be partitioned along ethnic lines. At the Lisbon Conference, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, the official representatives of the then European Community, which has in the meantime been rebranded as the European Union, drew the maps with lines of ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along which the ethnic cleansing was committed, with 100.000 killed and 1,000.000 expelled, so as to make its territory compatible with their maps. Neither Germany nor the European Union have ever distanced themselves from the idea they promoted and imposed at the Lisbon Conference as ‘the only possible solution’ for Bosnia, despite the grave consequences that followed. Nor has this idea ever stopped being a must within their foreign policy circles, as it has recently been demonstrated by the so-called Janša Non-Paper, launched a couple of months ago, which also advocates the final partition and dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such a plan is probably a product of the powerful right-wing circles in the European institutions, such as Schmidt’s CSU, rather than a homework of Janez Janša, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, whose party is a part of these circles, albeit a minor one. To be sure, Germany is not the original author of the idea of Bosnia’s partition, this author is Great Britain, which launched it directly through Lord Carrington at the Lisbon Conference. Yet, Germany has never shown a will to distance itself from this idea, nor has it done the European Union. Moreover, the appointment of Schmidt, as a member of those political circles which promote ethnic partition as the only solution for multiethnic countries, testifies to the fact that Germany has decided to fully apply this idea and act as its chief promoter.

In this process, the neighbouring countries, Serbia and Croatia, with their extreme nationalist policies, can only act as the EU’s proxies, in charge for the physical implemenation of Bosnia’s pre-meditated disappearance. All the crimes that Serbia and Croatia committed on the Bosnian soil – from the military aggression, over war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, up to the 30 year-long efforts to undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – have always had a direct approval and absolute support of the leading EU countries. During the war and in its aftermath, Great Britain and France were the leaders of the initiatives to impose ethnic partition on the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now Germany has taken up their role. In such a context, the increasing aggressiveness of Serbia and Croatia can only be interpreted as a consequence of the EU’s intention to finish with Bosnia for good, and Schmidt has arrived to Bosnia to facilitate that process. Therefore, it is high time for the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina to abandon any ilussions about the true intentions of the European Union and reject its Trojan Horse in the form of the current High Representative.  

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Europe

Should there be an age limit to be President?

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The presidential elections in Bulgaria are nearing in November 2021 and I would like to run for President of Bulgaria, but the issue is the age limit.

To run for President in Bulgaria a candidate needs to be at least 40 years old and I am 37. I am not the first to raise the question: should there be an age limit to run for President, and generally for office, and isn’t an age limit actually age discrimination?

Under the international human rights law standard, putting an age limit is allowed in the context of political participation under the right to vote and the right to run to be elected. Human Rights Committee General Comment No.25 interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that an age limit has to be based on objective and reasonable criteria, adding that it is reasonable to have a higher age requirement for certain offices. As it stands, the law says that having an age limit for president is not age discrimination, but is 40 actually a reasonable cut-off? National legislations can change. We need to lower the age limit and rethink what’s a reasonable age for President, and not do away with all age limits.

We have seen strong leaders emerge as heads of state and government who are below 40 years of age. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, became Prime Minister at 34. Sebastrian Kurz, the Prime Minister of Austria, was elected at 31. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, assumed her position at 37. So perhaps it is time to rethink age limits for the highest offices.

The US has plenty of examples where elected Senators and Congressmen actually beat the age limit and made it despite the convention. The age limit for Senator in the US is 30 years old. Rush Holt was elected to the US Senate at 29. In South Carolina, two State Senators were elected at 24 years old and they were seated anyways. The age limit for US president is 35 years old.

In Argentina, the age cut-off is 30. In India, it is 35. In Pakistan, it is 45 years old. In Turkey, it is 40 years old. Iceland says 35 years old. In France, it is 18.

Generally, democracies set lower age limits. More conservative countries set the age limit higher in line with stereotypes rather than any real world evidence that a 45 year-old or 55 year-old person would be more effective and better suited to the job. Liberal countries tend to set lower age limits.

40 years old to be a President of Bulgaria seems to be an arbitrary line drawn. And while it is legal to have some age limits, 40 years old seems to be last century. Changing the age limit for president of Bulgaria could be a task for the next Bulgarian Parliament for which Bulgarians will also vote on the same date as they vote for President.

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