This week, citizens in EU countries will go to the polls to elect MEPs. These elections are widely considered to be the most important for some time, if not in the history of the European Union. The EU-wide vote is also occurring in a year when much of the world’s population will participate in or has already gone through the same democratic exercise nationally, including Spain, the Ukraine, Israel, South Africa, India and Indonesia. There may well be elections in the UK, if the Conservative party cannot hold onto its minority government, and here in Ireland, before the year is out.
The endurance of democratic processes like elections is admirable, especially considering the volatility of our current era. Interrelated trends in climate change, migration, and inequality are feeding the rise of political movements that aim to undermine universal human rights and democratic institutions. The leaders of parties like the Brexit Party and La Liga threaten opponents while making unattainable promises to their loyal supporters. Unfortunately, this year’s national and European elections appear to be consolidating the power of these leaders. We should thus be asking as a matter of urgency what kind of leader offers an alternative, or who confronts climate change, migration, and inequality in order to sustain democracy and protect human rights.
We seem to have five options for political leaders today:
1) the strongman who tries to dismantle the checks and balances that sustain democratic institutions and uses the media to disseminate claims, founded or not, which support their policies (there is a plethora of examples; within the European Union, we have Matteo Salvini, Victor Orban, Marine Le Pen, and Law and Justice Party’s Jaroslaw Kaczynsk , or further afield, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Binyamin Netanyahu, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolonsaro and Donald Trump).
2) the cross-generational insurgent championing a leftist agenda of economic change. They support policy initiatives like the Green New Deal and expansion of public services as well as re-nationalization of privately run public services, like transport (examples in Europe are the UK Labour Party’s deputy leader John McDonnell or in the US, Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren).
3) the centrist perpetuating the market-oriented policy agenda and, above all, claiming to avoid the extremes of right and left (for example, in Europe, Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel, and Joe Biden, a US Presidential candidate).
4) the career politician making a stand against the destructive effects of party politics to protect public interest (examples include Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles in the UK, Mitt Romney in the US, and President Reuven Rivlin in Israel), and
5) the citizen-activist, from teenager Greta Thunberg to 77 year old Margaret Anne Georgiadou, who launched the Revoke Article 50 petition in the UK.
Who will win?
Surveys point to the growing appeal of the first category. For instance, the 2019 Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement in the UK showed increasing, and in fact unsurprising, disillusionment with politics in the UK. Still, the survey’s finding that 54% of respondents ‘say Britain needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’ is shocking.
The survey also said that 66% of respondents thought ‘most big issues facing the country today don’t have clear solutions.’ While leaders embracing authoritarian tendencies claim to have these clear solutions, the other leaders, to their credit, hesitate to offer dishonestly simple and sometimes destructive solutions to complex problems. Yet, these leaders still need an alternative narrative, or one that is far more inclusive, collectivist, and forward-looking than the regressive, often discriminatory and sometimes violent (at least as a consequence) politics of the first category.
Though the range of leaders is arguably not as visible in Ireland as it is elsewhere in Europe, this does not mean it will not emerge (or is not beginning to emerge). Certainly frustration at the cost of living, as well as suspicion about policies like carbon tax, are similar. An ongoing project at TASC, in partnership with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), is examining the attitudes of the Top 10% in the EU toward inequality and solidarity. Despite their income and wealth, even this population in Ireland, more than the other countries in the study, feel insecurity because of the cost of housing and inadequate public services. Those with less income and job certainty, as evidenced in our report on precarious work, express despair at their choices, sometimes between basic needs like paying for a visit to a GP and making the rent.
How Ireland can avoid the rise of the "strongman"
On the eve of the European Parliamentary and local elections, citizens should view voting as a critical opportunity - a chance to improve their lives, and strengthen democratic institutions in Ireland. For these elections and beyond, citizens should also expect their leaders to recognize the complexity of the problems we face and likewise, present a holistic vision for protecting livelihoods, quality of life, and the environment.
At the same time, Irish politicians and parties should be prioritising the public interest to avoid the conditions of mistrust and disaffection that have been exploited by the rise of the “strongman” in other jurisdictions. Ironically, as a political strategy, undermining public interest may prove to be not very effective. As we have seen in the case of Trump, seeking political support without substantive policies that improve people’s lives and trust in government ultimately undermines the popularity of the very leaders in charge of the government.
Until now, Ireland has avoided the misfortunes of its closest neighbour, other EU countries, and the US. To stay this way, the leaders we elect need to show the Irish public that the government can indeed help to improve their lives. If this does not happen, then the political tensions alight in other nations may in fact come here.
Dr. Shana Cohen is the Director of TASC.
She studied at Princeton University and at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Sociology. Her PhD analyzed the political and social consequences of market reform policies in Morocco for young, educated men and women. Since then, she has continued to conduct research on how economic policies have influenced political and social identity, particularly in relation to collective action and social activism.
She has taught at George Washington University, the University of Sheffield, and most recently, University of Cambridge, where she is still an Affiliated Lecturer and Associate Researcher. Her areas of teaching have included global social policy, globalization, and human services.
Before coming to TASC, she was Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. In her role at the Institute, she became engaged with interfaith and intercultural relations in Europe, India, and the Middle East.
Beyond academic research, Shana has extensive experience working with NGOs and community-based organizations in a number of countries, including Morocco, the US, the UK, and India. This work has involved project design, management, and evaluation as well as advocacy. She has consulted for the World Bank, the Grameen Bank Foundation, and other private foundations and trusts.