By Kumar David –
Trump, Durante and Le Pen against the wall; Modi changing tack: Neo-populism tips over the peak
“Public sentiment is everything; with public sentiment
nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed” ~ Abraham Lincoln
It seems that neo-populism has peaked and at least in some theatres flipped into decline. In India, Modi has shifted gear from right-wing populism to the more “regular” brand of mass populism. Republicans, whose party Donald Trump hijacked, agree that he is the most bizarre oddball president in American history. Though his support base has not collapsed it is has weakened; (a) after a $600 billion tax concession to the rich disguised as healthcare reform cleared the House, (b) the suspicious firing of FBI director James Comey and (c) the incompetent, albeit inadvertent, leaking of sensitive intelligence to the Russian Foreign Minister. He now faces a Special Counsel (Bob Mueller) as Nixon did in 1973 – both appointed on the same date (17 May). What Trump says and does on one day has no relation to what he gets up to on the next as exasperated White House personnel lament.
Rodrigo Durante is a self-admitted hoodlum with blood on his hands. Senators whisper “impeachment” but stay silent in public for obvious reasons. Nevertheless alarm is mounting though his popularity is still holding up. Official sources estimate that 8000 suspected drug traffickers and drug users have been slaughtered since July 2016 and 40,000 are behind bars without trial. The drug problem is as serious in the Philippines as in Mexico but this is clearly overkill; note double entendre. In Mexico, conversely, the political establishment is in the pocket of the drug trade. Durante is way out of line with simple values; more seriously, will a man so recklessly wielding a machete stop after he has cleared the decks of the drug related? Are not political opponents next in line to be put to the sword? Steller public sentiment is waning; folks are ready for his constitutionally limited one-term 6-year presidency to expire.
Clowns and killers are not stimulating because they do not teach subtle lessons. The case of the French National Front (FN) is far more significant. A looney White House and a Pilipino cowboy will soon be bad dreams, the inmate of the former perhaps impeached, but the tensions that propelled all three forward are the perilous realities of the prevailing global imbroglio, as I have often taken pains to explain. The alienation of millions that led to a global revolt against the system is not the topic of this essay since I have dealt with it two or three times previously in this column.
The follies of French neo-populism
The trajectory of European neo-populism is complex and important, so let’s migrate to France and sip a leisurely glass of Bordeaux. You have heard it before but let me use it as an opening gambit. The two populist candidates in the French presidential election shoved the main parties (Socialists and Republicans) out of the final lap and secondly Emmanuel Macron is the youngest French leader since Napoleon – wow! If you don’t see an earthquake in this double whammy nothing will ever surprise you. Simply put, the French political edifice has crumpled. And don’t forget that though Le Pen lost she secured 34% of the vote, double what any NF candidate had secured previously. To add salt into the wound, she polled most of her eleven million votes in the working class districts of France.
But both centrist populism and right neo-populism have peaked; the Macron and Le Pen platforms are now mutating towards conventional liberalism. In Macron’s case the switch was instantaneous and expected. He has picked right-of-centre Republican Edouard Philippe as Prime Minister and rushed off to Berlin, within hours of being sworn in, to cement heart and soul EU-centric ties with Angela Merkel. The CDU is scoring rousing victories in Germany’s State elections and Merkel is likely to come storming back as Chancellor in September. The fate of bourgeois democratic Europe seems secure for about five years and it will thumb its nose and see off mad-cap Don and hoodlum Rod.
As bits and pieces of Macrons programme emerge it contains nothing out of the ordinary; plain vanilla bourgeois liberal-democracy if you want it in jargon. So the despair and alienation that drove millions to imbibe centrist populism will find no relief or medication in Macron’s un-aged cabernet sauvignon; they will have to keep gulping harsh tannins. In line with my title I am saying devotees of Macron populism will soon turn their backs on it.
What about the fiery shiraz of Miss Le Pen? Though she nearly doubled the NF vote it now comes as a sudden revelation ‘that this is it’; the French far-right has peaked. Without alliances with liberals the NF will never reach 35-40%. This is parallel to the predicament of the JVP; no matter proportional representation or first-past-the-post, the JVP cannot win more than 20 seats in parliament unless it forms alliances. Having burnt its fingers three times with Chandrika, Fonseka and Sirisena there is hope the JVP will now see the light and consolidate an umbrella left alliance. The goal should not be premature notions of governmental power or utopian socialism, but sturdy impact on national politics like the left was able to do for four decades from the mid-1930s.
To return to the National Front; a reappraisal of policy has been initiated. An established right-wing party with longstanding policy, platform and ideology, it is not popcorn or instant noodles like Macron’s En Marche! (On the Move). Rewriting the NF agenda and restyling the organisation will be prolonged and painful – Marine’s nice Marion Marechal-Le Pen and some ultra-right elements have walked out screaming “treachery”. My point is the NF is past its peak in its current avatar but seems to have the intelligence and foresight to lick its wounds and ponder what to do next. The JVP seems not to have the head to transcend its waning avatar; it may forever remain a smallish party.
All will come to a head in the 11 June National Assembly elections. En Marche, a recently conjured out of the air soda bottle as a vehicle for Macron’s presidential bid is unlikely to win a clear majority to allow Macron to govern freely. A French president without a majority in the legislature is as shackled as an American president with both houses of Congress against him. Therefore political alliances have become as important for centrist as for right-wing neo-populists.
The thrilling part of the story is that the same is true for the left; so it’s time to sip a little heady Champagne. It is clear as daylight to the French left that unless there is across the board cooperation and tactical voting it will be hopelessly marginalised. Broad left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon obtained 20% in the presidential primary, Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon 6.5% and adding other smaller left votes adds to over 30%. The step from primaries (11) to run-off a week later (18) in legislative elections is a very complicated process, so it is impossible to guess how many of the Assembly’s 577 a unified left may get. But if unified it will do well. I am emphasising left unity for obvious reasons relating to Lanka’s domestic politics.
Prefrontal cortex defect
I know most leaders of the multiplicity of left sects, fragments and splinters in this country; many have been personal friends for years. They are normal in other ways but there is an explicable disconnect on one matter. The prefrontal cortex is where cognition, reflection and decision-making occur, so is the political prefrontal cortex of the Lankan left defective? The limbic gaggle is the part of the cortex where emotion and passion reaches out from. It seems the gaggle has blown up and smothered the prefrontal. Ok this may not be funny but what I am driving at is deadly serious.
All over the world, in this age of rise of neo-populism and preparing for its decline, the global left is waking up to the truth that unity is sine qua non. But not in Lanka! Leaders who understand and nod their heads in agreement but do nothing about it are guilty of negligence. We have to unify the left in the next year or two or the landscape will turn chaotic. Imagine the scenario; the Ranil-Sirisena government in terminal decline, Tamil and Muslim alienation worsening, a hung parliament with gangster leaders of the last regime reaching to grab power and, at best a lot left undone on the economy, at worst a mess. In a bleak scenario a strong unified left movement in the country at large, and a significant presence in parliament, is probably the only glue that can hold the country together. If we take a step back we see in the post-independence decades a powerful left supplying political and intellectual national cohesion, something at which UNP, SLFP, FP and religious orders had failed.
The point I am driving at in conclusion is that unification of the left, though of course in its own interest, it is also a national imperative in these difficult days.