Murari Sharma: Is the World Moving to the Right?

Nigel Farage, the acting leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, said recently in a program in London that 2016 would be remembered as a year of big political revolutions. He made his assertion in reference to the British vote to leave the European Union and the US presidential election.

Indeed, these two votes clearly demonstrate the rightward political lurch in these two countries. But are they the harbingers of change from the liberal democratic political and economic trend of the last 70 years in Western countries towards an illiberal and undemocratic one? If yes, how is it going to affect the rest of the world?

Let us start with the British vote. The British voters, in a referendum in June this year, decided by 52-48 to leave the European Union, after 43 years as of membership, and to build their future outside the economic grouping.

The Brexiteers, the leaders who campaigned to leave the EU, used hard nationalism and soft racism to win the vote. They said they would take British sovereignty back from Brussels, control immigration, secure borders, give British jobs to British worker, and divert the 350 million pounds a week paid for the EU membership to the cash-strapped NHS.

Such nationalist and racist undertones were unusual in Britain after the political demise of John Enoch Powell.

More importantly, the vote clearly repudiated the liberal, tolerant, and globalist worldview that had governed British politics and its main players — the Conservative and Labor parties, which have their marginal differences.

In the United States, the Republican candidate Donald Trump won the election on the plank of hard nationalism, hard racism, hard misogyny, and authoritarianism. During the campaign, he promised to build a wall on the US-Mexican border, to walk away from NATO if other members did not pay more to it, and to tear trade treaties if other signatories did not give the US a more favorable treatment.

Trump called Mexicans criminals, described the African-American communities as crime-ridden, and promised to ban Muslims from entering the United States. He insulted women — from his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton to Megan Kelly, a television anchor, to Rosie O’Donnell, a talk show host, continuing his pre-campaign objectification of women in general.

He threatened to put his opponent in jail and haul his critics to court if he were elected, denigrated the US elections as rigged, and refused to acknowledge the outcome of a democratic election if he lost. And he praised authoritarian leaders  and called on hackers to hack into his opponent’s emails.

All this was the repudiation of civil, liberal, democratic, globalist politics and policy that had governed the United States at least since 1945.  That is not to suggest the Republican Party and the Democratic Party saw eye to eye. They did not, but they shared the fundamental values, from center-right or center-left.

That brings me to the question of whether the British and US votes suggest the beginning of a new trend or a temporary setback, in the long liberal political and economic journey started in 1945.

A sample of two incidents is not enough to indicate the arrival of a new trend. We need to wait and see how Germany, France, and other European countries move forward in their elections in 2017. If the National Front leader Marine Le Penn and the AfD leader Frauke Petry win the elections in France and Germany, respectively, it will be clear that liberal, globalist worldview is beginning to retreat, at least in Western countries.

Otherwise, the Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory would be only a temporary setback. However, even this setback might have significant impact on the rest of the world, mainly in those countries that look to Washington and London for political guidance, economic assistance, and military support and those that have rivalry with them. Such impacts would be felt in political, economic and human rights matters.

Broadly, the promotion of democracy and human rights will take a back seat. Donald Trump has criticized US involvement in nation-building in other countries and supported harsh interrogation tactics. So the dictators and human rights violators will be at ease.

But impacts in other areas would be mixed. For instance, if the US pushes it against the wall on NAFTA, Mexico will be more hawkish with Central American republics and reach out to the rest of the world to substitute the lost market in the US.

India, where the rightward lurch has already occurred under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, might enjoy better economic relations with Washington and London but will be more hawkish with its neighbors in its strategic and economic relations. It may consider building walls on its Pakistan and Bangladesh borders.

China under Xi Ping might be more worried about its trade and strategic relations with Washington and less about its human rights record. It might be tempted to erect a barrier on it border to the troubled North Korea.

Israel would be encouraged to complete the wall on its border with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

If Britain does well outside the EU, it may inspire other members to quit the regional organization as well. But if it suffers in the process of separation or after the separation, other countries might not venture into leaving the EU.

In Nepal, the impact of Brexit may be significant in development assistance and limited in trade. If Britain becomes inward-looked after its exit from the EU, its development aid will decline. Any change in trade will be limited, if at all.

The Trump presidency would be more significant for Nepal in many ways, but mainly for two reasons. One, it will affect US assistance to Nepal. Two, Trump’s approach will embolden India and put China on its tenterhooks, resulting in increased tension in the region.

Will these impacts across the world force a paradigm shift, as Nigel Farage seems to suggest? I hope not. Bit let us wait and see.

 

Murari Sharma: Takeaways from US elections

Outsiders find even normal American elections crazy. This year’s elections were crazy even by American standards. They have imparted troubling lessons for the United States as well as the rest of the world, including Nepal.

The crazy normal: The perpetual campaign, colossal spending and personal vitriol.

The members of the lower house of Congress are always in campaign mode because they face elections every two years. Similarly, as soon as one presidential campaign ends, another begins, thanks to the need in the Democratic and Republican parties for candidates to cross the intra-party primary whoops in all 50 states before they become nominees to face the inter-party contest.

Each presidential candidate must raise millions of dollars to finance their continuous and prolonged campaigns. And unrestrained personal attacks are all too common in American politics and election campaigns.

This year’s presidential contest was unprecedented in its craziness. The Republic presidential campaign was virtually policy-free, fact-free and evidently the vilest ever. The Democratic campaign also essentially proved to be Republican-lite.

The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, never bothered to spell out his policies and programs. He only said he had a plan and pouted some populist slogans. His principal election plank was the vilification of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Clinton mentioned her policies and programs in the three televised debates and in the last few days before the election on November 8. But she spent the rest of the time highlighting Trump’s flaws and unelectibility.

Trump ran a nearly a fact-free and mendacious campaign. When he was caught telling lies, he simply denied it loudly. Out of his campaign claims, 59 turned out to be whoppers (big lies) according the Washington Post Pinocchio test. Clinton also received seven whoppers.

No US presidential campaign in my living memory has been as vile as the 2016 one. Sure, in the past, the opponents assailed each other on policy and character flaws. But they always maintained basic civility and decency in their words. This time, Trump hitched the campaign into the gutter.

He called his opponent corrupt, crooked, nasty, and liar. He even said Clinton should be locked up. On the other hand, Clinton questioned Trump’s temperament to become president and commander-in-chief citing his mercurial nature, bullying, and thin skin.  She left vilifying Trump largely to her surrogates.

Trump openly demonstrated his anti-women, anti-foreigner, and anti-Islam words and behavior. He insulted Megan Kelly, a Fox News anchor, bragged about sexually abusing women, berated a gold star family, promised to ban Muslims if he became president, and called the Mexican and Latinos in the US criminals and rapists.

Yet, Trump triumphed.

Some have argued it was a victory of change over continuity, which might be true only partly, if at all, because no one wants change when times are rolling good.

Generally, it is one of the best times for America and American voters: The unemployment rate is 4.9 percent (near full employment), the crime rate is lowest in history, income is rising and prosperity is growing for all classes, the world is in relative peace, and not many American boots are involved in overseas conflicts.

Why throw the good known for the unknown? So Trump’s is the victory of sexism and misogyny, racism, xenophobia, obfuscation, incivility, cheap populism, and bureaucratic, Russian and Wikileaks meddling.

Sexism won in this election. Despite Trump’s troubling sexist and misogynist words and behavior, 53 percent white women voted for him. It seems that most US women accept sexism and misogyny as something to be disregarded.   

Trump and his key supporters stoked up racism with their anti-minority and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The religious, non-college educated white American voters took the bait and threw their support behind the New York tycoon.

Trump’s xenophobic, Islamophobic, Mexico-phobic, narrow nationalistic and protectionist rhetoric won over the segment of the white voters that has been adversely affected by globalization and that has been worried about its shrinking majority in the country. 

Trump’s secrecy and obfuscation trumped Clinton’s relative transparency. For instance, Trump never released his allegedly controversial tax returns, and it worked to his advantage. Clinton released her tax returns of more than 27 years, and let her enemies find a reason not to vote for her and throw dirt at her.

Clinton lost the election partly because she took Trump’s nasty, sexist, personal berating in her stride and the American voters seem to have taken her civility as the admission of guilt.  Trump tit-tatted every slight, and his supporters accepted it as a sign of his innocence.

Trump threw the red meat  of cheap populist slogans like building a wall on the US-Mexico border, bringing back manufacturing jobs, deporting all illegal immigrants, etc. and the poor, religious, and non-college educated and rural white voters fell for it. Clinton’s far more practicable policies lost the battle.

As Clinton has blamed, FBI Director James Comey’s relaunching of inquiry into her State Department emails days before the election stopped her momentum and helped Trump.

Certainly, Comey used double standards. He refused to investigate Trump’s dealings with Russia and Russian involvement in cyber attacks against the USA to stay clear of politics. On the contrary, he reignited the once-ended FBI inquiry into Clinton’s emails just 10 days before the vote. Trump used the inquiry to convince many wavering voters that she was going to be indicted. 

Russia tipped the scale in Trump’s favor. Trump called on Russia to hack into Clinton’s emails and Russian agents found access to her campaign manager John Podesta’s emails. Wikileaks disseminated the hacked emails just days before the election. It hurt Clinton and helped Trump.

So the takeaways from the American election this year is this: Appealing to the base instincts in voters works very well in politics.

Similar sentiments — anti-globalization, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc. — had convinced British voters to pull their country out of the European Union in the referendum held in June this year. Thos year’s American presidential election reaffirms the British experience.   

If such regressive sentiments can sway voters in America and Britain, two of the most advanced and democratic countries in the world, you cannot expect better from voters in poor countries, including Nepal.  

But regression is not the way forward. Voters, be aware: You get that you vote for. America has Trump to deal with, Britain has the slumping pound and the slowing economy, and Nepal has its venal leaders and abiding poverty.