Wed, Jan 03, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Once centers of hope, the world’s political parties are dying

It might be that the ‘party of one,’ which is the Internet and social media-empowered citizen, takes over in an unimaginably complex digitalized version of Athenian democracy

By John Lloyd  /  Reuters

Illustration: Mountain People

There is little difficulty in showing that some of the most venerable political parties of the democratic world might be facing terminal crises. The difficulty is in determining if government by a party or parties — the sustaining base of administrations the democratic world over — can last.

On most material measures, the world is getting better — less poverty, more education and literacy, healthier people (though few believe it), but not for the established political parties which often helped make it so. That is because the parties are at the mercy of a series of vast movements, global rather than bounded by the nation state.

In the US, the Republican Party of former US president Abraham Lincoln has been seized by US President Donald Trump, a man who often seems to prefer autocracy to democracy.

The shift is driven by forces as disparate as an increasingly precarious and resentful workforce (nearly 60 percent of American workers are paid by the hour), a white backlash against the presidency of Barack Obama and a corporate world which rejoices in a new tax plan that richly rewards the rich.

Voters might turn against the Republicans in this year’s midterm elections, but the Democrats, having lost a presidential election they expected to win, have not yet found either a leader or a unified message.

In Europe’s leading state, Germany, the narrow victors in the September federal election — the center-right CDU/CSU — embark this month on talks with the center-left Social Democrats, coalition partners in the previous government. Both parties, with decades of often-distinguished political struggle and governance behind them, do so with reluctance — both fear the growth of new parties, sign of a dealignment from the establishment, winning support from about 40 percent of the electorate.

In Britain, the Conservative government seeks an exit from the EU, while a barely suppressed civil war rages within it. The far-left commands the opposition Labour Party.

In France, all of the established parties have been marginalized in the national assembly by a wave of political neophytes in the newly created En Marche movement — a support group for presently all-powerful French President Emmanuel Macron.

In Italy, elections in early March could see a revived right wing, with a substantial far-right component come to power — as it has in Austria.

Spain’s conservative ruling party is stalemated by a vote in Catalonia for separatist parties.

In central Europe, Poland and Hungary are ruled by authoritarian (and popular) parties, while in Poland’s case, the governing Law and Justice Party is set to be sanctioned by the EU for departing from agreed liberal-democratic norms.

All of this goes on while in China and Russia, Egypt and Turkey, autocrats not subject to public or institutional accountability enjoy popularity and mock democracies.

Less than three decades ago the triumph of liberalism and democratic governance was celebrated as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fell apart. Now the dystopian critiques are the bestsellers — as, from the right, Eric Zemmour’s indictment of contemporary France in Le Suicide Francais, and from the liberal side, Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Liberalism.

Beyond the local phenomena, there are larger forces afflicting the most storied parties.

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