“Bucking fears that the Netherlands would be the next populist domino after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, the Dutch turned out in record numbers on Wednesday to reject the anti-Muslim platform of the far-right candidate Geert Wilders. The Dutch election was seen as a potential bellwether for elections in France and Germany, where far-right populist parties have gained ground. But it is premature to assume the Dutch result signals the defeat of far-right populism in Europe.”
We have forgotten the legacy of the generation who lived through Nazism, Fascism, WW2 and the Shoah, and who bestowed upon us our human rights doctrine, standards and institutions. The main lesson is that majorities can be deadly wrong and that we need to establish checks and balances to prevent majorities abusing their power. Contemporary democracies are now complex architectures resting on three pillars of equal value: political representation, human rights guarantees and the Rule of Law (i.e. access to justice for anyone whose rights are trampled). No democracy is complete without one of such pillars. Judicial limits to the power of elected representatives is essential. We need to learn this lesson again, and it will not be painless.
I fear that we shall have to endure a series of populist governments, in order to realise the inanity and danger of populist policies.
The post-war construction of human rights standards and independent human rights institutions, whose mission is to limit the power of majorities to oppress individuals or minorities, is what populist politicians are mostly after: we hear them constantly railing against “unelected judges” and dismiss contrary reports by trusted institutions.
Fortunately, in many liberal democracies, I see the post-war institutions – especially courts and tribunals, but also human rights commissions, ombudspersons, equality commissioners, public prosecutors… – resisting tooth and nail, as is the case at present in the US, and as was the case during the Harper years in Canada. For sure, this may not be the case in Hungary or Poland at present, and the physical and psychological damage inflicted to individuals and communities by government’s discourse and actions will cast a long shadow, despite the resistance of many institutions.
I’m however encouraged by the news forms of mobilisation that this populism in power creates. As long as populist solutions remain untested, populist politicians can criticise whatever centrist governments, left and right, are trying to do and promise a rosy future and other fantasies. If and when they come to power, the veneer of legitimacy and coherence disappears very quickly. Opposition to populism mobilises around a newly found sense of purpose and structures itself against the new common adversary, launching long haul jurisdictional and political battles. Anger changes sides. Hope as well.
This may be what the Dutch electorate felt, when watching the turmoil of post-Brexit-vote UK and Trump’s America.
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