By Arab News
By Hafed Al-Ghwell*
For the past few years, the world has been on edge. This tension has the usual hallmarks —war, terrorism, infectious diseases spreading, a sluggish global economy and a climate gone undeniably awry. Protesters pour on to the streets seeking answers, while governments deny, deflect and make liberal use of tear gas and water cannon.
Another source of tension is the rapid right of the far right, especially — and worryingly — in stable, wealthy Western democracies. At its heart were frustrations about dimming prospects, scapegoating immigrants, an unusual fascination with identity politics and the obsession with extreme conservatism as the answer to society’s ills.
In Europe, far-right ideologues profess their Euroskepticism, decry the surge in immigrant arrivals and bemoan liberalism. In the Americas, that ire also stems from a fear that multi-nation solutions and their resultant influence on domestic policies threaten national sovereignty.
Regardless of the hyperbole and questionable veracity of these claims, it was enough to propel several fringe politicians to the forefront. In the UK, it resulted in Brexit, and the rise of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. In the US it produced Trumpism. In France and Italy, the far right won elections and claimed seats in legislatures at home and in Brussels, where they form the fifth-largest political grouping with far-right MEPs from seven other European nations.
Australia is awash in far-right groups with varying agendas peddling white nationalist extremist views and Islamophobia, fueling anti-immigrant sentiment and vigilantism. Some have platforms that influenced the Christchurch mosque shootings. In Canada’s muted politics, white nationalists preferred Conservative Andrew Scheer’s bid for the premiership against Justin Trudeau’s liberalism.
Much of the far right’s appeal stems from the frustration of the forgotten, exasperation at the bureaucracy, boredom with policy minutiae, disappointment at broken promises and despair at rising inequality. It is these emotions that drive citizens to the polls in favor of fringe elements with checkered pasts and little political experience, who provide evidence of the truth of the aphorism that “those who must want to rule are, ipso facto, those least suited to do so.”
However, a nation’s stability is predicated on the permanence of its foundations and its resistance to change. As a result, far-right politicians are effectively doomed to deliver promises of greater insularity and conservatism. And pursuing these goals will hamper economic growth, damage trade relations and lead to an exodus of employers, confidence and trust — creating more problems than they hoped to solve.
Ultimately, the staying power of far-right ideology is dependent on crafting solutions that answer the frustrations of its supporters without alienating the other side of the political spectrum that still has broad support. The resulting dilemma creates a situation in which the far right is able to win elections but, once in power, established precedent becomes an insurmountable wall to achieving nationalist ideals promised to a frustrated and desperate electorate. In the end, emotion may win at the polls or drive political discourse, but it cannot govern.
In Canada, Andrew Scheer’s play for the premiership failed after Conservatives failed to win a plurality of seats in densely populated urban areas, despite winning the majority of votes. The Christchurch mosque shootings have placed many Australian and New Zealand’s far-right groups on domestic terror watch lists by security officials. In the US scandals and an impeachment process have turned Trump into a sitting duck. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is faced with a December snap election that could wrest control of government from conservatives and markedly shift Brexit dynamics. Germany’s far-right AfD expanded its support in recent elections but most other parties have ruled out cooperating with it. A far-right coalition that gained control of Italy’s government crumbled after 14 months. Even in the EU parliament, despite an unprecedented number of far-right, anti-EU MEPs, most of them failed to fill any influential or leadership roles.
It all follows the familiar refrain of surging populism leading to an unusual assortment of politicians thrust on the national or international stage, hoping to effect change. But after a few months, the enthusiasm and fascination wanes, coalitions fall apart and election losses mount. In the end, the far right’s desire to change the world seems to result only in the established order recognizing it as a threat and thus in need of isolation and eradication.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell