As Australia prepares for federal elections on May 18, it probably looks to outsiders like an oasis of stability and sanity among Western democracies that have gone haywire. There are no widespread populist revolts, no “yellow vests” or agitators calling for a Brexit-style retreat from the Asia-Pacific. Though Australia does have far-right fringe parties, they have not had anything like the electoral success of their European counterparts. In fact, among countries with more than ten million people, Australia has one of the highest migration rates of any major economy, yet there is hardly any public backlash.
If one accepts that a spike in populism is the defining characteristic of contemporary Western politics, Australia appears to have dodged a bullet. But if we set aside populism, we see that Australia is not an exception after all. The key development across Western democracies in recent years, Australia included, is not that something new has emerged, but that something old has declined.
Back in 2013, Irish political scientist Peter Mair warned that Europe’s postwar party system was unraveling, owing to the decline of traditional center-right and center-left parties. Modern democracy cannot function without political parties, yet, according to Mair, “The age of party democracy has passed.” Though most mainstream parties remain intact, they have shed members and become increasingly “disconnected from the wider society.”
Most of the major mainstream parties began as movements to represent the interests of trade unions, business, or particular religious denominations. But, over time, they have turned away from the public and transformed themselves into highly professionalized operations funded by corporate money and the state. Other than at election time, they have little need for their traditional supporters.
As long as the establishment parties governed reasonably well, this didn’t really matter, and voters had little reason to engage in politics. But then came the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent euro crisis, followed by an immigration crisis in 2015 and Brexit the following year. Suddenly, the slow-burn of party decline became a wildfire. New far-right parties have won parliamentary seats in Germany and Spain for the first time in decades; Italy is governed by a populist coalition, and France by President Emmanuel Macron’s self-made La République En Marche !
These gains have come at the expense of mainstream parties. In Germany’s 2017 election, the Social Democrats (SPD) won 20% of the vote, the party’s worst showing since World War II. In the Dutch elections that year, the venerable Labour Party lost 29 of its 38 parliamentary seats. In the election that brought Macron to office, the candidates of the major parties – the Socialists and the Republicans – did not even make the run-off. In the United Kingdom this month, Tory candidates in local elections won the national equivalent of just 28% of the vote; and Labour, too, went backwards.
Europe’s populist parties have clearly benefited from the decline of the mainstream. But they are merely the inheritors of Europe’s broken politics, not its cause. As the American writer Martin Gurri puts it, “‘Populist’ is a term favored by the elites for politicians who have migrated into, and occupied, the vast space between the public and themselves.”
As for Australia, the two establishment parties, Labor and the Liberals, are suffering the same decline as their European counterparts. While they still have an advantage under the country’s preferential voting system, which guarantees them a strong presence in the lower house of parliament, where governments are formed, Australians are increasingly turning toward smaller parties and independent politicians. In the 2016 election, nearly one-quarter of voters chose a non-major party first.
Australia has already gone through two periods of minority government since 2010. Soon enough, its politics may come to resemble that of many European countries, where no major party can ever form a government on its own. True, unlike Europe, Australia has not suffered an economic crisis that would trigger a rapid major-party slide. Indeed, it hasn’t had a recession in 28 years. And, despite a tortured national debate over the country’s inhumane methods of deterring asylum seekers, it has had no immigration crisis either.
But that could change, at which point Australia might experience its own populist surge. Or the major parties themselves could be the source of volatility. When political parties are in decline, they become less stable and more vulnerable to demands from their fringes. Just ask former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who agreed to hold the Brexit referendum only because he needed to placate Euroskeptics in the Conservative Party.
Similar dynamics are discernible in Australia, where Labor and the Liberals have both undergone years of vicious internal brawling. If Labor wins this election, as seems likely, Australia will have its seventh change of prime minister since 2007, hence the country’s appellation as the “coup capital of the world.” That level of instability suggests that Australia’s major parties are not coping well with their abandonment by the public. What looks like an oasis of stability among Western democracies may turn out to be a mirage.
(Sam Roggeveen is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.)
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