The Straits Times says

Why the political centre must hold

Americans and, earlier, the British people, were not the only ones in a state of disbelief over the unexpected outcomes of democratic processes. Picking the right person to be the most powerful leader in the world was meant to be a deliberative exercise, but it turned out to be more of a mass display of anger. Similarly, choosing the future path (either in or out of Europe) of a once-dominant power should have been based on objective facts and not pent-up emotions.

Is it the majority that is making a flawed decision or is their will being subverted in some way? In America, President-elect Donald Trump was elected by only about a quarter of eligible voters. His supporters do not fit the ideological profile of the American people at large, but the Republicans won because they connected with people in the states that mattered and because large numbers of anti-Trump voters stayed away. Across the Atlantic, those who voted for Brexit do not represent Britons as a whole, but "leave" campaigners were sufficiently organised to win over swing voters and turn the referendum their way.

When a polity is segmented, tilts to the right or the left caused by various factors represent a danger to the centrist ethos of democratic politics. While fringe forces and groups will always exist at either end of the spectrum, the liberal belief is that if the political centre holds, there is a greater chance of serving the rational interests of most citizens most of the time. However, victory by one ideological camp or another can provoke contention rather than compromise, especially when rules are changed by those in power to favour one group or ideological belief.

The anti-centrist vote might make its presence felt in upcoming elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands too. Right-wing European parties, which hope to ride on the anti-elites wave, have turned the European Union into a political bogey to advance their ethnic agenda, masked as a protective nationalism that preserves cultural values. There is also a challenge from the left, seen in the ascendancy of the Syriza governing coalition in Greece and the Podemos alliance in Spain.

Asian democracies are not immune to the dangers of the fraying centre. Here, the main threat is from the politicisation of religious belief which results ultimately in the violent quest for confessional or ethnically pure states. Identity politics of this kind erodes the very basis of civic nationalism on which the modern nation state stands. Asian democracy - young by Western standards - needs all the help it can get to withstand the populist onslaught on moderate norms, like forging a broad coalition that answers the needs and aspirations of voters as a whole. Inclusive societies, mindful of the need to share prosperity widely, remain the best way to avoid polarisation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2016, with the headline 'Why the political centre must hold'. Print Edition | Subscribe