Trump victory part of global populist trend

From S. America to S-E Asia, surge varies in causes but has similar outlines across borders

LONDON • Not long before Americans shocked the world by selecting Mr Donald Trump to be their next president, a wealthy Brazilian businessman who played a reality- star boss on television became mayor of South America's largest city.

On the other side of the globe, in South-east Asia, a gun-slinging vigilante who vowed to kill all criminals and dump their bodies until the "fish will grow fat" was elected to lead a nation of 100 million.

And in Britain, voters with a centuries-long streak of moderation and pragmatism opted to ignore the overwhelming advice of experts by leaping into the abyss of life outside the European Union.

The populist wave that carried Mr Trump to the pinnacle of international power and influence did not start in the United States. And it certainly will not end there.

Instead, the biggest prize yet for a global movement built on a seemingly bottomless reserve of political, economic and cultural grievances is likely to be an accelerant to even more victories for people and causes bent on upending the existing world order.

"Success breeds success," said Mr Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Right now, everyone is susceptible to it. The drivers seem universal."


Success breeds success... Right now, everyone is susceptible to it. The drivers seem universal.

MR MARK LEONARD, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, on the populist wave around the world.

And unless something dramatic changes to curb the populist appeal, a scattering of surprise victories this year could soon turn into a worldwide rout - the triumph of those who preach strong action over rule of law, unilateralism instead of cooperation and the interests of the majority above the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

"Their world is collapsing," tweeted a jubilant Mr Florian Philippot, adviser to France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen, after Mr Trump's victory. "Ours is being built."

With French presidential elections due next year, Ms Le Pen is well placed to add Paris to the list of world capitals that have fallen to the populist tide. Well before France votes, Austria could become the first country to elect a far-right head of state in Western Europe since 1945 when it picks a president on Dec 4.

On the same day, Italians will vote in a constitutional referendum that could bring down the centre- left government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi - while boosting the fortunes of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement.

Unless something dramatic changes to curb the populist appeal, a scattering of surprise victories this year could soon turn into a worldwide rout - the triumph of those who preach strong action over rule of law, unilateralism instead of cooperation and the interests of the majority above the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. 

Although the exact causes of the populist surge vary from country to country, the broad outlines are similar across national boundaries.

Anxiety over economic gains that accrue to the few and leave the rest stagnant or sinking. Unease with the cultural implications of an increasingly interconnected world. And alienation from a self-serving political class that aligns with the wealthy at the expense of the working class.

That the populist leaders are often wealthy sons of privilege with little relation to the masses they claim to speak for does not matter. "People feel they need a powerful champion to blow the establishment to smithereens," Mr Leonard said.

That was certainly the case with Mr Trump, an Ivy League-educated billionaire urbanite who won biggest in rural areas and among less- educated voters.

It was true as well when Britain voted to get out of the EU. The voters were predominantly from England's small towns and struggling, post-industrial cities - well outside booming, cosmopolitan London. Voters who wanted to jettison the Brussels bureaucracy ranked immigration on top of their list of concerns and tended to be less educated than those who wanted to stay in the EU.

Mr Nigel Farage, long-time leader of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party, later became Mr Trump's most outspoken overseas backer - urging the New York businessman to follow the Brexit model to victory. Mr Trump did just that, promising "Brexit times five" - and delivering.

These kinds of shocks are a new feature of the post-World War II order in the democracies that ring the North Atlantic. They are more familiar in the developing world.

In May, Filipinos elected Mr Rodrigo Duterte as their president. He vowed to rid the nation of crime with a vividly apocalyptic vision that involved eliminating "all" suspected criminals. Thousands of people identified as drug dealers and users have since been killed.

He said he would challenge Manila's political class, end politics-as- usual and protect the poor. That vision resonated with Filipinos who were fed up with the crass corruption of the country's feudalistic ruling families and outraged by ineffectual police and courts.

Anti-establishment political upheaval has also been a prominent feature of Brazilian politics - most dramatically in the controversial August impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff, whose Workers' Party had run Brazil for 13 years before her ouster.

Stained by accusations over corruption and its economic mismanagement, the party took a hammering in last month's municipal elections. Unconventional politicians were in many cases the beneficiaries. In Sao Paulo, Mr Joao Doria, a millionaire businessman campaigning as a non-politician, won. Cementing the comparisons with Mr Trump, Mr Doria had starred in Brazil's version of reality TV show The Apprentice.

Professor Oscar Vidarte, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, said Mr Trump resembles a classic Latin American type of populist, the caudillo, a Spanish term that translates roughly to "strongman" or a leader with authoritarian tendencies.

Although outsiders continue to be elected in Latin America, long- time strongmen have struggled.

If anything, there is now a backlash against them. Argentina last year voted for an end to a decade of governance by Nestor and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. A referendum in Bolivia blocked the re-election of President Evo Morales and Venezuela's "Chavismo" movement, after 17 years in power, appears to be on its last legs.

Indeed, the most effective way to defeat the populist wave, said Mr Leonard, is often to let it govern. "They don't do very well," he said.

The most extreme example, of course, is Germany, where the election of a charismatic populist proved catastrophic for the world. Because of the nation's Nazi history, its post- war political system has been designed to defend minority rights and prevent a majoritarian takeover.

But terrorist attacks by Islamist radicals and a record wave of Middle Eastern migrants are now testing the national will.

The Alternative for Germany party, founded in 2013, has galvanised the anti-Islam ranks. With national elections next year, the party is now supported by nearly one in 6 voters. Professor Jurgen Falter, a political scientist and expert on the far-right, described the party's leadership as "not real neo-Nazis, but rather close".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Trump victory part of global populist trend'. Subscribe