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Rise of Authoritarian Populism

Rise of Authoritarian Populism

World on the Threshold of  World War III

Noted German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller believed that global history moves in cycles. We end up in same situations our predecessors had faced in the past. Nearly a century ago, many developed nations found themselves in clutches of economic depression whereas developing states were left stranded in the seas of gloom. Therefore, Interwar period, i.e. 1919-1939, led to the rise of autocrats and strongmen whose toxic nationalism and sabre rattling pushed the world into another – and more destructive – World War. Excruciating War on Terror and economic recession of 2008-09 left the world again at the mercy of brinksmanship of authoritarian and populist leaders.

In normal sense, authoritarianism and populism are exactly the opposites. Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms whereas populism is a political philosophy that supports the rights and power of the people in their struggle against privileged elites. In an authoritarian system, powers are concentrated among elite whereas populism is a struggle against these privileged groups. So, how in this age of globalization, authoritarianism and populism have been reconciled under the charade of democracy?

Answer to this critical question lies in current liberal democratic world order wherein democracy and free market go hand in hand. Democracy promises political progress while free market economy guarantees economic development. But, this is not the case in current era. Authoritarian regime of China has become the greatest economic powerhouse in stark contrast to the recession-stricken economy of liberal democratic America. Faith in democracy is waning. Democracy is messy and difficult and, hence, must be defended constantly. People don’t want to bother as they seem wishfully pining for a strongman to make everything all better overnight. They think it “rigged” — but instead of working hard to fix it bit by bit, they want to give up and let the big daddy do the job. Instead of entrusting institutions with solving the problems, they run after strong leaders.

The origin of global authoritarian epidemic could not be more interesting. Russia, the beloved land of Stalin, re-elected ruthless, ambitious and jingoist Vladimir Putin though he had dragged Russia in futile wars in Chechnya and Georgia. Wars can be detrimental for a political government; but for the autocrats, they are mobilizing force for authoritarian and populist leaders like Putin as they have emerged from the nations which yearn for their historic despots like Stalin. Even if they could not find war on international front, they can invent it on domestic front as Duterte did in Philippines by fuelling his so-called War on Drugs by following in the footsteps of his autocratic predecessor Ferdinand Marcos who did witch-hunting of his opponents under the guise of War on Communism.

There are different trajectories of this new breed of authoritarian and populist leaders. Some of them started their careers while working with democratic institutions but their leadership style turned authoritarian after long stay in power like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or Sheikh Haseena Wajid of Bangladesh. After exhaustion of their public mandate, these leaders opted for rhetoric and repression against their opponents at home and abroad. They use ethnic and nationalist propaganda to justify their policies. Erdogan is selling his dictatorial presidential system as a countermove to Kurdish insurgency. Sheikh Haseena is also repressing opposition and is fuelling anti-Pakistan sentiment in the country.

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