Critical elections: Which way for democratic nations: right or left, green movements, populism, authoritarianism?

United States: Polarisation continues to intensify

Predictions that political polarisation would taper off with the electoral losses of President Donald Trump and his Republican Party (GOP) and drawing down of COVID-19 restrictions have proven overly optimistic. Despite its losses in 2020, the GOP is even more firmly under the control of the former president and his allies, with the rejection of the 2020 presidential results a litmus test.

This has shaken faith in the conduct of the upcoming 2022 and 2024 elections. Lingering economic malaise and COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy have also limited recovery from the pandemic, lowering public expectations for progress and entrenching anti-vaccination sentiments within a vocal public minority.

Absent commitment to long-term changes in how elections are administered and the successful amelioration of the pandemic, this increasing trend of refusing to accept the legitimacy of electoral losses and seek procedural tricks around them, will remain an issue for the near- and medium-terms.

France: Will the next French president be a far-right polemicist?

The long-anticipated rematch between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen for the French presidency in 2022 is no longer a sure thing. Far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour is polling neck and neck with Le Pen for second place in the presidential polls; only the top two candidates can advance to the final runoff round.

Zemmour has overtaken Le Pen on her traditional campaign themes: Euroscepticism, protectionism, internal security and opposition to Muslim immigration; even if Zemmour does not run, he has pushed the debate over these issues even further to the right. Zemmour has no past political record to run against, unlike Le Pen, but he may be hobbled by his extreme views on social issues such as marriage and LGBT rights.

The difficulties of the liberal-conservative Republican party to regroup around a single candidate and position itself as a counter to Macron’s centre-right En Marche party, Le Pen’s National Front or the unaffiliated Zemmour and the dwindling presence of left-wing parties like La France Insoumise mean that the election will largely be a contest among Le Pen and Zemmour to win over dissatisfied segments of the electorate whose views range from the extreme anti-government right to the libertarian anti-lockdown left.

While taxes and unemployment remain low, damage caused by the recent surge in energy prices has reignited the debate on purchasing power – a principal concern of French voters – and is likely to weaken Macron, who remains perceived as the ‘President of the Rich”. So long as economic conditions continue to improve coming out of the pandemic, though, the primary focus for candidates on the right will be on immigration, counter-terrorism and the question of “Islamic separatism,” which the government has sought to address by imposing greater controls over the Islamic religious establishment. In this context, a significant resumption of public health restrictions or new Islamist terrorist attacks could cost Macron his base of support and fire up the far-wing opposition.

Brazil: Increasing polarisation ahead of October 2022 elections

The polarisation of Brazilian society is likely to increase ahead of the October 2022 general election, with rival mass demonstrations likely in urban hubs across the country. Incumbent far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is facing an uphill battle for re-election. Rising unemployment rates, allegations of corruption and downplaying of environmental issues as well as his authoritarian and anti-democratic rhetoric are also eroding his support base.

President Bolsonaro has repeatedly hit disapproval ratings of over 50 percent over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, former two-time president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 75, whose corruption conviction was annulled in November 2019 on a legal technicality, is likely to become the main opponent to Bolsonaro. Other candidates from centre-right and centre-left parties are unlikely to gain a critical mass to overcome either of the two frontrunners.

Three of Bolsonaro’s predecessors faced investigations after leaving the presidency and his fate is unlikely to be different if he loses the election. Bolsonaro has adjusted his fiscal policies to accommodate a social welfare programme, Auxílio Brasil, to counter Lula’s Bolsa Família, but even more concerningly, has claimed without evidence widespread fraud in advance of the vote and declared he will not concede if he loses. Although Bolsonaro commands strong ties with the military, unrest by Bolsonaro’s base of well-organised supporters poses a greater threat than a potential military-supported coup, as the armed forces have sought to distance themselves from his pandemic policy.

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