In countries with contested elections, there are usually two mainstream parties considered as being somewhere in or near the center of the views of the voters in that country. In the last few years, there have been a relatively large number of elections in which a protest movement has either won the election or at least won enough seats such that their support must be obtained in order that a mainstream party govern.
The latest example of this is Alberta in Canada, where the National Democratic Party (NDP), running on a platform reasonably far to the left, surprisingly and unexpectedly ousted from power the Progressive Conservatives, a rightwing party that had governed the province without difficulty for a very long time. What made this all the more surprising was that Alberta has the reputation of being the most conservative province in Canada, and is the base of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, in office since 2006. The NPD even won 14 of 25 seats in Calgary, Harper’s own residence and stronghold.
Alberta is not the only case. The Scottish National Party (SNP) swept elections in Scotland, after a history of being a marginal party. The ultra-rightwing Polish party, the Law and Justice Party, defeated the candidate of what had been considered a conservative pro-business party, the Civic Platform. Syriza in Greece, campaigning on an anti-austerity platform, is now in power and Prime Minister Alexei Tsipras is struggling to achieve its objectives. In Spain, Podemos, another anti-austerity party, is steadily rising in the polls and seems poised to make it difficult or impossible for the governing conservative party, the People’s Party, to remain in power. India is just celebrating the year in power of Narendra Modi, who ran on a platform of ousting Establishment parties and dynasties from power.
These protest elections all have something in common. They all utilized rhetoric in their campaigning that we call populist. This means that they asserted that they were fighting against the country’s elites, who have too much power and ignore the needs of the vast majority of the population. They emphasized the gaps in wealth and well-being between these elites and everyone else. They deplored the decline in the real income of the “middle” strata. They emphasized the need to provide jobs, usually in instances in which there had been a significant increase in unemployment.
In addition, these protest movements always pointed to corruption in the parties in power and they promised to check it, or at least seriously reduce it. And all of this together they packaged as a call for change, real change.
However, we should look more closely at these protests. They are in no way all alike. Indeed, there is a fundamental split among them, which we can notice as soon as we look at the rest of their rhetoric. Some of these protest movements are on the left – the NDP in Alberta, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the SNP in Scotland. And some are clearly on the right – Modi in India, the Law and Justice Party in Poland.
Those on the left focus their criticisms centrally around economic issues. They are class-based in their recruitment and their rhetoric. Those on the right primarily make nationalist assertions, usually with a xenophobic emphasis. Those on the left want to combat unemployment by government policies that would create the jobs, including of course greater taxation of the more wealthy. Those on the right want to combat unemployment by preventing immigration, even expelling immigrants.
Once in power, these protest movements, whether of the left or of the right, find it very difficult to fulfill the populist promises they have made to become elected. Large corporations have major tools with which to limit measures taken against them. They act through this mythical entity called the “market,” aided and abetted by other governments and international institutions. The protest movements find that, if they push too hard, government income is reduced, at least in the short run. But for those who have voted for them, the short run is their measure of continuing approval. The protest movements’ day of glory and power risks being very limited. So they “compromise,” which angers the most militant of their supporters.
One must always remember that the supporters of a change in government are a motley lot. Some are militants seeking extensive change in the world-system and their country’s role in it. Some are merely weary of the traditional mainstream parties, seen as having become tired and non-responsive. Some say that a new group in power couldn’t do anything worse than those previously in power. In short, these protest movements are not an organized army but an unstable floating alliance of many different groups.
There are three conclusions we can draw from this situation. The first is that national governments do not have unlimited power to do what they want. They are extremely constrained by the operation of the world-system as a whole.
The second conclusion is that, nonetheless, they can do something to alleviate the distress of ordinary persons. They can do this precisely by pursuing reallocations of income via taxation and other mechanisms. Such measures will “minimize the pain” of those who are the beneficiaries. The results may only be temporary. But once again I remind you that we all live in the short run and any help we can get in the short run is a plus, not a minus.
The third conclusion is that, if a protest movement is going to be a serious participant in changing the world-system, it must not limit itself to short-run populism but engage in middle-run organization to affect the worldwide struggle in this period of systemic crisis and transition to an alternative world-system, one that has already begun and is ongoing.
It is only when left protest movements learn how to combine short-run measures to “minimize the pain” with middle-run efforts to tilt the bifurcated struggle for a new system that we can have some hope of arriving at the outcome we desire – a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world-system.