Article

The Observer view on the worldwide threat to liberal democracy
Published in Guardian on 2016-11-19T22:00:19+00:00

Democracy is hard work and must not be taken for granted, said Barack Obama during his farewell visit to Europe last week. How right he is. The challenges confronting western democracies as 2016 draws to a ragged close are of a breadth and intensity not seen since the early 1980s, when Leonid Brezhnevs Soviet Union was expanding its nuclear arsenal and suppressing Solidarity in Poland. Today, Russia under Vladimir Putin is again building bombs and meddling in neighbours affairs. But he is not the only or even the biggest problem. Much of the danger to democracy comes from within.

Angela Merkel, Germanys long-serving chancellor, and Obama struggled with this issue during meetings in Berlin that included walk-on parts for the leaders of France, Britain, Italy and Spain. The (Republican) elephant in the room was Donald Trump. Nobody mentioned him by name. But the threat to democratic values and the transatlantic alliance that sustains them implicit in his victory was the subject of a pointed article written by Obama and Merkel, and published in a German weekly.

Related: Obama and Merkel call for continued transatlantic cooperation

So great is the uncertainty about the political direction of travel in the US and Europe that the two leaders went back to basics, stressing their shared commitment to personal freedom and dignity, which only a vibrant democracy under the rule of law can guarantee. This included joint responsibility to protect and preserve our way of life, they wrote. Today we find ourselves at a crossroads the future is upon us and we will never return to a pre-globalisation economy.

Merkel and Obama were evidently talking about a Trumpist agenda that questions the Euro-Atlantic settlement and Natos relevance, mocks climate change, opposes free trade and treats refugees, Muslims and foreigners in general as potential enemies. Their references to pluralism and international law were obvious shots across Putins bows. But their message was also directed at Europe. Their concerns are justified. The fear now is that the populist and nationalist insurrections witnessed in Britain in June and in the US this month may be replicated across Europe in coming months, further shredding the wests liberal democratic moorings.

France is of foremost concern. This weekend saw the start of a primary process to select the centre-rights candidate for two-stage presidential elections next spring. This decision is crucial since the French left is largely discredited. Its leader, Franois Hollande, is a deeply unpopular president. Should Alain Jupp, a former PM, beat rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Franois Fillon for the centre-rights nomination, as polls suggest, it is assumed he will win a second round run-off in May.

It is a dangerous assumption. Conventional wisdom has never been more discredited. Pollsters tread treacherous ground. And Jupp, 71, is very ancien regime. He lost the prime ministership 20 years ago amid a revolt against Jacques Chirac. He was later convicted of criminal abuse of public funds. Last week, Jupp was forced to reject comparisons with the US election. I am not Hillary Clinton. And France is not America, he declared.

Related: Frexit, Nexit or Oexit? Who will be next to leave the EU

His protestations will do nothing to quiet the many voices now suggesting Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-immigration Front National leader and ardent admirer of Trump and Nigel Farage, has a chance to score another populist upset. It is taken for granted that Le Pen, 48, will reach the second round. But for the first time, the idea she could then beat Jupp, or any other centre-right candidate, and win outright is taken seriously. Manuel Valls, Frances prime minister, admitted last week it was entirely possible. It is a dreadful prospect.

France may be part of a trend. If polls are correct, parliamentary elections in the Netherlands in March could see the triumph of Geert Wilders, an anti-Islam extremist who advocates a Dutch exit (Nexit) from the EU. Wilders predicts he will win partly because of Merkels stupidity in opening Europes doors to Syrian refugees. In Italy, the centre-left prime minister, Matteo Renzi, looks set to lose a controversial referendum on constitutional reform, and his job, next month. Pollsters say the no campaign, led by the anti-establishment Five Star movement (M5S), is benefiting from a Trump effect.

Germany has elections, too, next year, which if she stands again, Merkel will be expected to win. But even in Berlin, the electoral balance is shifting in threatening, ugly and intolerant ways as the populist Alternative for Germany and the anti-Islamists of Pegida advance. With Obama no longer around to defend the wests liberal democratic order, Merkel could be the last woman standing.

Article Properties
Controversy
98%
Topicsparty
0.11
white
0.16
brexit
0.19
trump
0.2
war
0.15

Negative Comments

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-0.25
TonyBlunt:
"Their concerns are justified" What's wrong with getting on with Russia?

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martinnangle:
I thought as much. The guardian lists all the failings of the neo liberals...one after another and then proceeds to whine its losses and fear the strong response to that failure. Don't worry little Guardianistas the big strong Deplorables will safeguard democracy. After all it was the defense of democracy that motivated them in the first place.

Sentiment
-0.09
jasperp:
Looks like the current leaders of the "liberal democracies" have boxed themselves into a corner by insisting on doing things their electorates don't want and refusing to do things they do want. As in Animal Farm, I fully expect soon some "progressive" political will suggest the way to stop voters electing people of other persuasions will be for all candidates to be pre-approved by those selfless individuals currently in power and thus save the electorate from making the "wrong" decision.

Sentiment
-0.07
frozenchosen:
The Left has overreached. People are just sick of political correctness, of the assault to freedom of speech on university campuses and in the media, of the cultural marxism, and of the false equivalencies. People are sick of it, and what you are seeing now is that true liberals - traditional liberals, not neo-fascist "progressive" fake liberals - are taking their countries back.

Sentiment
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Simon Gale:
If you want to know why the discredited and useless political elite is in trouble, just read this garbage from Merkel and Obama, who believe that losing a few elections is the end of the world.... And not a word about how we can resurrect the industries that we need in order to deliver proper jobs to our people in the west.

Positive Comments

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0.38
Pyrrhus99:
... the fundamental flaw in democracy, liberal or otherwise, ... ... it that, ipso facto, the average voter has an IQ of 100 ... ... barely enough to tie their shoelaces or catch the right bus ...

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0.38
TheIncredibleHulk:
"insurrections in Britain and the USA shredding the West's liberal democratic moorings" What nonsense. What an insult to Britain's old democracy and the great American democracy derived from it.

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0.33
ButFactsAreSacred:
Most of the commenters disparaging liberal democracy say little about what they would replace it with, but from what they do say it seems pretty clear that it would be sort of dictatorship by them and those who think as they do. To most of us, that would be far, far worse than what it would replace.

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FredUttlescay:
I have never felt so optimistic about our future. Happy days and interesting times ahead.

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0.25
Earl_Grey:
Democracy = the ability to vote for which puppet of the Super Rich screws you, the good looking one or the not so good looking one.

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