Assessing Elections in Poland and Argentina in the Context of Populism and Liberalism in Europe and South America I (liberalism in the classical sense of course).

Election results I’ve seen today from weekend elections in Argentina and Poland and the more general thoughts they have inspired. Rather longer than I anticipated so posted in two parts, though not separated in time given that I am articulating immediate reactions.

The Polish parliamentary election has been bad news for those who share the perspective of Notes on Liberty in that Law and Justice, a social-national-religious sort of conservative party with strongly statist and populist inclinations, has taken over from the more open market/open society inclined Civic Platform. However, a new party, Modern (strictly speaking ‘.Modern’, but I’ll ignore that in the future as too likely to be mistaken for a typo, it is at least worth noting as suggesting a technocratic commitment to a digital age, reminiscent of the development of the e-state in post-Communist Estonia) which leans towards liberty in economic and social spheres, in comparison with most of Civic Platform and even more in comparison with Law and Justice, has entered the National Assembly, compensating for some of the votes lost by Civic Platform to the populist right.

We might at least hope that the next election in Poland produces a coalition government between Modern and Civic Platform, and hope that Law and Justice does not do too much harm during the coming years in which it will control the government and the (non-executive) presidency on its own.

The Polish political party structure has been confusingly variable since the end of Communism, with names of politicians reappearing from now extinct parties in new parties gathering a different if overlapping spectrum, and with different international partners. Modern’s leader, Ryszard Petru, is at least connected with the early phase of post-Communist politics as a disciple of Leszek Balcerowicz, who played a leading role in the transition to market capitalism and the earlier phase of liberal-centrist politics. Both Petru and Balcerowicz are ‘Europeanist’ in the sense of taking a positive attitude to the European Union, which is also the outlook of Civic Platform. Balcerowicz is even director of the College of Europe, a postgraduate institution in Bruges, Belgium, which educates many of those working in European institutions and in their general atmosphere.

This illustrates a major claim I put forward here about European politics, that is of a drift of market liberals, classical liberals and libertarians towards advocacy of the European Union, and an increasing tendency of the ‘Eurosceptic‘ right, even those with some libertarian-conservative history, to be caught up with hardcore populists even if some of the Eurosceptic right has pro-liberty inclinations. That part of the European right has always been more libertarian-conservative than libertarian-cosmopolitan.

The leading ideologue of libertarian-conservative Eurosceptics in Britain, Conservative Party Member of the European Parliament, Dan Hannan is very touchy about suggestions of backward looking nationalism and chauvinism, emphasising a cosmopolitan family background. However, despite these protestations, Hannan is a great believer in the superiority of British (and Anglosphere) ways, and in addition has always been for ‘democratic controls on immigration’, i.e. populist limitations on the market in labour and individual rights to mobility. The second leading British ideologue in that spectrum, and previously a close associate of Hannan, Douglas Carswell has joined the the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has unmistakably populist inclinations in economic and social policy beyond restrictions on immigration. Hannan prefers to praise UKIP as ‘patriots’ rather than confront this.

Hannan engineered the formation of a eurosceptic right group in the European Parliament after David Cameron was persuaded that leaving the main centre-right group (European People’s Party) was a necessary price for keeping Tory Eurosceptics acquiescent with his leadership. Hannan’s European Conservative and Reformists Group does not include Modern or Civic Platform, but it does include Law and Justice, which gives a good idea of what part of the European political spectrum it appeals to, i.e. not those inclined to social and cosmopolitan liberty. Most disturbingly associate members include the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, i.e. the AKP of Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan associated with corruption, police brutality, politicisation of the judiciary, social media blocks, attacks on the media and all free speech, along with the demonisation of anyone not part of the more conservative parts of majority Turkish culture.

The idea that liberty can be combined with Eurosceptic discourse is declining, though it has been influential in some libertarian circles, particularly in the UK and Slovakia to be the best of my knowledge. There has been a recovery of pro-EU views (if highly qualified by the wish for reform) amongst the Greek liberty community, even after the recent Euro currency disasters. The Slovak eurosceptic libertarians seem to have collapsed. The Czech hero of European right wingers of that tendency, Vacláv Klaus, has turned out to be a harsh social conservative and Putin fellow traveler of a type obnoxious to the anyone of genuinely pro-liberty tendencies, leading to his exclusion from polite libertarian circles as seen in the loss of his Cato fellowship. A warning there surely about the perils of regarding the sovereigntist eurosceptic right as natural allies of liberty. Personally I believe the same applies to the Republican right in the US. That is of course another story, but just look at Donald Trump’s ascendancy and think about that. The German Free Democrats are making a come back after a period it seemed they might lose the most economically free market part of the electorate to AfD.

Small indications in some cases, but it all adds up to an overall and increasingly dominant picture (though course with exceptions) in which consistently pro-liberty forces support the European Union, which is very much the case in Turkey, even if desiring considerable reform. The strengthening of the populist right (Northern League in Italy, National Front in France, Swedish Democrats, Golden Dawn in Greece, Freedom Party in the Netherlands etc as well as those already mentioned) together with a populist-socialist surge has pushed those engaged with a consistent politics of individual rights and cosmopolitan openness towards a pro-EU centre.

The left populist surge has already receded in Greece where Syriza is in transition to standard social democracy while still using a more radical rhetoric, but has some energy elsewhere in Europe: Podemos in Spain, two left of social democracy parties in Portugal, Sinn Fein in Ireland, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in Britain. The left populist surge is less strong than its right wing equivalent and despite what the socialist intelligentsia in the UK believe the socialist surge within the Labour Party does not reflect a broader shift in British public opinion. Anyway, we are in a period where pro-liberty forces are coalescing with centrist forces in defence of a continuing EU of some kind, with some limitations on national sovereignty, not completely closed to refugees, not in thrall to an enclosed defensive traditionalist, legacy Christian identity politics.

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