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WORLD

A Year of Elections in Democracies around the World is Revealing Deep Dissatisfaction among Voters

LONDON – In a community center in East London, about 20 men gathered for their regular lunch meeting, sipping coffee and tea from mismatched mugs and engaging in an increasingly popular pastime in the world’s democracies: Complaining about their government.

They feel estranged from the country’s leadership — its wealthy prime minister and their members of parliament.

“It feels like you are second-class people. Our MPs don’t represent us people. Political leaders don’t understand what we go through,” said Barrie Stradling, 65. “Do they listen to people? I don’t think they do.’’

In a coffee shop in Jakarta, Ni Wayan Suryatini, 46, bemoaned the results of the recent election, in which the son of Indonesia’s former president ascended to the country’s vice presidency and the opposition parties seemed to do little to stop him.

“It is difficult to trust them since they only want to reach their goals. As long as they achieve their goals, they will forget everything else,” Suryatini said of politicians.

And inside her cheerfully cluttered craft shop in Greeley, Colorado, Sally Otto, 58, contemplated with dread the upcoming U.S. presidential election between President Joe Biden and the man he defeated in 2020, former President Donald Trump: “I feel like we’re back where we were, with the same two poor choices,” Otto said.

As half the world’s population votes in elections this year, voters are in a foul mood. From South Korea to Argentina, incumbents have been ousted in election after election. In Latin America alone, leaders and their parties had lost 20 elections in a row until this past weekend’s presidential election in Mexico, according to a tally by Steven Levitsky, a Harvard professor of government.

The dynamic is likely to repeat itself as the European Union launches its legislative elections this week, where conservative populist parties are expected to register gains. EU parliamentary elections are usually an opportunity for voters in individual countries to vent their frustrations because the candidates they elect will have power in Brussels rather than their own national capitals.

“In many ways we’ve never had it so good, objectively speaking, and yet people are so unsatisfied,” said Matthias Matthijs, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

The reasons for the dissatisfaction are many, from social media’s ability to magnify problems to the painful recovery from the coronavirus pandemic to the backlash toward economic and cultural changes sparked by globalization.

Though in places like Europe the populist right has notched several gains, there is little ideological consistency globally to the unhappiness. In a recent Pew poll across 24 democracies, a median of 74% of respondents said they didn’t think politicians cared what people like them think, and 42% said no political party represented their viewpoint.

“It’s about economics and culture, but it’s also about the functioning of politics itself,” said Richard Wike, managing director of Pew’s Global Attitudes Research. “It can lead to a situation where politics is seen as a zero-sum game. People see more of an existential threat from the other side, and that makes people unhappy about democracy.”

Experts say there is one notable exception to the trend of global anger with elected leaders — places where the leaders are anti-establishment, populist strongmen.

“Antisystem outsider, populist figures are winning more than in the past,” Levitsky said. “Whether they constitute any movement is unclear to me.”

In Mexico, leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is termed out but broke the streak of losses for Latin American leaders’ parties as his hand-picked successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, won Sunday’s presidential election. In Argentina, newly elected president Javier Milei, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist” dubbed “the madman” by admirers, remains popular despite the country’s crippling economic problems that have persisted following his austerity and deregulation reforms.

“I was never interested in politics because nothing ever changed,” said Sebastian Sproviero, a 37-year-old engineer at a Buenos Aires concert that featured Milei belting out rock anthems. “Now it has.”

In India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for eroding the world’s most populous democracy, the Pew poll found the country had the highest support among all surveyed countries for a more authoritarian form of government, with two-thirds of respondents there backing a strong leader system.

Still, even some of the more authoritarian governments such as Modi’s have had to deal with dissatisfaction with the status quo. Modi appears to have won his third term as India’s prime minister in national elections that wrapped up Tuesday, but his conservative Hindu nationalist party had an underwhelming showing and will likely need to join a coalition to form a government.

The global anti-incumbent mood, coupled with the success of anti-establishment populists, comes amid warning signs for democracy. Pew found democracy’s appeal slipping even as it remained the preferred system of government around the world. Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes democracy, said its “Freedom Index” measuring democratic health globally has declined for 18 straight years.

Adrian Shahbaz, a vice president at Freedom House, attributed the erosion of support to a series of crises since the turn of the century, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S., the 2008-09 global recession and the coronavirus pandemic. Adding to the stress, he said, is the increasing focus on identity issues such as transgender policies and immigration in democratic politics, especially in Europe and the U.S.

“The key cleavages in democracies tend to be around identity issues rather than economic ones,” Shahbaz said. “That in itself can be very risky because democracy depends on a civil identity that goes beyond tribal identifications.”

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