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Populism on the ropes as divisions ease

By CHEN YINGQUN | China Daily | Updated: 2022-01-27 09:55

Massive projections on Sustainable Development Goals are seen on the north facade of the Secretariat building, and west facade of the General Assembly building at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the United States, Sept 22, 2015. [Photo/Xinhua]

Health crisis revives trust in authority, hurting maverick leaders, survey finds

Support for populist sentiment has taken a battering around the world over the past two years, with the fortunes of political leaders and parties espousing anti-establishment ideas sliding during a period dominated by the pandemic, a survey has found.

Cambridge University's Bennett Institute for Public Policy on Tuesday published a report based on the survey's findings. The survey involved more than half a million participants across 109 countries. The research team has been monitoring participants' political attitudes since 2020.

On average, populist leaders saw a 10 percentage point drop in their approval ratings from the second quarter of 2020 to the final quarter of 2021. In Europe, the proportion of people intending to vote for a populist party fell by an average of 11 percentage points to 27 percent during the period.

Support for key populist attitudes-such as belief in the "will of the people" or that society is divided between ordinary people and a "corrupt elite"-has declined in almost every country, the report said.

The report said that the simplest but most important factor behind populists losing appeal is their management of the health crisis.

Though some responded early with wide-ranging and far-reaching policies, on average populist leaders acted less, acted later, and saw an excess mortality rate 10 percentage points higher than in countries with non-populist governments.

Support for anti-establishment outsiders has declined as public trust in government and experts have recovered, the report said.

Roberto Foa, the report's lead author, said in a news conference on Tuesday that the story of politics in recent years "has been the emergence of anti-establishment politicians who thrive on the growing distrust of experts".

There is evidence that political polarization has declined. The experience of facing a common crisis has proved to be a unifying event for many people. As divided societies provide fertile ground for populists to flourish, it is more difficult for such politicians to mobilize support when intergroup resentments have attenuated, the report said.

The pandemic has reduced the economic divide. "Left behind "regions such as the US Midwest, northern England, and southern Italy show the largest declines in support for populist attitudes between 2019 and 2021, and this may reflect differences in regional economic performance during the pandemic, the report said.

Big declines in faith

Despite the findings, Foa said that during the pandemic there have been big declines in faith in liberal democracy in some countries, especially in nations with large elderly populations particularly vulnerable to the virus. In the United States, the number of participants who considered democracy a bad way to run their country more than doubled from 10.5 percent in 2019 to 25.8 percent in 2021.

The research team found that globally, many individuals instead favored technocratic sources of authority, such as allowing experts to make policy decisions. By the summer of 2020, the belief that experts should be allowed to make decisions "according to what they think best for the country" had risen 14 points to 62 percent in Europe and by 8 points to 57 percent in the US.

Cao Guangzhang, associate professor at the Institute of Contemporary China Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that a democratic system has to be able to deliver political stability and social progress, improve people's lives and contribute to advancing the progressive cause of humanity.

Depending on the governments' failure to cope with the pandemic, the sluggish economy, and the high rate of unemployment in countries, it is natural that people will have doubts about the democratic system and have more faith in experts, he said.

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