Pondering populism: Security Forum panel engages global issues

- November 27, 2019

Some of the participants at the Populism Peaked panel. Left to right: Tolu Ogunlesi, Emily Lau, Robin Shepherd. (Halifax International Security Forum photos)
Some of the participants at the Populism Peaked panel. Left to right: Tolu Ogunlesi, Emily Lau, Robin Shepherd. (Halifax International Security Forum photos)

Each year, hundreds of international dignitaries, foreign policy officials and military advisors make their way to Halifax for the Halifax International Security Forum (HISF).

The public panel event hosted at Dalhousie Thursday night (Nov. 21) ahead of the forum’s official agenda didn’t focus on simply a narrow, military-focused definition of security. Instead, it was a sprawling, urgent conversation about the state of global democracy in 2019 and the perils represented by rising global populism.

“It is generally used in the name of ‘we, the pure people’,” said panelist Janice Stein of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, offering a definition of the term.

“[They are] revolting against ‘corrupt’ elites: they can be financial elites, they can be political elites, institutional elites, who have rigged the system against ‘we the people.’ One of ways that I know I’m in the presence of a populist leader is when he or she uses that language in opposition to the existing institutional structure.”

If that story sounds familiar, it reflects the degree to which this populist thought has intersected with authoritarianism impulses to pose challenges to Western-style liberal democracy around the world. Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report for 2018 noted that of the 41 countries it ranked as consistently “free” from 1985 to 2005, 22 have registered a net decline in freedom over the past five years.

“The wave of hope and optimism following post-Cold War democratization across Europe is now, I would argue, being replaced by a sweeping global sense of despair for the future of democratic governance — despair in light of the rise of the illiberal populism and authoritarian rule,” said Frank Harvey, dean of Dal’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, in his opening remarks.

Global perspectives

The panel, titled “Populism Peaked” was co-hosted by Dalhousie’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Saint Mary’s Faculty of Arts, and chaired by journalist, think-tank analyst and HISF Vice-President Robin Shepherd. Its participants offered the crowd of 200-plus gathered in the Student Union Building’s McInnes Room perspective on democracy and populism from three different international perspectives.

Video: Watch the full panel

German Parliamentarian Roderich Kiesewetter, special representative for foreign affairs of the governing CDU/CSU group, spoke of how the rise of the Alternative for Germany party took place against the backdrop of refugee migration.

“Until 2015, populism was not very popular in Germany,” he said. “Populism was a word which we apprehended for other countries, not for Germany. When the migration peaked in 2015, the Alternative for Germany — a small party at the time — changed its attitude; they were very Euro-skeptic, but then they were against migration. They succeeded, especially in Eastern Germany — the number of migrants in that area is less than 1% of the population, but [the Alternative for Germany] gained about 30-35% in domestic elections.”

In contrast, the sort of democracy Tolu Ogunlesi spoke about in his home country of Nigeria is so young — roughly 20 years of unbroken democratic elections — that he feels the sort of ideological divides that shape Western populism haven’t really taken hold; he feels the two major parties are largely indistinguishable. That said, he sees familiar echoes in the more chaotic elements of populism.

“It’s very interesting to watch the west kind of come to terms with something that’s typically been associated with Africa,” said Ogunlesi, special assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria on Digital and New Media and head of the Presidency Office of Digital Engagement (PODE). “To see that struggle, how did we get here? There’s almost the temptation to say, ‘Welcome to our world.’”

From Hong Kong to Ontario

Meanwhile, Emily Lau offered a window into one of democracy’s most urgent battlegrounds at the moment: the streets of Hong Kong, where concern about a new extradition bill proposed by China resulted in frequent protests for much of the year.

“We enjoy many of the trappings of democracy like freedom, personal safety, rule of law, independence of the judiciary,” said Lau, a politician in Hong Kong who champions press freedom and human rights. “We enjoy these things, in fact, much more than countries with periodic elections. Now, because of the extradition bill protest, everything is at stake, and people get more and more worried because of the police brutality and the Chinese government’s tough stance that whatever we had after the last 20-30 years is at risk…

“We want the world to watch and to be our friends and tell China to exercise restraint.”

Through the panel discussion and the engaging Q&A that followed, the speakers discussed global trends, local interests and their own take on being optimistic or pessimistic about democracy’s future. That question, noted Dr. Stein, is actually a pointed one: she says democracy breaks down when people lose optimism and feel like they have nothing to lose.

“We have a populist premier in Ontario right now… the people who voted for him were pessimistic and felt they had very little to lose. That’s why they voted for him. So I think the agenda forward is making sure people feel that they have a stake in the future, and that’s fair, that it’s more than equal, and that they have something to lose if they disrupt the system.”


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