The 9th of September saw regional elections throughout The Russian Federations as well as a general parliamentary election in Sweden. While Russia and Sweden have little in common in terms of the specific political landscape, both countries have experienced decades of de-facto single party rule. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st the left-liberal Social Democratic Party has been an almost constant force in government while the main opposition Moderate party is in reality not all too different from the Social Democrats. Likewise, between 1917 and 1991 Moscow was in the hands of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union while in the 21st century the currently governing United Russia party has been the dominant political force in the State Duma (Russia’s parliament).
Throughout the regional elections in Russia and in the Swedish general election the ruling parties still managed to come out numerically on top. However, in both cases populist and/or anti-centrist forces surged, thus providing a likely indication of future political trends in both nations while also underscoring the declining popularity of political stalwarts.
In Russia, the populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia led by political veteran Vladimir Zhirinovsky did well in several regions and all at the expense of United Russia. In the important Pacific region of Khabarovsk Krai, the LDPR gubernatorial candidate Sergey Furgal was neck-and-neck with the incumbent from United Russia. This will force an all important second round of voting where Furgal will face Governor Vyacheslav Shport.
In the Vladimir region, United Russia incumbent Svetlana Orlova who won a landslide 74% majority in the first round of voting in 2013, will now face a second round of votes against surging LDPR challenger Vladimir Sipyagin. The LDPR also came first in the civic elections in Krasnoyarsk while the party likewise performed unexpectedly well in elections for the city Duma of Surgut. Furthermore, in civic elections in Arkhangelsk, Ryazan, Tyumen the LDPR is now the official opposition while coming within striking distance of the United Russian incumbents. Elsewhere in Russia, the Communist Party made gains at the expense of the incumbent United Russia including in Primorsky Krai region which includes Russia’s de-facto Pacific capital of Vladivostok. Meanwhile in the city of Yakutsk in the Sakha Republic, Sardana Avksentyeva of the left-populist Russian Renaissance party won an outright majority against her United Russia rival.
In Sweden the right-populist Sweden Democrats led by Jimmie Åkesson made significant gains while the incumbent Social Democratic party lost 12 seats while the centrist Moderate party lost 13. This signifies a major swing to the populist right at the expense of both centrists/centre-left elitist parties.
While overall the incumbent party in Russia’s local/regional elections and Sweden’s national election is still the biggest party in each respective nation, both got a bloody nose and for much the same reason. As legacy parties, The Swedish Social Democrats and United Russia have become all too complacent over issues of substantial importance to ordinary people. In Sweden, the open-door policy to aliens has led to a clear backlash against the liberal elite while United Russia’s support for a deeply unpopular rise in the retirement age has led to a surge in support for both the populist/conservative LDPR and the Communists who are both entirely opposed to any increase in the retirement age.
In an age where establishment parties and politicians have been taking a beating in the United States (in the form of Donald Trump), Italy, Austria, Poland and to an extent in Britain, France and The Netherlands and while support for the right-populist government of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban remains solid, it is becoming clear that the old parties of the centre across multiple western democracies are slowly but surely losing their appeal due to a combination of social liberalism going firmly out of fashion throughout the world while neo-liberal economies is being rejected on the basis of being unfit for purpose in the 21st century.
In Asia this trend is equally apparent. The phenomenon of populist parties and leaders clinching major victories in Asia was made abundantly clear when Imran Khan’s PTI claimed a victory in this summer’s elections in Pakistan. This trend was also affirmed when Turkey’s President Erdogan and his AK Party continued to out-perform the legacy CH Party in recent Presidential and parliamentary elections. Likewise, the reemergence of veteran Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad whose new coalition ousted the long ruling United Malays National Organisation showed that the trend towards populism is occurring both in the most vibrant democracies of both Europe and in Asia. The continued popularity of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is yet another example of the Eurasian pivot towards populism.
In 2015, Vladimir Zhirinovsky predicted that by 2024, United Russia will largely be a spent force while even prior to that current President Vladimir Putin will continue to distance himself from the party. Already Zhirinovsky’s prediction appears to have come true as while Putin accepted United Russia’s endorsement in 2018 he ran and won as an independent. Likewise, throughout Europe, the migrant crisis which was largely created and then exacerbated by centrist factions throughout the EU will likely lead to a long term backlash that will favour the populist right whose once disparate national factions have united throughout Europe against the open-door policy made infamous by Angela Merkel.
While the full scope of this gradual shift away from the neo-liberal centre is anything but complete, the democracies of the wider world are clearly pivoting away from legacy parties and towards populist factions and leaders.
While many vested interests in both Asia and Europe are attempting to provoke fear regarding the emergence of new populist forces, the reality is that when people are given a free and fair democratic vote, they are increasingly using this power to hold old elites to account and embrace new parties and new styles of leadership in a sweeping rejection of the status quo which transcends traditional conceptions of left and right.