After a Mediocre Deal, COP27 Needs a Dose of Democracy
It was a sign of the times that just as the COP27 delegates began to fill the air-conditioned tents on the Sinai desert coast, concerns arose that the Egyptian host government could use the conference app to spy on attendees. Fear over authoritarianism had made its mark on what was meant to be an open forum for 200 countries negotiating commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Many delegates were uneasy about Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s regime, with its record on human rights abuses and jailing opponents, holding COP27 in the first place. But no one seemed in the mood to exclude countries from COP27 (perhaps with Russia as the exception). If you boycott Egypt, then the question arises, why not exclude one of the world’s biggest emitters, China? That would essentially stall global climate talks. The issue went to the heart of the climate change crisis and the role of democracy. If governments are going to be one of the motors for climate change solutions, how do you fit in the fact that many of them spy on and jail their own citizens? Should democracies be bothered at all with pressing for civil rights in the great power politics of climate negotiations? Should the values of democracy play second fiddle to solutions to the climate crisis, or are democratic values key to the solutions to the climate crisis? In this regard, COP27 could seem like Alice in Wonderland, a topsy turvy world upending conventional common sense. It was indeed Egypt that criticized wealthy nations for ‘backsliding’—but not in terms of International IDEA’s own Global State of Democracy indices. Rather Egypt accused the West of backsliding on promises to provide the billions of dollars needed for poorer nations to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Egypt’s view was echoed by many nations from the Global South. Talk of democracy is empty, they argued, if the basic human rights of the world’s population—the right to the likes of clean water and livable temperatures—are not met. In the eyes of many activists at COP27, the democratic and wealthy West was indeed ‘backsliding’. As some had predicted, initial concerns about Egypt’s human rights were eventually overshadowed by the last-minute drama in the final, second week of the Summit, when countries agreed to a ‘loss and damages’ fund to pay for climate-related damage to developing nations , but backed down on greater cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions and an end to fossil fuel use. Essentially, as Mexico's chief climate negotiator Camila Zepeda admitted, governments may have sacrificed any meaningful progress on cutting carbon emissions to win an agreement on financial help to poor nations. Financial help for poor nations is laudable, but as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, ‘it's not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map- or turns an entire African country to desert.’ The COP27 Summit showed that, rather than any sense of democratic nations uniting at COP27, the real battle lines drawn were increasingly between poorer countries and richer ones, between international business-as-usual relations and the recognition of human rights for poorer nations. Aside from the accord over the ‘loss and damage’, another sign of this trend was the South Pacific Island of Vanuatu’s proposed petition to the world’s top court—the UN’s International Court of Justice—to take a stance on protecting people from climate change. It gained support from nearly half of COP27 countries. A final court ruling could give a non-binding judgement over financial obligations countries have on climate change and define it as a human rights issue. The Vanuatu proposal was, thanks to lobbying from group of Pacific Island law students, a sign of how open democratic processes can introduce innovative, bottom-up policy. The energy that came with the announcement—in a packed auditorium of cheering delegates—contrasted with the dreary plenary, where most of the time world leaders gave drab speeches, if anything playing up to their domestic audiences rather than anyone in the room. Indeed, taking a packed bus to the conference center every morning was a microcosm of this wider energy of civil society. One morning, I sat by a Scottish engineer chatting to a Fiji delegate about sea level rises in Malaysia. Two Zimbabwean delegates joined in the conversation, while a Bhutanese woman stood nearby. Quickly the bus became an open, fresh discussion on climate policy. It showed that if democratic values were on hand at this UN Summit, it was with civil society, from IT entrepreneurs to Indigenous groups. If democratic governments are to remain relevant in climate-change policy, the official suited delegates should take heed from the likes of Vanuatu’s students.
Explainer: Populism - Left and Right, Progressive and Regressive
For many observers of politics in Europe and the Americas in 2022, the combination of words that forms “right-wing populist” trips easily off the tongue. Right-wing populist politicians, such as Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán, or Donald Trump, are frequently named as such in the press. But populism is an approach to politics—not a singular and comprehensive theory of governance. It is, in fact, a tactic that has long been used around the world, at least since the nineteenth century, to gain and maintain power. What is populism? It is difficult to definitively characterize populism, but one helpful definition describes it as “reflecting a deep suspicion of the prevailing establishment, which is believed to conspire against the people instead of working in their interests.” Populists believe that the people, however defined, are the “true repositories of the soul of the nation.” Donald Trump’s frequent references to his supporters as “real” Americans are a classic populist rhetorical move. The concept of populism has a distinctly pejorative connotation. It is a label that politicians apply to their opponents, but rarely claim for themselves (as Mudde and Kaltwasser aver). The fundamental claim of populism is that there is a singular “people” who are in opposition to “the elite.” The populist claims to be the representative of “the people.” In this way, a populist movement would describe itself as authentically democratic—in contrast with the “politics as usual” that only supports the interest of “the elite.” Populists can be from the right or left of the political divide; left-wing populists (also known as social populists) combine left-wing politics with populist themes and rhetoric while right-wing populists (also known as national populists) do the same on the right side of the political spectrum. Writing about Western Europe in 2018, Chantal Mouffe argued that the “central axis of political conflict will be between right-wing populism and left-wing populism.” Populism does not always have to be extreme, but it is almost never centrist. For example, populist appeals have been commonly found in Canadian politics, coming from the left-wing New Democratic Party and from the right-wing Conservative Party (and its predecessor in the form of the Reform Party), but not from the centrist Liberal Party. While both left-wing and right-wing populists object to the perceived control of liberal democracies by elites, those on the left also have problems with large corporations and their allies while those on the right focus on external threats. Left-wing populists perceive the enemy of the people to be socio-economic structures rather than particular groups of people. Right-wing populists define the enemy of the people to be “other” people, such as immigrants, refugees, etc. They tend to be skeptical of the facts presented by the establishment press, may be suspicious of intellectuals and want to be from “somewhere” as opposed to “anywhere.” That is, they want to be rooted in a specific community and place, as opposed to being comfortable nearly anywhere. The recently completed second-round presidential election in Brazil is a case in point: both candidates can reasonably be characterized as populists, one from the left and one from the right. Though it may appear to be a recent trend, populism has been around for a long time. One study shows that it can be serial in nature. It is also closely related to societal polarization. As the graph below illustrates, public opinion regarding the division of society between “ordinary people and the corrupt elites who exploit them” is highly correlated with social polarization (negative scores here indicate a more polarized society). Why is populism a threat to democracy? Right-wing populism’s incompatibility with democracy is clear when one carefully considers who “the people” often are in the populist imagination. They are not all the people. They are the minimum winning coalition of the people, and usually a part of the people that are defined in terms of their ascriptive characteristics (e.g., white). Such an exclusionary view of “the people” cannot be reconciled with democracy’s requirement of political equality. The picture for left-wing populism looks rather different, lacking this prima facie contradiction with democracy. As an example, the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil has built a notably diverse coalition of support, still making the claim that the party represents the interests of “the people” against the elite. However, the claim that a party or politician speaks for the authentic and singular people can become difficult to square with democracy, as the descent of Venezuela into authoritarianism under the left-wing populist Hugo Chavez illustrates. As an ideal, democracy includes all the people, considered as equals, finding a collective path toward the best possible policies to address the challenges that they face.
How young voters are revamping democracy in Malaysia
Young Malaysians have become a formidable political force. When they go to the polls on 19 November 2022, they may become the harbingers of democratic consolidation in their country. Malaysian politics have long been dominated by race-based politics, patronage, horse trading and a geriatric old guard. Yet, the passage of the Undi18 legislation in 2019 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and automatically registered these new voters. In total, more than 5 million Malaysians will be first-time voters in this election and can potentially upend electoral politics, not because of their sheer number, but because they do not respond to the traditional political levers of race and religion. This is the generation who grew up after the 1997 financial crisis. They have witnessed the transformation of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the party that held power uninterruptedly from independence to 2018, from a multi-ethnic catch-all party at the centre of Malaysian power-sharing arrangement to an elite-serving vehicle that leveraged ethnic and religious tensions to win votes. The exposure of the 1MDB scandal—the largest kleptocracy case in the world to date, according to the US Department of Justice—finally tilted the balance, ousting UMNO from power in 2018. Yet, the coalition that then took power, the Pakatan Harapan (PH), collapsed less than two years later. UMNOreturned to power, skilfully navigating the turbulent waters and inciting religious and ethnic polarization. Instability in government was the norm, but UMNOmanaged to stay in power, also taking advantage of the pandemic restrictions to, for instance, avoid a vote of no confidence in Parliament. Yet, the fact that Parliament was not dominated by UMNO made governance nearly impossible. To address it, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob called a snap election, hoping for a resounding UMNO victory and more stability. Achieving this will now depend on a key factor: young voters. Young Malaysians are stepping up to the challenge of being the decisive electoral force. They are lining up to volunteer for political causes, eager to make their voices heard and influence politics. Diverse campaigns designed by groups like YPolitics.my, mostly online and not linked directly with political parties, are trying to mobilize first-time voters, informing them about voting, politics and the issues that are at stake. In fact, the adoption of the bill lowering the voting age was the result of a student movement known as Undi18, the name that also was given to the bill. It is unclear which parties the youth might choose but all parties know any strong result depends on attracting young voters. Consequently, all parties are giving more prominence to younger candidates, though this also creates internal friction. Some candidates, such as former Health Minister and UMNO member Khairy Jamaluddin, who is 46, are openly challenging the old guard and pushing new debates beyond race and religion. Others, like the former Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq, who is 29 years old and was a key figure in the approval of the Undi18 bill, have created a new multi-ethnic, youth-centric political party, MUDA. Young activists are now focused on getting out the vote, a response to sparse civic education, especially in rural areas where high voter turn-out is more relevant. Yet, regardless of the result, youth in Malaysia have already taken the first steps towards a renegotiation of the social contract. By rejecting the traditional political levers, they are in fact questioning the way politics have taken place up until now. The key now is for them to make their voices heard at the ballot box.