During a discussion on democracy at the OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has warned of the dangers posed by populist movements in the region for human rights and democracy.
IHEU director of advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey, pointed to eight states in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) region as having (to differing degrees) populists in power: Moldova, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the US. She argued that these governments threaten to undermine human rights and the very democratic system that brought them to power.
She observed, “many of these populist movements at their base are rooted in demagoguery, where power is gained by the exploitation of prejudice, fear and ignorance” and called on OSCE states to do more to address citizens’ fears, frustrations and concerns whilst maintaining a climate of “open debate and education, evidence-based political action, and of unwavering respect for human rights universally applied.”
O’Casey highlighted research showing the concrete ways in which populist governments tends to erode democratic structures, and argued that the cases of Turkey, Hungary and Russia in particular reflect the reality of this.
The statement comes after IHEU member organisation Humanists UK hosted an international conference on the rise of authoritarian populism, extremism, and nationalism in the modern world, as part of the IHEU General Assembly weekend.
International Humanist and Ethical Union
Statement for Working Session III,
Human Dimension Implementation Meetings 2017
Populist movements in the OSCE Region: A challenge to democracy
The Charter of Paris observes that, “democracy has as its foundation respect for the human person and the rule of law. Democracy is the best safeguard of freedom of expression, tolerance of all groups of society, and equality of opportunity for each person.”
Yet over recent years across the OSCE region – including in Moldova, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the USA – we have witnessed a marked increase in populist movements (of differing degrees), that whilst brought in by democratic means originally threaten to unpick these core foundations.
Many of these populist movements at their base are rooted in demagoguery, where power is gained by the exploitation of prejudice, fear and ignorance, the whipping up the passions and shutting down of reasoned deliberation.
Their tendency toward post-fact, anti-expert, simplistic and intolerant standpoints serve only to nurture an anti-universalist tyranny of the majority which inevitably undermines the human rights of minorities, allows for extremism, and threatens the very democratic system which gave them a voice in the first place.
Research has revealed a trend showing that populists in power undermine democracy in a number of specific ways, including (i) the erosion of checks and balances on the executive branch; (ii) less media freedom; (iii) civil liberties being diminished; (iv) and the quality of elections declining. This has been borne out in Turkey, Russia, and Hungary since populist movements came to power.
As the previous High Commissioner on National Minorities noted, “extreme populism – both East and West of Vienna – plays on human insecurity. It rouses passions by saying that “outsiders” […] intrude on our values. It claims that “aliens” are stealing our jobs, abusing social security and reducing opportunities. It appeals to nationalism and highlights the inaction of mainstream parties on the new issues.”
In order for democracy to stand robust and flourish, OSCE participating states need to better engage with the fear and frustration of so many of their citizens; they need to do more to acknowledge and respond to the voters’ feeling of dejection, being failed by the state and mainstream parties and better heed their concerns.
Significantly, this needs to be done in a climate of open debate and education, evidence-based political action, and of unwavering respect for human rights universally applied. If a democratic system loses sight of these foundations just to appease the populist agenda, that system will inevitably eventually crumble.