Is Populism A Problem - Reflections from the World Forum for Democracy
The Trust’s Northern Ireland delegation at the World Forum for Democracy

Is Populism A Problem - Reflections from the World Forum for Democracy

15 November 2017

The Trust supported a group of VCSE representatives and activists to attend the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg from 8th-10th November. 

The Forum is an annual event organised by the Council of Europe and brings together hundreds of 'democracy innovators' from around the world to showcase their work, discuss common themes and make connections. It was an ideal opportunity to share the Trust's work around civic activism, open government and deliberative democracy as well as identify new ideas and international connections. In the first of a series of blogs from the group members, independent researcher Paul Nolan shares his reflections on the visit.

The talks at Stormont on the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland had finally collapsed just before we set off for the conference.  That might have made it seem like a good time to seek a wider, European view of politics, but social democracies throughout the EU are in crisis because of the rumbling earthquake of populism. The two largest shocks, Brexit and the Trump victory, were still being felt within the body of the conference, and could not be treated as distant events. The title of the World Forum was ‘Is Populism a Problem?’ and there was plenty of evidence during the conference of fractures opening up within the EU states as a result of the gains made by the far right.

It was helpful that the first session, ‘Time for Facts’, provided an overview of developments:  Andreas Johansson Heino from the Authoritarian Populism Index gave a crisp account of the main trends.  None of the worst fears had come to pass, he said.  Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands,  the AfD in Germany and far right parties throughout Europe were all denied victory, but he pointed to the worrying fact that in country after country the far right has gained positions in the national parliaments. 

I found it helpful when we moved from general statements about populism to hearing about the specific circumstances in various countries.  It was also helpful on the second day when we moved from the rather deadening plenaries to more interactive formats. The World Cafe allowed for fast-paced discussions at different tables where we could explore the experiences of various countries. I started at the Greece table and heard how the Golden Dawn could not be treated as just another far right party, but as a paramilitary physical force group.  At the Germany table young people expressed their disbelief that after several generation of peace-building the far right has re-emerged. The France table talked about how close the National Front had come to a tipping point.  In all cases the answer to the question was emphatically yes, populism is a problem.

A gap has opened up between the political class and working-class communities that have come to mistrust the establishment in all its forms. What I found impressive about the conference was the determination to fight against the populist tide by reinvigorating social democracy. More participative, more deliberative models were being sought, with the citizens’ assemblies put forward as one progressive model.  Encouraging then that Ireland has something to offer, but encouraging also for those of us from Northern Ireland that there were so many other positive developments to emulate.             


Paul Nolan

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