Brexit and Trump are not alone. Political polarisation is now a global phenomenon

In the US, Canada and Israel we have seen how personal failings can lead to political woes

Chris Stevenson
Wednesday 23 October 2019 17:20 BST
Trump's team thank God for the US president

Brexit is now in political “purgatory” a feeling no doubt familiar to many Britons who have watched the daily struggle in Westminster, waiting for one side or the other to emerge victorious.

You may think this is a particularly British affliction, but polarisation is becoming a global norm. History may prove it to be no more than a blip but it is hard not to draw out the similarities and themes as political dissatisfaction spreads.

Beyond the UK, the US is the easiest to assess, Donald Trump was swept to power on a wave of ill-feeling towards the political class, aligning himself with the Brexit vote that had happened a few months previously. The battle lines were drawn and the White House incumbent has appeared to accelerate a process of polarisation that had already laid down roots.

There is just one state across the country where the legislature is not under the control of either the Democrats or the Republicans. Minnesota is currently the only state where control is split, Republicans have the majority in the Senate, the Democrats the House of Representatives. It is the first time in more than a century there has been so much one-party dominance across the nation.

Starting next month with elections in Virginia and continuing in 2020, the battle for local control will intensify, as those that win control of their state legislature will be in the hotseat to draw the shape of new electoral districts in 2021 thanks to next year’s US census. Democrats are worried that if they don’t have control of legislatures, Republicans will draw electoral maps with demographics that could lock them out of power for at least a decade.

Up in Canada, the latest elections also show how polarised the nation is. It rallied behind Justin Trudeau in 2015, but scandals including a series of blackface images and political pressure brought to bear on members of his administration hurt his standing. His parliamentary majority evaporated and he just about clung to power.

Beyond that though, Trudeau’s rival Conservatives swept the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta which rely heavily on oil and gas revenue and are not swayed by Trudeau’s action on climate change. Concessions to those provinces will be required, but that will be tough for a prime minister who has tried to build his reputation on environmental credentials.

In South America, protesters in Chile have hit out at living standards with anger on the streets leading to the deaths of more than a dozen people. Chilean president Sebastián Piñera a billionaire himself has called for modest rises to low incomes and increased taxes on the rich, but it likely won’t be enough to quell the protests.

In Bolivia, violent street demonstrations have erupted over the results of a quick count in the latest presidential election. Suspicion arose among opponents of the incumbent, Evo Morales, after the quick count was surprisingly halted as it looked like main rival Carlos Mesa would make it to a second-round run-off. Morales is ahead, but a more detailed count looks closer. Mesa has called the quick count results fraudulent.

In the Middle East, protests across Lebanon that started after the government said it would tax the popular WhatsApp messaging service have become a larger expression of frustration against corruption, economic problems and the country’s entire political class. The protests have become some of the largest in recent memory. As Westminster has found to its cost, once the genie is out of the bottle it is difficult to put it back in and no doubt Brexiteers will see echoes of their own struggles against the political elite in all three nations.

Over in Israel we find another example, alongside Trump and Trudeau, of how personal failings can lead to political woes. Benjamin Netanyahu is facing three separate corruption investigations that have galvanised those tired of his long stint in power. Netanyahu has denied the allegations, but for the second time this year he has called an election and been given the chance by the president to put together a ruling coalition and failed to do so. Now, for the first time in more than a decade, a rival centrist Benny Gantz will get the chance. Gantz will also likely come up short, but this is unusual territory for Netanyahu.

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While the personal styles play a significant part in a number of these examples, there are too many to ignore. Even in Poland, where the the ruling, right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) increased its vote share in national elections earlier this month, opposition parties clubbed together and gained a narrow majority in the less-powerful upper house of the country’s parliament, allowing it to frustrate the PiS agenda.

In Hungary, a pro-European, centre-left challenger ousted the ruling Fidesz party-backed incumbent as mayor of Budapest sharpening the political divide between cities and the rural areas where the right-wing Fidesz has its supporter base.

Politicians calling for compromise may look weak to some when it comes to Brexit or the conduct of Trump, but without it polarisation around the globe is only likely to get worse.

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