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The centre holds

Photo: Predrag Trokicic

One could argue that the centre has managed to hold in the EU, and now in the UK, and possibly in the US. What one means by that is that respectively either the electorate has not gone extreme or that the representative or legal institutions have held firm. This is how one might see the EU elections, the decision by the Supreme Court in the UK, and the start of the impeachment proceedings in the US.

The centre – the voter, the court, the representatives – has just been able to hold, not to strike back as of now. So, nothing is over yet. Now, the notion of the centre is important here. In the three cases mentioned, these are democratic, representative, and legal levers of power standing in the way of populist takeovers.

Another example of the representative power holding is that of Italy. The populist leader was basically sacked by the creation of the new governing coalition which does not include him. It is interesting that Italy was to be the crucial test of nationalism taking over worldwide according to Steve Bannon.

In other cases, “the centre” refers to the executive centre of power. E.g. in the current French case, the coercive powers of the executive branch of government are being used to suppress the revolt. This is what is meant by the test of legitimacy by popular uprising. And France is passing it. These are frequent occurrences in democracies. And in some cases, the centre loses, e.g. in Ukraine.

This is different in authoritarian and states with questionable or no legitimacy. Again, there are two cases.

In the Balkans, e.g. Serbia, Montenegro and Republika Srpska, there are continuing or intermittent protests which are yet to threaten the authoritarian power holders, though for different reasons. But at some point down the road, one or the other type of crisis of legitimacy is to be expected.

Authoritarian regimes – Hungary is another case – tend however to endure if they can subvert the electorate, the representative, and the legal institutions. E.g. by practically becoming states with one party rule. So, the opposition faces a high bar. Because the costs of mobilisation increase significantly. As well as the costs of eventual conflict to effectuate the change.

It is different in Poland or the Czech Republic where there is intermittently a challenge in the streets, but not a full-blown legitimacy crisis. In part because the governments are not fully authoritarian. So, there is the expectation that eventually an electoral change is possible.

Russia and China are a different case.

Putin has had legitimacy problems from the very beginning. Those led to the challenge in the streets at the time of his election as President for the third time. He has managed to substitute democratic legitimacy with nationalistic mobilisation, to fight foreign conspiracies of one kind or another, though that might be coming to an end.

In China, since 1989 economic improvement has been the substitute for legitimacy. It is sometimes referred to as the implicit contract between the people and the government – as long as things improve fast and wide, you can have your power. There is however growing authoritarianism and nationalist mobilisation, some home-grown, some induced by actions from abroad, like the trade war.

What works in mainland China does not work in Hong Kong, however, where there is massive resistance and rejection of the legitimacy of Chinese rule. And it does not work in Taiwan too. But while Russian authoritarianism and shaky legitimacy appear to be running out of time, that is not the case in China.

The centre cannot hold without some kind of a resolution to the crisis in the US and the UK. The electorate will have to decide in the end.

Peščanik.net, 30.09.2019.