December 19, 2017

Populism and Extremist Movements in Europe

One must always listen closely to the people

I have heard many good things about the Opinion Festival at Paide. In July 2017 I participated in several discussions at the SuomiAreena, an event very similar to this, in Pori [in the west of Finland].
Populism was discussed at the SuomiAreena. One discussion was titled “Do people still trust experts and institutions or has populism replaced knowledge and facts?” Populism has many faces. It is important to listen to ordinary people. History offers several examples of how a new political force grew out of a citizens’ movement, and it is better that extremist views are expressed in such a manner rather than through street fights or other uncontrolled activities.
Populism goes hand in hand with dangers: populists tend to simplify problems. In today’s extremely complicated world, simplifying social issues moves the focus away from facts and basic reason. Seemingly simple solutions may bring about new difficulties. Populists tend to blame external factors for their problems. For example, we must adopt a critical view with regard to migration issues, but that should not automatically mean closing the borders or blaming the migrants for economic problems that are caused by factors within our own country. The two things are not comparable, since they do not have a cause-and-effect relationship.
Political debate and general social discussions have become more colourful. But one must always verify the facts. You can quite successfully sell half-truths for some time, but long-term policy cannot be built on them and no policy can be realised without a willingness to cooperate and compromise. Populists are primarily successful in opposition. Political compromise does not fit into their black-and-white world-view.
In Finland, many people think that the Perussuomalaiset (Finns Party) is the face of populism. Some consider it wrong to involve them in government after their good results at the parliamentary elections. However, everything complied with our democratic rules. With popularity comes responsibility. Performing duties in government has reduced their support. This is how it usually goes. Now the party has split into factions. Time will tell what happens next.
What has happened to the Finns Party is a typical example of how the aura of novelty fades when the foundations of democracy and the rule of law are strong. New things seem interesting for a while, but the success does not last without broad political support and some actual content. I think we should talk about populists, and also the people and parties that work with them. Populists do not gain power on their own, at least not at first.
The Finnish political system has endured quite well at this stage, and so has France’s. We in Europe can be fairly relaxed about Germany’s election results thus far. [The right-wing AfD won one-fifth of the seats in the Bundestag, but the Christian Democrats remained the largest party.—Ed.] The situation in Hungary and Poland, however, worries many of us and I must admit that I am somewhat uneasy about it as well. It is worth remembering that the rapid changes that follow elections are not necessarily caused by populism. Today’s world has gone through many unexpected twists and turns characteristic of our age and the current stage of social development as well as their complicated interconnections.
I’d like to turn to the important role of the media. Political issues are discussed in the media and everywhere else through the media. The media have power, and with power comes responsibility. It has been said that the difference between fake news and bad journalism is tiny. Making an effort to maintain quality and reliability in journalism is the best protection against extremism. Critical political discussion in society strengthens the sense of justice and respect for the principles of democracy.
It is possible that social media fosters extremism. Everyone can put together their own news report there. Facebook sorts posts so that people with similar world-views primarily see each other’s content. This makes the poster feel that their opinion has many supporters. Dissenting opinions remain out of sight. This prevents people from discussing issues on the borderline of disagreement and creates a bubble where only like-minded people talk to each other. This trend is hard to change or control.
The concept of hate speech is also connected to populism. How can we cope with this? How does it affect people’s wish to participate in politics? In Finland we are discussing the criminalisation of hate speech.
Good, decent discussion and communication are the best means of influence. It may not always be possible to calm passions or consider colourful views. But there are always some very smart people among the most vocal.
One of the many messages of populists and extremists is that the so-called elite does not listen to or care about ordinary people. Politicians should always take time to talk to the people and find out what worries them. Never underestimate the people. We should listen to them very carefully. Responsible politics should be capable of leading the way and gaining people’s trust by communicating information to them.
We can be glad that the people of Estonia and Finland generally trust their social and political structures.

This article is based on Tarja Halonen’s speech at the Paide Opinion Festival in August.

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