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Putin is wrong: Liberalism is not dead

by Nik Gowing

When President Putin told the FT that liberalism is “obsolete” as an ideological force, the analysis was exaggerated and loaded with wishful thinking.

Liberalism is not dead – at least yet.

Black and white vector of President Putin

There are many across the world who are determined it will not die. Even US President Donald Trump needs to value and cherish it.

The core values of liberalism – free speech, pluralism, democracy and multi-party politics – ensured that the Donald was elected as POTUS. They will provide the framework in which he has the possibility to be re-elected next year and returned to power for another four years.

They also brought to power the anti-everything Salvini-led coalition in Italy, plus the new increasingly authoritarian tendencies in Poland.

The Brexit referendum in the UK has brought a sense of British self-imposed destruction that might suit Putin’s hopes. While it has increasingly created a societal rift valley of emotions and growing anger across the nation, it did not mark the end of liberalism.

But in his conversation with FT Editor Lionel Barber, the Russian President did hit a new raw nerve of reality.

It dominates every gathering I attend or moderate.

Here at the European Business Leaders conference in Helsinki there is palpable anxiety that a systemic stability that most top executives have long taken for granted is no longer guaranteed. Indeed, the signals are sinister.

“Everything seems to be cracking” was the sombre overlay at the recent Globsec conference in Bratsilava.

Many routinely echo Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford University. While Victor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, has been re-elected almost unopposed, this full member of the European Union which benefits hugely from EU support, “is no longer a liberal democracy”, Professor Garton Ash told Globsec delegates.

But for President Putin, that one anti-liberal swallow does not make a spring of collapsing liberalism.

After recent elections a month ago here in Finland, coalition politics has at last produced a government. It is the same in Denmark, where the youngest ever prime minister heads the new coalition. She is just 41.

Slovakia has just elected a new woman President with attractive ideas but no political experience. An anti-corruption campaigner, she trounced the establishment candidate with the slogan “stand up to evil”.

In the neighbouring Czech Republic there is an ongoing massive public backlash against the Prime Minister. The millionaire businessman is ideologically close to Trump. He is accused of misusing EU funds for personal benefit – which he denies.

Putin is crudely over interpreting and mis-reading reality.

He is wrong to say that populism signals the end of liberalism. Instead it confirms all that is best in liberalism: the ability of voices of dissent and disillusionment to express their irritations of anger, and then be voiced and heard.

Indeed, our Thinking the Unthinkable work, re-labels populism as ‘push-backism’. This is because the public has found a voice to push back against what it does not like. Again that is not signalling the death of liberalism.

Resentment, anxiety, anger and frustration must not be read as an end of liberalism. They show it works.

At Globsec, Karolina Wigura, Assistant Director for the Institute of Sociology at Warsaw University, described developments in her post-communist region like this: “Poland and Hungary are not liberal democracies. They are the way to something different.”

But ominously she then described a new goal that might start to fit the Putin diagnosis. It is “tyranny” against the law.

But does that mean liberalism is obsolete?

Ivan Krastev, the sharp-eyed Bulgarian political scientist offers this yardstick to help us judge the durability of liberalism: “Democracy is where a government can still lose elections.”

That is what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just discovered. He re-ran the Istanbul mayoral election in order to reverse the first vote which rejected his candidate. The president’s ploy backfired. The liberal candidate won by a thumping majority in what he rightly called a “celebration of democracy”.

Mr Putin may view this evidence of public empowerment against the status quo as mere inconveniences to his contention that liberalism is obsolete.

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