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Foreign Policy

Is Western Democracy Entering an Era of "Laypeople Politics"?

Apr 30, 2019
  • Zhu Feng

    Director, Institute of International Studies, Nanjing University

As the Chinese people witness a number of ministerial and provincial-level officials begin to take the reins of local government, election outcomes in other countries show how rapid "generational replacement" of political leaders has become worldwide. Since 2015, the world stage, following the emergence of “young faces,” is rapidly entering a new period of laypeople politics. Along with 5G — and other elements of Industrial Revolution 4.0 — this phenomenon is a vivid example of what President Xi has called “great changes not seen in 100 years.”

Shockwaves from “young faces” and laypeople politics in European and US politics

On October 19, 2015, Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, became the 23rd Canadian Prime Minister at the age of 44. On May 7, 2017, Emmanuel Macron, born in December 1977, won the French general election and became the youngest president in French history. He was not even 39 when he assumed office on May 14, 2017. Even more surprisingly, on October 15, 2017, Austrian People’s Party candidate Sebastian Kurz, who had just turned 31, was elected prime minister of Austria, becoming the youngest elected leader in the history of world politics. All three are from ordinary families. The Austrian prime minister was yet to graduate from college.

Even more interestingly, following the shock from such “young faces,” world politics appears to have entered a “laypeople era”. A number of “political laypeople” — who had barely ever gotten involved in a political career, not assumed public office before, and had no governance experience—began to take the political stage after winning election. On November 8, 2016, the 71-year-old businessman Donald Trump defeated former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and was elected the 45th US president. On March 30, 2019, in the second round of the presidential election of Slovakia, the 45-year-old Zuzana Caputova won 58.2 percent of the votes and was elected her country’s president. Before that, she had been a lawyer, with zero government or political experience. One day later, Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky entered the second round of the country’s presidential election, winning more votes than incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. He has now won the second round, creating a precedent in world politics of an actor who had played a president on a TV show becoming a president in real life.

People call for new faces

This trend towards “laypeople politics” on the world stage once seemed unimaginable, and goes against the traditional rules of electoral politics; but it actually reflects the profound changes and transformation of domestic politics in Europe and the US, as well as voters’ dissatisfaction with the performance of traditional political elites.

Caputova stood out in her campaign for Slovakia’s presidency thanks greatly to her criticism of her country’s domestic and foreign policies, as well as her fresh, powerful public image. Her campaign slogan, “war on evils,” called for cracking down on corruption. She is a resolute supporter of a united Europe, advocating Slovakia’s needs to seek greater development within the EU. Meanwhile, her political stance is more inclusive. She is resolutely against Slovakian nationalism and populist politics, and emphasizes that her election will promote solidarity and common development of all ethnic groups in Slovakia. After getting elected, she thanked supporters in the Slovak, Czech and Hungarian languages, her political position having won enthusiastic endorsement by most people. Conditions are more complicated and turbulent in Ukraine. The outgoing president used to be a chocolate magnate, while the former prime minister was the “iron lady” of the country’s petroleum industry. Despite “Chocolate King” Poroshenko’s constant promises, his country’s economy has been stagnating, politics have been ridden with corruption, relations with Russia has been tense, separatist forces in its eastern part remain aggressive, with 13,000 lives having been lost in conflicts between government troops and local forces.

Though Zelensky is just an actor, Ukrainians take him as the “last face of hope” for eliminating the political ills in their country. In contrast with the determined “pro-West” position of his two main rivals, Zelensky had pledged to deal with separatism in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea issue through negotiations with Russia, unlike Poroshenko, who made a high-profile promise to “take back” Crimea once elected. Though Ukraine-Russia relations are confrontational, people of both countries want their two nations to live in harmony. Zelensky’s rather flexible approach to Russia may more easily win the understanding and support of the Ukrainian people. The emergence of “political laypeople” in elections in Slovakia and Ukraine reflects the fact that serious problems have occurred in domestic governance. Voter expectations have thus shifted.

Worry developments from major countries’ “laypeople politics”

Rare as they are in world political history, “young faces” and “laypeople politics” have not always been bad news. Abraham Lincoln had been a lawyer and served only a single term in the US Congress before assuming the presidency. John F. Kennedy became president at the tender age of 43.
However, when “laypeople politics” take place in a major country, we should have vigilance about the foreign policy changes and political challenges that may result. Since Trump assumed US presidency, he has essentially overthrown the liberal internationalist traditions of American diplomacy. The US has now made a habit of withdrawing from multilateral international institutions, resorted to trade bullying and unilateralist approaches, and even established the “US Space Command,” while developing low-yield nuclear weapons and hypersonic cruise missiles on a large scale. Though Trump was a political layperson, his inexperience has not stopped him from disturbing US domestic politics and diplomatic relations in little more than two years. Such political laypeople may even spark the fragmentation of world order. Judging from these results, the era of global “laypeople politics” is a worrying phenomenon.

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