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European support for authoritarianism grows as citizens feel unheard, report warns

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Support for authoritarianism is growing in Europe as citizens feel increasingly unheard by their politicians and look to populism for simple solutions, according to a new report from the US-based think tank Pew Research Center published on Wednesday (28 February).

The report found that 60% of respondents in 24 countries worldwide are becoming increasingly disillusioned with how democracies are managed, rising to 70% in France, Greece and Spain.

Out of the ten European countries surveyed, solid majorities in nine of them said they feel elected officials “don’t care” what everyday people think.

“My read on what is going on across Europe at the moment is that it is less about support for authoritarianism, per se, and more about frustration with current government on delivery on the crises that matter to European systems,” Susi Dennison, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Euractiv. 

Richard Wike,  director of the Global Attitudes and Trends Research Team at Pew and one of the authors of the report, added, “We see that there’s a lot of support for the idea of representative democracy in this survey, that people, by and large, tend to say it’s a good way to govern their country, but there are a lot of frustrations with the way representation is working,” Wike said. 

“People think politicians don’t listen to them. A lot of people at least think that parties don’t really represent them. That’s especially true in the political centre,” he added. “And there’s a fair amount of support here for having more diversity among elected representatives.”

While most Europeans overwhelmingly support democratic forms of government, in eight countries, including Poland and Germany, the percentage of respondents who view autocracy as a good form of government also increased.

Even Sweden, the most pro-democratic country in Europe, reported a decline in respondents who think representative democracy is a good approach.

The report also found that those who favour populist parties, such as the German AfD party (specifically mentioned in the report), are more likely to favour authoritarianism.

While this comes at a time of a global increase in far-right and populist sympathies, accompanied by a decline in the health of democracies, Dennison believes their success is their simplicity.

“I think that it’s more the sort of simple solutions that populist leaders claim to offer on these issues,” she said.

“You want to pay less? Then we’ll put taxes down; we’ll put salaries up. And this is easier to do from opposition, which is why I think that we’re seeing this kind of rightward shift in terms of the way people are voting, or say they’re going to vote, in the European Parliament elections,” Dennison added.

Not all bleak

But while support for authoritarianism might be on the rise, most of the world’s population overwhelmingly supports democracy and does not believe authoritarian or martial rule are viable forms of government. 

No European country surveyed had a majority in favour of authoritarian rule, with favour being highest in middle-income countries and some surveyed in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

In addition, there was a strong correlation between the freedom enjoyed by opposition parties and a lack of support for authoritarianism. All European countries surveyed overwhelmingly felt opposition parties can compete fairly in politics.

Dennison suggested officials’ handling of the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as the prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House in November, could affect electoral outcomes.

“A lot will depend on the way events turn in these conflicts and the extent to which governments can demonstrate that there are paths forward that don’t just involve the kind of ‘might is right’ and do enforce a sort of a rules-based system, which is that sort of environment which Europeans can feel secure in,” Dennison said.

She added that stopping any further rise of populism will require proactive efforts by parties not on the right-wing spectrum.

“I think what is needed is a narrative that is not … about why the populists are wrong, but a more positive narrative about why an open approach which relies on international cooperation is the best way of defending our interests,” Dennison said.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

Read more with Euractiv

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