Le Pen To Bernie: Anger Economics Drives Populist Surge

Rising populism in the West can be traced to continuing fallout from the 2007-08 financial crisis. The responses – from both left and right – share certain fundamental arguments.

At a Bernie Sanders rally in New York
At a Bernie Sanders rally in New York
Nikolaus Piper

MUNICH â€"When it was founded in 2013, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) (Alternative for Germany) was really just a political party for economics professors. Launched by Bernd Lucke, a macroeconomics professor at the University of Hamburg, the party’s focus on the nitty-gritty of economics and trade policy was evident from its first convention: there, discussions centered on rejecting the euro and putting an end to bailout packages, with a generally conservative attitude toward free-market topics such as fiscal simplification, debt reduction and the curbing of liability risks.

We've come a long way since then. Today, in the face of a major refugee crisis, the likes of Lucke and his professor chums have been driven from the party leadership. Now it’s the right-wing populists Jörg Meuthen and Frauke Petry who have taken power. And their No. 1 concern is the rejection and expulsion of refugees and migrants. Precise statements about economic matters have become quite rare. Apart from one campaign advertising the abolition of ready cash, the AfD’s economic policy program is quite thin.

It's a strange contrast: the rise of populism in Western industrial nations that followed their financial implosion is directly linked to low-income earners’ anger and frustration about the crisis and its consequences. French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry attributed the populists’ success to the “bad mood of the lower middle class.” Still, talking about the economy does not electrify the masses â€" migration does.

What the AfD is to Germany, the SVP is to Switzerland, with businessman Christoph Blocher holding the reins.

In the U.S., real estate billionaire Donald Trump is leading the race to be the Republican nominee for president. His election campaign has focused primarily on his opposition to illegal immigrants and Muslims.

As for Trump’s economic program, one quickly discovers that it is anything but right-wing; from an American point of view, it might not even qualify as conservative. The candidate echoes the words of American trade unions, pledging to rescue the country from low-priced imports from China.

France’s picture of right-wing populism is, instead, full of specifics. The National Front party of Marine Le Pen has a detailed manifesto of the party’s economic objectives. With terrifying professionalism, the party lays out its plan to take over the French government. Its economic program is strongly influenced by nationalist socialism.

The National Front wants to partly nationalize French banks and collect a 3% tax on all imports. Le Pen wants to use that money to raise the minimum wage by 200 euros per month. She also wants the cost of gas and electricity to fall by 3%, and to set a standard retirement age of 60. She is striving for a “strategic partnership” with Russia.

Le Pen to Sanders?

And of course the National Front wants France to exit the euro (which it calls the “Trojan Horse of ultra-globalization”). With the euro as a parallel currency, the thinking goes, the new franc could return as the country’s legitimate national currency with printing money favored, capital markets pushed back and inflation maybe even welcomed.

Marine Le Pen inspires passionate support in France â€" blandinelc

The political dimension of this economic and monetary policy must not be underestimated: France abandoning the euro would be like France turning its back on Germany. Since many French blame European austerity policies and the euro for the economic crisis, this program could become very attractive not only to far-right voters, but also to those from the left and center.

Bernie Sanders, too, can claim the "populist" label. The socialist senator from Vermont is not xenophobic, he’s not stirring up hatred against Mexicans and Muslims. He inspires left-wing youth. And yet, he represents that old American populism from the 19th century, as proven by his radical tirades against Wall Street, and his tendency to want to solve all problems with financially sustainable solutions. Populists such as William Jennings Bryan at the end of the 19th century wanted to remedy farmers’ poverty by fighting the gold standard and declaring silver coins the official means of payment. If they had succeeded, massive inflation would have followed.

Sanders blames America’s banks and stock exchange for all the country's social problems. Many of his goals could be found in any of Europe’s social-democratic party platforms: free access to university and a higher minimum wage. But what Sanders is missing is a credible plan for financing his policies. He also joins Trump in opposing new free trade pacts.

For Germany, what will make the difference is the AfD’s success during upcoming regional elections. It seems that the party wants to get rid of the impression of being free-market driven. “I reject another economization of society. We are the party that takes the middle class’s needs seriously,” says Marcus Pretzell, the AfD’s deputy in the European Parliament, on his website.

Socio-politically right-wing, economically left-wing â€" that, too, seems to be a valid strategy these days.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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