06/06/2014 08:58 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

More to It Than a Right Wing Swing

Spring 2014 brought elections in the two most populous democracies - India and the European Union - and Indonesia is in the midst of an election campaign.

It is a daring task to look for a common denominator and yet an analysis points to two major elements capturing the attention. An increasing number of people question not the participation, but the depth and strength of their countries' engagement in economic globalization - negative side-effects like access to national welfare for non-nationals have become more annoying. Discontent about unequal distribution of the fruits of economic growth - indeed the result of economic globalization - plus a feeling of unfairness is more widespread than believed.

Similar feelings can be detected in the US, China and a large number of countries all over the world. Those not directly involved in economic globalization admit the virtue of the model through the prism of economic growth, but that is not enough. Threats to their jobs, unknown and untested cultural patterns brought into their daily life through migrants, and top jobs plus top universities reserved for the wealthy people has reached a level where they are not better off. Then why should they support the model?

Popular support for economic globalization stems from an equation saying that people are willing to sacrifice part of their cultural identity to gain a higher living standard via high economic growth. What we see now is that economic globalization does not bring along a sufficiently higher living standard to compensate for the threat to cultural identity. Indeed the threat to cultural identity is rising while the increase in living standard if present at all diminishes.

The established political parties all support full throttle economic globalization whether in government or opposition. Good for them, but polls show that many people in the rich countries like the US have little or no confidence in either own their future or their children's future. This pushes them towards voting for protest parties surfacing in the European election. In India Narendra Modi engineered a landslide even if he did belong to the elite - indeed because he was seen as not belonging to the elite. In a way we can categorize the results in the EU and India as a strong warning to the elite regardless of political parties.

Still people overwhelmingly have confidence in the political system. In the EU the total turnout as share of the electorate rose slightly rejecting the view frequently stated that the Europeans are turning their back on the political system. The protest parties (anti-EU parties) all in all garnered around 25 per cent of the votes casts up from around 12 per cent in 2009; a strong signal not to be ignored but nor to be exaggerated. Bringing in the participation rate it translates into about 11 per cent of the electorate. In India, Modi won promising to reform from within, using the system, not offering another system. In Indonesia the same view can be detected.

This is one more chance for democracy and one more risk. Apparently people in the large democracies are still willing to give democracy a chance to redeem itself. Despite all the dire predictions of seeing the carpet pulled from below their feet in several EU member states the mainstream parties fared generally well. This is especially the case in the hard hit countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland all of them going through an almost unprecedented austerity connoting fear of extremism, even a new kind of fascism or communism. But it did not happen - their system did not crack. The governments in all these countries came through the test. France, the UK, and Denmark saw a strong support for populist political parties building on a xenophobic platform, but transformed from share of those who voted to share of the electorate or population their support does not go much above 12-15 per cent.

The signal is: We still confide in your ability to reform from inside the system.

The result did not spell the omen of political revolution for neither Europe nor India and certainly not Indonesia, BUT voters have voiced discontent and uneasiness about inequality, unfairness, and the erosion of identities stemming from economic globalization. Economic globalization has changed the daily life and politicians must understand that it cannot be business as usual ignoring the uneasiness and anxiety.

Herein also lays the risk. If the mainstream political parties fail to understand this message next time may bring about a genuine upheaval, not only a warning signal.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller
Former State-Secretary, Royal Danish Foreign Ministry.
Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
Adjunct Professor Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School.