Analysis

How Boris, Bibi and Trump Are Learning the Limits of Their Populist Power

The three leaders have tried to ride roughshod over democratic traditions in recent months, but they are finding that they aren't bigger than the state

Wall murals showing U.S. President Donald Trump kissing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
REUTERS/Peter Nicholls / REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

The Knesset and the House of Commons have almost nothing in common. But in recent weeks, a strange “Israelization” seems to have been creeping into Westminster.

Echoes of the toxic Israeli political discourse could be heard on the green benches. They were there two weeks after Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament had been unlawful and after Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (in Britain this is a political appointment, equivalent to Israel’s justice minister) threatened that in the future the politicians might appoint the judges and the powers of the Supreme Court would be curtailed.

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Next, it was Johnson’s turn to accuse the opposition of voting for a “surrender act” when a majority in Parliament passed a law preventing Britain from leaving the European Union without a deal on October 31. When lawmakers accused him of inciting violence against them, he retorted: “I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life.” Johnson — whose political survival depends on his ability to deliver Brexit by the end of the month, with or without a deal — is leading an assault on British law and parliamentary procedure. He has so far refused even to publicly commit to abiding by the law passed last month to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

What Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been doing in his attempt to avoid justice in his three corruption cases — trying to cobble together a majority in the Knesset that would support granting him immunity from prosecution, and a law bypassing the High Court of Justice’s power to quash that immunity — are disconcertingly similar.

When that majority evaded him in May, he defied every precedent and used an obscure clause in the electoral laws to dissolve the Knesset that had just been sworn in. And last month, when the polls made clear he would not win a majority again, he tried to launch a major military campaign in Gaza a week before the election without consulting properly with his cabinet, and was prevented from doing so by the attorney general (thankfully, a nonpolitical position in Israel).

Just like U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been trumpeting in recent days his absolute right to do anything against his political rivals, Johnson and Netanyahu have proved this year their belief that laws, democratic traditions and norms do not constrain them — and that anyone who seeks to use legal means to place limits on them is unpatriotic and working against their nation’s interests.

They are an unprecedented type of leader in their countries’ histories, blatantly and brazenly defying political and democratic conventions that have worked in the past because even the worst elected leaders at least paid lip service to the norms, and publicly respected them. There is no precedent in the United States, United Kingdom or Israel for a leader happily breaking the rules to such an extent.

These three leaders are prepared to do everything necessary to remain in power — including doing away with constitutional precedent and the basic requirements of democracy. There aren’t even the terms of reference to deal with this sort of challenge, since the assumption has always been that the system can rely on its rules.

Comparisons between the three countries are not easy to establish. The United States has its almost sacrosanct Constitution, clearly stating the checks and balances that are supposed to regulate presidential use of power. Great Britain has an unwritten constitution that for centuries has ensured that each institution of state, from the monarchy to Parliament, knows its place. Israel only has a piecemeal constitution with its haphazard jumble of Basic Laws. But over the past seven decades these have worked in providing a functioning government, empowered by the Knesset and held in check by the Supreme Court.

What all three countries had in common until very recently is that, by whatever constitutional arrangement they had, the norms and laws in place had been sufficient to prevent the abuse of power. All of a sudden, that now seems to be a thing of the past.

Whether it is Trump’s blatant use of his administration’s foreign policy to try to harm his political opponents, Johnson flouting parliamentary convention to try to serve his purpose of crashing out of the EU by October 31, or Netanyahu steamrollering over Israel’s entire legal establishment — they are all prepared to sacrifice every democratic precedent in the pursuit of prolonged power.

We’ve seen similar showdowns between the elected governments and judiciaries of other countries in recent years. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi ultimately failed to beat the judges, though he managed to delay and contaminate the process long enough to remain out of prison, despite his manifest venality. In other countries, including Turkey, Poland and Hungary, populist leaders succeeded in subverting the legal system to their ends.

What these countries have in common is relatively brief experiences of democracy, with Poland and Hungary emerging from communism only in the early 1990s and Turkey having only a short respite between a series of military coups (the last of which was arguably in 1997) and the emergence of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new Islamic conservative autocracy.

The other thing linking the countries that succumbed to populism is that their legal norms were all defeated by autocratic-minded leaders who enjoyed an unassailable majority in their nation’s parliament, willing to vote in favor of racially changing the constitutional balance.

Berlusconi didn’t have that and, despite coming close, Netanyahu was denied the majority he needed in the past two Knessets. Despite winning the election in 2015, not all of his governing coalition members were prepared to support legislation that would have diminished the Supreme Court’s power to hold both the government and Knesset to account. In 2019, Netanyahu has twice failed to form a coalition that would have gone about doing just that.

Britain is in a similar situation now. Johnson remains in office but has no majority in Parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit, or to do anything else for that matter. In the three months since he took office, his government has lost every single parliamentary vote.

In the United States, the Democrat-held Congress limits Trump, to some degree, though the impeachment process is likely to flounder once it reaches the Republican-held Senate.

There is an important lesson for democracies here. Ultimately, it isn’t the courts — and certainly not the leaders — who will protect basic constitutional norms. That is the job of a parliament; an elected house of representatives. They are the last line of defense, which is why the opposition parties that currently hold the majority in Westminster are anxious not to allow Johnson to dissolve Parliament right now — as much as they would like to see him voted out.

Not only is there the chance that it would give him cover to crash out of the EU. But under the British electoral system, it could ensure that a hard core minority of Brexit-at-any-price voters banding together behind Johnson would give him a majority in the new Parliament.

In the United States, where elections take place on fixed dates, November 2020 is shaping up to be the most fateful election in memory: Not only is a second Trump term at stake, but the majorities in both houses are in the balance. This is almost certainly where the future of American democracy will be determined, not in an impeachment.

For once, Israel’s democratic system can be said to be on firmer ground. Avigdor Lieberman is, of course, no liberal democrat. But his personally motivated decision to end any cooperation with Netanyahu has decisively turned the tide against the prospect of a majority in the Knesset that would have fulfilled Netanyahu’s purpose.

He remains in power for now due to the electoral deadlock that allows neither him nor Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz to form a coalition. But he has lost any reasonable hope of making changes to the unofficial Israeli constitution that would have enabled him to defy the courts indefinitely.

As Israelis go to pray (those who pray) on Yom Kippur, they should give thanks on the Day of Judgment that their limited and fragile democracy has proven strong enough to ensure that a prime minister who has sinned cannot evade his own personal day of judgment.