“Anti-system” sentiment is still strong around the world

More than one third of Australians think their country is in decline, while three in five Australians believe the economy is rigged to advantage the rich. Just over half (51%) of all Australians believe they need a strong leader who is willing to break the rules; and, two in three (65%) Australians lack confidence in the media.

Two years on from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a major new Ipsos survey across 25 countries revisits the topic of populism and ‘system is broken’ sentiment. It paints a picture where fewer people think their country is in decline than in 2016, but many still believe the system is rigged against them, leaving them alienated from the traditional system of politics, with a majority looking for a strong leader willing to break the rules.

The survey, conducted online among adults aged under 65 in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Russia, Spain, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States, shows a slight decline in anti-system tendencies but suggests the potential for more political uncertainty is still very clear.

Country in decline?

  • More than one third (36%) of Australian respondents believe that their country is in decline whereas, on average, just under half (44%) of people across 24 countries believe their country is in decline, down from 57% in 2016.  Perceptions of decline are strongest in Brazil (67%), South Africa (64%) and Argentina (58%).  Less negative are Chile (24%), Germany (25%), Canada (30%), South Korea and India (both 31%). 
  • In 2016, a majority of people in 15 of the 24 countries thought their country was in decline, but this is now down to just six.  Almost half (49%) of Australians previously thought their country was in decline in 2016, however the biggest change has happened in South Korea, where three in four (73%) previously thought their country was in decline, during a political scandal which ended with presidential impeachment – now only a third (31%) still think so. Other notable swings towards optimism have happened in Belgium, Italy, Spain, France, Mexico, and in Germany, where the sense of decline has nearly halved from 47% in 2016 to 25%, meaning that the Germans now join Canada and Chile as among the most optimistic nations.  Indians have become more pessimistic (from 22% to 31%), but overall are still more positive that most.

Is the system broken?

  • There remains a strong sentiment that the people in charge do not care about the average person, and instead favour the rich and powerful, although slightly less than two years ago.
  • In Australia, three in five (60%) believe their country’s economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful, down from 68% in 2016. Similarly, across the globe, 64% believe their country’s economy is rigged as such, though this is down from 69% in 2016. This anti-system feeling is particularly high in Russia and Hungary, and has risen in South Africa over the past two years. Italy, however, has seen this feeling decline, going from three-quarters (75%) in 2016 to now nearer half (56%), leaving only Malaysia and Sweden lower than them.
  • A majority (55%) of Australians believe that their traditional parties and politicians do not care about them (down from 61%), a sentiment shared across the globe with a majority of people across the 24 countries always feeling this way (59%). Again, this feeling has increased most in South Africa, growing from 65% two years ago to 70% now, being beaten only by Mexico. Following trend, anti-system sentiment continues to fall in Italy, with now just half (51%) feeling alienated from traditional parties (compared to 72% in 2016), and it is also lower than average in Germany, Sweden and Japan.
  • Australians are more likely (56%) to favour outspoken politicians who speak their mind (vs 59% in 2016), comparable to the global average with three in five (59%) favouring outspoken politicians, down from 65% in 2016. Preference for this is high in Russia and Hungary (73%), while lower in the United States (48% down from 60% in 2016), Japan and Turkey.
  • A majority (59%) of Australians believe that the authorities are not strict enough on crime while across the globe, six in ten (62%) hold this belief. This does vary widely by country, rising higher across Latin America and South Africa. The United States is the most split on this issue, with one in five (21%) believing their authorities are too strict and 35% not strict enough.

Support for populist-style leadership?

  • Just over half (51%) of all Australians believe they need a strong leader who is willing to break the rules, which is much the same as we saw in 2016 (50%). This puts us on par with the average across all 24 countries with 52% believing that they need a leader unafraid to break the rules. However, there are big variations on this, with the biggest increases occurring in Argentina, Mexico, Spain and Peru, meaning they join Peru and India among the nations most enthusiastic for populist-style leadership.
  • There have also been swings against anti-establishment leaders, particularly in France, the highest scoring nation in 2016 (80%), which has now dropped to three in five (61%), with falls also happening in Poland and Italy. While Sweden is growing less opposed to populist leadership (from 23% to 32%), they stick with Germany as among the least keen overall.
  • Support for established parties is weak both in Australia and globally, with less than one in five (18%) Australians saying that their country should stick with political parties and leaders who have been in power before. This sentiment is similar globally (21% agreement across 24 countries). The French, Italians and Polish are those feeling most alienated by the present establishment with Indians most likely to want to stick with their current establishment.
  • On the other hand, for a third (33%) of Australians, there is a recognised risk in electing parties with radical ideas for change who have not been in power before (with a further third unsure). Globally, for two in five (39%) there is also a recognised risk. Among the most hesitant are Peru, Brazil and Russia, while Italy, Sweden and Great Britain are more willing to embrace untested parties. 

Confidence in institutions?

  • Three quarters (76%) of Australians lack confidence in political parties, a slight drop from 79% in 2016 with two thirds (65%) also lacking confidence in their government (vs 71% in 2016). Across the globe eight in ten (79%) and a majority in every country) lack confidence in political parties, practically unchanged since 2016, and two in three (66%) lack confidence in their government. In both instances confidence is particularly low in Spain and across Latin America. Whereas, perception of government has improved most drastically in South Korea and Italy.
  • Two in three (65%) Australians lack confidence in the media, almost mirroring the global average (65% vs 68% in 2016). In Australia this is a drop of 6 percentage points from 71% two years ago . Lack of confidence is still highest in Hungary, where it rises to over eight in ten (85%). Ambivalence towards the media has increased in Turkey and India, while decreasing in Germany.
  • A majority (57%) of Australians lack confidence in international institutions, a slight increase of three percentage points since 2016 (54%). Across the globe, just under half (47%) say they lack confidence in international institutions, slightly improving from 2016 when it was 52%. Those lacking confidence have decreased in Spain over two years, going from 77% to now 65%, although it remains among the least positive nations, along with Italy, France and Australia.
  • Australians’ confidence in banks continues to weaken with 66% expressing a lack of confidence in their banks, a three point percentage increase since 2016 (63%). This sentiment is almost mirrored when considering big companies (63% expressing a lack of confidence in 2018 compared with 61% in 2016). Globally, over half say they lack confidence in banks (52%) and big companies (56%), both only a slight improvement from 2016. India, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia are among the more positive in both cases, while Spain and Italy have the least confidence in their banks.
  • For Australians, confidence in the justice systems remains much as it was in 2016 (50% compared with 52%). At a global scale, lack of confidence in the justice system has undergone a small change, down to 56% from 59%. Perceptions have improved in Hungary, Mexico and Brazil, but still remains uncertain in countries across Latin America, reaching up to four in five (81%) in Peru.

Exclusionism versus opening up to the world?

  • Australia is amongst those most keen to protect themselves, with two in five (41%) stating that Australia needs to take more steps to protect itself from today’s world (up from 37% in 2016). On balance globally, people are split on whether their country should protect itself or open up more to world (31% vs 35% on average), while one in three are still unsure, reflecting a similar pattern from 2016. Those most keen to protect themselves aside from Australia, include the United States and Canada, while Mexico and Peru think they need to take more steps to open up to today’s world.
  • The urge to open up to the world has increased in Brazil and France but has decreased in Spain and Sweden.
  • American sentiment that the United States needs to take more steps to protect itself from today’s world has decreased, down from around half (47%) in 2016 to 37%.

Commenting on the findings, David Elliott, Director, Ipsos Social Research Institute said: “Firstly, it is important to remember that this survey was conducted before the axing of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, so those events haven’t shaped what we are seeing in this study.”

“These latest findings are evidence that while Australians are among those least likely to agree that their country is in decline, there continues to be a lack of confidence in our current political parties and government and an appetite for change.  However, we’re not sure that the answer lies in electing political parties or leaders with radical ideas for change, or who have not been in power before.  So, while there is a lack of confidence and a desire for change there is also uncertainty about the best path forward.  Perhaps, what we are seeing is a desire for greater accountability of key players in our social system?"