The Rise of Populism

In stark contrast to the increasing globalisation and liberalisation of the 1990s, the world has witnessed a sudden and rather an aggressive resurgence of nationalist populism in recent times. Look anywhere in the world and you witness populists delivering resounding political victories over deeply entrenched and traditional parties and ideas. The triumph of the so-called outsider, the people’s Messiah, whom they think knows and understands their trials and tribulations, and will rescue them. From the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orban in Hungary, populists have been coming to power in nations around the world. But the most definite proof was the election of Donald Trump when the leadership of the free world was placed into the hands of a populist. Closer home, the recent landslide victory of Narendra Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, to serve his second term as prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, has further illustrated the success of this philosophy. If not winning, populists have certainly been covering more ground, increasing their influence on the political landscape, and threatening to upset the existing order. Marine Le Pen of France and Nigel Farage of the UK are prime examples.

So, what happened? What changed and made people support these, more often than not, controversial leaders with radical ideas and solutions? The thing with populism is that it’s not definitely left wing or right wing. Leaders possessing both ideologies use populist tropes to lure voters. Most of the current populists are overwhelming right wing, but there are few exceptions like the Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who presents himself as a radical socialist. Benjamin Moffitt, a fellow at Sweden’s Uppsala University summarised populism and populist leaders well by identifying three core requirements:

An appeal to “the people” against a despised elite

Erdogan loses control of Turkish capital in local elections setback

“The people” here usually refers to low income, working class citizens, who believe the cause of their miseries is the corrupt and greedy upper class which controls all corridors of the economy and government. The elite keeps everything for itself, systemically oppresses “the people” and puts them at a disadvantage, leaving them to fend for themselves in an increasingly vulnerable socio-economic landscape.

The deliberate use of “bad manners” to shock the establishment and prove the politician’s credentials as one of “the people

If these leaders are known for anything more than their radical ideas, it’s their controversial statements. They speak in a blunt manner, paying no attention to political correctness whatsoever. Their statements and proposed policies are termed outrageous by the aforementioned elite, but which “the people” find to be legitimate. They make the populist appear as one of them, someone who is not afraid to call a spade a spade, puts it like it is and is devoid of the futile airs and graces of the elite. It goes a long way in establishing the leader’s authenticity and increases his reliability.

The use or manufacture of a crisis to justify the call to revolt

Crises move people’s opinion like nothing else. Even people who find the aforementioned controversial statements abhorrent and disgraceful are willing to turn a blind eye to these aspects of the populist’s personality as long as he/she offers to put an end to the ongoing or impending crisis for good. President Duterte used the drug crisis in the Philippines while European leaders and President Trump used immigration crises, just as South American populists used economic ones. These problems are often blown out of proportion to mislead the masses of its true scale and impact and make it out into a crisis even if it’s not one. This is how Trump managed to secure funding for his border wall by declaring a national emergency with regard to immigration into the US. The reality couldn’t be far from it and several experts have time and again said that his wall is an impractical and ineffective solution to illegal immigration across the southern US border. Duterte used hard-line policies and gave unchecked powers to the military and police to deal with the drug cartels. Most of the victims of these unjudicial killings have been innocents with the crisis only escalating in recent years and no solution in sight. A populist’s solution to these crises is to introduce iron fist policies often without any kind of checks and balances. These solutions prove to be ineffective, doing more harm than good, victimising innocents and disproportionately targeting minorities.
Another feature common to the rise of populists is that they often ride in on a wave of anti-incumbency. All these countries have an acute lack of legitimate opposition. There’s no other leader who could match up to the charisma and connect to the people that populists seem to have. It becomes personality politics with no alternative in sight.

Populists push back against liberal forms of democracy with a majoritarian, winner-takes-all interpretation that sets back pluralism and minority rights. They stand out by insisting that they alone represent the will of the people, dismissing any criticism of themselves as an attack on the people, and therefore illegitimate. Populists in power work against democratic checks and balances, particularly the courts, media and other neutral institutions, that are designed to limit what governments can do. They show an affinity for authoritarian and dictatorial ideals.
In an increasingly hostile economic landscape with the emergence of large multinational corporations and new technology, millions are being put out of work. The rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer still. Crime rates are on the rise owing to high unemployment and several other socio-economic factors. Economies are plummeting. It is not surprising, hence, that people are turning to someone who promises to be different from what they have known in the way of governance. Someone who appears to be from among them, who’ll ensure that they are not left behind any more.

It is imperative that the powers of these leaders are kept in check and that they deliver on their promises using well planned, effective, non-violent and non-coercive policies, keeping in mind the welfare and rights of minorities, as well. Otherwise, they will simply continue to exploit people’s vulnerabilities to capture power, while offering no real solutions to their problems.

~Written by Avantika

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