Sunday May 26, 2024

Dropping the ball on populism

By Sarmad Khawaja
October 15, 2022

Two Sundays ago, in the first round of presidential elections Brazilians gave a thumbs down to President Jair Bolsonaro, the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ and champion of divisive politics.

Bolsonaro calls his opponents scoundrels, thieves, vultures. He tirades endlessly against the courts and the electoral system, seeking to preemptively discredit them. Though mired in corruption, he fulminates about os corruptos. He deftly uses the tools of our times – social media, press, television – to mislead the people with lies and half-truths, spreading hatred and inciting violence against political opponents.

If such unsavoury antics, broadly called populism, sound so familiar to Pakistani ears it’s because rabid right-wing populists follow the same playbook in Brazil, Pakistan, US, Hungary, Poland, India, etc. They may vary in specifics due to cultural and institutional differences between countries, but their core features have striking parallels.

So, what are these core features that define populists? How do they harm democracy? And how should they be confronted?

Briefly, the answer to the first two questions is that populists undermine parliamentary authority, rule of law and institutional checks and balances. And, by attacking electoral agencies, the press and the judiciary they pose a serious threat to the very foundations of democracy. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute tells us in its latest Democracy Report that, as a result, the current level of global democracy has declined to 1989 levels, thus eradicating all democratic advances of the past 30 years.

Several recently published books give more insights into the populists’ playbook and clarify the ongoing political turmoil, clamour and confusion. In ‘Democracy Rules’, Jan-Werner Muller writes: ‘populists see themselves as morally pure crusaders fighting against corrupt elites. They always immediately make it personal and they make it entirely moral, which means that the parties opposing them are illegitimate and corrupt’.

‘Populists are spin masters’, write Guriev and Treisman in ‘Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century’. They hire pollsters and consultants, stage citizen call-in shows, manipulate the media, mobilize trolls and hackers and social networks to skew information and engineer popularity. When the facts are good, they take credit for them; when bad, they have the media obscure them when possible and provide excuses when not. Poor performance is the fault of external conditions or enemies. And disappointing outcomes are cast as still better than others could achieve…Such leaders survive for a while, eroding their country’s reputation. But so far, they have all been voted out of office to face corruption prosecutions!

Populists follow a similar route to success: after years spent in political obscurity during which they are not taken seriously by the people, they gather a passionate fan-group around them. And suddenly with the help of strong state institutions, they’re in power. Once there, they make a mess. Why? Because deceptively simple populist solutions to complex problems are neither effective nor relevant, such as: honest leadership will eliminate corruption and set right public finances, overseas remittances will deliver the required foreign exchange, a large dose of religious education will abolish social evil, giving incentives to the rich will accelerate growth whose benefits will eventually ‘trickle-down’ to the working people. Meanwhile, they cut welfare programmes, give hand-outs to the rich, and jack up war spending without a semblance of an effort to make budget numbers add up.

The result of four years of such policies in Pakistan is more inequality, further economic decline and strained public finances. Democratic institutions are so emaciated that we are now branded by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute as an ‘electoral autocracy’ (not electoral democracy) alongside unsavoury regimes as Hungary, Philippines, India, Nigeria, Egypt, etc.

After four years of populist rule, the country fares badly. And populists stand exposed. Their rhetoric is hollow. Yet, they don’t fade away, which brings us to the final question: how to confront the populists?

The answer is that populists won’t fade away unless the government proactively confronts them with two actions: First, do its utmost to convince the people on the promise of democracy, which incidentally is a constitutionally mandated task – to preserve democracy ‘achieved by the unremitting struggle of the people against oppression and tyranny;’ And second, it must quickly address long-standing populist demands of the working people who are left behind by the disruptions and inequalities of our unjust economic system. This requires bold, expansive programmes to build rural infrastructure, social programmes to support the poor, such as giving meals to schoolchildren across the country, and piped water and sanitation in villages, building schools, increasing minimum wage and giving more cash support to the poor.

Sadly, on this front the government’s response so far is far too weak and nowhere near bold enough. Its pro-rich policies and economic rhetoric dictated by fear of hurting business confidence will end up fueling populist anger. This is not only bad economics, but also a replay of the failed policies of its populist predecessor. And the predecessor seizes on every negative bit of news as proof that the government is doomed. None of his criticism should be taken seriously though, because it is delusional to believe that working people’s interests are better served by populists.

Still, there is a real dilemma ahead for the government: to survive it must very soon engineer significant relief to the poor. But that, alas, is a policy area where it habitually drops the ball.

The writer is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at: