A supporter paying respects to former Argentinean president Juan Peron in Buenos Aires. Populism emphasises the role of charismatic leaders who do not need institutional intermediaries between them and the citizens. NYT Pix

WESTERN-style liberal democracy does not think highly of populism. In liberalism, relations between populism and democracy are usually deemed to be antithetical.

Because populist politicians enjoy electoral success, but often do not respect rules and proceedings, it is said that populism “despises democracy”, that it undermines, controls and, in the end, subdues or cancels the institutions of liberal democracy or that there is no such thing as democratic populism.

Populism’s opposition to democracy is evident in that it emphasises the role of charismatic leaders who do not need institutional intermediaries between them and the citizens, because they supposedly emanate almost magically and directly from the people, who they protect against perverse national and foreign oligarchies.

This opposition has been openly expressed, as when former Argentinean president Juan Peron disdained the system he labelled as “demoliberal bourgeois”, or when Cuban revolutionary fighter Che Guevara spoke about what he maintained were the carnal relations that president Fidel Castro had with the people of Cuba.

It is accordingly no accident that in academic discussions, populism is defined as a threat to the democratic system — populism takes government by the people, for the people, literally, and rejects all checks and balances on the popular will.

Other constitutive elements of democracy, such as the rule of law, the division of power or respect for the rights of minorities, are rejected because they confine the people’s sovereignty.

Nonetheless, this insistence should not drive us to the conclusion that everything in populism is incompatible with democracy as the Western liberals would want us to believe, or that democracy has no relation with populism at all.

It is one thing to hold that populism is somehow cornered in a stable political system with a more or less articulated civil society, but another thing to hold that populism must be totally absent in such a context.

Let us go back to the accustomed vagueness of populism: populism, thinly defined, has no political colour. It is colourless and can be of the left, and on the right. It is a normal political style adopted by all kinds of politicians from all times.

Populism is simply a strategy to mobilise support. It is a standard communication technique to reach out to the constituency.

Populism can change, as in the case of another former Argentinean president, Carlos Menem, a Peronist who supported globalisation and freer markets against the old nationalism of his own party, although he, at the same time, expanded the role of the state, weakened the division of power, spread corruption with the help of a friendly justice, and dabbled in hazardous monetary alchemies — all characteristically anti-liberal.

In addition, he preserved typical Peronist clientele networks, such as the totalitarian trade union structure, also a negation of liberalism’s opposition to privilege and arbitrariness.

Opportunism and the lack of homogeneity, distinctive of populism, are intense and explain how it was possible to attach the neo-populist label to former Peru president Alberto Fujimori and to Menem, who privatised the same public utilities that had been nationalised during Peron’s first term as president after 1946.

It just goes to show that populism is not a transitory phenomenon, is not linked to a particular economic policy, such as import substitution and protectionism, and does not derive only from crisis, but is associated with redistributive interventionism, which is precisely the mark of policies in the more stable democracies.

Populism has a personal component, but therein lies one of it crucial deficiencies that account for its political and economic instability.

The consequences of its policies are more readily ascribable to an individual than are policies in a stable democracy. If populist leaders take advantage of this circumstance in good times, they suffer for it when the going gets tough.

In contrast, governments in developed countries change, but no political party has ever stood seriously against the welfare state. It is the liberal scheme of things, populism is usually seen as a strategy to manipulate the masses and, therefore, is essentially anti-liberal.

Nevertheless, there is a possibility to explore how populism might be integrated into a stable, interventionist democracy — a development that liberals have considered a contradiction in terms, but one that is not unthinkable. Liberals also claim that populism’s traditional interventionism impedes the values of free enterprise.

The irony behind the liberal antagonistic stance is that its own policies of alienating the people in its quest to improve corporate profit have given rise to populism both in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Wages for the majority of workers in both countries have stagnated, and the truth of the matter is that neo-liberal policies have severely undermined democracy.

In the so-called “mature democracy”, we are currently witnessing the backlash against neoliberal policies and globalisation in the guise of what has been mistakenly labelled as populism.

Brexit is as much a reaction to Thatcherite programmes that de-industrialised England as it is to the unhappiness with policies that emanated from Brussels.

It is, therefore, instructive to note that the rise of powerful populist movements in the 20th century is also a reaction by the masses against manipulation by the business class, which meant that the business class can no longer keep workers subjugated purely through violence.

With the onset of globalisation and the coming of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the world is once again witnessing the rise of populism.

While liberal intellectuals want us to believe that populism is incompatible with democracy, we should, nonetheless, be cognisant of the fact that if populism is defined as citizens participation in decision-making, then it is the same as democracy.

Dr Azeem Fazwan Farouk is Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Policy Research and International Studies director

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