The Rising trend of Populists: A Threat to Democracy

The Twenty-first century is being marked by populist trends, a global experience, which produces more and more so-called populist leaders and policies.

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Populism Vs Democracy

We are living in a world in which political rights and civil liberties have deteriorated to their lowest point. Freedom House named its Report on Freedom in the World 2018 as ‘Democracy in Crisis’. According to the report, democracy faced its most serious crisis in 2017 compared to previous decades, as some of the basic tenets such as free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press and the rule of the law came under attack throughout the world.

Since the past decade as democracy started retreating, its place is being taken by leaders who are being termed as ‘populists’ in general parlance. Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde believes that populism is an ideology, which divides the population into two homogenous and antagonistic groups; the identity of the groups though differ from one country to the other.

The Rise of the Populists Everywhere

Transcending geographical boundaries, it is believed that populist leaders have emerged in countries as diverse as the United States of America, Hungary, the Philippines, Turkey and also India, among many others. While these countries may have diverse social and political ethos, the politics inspired by the populist ideology plays out in a much similar manner. The populist leader, who is a skilled orator, employing rhetoric touchesa chord with the larger majority, in turn promising a decisive and effective leadership.

A relentless effort to generate a sense of one community being persecuted is the hallmark of a populist leader. The perceived victimhood goes hand-in-hand with the creation of a new political identity, which stands in antagonism to the ‘other’ community, though in most of the cases, it is extended to anyone critical of the government.

The idea of the ‘other’ is different in each country. The immigration policy was a signature issue during the campaign of Donald Trump for the post of the President of the United States of America.

If the ‘other’ in the discourse of President Trump is the immigrant, then the ‘other’ in that of President Duterte of Philippines’ is the drugs-mafia. President Duterte promised to get rid of ‘outsiders’ aiming to reduce drug-related crime and free the Philippines from corruption. The Duterte administration’s ‘war on drugs’ is globally controversial and according to the claim of the different set of sources,4,000 to 22,000 lives have been lost due to vigilante killings and police operations.

It is also imperative for the populist leader to consolidate his hold over the different institutions, rendering them ineffective to challenge his authority. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has dismantled the democratic structure in Hungary since assuming the office in 2010. The ruling party Fidesz has effectively demolished the independence of the judiciary. The electoral law was changed, so that in 2014,Fidesz got 66 percent of the seats in parliament on 44 percent of the votes.


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Similar to Viktor Orban, President Erdogan is dismantling the democratic structures in Turkey. President Erdogan during the first years in office passed certain bills to facilitate Turkey’s entry into the European Union. However, the succeeding years saw him consolidating his own hold over the country’s different institutions. He further entrenched his power through the referendum in 2017, though the European membership has become a distant dream for Turkey.

Political analysts around the world see India’s politics since 2014 as cultural populism. Since the coming into power of Prime Minister Modi in 2014, and the re-election with a much larger mandate in 2019, the ‘insider’ and the ‘outsider’ or the ‘us’ against ‘them’ debate has found much resonance in the country. The run-up to the general elections in 2019 was also focused on national security and nationalist fervour, post the terror attack of Pulwama earlier. This conveniently overrode the other pertinent issues like unemployment and agrarian distress.

Why is Populism Rising?

Today’s world is a globalized world. It is also a world that is witnessing increasing economic downturns, inequality and unemployment rates. More people are moving from one place to another for better jobs and opportunities, or as refugees with worsening security conditions. This helps the populists, as it easily fits into the populist narrative of ‘us’ against ‘them’.

It gives people the perception that foreigners may be stealing job opportunities, or maybe complementing economic distress.

Another feature of today’s world that may be facilitating the rise of populism is the reach of social media. With the advancement of technology, the capacity of dissemination through social media is exponential. For the populists, social media has emerged as an effective way of mobilisation of their hordes of followers. In an analysis done by Alto Analytics, Europe based data and artificial intelligence company, the predominance of more followers of populist leaders help amplify anti-immigration and anti-establishment views and force them into mainstream debates.

Where is the opposition?

It will be interesting to note that most of the so-called ‘populist’ leaders, and especially, the aforementioned ones are democratically elected. This would mean that the electorate, and a sizeable portion of the electorate, have voted for these leaders. This would also mean that the ‘one’ against the ‘other’ narrative finds much resonance. Looking at this, one may wonder whether this is the ‘will’ of the larger majority. But it may also put across a flaw in our prevalent democratic systems. Are the present-day democracies devoid of a capable opposition leader or opposition party, which may oppose such a divide to ferment in the society?


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In India, even after the rout that the opposition parties faced in the 2019 elections, it does not seem that the parties and leaders have learnt any lesson; rather, they seem poised to slide into oblivion. First, it does not seem that any leader in the country matches the ‘popular’ charm of Prime Minister Modi. Second, it is the liability of a capable opposition to highlight pertinent issues like unemployment. The NSSO data marked the unemployment rate of the country at a 45 year high at the beginning of the year. A sound and capable opposition must highlight these issues to the voters, seize the narrative and change it during the elections, making these issues seem more real on which elections are fought and won.

What Next?

A glimmer of hope has been provided by a local mayor election in Turkey’s Istanbul. While the election was poised to be won by the AKP, the ruling party of President Erdogan, it was won instead by the main rival party, CHP. Using his powers over the various administrative divisions, the elections of March were declared to be rigged and the verdict was overruled. The next two months saw extensive campaigning, challenging the discourse in the election on positive politics, using social media extensively. The results of the second election saw Ekrem Imamoglu sweep the election once again, overriding his own win in the previous election.

This may be a local election having little resonance for the other countries of the world. But, it also has some lessons for democracies around the world. If the societies around the world have much to lose, if it veers away from the path of democracy, then it has to challenge the populists with the virtues that democracy stands for: free and fair elections fought on relevant and pertinent issues.