It can be argued that progressive populism is feasible for democracy. The answer of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question in the title may not be feasible given the varying contextual perspectives of populism and their respective consequences on democracy. Hence, a populism which amasses people for the true realisation of democratic principles such as good governance, equity and rule of law can be considered good for democracy rather than a threat to democracy. Hence, in essence this article will discuss populism in relation to democracy both in light of a threat and also an integral part of democracy.
It can be argued that both populism and democracy establish and uphold the same principle of people power. As Lincoln argued, the rule of the people by the people and for the people - vox populi vox dei - is central to both these notions. In one of the most significant speeches about democracy, 2500 years back Pericles said in a public square in Athens – “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority, but of the whole people”. So both the notions should stand in harmony assuming that more the people’s voice is heard and reflected the better and vibrant the democracy is. However, the issue with populism and democracy discussed in the context of Sri Lanka is that that the very structures that are supposed to uphold democratic functions does not seem to deliver what they ought to. The branches of power – the legislative, executive and judiciary seems to have been hijacked under the façade of democratic validation into serving successive rulers and governments.
The populism witnessed in western nations is different from that of Latin America, South East Asia or South Asia. The populism in the United States or the Nordic nations carry a trademark of racial attacks against immigrants and minorities which argues that the traditional ways of life for the whites are under attack. The immigrants and minorities are oft used by politicians as scapegoats for real systematic socio-economic issues that needs to be addressed. The populism witnessed in South East Asia especially in Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand have been types of left-wing populism where the ingredient of racism is not in the cards. The majority support in the United States for Trump’s perceived racial politics doesn’t and cannot justify democratic validation under ‘majority rule’ as this amount to the tyranny of the majority in support of ethnic-racial discrimination. However, the populism witnessed in the streets of Manilla or Bangkok may be seen as a cry against systematic socio-economic injustice and corruption by the few against the many. Duterte in 2016, Thaksin in 2001 and Jokowo in 2015 appealed to the masses by promising to ‘politically correct’ the system in favour of a fair and equitable society against the ‘enemies of the common people’. This in itself cannot be seen as threats to democracy as they seek to remedy ‘their democracy’. However, what amounts to a threat is when populist leaders turn into authoritarians who validate their un-democratic policies via democratic validation they received earlier.
The notion of stereotyping ‘populism’ may render incorrect. Both Hitler and Franklin Dilano Roosevelt were considered populist leaders. The difference about to be explained may be self-explanatory. Whilst Hitler called for racial hegemony via racist nationalism, Roosevelt radically appealed for freedom to ‘everyone in the world’ through the Four Freedom speech in 1941.
Similar to what is witnessed in Sri Lanka, the politics in Philippines have been influenced much by the ‘parliaments of the streets’ rather than the vibrant parliaments of the faculties of authority. Duterte’s rise to power can in no mean be less populist. He came into power from Philippine’s most impoverished region appealing to populist sentiments which were anti-establishment, nationalistic, strict law enforcement and many promises of economic revival. However, two years into the rule, Duterte resembles previous regimes with cronyism, oligarchy and a bunch of broken promises which have led some people in Philippines to question or rethink the correctness of Duterte’s rule. However, supporters of the Duterte’s administration have defended the policies suggesting Duterte is democratically validated to carry out his policies. Now this is exactly the baggage of concerns which arises out of the term ‘threat’ suggested in the heading – is populism a threat to democracy?
This in turn validates the question whether it is democracy that have failed the Filipinos or whether it is the Filipinos who have failed democracy.
Reflecting on the Philippines this suggest that the demand which populism amasses in Sri Lanka is a reflection of a larger problem which needs to be set in context. Populism should be seen as a sign to remedy the deficiencies democracy faces in Sri Lanka – amending the current constitution, reforms in the electoral & existing party system and appropriate policy changes in the system. Therefore, the author suggests that populism should be seen in a constructive lens with regards to its rise in the island. Sri Lankans have turned to populist politicians who promise to address their grievances when the governments and authorities/systems have failed. The only way to amice both populism and democracy is a virtuous cycle of reform and renewal where there are consistent progressions of a vibrant civic tradition of responsible citizens and politicians. Of course this has to be complemented by an equitable socio-economic development. Hence, these long-term developments demand the aforementioned consistency.
One good example would be the ‘populist movement’ in Australia called - CommunityRun. It is an independent social movement aiming to remedy the perceived wrongs of the society through progressive democratic action. ‘Save our hospitals’ is an initiative of CommunityRun where ordinary Australians can rise up to cuts on Health Care funding by simply signing a petition online, organising peaceful protests and pressuring the local councillors to stand against the cuts if the cause has enough backing of the local population.
Sri Lankans have lacked responsible governments who are progressive, proactive and effective in running the country. The weaknesses in the judiciary has not attracted investments as it should have as well as political corruption undermining economic development. Young people in the island have been radicalised socially due to the lack of economic opportunities pushing them towards desperateness and societies evil. The weakness of the democratic institutions in Sri Lanka to check-and-balance the power and address corruption has resulted in a vicious cycle of damage. It is precisely in this context that talks for a populist leader in 2020 emerges in Sri Lankan minds. Certain candidates vying for 2020 have been capable of addressing both - peoples’ continued frustration and vulnerability – echoing the message of power back to the masses.
It is contentious to dwell into the arguments whether populism is democratic in itself. After all populist leaders such as Trump and Duterte have claimed that they appeal and speak on behalf of the grass-root everyday people. This brings in parallels with what may be referred as direct democracy – the grassroots of democratic concepts itself. There is no concrete affirmation in political science as to a one-size-fits-all model democracy. Many contemporary political scientists shy away from declaring direct democracy being the best form of governance. This reflects the central contention illustrated throughout this article – that a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question will not suffice. There are varying types of populism. However, we can agree to an extent that if the brand of populism espouse good governance, equitable socio-economic development and vie to uphold democratic ideals then it is a win for democracy rather than a threat - in the least because it ignites democratic activism in people via calls for ‘people power’.
UNLOCKED is a space for Sri Lankan youth to express their views and opinions on development with the aim of creating positive change in the world. The views expressed in the blogs are solely those of the authors. UNDP Sri Lanka and Daily FT does not represent or endorse the views expressed in these blogs.