The Rise of Populists in Asia: Democracies Under Siege
Populism is in the air. And the specter of popular autocracy is haunting much of the world. In recent years, a growing number of rapidly-growing economies, with long traditional of liberal democratic rule, have gradually succumbed to temptations of populism: charismatic leaders promsing overnight solutions to complex problems besetting turbo-charged modernizing nations.
And surely, there are more fundamental structural forces at play in here. As Joel Racamora argues in the latest edition of the Socdem Asia Quarterly, “neoliberal economic policies marginalize large segments of the rural and urban population, creating the conditions for populism.” In short, the inherently disruptive and inequitous nature of economic globalization, which has brought tremendous prosperity to emerging market elites, is alienating a growing portion of the society that seeks its own rightful piece of the expanding pie.
This has been most acutely pungent in the case of the Philippines, long considered as the bastion of liberal democracy in East Asia, where growth as well as politcial power has been heavily concentrated in the hands of few conglomerates and political dyansties. The upshot is the election of tough-talking mayor-turned-president Rodrigo Duterte. There is little doubt that Duterte, who cruised into a landslide electoral victory on the back of an all-out “anti-establishment” rhetoric, is a populist.
As I write in my latest book, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy, the Filipino leader has often presented himself as the voice of the people, the guardian of the nation, the shield against criminal elements, and, in an often messianic vein, as the country's final hope and saviour.
Eerily similar phenomenon took place in India, the world’s largest and -- along with the Philippines -- among Asia’s oldest democracies. As Indu Ratra writes in the Quarterly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has also adopted a similarly messianic message of national salvation and glory, “promis[ing] in his election campaign “achhe din” (good days) will come… He came up with slogans like “make in India”, “start up India”, and “new India” to make Indians feel proud and imbibe a sense of greatness of a big populous country.” Both Modi and Duterte have presented themselves as viable alternatives to a discredited, elitist, out-of-touch liberal elite, directly questioning the liberal tenets of their respective national constitutional orders.
As US political scientist Jan-Werner Muller notes in “What is Populism?”, populism is inherently anathema to liberal democracy and principles of pluralism. Troubling signs have also showed up in places like Indonesia, another rapidly growing economy and fledgling democracy, where religious fundamentalism has gained ground at the expense of pluralism.
This was most palpable in the controversial conviction of former Jakarta Governor “Ahok”, a Christian who is of Chinese descent, on charges of blasphemy. More troublingly, fringe fundamentalist have found fountain of support among opportunistic politicians seeking to tap into dark currents of fundamentalism and anti-pluralist sentiments among alienated sections of the society. This was evidently clear during Ahok’s re-election bid, where we saw an unholy alliance between centrist politicans and fringe fundamentalist. “The excuse that a [supposedly] smart [and rational] voter will bring a healthier democracy is not entirely false, but there is an important factor that enables the maneuver of free riders,” Andi Saiful Haq warns in the Quarterly, referring to anti-democratic forces that are bent on absusing the democratic space for undemocratic ends.
In developed Asian democracies such as Japan, meawhile, the political landscape has, so far, been dominated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with little challenge from the democratic Left. As Jeff Kingston writes in the Quarterly, “populism in Japan in mainstream politics is limited to the right wing. The potential for fundamental reforms of the status quo is therefore limited.
Populists, especially the right-wing varieties, have an exclusivist notion of national interest and Rousseau-esque 'general will', whereby only the leader and his supporters truly represent 'the people.' In contrast, critics and opponents are often portrayed as 'the enemy', bent on preserving the status quo at the expense of the masses.
This explains why, for instance, Duterte often accuses his critics of engaging in 'sabotage' and hatching up a supposed 'destabilisation plot'. He has rarely shied away from threatening his opponents with impeachment, imprisonment or worse. Duterte also epitomises the populist style of leadership. As Benjamin Moffitt explains in his latest book, “Global Rise of Populism”, populism is essentially about 'bad manners': the calculated defiance of the established rituals of power in order to project authenticity.
Duterte's invective-laced pronouncements, which often drive his affinity with his audience, are a quintessential expression of his populist appeal. Modi, meanwhile, harldy shies away from angry, emotional chest-thumping speeches denouncing his critics as treasonous and conspiratorial. One can be populist but not necessarily popular, as in the case of US President Donald Trump.
Duterte, however, has maintained high approval ratings since coming to power last June. He is often portrayed as one of the world's most popular leaders, along with the likes of Vladimir Putin of Russia. It is precisely the larger-than-life figures such as Modi and Duterte, who are dramatically reshaping the Asian democratic landscape. The latest edition of the Quarterly brings together ideas from leading activists, thinkers and scholars across the Asia-Pacific region, shedding light on the phenomenon of populism and the challenges it presents to progressive forces and the gains of democract.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, policy advisor, and author. He teaches political science and international relations at De La Salle University, and as a specialist on Asian geopolitical and economic affairs he has written for or interviewed by Aljazeera English, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Hufftington Post, among other leading publications.