Social Democracy in a time of Populism: from ripples to surges
On its third successive batch, the Network of Social Democracy in Asia’s (or SocDem Asia) Political Management Training brought together progressive young leaders from across Southeast Asia. The current batch is the largest and most diverse yet with participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor, Burma, Thailand, and the Philippines coming from the youth movement, political parties, art community and civil society. The first leg of the PMT was again held in Manila with the partnership of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Olof Palme International Center. With the usual pleasantries and camaraderie among the participants one would get the impression that progressives and social democrats are gaining the upper hand in Asia. However, step outside the conference room, Asian democrats and progressives are losing ground to fundamentalist and populist movements. Like their European counterparts, the Asian populist movements are competing with the established progressive, labor and democratic movements but with far better results. Populists are taking the reins of government.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody anti-drug campaign has been scored by domestic and international human rights groups for alleged human rights violations and the country’s political opposition has been put on the defensive with one opposition senator imprisoned while his supporters skilfully use fake news to whip up support for the president. In neighbouring Indonesia, Former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, was convicted for alleged blasphemy of the Islamic faith despite evidence to the contrary. Prior to his conviction, he was defeated in his bid to secure a full term as governor of Jakarta (he succeeded then Governor Joko Widodo upon Widodo’s election as Indonesia’s President) during the April runoff election which saw a convergence of fundamentalist, racist social elements with disgruntled segments of Indonesia’s political class. This has caused unease among the sizeable religious and ethnic minorities of Indonesia as well moderate and secular Muslims in the country. Similar populist movements revolving around issues of religion and ethnicity are also gaining ground in other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Burma. One can’t help but questioning the need for training future progressive leaders when the threat to Asia’s democratic institutions is imminent.
Unlike their Western counterparts, progressives and democrats in Asia are not the “establishment” that right-wing populists protest against. Save for a handful of Asian nations, authoritarianism remains the status quo for many countries or at least posses a constant threat of a comeback in many newly-democratized or partially democratic countries. But these progressive movements are not newcomers either; most Asian countries have a long tradition of democratic dissident movements within their societies. Take for example the recent Bersih movement of Malaysia which succeeded in galvanizing a multi-racial, and multi-religious civil society movement has roots from the earlier Reformasi movement two decades earlier. With such a rich history of democratic and progressive movements in Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular there can be a tendency to wax nostalgic for earlier protest movements such as those during the early days of decolonization. However, Asian progressives and social democrats do not have the luxury on resting on these memories. The democratization efforts in the region have seen limited successes. Authoritarian regimes that were able to survive the wave of democratic movements continue to entrench themselves while new populist movements have served to energize anti-democratic tendencies in their respective countries. It is no coincidence that the growth of populist movements tends to benefit sections of society with authoritarian tendencies. We can see this with the political coalition of President Duterte which used populist rhetoric and at the same time courting the support of the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Since populism is becoming a regional phenomenon, the response from social democrats and progressives must also be regional in scope. This PMT is an invaluable space to create, in a more sustained and programmatic approach, solidarity among young Asian progressives. There are lessons to be learned from the social movements in one country by other Asian movements. More importantly, it is important for progressives to have a shared imagination of their region. Instead of appearing as isolated pockets, progressives groups must see themselves as part of a regional effort to bring meaningful political and social reform. This is no easy task. As Asian social democrats the challenge is how to articulate a competent and democratic model of governance that will replace the corruption and abuses of autocrats while also addressing the social issues which are energizing populists.
PMT may serve as one of the small ripples for a bigger regional surge of progressive politics. Organizers of the training are conscious in recruiting younger leaders from existing progressive political parties or social movements. They usually focus on participants who have shown the potential of becoming senior leaders. Moreover, focusing on young participants is important for political movements to shore up on their cultural capital that allows them to reach a wider audience. Participants are very much immersed in social media and reflect the more interconnected world that we live in. Most hold very multicultural, secular and progressive values that social democrats subscribe to but with less ideological rigidity that senior activists may possess. These younger activists are aware of other progressive movements abroad that have emerged and are keen to listen to the experiences of their fellow activists while they also share their stories.
Overall, the training aids in preparing future leaders to take on bigger roles and eventually continue the struggle of more senior activists and leaders. It tries to hone their dynamism and creativity and channel it toward more focused goals. More importantly, the training helps these future leaders by equipping them with skills and ideological training that are relevant for current times. The training situates the progressive movement on the here and now. The program itself is streamlined to focus more on important technical skills, knowledge and democratic values rather than on ideological dogma. It helps build the case for democracy, solidarity, human rights, women’s rights, labor rights and other progressive values as Asian values.
Their own local trainings supplemented with the PMT can hopefully help to build their respective progressive movements as counter poles to populist forces. A particular skill that the PMT tries to hone among its participants is their communication skills particularly communicating compelling messages to their audience. While still in their early stages, the violent rhetoric employed by populists must be challenged. It is important that progressives challenge these regressive views before they gain currency in the wider society and such a responsibility also falls on the shoulder of younger activists. At the same time, how do they win over the public to their side of the political divide? The training has been useful in helping the participants in effective political communications such as using big pictures or big ideas, using easily understood terms, and creating compelling narratives for political campaigns.
The PMT and similar trainings are among the many ways to re-energize a progressive movement on the defensive. What it brings to the table is creating an avenue for solidarity. It not only brings individuals together but also movements. It may be prematurely optimistic to say that an activist from one country can draw on energy and inspiration from progressives from other countries. The program is still in its infancy but the potential is there. The PMT’s organizers envision bringing the program to other Asian regions such as South Asia or East Asia where their progressives are confronting numerous challenges as well. But for now, the organizers are focused on baby steps. They know the need to make these small ripples sustain themselves to make bigger waves and surges possible.
The first leg of the PMT was from May 12 – 16 while the second leg will be held from October 29 – November 3.