Challenging elites as corrupt and disconnected from common concerns, populists claim to derive their legitimacy from the supposed will of the people, and, usually use their influence to blame some “other” for the ills of the country. The causes and effects of the rise of the populist movements and parties are subject to intense debate: structuralist explanations such as economic insecurity, delayed modernization or uneven globalization stand next to culturalist assumptions. Examples of this can be found in conceiving of an “us versus them” narrative, with an established “ruling class,” be it “the media,” “big banks,” “the establishment,” “the swamp,” or any such “elites” pitted against “the people.”
It can be said that this is a means to an end strategy. “Politicians need to use every political technique: persuasion, compromise, behind-the-scene manoeuvring and politicking. These skills form the basis of democracy, but are far more difficult than populism.”
Unlike in the West, where populism is still constrained by strong democratic institutions and norms, institutions in Asia are weaker and most Asian populists are not potent. Consequently, it can be observed that a generation of populist demagogues have either held, gained, or threatened to take power in democracies around the Asia Pacific. Undoubtedly, populist leaders have little concern for the rule of law, so populism could actually prove more dangerous to democracy.
It can be observed that in Asia, most States where populism is rising are more similar to Hungary or Poland than they are to France, Germany or the United Kingdom. These Asian states are countries where institutions are weak and democracy can be easily dismantled.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2016, won the Presidency using the Thaksinesque rhetoric. After the Presidency of Benigno Aquino III, when growth improved, but the Philippine Government made few inroads into reducing inequality, President Duterte portrayed himself as the authentic voice of the masses, vowing to personally lead a major law and order campaign and blasting entrenched elites. Whilst in office, President Duterte has, like Thaksin, overseen a drug war using extra-judicial tactics, and also has declared martial law on the southern island of Mindanao. “Duterte also deployed a new style of diplomacy as part of his populist reach for unrestrained power. Amidst rising tensions in the South China Sea between Beijing and Washington, he improved his country’s bargaining position by distancing himself from the Philippines’ classic alliance with the US.”
India, the world’s largest democracy and arguably Asia’s strongest, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often governed as a populist. He won his office with a campaign that demonized the traditional elites who had mishandled the Indian economy in the early 2000s. His party stokes grievances against a Muslim “other,” while Modi portrays himself as the sole leader who can solve the country’s myriad problems.
India has far stronger democratic roots than most other states in South and Southeast Asia, and its institutions are resilient. Yet the media has become increasingly submissive to the Modi administration, as the government seems to be attempting to intimidate independent news outlets. The judiciary, too, is in Modi’s crosshairs: In a speech on India’s Constitution Day in November, Modi suggested that judges should be more supportive of government policies overall.
China under Xi Jinping, or populists who operate like elected autocrats. In both cases, there are fewer checks on a government’s ability to go to war than there would be in a strong democratic system. Both populists and autocrats tout their muscularity, a dangerous image to maintain that could turn minor conflicts into escalations.
India and China nearly fought a border war last year. It is not difficult to imagine that Xi and Modi, both of whom are consolidating power, could slip into another dispute that, unlike last year’s border standoff, might actually lead to war.
Asia’s rising populism is worrisome not only because many of its democracies may be too weak to stand up to populists, but because it has opened fault lines of conflict at a time when many countries are engaged in a regional arms race. “Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra recently summed up their successes this way: “Demagogues are still emerging, in the west and outside it, as the promise of prosperity collides with massive disparities of wealth, power, education, and status.”
Populism in an already tense region full of geopolitical traps could make Asia ripe for conflict. Democracies need democrats to thrive; which is now becoming a waking dream.
Ankit Malhotra is a third year student at the Jindal School of International Affairs.
Featured Image Source- : The Telegraph