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A Populist ‘Tsunami’: Is it Destructive or Constructive?

ISSUE 2019
No 5
Release 25 April 2019
By Mr. Sim Vireak

Populism is a form of politics where politicians garner their support by manipulating the public’s nationalism and discontent over social weaknesses, social inequality and alleged exploitation by the establishment. Populist politicians label themselves as fighters against specific social ills, ones that often draw people’s sympathy, ultra-nationalism and struggle against the existing establishments.

As the European Parliament election nears, the sweeping tide of populism is a matter of concern not only on its violent nature but also on its enduring policy-decision that has impact well beyond the EU.

The number of Europeans voting for populist parties in national votes has surged from 7 percent to more than 25 percent, according to the research by the Guardian.

The most symbolic faces of Europe’s populism are probably Brexit in the UK and the Yellow Vest movement in France.

The ugly turn of the Brexit appeared when Jo Cox, the British Labour Party Member of Parliament, was killed as she was seen as a “passionate defender” of the European Union and immigration. The Brexit ordeal continues to haunt Europe in the undecided divorce since the referendum in 2016.

In France, for the past two months, the “yellow vests” or “gilets jaunes” movement has been protesting across the country and President Emmanuel Macron denounced “extreme violence” that came to “attack the Republic.”

The impact of populism in Europe has even provoked barbed exchanges of comments among France and Italy when Di Maio, leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), sent his support to the Yellow Vests and accused France as the main cause of Africa’s impoverishment and that “European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonising dozens of African countries”. France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau responded, “Our intention is not to have a stupidity contest.”

Populism is also attributed to Europe’s deteriorating peace, as argued by José Luengo-Cabrera based on the result from the 2018 Global Peace Index. He wrote that:

“Although results from the 2018 GPI show that 20 of the 30 most peaceful countries in the world are European, they also show that the region’s level of peace has been deteriorating for the last three years in a row.

While many conflating factors are at play, the drivers behind Europe’s deteriorating peace are those that populist parties have capitalised on (and stoked) for political ends. The recurrence of terrorist attacks across European cities and the unprecedented inflow of refugees have contributed to an accruing sense of social acrimony, one that has arguably bolstered the appeal of populist parties. Economic woes have also played a role, themselves exacerbated by growing insecurity.”

The dangerous part of populism on the street is that no one can guarantee that the crowd of protesters do not include opportunists, anarchists and hard-core fascists.

The current trend in Europe is a form of agitated democracy where demand for pure social utopia, ultra- nationalism and racism are being expressed through a legitimate form of democratic expression. Populist democracy gives the impression that every individual can become the representative of the people. It demands pure socialist benefits within a capitalist system when society is losing balance between people’s endless demands and state’s resources.

The hierarchy of state institution is becoming flat when state governance is under scrutiny from any possible element of society. Non-elected NGOs or interest groups and lobbyists are acting like the legitimate representatives of specific constituency that is claimed to be either “the vulnerable” or “the majority”. The meaning of being elected or “representative” is becoming obsolete with populism because anyone can just come to the street and shout for their “legitimate demand.”

For the case of Japan, populism was a sort of social experiment that lasted from 2009 to 2012. It began when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ousted the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who had ruled Japan almost uninterrupted for 54 years, from power in a massive landslide victory in 2009.

DPJ capitalized support from a populist manifesto that promised cash handouts, generous social schemes, free tollway, reduction of the US military presence and the fight against the alleged corrupt elite system built by the LDP that drove the economy to the bottom, building up more than 6 trillion yen ($5.45 billion) in public debt and ruining the social security net. The LDP’s increased political scandals and corruption also contributed to their historical defeat.

The populist DPJ, whose members have little or no governance experience, later found themselves trapped in their own manifesto with promises – undeliverable as they could not manage resources from the already strained fiscal budget. Pressure mounted when the DPJ government had to deal with the powerful March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami which severely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 150 miles northeast of Tokyo. This natural calamity posed further challenges to Japan on top of the battered economy, increased fiscal deficit and public debt and increasingly difficult relations with the US.

From all the above, the commonality between Europe and Japan’s populism is that, although populism is the desirable form and means of election victory, it is not a form of politics that promotes social harmony, cohesiveness and sustainability.

Learning from the case of Japan, it is clear that social interruption or destruction of the establishments does not necessarily provide a direct answer to social problems especially when those who are holding the reins of power in state governance have no policy or political experience.

Another important difference from Europe is that Japanese political scenes do not involve street violence but rather tense parliamentary debates and a consensus-building process.

No one knows when the social experiment of populism in Europe is going to end but clearly politicians need to find middle ground between the desire for electoral victory, the structural destruction of the establishments and deteriorating peace and social harmony.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.