Populism is a concept in political science that postulates that the society is divided into two groups that are at odds with each other. According to Cas Mudde who is the author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, these two groups consist of: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’. The term ‘populism’ is often used as a kind of a political insult. For instance, Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party in Britain has often been accused of invoking populism over his party slogan ‘for the many not the few’, but it’s not actually the same thing. According to Benjamin Moffitt, author of The Global Rise of Populism, the word “is generally misused, especially in a European context.” A populist leader in the true sense of the word claims to represent the uniform will of the people, stands in opposition to the enemy – that is often embodied by the current system which is aimed at either ‘draining the swamp’ or ‘tackling the liberal elite’. Dr. Moffitt continues, “It generally attaches itself to the right in a European context… but that’s not an iron rule.”
In the contemporary world, Populism is everywhere in the political spectrum: there are politicians like Marine Le Pen in France, Donald Trump in the US, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Narendra Modi in India. Political scientists believe that populism is not a new phenomenon but in the past decade it has certainly accelerated, and has taken many forms in the 2010s – which were often overlapping. In some countries a socioeconomic version was observed, where the working class pitted against big businesses and cosmopolitan elites who were believed to be benefitting from the capitalist system, such as, in countries like France and the US. While others saw an overwhelming focus on the cultural form thrive with emphasis on issues like immigration, national identity and race, for instance, in countries like Germany and India. However, the most common type of populism was the anti-establishment populism that pits the common masses against the political elites and the mainstream political parties represented by them. These forms of populism are likely to also continue into the next decade, although the main focus may probably shift from immigration to climate change.
Associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Reading in England, Daphne Halikiopoulou opines, “If the 2010s were the years in which predominantly far-right, populist parties permeated the political mainstream, then the 2020s will be when voters are going to see the consequences of that.” Although in some ways the results are already beginning to manifest in some states, a case in point being the 2016 vote in Britain to exit the European Union – Brexit – and the consequent political fallout that led to the resounding victory of the populist Prime Minister, Boris Johnson in the general election. Moreover, in other countries also the populist parties are beginning to make their impact in various ways – if not through directly passing legislation then by exerting pressure in the opposition.
In the near future i.e. the 2020s, many populist political figures are expected to rise to power and prominence. For example, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, who is the leader of the far-right and nativist League party has sworn to return to government as the prime minister, and if successful he is likely to forge alliances with his fellow populist leaders, inter alia, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Such alliances could herald a reinvigorated wave of populism in the world. On the other side of the globe, Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, has also signaled to continue his quest of deepening his Hindu-nationalist agenda. It is in this context that his government enacted a controversial Citizenship Amendment Act – which grants citizenship to refugees belonging to every major South Asian religion except Muslims – leading to weeks of protests and unrest across the country, in addition to continuing his policy of political repression and harsh lockdown in Kashmir.
Pakistan is, of course, not immune to the global move towards populism. Imran Khan is viewed by many political science experts as a populist prime minister. Ever since coming to power he has pursued divisive politics by sometimes silencing and at other times discrediting dissenters. The arrest and imprisonment – often on groundless allegations – of many opposition leaders can be viewed in this context. Moreover, on more than one occasion certain quarters of the media have been targeted and demonized in a bid to kill the messenger if you can’t kill criticism. These policies of the incumbent government led by Prime Minister, Imran Khan, to stifle opposition negate principles of pluralism and democratic tolerance. Pakistan is indeed on a slippery slope vis-à-vis the rise of populism in politics.
Populism is likely to persist as a fixture of politics for the foreseeable future. How countries choose to respond to it may become the defining feature of the remaining part of the twenty-first century. Propagation of values of democracy such as international cooperation, religious tolerance, pluralism and diversity seem to offer the only ray of hope in this, otherwise, dark tunnel of populism.