Populism Vs Democracy – OpEd


The rise of populism in recent years has been a notable global phenomenon, characterized by charismatic leaders who often capitalize on public discontent and present themselves as champions of the common people against entrenched elites.

Populist movements tend to emphasize simple solutions to complex problems, often focusing on issues such as immigration, economic inequality, and national identity. While some view populism as a necessary corrective to address the concerns of marginalized populations, others express concerns about its potential to undermine democratic institutions and exacerbate divisions within societies. The diverse manifestations of populism across different regions highlight its complex and multifaceted nature, shaping political landscapes and policy debates worldwide.

In the late 19th century there was a major union organization, ‘Knights of Labour’ and also a radical populist movement based on farmers. It’s hard to believe, but it was quite radical. They wanted their own kind of political system and governance model. After struggling to implement their ideology that movement had ultimately failed and significantly damaged political and economic environment of the society. The rising concept of populism across the world is massively damaging diplomatic, cultural, political and economic norms of the globe. 

Indeed, many populist leaders have employed a strategy of offering idealistic and often simplistic solutions, effectively tapping into the frustrations and hopes of the masses. By promising quick fixes and presenting themselves as outsiders who can challenge established elites, these leaders create an emotional connection with their supporters. However, the appeal of these promises often lies more in their emotional resonance rather than their practicality or feasibility. The idealistic approach used by populist leaders can generate a sense of unity and empowerment among their followers, but it can also lead to disappointment when the realities of governance and the complexities of real-world challenges become evident. As a result, the manipulation of these hopes and the reliance on idealism can have both short-term political gains and long-term consequences for the stability and effectiveness of governance.

Populist leaders tried to grab sympathies of the masses by giving them fake hopes, based on idealist approach. When they came to power through populist mandate, they fail to deliver at economic and political fronts, triggering economic woes for the country. The recent example of this mandate is Indian Prime Minister Modi, who won India’s Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and again in 2019 with landslide victory over Congress. During his election campaign, Modi massively highlighted his economic achievements during his tenure as Chief Minister of state of Gujarat.

He promised to implement that economic model throughout the country for the uplift of vulnerable Indian economy. However, after assuming the office of Prime Minister, his failed economic policies drastically destroyed India’s already dwindling financial indicators.

After being eight years in power, he is struggling to improve economic indicators. His rhetoric changed from economic to strategic front, which also brought shame for India. He used famous line “Chokidar Kon Hai” (Who is Guard). Likewise, former US President Trump is another precedent of populism and its negative consequences for democratic values across the globe. Trump won 2016 US elections and surprisingly became President of world’s most power country. Since he was nationalist and won the elections through populist vote bank, his policies had negative repercussions not only for the US but also for the entire world.

Due to his policies, international community refused to follow American policies regarding global issues. He also brought US at the cusp of full-scale war with Iran and North Korea. So, the trend of populism is purely disastrous for global political and economic world order. Now, let’s talk about another aspect of populist vote bank.

Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has been using same populist approach to target his country’s political, judicial and military leadership in order to accomplish his political objectives. As Modi brought security paradigm to his populist approach for political point scoring, Imran Khan came with a narrative of US conspiracy to topple his government. Imran Khan won 2018 general election with a promise to eradicate corruption, making country economically strong and govern the state on the model of State of the Madina. His other rhetoric was fighting Islamophobia worldwide. Unfortunately, he failed to deliver on all these fronts. His policies severely damaged Pakistan’s dwindling economy. He even couldn’t integrate the country politically, economically and socially. He further created intolerance, panic and chaos in the society.

Likewise, this is negative side of populist leaders. They came with majority, having no plan for the betterment of the country. This personality cult is spreading now, which shows rapidly increasing polarization in our societies as well. These populist leaders are living in post-truth ideology and have been creating negative political and social discourses within societies. First they made statements, and then they themselves negated them. For example, Imran Khan is known as master of U-turns in Pakistan due to his lack of wisdom and ability to make any powerful decision.

For example, first he praised Pak Army, but after his removal from office of PM, he accused them of behind his ouster over mere flimsy ground. He blamed Army but failed to present even a single evidence to prove his claim. During Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, he said “Modi ka jo yar ha, Ghadar” (whoever is friend of Modi is traitor). Likewise, he publically acknowledged Modi for foreign policies. Regarding corruption, he had promised eradication of corrupt elements from the society, but again couldn’t accomplish it as well. His own minsters were involved in corruption. During his tenure as PM, Pakistan’s ranking further slipped in international corruption index. His hypocritic approach is being viewed as a threat to national interests.

Leaders always lead from the front and with examples. Irony is that Imran Khan is man of contradictory statements. His own kids are living luxurious life in Western culture. He himself spent half of his life with Western culture. But at the same time, he is pushing for Islamic social, cultural and political values. Unfortunately, he is also using religious card for his political gains. He has been trying to become leader of Muslim world but at the same time, he has failed to do anything positive and constructive for Muslim states. He has been playing with the sentiments of people while using religious and political cards. He has polarized our society politically and socially. Now, people must think before voting for populist leaders such as Imran Khan.

The world cannot afford more immature policies of populist leaders. Imran Khan’s political discourse must be changed. He must respect country’s institutions and not to target them just for mere political gains as it will give an ample reason to hostile elements to undertake propaganda against our country. Pakistan’s institutions are working tirelessly to uplift the economic growth of the country. We need to support them instead of spreading political venom.

Asad Ali

Asad Ali is an Islamabad based expert of South Asian Affairs

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