Populism and Its Alternative

Once in power, populist governments, after a brief honeymoon with the people, have had to resort to totalitarianism to remain in power

By Sada Reddi

Reviewing the last few years one cannot fail to notice that populism is on the rise in many countries. We have seen a number of governments coming to power as a result of populist forces securing enough votes to put their leaders into government posts. In Mauritius the general elections of 2014 which swept the Alliance Lepep to power is partly the result of a similar trend in world politics. Similar stories are being heard in many countries including the U.S., France, India, South America and Central Europe where elections results have been shaped by the rise of populist forces. However, embracing populism appears to be an ephemeral phenomenon, for the very electorate which put governments in power become quickly disillusioned and seek to reverse the situation at the first opportunity. There are thus worldwide efforts to fight populism and to restore the liberal and socialist forces as an alternative agenda.

Several reasons have been put forward to explain the rise of populist governments, from Trump’s to Macron’s. In the case of France, Emmanuel Macron was elected to contain the populist forces of the far-right. In many countries the electorate had become disillusioned with mainstream politics and parties. The problems confronting society have become more complex and people tend to look for simple solutions; moreover they seem to believe that the mainstream press and the elite – whether political, administrative or economic – have become too aloof and cut off from ground realities while wealth inequality has been widening.

On the other hand populist parties have emerged and staked a claim to represent the people; their rhetoric offered simple and simplistic solutions to problems which are complex and demand creative solutions. Populists do not adhere to any political ideal and have crafted policies drawn from the right and the left and pose themselves as the saviour of the people. With the spread of the internet, political debate has been submerged by rhetoric; the extensive use of the social media by various groups and parties is marked by gossip, fake news and post-truth. Such rhetoric appeals to both the lowest common denominator in the populace and to a middle-class worried about its declining living standard. But once in power, populist governments, after a brief honeymoon with the people, have had to resort to totalitarianism to remain in power. Again the people soon became disillusioned with their populist governments and they have expressed their discontent in various ways.

In the US the government under Trump had resorted to a policy of brazen nationalism and isolationism to remain in power. The French who have a tradition of street protests and the barricades have for months since November 2018 taken to the streets and remain dissatisfied even with the abolition of the hike in petrol prices – in fact the French malaise is much deeper that what appears on the surface. The Mauritian electorate, lacking both the French tradition of the barricades or the internal democracy of British party politics, is left with no choice than to put up with the regime in the hope of delivering its verdict at the next general elections and charting a new course for the future.

It should not have come as a surprise, even without hindsight, that populist governments and populist policies are bound to fail. They lack vision, competence, experience, and their approach to governance is cosmetic. The leaders are groomed to appear handsome, youthful, serious and their ignorance is paraded arrogantly as wisdom. Failing to transform the economy for the betterment of the people and alienating one group after another, they rely on image transformation and even that too is a failure for the cracks are too visible to remain unnoticed.

As we have seen, populist governments have only proposed simple and simplistic solutions to difficult and sometimes intractable problems which have to be tackled with a lot of competence, experience, negotiating skills and resources. The death warrant signed for the Double Taxation Agreement with India is a glaring example of the incompetence of our own brand of populists which made us the laughing stock of Indian civil servants. In fact fools rushed in where angels fear to tread. On the other hand, road accidents, traffic problems, crimes and a number of issues have enabled the public to evaluate the competence and planning skills of the decision makers.

Given the toxic legacy of populism of these last few years, it is imperative that political parties on the left do not dish out the same rhetoric and policies. Left and centre-left parties have to go back to their ideological roots and provide an alternative to populist policies. An alternative framework must have a radical and transformative agenda based on the undying values of democratic equality, inclusiveness and social justice. These values have been upheld and pursued consistently, since the first liberal elections of 1948 in Mauritius, for the creation of a society fair towards all.

Admittedly there have been compromises at all times born out of necessity and pragmatism but the end in view has never changed. In fact social, political and economic reforms have always been incremental and implemented within the overarching framework of a Welfare State even when the timing of some of the measures implemented have been leveraged for tactical purposes to serve electoral needs. One must acknowledge that there is a big ideological difference between increasing old-age pensions for electoral gains and providing old-age pensions as a right within the principle of universalism and increasing such pensions to improve and maintain the standard of living of the aged.

Mauritian society is a very heterogeneous society with different social and economic groups jostling in their scramble for scarce resources. Consequently there has developed a strong perception that a zero-sum game operates every time that one group benefits from government policies whether in the economic field, in employment, education, health or culture. In a representative democracy, those who feel relatively deprived, ignored or not represented are bound to be frustrated.

A political party which had been at the helm of public affairs for more than half a century need not necessarily be told or reminded what should be its vision of the future. But the people expect that its policies and programmes, while taking into account the populist forces in society, should aim to benefit all sections of the population and not one particular class, family or group. These policies and programmes must be anchored in an ideological paradigm of social justice, national solidarity and a realistic vision of the future.


* Published in print edition on 2 February 2021

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