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How populism can be turned into an opportunity, not a threat

Tunisians take to the streets to rail against austerity. EPA/Mohamed Messara

Around the world, populism is on the march. The election of Donald Trump and the UK’s vote for Brexit triggered a crisis of faith in democratic institutions. And populists have been victorious in other countries including Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic, and Recep Tayyib Erdoğan in Turkey. Italy has now joined the ranks after a coalition deal was struck between the far-right Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement.

The elections that elevated these leaders and movements have been met with shock and horror by large sections of global society, and particularly the world’s democratic establishments. They are commonly depicted as not just part of a global phenomenon, but an existential threat to representative democracy itself.

In a recent opinion piece for the Financial Times, commentator Martin Wolff described populism as the “enemy” of democracy, explaining that it could “destroy independent institutions, undermine civil peace, promote xenophobia and lead to dictatorship”. Similarly, the scholar Yascha Mounk warned that the current populist moment might become a populist age, “and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt”.

Yet these authors are missing something crucial. Populism isn’t necessarily a threat to democracy – it can also be an opportunity. To explain why, we need to recognise that there are many different varieties of populism in different places. And some of them are potentially much less problematic than others.

Seizing the day

Philippe C. Schmitter, one of the world’s foremost experts on comparative democratisation, has argued that populism is a product not just of dysfunctional political institutions, but of the broader environment in which those institutions are embedded. This implies that in different environments, populism will be driven by different forces and will manifest in distinct ways. In short, it won’t look the same everywhere.

There are plenty of examples to back up Schmitter’s argument. In Europe, voters are disgusted at deep economic crisis combined with the cartel-like nature of traditional political parties. But whereas most recent European populism has typically been right-wing and linked to anti-immigration parties and movements, in Africa and the Middle East, it has typically had a more left-wing (or perhaps more accurately “pro-poor”) flavour, railing against government corruption and incompetence.

This focus reflects the fact that populist leadership in Africa has been facilitated by a very different set of developments. Citizens have experienced rapid urbanisation, and are disillusioned with democracy as they’ve experienced it to date. And instead of economic crisis or recession, they have seen rapid economic growth that has done nothing to alleviate dire inequality.

Popular outrage played a vital role in bringing down South Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma. EPA/Nic Bothma

These regional variations shape the nature and impact of populism in other important ways. European populism is typically viewed as problematic partly because it promotes divisive messages and emphasises racial divisions. By contrast, African populists often build strong mulity-ethnic support bases. While it’s not guaranteed, in societies that are deeply divided along ethnic lines, populism could in fact reduce conflict by turning political debate away from issues of identity.

Instead, populism can shine a light on the weaknesses of existing political systems. It can make clear which communities feel excluded from the mainstream, and it can expose the genuine failings of the status quo.

In many African and Middle Eastern countries, inequality has risen in part because governments have refused to make policies that would redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. In these countries, populism can be a corrective force, challenging democratic governments’ complacency and countering multiparty politics’s tendency to marginalise minorities.

Another way is possible

Populist movements and parties can also help bring younger people into politics – something many democratic countries find conspicuously difficult. Research tells us that voting is habit-forming: people who vote today are much more likely to vote in the future, improving political representation in the long run. The challenge for democrats, of course, is to persuade these new voters to work to reform the system, not to overthrow it in favour of something less democratic.

Populist movements have the potential to bring people disenchanted with mainstream politics back into a national conversation, in the process overcoming their sense of alienation – and by the same token, damping their attraction to extremist groups. However, this depends on the extent to which populist movements can be brought into the political system. Where populists set up parties and run for public office, this is relatively straightforward. But that’s not always what happens.

In some post-Soviet states, distrust of established parties has seen many citizens express their political preferences not by backing political parties, but by turning to civil society organisations such as the rise of legal reform and anti-corruption bodies in countries such as Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. Many of these organisations do not resemble political parties, or indeed want to turn into them. Not all of them can truly claim to represent citizens; some are genuine but have only tenuous roots in wider society, while others are merely vehicles for obtaining foreign aid.

But while still short of political parties running for office, populist organisations that are genuinely embedded in society have a big part to play. They can help renew democracy by offering citizens are more diverse set of channels through which to engage with the political world – at least, if a mechanism can be found to reconnect them with the formal political process.

Those who paint populism as a threat aren’t entirely wrong: it can be a genuine threat to democratic, liberal norms and values, especially in its European and North American manifestations. And while populism creates opportunities for political renewal, those opportunities will be missed unless their leaders and supporters mobilise fully to enter the political mainstream.

But this isn’t the whole story. Given its regional variations and so far unrealised possibilities, there’s every reason to hope that populists who get it right can help improve democracy in places where it badly needs a shot in the arm.

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