OF THE many things that occurred in the decade (2010s) that is about to end, the world of politics was metamorphic, if not chaotic. It had something to do with the rise of populism where politicians and groups carried the sentiments of the masses using populist, if not nationalist, rhetoric. Among those who were swept into power, propelled by voters fed up with the status quo, were Donald Trump (USA), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Boris Johnson (UK) and Volodymyr Zelensky (Ukraine).
From politics as usual, populist leaders of today often use crass language, no longer the diplomatic or dignified style associated with statesmen. Duterte is a natural in this one. They do not follow protocol. Trump makes his announcements through Twitter instead of feeding the media in press conferences. They survive controversies. Johnson’s alleged sexual indiscretions in the past were non-issues as far as voters were concerned. Zelensky, a comedian, clobbered the incumbent Petro Poroshenko in the second-round voting by 73.22 percent to the latter’s 26.78 percent.
When the bureaucratic system seems to fail the population, there is opportunity for personalities who make promises to bring a nation out of the quagmire. The worst of the kind was Adolf Hitler. He criticized the Treaty of Versailles that required Germany to disarm, surrender some of its territories and to pay certain countries for the damage caused in World War I. A charismatic speaker, he promised the domination of the Aryan race and promoted anti-semitism and anti-communism. The German people took Hitler’s message hook, line and sinker.
In an article in The Atlantic entitled, “What Populists Do to Democracies,” Yascha Mounk and Jordan Kyle wrote, “Populist governments have deepened corruption, eroded individual rights, and inflicted serious damage on democratic institutions.” Their research made the conclusion that “Populists are highly skilled at staying in power and pose an acute danger to democratic institutions.”
Usually, out of populism will emerge the strongman-type of authoritarian political leader. Yet there is one strongman who brought hope and prosperity to a nation: Lee Kuan Yew (LKY). He once said, “If you can’t force or are unwilling to force your people to follow you, with or without threats, you are not a leader.” He is often referenced by populist leaders as a model, but then, LKY was incorruptible, disciplined and focused. He did not allow power to corrupt him, while those of weak morals, succumb to it.
As we usher in a new decade, we cannot with certainty predict the future of countries under populist leaders. These leaders commit to make the lives of their citizens better. Yet many have failed in the past. Either their ambitions for their nations were too high, or their personal ambitions got the better of them.