Populism for dummies

Leaders who practice such politics take no accountability for their actions. It's either the opposition or their team

Hareem Bilal May 12, 2022

From “Absolutely not” to “beggars can’t be choosers”; from foreign conspiracies to National Reconciliation Ordinances (NROs) – Pakistani politics, this dirty, polarised, hateful politics, will decide our future as a nation. Discussed at every road-side bangle stall, every drawing room, this spiteful, vile, and bitter politics has caused rifts not usually observed within our social settings. It’s daunting to think about the outcomes; it’s horrifying to feel the general anger simmering. The smear campaigns, the hooliganism, the breaches of all intelligible norms – who would’ve thought that the land of pure would take a nose-dive into the land of the corrupt, the deceitful, the sinful? Such a state of affairs begs a few important questions – where are we headed as a nation? Are we headed somewhere? Are we oh-so puny a nation who requires a messiah to pull them out of this muck? Are we the children of a lesser God? Our sloganeering in Islam’s holiest of places is sure to remind God that we exist. No?

Recently, the terms fascism, authoritarianism and populism have been making the rounds in Pakistan’s sociopolitical arena. By and by, it can be observed that most people don’t entirely comprehend them yet these get thrown around without any accountability, any guilt. I firmly believe that the only way to cope with hate politics is to eradicate misconstrued biases; to move past our ignorance and remove the shackles of mass propaganda. This article is an attempt to do just that – to simplify complex ideas so that it is you, deciding for yourself, what is right and what isn’t.

What is populism?

The core claim of populism is to set “the people” in conflict with the elite. Populist politics are centered around the “us versus them” debate, where the in-group (us) is the general masses and the out-group (them) is the corrupt elite.

“The people” can be used for almost all kinds of groups. It can be the demos – the sovereign – in democracy, the ordinary people often referred to as plebs, or it can be based on terms of culture, ethnicity – a nation. Simply put, “the people” can be blue collar workers, intellectuals, students, women, particular sects, etc. What is vital to populism is that “the people” exist and operate in an asymmetric power structure. The people are “pure” who are being exploited by the “impure/corrupt” elite. Populist leaders mobilise the grievances of the people against the exploitative systems. It should be noted that populist leaders may or may not be a part of the elite they mobilise the masses against, however they are always “like” the people – they feel for the people, care for them, even if they, themselves exploit them. Whatever a populist does is for the people, even when it’s against them.

Our enemy’s friend

One thing which we often overlook in the populism debate is that it is not only the vertical power structure that is in competition, the conflict also expands horizontally. The people are also against the minority groups whom they perceive as threats to their interests. This has a weird power relation attached to it. The people often get into conflict – real or perceived – with other groups who they see as being favoured by the elite. In such cases, positive discrimination, programs of inclusivity, and critical debate specifically within the human rights domain are subjected to the wrath of “the people”. Populism, in sum, is when the morally decent people are against the corrupted elite and those perceived to be favored by them.

How to spot populism?

It isn’t always easy to identify contested ideas and theories like populism. The core concepts of populism resemble a few democracies with adjectives too. To actually know that the phenomenon in existence is populism, Rogers Brubaker has sketched five additional elements of the populist repertoire.

  1. Antagonistic re-politicisation

Populist leaders claim to expand democracy to areas of life which may have been “depoliticised and de-democratised, that is, removed from the realm of democratic decision-making”. It goes back to the “taking power” from the elite for the people debate. Populists claim to open previously uncharted domains to public opinions and it is often the case that the said domains being “open” is done in personal interest.

Imran Khan’s breach of diplomatic protocol by waving a confidential cable in front of the world media is said to allegedly assert people’s will in foreign policy making and dealings. In reality, however, it is believed that the feat will impact negatively not only on Pakistan’s bureaucracy but its standing as a nuclear armed global player.

  1. Majoritarianism

In periphery states like ours, populism is directly linked with majoritarianism. The rights and interests of the majority are secured, valued, and compensated against those of the minorities. Sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or immigration status are used to distinguish “the people” from the “other”. The populists, for their own interests, use the majority’s demands and anger to subdue and subvert the minority’s claims in return for bigger gains (electoral and otherwise).

The 1974 constitutional amendment under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims laid the foundation for the legitimacy of their persecution and maltreatment in Pakistan. It can be argued that the action was taken to appease the majority’s claims.

  1. Anti-institutionalism

Populists believe in direct democracy as opposed to representative democracy. Usually, this anti-institutional rhetoric only includes institutions which they cannot directly control. It is a general pattern observed in populist politics that alternate institutions – renamed and rebranded in the populist leader’s name and work machine – regularly sprout into the mainstream.

The condemnation of Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) as being corrupt and then the programme being rebranded into the Ehsaas scheme of programmes is a relevant case in point. Media is also an important part of the discussion. Populist leaders, it is observed, only favour the journalists and media house sympathetic to their cause. Quite often, they don’t rely on the conventional media for the dissemination of their ideology and extensively use social media outlets like Twitter, Telegram, and Facebook instead.

  1. Protectionism

The messiah complex is a regular feature of the populist repertoire. Populists claim to protect the people from cultural, economic, and security threats. In doing so, the practice of securitisation and thus de-democratisation of issues is commonplace together with imposition of rigid, often misogynistic ideals into the society. The “haya” debate which grabbed attention after the motorway rape incident is a perfect example of protectionism in the populist sphere.

  1. Distinct style

The greatest tell of any populist leader is their mode of communication, behaviour, and representation of self. Populists – because they want to appeal to the people – often use layman’s language to put their point across. Their charisma and relatability is marketed to the masses and people feel as if they’re talking to one of their own. Someone who dresses, talks and thinks like a common man, is more of a friend to the common man than a leader. Populist leaders portray themselves to be victims of the elite and claim to champion the people with disregard to civility and political correctness. They often use language which some might deem inappropriate yet direct in their speeches, and thus portray themselves to be different, more approachable than their opponents. Some of most popular leaders in Pakistan have/ have had the same features.

Is populism bad?

Populism is not fascism but it can pave the way for the deterioration of democracy into authoritarianism which, with the right ingredients and will power, can very well turn into fascism. It is rooted within a personalist style of politics which paints the leader in an image of a divine being or at the least being blessed by the divine. This divinity stifles all intelligent, crucial, critical debate because however can a savior be wrong?

Populism can be looked at as putting a band-aid on arbitrary issues whilst the deep wounds continue to fester and are purposefully accelerated towards deterioration. The people are directed towards restoring their dignity and respect all the while the very democratic practices and institutions which award them this dignity continue to erode and crumble. The irony of the populism repertoire is that the leaders who practice this style of politics take no accountability for their actions. Either the opposition is at fault or their team is inexperienced. Quite often, foreign interference is a hindrance to their grand plans. Narendra Modi’s national populism and Pakistan’s alleged involvement in Indian affairs describes how and why populism can be harmful to the fabric of a democratic society.

The purpose of this piece is not to label one leader or another as populist or one movement or another as populism – that is for you to decide. But one thing is clear, our politics has taken a turn for the worst, and our people have been polarised to lengths where it is not easy to turn the wheel. Where this thirst for power of the few will lead our beloved Pakistan is for us, the many, to decide.

Hareem Bilal

The writer is an undergraduate student at the National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad. She is majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies with a specific research interest in conflict analysis, globalisation and conflict, security studies and gender studies. She tweets at @Hareeems.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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