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The world marked the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, regarded as the deadliest conflict in history, earlier this week. The horrors of the war and the subsequent decades of the Cold War ending finally in 1991, led many to believe that the ideals of liberal democracy was finally here to stay. However, a few decades down the line, political rights and civil liberties around the world have deteriorated to their lowest point in a decade in 2017.

Freedom House named its Report on Freedom in the World 2018 ‘Democracy in Crisis’. According to the report, democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017, as some of the basic tenets, like free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press and the rule of the law came under attack throughout the world.

Since the past decade as democracy started retreating, its place is being taken by leaders who are being termed as ‘populists’ in general parlance. Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde believes that populism as an ideology, divides the population into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, the identity of the groups though differ from one country to the other. Thus, populism thrives on the idea that society is separated into two groups at odds with one another- ‘the pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’, and the populist leader claims to represent the unified ‘will of the people’.

The Rise of the Populists Everywhere

Transcending geographical boundaries, it is believed that populist leaders have emerged in countries as diverse as United States of America, Hungary, Philippines, Turkey and also India, among many others. While these countries may have diverse social and political ethos, the politics inspired by the populist ideology plays out in a much similar manner. The populist leader, who is a skilled orator, employing rhetoric, touches a chord with the larger majority, promising a decisive and effective leadership. Their oratory skills put them forth as strong leaders, and their rhetoric posit them as the sole representative of the people.

A relentless effort to generate a sense of one community being persecuted is the hallmark of a populist leader. The perceived victimhood goes hand in hand with the creation of a new political identity, which stands in antagonism to the ‘other’ community, though in most of the cases, it is extended to anyone critical of the government.

The idea of the ‘other’ is different in each country. The Immigration policy was a signature issue during the campaign of Donald Trump for the post of the President of United States of America. In 2018 he launched a ‘zero tolerance’ policy under which more than 2300 children were separated from their parents at the border, before the government backed down amid public outcry.  If the ‘other’ in the discourse of President Trump is the immigrant, the ‘other’ in that of President Duterte of Philippines’ is the drugs-mafia. President Duterte promised to get rid of ‘outsiders’ which will reduce drug-related crime and free Philippines from corruption.  The Duterte administration’s ‘war on drugs’ is globally controversial and according to different set of sources has claimed between 4000 to 22,000 lives due to vigilante killings and police operations. The President has neither condoned these extra-judicial killings, nor has he come forward to stop them in any way.

It is also imperative for the populist leader to consolidate his hold over the different institutions, rendering them ineffective to challenge his authority. Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban has dismantled the democratic structure in Hungary since assuming the office in 2010. The ruling party Fidesz has effectively demolished the independence of the judiciary. The electoral law was changed, so that in 2014 Fidesz got 66 percent of the seats in parliament on 44 percent of the votes. Much of the media, already dominated by owners closely tied to the Orban regime has now been consolidated in Press and Media Foundation. This year Hungary sunk to 87th position on the World Freedom Index.

Giving stiff competition to Viktor Orban, in dismantling democratic structures and consolidating his own power is the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. President Erdogan during the first years in office, passed certain bills to facilitate Turkey’s entry into the European Union. However, the succeeding years saw him consolidating his own power and hold over the country’s different institutions. He further entrenched his power through the referendum in 2017, though the European membership is becoming a distant dream for Turkey.

Political analysts around the world see India’s politics since 2014 as Cultural populism. Since the coming into power of Prime Minister Modi in 2014, and the re-election with a much larger mandate in 2019, the ‘insider’ and the ‘outsider’ or the ‘us’ against ‘them’ debate has found much resonance in the country. The run-up to the general elections in 2019 was also focused on national security and nationalist fervour, post the terror attack of Pulwama earlier in the year, conveniently overriding other pertinent issues like unemployment and agrarian distress.

Why is Populism Rising?

Today’s world is a globalized world. It is also a world that is witnessing increasing economic downturns, inequality and unemployment rates. The globalized world is also a world where the mobility of people has increased- more and more people today move from one place to the other, to better living conditions like jobs, or due to worsening security conditions as refugees. This in turn helps the populists, as it easily fits into the  narrative of ‘us’ against ‘them’, as it gives people the perception that foreigners may be stealing the job opportunities, or may be complementing the economic distress.

Another feature of today’s world that may be facilitating the rise of populism is the reach of the social media. However this aspect can be debated, because populism as a phenomenon has existed even in times, when social media had not been effective. But with the advancement of technology, the capacity of dissemination through social media is exponential. For the populists social media has emerged as an effective way of mobilisation of their hordes of followers. In an analysis done by Alto Analytics, Europe based data and artificial intelligence company, the predominance of more followers of populist leaders help amplify anti-immigration and anti-establishment views and force them into mainstream debates. In one sense, social media also helps the leader to circumvent the traditional media and gives an impression wherein he is directly engaging with his supporters.

Where is the opposition?

So how to stem the tide of growing populism? It will be interesting to note that most of the so-called ‘populist’ leaders, and especially the above-mentioned ones are democratically elected. This would mean that the electorate, and a sizeable portion of the electorate in each of these countries, have voted for these leaders. This would also mean that the ‘one’ against the ‘other’ narrative, up-holded through the various social media platforms have found resonance. Looking at this, one may wonder that, this is the ‘will’ of the larger majority. But it may also put across a flaw in our prevalent democratic systems. Are the present day democracies devoid of a capable opposition leader or opposition party, which may oppose such a divide to ferment in the society?

In India, even after the rout that the opposition parties faced in the 2019 elections, it does not seem that the parties and leaders have learnt any lesson, rather they seems poised to slide into oblivion. Firstly, it does not seem that any leader in the country matches the ‘popular’ charm of the Prime minister. Second, it is the liability of a capable opposition to highlight pertinent issues like, like unemployment. The NSSO data put the unemployment rate of the country at a 45 year high at the beginning of the year. A sound and capable opposition must highlight these issues to the voters, seize the narrative and change the narrative during the elections, making these issues the real ones on which elections are fought and won.

What next?

A glimmer of hope has been provided by a local mayor election in Turkey’s Istanbul. While the election was poised to be won by the AKP, ruling party of Erdogan, it was won instead by the main rival party, CHP. Using his powers over the various administrative divisions the elections of March were declared to be rigged and the verdict over ruled. The next two months saw extensive campaigning, challenging the discourse in the election on positive politics, using the social media extensively. The results of the second election saw Ekrem Imamoglu win the sweep the election once again, overriding his own win in the previous election.

This may be an election, rather a local one, and having little resonance for the other countries of the world. But it has also some lessons for the democracies around the world. If the societies around the world has much to lose if it veers away from the path of democracy, it has to challenge the populists with the virtues that democracy stands for- free and fair elections fought on relevant and pertinent issues.


By Dr. Anupama Ghosh

Dr. Anupama Ghosh is Senior Research Associate and the Internship Co-ordinator at CPPR. She holds a PhD in History from the University of Delhi. She can be contacted by email at

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