The Khmer Times, 20 February 2017
Populism, a highly contested and controversial term, has become the buzzword in contemporary politics. It is generally understood as the rhetoric that aims to challenge and change the status quo.
Populism normally associates with nationalism, criticism against foreign influence, xenophobia and anti-system rhetoric. Populist policy, however, does not have substantive explanation and concrete action plans. Generally, it just aims to resonate the general feeling and grievances of the people.
Populism, defined and implemented in various forms and practices, has cut across geographical borders, ethnic differences, historical eras and ideological frames. From Europe to America, from Asia to Africa, populism is omnipresent.
Populism can be harmful and disastrous if it goes extreme, much beyond the institutional capacity and resource endowments of the state. If the people’s expectations and hopes cannot be realized, the political and social order will fall into decay.
In Europe, populism is threatening the unity and integration of the European Union (EU). Populist politics gained steam after the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016. Elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands may lead to a further disintegration of the EU. If that happens, it would be a serious setback for Europe.
In the US, President Donald Trump has started implementing protectionist and nationalist economic policies and anti-immigration policies based on the pretext of the threat of terrorism. His populist policy may lead to the further decline of the US.
In Southeast Asia, populism re-emerged in Thailand during Thaksin Shinawatra’s era in the early 2000s, with a policy on affordable healthcare, agrarian debt relief and village funds.
His policies also aimed at challenging the traditional center of power dominated by the Bangkok elites – the unbreakable alliance between the monarchy networks and the military.
In Indonesia the former Jakarta major, Joko Widodo who is commonly known as Jokowi and who was a carpenter, came to power in 2014 through is populist political campaign focusing on building direct contact with the electorate and promoting redistributive policies.
His economic policy is more nationalistic and his foreign policy is more inward looking compared with his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
In the Philippines, the former provincial governor of Davao Rodrigo Duterte won a landslide victory in 2016 against his opponents from the elite. His ant-establishment appeals and blunt communication with the public have somehow earned him significant support.
Meanwhile, his populist policies resonate well with the public sentiment and grievances, which are concerns on corruption, crime and drugs.
The populist policies have mixed results. In Thailand, it led to a decade of political instability. The reforms in Indonesia remain slow. The future of Mr. Duterte’s policy remains uncertain – no one is certain how much he can deliver.
In Cambodia, populism has been on the rise since the general election in 2013. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) surprisingly won 55 seats of the 123 in the National Assembly.
The CNRP’s populist policies focus on anti-establishment and political change. Its social and economic policies emphasize the livelihoods of factory workers, farmers, elderly people and other vulnerable groups.
The ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) has implemented populist policies too, but at a more realistic level through a social protection policy and rural development with certain improvements in the livelihoods of factory workers and farmers.
While the CPP has its own version of populist politics, it also promotes a moderate policy agenda to halt the advance of the populist politics of the CNRP through explaining why the populist version of the CNRP policies may lead to bad outcomes and developing alternative policies that can offer better outcomes.
The commune elections in June this year and general elections in July next year will be a test of populist politics. Which version of populist politics would be more effective? Change before reform or reform without change?
It remains to be seen whether the existing elites would be able to change the political rhetoric by providing a more attractive and better policy framework and outcomes.