Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
‘Far right’, ‘radical right’ and ‘extreme right’ are interchangeably used by scholars related to different shades of right populism. The phenomenon is increasingly dissected by scholars from the west. According to the report by Brett Myers, nearly 1.7 billion people were living under a populist leader at the start of 2023, compared with 2.5 billion in 2020. He says that populism showed a trend towards ‘progressive centrism’ in a number of countries. “Centrists continued to roll back the frontiers of populism in 2022, with the number of populists in power down to a 20-year low.” He adds: “This is in large part due to the success of progressive centrism…populism on both left and right is defined by two claims – that a country’s ‘true people’ are locked into a moral conflict with ‘outsiders’ and, secondly, that nothing should constrain the will of the ‘true people’.
By January 2023, as per the analysis from the Tony Blair Institute, the number of people living under populist rule had fallen by 800 million in two years. The research claims 2023 could be an equally decisive year for populism, with critical elections in Turkey and Poland. Of the populists who lost power, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Slovenia’s Janez Janša were defeated in relatively close elections in 2022, while Rodrigo Duerte of the Philippines was limited to one term in office and could not run for re-election. In Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was driven out of office by street protests.
The earlier mentioned report broadly defines populism in three categories: cultural populism, which has a right-wing ethno-nationalist appeal; socio-economic populism, which appeals to those on the left, and anti-establishment populism, that focuses on targeting elites. Cultural populism still has major sway in US politics, regardless of the defeat of Trump-endorsed candidates and doubts over the prospects of the former president in 2024, pointing to the views of Ron DeSantis, likely to be another key contender. Even if Trump loses, cultural populism is likely to remain strong within the Republican Party. The report – “Repel and Rebuild: Expanding the Playbook Against Populism” – claims the remaining examples of populist governments around the world (seven out of 11) almost entirely comprise rightwing cultural populists, as opposed to economic or anti-establishment populists. But cultural populist governments have struggled to form effective governments, especially when faced by economic challenges or complex issues such as Covid, the report claims, pointing out that four fell from power in 2022 – in Brazil, the Philippines, Slovenia and Sri Lanka.
Much of the decline in populism has occurred in Latin America, notably with the defeat of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the report said, but also with the election of a generation of moderate leftists across Latin America that have “disavowed populist rhetoric and focused on progressive economic and social rights rather than the populist left’s historic focus on industrial nationalisation”. The report also notes that in the US mid-term elections, a majority of candidates endorsed by Donald Trump who espoused rightwing nationalism and conspiracy theories failed to be elected and underperformed against moderates. “After having defeated several moderate Republicans in swing-state primary elections, the Trump candidates then lost most of these races in November, costing the Republicans control of the Senate and several governorships. Most notably, they lost every state-level election for offices involving election administration in swing states,” the report said. Congress blocked Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 elections, US voters blocked his followers’ efforts to administer future ones in 2022. But this defeat of Trumpist rejection of democracy may not signal the long-term defeat of cultural populism across the US.
In the 2010s, trust in democracy and in political leaders had begun to register a decline mostly because of the 2008 global economic slide. Governments in developed countries bailed out the banks and large corporations to save the economy from collapsing. But this caused resentment among the middle classes, who lamented that political and economic elites were using democracy to serve and protect their own interests. Similar sentiments surfaced in developing countries as well, shrewdly exploited by maverick politicians to become part of mainstream politics through populist theatrics and rhetoric by positioning themselves as ‘anti-elitists’, even though, ironically, they belonged to elite segments of society. Thus we see populist leaders in various countries promising to become the voice of the ‘hardworking’ and ‘exploited’ middle-income groups.
Populists on the right (far, radical, extreme) used hard core expressions of nationalism, xenophobia and religious chauvinism to climb to power like Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Janez Janša in Slovenia, Rodrigo Duerte in the Philippines, Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, John Magufuli in Tanzania, Boris Johnson in the UK, Viktor Orbán in Hungry, Narendra Modi in India, Imran Khan in Pakistan and Giorgia Meloni in Italy. Those populists on the left positioned themselves as (rhetorical and equally theatrical) champions of social justice, anti-globalisation and anti-capitalism. Leaders in this regard included Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Andrés López in Mexico.
The Covid-19 pandemic also took its toll and democracy suffered. But the pandemic did manage to roll back the populist wave that swept across in the 2010s. Between 2020 and 2023, populists were ousted from power in countries such as the US, UK, Slovenia, Brazil, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. According to the Cambridge study, most populist leaders mishandled the pandemic poorly by being slow to respond, and some even underplayed the seriousness of the Covid-19 virus. Therefore, the public considered populist leaders to be less trustworthy sources of virus-related information. But the pandemic crisis, despite negative features, had some redeeming aspects too. For instance, it fostered a sense of shared purpose in most people. This somewhat reduced political polarisation and shifted attention from economic woes that populists often tend to exploit for political motives. A decrease in polarisation hampered the efforts of populists to continue mobilising support for themselves. Also, in certain regions headed by populist governments, some rebalancing of wealth took place as people escaped cities overrun with the virus. In Europe and the US, Covid-19 border closures stopped migration and globalised trade more effectively than any populist government. Trust in technocrats, especially medical experts and scientists, saw an increase. This negated the populist scepticism against them. Some populist leaders were actually seen and heard popularising outright quackery to address the ‘flu’. However, according to the report, an increase of trust in technocrats did not help in increasing the trust for electoral democracy.
Yet mainstream politicians were regaining at least some degree of trust. One of the most interesting examples in this respect became quite visible in the politics of Pakistan under former premier Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) and in the largest city of Karachi, capital of Sindh. The Sindh government, headed by the left-liberal Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was the most active political party in trying to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in the province’s densely-populated capital. At the peak of the pandemic, the mainstream Islamist party the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) too made itself highly visible in Karachi. Another major party in the city, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was part of Khan’s coalition government in the Centre. Khan at first underplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and tried to roll back the Sindh government’s many pandemic-related policies.
Unlike Trump, however, Khan’s regime belatedly realised the magnitude of the pandemic and tried to contain it as best as possible with the resources available. But by then vaccines had become available and the PPP and JI were the ones who managed to deal with the issues. This encouraged both the parties to expand their presence in the city that had largely voted for Khan’s populist PTI and the MQM during the 2018 general elections. In early 2023, during the highly anticipated local elections in Karachi, PPP won the largest number of seats, followed by the JI, and the PTI was routed. However, one is cautioned against premature claims of populism’s imminent defeat in 2022 or later. There is a view that a “second wave” of transformative change with some chaos is not unlikely.
After all, populists were part of election-winning coalitions in Italy, Israel and Sweden. For instance, Marine Le Pen was defeated by the French president Emmanuel Macron, but her party did well in the legislative elections. In the UK, the Conservative Party is likely to face a challenge from the populist rightwing party Reform UK, which has vowed to put up candidates against all parties rather than continue with Ukip’s 2019 pact not to stand against Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. While Richard Tice’s party is unlikely to win a seat in the next election, it is polling at about eight percent of votes, and the bulk of these would come from disgruntled Conservative voters. It could have greater success if Nigel Farage, who led Ukip and the Brexit party to much wider prominence, becomes more involved.
The Blair Institute argues that anti-populist mainstream parties may have to recognise that they need a different anti-populist playbook when they are in power from the one used by mainstream parties when the populists are in power. The report says mainstream parties should have a clear, substantive policy agenda of their own and not focus on negative campaigning against populist challengers, since populist challengers will always argue that their core issues are under-addressed by mainstream politics. The report says that mainstream parties need to realise that voters are increasingly tired of rhetorical excess and hollow promises that ignore existential problems faced by a country.
 P Wintour and Jessica Elgot: “Number of populist world leaders at 20-year low”.
 “Repel and Rebuild: Expanding the Playbook Against Populism”.
 Maleeha Lodhi: “Is right-wing populism fading?,” Dawn, July 8, 2022.
The writer is former Advisor COMSATS, ex-Head, Department of International Relations, NUML University, Islamabad, Visiting Professor, Department of DSS, Quaid i Azam University, Islamabad.