Author: Aries Arugay
What is populism? What makes a political leader a populist? Who are examples of populist leaders in the Philippines and elsewhere? And what is the impact of populism on democratic politics? This module seeks to address these questions and help students understand this political phenomenon.
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Most Essential Learning Competencies
- Suggest ways to address social inequalities (local, national, and global); and
- Examine human responses to emerging challenges in contemporary societies.
By the end of this module, learners are expected to demonstrate an understanding of:
- How individuals should behave as part of a political community; and
- The agents/institutions, processes, and outcomes of cultural, political, and social change.
By the end of this module, learners are expected to:
- Evaluates factors causing social, political, and cultural change.
Self-evaluation Form (Part I)
Answer the following questions.
1. What do you already know about the lessons?
2. What do you want to know more about the lessons?
Lesson 1: What is Populism?
Populism is often considered as democracy’s greatest challenge in the 21st century. Given its prevalence in the world today, media and scholars quickly painted a gloomy picture for the future of democracies, old and young. Just like democracy swept the world, there seems to be a reverse wave of populism across the world. From Europe and North America to regions such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, populism has attracted the masses by electing populist leaders. The term “populist” was provided an impulsive label to a myriad of political leaders as diverse as Donald Trump (United States), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (the Philippines), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Marine Le Pen (France), and Thaksin Shinawatra (Thailand), among other people. Despite differences in style, ideology, and policy leanings, these populists are often depicted as detrimental to democracy, particularly its liberal-representative form (Diamond, 2016).
- Understand the essential elements of populism as a political ideology;
- Identify the different characteristics of a populist leader;
- Compare different kinds of populist leaders in the Philippines and around the world; and
- Evaluate the impact of populism on democracy.
- Populism – type of leadership that aligns with the patterns of behavior and approval of a large population.
- Elite – the ruling class; hierarchy is based on access to wealth and means of production, and income.
- Status Quo – refers to the current state of affairs.
- Political Style – approach in order to increase political connections.
- Defining Populism
- Let the students discuss their own definitions of populism.
- Let them identify different populist leaders. Allow them to use the Internet to get this information.
- Ask students to give examples of leaders who are not populists. Ask them the reasons behind their choices
- Identifying Populist Leaders
- Have the students give some political leaders that may be considered as populist. Have them justify their answers.
- What’s wrong with Populism?
- Let the students cite examples of the four negative effects of populism on democracy in the Philippines.
- Ask students to think about what could be the positive effects of populism on democracy. If they are having a hard time giving an answer, ask them to provide their reasons.
Definitions of Populism
Populism remains to be one of the most contested concepts in the study of politics despite its growing importance in the world today. There are several ways that populism can be defined. First, it can be a catch-all ideology that separates ‘the pure people’ from the ‘the corrupt elite’. According to European political scientist Cas Mudde, populism is ‘an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” (Mudde, 2004). This is a very thin definition of populism and therefore, it can be an ideology that can be combined with other ideologies from the left (socialist) to the right (fascist) of the political spectrum.
The second definition of populism refers to it as an expression of the logic of the “people”. Political theorist Ernesto Laclau believed populism was a pure display of the will of the majority in a democracy. He argued that it is wrong to simply arrive at the conclusion that populism is a bad outcome of politics, since it is often the people that bring populists to power.
A third definition of populism focuses on its anti-status quo discourse that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between the people (as the ‘underdogs’) and its ‘others.’ The other could be racial or ethnic minorities like immigrants or even those judged as criminals in the Philippines because of their involvement in illegal drugs. As a form of discourse of communication style, populists rely on their ability to use words and speech to express their opinions, sentiments, and program of action in changing the status quo (Hawkins, 2009).
Fourth, populism can be viewed as a “political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, noninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers” (Weyland 2001, p. 14). For this definition, what is emphasized are the material manifestations of populist politics; namely, movements and parties. Populism needs a collective assertion that is often cemented as a charismatic movement of a leader or a political party that can give a personality or politician the necessary electoral votes to lead a government.
Finally, Moffitt and Tormey (2014, p. 394) have put forward a conception of populism as a political style, that is, “a repertoire of performative features which cuts across different political situations that are used to create political relations”. Populism is seen as a performance rather than as a rigid ideology or a coherent political strategy.
The populist performs by
(1) Appealing directly to ‘the people’;
(2) Exaggerating crisis, breakdown and threat; and
(3) Displaying ‘bad manners’ in order to relate more to the people as an authentic leader.
Populist Leaders Worldwide
As there are many definitions of populism, there are also many different types of populist leaders. These leaders rose to power in quite a dramatic fashion by launching controversial electoral campaigns and successfully capturing the public imagination. To their credit, they were usually outsiders excluded from the political establishment and did not have sufficient resources normally possessed by politicians. However, with a combination of their charisma, political style, and popular support, they captured political power in their respective democracies.
Case 1: President Joseph Ejercito Estrada (1998-2001), The Philippines
In 1998, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, a movie actor turned politician, was elected the 13th president of the Philippines by garnering 40 percent of the national vote. In a state where parties are merely window dressing for political clans, Estrada challenged the exclusive oligarchic arena through a combination of sheer charisma and populist appeals that resonated among lower classes that formed more than 70 percent of the country’s population.
Estrada also defied the typical mold of a Philippine president. In the past, the Filipino electorate conventionally chose between candidates who are well-educated, morally upright, politically pedigreed, and economically affluent. His background and track record, unlike the typical mold of highly educated politicians, was belittled by the country’s upper classes but was emphatically embraced by the poor masses.
Estrada wasted no time and started his administration by espousing proposals construed as highly contentious, unpopular, and potentially polarizing. For example, Estrada’s proposal for the burial of Marcos at the National Heroes Cemetery with complete military honors was met with severe public criticism. But it was Estrada’s involvement in rent-seeking in illicit activities that was the peak of his executive domineering. He was allegedly receiving millions in “kickbacks” for allowing illegal gambling operations around the country. Opposition and civil society groups such as the Catholic Church used this allegation, as a rallying cause to demand accountability. It generated a great deal of public outrage and, in turn, changed the populist leader’s fate for the worse. In Estrada’s view, he was a victim of the elite’s penchant for oppressing the people’s leadership choices. He reduced the brewing polarization into one based on class, albeit one portrayed in populist rather than Marxist or left-right terms.
The implosion of Estrada’s coalition in the House of Representatives paved the way for his impeachment and allowed the Senate to conduct a trial to determine the president’s guilt over corruption charges. But the unraveling of the impeachment process proved that formal institutions designed to constrain executive power failed within the context of a polarized conflict. This led to a massive protest in Manila and across the country that led to the 2001 “People Power” revolt. Estrada was forced to resign and hand power to the constitutional successor, Vice-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Case Study 2: Hugo Chávez, (1998-2013), Venezuela
Hugo Chávez was previously a former lieutenant colonel who led a failed coup in 1992 in Venezuela. His presidential victory symbolized the end of the dominance of traditional political parties that have dominated Venezuelan politics since 1958. Like other populists, his rise to power was associated with popular discontent to the existing political class and by running on a campaign that sought to restore the dignity of the Venezuelan masses through what is known as a socialist “Bolivarian” revolution, alluding to Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Latin American colonies from the Spanish Empire. With no strong political party machinery to support him, he used his charismatic appeal as a way to communicate his populist agenda directly to the electorate. More importantly, Chávez promised to use the country’s bountiful oil revenues to combat poverty and social inequality, something that the political establishment was unable to address.
The new president wasted no time implementing his vision of a new Venezuelan democratic order. He proceeded to revise the constitution, prosecuted former officials for corruption, intervened in the organization of trade unions, and antagonized the critical media. Civil society, mostly from the middle class and other traditional power structures in Venezuela such as business associations and the Catholic Church, started to mobilize against the government.
On the defensive, Chávez hit back at his opponents. Relying on his firebrand rhetoric and taking advantage of his access to media, he unabashedly confronted his enemies and refused to moderate his views to appease these people.
Almost like a scene in a political drama, the triggering event was set in Venezuela’s most economically and therefore politically important institution: the national oil company. In early April 2002, the president fired several high-level executives of the nation’s oil company and replaced them with his close supporters. For the opposition, this breach was interpreted as blatant mismanagement of the country’s source of wealth and therefore the welfare of the entire society.
On April 11, 2002, these opposition forces and their other allies in civil society mobilized what many then thought was the largest protest march in the country’s history. Chants of “¡Chávez Fuera!” (Out with Chávez) inevitably met those of “¡No Pasaran!” (They Shall Not Pass!). Estimates of the warm bodies in the protest ranged from 300,000 to 1 million, a large enough crowd with a capacity to exert enormous pressure for either the president to resign or encourage the military to intervene and resolve the political standoff. The top-brass of the military rebelled against their commander-in-chief by holding him in custody and announcing his resignation on 12 April. But because of the frail coalition between opposition forces, the victory was short-lived.
Two days later, with the help of loyal military officers and supporters who demanded for his return, the ousted president was re-installed as president. His amazing comeback was not only due to the fatal mistakes committed by his political enemies, but was also the result of durable popular support toward the populist leader.
Populism and Democracy
The relationship between populism and democracy is quite complicated. As stated earlier, while the term “populist” has been a pejorative or negative label, it is often made by those who are negatively affected by the consequences of populism. If populism is really bad, why do populist leaders get so much support from the people? This support is strong, and allows the continuity of these populists in power and even allows them to pass control of the government to their anointed successors.
But according to existing political science studies, there are clear negative impacts of populism on democracy. First, checks and balances on the executive branch are eroded. In a presidential system, legislatures perform several government functions, such as approving budgets, overseeing the government, and passing laws. Courts uphold the rule of law, free from arbitrary political interference. In many democracies, other government institutions—electoral agencies, central banks or ombudsmen—have relative independence so they can protect government functions from partisan bias. Liberal democracy relies on these institutional and legal constraints on the executive branch. Populist leaders deliberately override these checks on executive power. Populist presidents in Peru, Venezuela and elsewhere have appointed loyal judges to courts and overridden constitutional term limits. They also led to the re-writing of their country’s constitution, restraining the legislature in the process.
Second, there is less media freedom. In a democracy, certain protections for free speech are necessary for it to function properly. If citizens cannot communicate freely and if the media cannot report on the government’s actions, the government cannot be made accountable. However, populists are very sensitive to criticism from the media, which they see clashing with the people’s interests, as they frequently harass or restrict media outlets. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has imposed such draconian restrictions on the freedom of the press that virtually any criticism of the president is a criminal offense.
Third, civil liberties are lost. Civil liberties refer to freedom of expression and belief; rights to associate freely and form organizations, and personal autonomy and other individual rights. Civil liberties in Venezuela have been increasingly constrained under the government of Chávez and his successor Nicolas Maduro, with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other critics of the government facing regular harassment and legal sanctions.
Lastly, the quality of elections declines. For democracy to work, incumbents and challengers must play on equal footing. Sitting populist leaders must not use their power to change the electoral rules, grab more campaign funding from the public trough, or get more media exposure through state-controlled outlets. Because populists see their opponents as enemies that need to be crushed and because they think they alone represent the people, they are tempted to violate these rules.
Self-Evaluation Form (Part 2)
Answer the following questions.
1. What have you learned from the lesson?
2. How will you apply the knowledge you have learned in this lesson in improving Philippine society?
List of Activities
Synchronous Activities (In-class)
Activity: Defining Populism
Instructions. Let the students answer this interactive quiz on whether they share attitudes or characteristics of populist leaders.
Create small groups in class and let the students discuss their results. Ask the groups to discuss what they thought about the questions they answered and whether there were missing questions.
Activity: Compare and Contrast
Part 1. Let the students compare and contrast the two case studies of populist leaders. Ask them to identify similarities and differences.
– Let them find out more information about the two populist leaders online.
– Ask students to give possible other examples of populist leaders who.
Part 2. In small groups, ask students to watch and discuss the two videos below:
– Hugo Chavez: From Idealistic Soldier To Dubious Dictator, a documentary about the populist leader. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-lhLVUlTcw&t=1095s
– The Fall of Joseph Estrada, a news report on the causes of the downfall of Philippine president Joseph Estrada. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1IdEIG31OM
Instructions. Form into groups, and read on the situation of the media during the Marcos and Duterte administrations.
Step 1. Ask the students to view this short video on the rise of populism.
Step 2. Ask them to write a short essay (1.000 words) about the video.
Instructions. Ask the students to interview their parents or older siblings about their experience with EDSA Dos in 2001. Ask them where they were and what they knew about Estrada and what happened.
Instructions. Divide the class into two groups with one group advocating that populism is not detrimental to democracy while the other espouses the idea that populism is bad for democracy.
Self-Paced Learning Activity (Optional)
Activity: Reflection (Part 1)
Instructions. Ask the students to write a reflection essay on what if they were already adults in 2001, would they have participated in the protest actions against Estrada? Why or why not?
Activity: Reflection (Part 2)
Instructions. Ask the students to write a reflective essay on the debate itself and their learnings from the exercise.
Diamond, Larry, Marc F. Plattner, and Christopher Walker, eds. 2016. Authoritarian-ism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hawkins, K. A., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2017). The Ideational Approach to Populism. Latin American Research Review, 52(4), 513–528. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26743761.
Moffitt, B & Tormey, S. (2014). Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style. Political Studies. 2014;62(2):381-397. doi:10.1111/1467-9248.12032.
Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 541-563. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x.
Weyland, K. (2017). Populism. Oxford Handbooks Online. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.2.
Team Populism: Contains a lot of papers and resources on populism made by a global network of political scientists.
Videos on Populism by the Central European University Democracy Institute. https://democracyinstitute.ceu.edu/articles/new-video-series-team-populism
Looking back at EDSA II: The political paths of Estrada and Arroyo, a special news report.
The May 1st Riot: Birth of Peronism Philippine-style?, an article discussing “Erapism” and how it is populist.
Venezuela’s Chavez Era, a resource created by the Council for Foreign Relations.
Venezuela – The Hugo Chávez presidency, an article from Britannica on the administration of Hugo Chavez.
Populism is reshaping our world. A mini-documentary produced by The Economist.
The Dangers of Populism. An interview with an expert of populism.
Is Populism Really a Problem for Democracy? A paper that analyzes populism and democracy.
Populist Government and Democracy. A paper that analyzes the impact of populism on democracy.