Populism, Asian style: 40 percent of the continent under populist governance
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Populism, Asian style: 40 percent of the continent under populist governance

THE populist wave that has swept the world in recent years has shaken up global politics and sent many establishment-politicians’ heads spinning.

Much of the focus has been in the western hemisphere, with the rise of Trump and more recently Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, along with bubbling populism across Europe. But Asia is far from immune.

A recent study from the Institute for Global Change found 40 percent of Asia’s population is governed by populists. A startling figure until you realise the continent is home to two of the top three most populous democracies in the world ruled by populists: Narendra Modi in India, and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Indonesia.

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Add to that the Philippines under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, and it accounts for over 1.7 billion people.

But populism means different things to different rulers, something that is reflected in the distinct leadership style of each. While there is always an element of us vs them to populists’ rhetoric, who exactly falls into each group tends to differ.

Types of populism

The report differentiates between three versions of populism most commonly used today.

Cultural populism, the report states, claims “the true people are the native members of the nation-state, and outsiders can include immigrants, criminals, ethnic and religious minorities, and cosmopolitan elites.”

Both Modi and Duterte have deployed this style but with very different focuses. In India, Modi has relied on nationalist and religious appeals to whip up popularity, while in the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte uses law-and-order rhetoric.


Supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate in front of a cut-out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi after learning of the initial poll results of Tripura state assembly elections, in Agartala, India March 3, 2018. Source: Reuters/Jayanta Dey

Jokowi, however, used a more anti-establishment form of populism during his 2014 election campaign. This paints the true people as hard-working victims of a state run by special interests and outsiders as political elites.

Dubbed a “polite” populist, Jokowi campaigned against the establishment by portraying himself as an affable “man of the people” and a pro-poor reformer with a track record of getting things done.

The third form of populism, the report says, is socio-economic in which big business is seen as the enemy. This holds less traction in a region that enjoys generally buoyant and improving economies and a high reliance on trade.

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Asia’s own brand of populism

But when it comes to Asia, these three definitions have shortcomings and fail to fully encapsulate the nature of populism on the continent. As the report states: “It is difficult to neatly classify the cases into the types of populism identified in other parts of the world.”

Asian populism is a beast of its own.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), is more specific and claims Southeast Asian populism is unlike any other. But, while it may be different, it is still dangerous.


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte poses for a selfie while surrounded by supporters and lawmakers after delivering his state of the nation address at Congress in Manila on July 23, 2018. Source: AFP

The relatively recent emergence of functioning democracies in Southeast Asia make the region susceptible to strongmen and autocratic-leaning populists, Kurlantzick argues.

“The weaknesses of established political parties in the region make it even easier for populists there to thrive – to dominate traditional parties, win control of state institutions, and then abuse them,” says Kurlantzick, who also considers Thailand to be under populist governance.

They’re here to stay

While some populist movements in the west suffered setbacks in 2018 – disappointing election results in Germany, the United States and even Poland, as well as a floundering Brexit approval rating – studies suggest populists in general may be around for some time.

Looking back at populist regimes from the last 25 years, The Atlantic found populist governments have a far better ability to survive, enjoying longevity unseen in their ordinary counterparts.

“Populists aren’t just more likely to win re-election once or twice; they are also much more likely to remain in power for well over a decade,” the study found.

“Six years after they are first elected, populist leaders are twice as likely as non-populist leaders to still be in power; twelve years after they are first elected, they are more than five times as likely.”


A Jokowi supporter kisses an image of him after the 2014 polls. AMAN has said it won’t endorse his candidacy in this year’s contest. Source: Shutterstock

They also found only 17 percent of populists stepped down after they lost free and fair elections. Another 17 percent vacated high office after they reached their term limits. But 23 percent left office under more dramatic circumstances – they were impeached or forced to resign.

With elections coming up in both India and Indonesia in 2019, this is a case of “watch this space” for Asia.

While it is highly unlikely the likes of Jokowi will refuse to leave – Indonesia has been heralded as democratic success story as it heads to the polls for the fifth time in 20 years elect their parliament – it still promises to be an interesting year and the Institute for Global Change expects populist strategies to feature heavily.