The rise of populism across the West in recent years has been the subject of countless discussions, and for good reason: populists’ misguided policies often have severely adverse political and economic consequences. Now, those risks are coming to Asia.
There is no straightforward definition of populism. It may be ideological, economic, social, or cultural. It may reflect left-wing or right-wing views. And it is often interpreted in a country-specific context.
But populism’s various iterations tend to share common features. Populist parties are typically led by a charismatic individual, who pits “the corrupt elite” and “outsiders” against “the people,” whose true will the populist purports to represent. This approach is most effective at times when the public is deeply frustrated with established leaders or political parties, owing to deepening economic and social disparities, rising insecurity, or overt corruption.
Once in power, however, populists end up making matters much worse. For starters, they frequently undermine the fundamental institutions of representative democracy, including the systems of checks and balances that restrain institutional excesses and prevent abuses of power. They claim that these institutions impede their ability to serve “the people.”
In Latin America, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez used referenda to implement major constitutional reforms that extended presidential term limits and constrained opposition parties, the judiciary, and media. As a result, rule of law and institutional quality deteriorated.
Populists’ economic track records are similarly grim. A populist economic policy, according to the economists Rudi Dornbusch and Sebastián Edwards, mostly “emphasises growth and income distribution,” without regard for “the risks of inflation and deficit finance, external constraints, and the reaction of economic agents to aggressive nonmarket policies.” It thus leads to weakening investment, economic efficiency, and productivity growth – trends that hurt the majority in the long run. The economic crises that many Latin American countries experienced in the 1970s and 1980s resulted from this dynamic.
Although today’s populists are not pursuing wildly expansionary macroeconomic policies, they still rely on fiscal stimulus and government intervention in markets. For example, while US President Donald Trump preaches fiscal discipline, the combination of higher spending and lower revenues (owing especially to the massive tax cut for corporations enacted in 2017) is blowing up the federal budget deficit. Likewise, Trump advocates protectionist trade policies.
And yet, despite the damage populists have done in the West, Asian voters are increasingly falling victim to their blandishments. India’s Narendra Modi, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte can attest to that.
To be sure, populism is not a new phenomenon for Asia. In the Philippines, Joseph Estrada won the 1998 presidential election by presenting himself a defender of the poor – an image that was buttressed by his acting experience playing heroes of the lower classes. But while he did implement extensive poverty-reduction programs, most of them had little impact, not least because they were weighed down by pork-barrel politics.
Similarly, Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made telecommunications mogul, became Thailand’s prime minister in 2001, thanks to his carefully cultivated image as one of “the people,” especially the rural poor. Once in power, he, too, implemented pro-poor policies, including universal health care; but design flaws led to surging deficits and low-quality services. Facing a raft of corruption charges, he was ousted by the military in 2006. And yet he remains highly popular among Thailand’s poor.
But it is primarily cultural grievances that are driving support for today’s crop of Asian populists. As Dani Rodrik has observed, in parts of Europe and the United States, powerful cultural trends – such as urbanization and “post-materialism” (the embrace of secularism, personal autonomy, and diversity) – are making older, socially conservative people feel like strangers in their own land.
This sense fuels support for populists, for whom “the people” are members of a native group, who must be defended against an out-group of immigrants, criminals, ethnic and religious minorities, and cosmopolitan elites. Concepts like religious traditionalism, law and order, and national sovereignty provide a useful pretext for discriminatory policies, like Trump’s (legally dubious) immigration crackdown.
It is this type of cultural populism that has taken hold in Asia. Duterte sustains his popularity by casting criminals as enemies of the people. And, because enemies must be eliminated, extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and dealers – nearly 5,000 at the hands of law enforcement from July 1, 2016 to September 30, 2018 – strengthen law and order. Modi’s Hindu nationalism enabled his Bharatiya Janata Party to increase its parliamentary majority in this spring’s elections, despite his government’s failure to fulfill its promises to voters.
Now, Northeast Asia is being swept up by the populist tide. South Korean President Moon Jae-in was elected in 2017 by voters disgusted with the political establishment’s collusion with business elites and failure to respond to their needs. His administration has pursued populist economic policies, including sharp increases in the minimum wage and social welfare expenditures.
A recent Asian Barometer Survey shows that citizens in Hong Kong and Taiwan, like those in South Korea, harbor high levels of anti-establishment sentiment and frustration with economic inequality. Conditions are thus ripe for populism to flourish.
To mitigate the populist risk, responsible Asian leaders must work to strengthen democratic institutions’ resilience against potential disrupters, while ensuring that voters are informed about populism’s dismal track record. Most important, they must take the wind out of the populists’ sails by pursuing economic-development strategies focused on inclusive growth. Only by credibly addressing citizens’ economic grievances can Asian leaders prevent their countries from falling prey to false promises and exploitation of cultural insecurities.
Lee Jong-Wha is Professor of Economics and Director of the Asiatic Research Institute at Korea University. His most recent book, co-authored with Harvard’s Robert J. Barro, is Education Matters: Global Gains from the 19th to the 21st Century. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019, published here with permission.