Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Populism, the political opiate of the people

(from the Bangkok Post, Published: 29/06/2010)


Populism pits the "people" against the "elite" in order to foment change. Demagogues use half-truths, truisms and outright lies to make it happen.

For better or worse, populism has been on the upswing in Thailand in the last 10 years, roughly corresponding to the rise and fall of Thaksin Shinawatra's rule.

Although Thailand has seen populist behaviour before, most especially under the boot of Plaek Phibulsonggram who was a contemporary of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, and who was to some extent influenced by the rabid populism that transmuted into fascism at the time, it wasn't until Thaksin's arrival on the national stage that the Thai term prachaniyom was coined to replace the English-loan word for populism.

The good news for a Bangkok establishment fearful of red shirts taking to the streets again is that populist movements tend to fall apart rather quickly, typically due to the lack of sustainable infrastructure and hard-to-resolve internal contradictions, or, more simply, just by becoming unpopular.

Even populist leaders such as Thaksin who managed to scale the heights of power tend to fall, and fail, rather quickly, because taking over the top slot instantly converts them into a symbol of a new, unjust elite, an easy target for a fresh wave of resentment on the part of those who feel betrayed or excluded from the spoils of power.

The bad news for the establishment is this. Populism isn't conjured up out of thin air or pulled out of the ether. It is rooted to the earth, a reflection of real and perceived problems on the ground. It clings to pre-existing fault lines, makes claim to them, manipulates them, exacerbates and explodes them, in the hopes of triggering a seismic shift in power.

(full article posted here)