Populism in Asia is More Robust Than in Europe

Ashok Swain | 16 July 2022
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Asian populists bank on ethnoreligious chauvinism, and weak institutions haven’t helped

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whom Donald Trump had once described as ‘Britain’s Trump,’ has been forced to resign after almost three years in office following the Conservative Party revolt against his leadership. After Trump lost his reelection bid in 2020, some right-wing populist leaders in Europe have been defeated in elections to retain power. Except for Viktor Orban’s fourth-term win in Hungary, in the last two years, populist leaders have lost in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Israel, Italy, and Slovenia.

Populism, however, is showing no signs of declining popularity worldwide, and populist leaders are as powerful as ever, particularly in Asia. Moreover, the departure of some populist leaders from the president’s or prime minister’s post does not mean that right-wing populism lacks popular support in Europe.

In the last month’s local election in Italy, the position of the far-right Brothers of Italy party has increased significantly. In places where right-wing populists joined hands and fought elections together, they did very well.

In France, a newcomer to the right-wing populist leaders’ club, Eric Zémmour, with his extreme Islamophobic utterances, received huge attention in the last presidential election. If Zémmour and Marine Le Pen had joined hands, Le Pen would have received more votes than Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the election on April 10 this year.

Not only do Asian populists have the upper hand on the domestic political front, but they also remain under the radar of the so-called Free World...

Populist leaders in Europe might have lost elections, but it is not wise to conclude that the era of populism is over in the continent. The loss of elections for the right-wing populists in Europe has three reasons. The mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the changing regional security situation due to the Ukraine War have taken away some of their appeal.

In some countries, like Israel and Bulgaria, the opposition moves to join hands, cutting across ideological political divide, have helped remove populists from power. Finally, the division within right-wing populist forces has also led to electoral defeats, like in France and Italy.

The number of populist-led governments worldwide has decreased from 19 in 2019 to 12 now — this downward slide is primarily in Europe. The departure of populist leaders hasn’t yet helped democracy recover in some European countries. Though European populists have lost elections, they continue to appeal to the existing economic and social divisions in their countries. Populism has become so entrenched in these countries that reversing the decline of democratic institutions and political culture will take a long time.

Populism in Europe and Asia

The discussion on the rise of right-wing populism is predominantly Eurocentric. In Asia, it is rampant and more entrenched, but the discussions have been largely ignored. Populist leaders are in power in Asia, from Turkey to Indonesia and India to the Philippines.

Populists in power or competing for power in Asia follow the European formula to gain support. They position themselves as outsiders vis-à-vis traditional political elites, offering simple approaches to complex societal and economic challenges and blaming the ills on the vulnerable sections of society. However, some key differences make Asian populists more popular and difficult to dislodge. While European populists paint immigrants as outsiders against the ‘true people’ of the native land, the target of Asian populists is not immigrants but the ethnoreligious minority population.

Populists in Asia divide their countries based on religion, posing themselves as the protector of the majority group’s cultural values and economic interests. Religious cleavages are their primary political weapon, and populist politicians proudly display ethnoreligious chauvinism. While European populists highlight the cultural differences vis-a-vis the immigrant population, Asian populists not only focus on the religious differences of the minority groups but also question their loyalty to the country itself.

For the mainstream political parties in Europe, it is easier to counter populists if they push for restrictive immigration policies. And, if the economy starts doing well, the immigration issue takes a back seat. However, recovering lost grounds for the mainstream parties in Asia is not easy. They face ideological and historical restraints to support discriminatory policies against minorities, who are, unlike incoming immigrants, citizens of the country.

Not only do Asian populists have the upper hand on the domestic political front, but they also remain under the radar of the so-called Free World as they don’t oppose trade or immigration, or regional organisation, unlike European populists. Asian populists don’t use anti-immigration or anti-multilateralism rhetoric to gain or sustain power. They thrive on selling ethnoreligious chauvinism, making them almost unbeatable in regular electoral politics in Asia’s struggling democracies.

Over and above, the lack of a free press and the presence of weak constitutional institutions also put Asia’s populist leaders in a more comfortable situation. Only an economic crisis of Sri Lankan proportion may remove them from power, but not through a fair election, as is possible in Europe.

Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

This article was originally published on Gulf News.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.