If the populist leaders fail, the people will tire of them
By Niaz Murtaza
The post-Cold War era has seen increased identity-based hatred that has often erupted in mass murder. Much of this has targeted minorities in non-democratic or transition states emerging from autocracy, for example, Rohingyas, Bosnians, Yazidis and Tutsis. The murderers have been official armies, militias and even common citizens, with at least one such event in every decade since the 1990s. Each time, powerful states have said “never again” but have watched apathetically the next time. Race, religious or ethnic tensions have been exploited by vested interests to demonise and generate hatred against a group by accusing it of being evil, illegal or harmful. This has helped rob victims of all rights in the eyes of the common people and made the committing of egregious crimes easier. This trend is now spreading to even mature democracies via the rise of populist leaders. Populism earlier represented politics that mobilises common folk against elites via false narratives and simplistic solutions. Populism appears akin to democratic politics by pro-poor parties. But the difference lies in the use of misleading narratives rather than evidence and serious policy analysis. While promising to empower people while campaigning, populist leaders usually undermine democracy and rule autocratically. Recent populism in mature democracies has also involved spreading hatred against minority groups and painting them as the cause of misery of the majority. Post-Soviet Western identity-based populism arose first in Europe, leaving America untouched for long. But it was there where the first bigoted populist leader gained power. Donald Trump mobilised large sections of the working white people against “coloured” immigrants via simplistic solutions. Later, far-right politicians also won in Europe. Narendra Modi and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte are populist leaders from developing states. The main tools such populist leaders used have been hate, nativism, conspiracy theories and personal charisma. While populism in mature democracies has not led to the mass murders seen in autocracies, it has produced sporadic violence and policies that harm minority groups. It has also harmed the quality of democratic debate as vacuous remedies have replaced serious policies. Given the spurious similarity between democracy and populism, and the rise of populism within democracy, the very notion of democracy is now being questioned. Some even think that populist autocracy will replace democracy. However, populism’s superficial theory and ineffective practice may contain its spread. The quick failures of populist leaders is likely to soon tire people of them both in affected and other states susceptible to populist politics. Pakistan has mostly seen traditional populism where politicians rail against non-identity-based elites. Bhutto was partly a populist, for he mixed serious socialist ideology with populist gimmicks. Benazir and Nawaz often used populist themes to fool the people. But Imran is Pakistan’s first purely populist leader. No leader since Bhutto has mobilised people as much against elites. Bhutto (and Nawaz) fooled the masses only. Imran has managed to fool even the educated middle class. Bhutto’s politics was left wing while Imran’s is right wing. Bhutto used both serious ideas and questionable narratives. In Imran’s case, the tilt is towards the latter. So austerity, dam donation appeals and recovering looted wealth have replaced serious ideas for increasing taxes, investment and saving. China and India have much bigger and richer expat groups, but have never considered building large dams via their donations. Yet, we aim to do so. If ever serious policy ideas come from this regime, they certainly won’t come from Imran himself. Luckily, he is not a bigot like Modi and Trump who openly employ identity-based hatred. Yet, identity-based hatred exists widely in Pakistani society. Also, populist bigots now attract many votes. Powerful non-elected state entities provide support to some such factions to undercut regular politicians. But the follies of corrupt, inept politicians will easily be dwarfed by those of bigoted populist ones. So, the worrying ingredients of a move towards identity-based and hate-inducing populism are present in Pakistan. Pakistan is now experiencing relative peace. But there is no guarantee that this phase will last. Bigoted populist leaders often emerge suddenly to capture the imaginations of millions via crude messages. They convert latent anger and fear among people regarding their stagnant socioeconomic status into active hatred against specific groups based on existing prejudices against it. Anger and fear merely produce sporadic violence and policies that harm minority groups. Hate often becomes the basis for mass murders.