What Is Populism?

What is populism? The People’s Power Party (PPP) and its predecessor Thai Rak Thai (TRT) are regularly accused (since the term is used pejoratively) of ‘populism.’ This is usually contrasted with the politics of the (mostly right-wing) opposition, which is talked of as being in the real interests of the country and for the benefit of society as a whole.

In fact, there seem to be numerous definitions of populism, so many as to suggest that no precise, exclusive definition is possible. A brief survey of the subject seems to indicate that it is more commonly used as a term of abuse rather than of praise, although that is not always the case. Much of the contemporary understanding of populism appears to derive from its application in Latin America and its description is partly a result of how American institutions talked about it, especially during the Cold War period.

It is easy to imagine the situation: Latin American government institutes some policies to give relief to the suffering masses. American interests (through the CIA etc), suspicious that this means leaning towards Communism, argues that the policy is ‘populist’ in the sense that it is actually against the best interests of the people and that maintenance of the status quo (which favours the elites) would be better.

An example of populism as a negative policy: the USA Republican Party persuades poor and working class people to vote based on ‘moral’ grounds – i.e. the three Gs of God, gays and guns – and many people do vote this way even though it is clearly against their best interest economically (tax cuts go to the rich not the poor, whose welfare is cut) and politically (policies are decided by lobbyists and those who fund the campaign).

However, this form of ‘populism’ is not the one employed by TRT/PPP – the proposition they provide is this: a vote for the party means a vote for pro-poor policies at village and regional level. Other policies are also proposed (e.g. pro-globalisation, pro-business etc). The people have made it clear that this is what the majority want. That is the populism on offer.