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.    

Policies Not Personalities – with Thai Characteristics

Former PM, as we must now refer to him, Samak Sundaravej has apparently withdrawn his name for re-nomination and hopes to stand down from leadership of the PPP. This is unfortunate, not for the sake of Khun Samak himself who can be replaced (and whose personal politics are not edifying) but because it represents another blow against the people’s clearly expressed will and gives more heart to the right wing PAD thugs, who will accept nothing less than the disenfranchisement of the rural poor and working classes.

The broad coalition established by Thaksin Shinawatra to enable electoral victory for the Thai Rak Thai party was always going to fray over the course of time – seven years of electoral success is unprecedented in Thailand and unusual for many countries. Initially, it contained policy-makers who had previously supported the Communist movement in the 1970s alongside the domestic capitalist class and representatives of the labour movement. It was inevitable that there would be internal conflict between some of these sectors over the issues of globalization, free trade agreements and privatization, among other issues. That is the very stuff of politics and (thinking optimistically) it represented opportunities for representatives of different sectors to frame their positions logically and clearly and establish new settlements for the mutual benefit of each – this is easily and often unfairly characterised as politicians just being in it for themselves and out for what they can get.

However, it is that coalition which enabled the establishment for the first time ever of a policy platform that was pro-poor and pro-redistribution in nature. It was not perfect but it was better than before and has now become a central part of Thai politics. The central political issue of the day is whether this pro-poor policy position remains in force or will be allowed to dissipate – which is what would happen with a so-called ‘government of national unity’ – or disappear forever, which is what the right-wing PAD mob is committed to achieving.

People come and go – policies are what really matter.