Populism debate must filter the bad from the good

While populism can be worrisome for many, we should find a way to debate and talk about it in a way to minimise “bad” populism and encourage “good” populism in our political landscape.

In an effort to do that, leading academics last week joined a public debate on the topic of “Rethinking Populism:From Thaksin to Yingluck, What Have We Learned?”

The forum was organised by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)under the Economy of Tomorrow project.

It aimed to critically examine populism over a period spanning Thaksin Shinawatra’s administrations to his sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s current government.

The term populism itself has several political and economic implications. As leading Thai historian Nidhi Eoseewong noted, the meaning of populism has been too narrowly defined.

Populism should not be associated with any one particular political ideology,as it applies to any political activity that seeks to rally support from the people particularly those who live at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

There could be authoritarian populism, left-wing populism and even rightwing populism if it aims to amass widespread support.

Additionally, Prof Nidhi said populism involves redistributive policies or fair distribution of resources to the majority. It increasingly involves an element of nationalism to encourage the masses to join in the populist movement.

Ammar Siamwalla, a TDRI Distinguished Fellow, says populism has cheapened Thai politics.

While he agrees that populism involves redistributive policies, the poor are not necessarily the main beneficiaries of those policies. For example, those who benefited the most from the government’s rice pledging scheme appear to be rich farmers and rice mills.

Populist policies would be less harmful if the government operated with accountability mechanisms, but governments neglect this important factor.

Although Mr Ammar thinks Thaksin kept his promises, he only did so with “half-accountability”. He said the Thaksin administration failed to comprehensively examine all the costs of its populist policies.

If we carry on without full accountability, politics will descend into a cheap game with political parties making nothing but empty promises to win power.

We seem to want the government to do everything, yet we lack the governance structures found in developed countries, he said. Unlike the US, Thailand lacks people who advocate small government to counterbalance the populist urge.

TDRI president Somkiat Tangkitvanich added that the second generation of populism has worsened as it increasingly targets particular segments in return for their political support.

Second generation populism, particularly the policies under Ms Yingluck’s administration, have failed to improve economic competitiveness and productivity, he said.

The Pheu Thai government has failed to empower people to become active economic actors that are able to withstand risks within the national economy.

The first car-buyer subsidy, for instance, is a policy that serves the interests of Japanese car manufacturers. As it turns out, many of the first time car buyers are struggling to pay for their new cars regardless of the subsidy.

The car policy exemplifies the state’s meddling with the markets with destructive consequences to state finances.

Kasian Tejapira, a political scientist from Thammasat University, said it’s not the policies, but the politics behind them that must be reformed.

He called for a repositioning of all parties to strip away political colours to create space for rational debate over policies aimed at the public interest.

Neoliberal economic institutions have been driving resource restructuring so that capital prevails. But, at the same time, politicians have been implementing populist policies to win elections.

Mr Kasian said both technocrat and populist politics are embedded in a political system which disables inclusive and open political participation.

Populist politics, particularly, while addressing the people’s needs, lack three elements important to healthy democracy¬† checks and balances, political pluralism and legitimate opposition.

On the other hand, technocrat politics assumes that the people are ignorant,poor or sick, and tends to disregard the legitimacy of democratic elections.

The problem with both kinds of politics is they deny political agency among the people. We must change this perception to emphasise the legitimacy of an empowered public, he said.

Mr Kasian called for various political and economic institutions to reposition themselves beyond colour-coded politics and to engage the elected government legitimately and rationally.

Finally, Mr Somkiat said the role of the TDRI within society is not to critique the political system per se, but to research policy and critically examine public policy on a case-by-case basis.

By doing so, the TDRI would be able to stay out of colour-coded politics and carry on with its mission to offer a voice for the voiceless and vulnerable.

The economy of tomorrow must be based on democracy, dynamism and the public. Further debate on populism should go beyond criticising “bad” populism and focus on developing and implementing “good” populism.


Werapong Prapha is Research Communications Manager at the Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First published in Bangkok Post, 6th May 2013