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Upsurge of Populism


The Sri Lankan social system rests on three pillars: the caste system, the joint family system, and the village community. Among these, the caste system appears to be the most significant feature, due to its interdependence upon the social, economic and political systems.

by Zulkifli Nazim

“Let him admonish, let him teach, let him forbid what is improper!-
he will be beloved of the good, by the bad, he will be hated.” Dhammapada 77.

“Populism: denies the pluralism of contemporary societies. It promotes hostility to “Enemies” and flirts with violence. It is generally gripped by a territorial mentality that prioritises borders and nation states against “foreigners” and “foreign” influences, including multilateral institutions and so-called “globalization.” Jan Werner Muller, Historian, Princeton University.


Every society is stratified. It has rightly been said that an “unstratified society, with a real equality of its members is a myth, which has never been realised in the history of mankind. No matter how egalitarian in principle, they are riddled with multiple social hierarchies. Those of higher status often look down on people lower on the status ladder – look down with disdain, contempt and resentment. Being denigrated, even if only with a gesture or a glance, always stings. Being ignored, is even worse. Inequalities of status are even more emotionally volatile.

The Sri Lankan social system rests on three pillars: the caste system, the joint family system, and the village community. Among these, the caste system appears to be the most significant feature, due to its interdependence upon the social, economic and political systems.

Our key contention is that populist politics reflects problems of social integration.

Populism is an intriguing phenomenon because it is, or at least resembles, a form of democratic politics. In fact, populism is a pseudo-democratic style of politics, whose “inner logic” or “spirit” destroys power-sharing democracy committed to the principle of equality.

The archetypical populist leader seeks the legitimacy granted by the people through rallies with large crowds, the mandate of election victories and the mechanisms of democratic campaigning and consciousness raising.

A new populist platform often begins with the grievance that ‘the people’ have gone unrepresented, until now. They have not been given due credit or adequate voice. Such claims should be taken seriously, and indeed some research on populism treats it as form of democratic politics that generates activism of and gives voice to previously alienated people.

Populists are not pluralist. Populists are dividers, not uniters. They split society into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt “elite” on the other, and say they are guided by the “will of the people.”

They the populists can ask indignantly, should the people not take possession of their state through their only rightful representatives?

If populism is about simply winning 51 percent of the vote and imposing rules for the other 49 percent to live by, it is an invitation to tyranny of the majority. That's a curse that rejects our ideals and that will follow the path of destruction. Unfortunately, there are plenty of extremists on both the political right and left embracing this view. They may not win 100 percent of the votes, but use a pseudo pretense, deceitfully feigning claim to 100 percent of the support of good, hardworking folks who have been exploited by the establishment.

Populists are certainly not alone in seeking to consolidate political power. But unlike other power-hungry politicians, they can do so openly. Because it is majoritarian in nature and calls for majority rule at the expense of minorities.

Populists can endanger democracy. You can’t compromise in a moral struggle. If the pure compromises with the corrupt, the pure essentially get corrupted. Here you’re not dealing with an opponent. An opponent has legitimacy, and quite often in the populist mind and rhetoric, it is an enemy, and you don’t make deals with enemies and you don’t bend to illegitimate pressure. That is their ideology.

It’s not that populists have some special mind meld with the masses. The mark of a populist isn’t which specific groups of people he or she are included. It’s the fact that he or she is separating the world into those warring camps. But what does often happen is that populists, when they come to power and “actually and practically, have to deal with things on a daily basis, they often change their stance and become more moderate as they gradually learn that senseless violence doesn’t work when they’re trying to get things done, and then they often lose their popularity over time as a result, because they no longer have that appeal.

Then what happens is that Populists in power tend to undermine countervailing powers, which are courts, which are media, which are other parties, and they tend to do that through a variety of mostly legal means, but not classic repression. That is the subtlety of their moves.

Governance breeds many kinds of public frustration. Citizens elect representatives who do not and indeed, cannot do what each voter wants, because voters support candidates for different, often opposing reasons. Citizens’ desire to govern themselves collides with the obligations of daily life and also with most people’s distaste for the practice of politics.

Most citizens want government that is of the people and for the people, but they are ambivalent, uncertain and unable to decide about what is meant by government by the people.

The recent surge in support for parties of the radical right and left in the developed democracies is one of the most important political phenomena of our time. The electoral successes in recent times changed the course of history in Sri Lanka. But, even where they do not win elections, radical parties are taking a much larger share of the vote than they did two decades ago. Their rising support for radical parties is a puzzling phenomenon. Theories that expect citizens to vote based on their material interest have difficulty explaining why so many working-class voters support parties of the radical right when there are grounds for thinking that left parties are more likely to advance their material interests; and why so many voters have moved beyond the mainstream to the fringes of the political spectrum.

Radical right parties and movements are appealing mainly to fringe groups operating on a virulent caste and racism agenda generally accompanied by ethno-nationalist which calls to action against those posed by people of other races or religions.

Looking at the country as a whole, we see that the cultural cleavage between cities and the countryside is as old as human history, but recent events have exacerbated, aggravated and made it worse. While people in small towns and rural areas prefer homogeneity and stability, cities lean toward social liberalism and non-urban areas toward tradition. Most importantly, religion, especially conservative religion, tends to be stronger in the countryside, generating a backlash against minority fellow citizens. Broader political trends have contributed to democratic erosion.

Religion and democracy are a potent mix. Studying populism movements should give us pause to reflect on our understandings of the sacred and how these can, in some cases, bring social harm. We should also consider the implications of populist majoritarianism, ‘Christianism ’or ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Islamism’ for the freedom of religion and protection of religious minorities.

The multifaceted roles of religion in populism should prompt us to abandon any naïve assumptions that religion is merely an empowering force, or that when it does empower it will work for the social good.

However, at this moment of time, a more important task is figuring out how the nation can move forward to more fully live out its founding ideals.

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