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Smokers’ corner: Decoding populism

Updated September 23, 2018


Supporters at a PTI rally | File photo
Supporters at a PTI rally | File photo

In the July 2017 issue of The New Statesman, British academic David Marquand writes that populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy; it is a disposition, a set of attitudes and, above all, a style. Today, the term ‘populism’ has become quite the rage among political commentators in Europe and the US. Those attached to mainstream political parties of both these regions are genuinely concerned about witnessing an alarming increase in the popularity and vote banks of populists and their projected causes. 

So if populism is not a doctrine, why the concern? It is because populism as a disposition is a dubious and disruptive disposition. For example, in Age of Reform (1955), his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the late American historian Richard Hofstadter writes that the reason behind the formation of one of the first populist parties in the US — the 19th-century Populist Party — was not that a band of farmers had joined hands to fight for their rights. He writes that they were actually aspiring capitalists who, reeling from their loss in status, gave expression to their reactionary political concerns ‘in backward, anti-Semitic, and anti-modern ways.’ 

Hofstadter’s explanation was influential across much of the mid- and late 20th century in explaining populism as mainly an expression of a frustrated mid-level economic elite, which exploited various economic, religious and social tensions in ‘common folk’, triggered by modernisation. According to Hofstadter, theirs was a bid to cynically use these as a way to displace the conventional elite (the status quo) and replace it with themselves at the helm. 

Populist outfits struggle to formulate policies because they excel more as disruptive movements

This is why during much of the 20th century, populism was largely linked to both large as well as fringe fascist movements whose core members belonged to middle or lower-middle-class strata who claimed to be speaking for the ‘common folk.’ Yet, as some later-day historians have suggested, this is a somewhat incomplete picture of populism.

In his 2008 essay, “The Thin Ideology of Populism”, Dr Ben Stanley, assistant professor of politics at Warsaw’s SWPS University, explains populism as having a thin ideological core as opposed to ‘thick ideologies’ such as socialism, liberalism and communism. These have elaborate and well-developed economic and political ideas and routes. But populism often sees populists jump on any prevalent bandwagon they believe can aid them to climb the political ladder. 

This means populists can often be found in mainstream parties on both the right as well as left sides of the divide, or they may manage to form a broad-based party which merges together ideas from the left and the right in a bid to make the mainstream parties look static and one-dimensional. Thus, populist outfits often like to be seen as the ‘third force.’

The idea is to upset the apple cart of conventional parties and gather the spoils for themselves. This connects with what Hofstadter as well as Marquand suggest. Because even though the 19th-century Populist Party was demanding the imposition of leftist ideas of nationalisation of certain industries, yet, according to Hofstadter, its members were actually aspiring capitalists. 

Considering Stanley’s thesis of populism being a ‘thin ideology’ — which could go left or right or merge both to grab power — Marquand argues that populism has no well-formed ideology of its own, but is just a pragmatic, albeit demagogic, disposition. That’s why, when in power, populists fail to have a plan and have to constantly be in ‘movement mode’ to continue rationalising their existence, mainly through popular optics and rhetoric. 

In Pakistan, Z.A. Bhutto was perhaps the first successful populist. To degrade a conventional and capitalist dictatorship, he immediately jumped on a then popular bandwagon of socialist ideas among the youth. His party, the PPP — formed in 1967, and which came to power after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle — remained ‘socialist’ till 1973 but from 1974, it gradually changed direction when the polities in Pakistan and the larger Muslim world began shifting to the right with an accent on political Islam and expansion of the Saudi orbit of influence.

As a populist, Bhutto responded to the change in the common man’s emerging new fantasies about an Islamic utopia by seamlessly moving from one ideological bandwagon to the other. During his regime’s socialist stage, it did manage to formulate and execute policies mainly to do with ‘reforms’ in the civil service, military and the economic sector. But they were entirely populist. They were based on the impression that these three had been exploiting the interests of the common people.

Then, many of these reforms begun to be rolled back after 1974 and were replaced with equally populist optics to now feed the polity’s growing interest in political Islam. Such optics included the 1974 Islamic Conference, 1974’s Second Amendment and the Seerat Conference in 1976, etc.

By the 1977 election, the term socialism almost vanished from the party’s manifesto as it braced for a challenge by another set of populists in the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). The PNA trumped the PPP by encapsulating the utopian Islamic tendency in the slogan “Nizam-i-Mustafa” although the alliance could not explain just what this nizam (system) constituted beyond populist slogans about imposing Sharia laws and curbing ‘immoralities.’

The coming to power of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is the country’s most recent brush with populism. As an opposition party since 1996, PTI has constantly wagged its finger at Pakistan’s two mainstream parties, the PPP and the PMLN, accusing them of working against the interests of the ‘masses’.

Over time, PTI adopted various populist ideas from the left and the right, and became a party of urban middle-classes who were disgruntled that despite their economic influence; their path to political power was being blocked by a ‘corrupt’ political elite. In classic populist manner, they conveniently equated their ambitions with the aspirations of the ‘masses.’

According to Marquand, populist outfits, when in government, struggle to formulate proper policies because they excel more as disruptive movements. Even in power they cannot let go of their movement mode. But once the excitement attached with such a movement’s optics and rhetoric wears off, the populists often discover that they have pushed themselves into a corner.

Many believe the same will happen with the PTI regime. However, the situation it finds itself in just might make it change its populist tenor and become more mainstream. For example, unlike Bhutto’s PPP, the PTI does not have an overwhelming majority in parliament. Secondly, Bhutto’s regime, at least till the mid-1970s, exercised more control over the military establishment than any civilian set-up before, since or after. The PTI regime is almost entirely being navigated by the establishment.

This is something which is not entirely bad. Because, ironically, this is exactly what can keep PTI’s populist shenanigans in check, despite the fact that till now it has produced more populist optics than actual policy. But the truth is, if, in the long run, it fails to do so, it will be tossed out exactly the way it was placed in.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 23rd, 2018