Populism: Yay or Nay
Politics is all about power and people. Populism is about people trying to redefine the people – the claim that We hold the sovereignty; that We are the real political power.
According to Dr. Thierry Kochuyt, a sociologist from New Bulgarian University who lectured on populism in front of AUBGers Tuesday, Feb. 10, people can identify common denominators by being a part of the collective and supporting those in power. In other words, people link up to politics so that they can feel powered or represented by the parties.
One example is the recent attack in Paris and the “Je suis Charlie” movement. The reason for its huge popularity is that the attack was not just a murder, but it was an attack on French core values, such as democracy and free speech. The French people were in shock and they identified themselves with this common denominator, i.e. the slogan of the movement “Je suis Charlie.” Kochuyt said, “The president defined symbols for the people to link up to what is happening and suddenly the president’s low percentage of popularity rose quickly.”
However, it is important to identify who the people are. Kochuyt explained that, while in the past people were defined by different terms – religious, regional, etc. – ever since the Industrial Revolution people define people by class, i.e. entrepreneurs, capitalists (holding the capital to invest) and the workers (labor force). All of this had influence on politics, resulting in the formation of the current political spectrum (left, center and right). Nowadays, though, times have changed and class identities are becoming weaker. There are many causes for that including globalization or migration, but one important consequence is that civil society is “eroding.” “There is a broken link between party politics and people, which results in drifting voters who can’t and are not willing to participate,” Kochuyt said, “…we no longer are a class society.”
Defining populism is not an easy task. It is not an ideology because it is hard to establish the exact ideas. What is defining for Kochuyt, though, is that populism parties link the party to the people by determining opponents. They are the “source of evil” and we “suffer because of them,” “we are the victims.” People are already feeling alienated from traditional politics because they feel that their voice is not heard; they feel disconnected and misrepresented.
This is where populism comes to the stage. There is space for new political parties which will start collecting the votes of these discontented citizens. However, this is a hard task as well, because the populist party needs to distinguish itself from the traditional ones. It needs to prove credible in the eyes of the voters, who are already “disgusted” by the current parties in power. If the party fails to do so, it becomes one of the others, of the so-called political elite.
A specific example Kochuyt gave is the huge success of the Belgian Flemish Interest party and their slogan “We say what you think.” It suggested to people that the party has the power to change things, but only because people decided so.
Such populist parties become a real danger to politicians, which results in stigmatization by the existing parties, i.e. being called populists, far-right extremists, etc. “This suggests that the link between people and populists is an alliance due to the circumstances. The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Kochuyt said.
Last but not least, the question of how dangerous can populist parties be arises. Although populism brings innovation, new parties and new ideas, it can also “turn nasty.” Such far-right parties can and often do use two very specific scapegoats – migration and minority. According to them, these scapegoats try to step in society and exclude the nationals. “Some people might say that this puts democracy in danger, but for me the concept is flawed,” Konchuyt said. “If people want the populist parties, we should respect democracy and the people’s voice.”
According to Stella Zlatareva, third-year student at AUBG, the concept of populism being a normal stage of political development is “mentally provocative.” She said, “I might be somewhat biased here, but it would only be because the country that gave me any kind of basic political education was my own, Bulgaria. When you are a witness of an electorate which doesn’t vote politicians in but out of government, it is commonsensical that the contrast between general public and elites would lead to a populist phenomenon. I can’t help but appraise the systematic way in which the lecturer presented the relationships between the discontented public, the parties in government and the populist parties.”
Dragomir Kyosev, also third-years AUBGer, said, “Well, in general the speaker was well acquainted with the topic and apparently quite passionate about it. The problem was that he considered populism solely on his observations on Belgium (and in part France). I did not hear many new things though.”