When populism is bad (and when it is good)

When populism is bad (and when it is good)

The International Club of Populists has been gaining visible prominence in recent years. Remember the late Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela; or take Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Then Narendra Modi burst onto the scene in the world’s biggest democracy. 

Now Donald Trump in America, with all his eccentricities. The Dutch and French far-right, too, have been visibly on the rise. Then visit Hungary and Poland and, not yet at a power-grabbing level, even Germany. Come to shinier coasts you will meet the Five Star Movement in Italy and, in Greece, Alexis Tsipras on the far-left side of the club. Skip over to the Turkish coast and you know who you will meet there. And in the land now most famous with the neologism containing the word “Exit” there is the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). 

Club members need not exhibit solidarity – they often dislike fellow members in other countries. In-club solidarity is not a club rule that would endorse an applicant’s membership. Take Mr. Tsipras and Marine le Pen, for instance. Or President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Mr. Trump. Or Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Putin. But there is one golden rule for membership in the club: Hypocrisy. A member shall be expected to defend populism at his convenience and despise others members’ populism when he thinks other members’ populism jeopardizes his own ambitions. 

Another important club rule: Defend head-count democracy (not necessarily democracy) as long as your populism works; enshrine it with nice-looking words like “the will of the nation,” but object to it when the will of another nation by popular vote threatens your (or your country’s) political interests. 

Turkey is fertile ground for first-class populism. Its rulers have always defended head-count democracy as they have won elections and referendums they have run for, citing the sacrosanct word, the nation’s will. When the Turkish parliament passed laws, it was also the nation’s will through democratic proxy. In Europe referendums have been on the rise but not always leading to good, meaningful politics. Take, for instance, the Dutch vote against the EU-Ukraine association agreement. Or the Greek vote against the bail-out accord offered by their country’s creditors, then their election of Mr. Tsipras in early polls and finally ending up with the anti-bail-out prime minister having to sign the deal anyway. 

Referendums can be a source to boost populism no matter how strong a country’s democratic culture and traditions should be. No doubt, the International Club of Populists will have new members in the near future. New talents who will be following fellow members’ paths to political success though these success stories may not always bring fortunes to their host countries. In fact, they often do not. 

Mr. Erdoğan’s renewed criticism of Islamophobia in Europe totally ignores far worse practices of “otherphobia” or “infidelphobia” in his own country. That’s fine since Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Hence the Turkish popular vote, say on converting an over 1,000-year-old church into a mosque, will always reflect wisdom whereas a Swiss vote on banning minarets is by definition bad.

Funny, Brexit caught the Turkish Islamists unprepared as they cannot decide whether this will be a good thing or bad. It is good as the pillars of the “infidels’ club” are shattering. But it may be bad if it will boost Europe’s – defensive - anti-Islamic sentiment by fuelling populism – see, the same thing again: Populism is good in (Muslim) Turkey but bad in (infidel) Europe. Put in other words, populism is good when instrumented against “infidels” but bad when “infidels” use it against Muslims. 

Club rules, again: Let our people decide but do not let other people fail to decide.