FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

In my last column, I speculated about whether populist politics in both the US and the Philippines will persist with the defeat of Donald Trump and the end of President Duterte’s term in office in 2022.

In the US there is a wing of the Republican Party (GOP) that wants to move on from Trump and return to their original GOP brand of conservatism. But it seems that Trump’s Republican base is intact and is sworn to fealty to him alone. This cult-like following has the majority of the Republican Party eager to perpetuate Trumpism – for their own ends. The US electoral college system and the process in selecting candidates (the primaries) favor those that command a hardcore base in their states. So it would seem that Trump or Trumpism will remain a big factor in American politics, at least in the forthcoming congressional and presidential elections. In the Philippines, Duterte’s popularity has not waned despite what his critics point to as failure to deliver in reducing poverty, corruption, and crime in governance, as well many egregious acts committed under his watch. This popularity has given him enormous clout to crown his successor who will be expected to continue his populist message of strong (aka authoritarian) leadership with an anti-establishment bent. So given these developments, is populism here to stay?

My friend, Karl Jackson, C.V. Starr Distinguished Professor of Southeast Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University and who has held several senior positions in the US Government on security and defence, had this to say in reaction to my previous column. “My points are two:  populists eventually perish politically as the electorate matures and it takes a very long time even in a completely established democracy (usually because the democratic opposition remains easily divided).  I believe Trump is finished unless the Senate makes a martyr out of him.  Jan. 6 amounted to self-immolation.  Duterte is another matter entirely because his replacement needs only to gain a plurality of the vote among four to five candidates.  If the opposition can unite around one ticket, there may be hope of purging populist (but popular) government from the body politic.  In the US, the Republicans will face a similar problem in the political primaries which are structured to reward the candidate with a limited, but fervent following.  The Republican Party needs to reform its own presidential primary selection process.”

Karl agrees that the long-term solution is developing a mature electorate. Populists tend to appeal to emotions rather than logic, and so clear messaging of a more effective and humane alternative to populism in addressing the issues championed by their adherents would be critical in winning their supporters over. At the heart of populism’s appeal is the promise to address the grievances of voters about their well-being which they feel the old political and economic establishment had failed to deliver. It is a promise that has proven difficult to fulfill and, in many instances, has been used as an excuse to trample human rights and suppress dissent. Weaponizing information and the law has become the tools of choice for suppression.

Competence matters

In Europe and elsewhere, particularly in South America, the rise of populism has either led to the outright election of populists into power or gave rise to more centrist governments. The drift towards centrist policies is a reflection of the need to accommodate certain populist causes. This may have worked to get elected, but did not guarantee good performance.

There is one notable exception though to the irresistible sway towards populism - German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has led Germany for 18 years even as the populist tide gained traction even within her own country. During Trump’s tenure, Merkel even reluctantly took on the mantle of de-facto leader of the free world. Her strong stance on European unity in the face of Brexit, her welcoming of refugees, her candor about the COVID-19 crisis, and her leadership in opposing Russia’s transgressions were in marked contrast to Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-trade policies, his obfuscation of the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, and his coddling of Russia’s meddlesome Putin.

There is a Viber message going viral here on Angela Merkel. Although it purports to be something that just occurred, it is in fact based on the reaction to Merkel handing over the chairmanship of her party to her presumed successor in December 2018, thus signaling her intention not to seek re-election when her term expires in September 2021. There was indeed six minutes of applause from those in the audience and tributes did pour in. I am quoting some portions of that message – presumably roughly translated from German – which I suspect is being circulated to contrast her leadership with that of Trump, but perhaps more so with President Duterte.

“Angela Merkel has led Germany for 18 years with competence, skill, dedication and sincerity. During these 18 years of her leadership of the authority in her country, no transgressions were recorded against her. She did not assign any of her relatives a secretary. She did not claim that she was the maker of glories. She did not get millions out of her, nor did anyone cheer her life, she did not receive charters and pledges, she did not fight those who preceded her …. She did not utter nonsense. She did not appear in the alleys of Berlin to be photographed.

Mrs. Merkel lives in a normal apartment like any other citizen. This apartment she lives in before being elected prime minister of Germany and she did not leave it and does not own a villa, servants, swimming pools, and gardens.”

In other words, Merkel lived simply, did not enrich herself in office, nor gave out favors or favored her relatives, was careful in her public utterances, did not curry praise or adoration, but will leave office with Germany strong and stable through her competent leadership.

To me, if there is one lesson to be learned from Merkel’s longevity and universal acclaim it is that regardless of ideology – populist or liberal – it is the character of the leader and his/her competence that at the end of the day “trumps” all else. It takes a mature and resolute electorate to make that discernment to put an individual with such qualities in office.

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