Populist politicians and the COVID-19 pandemic
FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras (The Freeman) - August 11, 2020 - 12:00am

Speculations and questions on who are the political leaders in the world who are relatively successful in containing the health and economic effects of the COVID pandemic are legitimate issues worth exploring. While the crisis is still ongoing and may last many more months, there are some countries that are handling them better than others, in terms of the infection/death rates and the severity of the economic recession. There is an ongoing evaluation on whether democratic countries are more successful than authoritarian countries in managing this pandemic. It is too early to make a judgment on this issue, and there is also the difficulty in getting reliable information from autocratic regimes, like North Korea, China, or Russia, as they are not exactly forthright in their official data and they have no independent media. There is, however, enough available data on the type and character of most world political leaders to make a judgment call on the effectiveness of populist politics and politicians during this pandemic.

Populism or populist politicians are those who got elected by catering/riding on the perceived popular issues of that time. It comes when the voters are disenchanted or dissatisfied with the existing regime that excludes majority of the voters in the economic growth of the state, and in the decision-making process of the government. It is a legitimate exercise of democracy by the people, but these sentiments are hijacked by politicians who promise to address the problems and deliver results within a short time. This global uneven distribution of wealth and influence, ushered in Modi of India, Maduro of Venezuela, Bolsonaro of Brazil, Erdogan of Turkey, Putin of Russia, Duterte of the Philippines, and partially, Xi of China and Trump of the US.

Seven months into this pandemic crisis, the populist leaders have not been doing as well as the social democratic leaders. The US and Brazil top the death count with over 150,000 and 100,000 respectively. India, Venezuela, Russia, and Turkey are not too far behind, and the Philippines has the highest in Asia. This would almost be the same ranking if infection and contamination rates are expressed per million of population. The consequential economic impact on these countries is also as bad in terms of GDP reduction and unemployment. On the other hand, Germany, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and Iceland are the outstanding performers, while Spain, Italy, and France are recovering fairly from an earlier onslaught.

It is apparent that populist leaders are less receptive to a science- or medical-based approach to the pandemic than non-populist leaders. Some did not believe in the gravity of the pandemic and touted medically unproven cures or medicines. They still catered to their anti-establishment constituency that denied medical science. As they have also promised immediate solutions to the problems of the people, they tend to enforce drastic militaristic quick solutions like lockdowns and quarantines rather than the long and tedious process of testing, tracing, and isolation. Populists, in their objective of preserving their solid core supporters, invariably create further division of the population, especially the middle class, into those for or against him. This makes general public cooperation difficult, as all those who object or criticize the populist leader are viewed as enemies and are even persecuted. This situation limits essential expertise inputs to the problem as suggestions are unwelcome.

While most politicians use populist rhetoric to get elected with immediate solutions to society’s problems, it may not be a sustainable way of governance. Societal problems are deep seated and long lasting. The current and future information and communication technologies exhibit the unfulfilled promises and failings of populist leaders in real time, and in audio and video. The drift of Russia, China and the US to a social democratic governance will be the precursor of this trend.

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