Roundtable on populism: Phenomenon and prospects

05 August 2020 769 Views

The Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies (CSDS) organized a specialized workshop at the Center’s offices on the topic of ‘Populism’, on July 10, 2020. The event was chaired by Dr. Rafik Abdessalem, the Director of the CSDS, who introduced the five panellists: Mounir Kchaou, a University professor, Dr.Aymen Boughanmi, a University professor, Mehdi Mabrouk, Researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy, and Mohamed Toumi, researcher at the Center for Economic and Social Studies and Research (CERES).
Dr.Abdessalem opened the roundtable by outlining the aims of the roundtable, as an attempt to revisit the term “Populism” and analyze the phenomenon by bringing together scholars, academics and journalists. He defined populism as a political discourse that invokes the term “People” or the “Grassroots” while creating a societal divide or antagonism based on a dichotomous approach between a “pure” and “virtuous” society, on one hand, and “evil” and “rotten” elites, on the other hand. According to Dr.Abdessalem, populism purports to distinguish between legitimacy and legality, and presents itself in a utopian image.

Mounir Kchaou focused on the risks posed by populism for Tunisia’s democratic transition and in nascent democracies. He argued that populism is the antithesis of liberal democracy and questioned populists’ claim to be the only representatives of the people’s will. Dr. Kchaou focused on the ways in which democracies have dealt with populism throughout history. He gave an overview of the term “democracy”, which dates back to the works of Plato and Aristotle. He emphasized that populism has existed in both presidential and parliamentary democracies. As a counter to the new waves of populism, Dr.Kchaouargued in favour of the parliamentary system because it provides for greater heterogeneity and is a stronger guarantee against tyranny. He warned of the risks of populist groups, which have sought to fundamentally undermine European liberal democracies such as France’s National Front, Italy’s Five Star Movement and Victor Orban’s Hungary Prime Minister self-styled “illiberal democracy”. He argued that one of the reasons for the emergence of populism is the development of catch-all parties, a term created by Otto Kirchheimer for political parties trying to please people regardless of their class or ideological alignment.
As for Tunisia, although it is a new democracy, Tunisia has become a pluralistic society, although Dr. Kchaou argued that it has not yet reached the stage of genuine heterogeneity in terms of values, religion and ethics. This pluralism has enabled power to be shared among various actors: its power stems from a pluralistic and open Constitution and a dynamic and influential civil society that can act as a sort of a shield against the threat of populism.

Dr.Boughanmi focused on the concept of “democracy” and questioned whether it is an ideal form of the representation of the will of the people. He argued that this ideal should not be taken for granted and illustrated his argument with the Articles of Confederation of 1777, which was ratified by 13 American states, which expressed the need for a “Unity” government to protect themselves against the French invasion and what they called the Indian “threat”. Dr.Boughanmi argued that democracy is dysfunctional for many reasons, including its lack of ability to bring about genuine change. Another challenge is that most electoral discourses are identity-based and vague, rather that having a clear policy platform. Moreover, since World War Two, the two-party system has dominated many liberal democracies and led to decades of consensus, which limited the options for voters. He argued, for instance, that there is no clear difference between the left and right on many domestic and foreign policies.
Dr.Boughanmi highlighted a key characteristic of populism as being based on personality and not programs, where the “Self” or “We” is used to overlap with the state. For instance, to mobilize the public in public gatherings, Hugo Chavez addressed the public directly using the slogan “You are All Chavez”. He also gave examples of Tunisian President Kais Saied’s sudden night-time visits to deliver social assistance, and his description of himself as being similar to the Khalifa Omar Ibn al-Khattab, thus seeking to give the impression that he is all-seeing, omnipresent and holds unlimited power.

Mehdi Mabrouk put forward the argument that populism emanates from democracies and not tyrannical regimes. He described the phenomenon as a childish pathology that flourishes in an era of decay and political polarization. He added that populists try to capitalize on people’s discontent and misery. He argued that populism is not an ideology but rather a strategy or a method to seize power and achieve the individual or movement’s goals. He put forward some characteristics of the phenomenon. First of all, it It utilizes sentimental and seductive language to manipulate the public. For instance, he highlighted that Abou Kacem Chebbi’s poem that forms part of the national anthem is usually repeated in populist speeches:

“When people will to live

 Destiny must surely respond”.

According to Dr.Mabrouk, populists’ discourse resembles “DJ Music”. It uses simple language, and is against relativism, presenting things as black and white. For instance, the repetition of Farhat Hached’s well-known saying, “I love You, O People”.
Secondly, Dr. Mabrouk argued that although democracy is seen as a method to combat populism, this phenomenon flourishes in democracies. It is seen as a rejuvenation of, or an alternative within democracy. Thirdly, it relies on direct representation and fiercely critiques representative democracy, accusing it of engaging in a range of exclusionary or “elitist” practices. Kais Saied, for instance, says he prefers meeting with ordinary people and refuses to have many dealings with elites, while at the same time resisting the decentralization of power from the center to the periphery.

Ajmi Lourimi agreed populists’ main strategy is to create a political cleavage and antagonism between “We”, which refers to “the People”, and “Them” the “elites” or “oligarchs”. He noted that freedom grants demagogues, supporters of exclusion and intolerant people who incite hatred, a space to express themselves, while at the same time deriding the very democratic system that provides them with such rights and freedoms. According to Lourimi, populists’ values have become a greater threat today mainly with the growing use of social media as populist leaders are able to interact with larger numbers of people directly.For instance, in his inaugural address, Donald Trump promised to transfer power from Washington D.C. and “give it back to you, the people”.
Meanwhile, despite their apparent closeness to the people, populists often perceive the public as “the masses” and not citizens. For instance, Mr. Lourimi argued that they often oppose representative institutions such as Parliament because they limit the leader’s power. When they win elections, populists have often moved to limit freedoms and rights as their top priority, showing their great zeal for power. They often criticize the Constitution because it guarantees freedom of expression and pluralism, which limits their power to shape society as they wish.
Populism in political discourse was the topic addressed by Dr. Mohamed Toumi. He argued that populism is an ideology that aims at dividing society into two vying forces - forces of “Good” and “Evil”. It presents itself as the former, seeking to guarantee people’s interests, identity and culture. Meanwhile, the forces of “Evil” are those that represent the interests of the central government, which they argue protect the interests of the elites.
He traced the rapid spread of populism in recent decades, which he argued is partly due to the replacement of majoritarian democracy with consensus or other approaches that led to enormous setbacks within liberal democracy. He ended his talk with accusing most political parties of displaying high levels of anti-elitism and populism.

Report prepared by Dr. Hatem Sebei


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