"Populism can either be a remedy or a malady", says Sri Lankan Minister of Justice Rauff Hakeem, keynote speaker at the recently concluded CALD General Assembly Conference on "The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy." Held on 8-11 March 2012 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the conference tackled one of the most controversial issues in the world today – the revival of populism and its implications for democratic governance. As the quote from Minister Hakeem shows, populism could indeed be a highly divisive and contentious issue.
The divisive nature of populism became evident as early as the first session, when CALD Secretary General Dr. Neric Acosta asked the participants to write a word or phrase they associate with populism. After the responses were categorized as positive, negative or neutral, the results showed that the participants were almost equally divided on the issue. The presentations of Sam Rainsy Party's Saumura Tioulong and CALD Youth Chair Selyna Peiris reinforced the results of Dr. Acosta's impromptu survey. While Ms. Tioulong wrote "Hitler" as the word she associated with populism, she discussed populism in largely positive terms, even claiming that being attuned to the needs and wishes of the people is the "best (feature) of representative democracy." Similarly, Ms. Peiris, by highlighting the role of leadership in populism, arrived at the same conclusion: populism can either be good or bad depending on the intentions or objectives of leaders who head populist movements.
In the next two sessions, regional or country experiences regarding populism were looked at, highlighting in particular the cases of Southeast Asia, South Asia, Latin America and Europe. Mr. Sam Rainsy focused on Cambodia, arguing that in his country, populism has taken a "brutal, authoritarian form", with Prime Minister Hun Sen now being the longest ruling dictator in the world. Liberal Party of Sri Lanka's Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha, on the other hand, took a sub-regional comparative approach by comparing Sri Lankan populism with that of Pakistan and India.
A Spanish academic from Taiwan, Prof. Francisco Luis Perez Exposito, then presented the Latin American case, emphasizing the factors which led to the revival of populism in the region such as low levels of education, social inequality, clientelism, weak political parties, corruption, and worship for the strong man. The rise of populism in Europe was presented by Mr. Jules Maaten of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Philippine Office. In his presentation, he drew attention to the themes of contemporary European populism namely: fear (of Islam, immigrants, refugees), uncertainty and overwhelming complications (brought by globalization, regionalization), and anti-establisment stance (against EU, common currency).
The fourth and fifth sessions related populism with policy-making and the media. Drawing from the experience of Thailand, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Kasit Piromya revealed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's "dual-track approach" of embracing both globalization and localization – the latter resulting in many populist policies which proved to be detrimental to both political and economic development. Civil Will Party's Choidorj Markhaaj, on the other hand, related the "populist policy marathon" between the two major political parties in Mongolia, and how this impacted on his party's ideological position and electoral viability.
As regards the relationship between populism and the media, Sri Lankan newspaper editor Feizal Samath pointed out that "Sri Lankan politicians have always used the media to promote their agendas, populist or otherwise, some better than the others." Singapore Democratic Party's Dr. Vincent Wijeysingha, on the other hand, reminded the participants of what populism should be: "Populism must represent the popular will, rather than pandering to special interests in society." The special interests, obviously, include the media or those who use the media for their particularistic interests. Former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya returned to the panel and discussed how the media and political entrepreneurs could be utilized to counter populism in Thailand, highlighting the fact that the media is a dual-edged sword that could be used to advance or hinder populism.
The last session returned to the relationship between populism and democracy, and tackled how a symbiotic relationship could be forged between the two. Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan's Huai-hui Hsieh focused her presentation on the party's primary system, which, starting 2010, has been based entirely on public polls. She then interrogated whether such system could be labeled as populist, and whether it could be considered as an effective mechanism to gauge electoral success. Mr. Gaku Kato of Democratic Party of Japan closed the session by stating clearly his position on populism-democracy nexus: "...populism cannot bring any solution for real politics. It only causes the disorder of the society in the long run even though it may help to break though a stagnant situation in the short run."
The CALD General Assembly Conference ended with most participants expressing great interest on populism, although not necessarily agreeing on whether it is positive or negative, remedy or malady, threat or corrective, or meaningful or destructive. The mere fact, however, that questions were raised, debates ensued and interests were awaken are reasons enough to consider the conference a huge success.