The current and former leaders of the Philippines and Thailand, Rodrigo Duterte, Joseph Estrada, and Thaksin Shinawatra and their policies have in varying degrees been described and explained through the distinct lens of populism. I argue that in these East Asian cases, this category does neither fit the leaders nor their policies. To members of the domestic establishment elites and upper middle class intellectuals it rather serves as a political weapon to fend off political alternatives that threaten to sideline them.
What is populism?
The concept of populism seems to be the proverbial jelly nailed to the wall by social scientists. Currently two understandings dominate. A political-strategic understanding focuses on two core dimensions of populism: personalistic leadership and direct and unmediated support from large masses of mostly unorganized followers. A second ideational understanding conceives of populism as a “thin” ideology that can be filled with varying content. The only essential building blocks are the separation of society into two antagonistic and homogeneous groups, the corrupt elite versus the pure people and a belief in the obligatory primacy of the will of the people.
A less prominent line of thought defines populism from a socio-cultural perspective as a kind of cultural rebellion of the “Great Unwashed” against the discursive practice and cultural hegemony of the educated and refined, a “flaunting of the ‘low’,” i.e. a self-affirmation “with ‘the middle finger’ defiantly raised to the well brought up, the proper, the accepted truths and ways associated with diverse world elites”.
Governing populists in East Asia: a rare species
What may sound fairly precise and convincing in abstract terms gets muddled up when applied to real life politics. According to a list established by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change there have been 48 democratically elected “populist” heads of government between 1990 and 2019. For Asia these were Junichiro Koizumi in Japan, Joseph Estrada and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan and Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck in Thailand.
These six, like the 42 others from the rest of the world, make a strange mix that makes one doubt whether there is a common substance behind the marker of “populist.” Let’s take a closer look at those three who arguably are the most distinct embodiments of populist heads of government in East Asia – Thaksin Shinawatra, Joseph Estrada and Rodrigo Duterte – and see whether the marker can be filled with substance.
Thaksin Shinawatra – the East Asian blueprint of a Populist?
In 2001 Thaksin Shinawatra, police officer turned businessman, shook the Thai political establishment when he won the first elections he and his party Thai Rak Thai contested with close to 50% of the seats, a majority of which his contenders could only have dreamt of in the past elections. The 2005 elections brought him 74% of the seats. In 2011 his sister Yingluck came in first again with 53% of the seats. Yet, even though both could legitimately claim broad public support far surpassing those of their contenders, both were deposed by military coups (2006, 2014) that had the support of the political opposition and organized civil society (the People’s Alliance for Democracy or “Yellow shirts”), state bureaucracy, the judiciary (Constitutional Court) and royalty. But a popular politician deposed by less popular contenders for power need not be a populist.
In his case, the populism label is generally linked to his economic and welfare policies that departed sharply from those of the Thai political establishment insofar as they focused to a significant extent on the rural and urban poor. These policies included hitherto unthinkables such as a microfinance loans program, a debt moratorium for farmers and a universal health care bill amongst others that, taken together, succeeded in short time to actually “improve the social welfare of its citizens”. A second set of policies aimed at strengthening business competitiveness by providing for temporary protection against foreign competition, a third and later set focused on public sector reform. Thaksin sidelined the political establishment and largely excluded “bureaucratic influence from the decision-making process.”
These measures successfully jumpstarted the still jittery Thai economy, which actually “over-performed” dramatically compared to the forecasts of the respective government bureaucracy, clearly signaling that the previous hegemonic powers were deficient, that there were real alternatives delivering better on social justice and development, especially for the broad masses of the people. At least to his reelection in 2005 Thaksin was a populist only in so far as he “seems to have politically awakened the rural people.” The massive defeat of the opposition in the 2005 elections signaled that the new policies were there to stay, if the dominant power was not annihilated by extra-constitutional means, which was eventually done in a drawn out process by an informal coalition of civil society actors, political parties, the royalty, the judiciary and the military.
Neither in his policies nor his public pronouncements can Thaksin in any way be said to have been “populist”, if one were not to equate pro-poor economic and welfare policies that work with populism. He was neither “flaunting the low” nor dividing society between a rotten elite and the pure people. He was a semi-authoritarian leader who ignored the rule of law if he deemed fit. However, in this respect he hardly differed from his opponents who also bent and overstepped the constitution to reclaim political power. His followers were largely unorganized, yet, they only emerged as a political force (the Red Shirts) long after the opposition had organized the urban middle-class (the Yellow Shirts) in the wake of the overthrow of the Thaksin-government in 2006.
Joseph Estrada – a second rate wannabe populist?
In the Philippines Joseph Estrada is a popular candidate for the “populism” label. Yet, the only thing that may be said to mark him as a populist is that he comes from a movie-background as a film star, starring marginal personalities that stood by and fought for the poor and that he won the 1998 presidential elections on a pro-poor electoral ticket. Yet, in 1998, his movie-career was already thirty years past. In the meantime he had been Mayor of San Juan City, Senator and Vice-President of the Philippines. While Estrada was definitely “flaunting the low”, his pro-poor stance did not include any Manichean worldview or anti-elite bias, nor did his pro-poor stance translate into any visible policy beyond his campaign slogan Erap para sa mahirap (Estrada for the poor).
A pro-poor stance and overwhelming public support by the (mostly urban) poor is not part of any of the definitional criteria of populism. If personalism and support by largely unorganized followers are perceived as core requirements, then the vast majority of Philippine politicians qualifies as “populists” as Philippine politics is exclusively about individuals. Thus in this case too, the tag of “populist” regularly affixed on Estrada has hardly any empirical reference. While Estrada was extremely popular with the poor, he was no more a populist than many other Philippine politicians promising the poor a better life in exchange for their vote except for his “flaunting the low”.
Both Estrada and Thaksin stood against and threatened, albeit in fundamentally different ways, the interests (Thaksin) and social standards and etiquette (Estrada) of the respective establishment forces. An openly promiscuous and corrupt Estrada flaunting bad etiquette and symbolically fraternizing with the poor as president was an insult to both the quasi-aristocracy of political dynasties and the educated middle-class. Thus, similar to Thaksin, Estrada, was ousted as president in 2001 by a combination of educated upper-middle-class elements, the mainstream establishment elites, the Catholic church and the military in an extra-constitutional coup.
Rodrigo Duterte – the first true East Asian populist head of government?
Almost all texts on Rodrigo Duterte reference him as a populist, some even argue that he is the leader of a populist revolt against elite democracy, for others he would easily clinch the title of “Best Performance of a Populist Role.”
Yet, even in his case, there is significant unease. His swearing and insulting everybody from the US-president to the pope fulfills the requirement of flaunting the low to the extreme. He is also a purely personal leader in no way interested in establishing or strengthening any institutions that could survive beyond his demise as President. Since announcing his candidacy he has been supported by a large crowd of mostly self-organized supporters.
Yet, while Duterte seems to have singled out certain outgroups that comprise “enemies” of the Filipino people, i.e. all types of criminals especially drug-criminals, his critique of elite and bureaucratic corruption does not set him apart from the rest of the Philippine media or political class. His predecessor Benigno Aquino in his last state of the nation address pointed out to his “Bosses, my beloved countrymen: […]When we came into office, we found a citizenry that had grown desensitized to the many allegations of lying, cheating, and stealing in government”. Further, it is Aquino who imagines a “pure Filipino people” as the “boss” he serves in a fight against political and bureaucratic forces of evil. In contrast, in Duterte’s view there is no “pure people” juxtaposed to shady forces of evil. To him, Filipinos and Filipinas as a whole have failed, as expressed in his 2019 State of the Nation address:
“My countrymen, it is a sad commentary that we cannot distinguish our need from our greed, our principles from our prejudices, the real from the fake, and the truth from a lie. The reason is because that many of us, what matters above all is the ‘self.’ It is selfishness [at] its worst for no purpose other than personal aggrandizement. […] Honestly, I have identified the enemy who dumped us into this quagmire we are in. I have met the enemy face-to-face and sadly, the enemy is ‘us.’ We are our own tormentors […], we are our own demons; we are as rapacious predators preying on the helpless, the weak and the voiceless. […] Catharsis is what we, individually and collectively, need to do today – not tomorrow but today. Self-purgation followed by the resolve to do what is right and proper, is good for the nation’s health.”
The quote signals that Duterte perceives himself not as a kind of personalized expression of the volonté générale or the will of the people, but as a patron-strongman who decides and implements what he “identified” to be good for the people. His framing is less populist than religious, as he makes a martyr of himself for the common good of the community: “I am willing to rot in jail for the Filipino.” Senator Emmanuel Pacquiao uses a different religious frame that also speaks to Filipino religiosity: “God put him there for a reason, for purpose – to discipline the people.”
The East Asian populist as an empty shell
What unites those three cases of purportedly populist politicians? While Estrada and Duterte fit the socio-cultural understanding of populism, this definitely does not fit Thaksin. Personalistic leadership fits all three to a certain extent, yet, at least in the Philippines all politics is personal. A Manichean worldview fits neither, not even Duterte, who exhibits a less unitarian view of the “pure Filipino people” than his predecessor.
Why then are they subsumed under the rubric of populists in much of the literature? Is it inconceivable that one core reason is that they stand for the electoral emancipation of the lower-class majority from the cultural hegemony of the educated upper-middle class intellectual framework of liberal democratic good governance? Whereas liberal-democrats want to educate the “Great Unwashed” to vote correctly, these three were elected through an autonomous decision of those “Great Unwashed”, who disregarded the frame of bourgeois hegemonic culture.
One could pinpoint Thaksin’s and Duterte’s electoral authoritarianism without any recourse to populism and instead turn to other well established concepts like strongman or boss that fit the two (but not Estrada). Albeit, given the hype on the new populism in the Global North and beyond, tagging real or imagined Asian enemies of liberal democracy as populists is an unbeatable selling point from a political perspective.