One of the regular slogans on BBC World News has been: “Populism rather than policy is the undisputed vote in Europe.”
One rightly asks why populism is spreading not only in undemocratic nations but also in Western democratic countries. The fact that populism is on the rise because the ordinary citizen feels that his/her concerns are being disregarded by those in authority, means that our representative democracy is not reaching out to the common citizen.
The reason why many are ‘anti-establishment’ and are fed up of the mainstream parties is that the democratic system, rather than helping the people’s representatives address the needs of the people at large, is protecting the ‘oligarchy’ and hindering those who conscientiously want to look into the needs of the common citizen.
We seem to believe that once a government has been elected democratically, it has the right to govern as it wills without any restrictions or moral obligations. How often do we hear the words, perhaps uttered sarcastically, “Issa aħna qegħdin fil-gvern!” (We are now in authority!)
The Catholic Social Teaching asserts that “in the democratic State, when decisions are usually made by the majority of representatives elected by the people, those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority”.
No wonder, then, that people start protesting on the streets and losing faith in the established political structures. Though populism is not a structured political system, because it represents the voice of the people – of those who are neglected – it is spreading fast and seems to have become more effective. As the lyrics of the song A New Argentina state “the voice of the people cannot be and must not be denied!” After all it is the people who elect governments and they are the ones who replace them.
David Thunder, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navana’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain, comments in The Irish Times (January 23) that “traditional politicians promise better policy outcomes, using rhetorical strategies that seem to assume something like ‘politics as usual’; populists, tapping into a growing wave of voter discontent, rail against the ‘system’ and its cronies and are not afraid to paint themselves as political saviours”.
We seem to believe that once a government hasbeen elected democratically, it has the right to govern as it wills without restrictions or moral obligations
Populists prefer a faster and revolutionary route. Policies and rhetoric alone are not enough to convince the ordinary citizen that his or her needs are being heeded to.
The voice of the people is making us aware that once our democratic system is not effectively achieving its democratic aims, then there is need for its structures to be revised and necessary changes made. Thunder argues that “even if populism suffers political setbacks, the appetite for anti-system or anti-establishment politics is unlikely to subside until we undertake radical institutional reforms. For the basic problem we confront is not a handful of troublesome politicians but a political system that is no longer fit for purpose”. I would add that the reason why we have ‘a handful of troublesome (corrupt) politicians’ is because the system is failing us.
The right changes, though, can only be carried out if we have the right vision and the right approach. In all we do we have to keep at the forefront the dignity of the human person and the common good. Legalities and structures, very often, impede those in authority from acting in the interests of society at large.
A look at the way the immigration crisis is being tackled here in Malta and in other countries is clear proof of how, under the guise of following the law, human beings are losing their dignity and are being left to suffer and even die. By focusing on the legal aspect one tends to ignore the moral obligations. Politics becomes demoralised!
Does populism, then, imply that whatever the people demand has to be heeded? Robert Musumeci, on Times Talk (January 16), seems to believe so, for when asked whether a politically exposed person should resign if found guilty of any malpractice, he commented that if after an investigation one realises that one’s role is no longer compatible then one needs to take a decision. “Unless” he reasoned, “the people think otherwise”, for he believes that the people’s verdict takes precedence.
One must disagree with such a conclusion, for whether one is in authority or a common citizen, the rule of law has always to be adhered to and respected. In fact, the Social Teaching of the Church asserts: “The mere consent of the people is not sufficient for considering ‘just’ the ways in which the political authority is exercised.”
One thing is important, though: once sovereignty belongs to the people, the need of educating the people at large is a must. People need to be presented with the whole truth and not be misinformed. Neither should they be manipulated to satisfy the hidden agendas of politicians as has happened, for example, in the Brexit referendum campaign.
Claire Bonello is not appearing today.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece