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Address of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats at the Opening Session of the CALD General Assembly 2012, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy.

I must begin by thanking the Secretariat of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats for putting together an excellent concept paper, which presents us with a very balanced view of the topic of our general assembly this year. It is all too easy to think of populism in negative terms, and indeed the list of what are seen as populist leaders of recent times with which the paper begins is one that many liberals would abhor. But the fact remains that the individuals on that list have in almost all cases been the leading choice of the people in their own countries, and we cannot dismiss them readily without trying to understand what makes them popular.

One name on that list however is an exception, and I think it makes clear to us the difference between populism that must be respected, even if it cannot be approved of, and what must from our point of view at least be rejected. I refer to Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, who was never chosen by a majority of the people of his country to be its leader. I would suggest that shows the limits of populism that is based on pure negativity, an appeal to people that necessarily means rejection of other people. Wilders did strike a chord with the people of the Netherlands and did comparatively well, but he did not have a majority, unlike Chavez and Morales in Latin America, Shinawatra and Estrada in Asia, and Berlusconi in Europe.

Interestingly enough, the first four appealed to people on the basis of their poverty, which demanded alleviation. Berlusconi seemed rather to appeal on the basis of wealth which demanded protection. I think that suggests another dimension to populism that will become increasingly important in the years to come, as the privileged use the media with increasing skill to hold onto their privileges. Indeed I would suggest in this regard that perhaps Ronald Reagan was the first populist President on that pattern, using his cinematic skills to win people to a partisan agenda that, like Berlusconi’s, was based on the suggestion that the state had been too indulgent to its less affluent segments. I still recall John Kenneth Galbraith claiming that Reagan’s philosophy was that the poor were not working hard enough because they had too much money, and the rich were not working hard enough because they had too little. The consequences of that type of populism are I believe still with us, in the rhetoric that dominates American primaries and which therefore finds its way into government policy too.

In Asia, though, it is to the deprived that populists generally appeal, and it is for that reason that, though we may worry about the policies they advance, that seem to us to be unsustainable, we must worry too about the sense of deprivation to which they appeal, and which demands alleviation. The Democrats in Thailand, and the Liberals in the Philippines, have both realized that they must overcome the image they project amongst many of the underprivileged, that they are an elite that does not understand the day to day problems of the peasantry and the urban poor. The need then to first develop policies that take those problems into consideration, and second to explain more clearly and convincingly the benefits of measures that may seem harsh initially, is better understood now because of the success of a more simplistic approach to poverty alleviation on the part of less responsible forces.

In the Sri Lankan context, I believe we too must recognize that some policies which seemed populist, in catering to the deprived without concern for wider interests, cannot be condemned out of hand. The shift in language policy that occurred in the fifties, the takeover of schools in the sixties, the takeover of lands in the seventies, the introduction of quotas for university education during that time, are all seen now as shortsighted, and certainly they were implemented with a lack of sensitivity and careful planning that has cost us dear. But we must also realize that they sprang from very real needs, and it was only the haste with which they were imposed, rather than being implemented after careful consideration of all options, that caused problems.

The manner in which Sinhalese was made the sole Official Language of the country provides an instructive example. The original proposal was based on the fact that government functioned largely in English, and this was not a language that was understood by the vast majority of our people. Mr Bandaranaike, whose party was largely based in Sinhalese areas, proposed to replace English with Sinhala. The then UNP government, which was more Westernized in its approach, realized however that change was necessary, and adopted the same policy, but its leader, then Prime Minister John Kotelawala, declared in Jaffna that Tamil too would have parity of status.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2012
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