Scholars share their views on the global rise of populism

The rise of populist leaders around the world can be effectively countered by mainstream leaders, who need to take the fight to them, but in a way that is not divisive.

A crucial first step in this battle is to understand why populism emerged, and acknowledge that governments have not sufficiently addressed the latent anxieties among their citizens.

In the past two days, scholars discussed the tide that gave rise to Brexit and, among others, President Donald Trump in America and President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

They spoke at the inaugural Asian Conference for Political Communication (ACPC) in Singapore, organised by the German think-tank Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).

On how populism gained traction, scholars pointed to several factors. Chief among them is economic dislocation owing to globalisation. Many are affected.

Also, the 2008 financial crisis triggered a crisis of confidence in the elites and the established economic order. "There are a lot of people who are stuck... (and) feel like they've been hurt by the system," said Mr Vincent Harris, chief executive of US-based Harris Media.

Other issues add to people's fears. In the US, Britain, France and Germany, it is immigration. In the Philippines, it is drugs.

Mr Duterte became president last year because he gave a voice to people who have complained for years, to no avail, about drug addicts on the streets harassing kids, said Dr Nicole Curato of the University of Canberra.

Some concerns are more imagined than real, but as long as people hold them, it drives behaviour, said Dr Werner Patzelt of TU Dresden. Populists are "political entrepreneurs" - they step into a gap left open by the elites, who are seen as arrogant and unresponsive.

Media attacks on populist leaders only confirm their supporters' suspicions, said Mr Harris, noting how the more the media attacked Mr Trump in the US presidential election last year, the more support he gained.

Social media also lets populists bypass mainstream media outlets and appeal directly to voters, the scholars noted. To fight the trend, mainstream leaders must tackle concerns head on. Dr Patzelt said there should be fewer taboo topics and more discussion on people's concerns and how policies can address them.

Scholars said populist supporters can be won back as they come from a diverse group who agree on some issues but disagree on others. "They are pretty volatile. We should not think of them as a fixed bloc," said Dr Ute Frevert of the Max Planck Institute.

Fights with populists should involve facts, rational arguments and good communication by translating complex issues into simple language.

Leaders must not descend to the nasty rhetoric of populists. This would "reinforce divisions", said Dr Curato, citing examples like Mr Duterte's fans being labelled "Dutertards" and Mr Trump's opponent, Mrs Hillary Clinton, calling his supporters "a basket of deplorables".

Ultimately, governments have to show results, said Mr Frank Priess of KAS, who pointed out that German Chancellor Angela Merkel fended off populists with policies that brought growth and jobs.

Support for populists in Germany fell from 20 per cent last year to 9 per cent in recent polls.

Said Mr Priess: "How is it possible that Angela Merkel is so successful? If you hear her, it's quite a boring form of doing politics: She always tries to explain, she always tries to show the complexity and she refrains absolutely from being populist...

"This needs credibility. You need to show results (relevant to) the needs of the people... to be successful."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2017, with the headline 'Scholars share their views on the global rise of populism'. Print Edition | Subscribe