Kapok | The pitfalls of populism

Eric Sautedé

It does not happen very often but Mr Fong Chi Keong has a point when he warns the government of the dangers of “populism” in Macao, adding, in plenary session of the Legislative Assembly, that the issue of how the government deals with public opinion and democracy has to be resolved properly.

Topping his concerns is the situation in Europe and what he calls “the paradox of democracy”. From his own reckoning, this so-called paradox was coined by analysts, an admission that in itself is worth stressing as Mr Fong has repeatedly characterised experts and scholars as “useless”. For him the contradiction lies in the overpowering capacity of the people to influence policy-making whereas very few citizens actually master the complexity and the ins and outs of institutional politics and economic development, and simply speaking, lack the ability to form an informed opinion. The consequence being on the one hand that people’s participation is seen as both “excessive” and “blind” (his words), and on the other that citizens can easily be manipulated.

Mr Fong then highlights the two main aptitudes that a government must display if populism is to be warded off. The first is for a government to face its responsibilities. Failing to do so, in his mind, will put the people at a loss, fuel social hostility and ultimately help populism blossom.

Mr Fong’s main target appears to be the excessive recourse to “public consultations”, in which he sees a distortion of the political system, an indication of the weakness of the government’s capacity to change things and a clear lack of self-confidence. And then, if the government does eventually uphold its responsibilities, it needs to act as a mediator — a second necessary skill — in order to mitigate the adverse effects of ongoing developments. Here, the main example given by legislator Fong is the conciliation role the government needs to play in labour disputes, at a time when labour movements have grown in autonomy and thus more demanding.

This is all very well, and being French and having just participated in the first round of France’s presidential election that many have dubbed a “triumph of populism”, I can concur: when “populism” wins, public policies rooted in reason and social stability are put at risk. But then this is one of the characteristics of democracy: sovereignty resides in the people, and even though it might look messy, it also means that people can rebel without resorting to revolution by using the legal channels of election, even if it means breaking away from the European Union or putting in the White House a whimsical twitting-maniac as a the most powerful leader of the planet. Is it challenging? Hell yeah! Are democratic institutions crumbling? Well, Brexit is being engineered by Theresa May along the idea of a “deep and special relationship” with the European Union and Mr Trump has experienced a few setbacks regarding the scrapping of the Obamacare, enforcing illegal travel bans or even letting go the North American Free Trade Agreement.

What does Mr Fong actually mean by populism in a place where the Chief Executive runs unopposed and only 41% of the legislators are returned via universal (competitive) suffrage? What does he mean by the government not “assuming responsibility”? By his own token, given that Mr Fong was one of the most vocal opponents of the domestic violence law (ultimately passed) and the staunchest supporter of the 2014 perks’ bill for senior officials (ultimately withdrawn following the most important street demonstrations since 1989), what would “taking his responsibility” mean? My guess is a bit of courage and for him to resign.

The root cause of populism is not democracy: it is the perpetuation of illegitimate and plutocratic community leaders who have proven time again their incapacity to make the right choices for the common good. In a democracy or even in a result-driven autocracy benefiting the majority, the paradox can somehow be resolved more or less peacefully…

Categories Opinion