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[Park Sang-seek] Debate on politics in Korea: Who is afraid of populism?

Recently, conservative political leaders, opinion makers and mass media have been passionately debating “welfare populism” and warning of its political demagoguery and devastating effect on the national economy. The nationwide debate focuses on free meals for primary and secondary school students, a 50 percent reduction in college tuition fees and free medical services. They cite the political and economic crisis faced by Greece as the latest evidence for the danger of populism. 

Are the political controversy in South Korea and the political and economic crises in Greece caused by populism? In order to answer to the question, we should first know what populism is. The Cambridge dictionary defines populism as “political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people’s needs and wishes.” Thus, it is a neutral term referring to a political ideology which claims to represent the masses.

Ironically, conservatives use the term pejoratively and condemn populist parties or movements of any form, while those who are condemned as populists rarely call themselves populists. It should be noted that the conservatives depict the populists as disguised socialists or communists who attempt to seize power by misleading and agitating the ignorant masses, while the liberals and radicals advocate what the conservatives call “populist” as democratic and just.

Populism has two characteristics. One is that it is an independent ideology. The other is that it has two faces ― political and economic. As a political ideology, it pits the power elites (the privileged people) against the general masses and upholds majority rule as the essential element of democracy. As an economic ideology, it identifies itself with the masses of the poor and emphasizes economic equality over freedom.

Since it is an independent ideology, it should not be classified as a variant or disguised form of socialism, Marxism or any other ideology. Populism is rooted in democracy because its theoretical foundation is majority rule. On the other hand, populism can be congruous with either capitalism or socialism. In the developing countries populism is mostly associated with socialism or neo-Marxist varieties. Theoretically, democracy can coexist with capitalism and socialism.

However, conservatives tend to believe that democracy prospers under capitalism, because democracy can guarantee economic freedom better than any other political systems. But liberals and radicals argue that democracy not only prospers under revised capitalism and socialism but also theoretically is more compatible with them, because democracy can prosper under an egalitarian society rather than in a highly inegalitarian society.

Scholars generally agree that economic development positively contributes to democratic development although democracy guarantees mainly political freedom and political equality ― not necessarily economic freedom and equality. In contrast, conservatives argue that since capitalism can bring about economic development faster than any other economic system, capitalism prospers only under democracy.

Theoretically, populist ideology is closer to the spirit of democracy than liberal democracy, because democracy emphasizes majority rule rather than individual freedom while liberal democracy advocates the opposite. Because of this, democracy can degenerate into mob rule, as warned by Plato and Aristotle. This is an innate shortcoming of democracy.

In a democratic system, all political parties, regardless of their ideological positions, seek the support of the majority of the people. Therefore, it is quite natural that they present party platforms which are attractive to as many voters as possible.

Often liberals and radicals appeal to the masses by making promises which cause enormous governmental budget deficits and public debts. Conservatives condemn such campaign pledges as empty promises or demagoguery, branding them as “welfare populists”. Liberals and radicals counterattack by calling them servants of the privileged, ignoring the predicaments of the poor. Such a political fight is natural and perhaps necessary in the democratic process, because the ultimate goal of all political parties is to win elections.

But if they forget the purpose of political power, they lose their own raison d’etre. This is to promote the human security of the people. Democracy is a form of governance based on the consent of the people ― the majority of the people. If the government, whether democratic or not, can’t guarantee the basic human rights and welfare of its citizens, it loses its legitimacy. The key issue is not what kind of election strategies or tactics parties use but whether their governance can meet the needs and desires of the people. They can resort to so-called populist strategies and tactics if they deem them necessary.

The crux of the matter is that once in power the ruling party or coalition should adopt policies which will serve best the general welfare of the citizens as a whole and will not destroy political stability and social harmony or ruin the economy. Therefore, prioritization of policy options is the most important task of governance for the ruling party or coalition.

In the age of globalization, a democratic deficit is one of the most serious political issues in democratic states and the international arena. Representative democracy has revealed many short-comings including the corruption of politicians, alienation and political apathy of the ordinary people, domination of the government by the powerful interest groups, and pseudo-democracy, and many institutional reform proposals have been debated and experimented.

However, if any political groups accuse other political groups of populism just because they try to protect the masses, that is undemocratic. To gain majority support is a democratic right. Only when they are convinced that their opponents’ populist policies are likely to ruin the national economy or to endanger national security, do they have the right to play the populism card. The debate on welfare populism in Korea should focus on the prioritization of policies, not populism itself.

By Park Sang-seek

Park Sang-seek is a professor at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University. ― Ed.