Populism, Leadership and Broken Campaign Pledges

Populism, Leadership and Broken Campaign Pledges

The COVID-19 pandemic showcased not only the pivotal role of healthcare, but also the great need for competent leadership. Now more than ever, the ‘populist leader’ phenomenon has become more common, with leaders making populist political decisions more often than before. But what is the role of failed promises in electoral campaigns? How do populists build on their citizens’ trust? And will this be enough for them to retain their hold on power?  

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once stated that, as leaders, “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”. The politicians who fail to manage this transition from campaigning to governing end up running into problems of their own making. When campaign promises are left unfulfilled and when unrealistic goals are set, reality catches up. Populist campaigns and tactics have grown in popularity as seen in the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump’s campaigns, but their leadership and campaign pledges have struggled. 

‘Get Brexit Done’ – Failed Pledges in the UK

No example displays the tendency of populism to fail on its pledges better than the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Following the typical rhetoric repertoire of citizen-oriented policies and a focus on national interest, the political ‘warpath’ walked on by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the paradigm of populist policies and the populist leadership profile. By turning their attention to disregarded social groups, left unattended by previous political elites, populists aim their policies at the welfare of these members with the hope of political victory or resurrection. This was exactly the case with Brexit: the attention of the current government was turned towards those who felt affected by the fast-paced wave of globalisation that had affected income distribution and heightened inequality. Following the promise that his predecessor wasn’t able or willing to deliver, Johnson decisively pursued the disentanglement of the UK from the EU. Even though the withdrawal treaty from the European Union was at the core of his election campaign last December, Johnson now considers it to be so unbearable as to justify breaching international law. His promise to the weary and sceptical UK public for an ‘oven-ready deal’ that would ‘get Brexit done’ has been continually halted. The half-finished deal is now getting in the way of moving onto a new relationship with the EU and his election prospects have subsequently dwindled. Doubling down on his campaign promises, he is effectively pursuing a Ponzi scheme; moving on to the next promise before being asked to deliver the previous one.  

However, this isn’t exclusive for the UK; a parade of populist leaders have gained public support globally with seemingly simplistic and easily implemented promises. These pledges are secondary to the acquisition of power itself. From false promises to imagined accusations against their competition, populist leaders are prepared for anything and everything.  

Unravelling leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted society’s dependency on good government and skilled leadership. It made evident the dire need to be ruled well, and shook governmental foundations, forcing new directions of governance. As the effects of climate change and global environmental disaster make themselves felt widely across the globe, proper leadership is becoming both rare and extremely necessary. Visionary promises from populist leaders give scant comfort when fundamental policies are absent.  

It has become a skill to distinguish between campaigning success and governing fiasco. As showcased by populist world leaders in Brazil, the US, the UK and India, ambitious promises and rightly implemented policies are certainly two very different notions. The parallels between appearance and substance, between rhetoric and competent delivery and between reality and manufactured political authenticity grow increasingly further apart. The more a populist government falls down on policy, the more it is tempted to make things look better than they are. The more incompetent a leader is at governing, the greater the draw of distracting attention from reality.  

The populist leaders that have successfully stayed in power longer than their fellow less competent leaders are the ones that skilfully combined ambitious policy promises with effective,  to a certain extent,  delivery. The typical example would be Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has frequently made eager promises, but has never jeopardized neither his nor his party’s reputation by failing to deliver. As a result, he has cemented his power much more effectively compared to other populists, who perceive governing to be just another displeasing task that must be completed.  

On the other hand, one case of a populist leader unconcerned with policy delivery is Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and his approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from disregarding the set of actions that were commonly pursued by the majority of international leaders, such as national lockdowns, limitation of movements and mandatory health checks, the loose and unbothered approach to a matter of national and international health significance rang alarm bells to the rest of the world leaders but not to him. The stance continues, with Brazil currently ranked third in the world for confirmed cases and deaths. 

Concluding Remarks & Forecast

Despite their struggle against the spread of the virus, populist leaders should not necessarily be counted out by their opponents. On the contrary, this poor behaviour means their political opponents should regard them with greater attention than before, as the current crisis exposes their hollow promises and vague policies even more. Given the boiling election period in the US, all the cameras have turned once again to the nature of populist leaders, their broken promises and the possibility of alternation in power. And though many might think that this mismanagement exposes the fallacy of the populist promise, the reality isn’t so simple. 

Undoubtedly, populism has come undone in the previous months. But as populist systems and governance methods are once again examined for their inability to contribute to prosperity and social security, their end may not be as close as imagined. Though this pandemic has indeed resulted in a crack in the re-election prospects of many of its proponents, such as Boris Johnson, the populist waves keep coming.

Populism will continue for a number of reasons; the argument that this crisis will defeat the concept is a misconception. Populism has been a permanent feature of modern democracies since the Second World War, especially in Europe and Latin America. Even if leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro were to lose power, they would not take with them the ideologies, promises and governing structures that form a populist government. As populist figures in Italy, Germany and the UK have proven, populist leaders can prove just as effective on the sidelines, as they can set the terms of public debate and shake up the foundation for policies to be implemented. Their time in office may have come to an end, but their ideas, provocations and policy schemes have a much longer shelf life. 

These lockdowns also returned a modicum of respect to experts and scientists, whom populists have made a significant effort to undermine throughout their time in office. The most characteristic example is the relationship between Trump and American physician Anthony Fauci. The US President went so far as to publicly counter the doctor’s assessment of the situation as ‘wrong’, and Bolsonaro systematically portrayed the virus as a “little flu”.

Finally, the uncertainty of the post-pandemic future presents the clearest counter-argument to hopes that populism is on the decline. Economic recessions and predictions of negative economic growth have already begun in countries seemingly immune to economic devastation such as Australia and New Zealand. Countries will be faced with mass unemployment and poverty as a result, and such widespread social grievances are ripe for populist exploitation. Economic and political downturns have been shown to increase political and social fragmentation and polarization, both of which are ideal conditions for populist rhetoric to thrive.

The pandemic continues to create more uncertainty, and as such the world is in dire need of correct and skilled leadership, elements that are lacking in populist leadership. It has created ideal conditions for a resurgence in the wave of populism, which will promise to right the wrongs and cure the ills of broken economic promises and empty political plans. The best-case scenario is that this strengthening of populist rhetoric will slow down growth and progress, while the worst-case scenario is that global recovery will regress significantly.

Categories: International, Politics

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