Dr Paul D Kenny, Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, was announced the winner of the American Political Science Association’s prestigious Robert A Dahl Award.
The Award was given for Dr Kenny’s recently published book, Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond. The annual prize is awarded to an untenured scholar who has produced scholarship of the highest quality on the subject of democracy.
We spoke with him about his work and why it is that populist leaders are driving Asian politics.
Why do populists win elections in India?
The short answer is that populists in India have thrived because of the difficulty in maintaining cohesive national political parties. The Congress party, it is true, has been around for a long time. But there has always been a tension in the party between central control and peripheral autonomy. This tension is exacerbated by the dependence of Indian political parties on the distribution of patronage – jobs, cash, favours, etc. – in return for votes. Where patronage is the prevalent mode of mobilizing voters, the brokers – the city bosses and rural bigwigs – have great leverage over their parties. One of the common ways that aspiring national leaders have sought to overcome the power of these brokers is by 'going once more direct to the people,’ as Indira Gandhi put it.
Is populism on the rise in the region? If so, why?
Yes and no. Populism is a very common form of political appeal in South and Southeast Asia today. Modi in India, Jokowi in Indonesia, Duterte in the Philippines... But this is hardly new. In fact, given the continued prevalence of patronage politics in the region and the consequent incoherence of national political parties, populism has been an ever-present corollary to democracy. In India’s case, this kind of charismatic mobilization of the masses in India began with Mohandas Gandhi during colonial rule and has reappeared again and again since independence. Sukarno in Indonesia and Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines both relied on populist appeals to gain and maintain power in the 1950s.
Populism is often linked, either implicitly or explicitly, with illiberalism in much of the discussion about contemporary populist leaders, such as Modi, Duterte and Trump. Is there a link between these two concepts?
Populist governments are indeed often ‘illiberal’. They are associated with a weakened rule of law, an erosion of checks on the executive and a threat to press freedom. Yet I believe it is a mistake to equate populism with illiberalism by definition. There are two reasons why populists in power tend to be illiberal in practice. First, as they exert nearly arbitrary control within their own parties or movements, they do not face the same kinds of constraints on accumulating power as do leaders of deeply institutionalised parties with the power to check their leaders. Second, populists are largely concerned with their personal power, not that of their party or movement. As a result they have different time horizons to the leaders of ‘regular’ parties. That is, populists are willing to risk eroding liberal norms of tolerating the (minority) opposition because they are not as concerned with the long term survival of their movement as an institution. In contrast, regular parties expect to have to survive in opposition so are less likely to erode liberal protections for the minority. Of course, not all populists are the same. Those with the relatively more institutionalised movements, like Modi, may face more constraints. In contrast, Trump, whom we might have expected to be contained by the Republican Party, has shown that populists present risks in any system.
Given the continued weakness of political parties in Asia’s democracies, you have written that populism is unlikely to lose its appeal in the region any time soon. What does this mean for Australia?
Building on my last point, I think the crucial feature to point out with respect to populists in power, is the relative autonomy they have. As personalistic leaders, they aren’t constrained by their parties on the one hand and they have different time horizons to regular parties on the other. As a result, they may be willing to engage in more risky international behaviour. In the US, Trump’s willingness to damage America’s international reputation by igniting trade wars and detaining immigrants in order to score political points at home is an example of how this might play out. Duterte’s move from the US to the Chinese orbit is of particular concern to Australia. But we shouldn’t imagine that there is a coherent populist foreign policy agenda. Although populists tend to be nationalist and protectionist, at present it is unclear whether or not this is just because populists have tended to come to power in those countries most prone to economic nationalism in the first place.
Robert A Dahl’s work on democracy has been incredibly important in the field of political science. What does it mean to you to receive an award named after a giant in the field? How has his work influenced yours?
It’s a great honour. I met Professor Dahl a few times as a graduate student at Yale. I think I was too star-struck to say very much unfortunately. Dahl’s research has had a tremendous influence on how political scientists think about democracy. For me, at least in part, Dahl’s exposition of the tension between democracy’s promise and its practice has been inspiring. What I’ve found is that many of the good things we attribute to formal democratic institutions seem to depend a great deal more on informal norms that we perhaps realised.
Dr Paul D Kenny is the Program Convenor of the Master of Political Science program run through the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. For more information, visit the Master of Political Science program page.