Populism’s Pollen

Ashansa Mulmi

Ms. Mulmi ​​is a research intern at Samriddhi Foundation, an economic policy think tank based in Kathmandu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the organization. Author can be reached at Ashansa Mulmi [email protected] 

Populist leaders and parties have been a longstanding presence in the country. The age-old narrative of the “pure people” against the “corrupt elites” has brought great revolt and, along with it, great despair. But why is it that, in the face of persistent populist shortcomings, the general public continues trusting such leaders? Perhaps it is only human nature to agree on negativity, on hating the common enemy. In the face of exacerbated failures, be they economic or cultural, the masses appeal to the subject of populism because of mounting discontent over the status quo, over concerns about existing parties’ inability to deliver policy outcomes that hold significance to the citizens. A study finds that it is not the actual vulnerability per se that matters, such as material wealth and educational attainment, but the subjectively experienced vulnerability, such as relative deprivation, that fuels the distaste against the “corrupt elites” and sparks up populist agendas. 

The recent strikes in the valley also build on the same narrative, creating a breeding ground for populist agendas. The raging economic downturn has further fueled mistrust among the people with the existing political structure. As turmoil intensifies, citizens need to question prospective leaders. And it becomes incumbent on citizens to critically analyze if their claims are fraudulent. For instance, in the same protest, Durga Prasai (leader of the Protection of Nation, Nationality, Religion, Culture and Citizens party) claimed he would force the government to forgive bank loans up to Rs. 2 Million. Such measures, if practiced, go against constitutional principles and laws that will bring about drastic economic repercussions.

Now, it begs the question, why does populism flourish? Citizens fed up with the existing political landscape tend to search for alternatives. As a result, they may embrace a newer party, viewing it as an improvement over a perceived ineffective system of existing parties. But the problem lies in judging the newcomers because they lack a track record. 

In the field of rational choice theory, economists operate under the assumptions of homo economicus, expecting voters to have well-defined preferences, unbiased beliefs, and optimal decision-making abilities driven by economic self-interest. However, the reality challenges these assumptions as voters may (re)elect populist leaders with flawed economic policies. This irrationality is explained through intertemporal choice, where voters (citizens) are willing to compensate material future losses due to poor policies for instant gratification or present gains, allowing populists to exploit the time lag.

The problem with populists is that they raise these issues to rile their base and divide societies. But, when working on these promises, they quickly falter on them and propose superficial solutions that fall short of addressing the complexities of these challenges. Rather than providing genuine remedies, their primary aim seems to exploit problems opportunistically, attracting supporters and weakening crucial institutions. While it seems evident that citizens should refrain from electing such leaders, the challenge lies in discerning whether a leader will stick to their promises. Therefore, it becomes vital, once again, for citizens to scrutinize and hold leaders accountable and responsible as research finds populism to cause a significant decline in judiciary independence, election quality, press and media freedom, and damage to the innovation-friendly economic environment supported by democracy.