[NOTEBOOK]Populism's Appeal Can Suddenly Change

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[NOTEBOOK]Populism's Appeal Can Suddenly Change

The word "populism" has become popular in the international community. The word was born in the United States in 1891, when the Populist Party was founded to counter the two major parties - the Republic Party and the Democratic Party. The word "populist politics" came into use, as the Populist Party was supported by the peasantry and labor unions.

These days, the expression usually refers to politics that cater to public opinion, regardless of economic status.

Populism has become the topic of international politics because popular leaders with popularity-based policies are attracting the world's attention, including Alberto Fujimori, Eric Estrada, Junichiro Koizumi and Vladimir Putin.

In the Philippines and Peru, former presidents Eric Estrada and Alberto Fujimori, who have been removed from power, are considered populists. In Japan, there is criticism that Prime Minister Koizumi's policies are too populistic.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is attempting populist policies that stimulate nostalgia for the former Soviet Union as a superpower.

In Korea, critics say President Kim Dae-jung's administration is implementing a series of reform policies in a populistic way that puts too much value on uniform egalitarianism.

Of course, it is good for policies to be popular, and it gets a high approval rating from the people. However, reality is sometimes different. Some policies have to be carried out from a long-term perspective and some have to be done despite a lack of popularity.

In populism, however, there exists only the president and the people. Everything is done in the name of the people.

If the people turn their backs or become divided, such populistic leaders lose power rapidly or become so radical that their attachment to their policies resembles that of martyrs to their religion.

A good example is Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union. After elected General Secretary of the Politburo of the Central Committee, Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev pushed perestroika (reform) and glastnost (openness) in the name of and with the support from the Soviet people.

Although there were dissidents, Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika policy was carried out by the two pillars - an enlightened Secretary General and the people of the Soviet Union, and nothing could come between them.

Alexandre Yakoblev, a theorist who pushed for reforms with Mr. Gorbachev, said that every time they face trouble because of their opponents, they had the firm determination to reform the Soviet Union with martyrs' attitude.

In fact, Mr. Gorbachev pushed ahead with his reform agenda, turning a deaf ear to the Communist Party's assertion that withdrawing the Soviet military from East Germany and granting autonomy to the Baltic countries would lead to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Because of such determination, he is revered as a leader who put an end to the Cold War.

Nevertheless, he is criticized for bringing chaos upon the Soviet Union, which he was supposed to protect and maintain, because he caused the sudden and unprepared dismantling of the Soviet Union by adhering too much to his reform targets. His successor was Boris Yeltsin, who was a far more populist leader than Mr. Gorbachev. During the first few years in office, Mr. Yeltsin's popularity peaked.

His popularity lost ground because his policies did not produce intended results and the reform fatigue built up.

The problem is that such populism makes its way into not only internal policies but also foreign policies. That may intensify conflicts with neighboring countries.

Populism puts on the appearance of an even more radical martyr when it loses public support. In many cases, a populist regime collapses when a more populist leader appears.


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The writer is international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Seok-hwan

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