Can populism be conservative?

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Can populism be conservative?

In an interview with local newspapers, Hong Joon-pyo, newly-elected chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, said he will push ahead with “populist policies based on rightism” to prepare for next year’s general and presidential elections. He went so far as to assert that the GNP’s pro-working-class policies are good populism based on the Constitution, while a series of free-of-charge promises by the opposition Democratic Party is bad populism, which will eventually deplete the nation’s coffers.

It seems that Hong tried to differentiate the ruling party’s populist policies - aimed at helping ordinary people - from the opposition party’s by describing them as “rightist,” or conservative. That is misleading and wrong.

First, it encourages people in the fatal misconception that the populism being pursued by both parties is not a bad idea at all.

Populism refers to a set of policies which appeals to the desires and sentiments of the masses over rational factors like economic feasibility and a nation’s financial health. Typical examples of populist leaders include Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, the wife of Argentinian President Juan Peron, and Thai Prime Minister-in-waiting Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party won a landslide election victory Sunday on a platform of populist policies.

The history of policies pursued by populist leaders is, however, a litany of failures. Simply put, populism is a political technique our politicians must avoid no matter how well-intentioned it may appear on the surface. Chairman Hong himself has said populism was something his party should condemn. The preface of the GNP platform Hong helped draft in 2005 declares that the GNP should protect the Constitution by confronting populist ideas. Hong’s so-called conservative populism is incompatible with the lessons of history and an outright betrayal of the party’s philosophy.

Conservative parties in the U.S. and the U.K. use more prudent words - “compassionate conservatism,” for instance - when referring to their moderate polices for granting more welfare benefits to ordinary people. The GNP also should use better expressions like “pro-working-class policies” or “warm conservatism.”

Hong should pay heed to sharp criticism from former chairman of the party Chung Mong-joon, former floor leader Kim Moo-sung and lawmaker Lee Kyeong-jae. Lee said that even though Hong said he will push forward “good populist policies,” populism is still populism whatever you call it.
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