Populism vis-à-vis Professionalism — in the Process of Nation Building
By Tsegai Berhane (PhD) Mekelle University, School of Law
Tigrai Online, Oct. 23, 2017
This inclination towards radical populism is having a very serious impact on the peace and stability of Ethiopia
The serious challenge in any nation building process (including our country) is how to strike a balance between populism (qualified in this short article as an appeal to emotions of the poor and uninformed section of the population or ethnic groups, desire for power at any cost, employing conspiracy theory to stir up hysteria, exploiting crisis to intensify popular support for immediate action and increased authority) and professionalism (qualified in this short article as establishing and enhancing democratic institutions and procedures like what they call Chapter Nine Institutions in South Africa). Of course, I have come across different definitions and arguments on populism and professionalism in different literatures and it is not my intention to replicate them here. Accordingly, I qualified the terms for this short article’s purpose.
In this short article, I would argue that though it is very difficult to completely avoid populism (since populism might serve as an input to democracy and nation building process in a country), the balance should be in the direction of less populism but more professionalism. I strongly believe emphasis on more professionalism would make our infant democracy more inclusive and more representative than populism can do by itself. In complex policy related issues in the process of nation building, properly designed intermediary institutions can act more decisively and responsively on behalf of the public than an army of populists could do on their own. I also strongly believe that intermediary institutions are also less likely to be paralyzed by factional disputes and special-interest manipulations. However, it is good to note that professionalism (intermediary istitutions) like the army of populists are imperfect but they need not do their job perfectly so long as they do it accountably. While in populism since it is guided by emotions and blind hatred trying to establish accountability is very difficult. Of course, the intermediary institutions need to be representative of the public at large. To this effect, the passing of legislation is mandatory.
At this point it would also be good to emphasize that populism is a very serious problem in the process of nation building in developing countries like in Latin America and Africa. However, developed countries like the United States of America are/were not immune from this problem either. For instance, as (Jonathan Rauch & Benjamin Wittes, 2017) note, “The American Founders—at least the prevailing ones—were not populists. They actually defeated the populists of their day who broadly opposed the constitution. Drawing upon ample historical experience, they worried that democracies were vulnerable to demagoguery and prone to instability.” Alexis de Tocqueville, the greatest observer of American political culture was similarly wary of populism (Ibid).
To be honest, as far as my judgment of the current situation (nation building process in our country) is concerned, it looks that the focus of the political actors—be it political parties (opposition & coalition ruling party members), political activists, elite scholars and the community at large—seem to be sensitized towards more radical populism and less professionalism. Instead of capitalizing on professional way of dispute/conflict resolution they all resort to populist way of dispute/conflict resolution be it at regional or federal levels. Of course, I stand to be corrected but that is my honest perception.
In my opinion the four structural factors that could explain the rise of the current populism in our country could be categorized into four. First, the turbulence within the ruling party (its detachment from the public due to corruption, bad governance and the weakening of professionalism/the democratic institutions. Second, the negative role of the radical populist political activists (from diaspora or within) through social media. Third, the radical politicization of the socio-cultural dimension/ethnicity. Finally, invisible external ideological or interest group influence.
Accordingly, this inclination towards radical populism is having a very serious impact on the peace and stability of the country in particular and the nation building process at large. Unless this trend is curbed on time its ramification will be very, very … serious. I think it is time for all of us (those who love our country) to raise our voices against this growing radical populism where ever it is. I think no one will benefit from this radical populism; all of us will be losers.
Finally, I would like to plead that a spectre is haunting our country—extreme radical populism. So, the government, political parties (including ruling party coalition members and oppositions), political activities, concerned scholars and the community at large need to wake up and start to address the issue before it is too late. However, in addressing the issue of populism, it is good to rectify the social conditions most conducive to the likely rise of radical populism.
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