Human Rights & Rule of Law

“The opposite of populism is responsibility” – How Liberals oppose populists on four continents

Four countries from East to West, from North to South; four different leaders; one common challenge: populist autocrats in government – and Liberals opposing their rule. To shed light on the inspiring quest of Liberals from South Africa, Venezuela, the Philippines, and Hungary, FNF convened a panel discussion at the fringes of the Liberal International Congress in Andorra.

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The speakers represented four countries on four continents which differ significantly in their history and culture. But they also share a sad reality: Freedom in their countries has decreased in the last 20 years and even more so in the last two years. At the same time, the populist rulers in Venezuela, South Africa, Hungary and the Philippines have all been elected at some point in the past, regardless of how autocratic or unpopular they are today.



The Philippines: populism in full swing

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Josephine Sato, a Member of the Liberal Party of the Philippines, described the shocking murders of alleged drug criminals in her country that have sparked worldwide indignation and loud criticism. With view to the political level, Sato criticized that the President and his followers were trying to unseat liberal Vice-President Leni Robredo. Despite what is happening, she said, trust levels in President Duterte remain high among the Philippine population. The President’s communications style plays an important role in this, she explained: He uses plain, simple language and promises to take care of the people.

Venezuela: people are hitting the street in protest

In contrast to this, in Venezuela the “populist illusion” has ended, explained Pedro Urruchurtu from the Venezuelan Vente party, referring to the street protests that have unfolded over the past weeks. “Right now, Venezuale is a mafia state,” he said, “You won’t find food or medicine anymore.” In fact, 83% of the population live in poverty – even though the country has rich oil reserves and a long history of exploiting them. “Today marks the 50th day of people hitting the streets. People want change.”

South Africa: a political alliance is growing

Change is also unfolding in South Africa, where Stevens Mokgalapa’s Democratic Alliance aims to move forward in a coalition with likeminded parties to end the rule of President Zuma.  “A re-alignment in politics has started,” he explained: in the next election no party will reach 50% of the vote anymore. So his party intends to join forces with other groups who want to combat corruption and create more opportunities for the people.  He warned that rural areas constituted a particular challenge for responsible politicians in their election campaigns: “Patronage is strong there and people need immediate answers to their needs. You have to go there with something.” This puts the ruling party in an easy position as it can abuse state resources to provide food in exchange for votes.

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Hungary: re-connecting with voters

The rural areas also pose a challenge in Hungary, where many people receive their information from state-controlled media, explained Zoltan Kesz, an independent Member of Parliament who broke Prime Minister Orban’s super-majority when he won a by-election two years ago. At the same time people see how their surroundings are changing and more and more young people leave the country.  “Do you want to be a skype-grandma or grandpa?” I ask people to underline that this is a permanent transformation of the country, one triggered by the Fidesz government, he explains.  Kesz hopes that next year’s elections could bring about change. “I learnt from my election: people wanted someone who re-connects with them, someone who knocks on doors and listens to them.”

In the end, all four examples show that the most important way to move forward is the way back to the voter: Being approachable and in direct contact with the people, understanding their everyday realities, standing ready to listen, offering real solutions to real problems and building trust. For Kesz, the answer to the populist challenge is clear: “The opposite of populism is responsibility.”


Caroline Haury is European Affairs Manager at the European Dialogue Programme of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Brussels.