Saturday, 8 June 2019

The Limits of Democracy: Legitimising Populism

Imagine this: A country, Outlandia, democratically elects its leader whose primary political agenda and promise was to commit genocide against a minority group, the Outlandish. The people of Outlandia, with an overwhelming majority, voted to power the promise of erosion of human rights.

While that may be an outrageous claim today since it is feeding on extreme notions of populism, one cannot but turn a blind eye to the rise of populism across the world. Is a populist leader, in whatever form or political spectrum, the end of rule of law and the end of compliance with international legal norms? Hardly anyone would doubt that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are fundamental pillars of the modern concept of a ‘free state’. Yet, that one pillar can be a legitimate threat to the other two. In the past, democratically elected parties have toppled rule of law in the traditionally ‘civilised’ European nations. Same is the case with human rights.

What then, is the boundary for democracy? How does one draw a line? What seems right against a popular support for the destruction of the independence of judiciary and disregard for human rights? What would have seemed like a hypothetical question is a tangible threat in today’s world: disregard for human rights and the rule of law is legitimised by democratic support for leaders that do so. This concern cuts across continents, across religious values, across developed nations and developing nations.

Koskenniemi suggests that the rise of the far-right is not based on the anxiety over economic deprivation, it is built over the ‘loss of status’.[1]  There can be two identifiable schools of thought: namely that of the two schools of ‘economic inequality’ and ‘cultural backlash’.[2]  However, it is also suggested that the data for correlation between economic factors and the rise of far-right tendencies is inconclusive, so to say.[3]  Cultural backlash, therefore, becomes a feasible explanation of the rise in populism. As a majority of the population feels marginalised in favour of protection of the minority, a sudden refuge in populism seems tempting.

What then is the limit of, and substitute for democracy? There is none and there shall be none. There is no limit to the process of democracy, but the only form of constraint against anarchy is that there are strict limitations on how populist leaders can effectuate their populist policies at both the international and the domestic level.

The freedom to choose also entails with it the responsibility to choose wisely. Yet, like most things in life, a clear separation of populist and not-a-populist parties is impossible. More so, when populism comes as a side dish to the promise of great economic and social reform. Sometimes, the wise choice of emancipation may mean taking a step back in other places. It seems not-so-wise, but sometimes the freedom to choose political parties may entail a difficult decision to support populism. After all, it is not sustainable to create a society where the exact same society is pleasant for some, but a nightmare for others.


[1] Martti Koskenniemi, ‘International Law and the Rise of the Far-Right’ (Asser Annual Lecture, The Hague, 29 November 2018); See also Dimitri van den Meerssche, ‘Interview: Martti Koskenniemi on International Law and the Rise of the Far-Right’ Opinio Juris (10 December 2018) available at accessed 07 June 2019.
[2]  Ronald F Inglehart and Pippa Norris, ‘Trump, Brexit, and the rise of Populism: Economic have-nots and cultural backlash’ (2016) Harvard University John F Kennedy School of Government Research Paper Working Series 16-026 available at accessed 07 June 2019.
[3] ibid.

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