6.3.2.5  Populism in Democracies
(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/version02a/6325.htm)

Democratic leaders have to receive votes in order to gain power, so they have an incentive to veer towards short-term populism – defined here as responding to people’s expressed wishes without exercising the prudence (2.6) that is required of people who have leadership responsibilities.  This is notably a problem in economic matters:

·      Governments can offer ‘sweeteners’ in a pre-election budget, then subsequently raise taxes.[1]

·      They can mortgage the future by borrowing, so that they can offer unaffordable (but popular) public services; these debts, though, have to be repaid (3.3.8.1) and a future population bears the costs. 

·      They can try to bribe the electorate with its own money, by offering ‘pork’, as in examples already quoted (3.3.7.1).  It seems that those who are not the beneficiaries of the ‘pork’ are unaware of their contribution to its cost.

·      Some tell lies about their economic plans in order to win an election, as in the 2006 example of Hungary’s Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who admitted to having lied.  Although riots followed, he did not resign.[2]

Sometimes the intrinsic complexity of economics enables politicians to play such tricks without being detected, and without people understanding which policies caused economic damage (3.3.9.2). 

Such problems can be mitigated:

·      Political parties wish to retain power for prolonged periods, even though individual politicians might want to respond to short-term pressures.  A party's desire to maintain a reputation for reliability is an incentive for it not to be irresponsible; it can withdraw support from populist individuals who appear to threaten its long-term interests.

·      Some democratic systems have mature institutions which are independent from the government, such as central banks which manage inflation (3.3.8.3) and which take a long-term view.

·      Some measures to increase transparency (6.8.5.1) and accountability (6.8.5.2) are described later in this chapter. 

Whatever countermeasures are taken against populism, though, democratic politicians are more likely to resort to short-term expediency than those in authoritarian systems who wish to keep power for an indefinite period.



[1] On 17 March 2005, The Economist published an article entitled The budget, subtitled And on to the election, which referred to Gordon Brown’s "electoral sweeteners" and which also referred to “the tax-raising budget in 2002 that followed the giveaways in his pre-election budget four years ago”; the article was available in March 2016 at http://www.economist.com/node/3772561.

[2] On 18 September 2006, the BBC published a report entitled We lied to win, says Hungary PM, which was available in March 2016 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/5354972.stm.