‘Populism’ is a word that has gained popularity in Ghana with the raging debate over the retirement package for former President Kufuor and other very senior government officials – MPs, judges, ministers, the whole greedy lot. Many have described the public outcry against the retirement package as well as the tentative steps President Mills has taken in response as “populism” or more scathingly, “populist nonsense”.
I consulted my trusted Encarta dictionary and its definition of the word gladdened my heart. According to Encarta, populism is “politics unfavourable to elite: politics or political ideology based on the perceived interests of ordinary people, as opposed to those of a privileged elite.”
After reading that definition, I walked away, nodding my oblong-shaped head and showing my entire dental formula in what I consider to be a smile but which others see as a rather disconcerting exhibition of glass-breaking teeth. But I smiled anyway after reading that definition because it confirmed my belief that populism is not such a bad thing after all.
Populism helps to get presidents (and other politicians) elected. Every election is a popularity contest. The winners are those whose utterances (at least) show that they are in tune with the needs and aspirations of the electorate. People will vote for the guy who promises (and convinces the voters some way, somehow that he can provide) good jobs, improved health care, good schools, paved roads, potable water etc. Politics thrives on populism and most popular politicians are the ones who get elected. Show me a politician who claims to ‘dislike’ populism and I’d show you a deluded idiot who doesn’t know the rules of the game he’s playing.
After winning the ultimate diadem, the politician who refuses to continue flying on the wings of ‘populism’ will drop dead – politically speaking. Populism means doing what the people want – the very reason why they voted you into office in the first place.
If the people say don’t buy a presidential jet – you don’t (Kufuor)! If the people say don’t go to war, you don’t (Bush). If the people say stop the ex-gratia, you do exactly that! Yes, responding to the demands of the majority of the people is populism and it’s the very essence of the politics. No one has been a great, respected, revered leader without being populist. Ask Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Ghandi and even Barrack Obama.
A president doesn’t need to ask his citizens for permission every time he feels like hopping on a plane. But then, if the citizens start complaining that the president is behaving like a nomad with his numerous travels a wise president should be populist enough and stop racking up frequent flyer miles. If, on the other hand, the president decides to be a non-populist and shows his citizens his middle finger, he (and/or his party) won’t stay in power for long. That’s just by way of an example but you get my drift?
Populism is so important that in the more enlightened societies – where politicians think less of themselves and more about their followers – they measure the performance of leaders by gauging their popularity. Popularity (or approval) ratings are nothing but a measure of how the citizens perceive their leader to be doing what is expected of them.
I once heard George Bush say something to the effect that he cannot rule a country with opinion polls. He might have had a point there. Indeed, if my president decides to measure public opinion on every issue before taking a decision, I’d call him stupid. The best leaders, however, are the ones who are able to gauge the mood of the people and take decisions that benefit the majority of their followers – who are usually the most deprived and disadvantage.
George Bush, who refused to look at the opinion polls, did as he pleased – taking unilateral decisions that dumbfounded even his most ardent critics who thought he was dumb. In the end he left office with the lowest approval rating for any departing American president – a mere 22%. Compare that with his predecessor, Bill Clinton who left office with a respectable 68% approval rating. Clinton is remembered as one of the best presidents America ever had; George Bush is most probably the worst.
If populism means providing the needs of the people, pleasing them and actively seeking their welfare so that a leader will win and keep as many hearts and minds as possible, then I’d recommend it to any politician (or political grouping). Populism is very good and I am pleading with all those who have been trying to give it a bad name to just a few steps back and think again.
In any case, if I were president I’d rather be called ‘populist’ than be referred to as the selfish, corrupt, greedy chap who threw populism out of the window and led a gang of plundering elites to loot the meagre resources of the state.