Thu, May 11, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Trying to define when a political movement is populist, or not

By Max Fisher  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Mountain people

The two movements that culminated in this week’s presidential elections could hardly seem, from the outside, more different.

In France, a populist wave brought the far-right National Front and its anti-immigrant nationalism short of victory, but closer than ever before, with one-third of the national vote.

In South Korea, outraged protesters helped prompt the impeachment of center-right president Park Geun-hye on corruption charges and the election on Tuesday of Moon Jae-in, who yesterday became one of the few left-leaning leaders in the country’s history.

One movement is solidly right-wing, skeptical of institutions from the EU to the news media and soaked in the politics of division. The other is left-wing, but less categorically so, embraces institutions like those that oversaw Park and seeks to bridge social divides.

Yet, the movements share a common architecture of grievance. In both, supporters felt shut out by an unresponsive political establishment. Both accused the incumbent president of selling out the people to corrupt, moneyed interests. Both saw their only choice as rising up to disrupt the “status quo” and force change.

Their divergence reveals both the common traits in anti-establishment backlashes globally and the range between extremes those movements can fall within. And they hint at the fuzzy nature of populism, a label applied more readily to France than South Korea.


For several weeks last fall, every Saturday, as thousands of South Koreans gathered in city centers to call for the impeachment of Park, they would often chant the first article of their country’s constitution.

“The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people,” the line reads in English, according to the official translation.

Protest movements often use such national symbols to guard against accusations of disloyalty, but the line also sends a message nearly universal to anti-establishment protests. It conveys that political power rightfully belongs to the people, not the state, and pledges to restore the rightful order.

Tunisian protesters in 2011 chanted “the people want the downfall of the regime,” a slogan that echoed across the Arab Spring.

US President Donald Trump, in his inaugural address, said: “We are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people.”

National Front leader Marine Le Pen positioned herself as a champion of the people against the EU rather than the French government.

“Either you reform and you give us back our sovereignty and independence over the currency, or I will propose that France leaves the union,” she said in 2014.

John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said the protests in the city, although often upbeat, carried “a clear edge of: ‘We’re in control here, not you. The people are taking the government back.’”

Protest movements often start when democratically elected governments become so unmoored from popular opinion that people see them as undemocratic. Championing “the people” is a way to accuse the government of having sold out to foreign or moneyed interests — an accusation powerful enough to justify drastic change.

In South Korea, Park was seen as conspiring with cronies in the vast family-run corporate conglomerates, known as chaebol, that wield disproportionate power and have histories of corruption.

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