This is the first review published in the joint Thailand-Laos-Cambodia Studies Group and New Mandala book review project. Further information from the TLC-NM book review editor, Michael Montesano, is available here.

Mizuno Kosuke and Pasuk Phongpaichit, eds., Populism in Asia.

Singapore : NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 228; ill., map.

The logistics for this innovative volume were overseen by collaborators from Thammasat University in Bangkok and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. Its origins lay in a series of workshops which, after the ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister of Thailand in 2006, led to a comparative investigation of populism’s fluctuating fortunes in East and Southeast Asia. This research agenda drew inspiration from the vast scholarship on populism undertaken by Latin Americanists, most prominently Kurt Weyland. It was made timely by the financial crisis and economic stagnation that overtook East and Southeast Asia during the 1990s.

In the volume’s epilogue, Ben Anderson comments in typically imaginative style that the “dominating factor” in Southeast Asia’s politics has been “closed national oligarchies”, their members habitually queuing “for a turn at lucrative posts” (p. 218). The 1997 financial crisis, however, disturbed these “cozy arrangements” in the region, enabling authentic populists like Thaksin, as well as lesser variants like Joseph Estrada in the Philippines and Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, to challenge oligarchies, if to varying degrees. Similarly, in East Asia, Kimura Kan writes that after state-led industrialization began to falter, Roh Moo-hyun in South Korea, Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan, and Koizumi Junichiro in Japan confronted incumbent elites as populist “outsiders”, using either marginalized factions of existing parties or newly formed party vehicles as their institutional bases. Finally, across both regions, these leaders relied on their personal and sometimes charismatic appeal, duly amplified by electronic media, directly to mobilize mass followings through reformist rhetoric and nationalist reassurance.

In the volume’s lead-off chapter, Mizuno Kosuke and Pasuk Phongpaichit identify populism’s defining features, noting the assumption of mass-level unity and virtue, complemented by anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism, and often anti-foreign sentiments. Theoretical ballast is also provided in a careful follow-up chapter by Matsushita Hiroshi, which tracks the evolving understanding of populism in the Latin American context. But even with this elaboration, the notion of populism that emerges in this volume lapses into the vagueness for which it has long been criticized. On this count, Mizuno and Pasuk concede that in any particular instance, populist ideology may be “right, left or middle” in its direction. They tell us too that populism may be harnessed to a traditional policy agenda of state ownership or to “neo-populist” commitments to privatization. Further, it may emerge under authoritarian rule or through democratic politics, though in the latter instance the “opportunism or flattery of the public” into which electoral campaigning descends amounts to a “pathology of mass democracy” (p. 7). In addition, the tinder box in which populism is sparked may be urban, as in the Philippines under Estrada, or predominantly rural, as it was under Thaksin. And while populism is said usually to find roots in aimless and disorganized mass publics, Joel Rocamora tells us that in the Philippines it has been grounded in “autonomous, often self-organized community organizations” (p. 59). And Pasuk and Chris Baker argue that in Thailand, far from slipping into dependence, “people felt empowered by [Thaksin’s populist] schemes” (p. 74). Matsushita then deepens the mystery over populism, declaring that it “can occur in any place and at any time” (p. 30). Accordingly, once respected scholarly efforts to associate its rise with particular forms of import substitution and internal migration now stand as “discredited” (p. 24).

In sum, the road to populism, in its fuzzy new rendition, would seem paved by no more observable elements of political economy than steady modernization, followed by a drop in industrializing performance. And its practical dynamics and ideological substance involve little more than new leaders mobilizing mass publics against wounded oligarchs through personalistic, reformist, or nationalist appeals.

To be sure, Mizuno and Pasuk try to put the best analytical spin on the scant theoretical content that remains, claiming that populism’s “broadness…is now seen as an asset” (p. 2). But is it really so helpful to think of any challenge to oligarchs mounted by outsiders who galvanize “the people” as populist in nature? In this conceptualization, so wide a range of political conflict is embraced that populism fails to gain much explanatory traction. Indeed, it is not even apparent whether populism is best apprehended as a causal force, reshaping politics across East and Southeast Asia, or an outcome that is itself in need of explanation.

Better mileage might be gotten through an older and leaner approach to populism, indeed, through a rediscovery of its most classic feature: the “trans-class” coalition wherein a leader possessing great personal charisma and high social standing, in confronting oligarchic rivals, appeals to dissociated mass publics with pledges of material redistribution, though with an intention of winning over clientelist loyalties rather than substantially leveling the socioeconomic order. In this way, as we survey the pantheon of challengers, we are able first to separate out the run-of-the-mill upstart, then distinguish meaningfully between the manipulative populist and the committed socialist. We are thus also better able to understand how even as redistributive programs are initiated, populist leaders today may seek furtively to shore up the capitalism by which their order is funded, thereby compromising popular preferences with the neo-liberalizing priorities that Susan Stokes has denounced as “mandate violations.” And finally, we may deepen our insight into how populist leaders are ousted. It is not, as Anderson (pp. 217-218) contends, when in vanquishing rival oligarchs a populist leader runs short of the foils that he or she needs in order to legitimate executive abuses and perpetuate mass solidarity. Rather, as Pasuk and Baker show in one of this volume’s best chapters, populist leaders like Thaksin are brought down by the oligarchies that they have provoked but failed to overcome. Joel Rocamora tells a similar story about Joseph Estrada, though with the added insight that, just as economic crisis may elevate a populist leader to power, so too might it trigger the leader’s demise.

By this reckoning, it becomes more possible to discriminate between, and hence to account for, different kinds of leadership challenges in East and Southeast Asia. As Pasuk and Baker demonstrate convincingly, Thaksin’s choice of political strategies qualifies him as populist (even if in another essay Tamada Yoshifumi insists that Thaksin’s nemesis Sonthi Limthongkun is the truer populist). Estrada’s credentials are weaker, for as Anderson shows, he was bent less on dismantling the oligarchy than on joining it. Mahathir Mohamad’s classification is also uncertain. Early in Mahathir’s career, Khoo Boo Teik reminds us that he railed against a Malay aristocracy which, in consenting to economic relations dominated by local Chinese and foreign investors, locked ordinary Malays into timeless patterns of “feudal” subjugation. But the redistribution that Mahathir undertook through the New Economic Policy came so much to favor a reconfigured oligarchy, with newly promoted “Malay millionaires” taking their places alongside Chinese towkays, as to represent a severe form of Stokes’s mandate violation. The East Asian leaders in profiled in this volume seem even less deserving the populist label. Chapters by Otake Hideo on Koizumi, Kimura Kan on Roh Moo-hyun, and Matsumoto Mitsutoyo on Chen Shui-bian, while establishing clearly that these figures were mavericks, are unable to identify the trans-class coalitions harnessed to redistributive programs that are the hallmark of populist strategies.

Populism in Asia thus falls short of giving the notion of populism explanatory leverage in the Asian context. Though its search for comparable dynamics across disparate regions shows much ambition, the volume errs in following the Latin Americanists down so poorly signposted a pathway, its conceptual potholes and soft shoulders frustrating analytical progress. Even so, the chapters in this volume offer much excellent treatment of the economic setbacks and political upheavals with which East and Southeast Asia has been afflicted over the past decade. Nualnoi Treerat’s consideration of Thaksin’s use of the mass media, Matsumoto’s account of Chen Shui-bian’s appeals to ethnic and nationalist identity, and Okamoto Masaaki’s revelations of localized populist activity in Sulawesi deserve special mention as incisive empirical accounts of important developments. While students of East Asian politics seem fated to continue debate over the value of populism as an investigative tool, this volume’s many insights will nevertheless enrich their work very much.

William Case

Director, Southeast Asia Research Center

Department of Asian and International Studies

City University of Hong Kong