"This is how populists come to power."
Speaking before an international assembly of Asian liberals and democrats, Vice President Leni Robredo denied assertions that unfilled promises in democratic systems gave rise to populist and right-wing leaders.
“The past few years, we have seen ideas we hold dear under attack, with populist-authoritarians the world over tapping into long-simmering frustrations, capturing office through the same participative mechanisms that form the bedrock of our beliefs,” Robredo told the 13th Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats General Assembly.
“The main message, it seems, has to do with a world order that has failed to deliver in its promises. The diagnoses and prescriptions may be different, but the main thesis is that this world order—liberal and democratic in its processes—given rise to new dangers, bred widespread inequality, and allowed the powerful few to hoard vast riches while leaving everyone on the dust,” she added.
Robredo also cited the stereotyping of liberals as elite and educated, and out of touch with the world’s problems.
These claims, she said, were untrue—but she also acknowledged that democrats across Asia must strive to listen and understand the stories of people on the ground, and not just treat them as mere data samples for policy-making.
“This process requires shedding the idea that, armed with our position papers and PhDs, we always know what is best. This gap in humility is in fact what demagogues are so skilled at weaponizing: They make their crass pronouncements and sleep in mosquito nets to signal a sameness with the frustrated,” Robredo said.
“But while populism dresses itself up in cosmetic affinity, the liberal response must be to pursue authentic human engagement. To lean towards the ground and share in the struggle of the people,” she said.
More than four years after her own Liberal Party was drubbed out of office in national elections that chose a populist president, it is interesting to hear the vice president make this point.
Certainly, there was a gap in humility in the Liberal Party’s six-year rule under President Benigno Aquino III, who famously asked a Tacloban businessman worried about looting after his city was destroyed by Typhoon “Yolanda” in 2013, “Why, you’re still alive, aren’t you?”
Certainly, too, there was a gap in humility when then President Aquino joked that he was ready to be run over by a train along with his transportation secretary, if a light rail project would not be completed in the allotted time, only to renege on his promise two years later, when railway extension missed its deadline.
We also saw a gap in humility when the Aquino administration bragged about self sufficiency in food then turned increasingly to rice imports that hurt Filipino farmers.
In all this, some hubris might have been forgiven, if it were accompanied by competence and honest public service—but clearly even these were in short supply in the Liberal Party’s six-year rule.
All these, in the vice president’s words, were easy to weaponize, because people were angry and the Liberals in office didn’t seem to know or didn’t seem to care.
And that is how a populist came to power.