The end of populism

The call for speedy structural reforms by opposition leader George Papandreou on Thursday marked a radical shift away from PASOK’s once-trademark populist pitch. Of course, populist, vote-grabbing practices have been hardly exclusive to the Socialist party. For its part, New Democracy has been hardly immune to the sirens of populism, with conservatives often cozying up to vested interests. In fact, populism, as a mode of conduct, is now king among the media, the trade unions, the self-styled liberal pundits and most of society. The ideology of populism is grounded in statism, that is, the belief that the state is not a tool for growth but rather a guardian of vested interests – whether business or sectoral ones. This belief provided the foundations of harmful political practices: Politicians learnt to turn a blind eye to problems; always go along with union demands; use taxpayer money for subsidies and, when this was not enough, resort to borrowing, recruitments and handouts. Papandreou boldly said that he has no reason to back a corrupt, centralist and counterproductive state that often aligns itself with taboos and preconceptions, a state where the welfare system is less important than a place in the civil service. To be sure, vested interests will not go down without a fight. An example is the opportunistic silence of PASOK-affiliated unions over the landmark OTE deal. In any case, Papandreou’s decision to strip populist figures of partisan protection marks a first major step and gives heart to those who believe Papandreou’s pledge to modernize PASOK is not just empty words. The Socialist chairman is on the right path. It is proved by the fact that his speech was ignored by many of the media.