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HORIZONS

Vico Sotto: The rise of post-populism

In his gripping novel “The Possessed” (1872), drawing on Russia’s tortuous transition to modernity, Fyodor Dostoyevsky warned: “In turbulent times of upheaval or transition, low characters always come to the front everywhere.” Freed from an increasingly discredited and anachronistic czardom, the Eurasian behemoth teetered on the verge of brutal anarchy. In the second decade of the 20th century, Russia descended into an orgy of ideological violence, which altered the trajectory of human history.

Almost exactly a century after, the world faced another “turbulent times of upheaval,” with its own set of larger-than-life political characters. The year 2016 turned into a parade of political shocks, ranging from Britain’s paralyzing exit (“Brexit”) from the world’s most successful model of regional integration, to the decisive victory of right-wing populists in the world’s and East Asia’s oldest democracies (Donald Trump in the United States, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines).

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The subsequent meteoric ascent to power of right-wing populists Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) and Boris Johnson (United Kingdom), not to mention the surprise selection of Indonesia’s most notorious ex-general Prabowo Subianto to a top Cabinet position, was a natural byproduct of this earth-shaking political development. In Italy, Mussolini’s heirs came dangerously close to winning power at the heart of Europe.

While this coterie of populists are masters of political theater and great merchants of disinformation, they have one fundamental weakness: They are mostly all pomp and almost no substance, having captured power through an organized plurality, carefully fed by fantastical dreams and a heavy diet of fear-mongering.

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This has become painfully clear with an existential crisis now confronting humanity. Practically all of these populists either bungled the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, or/and foolishly adopted a dismissive attitude toward it. In fact, one personally caught the virus, one almost caught it, another likely caught it and almost passed it to another via his aide, and another fellow tropical populist is supposedly in “self-quarantine” along with his factotum who officially belongs to another branch of government.

The incompetence became so self-evident that its denial was almost comical. But into this glaring vacuum of leadership, a new generation of leaders has stepped in. This explains the growing prominence of Vico Sotto, the youthful mayor of Pasig, who received nationwide applause for pointing out glaring gaps in the de facto lockdown of Metro Manila through his innovative, participatory governance.

With contradictory statements from different agencies exposing the breakdown of coordination and communication at the top, the government has struggled to address the needs of millions of ordinary Filipinos who lack both savings and private vehicles to survive an ill-conceived month-long lockdown. Two weeks into the large-scale quarantine, we have seen neither mass testing nor a regular large-scale disinfection campaign, which have both become routine in other countries.

Interestingly, President Duterte’s first lucid and on-script speech in months, where he threatened local officials who dared defy Malacañang’s guidelines, came shortly after the Pasig mayor’s sober call for the emergency use of tricycles for health frontliners in his city.

Sotto’s meteoric rise is founded on very different political grounds. While right-wing populists win through the systematic employment of disinformation and a glaring disdain for Enlightenment values, the Pasig mayor has been a paragon of evidence-based public policy. He is popular, yet by no means populist. He has been a dragon-slayer, but by no means authoritarian. He hails from a prominent family, yet by no means is a self-entitled politico. Above all, Sotto is a testament to the need for giving millennials greater voice in governance, instead of denying them their (rather our) fair share in shaping national politics.

And Vico Sotto is only one of many dynamic mayors and governors around the world who are painstakingly compensating for the inadequacies of populist national leaders. In the United States, now officially the worst-hit victim of the pandemic, the likes of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti have become the anchors of the nationwide response to COVID-19.

A century earlier, the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci warned: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Perhaps he was a tad too pessimistic.

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TAGS: Horizons, populism, post-populism, Richard Heydarian, Vico Sotto
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