It can be boldly said that class differences and unequal distribution of wealth have always been the main factor in the construction of governments and populist social movements in developing countries, including Iran.
Populist ideas and slogans are also welcomed in societies where class inequality is evident, and there is a lot of pressure on the poor, or even a false sense of inequality. In such communities, experts, such as sociologists and enlightened politicians, are easily left out, and instead, the policy of governing society is based on demagogy.
Populism is a social and political disease, that in developing countries is due to the weakness of civil society, economic pressures, and rising unemployment, and in developed countries is due to conflicts between modernity and the institution of democracy.
However, it might be more appropriate to call it a social issue or a social reversal. Although the historical roots of this social problem go back a little over a century, with the continuation of the deep and widespread crises of the capitalist system in the last 30 to 40 years, populism has spread like a pandemic all over the world with numerous countries being involved.
Today, Iran, a developing country whose political, economic, and social environment is not in a better position than in previous years, is more prone to the growth of populism than in past decades. Until a few years ago, the Iranian people had some hope for positive political change, such as the establishment of an effective President and success in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, feeling discouraged the Iranian people have moved away from mainstream political currents, which is subsequently paving the way for acceptance of populist election slogans.
The economic situation in Iran also strengthens the current wave of populism. The severe economic struggles of Iranian society are in parallel with a new axis of populism. In other words, it is the most suitable platform for the emergence of populism, because the severe economic problems have put the Iranian people in a very overwhelming situation, and such an atmosphere has always been the peak of the nation’s distrust of government throughout history.
It is worth noting here that in a society where democracy and human rights are diminished, and its economy is under tremendous pressure, the most valuable manoeuvre would be to strengthen the sense of democracy among the people of that society.
While in the current situation, not only does this not happen in Iranian society, but every day we see the strengthening of populist forces by making human rights and democracy meaningless. For example, with the rising unemployment rate and the uncontrollable, astronomical rise in prices in the last two years, alongside the silence of reformist and fundamentalist politicians, people’s trust in the current political system has increased, and these two political factions have not been able to reduce their social capital. Yet, this is the situation that leads society to accept populism. Importantly, the leaves of populism also pervade the masses of humanity, and it makes no difference whether you are inferior or superior, assembly, or even mythical. Instead, it is pervasive populism that will become a trap that you will inadvertently fall into.
What happened in Iran in the decades after the war with Iraq shows that economic problems in the lower and middle classes of society, and the emergence of issues such as unemployment, has made the daily life of these social groups vulnerable, exposing it to many problems. However, Iran is more prone to the rise of populism today than ever before due to its poor economic situation, human rights abuses, and the pressure of international sanctions. With the defeat of JCPOA in the second term of Rouhani’s presidency and the non-fulfilment of his promises, the majority of the people’s hopes for the ruling government to improve living conditions have been lost. Consequently, it has led to public protests, which blamed the government’s incompetence. This is while, public distrust of the government, a sick economy, and unequal distribution of wealth are the most critical factors in the emergence of populism in a developing country.
In the last few years, the Iranians who have been looking forward to improving their livelihoods, now see the country in a deadlock in which there is democracy and not an economy to which they are attached. Therefore, this issue goes beyond the responsibility of the government to try to reduce the rate of inequality in the country and help the lives of the lower strata of society, which has been very evident in recent years. In a community like Iran, reducing inequality and promoting socio-cultural life in all sections of society is perhaps the best prescription that can adequately prevent populist power. Nonetheless, with the non-realisation of this, Iranian society is likely to witness another populist shock in the 2021 presidential election.
The vision of populism, due to its lack of adherence to a strong scientific and reasoning and its weak standards, can never be equated with democracy. For example, populist movements in Iran indicate how they seek to confuse the public by considering the opportunity for idealism in developed countries, and making empty promises to alleviate the economic crisis and defend human rights. They take advantage of the people’s distrust and lead them to a path that leads neither to democracy nor to idealism.
But looking at both underdeveloped and developed countries, populist movements claim to defend and protect the rights of the people. The difference is that in developing countries, the economic pressures are so high that its people do not have sufficient time or support to understand and distinguish populism from democracy. While in developed countries, where people are more demanding populists have to use more justified and complicated tricks to persuade people.
About the author:
Dr Saeed Bagheri is the Oxford Human Rights Hub’s Regional Correspondent for the Middle East. He is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Law School of the University of Reading. He can be reached via email at [email protected] and on ResearchGate and Twitter (@SBagheriLAW)