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Populism and Turmoil: The Impact of Populist Leadership on Law and Order

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Dazzling figures of populism frequently seize public fascination, employing their magnetic allure and eloquent discourse to champion the cause of the common man against a perceived, detached, and corrupt echelon. Nonetheless, these populist leaders often discord with the judiciary, particularly when they maneuver around or undercut established constitutional doctrines to advance their populist manifestos.

A case in point is Brazil’s former President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also known as Lula. His widespread popularity notwithstanding, Lula faced a conviction on graft charges, which sparked an extensive dispute. Critics suggest that these accusations were steeped in political motivations, a strategic move by the judiciary to curtail Lula’s clout. However, advocates assert that the judiciary merely upholds the legal framework against a leader allegedly misusing his authority.

Likewise, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan distinguishes himself within the convoluted maze of Turkish politics. His endeavors to subjugate and commandeer the judiciary for personal advantage have drawn a barrage of censure. Erdogan’s recurrent confrontations with Turkey’s Constitutional Court have fueled apprehensions about the gradual decay of democratic principles and the supremacy of law in the country.

Across the continent, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi provides another illustration of a populist figurehead at loggerheads with the judiciary. Berlusconi, convicted of tax evasion in 2013, claimed that his prosecution was a politically biased attack by a judiciary intent on his downfall. Nevertheless, the courts held their ground, asserting their commitment to the rule of law against dishonest practices.

Turning to Pakistan, the tale of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif mirrors a similar pattern. Sharif, a proponent of populist politics, faced numerous judicial confrontations, ultimately disqualifying him from office in 2017. While Sharif and his allies argued that the judiciary had transgressed its constitutional boundaries, the legal system asserted its stance against corruption.

Pakistani politician/populist Imran Khan, the erstwhile cricketer turned statesman, also weathered his share of judicial storms. Khan, as a populist spearhead, initially won over the masses with his stand against corruption. Yet, his tenure witnessed allegations of judicial overreach, with critics contending that the judiciary acted outside its constitutional mandate to favor certain political entities.

Judicial prejudice is a recurring theme globally. An example is the United States, where lifetime tenures of Supreme Court justices have invited critique for potential ideological bias. The appointment process has grown increasingly partisan, with presidents favoring judges who resonate with their political ideology. This has sparked apprehensions concerning the neutrality of judicial verdicts, potentially influenced more significantly by political leanings rather than a dispassionate exegesis of jurisprudence.

In juxtaposition, the judiciary of the United Kingdom has historically been held in high regard as autonomous and devoid of prejudice. However, contemporaneous happenings, such as the 2019 Prorogation litigation, have cast an ominous cloud of skepticism over possible partiality. The Supreme Court’s adjudication contravening the administration’s resolution to prorogue Parliament precipitated allegations of bias, inclusive of insinuations that the presiding justices were swayed by their personal views on Brexit.

In South Africa, during the oppressive apartheid era, the judiciary was often viewed as complicit, seldom challenging unjust apartheid laws. This institutional bias was deeply rooted in the legal system and aided in prolonging the apartheid regime.

In Pakistan, allegations of judicial bias are not uncommon. Critics frequently accuse the judiciary of exceeding its constitutional boundaries and interfering in political matters. This supposed ‘judicial activism’ is often criticized for veering into bias. Populist leaders frequently ascend to power by capitalizing on public dissatisfaction with the prevailing order, promising radical changes to reclaim the nation from an allegedly corrupt and distant elite. However, their leadership style can sometimes exacerbate the country’s law and order situation, especially when they foster or tolerate disruptive or violent actions by their followers.

Populist leaders often spin a narrative of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ where ‘us’ symbolizes the common folk and ‘them’ signifies the elite or the establishment. This narrative can foster division and, if not judiciously managed, incite social unrest and potential violence.

A recent instance can be observed in the United States during the term of former President Donald Trump, a populist figure who regularly employed confrontational language against his perceived adversaries. This culminated in January 2021 with a violent siege on the U.S. Capitol by some of his followers, who subscribed to Trump’s baseless allegations of electoral theft in the 2020 Presidential race.

Down in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, another populist leader, has similarly contributed to an intense law and order environment. His divisive language, particularly against detractors and minority groups, has incited social upheaval and a volatile political atmosphere.

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In the archipelago of the Philippines, the reigning president, Rodrigo Duterte, has adroitly manipulated the vernacular of populism to advocate an unyielding crusade against narcotics, culminating in a multitude of extrajudicial fatalities. Duterte’s cadre of admirers extols his uncompromising posture on criminality. At the same time, detractors posit that this stance has propagated rampant human rights transgressions and catalyzed a deterioration of jurisprudence and civil control.

In Pakistan, former premier Imran Khan has paralleled this populist rhetoric, casting himself as the vox populi in the struggle against an entrenched, venal aristocracy. Skeptics, nevertheless, argue that such posturing exacerbates the already fractious political milieu.

Adding to the fray, episodes have surfaced where supporters of PTI, Khan’s party, stand accused of indulging in violent or anarchic conduct, predominantly amidst politically charged assemblies or demonstrations. The governmental reaction to these episodes is frequently perceived as a bellwether of its fidelity to preserving civil obedience and order. Detractors contend that by neglecting to unequivocally denounce and rectify such conduct, populist figureheads like Khan might inadvertently embolden their followers to challenge the state’s rule of law.

** The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views or position of World Affairs Insider. The organization neither endorses nor takes responsibility for the content of this article and its accuracy.

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