Sweden Democrats' Square Meeting in Umeå. Jimmie Åkesson speaks to the people on the city square where opposition left-wingers have formed a chain and protest in Umeå, Sweden on August 14, 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

The repercussions of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on the populist Radical Right in Sweden

Bolin, Niklas. (2023). “The repercussions of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on the populist Radical Right in Sweden.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0031


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The populist Radical Right Sweden Democrats (SD) have long been excluded from cooperation with other parties. As other parties have moved closer to the party’s more restrictive migration policy, and as older party leaders from the extreme Far Right have departed, some of the arguments in support of isolating the SD have waned. However, the party is still criticized for its ambiguous attitude towards Russia. But although individual politicians have openly expressed pro-Russian views, the current SD leadership has repeatedly rejected such accusations. The party’s position became increasingly relevant in 2022 when the Russian invasion of Ukraine coincided with the parliamentary elections. This article analyses the attitude of the SD towards the Putin regime and how this developed in response to the invasion of Ukraine. It also looks at how this has affected the public perception of the party and to what extent its position on Russia will continue to be important in the public debate.

Keywords: Radical Right; Sweden Democrats; Russia; Ukraine; elections.


By Niklas Bolin* (Mid Sweden University) 


There has long been a debate about the stance of European populist Radical Right parties towards the Putin regime. Traditionally, many of them are described as pro-Russian parties and are often criticized for their admiration of the Kremlin. In Sweden, the picture has been mixed. Their political opponents have repeatedly criticized the populist Radical Right Sweden Democrats (SD) for their ambiguous attitude towards Russia. However, although individual politicians have openly expressed pro-Russia views, the leadership of the SD has repeatedly rejected such accusations.

The party’s position became increasingly relevant in 2022 when the Russian invasion of Ukraine coincided with parliamentary elections. With mainstream parties on the Right having, in many ways, moved closer to the SD on immigration and law and order issues, the stance on Russia was potentially one of the key remaining obstacles to ending the party’s isolation. In this report, I analyse how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected the SD. More specifically, I describe the party’s stance towards the Kremlin and how this has developed in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Further, I discuss how the invasion has affected the public perception of the SD and how the party’s position on Russia will remain relevant in the public debate. The analysis is based on available research, media reports and official party documents.

The Radical Right scene in Sweden

With the partial exception of the short-lived populist New Democracy party in the early 1990s, Sweden, unlike many other European countries, had not experienced an electorally successful populist Radical Right party at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Rydgren, 2002). Since then, the story has changed drastically. The first SD members were elected to the national parliament in 2010, and their progress ever since has been remarkable, to say the least. In fact, the party has yet to experience an electoral loss and has increased its vote share at every election since it first ran in 1988. In terms of Radical Right electoral success, Sweden is no longer an exceptional case (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019).

Even though the SD have steadily increased their support in the electorate, the party has long been completely excluded from cooperation with other parties. An important reason for this cordon sanitaire can be found in the SD’s history. Unlike most other parties in the populist Radical Right family in Europe, the party was founded by outright racist groups with links to neo-Nazism (Larsson & Ekman, 2001). Although the party has worked hard to build a more respectable facade, the SD’s marginalization has remained. After the 2014 parliamentary elections, six parties concluded the so-called December Agreement to ensure that the SD would remain without influence while at the same time allowing a government to be formed without an explicit majority in the Riksdag (Aylott & Bolin, 2019; Bjereld et al., 2016).

Government formation was even more difficult after the 2018 election. The four parties of the centre-right Alliance could have formed a government if they had been willing to rely on the parliamentary support of the SD. However, two of them, the Centre Party and the Liberals, preferred the incumbent centre-left minority coalition to continue rather than make any kind of concession to the Radical Right (Teorell et al., 2020). The agreement between the Social Democrats and the two centrist liberal parties ended a decade of wide-ranging cooperation between the four parties of the Alliance. It also had implications of great importance because it was decisive in bringing the SD in from the cold. The Moderates and the Christian Democrats immediately began to initiate a policy of détente with SD. The cordon sanitaire that had prevailed until then was lifted. Later, the Liberals also decided to withdraw their support for the centre-left to reunite with their former Alliance partners.

Even though they all lost ground compared to the 2018 election, their joint election result in September 2022 with the SD was enough for a majority. Thus, they were able to form a government by the end of the year. Although the SD is not formally a member of the governing coalition, it has concluded a far-reaching agreement with the three centre-right parties, securing formal political influence for the first time (Aylott & Bolin, 2023).

The Sweden Democrats and Russia

As other parties have moved closer to the party’s more restrictive migration policy, and as older party leaders from the extreme Far Right have departed, some of the arguments in support of isolating the SD have waned somewhat. For example, in recent years, the SD’s stance on international cooperation and the European Union (EU) has come to the fore. Relatedly, there has been a recurring debate on the SD’s position towards the Kremlin. Critics argue that the party, or people associated with it, have shown sympathy for Putin’s government and have taken positions aligned with Russian interests. For example, a report on how the European Parliament voted on Russia-related matters in 2014 found that the SD were one of the most Russia-friendly parties (Bolin, 2015). Indeed, the two Sweden Democrats MEPs were the only Swedish representatives voting against ratification of an Association Agreement with Ukraine (Christodoulou, 2014).

Similarly, people closely associated with the SD, unlike politicians from other Swedish parties, have on several occasions participated in Russian state-supported media platforms such as Sputnik and Russia Today (RT). Researchers characterize the latter as “an opportunist channel that is used as an instrument of state defence policy to meddle in the politics of other states” (Elswah & Howard, 2020, p. 623). In addition, there are several examples of how leading SD politicians have expressed appreciation for Russia or participated in contexts that have been interpreted as indirect support of the Putin regime. On several occasions, both former and current MPs have expressed themselves in favourable terms about election processes in Russia after being invited by the regime to function as election observers or having participated in conferences arranged by the regime (Sundbom, 2018).

Those who harboured suspicions about the SD’s attitude towards the Russian regime were given further fuel when in an interview just a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the party’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, refused to say whether he preferred Joe Biden or Vladimir Putin as a political leader (Odmalm, 2022). The leadership of the SD has, however, denied all accusations of being a pro-Russian party. It is also hard to find Russia-friendly statements in official party documents. Russia was not mentioned in the early party programmes and election manifestos. However, in recent years, especially since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the party has become increasingly critical of Russian developments (e.g., Shekhovtsov, 2018, p. 238). For example, the latest election manifesto for 2022 states that “Sweden should advocate clear sanctions against […] Russia and other countries with negative development” (Sweden Democrats, 2022, p. 57).

There are also signs that the SD have become more critical of Russia in practical politics. In stark contrast to the report mentioned above, a recent assessment of the degree of “assertiveness towards Russia”, SD comes out as the most critical of Russia among all Swedish parties represented in the European Parliament (VoteWatch, 2022). The appreciative attitude towards the Kremlin among some of the other Radical Right parties has also been presented as a reason the SD chose not to join the same party group in the European Parliament as, for example, France’s National Rally and Italy’s Lega (McDonnell & Werner, 2019).

The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Swedish domestic politics

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 made it even more pressing to fend off any accusation of complicity towards Russia. Among other things, it significantly impacted the willingness to join NATO. Although Sweden became a member of the EU in 1995, it has maintained a policy of nonalignment and did not join NATO during the Cold War like neighbouring Nordic countries, Denmark and Norway. However, relations with NATO have developed considerably. In the 1990s, Sweden began cooperating more closely with NATO on peacekeeping missions and crisis management operations. Although Sweden is not a member of NATO, it has increasingly participated in the alliance’s activities and developed close relations with NATO countries (Wieslander, 2022).

Even though Sweden’s relations with NATO have become closer, there has always been a party-political divide, with centre-left parties opposing NATO membership and centre-right parties being more supportive of it. As late as November 2021, the Social Democratic defence minister assured its party congress that as long there was a Social Democratic government, an application for NATO membership was unthinkable. The SD have also been against NATO accession historically, and they have instead called for increased cooperation with other Nordic countries, including developing a joint Nordic defence force (Sweden Democrats, 2019). Despite the long-standing opposition to NATO, Åkesson declared in April 2022 that the party was ready to support a Swedish application for NATO membership if Finland applied simultaneously (Arenander & Nilsson, 2022). When the Social Democrats also made a ‘drastic U-turn’ (Hinnfors, 2022), the Swedish government took the same path as Finland and decided to apply for NATO membership (Aylott & Bolin, 2023).

Despite SD’s more openly critical stance towards the Russian regime and its new position on membership in NATO, political opponents still consider the party’s position untrustworthy. That this is still thought to have a deterrent effect on the electorate became apparent when the Social Democrats called a press conference just a week before the election to report on cases where the SD had acted in favour of Russian interests and thus posed a security risk. The Moderate prime ministerial candidate, Ulf Kristersson, was asked how he would prevent the SD’s links to Russia from affecting Swedish foreign and security policy if the election resulted in a parliamentary majority for the right-wing opposition. Åkesson unsurprisingly rejected this and tweeted that the statements were reminiscent of how the opposition would be dealt with in a dictatorship. More startling, however, was that Kristersson also came to the SD’s defence and argued that the Social Democratic stunt was unworthy, not least as it was the simultaneous positional changes in the Social Democrats and the SD that made a Swedish NATO application possible (Petersson, 2022). It was clear that alleged connections between SD and Russia were no longer seen as an obstacle to including the SD as part of a new political majority.

The demand for the Radical Right in the aftermath of the invasion

The last parliamentary term has been clearly marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This has meant that the main political issues of SD have been less salient in the public debate. These crises also seem to have affected support for political parties somewhat. A rally around the flag effect can be observed, where both the outbreak of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 and the Russian invasion in the spring of 2022 boosted the popularity of the governing Social Democrats (Esaiasson et al., 2021; Novus/SVT, 2022). Support for the SD also seemed to decrease somewhat in connection with the outbreak of the war, but the impact on the electoral outcome of 2022 was small. Some of the political issues that became important in the 2022 election campaign, partly because of the war, were favourable to the SD, and the party won 20.5% of the vote, becoming the second-largest party in parliament.

Despite the spectacular Swedish shift in attitude towards NATO membership and the fact that there were still parties that opposed this, the issue was absent from the election campaign. Other issues indirectly connected to the war, such as rising inflation and electricity prices, gained great importance (Aylott & Bolin, 2023). While the governing party blamed the war in Ukraine and chose to refer to it as “Putin’s price hikes”, the opposition argued that it was mainly about how the government had mismanaged Swedish fuel and energy policy for years. Judging by the exit polls, the opposition benefited the most from the salience of these issues in the campaign.

The Sweden Democrat’s traditional issue, immigration, came further down on the list of voters’ most important issues. A possible explanation is that several other parties have altered their policies in a more restrictive direction and, in this way, narrowed the distance of the mainstream to the SD’s position. In addition, it is noteworthy that the SD was positive about receiving Ukrainian refugees. According to the party, this was in line with its previous policy that Sweden should help countries in its nearby area. Åkesson (2022) also justified the position on both cultural and economic grounds as he argued that Ukraine is both religiously and culturally more similar to Sweden “compared to clan societies in the Horn of Africa” and that Ukrainian refugees differ from previous migration “of low-educated, or even completely uneducated, people”. As a result, Åkesson claimed, “the burden on society, economically, socially and culturally, will not be as devastating as with previous mass immigration from culturally distant countries” (ibid.).

Concluding remarks

Despite its continuous electoral progress, the Sweden Democrats have been in the political cold for a long time. Not until the two liberal centre parties chose to support a Social Democratic government in 2018 did the Moderates and the Christian Democrats approach the SD seeking to return to office. Previously, the SD’s history and attitude toward immigration had been the main reasons for excluding the party from cooperation. However, in the wake of the 2015 “refugee crisis” and the SD’s electoral progress, other parties have also moved towards a more restrictive immigration policy. The SD’s deviant approach to international cooperation and its ambivalent stance towards Russia have remained obstacles to it being fully accepted as a political cooperation partner.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine meant that the SD’s attitude towards the Kremlin was given further attention. Officially, the party has also taken a stand against Russia’s actions and for support and assistance to Ukraine. The party has even advocated a relatively generous reception of Ukrainian refugees. Given the party’s very restrictive immigration policy, this can be seen as a departure from its traditional line.

Despite the clear stance on Ukraine, the SD are not yet rid of their Russia-related problems. While the current parties in government no longer see the SD’s position towards Russia as problematic, both the opposition and political commentators continue to argue that the party’s murky connections to Russia are an acute security risk and that the leadership should more clearly uphold a red line against any actions that are in Russia’s interests (Johansson Heinö et al., 2023). The issue was given further attention again at the beginning of 2023 when a central figure in the alternative media environment around the SD, previously accused of Russian connections, helped the anti-Muslim activist Rasmus Paludan to get permission to burn a Qur’an near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. The incident worsened already strained relations between Turkey and Sweden, further frustrating Sweden’s NATO application (Rankin, 2023). In addition, political opponents criticized the SD for being “useful idiots” for the Kremlin (see, e.g., Lindberg, 2023) and not taking responsibility for people associated with the party, thus potentially serving the interests of Russia. However, the SD leadership rejected any responsibility for the incident and, more generally, any alternative media favouring Russian interests even though individuals associated with the party frequently appear in them.

Although there is much to suggest that the isolation of the SD is a thing of the past, it cannot be ruled out that the issue of NATO and, indirectly, the SD’s relationship with Russia will influence these relations. There is no evidence that the SD has direct links to Russia. Nevertheless, SD members and persons associated with the party appear from time to time in contexts that can be interpreted as pro-Russian. As a result, the SD leadership probably will be wary of any pro-Russian sentiments among its ranks and will continue to reject any accusation of acting in accordance with Russian interests. However, it is doubtful that this will prevent the opposition from criticizing the party’s connections to Russia.

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(*) Niklas Bolin is Associate Professor of Political Science at Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall, Sweden. His main research interests are parties and elections, particularly organisation, leadership, intra-party democracy, Radical Right parties and Green parties. He is co-editor (with Nicholas Aylott) of the edited volume Managing Leader Selections in European Political Parties (Palgrave, 2021) and has published in high-ranking international journals, including Party Politics, The Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Scandinavian Political Studies and West European Politic.


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Arenander, I., & Nilsson, E. (2022, April 9). Åkessons besked om Nato: ”Har svängt”. Svenska Dagbladethttps://www.svd.se/a/PoG8v5/jimmie-akesson-svanger-om-nato-nar-finland-gor-det

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Aylott, N., & Bolin, N. (2023). A new right: The Swedish parliamentary election of September 2022. West European Politics. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2022.2156199

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Political leader Geert Wilders of the Dutch center right party PVV defending his plans during a radio interview on September 5, 2012 in the Netherlands.

Disagreement among populists in the Netherlands: The diverging rhetorical and policy positions of Dutch populist Radical Right parties following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Nijhuis, Chris; Verbeek, Bertjan & Zaslove, Andrej. (2023). “Disagreement among populists in the Netherlands: The diverging rhetorical and policy positions of Dutch populist Radical Right parties following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0032


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The Netherlands boasts a wide array of populist Radical Right parties, from the Freedom Party (PVV) and Forum for Democracy (FvD) to Correct Alternative 2021 (JA21). To complicate matters further, the left-wing Socialist Party (SP) is also considered a populist party. Mirroring the diversity of responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the rest of Europe, Dutch populist parties have reacted in myriad ways. Whereas the PVV condemned the Russian invasion, the FvD remained highly supportive of Putin. Interestingly, while many European populist Radical Right leaders, following public opinion, pivoted away from support for Russia, the FvD has maintained its support for Putin’s regime throughout 2022. JA21, on the other hand, has followed the non-populist parties, calling for tougher sanctions on Russia. This report maps the diverse positions of the three populist Radical Right parties regarding Russia. However, we also seek to explain why they have chosen such diverse paths. The report focuses on supply-side considerations, such as the impact of the parties’ relative degree of populism, their attaching ideology, and their position in the highly fragmented party system.

Keywords: Populism, Foreign policy, the Netherlands, Russia–Ukraine war, Party for Freedom (PVV), Forum for Democracy (FvD).



By Chris Nijhuis*, Bertjan Verbeek** & Andrej Zaslove*** (Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands)


The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven to be particularly problematic for the European populist Radical Right, challenging an alleged core feature of even the more moderate bedfellows: their desire to challenge the dominant liberal world order. This report focuses on the Dutch populist Radical Right’s response to the Russian-Ukrainian war. We map and account for the diverging responses of three parties: the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV), Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy, FvD), and Correct Alternative 2021, widely known as JA21. The puzzle that drives our report is the remarkable divergence in reaction to the war among these parties.

Our contribution is structured as follows. After a short description of the rise and the growth of the Dutch populist Radical Right, we argue why the Netherlands is a relevant case for tracking populists’ reactions to the war. Next, we present how these parties’ narratives regarding Russia developed in the 2010s. Third, we offer three possible explanations for the differences between these narratives, focusing on their degree of populism, their attaching ideology, and their position in the party system. Finally, we will discuss what effect the narratives have had on the official Dutch position towards the war as well as on the position of the three parties in the Dutch political system.

This contribution is positioned at the interface of comparative politics and International Relations theory (IR). Congruent with the approach within comparative politics that sees populism as a “thin ideology” (Mudde, 2004), we expect a populist party’s foreign policy preference to be a mix of its idea of the divide between elites and the people and the broader ideology from which it borrows. Similarly, we expect that the closer the party is to the corridors of power, the more likely its foreign policy preferences will be reflected in governmental policies (Verbeek & Zaslove, 2017). Congruent with the “second image reversed” approach in IR scholarship, we assume that international crises pose a challenge to political parties domestically (Verbeek & Zaslove, forthcoming). Especially when such events are perceived as threatening national survival, they may upset the dominant security narrative underlying a country’s political discourse, thus affecting initial threat management but usually dissipating after some time. It may also provoke a rally around the flag effect for the incumbent government (Lee, 1977). Such upheavals may impact politicians’ domestic positions. The Russia–Ukraine war may thus prove an advantage or disadvantage to populist parties.

Why the Netherlands?

From the perspective of comparative politics, the Netherlands is intriguing. On the demand side, since the mid-2000s, 18–22% of the electorate has consistently voted for a populist party (of the Left or the Right). However, on the supply side, the (right-wing) populist landscape is highly volatile, with a plethora of populist parties that pop up and then (often) disappear. At the time of writing in early 2023, right-wing populist parties hold 29 of the 150 seats in the lower house of the Dutch parliament. The largest is Geert Wilders’s PVV, with 17 seats. Thierry Baudet’s FvD lost three of its eight lower house seats to the breakaway Groep Van Haga in May 2021. In the Dutch Senate, the FvD lost 11 of its 12 senators to three breakaway groups despite its tremendous success in the 2019 regional elections, which defines the election of senators. The 2021 parliamentary elections ushered in JA21 (three seats) — itself another breakaway from the FvD — as well as the BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer Citizen Movement, BBB), which is less easy to classify as right-wing populist. Three months before the 2023 regional elections, scheduled for May 30, JA21 and the BBB were riding high in the polls, polling 7–9 and 11–13%, respectively (Louwerse, n.d.). The Netherlands is thus a political system where many right-wing populists compete for the same electorate (de Jonge, 2021). It also boasts a left-wing populist party, the Socialist Party (SP) (Meijers & Zaslove, 2021). However, since the report focuses on the populist Radical Right, we do not analyse the SP further.

The Netherlands is similarly intriguing from an IR perspective. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, as the United States sought to progressively limit its role in Europe, the country worked hard to improve its relationship with Russia, especially after the Obama Administration announced the “pivot to Asia”. The climax of these efforts should have been the celebration of 400 years of Dutch–Russian relations in 2013. However, 2013 ended awry due to unease over the Kremlin’s anti-LGBT+ policies, Russia’s jailing of Dutch environmentalists, and the Dutch arrest of a Russian diplomat over domestic violence (Walker, 2013). Nevertheless, the 2014 annexation of Crimea did not alter the broadly shared desire for better relations between Russia and the West.

This fundamentally changed with the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, almost certainly shot down by Russian-controlled forces in the area. More than 190 Dutch citizens were killed. The Dutch narrative of Russia quickly soured when Russia proved unwilling to cooperate with the official inquiry. The Dutch official reaction to the 2022 war was very outspoken, calling for tough sanctions against Russia. This call came despite the Dutch government’s decision to end gas production in the Groningen gas field in the country’s earthquake-prone north, making the Netherlands somewhat more dependent on gas imports from Russia (Sterling, 2022). However, Dutch dependence on Russian gas is low compared to other European countries. The new dominant narrative on Russia, which changed from (coveted) friend to (potential) enemy, was problematic to right-wing populists. The rally around the flag caused by the MH17 tragedy and, later, the war has made it more difficult for right-wing populists to claim that the elites were neglecting the people’s interests. Also, the reliance on international cooperation in NATO, the European Union (EU) and the International Energy Agency (IAE) made it more challenging to sustain the criticism of global liberal institutions as a “corrupt elite”.

Dutch right-wing populist narratives of Russia

The three major right-wing populist parties in the Dutch parliament (FvD, JA21, PVV) differ substantively in their narratives of engagement with Russia. Newcomer JA21 sticks closest to the Dutch government’s line. Wilders’s PVV explicitly condemns Russian aggression and accepts the temporary hosting of limited numbers of Ukrainian refugees. Overall, however, it remains more concerned with the consequences of Dutch foreign policy for the Dutch people rather than with direct involvement in the Ukrainian war effort. Baudet’s FvD, although never formally endorsing the Russian attack, has shied away from condemning Moscow. Instead, it seeks to paint a broader picture of geopolitical change (“the great reset”) in which the EU’s support for “colour revolutions” in the post-Soviet sphere has prepared the ground for this war. Before describing the narratives in more detail, we emphasize that for the FvD and the PVV, resistance against the EU–Ukrainian association treaty through a non-binding referendum in 2016 was important in mobilizing domestic electoral support. The 2022 war poses the populist Radical Right with a dilemma: either support a country they previously called corrupt and not worthy of European support or continue to be critical of Ukrainian at the risk of ending up in the pro-Russia camp (see Coticchia & Verbeek, in press).

The PVV, being the oldest of the three, had consistently criticized the EU’s opening to Ukraine in the 2010s. It did not condemn the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 (only a parliamentary minority of the CDA, D66, and the Greens supported a condemnation of Russia). The downing of MH17 made the PVV more critical of Russia, but the party argued that EU support for Ukraine had contributed to further escalation in the Donbas. In 2016, Wilders strongly opposed the association treaty with Ukraine and moved closer to Russia by describing Putin as a “true patriot” and depicting Russia as an ally in fighting terrorism and immigration (de Jong, 2018). Nevertheless, in its electoral manifesto, the PVV insisted that the perpetrators of the MH17 shooting be brought to justice (Partij voor de Vrijheid, 2020, p. 48). Wilders condemned Russian aggression in 2022 but considered the earlier prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership an escalatory step.

In Wilders’s tweets and the PVV’s contributions to parliamentary debate, the war itself was seldom addressed but rather instrumentalized through the prism of the needs of the Dutch people. Wilders tweeted on March 18 2022: “I have sympathy for Ukrainians, but I represent the one million Dutch citizens who have elected me” (Wilders, 2022). During parliamentary debates, the PVV emphasizes the cost of the war for the Dutch people, linking high inflation and gas prices to sanctions on Russia. This is consistent with the PVV’s welfare chauvinist economic positions. Regarding parliamentary actions, the PVV and the FvD supported an unsuccessful motion to declare Dutch neutrality in the conflict in late February and an unsuccessful motion to stop sanctions against Russia in early June, while JA21 opposed both motions (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, 2022a, 2022c). The PVV hinted at a willingness to house a limited number of Ukrainian refugees (preferably in the region or by expelling other refugees). Furthermore, the party leverages sympathy with Ukrainian refugees rhetorically (by labelling them “real refugees”) as a counterpoint to other refugees (which they label “the wrong kind of foreigners”) (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, 2022b).

The FvD has never formally approved Russia’s actions but has consistently argued that prior EU and NATO offers of (eventual) membership to Ukraine, including the association treaty, were conducive to the war. Starting from the notion that morality in international relations is absent, Baudet invests considerably in communicating a perspective that, he claims, qualifies the dominant story on the war in the West. Through blogs, tweets, and the organization of a conference in Amsterdam to present an alternative perspective, he presents arguments that align with the Russian narrative, including the demand for the protection of the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine. Positioning his view within a warning against the so-called “great reset”, Baudet presents NATO expansion, the colour revolutions, and the Arab Spring as part of an American ambition to achieve regime change across the globe (Baudet, 2022). Whereas Wilders thus downplays the war and focuses on the needs of the Dutch people, Baudet frequently engages with the events and interprets the war from the perspective of his view on world politics. Unlike many populist Radical Right parties, the Forum is not welfare chauvinist but rather market liberal. The cultural dimension and the larger global narrative are much more important for Forum’s justification of its support of Putin than is its market liberalism.

In its inaugural manifesto, JA21 did not address the Russian annexation of Crimea and Donbas or its involvement in the MH17 crash (JA21, 2021). In response to the 2022 invasion, the party called for tougher sanctions on Russia, increased defence spending, and using the funds appropriated from Russian oligarchs to rebuild Ukraine. Interestingly, since the start of the invasion, the party has adjusted some of its stances towards Ukraine. Early on, JA21 opposed the supply of weapons to Ukraine, a position they abandoned shortly after the start of the invasion. While the party opposed a parliamentary motion before February 2022 calling for unconditional support for Ukrainian sovereignty, it holds Russia (and Putin personally) solely responsible for the invasion (unlike the PVV and the FvD). However, JA21 remains opposed to Ukrainian membership of the EU, in line with their general opposition to EU enlargement. Like the PVV, JA21 rhetorically links the housing of Ukrainian refugees with other refugees (labelling the current situation as an asylum crisis). It further argues that Ukrainians should stay in neighbouring countries. The Dutch government should do more to support these countries and impose a cap on Ukrainian refugees in the Netherlands, thereby preventing Ukrainians from seeking help on Dutch soil (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, 2022b).

Explaining position diversity on the Dutch populist Radical Right

Three factors help account for the diverse positions of the populist Radical Right vis-à-vis the Russian invasion of Ukraine: we focus on the combination of the party’s degree of populism and its attaching ideology and the nature of the party system.

Anti-elitism is an essential component of populism. A populist party’s anti-elitism emanates, in part, from its location within the party system. In other words, the more populist a party is, the more likely it will set itself against the established parties. The most reliable indicators of populism suggest that both the PVV and the FvD score high on the populist dimension (above 8 on a 0–10 point scale) (Meijers & Zaslove, 2021). At present, no existing measure of JA21’s populism exists. However, JA21’s actions within parliament, its conduct during the electoral campaign, and its party programme show that JA21 is less populist than its right-wing companions (references to the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite” are less prevalent).

The higher levels of populism displayed by the PVV and the FvD partly explain why these parties remain critical of the Dutch government’s handling of the situation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The fact that JA21 has not opposed the Dutch government’s policies is consistent with its lower level of populism. Nevertheless, it remains puzzling why the PVV mostly followed the government and condemned the Russian invasion, whereas FvD remained aloof and even came close to accepting Russia’s legitimization of the war. Understanding the difference requires insight into each party’s attaching ideology.

Regarding its attaching ideology, the PVV is a classical populist Radical Right party. It demonstrates a nativist nationalism, arguing that the Netherlands should prioritize native Dutch people over (especially non-Western) immigrants. This dovetails with its law and order orientation and welfare chauvinism. Foreign policy concerns, generally, are less important to the party’s identity. Its war narrative is congruent with this: in debates about the war, the PVV emphasizes the protection of the people’s material interests. It is neither essential for the PVV’s identity nor attractive to its voters to sit outside the mainstream by fully supporting the Russian invasion.

Similarly, the FvD is nativist and favours strict law and order policies. However, it voices a larger critique of the state of Western civilization, arguing that the West is decadent and in decline, endorsing Russia’s illiberal democracy as a viable alternative. The FvD’s positions regarding immigration and EU membership, for example, are couched in a broader story of the decline of the West, Europe, and the Netherlands. It pleads for a new global world order and sees Vladimir Putin as a pivotal player in this regard. The Forum’s steadfast defence of Russian foreign policy concerns is crucial for its identity. Forum, unlike the PVV, steers clear of economic arguments in its opposition to the Dutch government’s position regarding the war and Russia.

JA21’s more moderate position regarding the war emanates, in part, from its liberal-conservative ideology and the timing of its entry into the Dutch party system. JA21 was created by ex-FvD members who left the party, feeling that its leader Thierry Baudet had become too radical. Being a latecomer (the third populist Radical Right party on the block), JA21 had to find a space within an overcrowded system. As a result, JA21 chose a more moderate line than the PVV and the FvD, fitting its desire to present a more moderate identity and position itself as an eligible partner in a future centre-right governing coalition. JA21 is more moderate regarding its degree of populism, and its opposition to immigration, while its economic positions resemble more those of the governing VVD.

Public opinion research shows that the positions taken by the three parties largely reflect their respective voters’ positions. For example, fewer than 10% of the FvD supporters see Russia as a threat to Dutch national security, compared to roughly 50% of the PVV supporters and some 60% of JA21 voters. Similar trends hold regarding the support for Russian gas imports and sanctions on Russia (Houtkamp et al., 2022).

Lastly, the Dutch party system is open and fragmented. The system boasts a large number of relevant political parties producing a myriad of possible government coalitions, complicating government formation (Mair, 2008). Given the, albeit slight, possibility of the PVV joining a governing coalition, strategically, the PVV cannot situate itself too far from the mainstream. Consequently, the PVV places itself both inside and outside the party system. It threads the needle between being critical of the Dutch government’s policies following the Russian invasion without ostracizing itself from the positions of the mainstream parties. The FvD, on the other hand, has chosen to be an anti-system force. This is apparent in its parliamentary behaviour and its radical stances vis-à-vis, for example, COVID-19 and the war. Its recent efforts to create an alternative social space for its supporters is another expression of its anti-system approach. The FvD’s position directly contrasts with JA21, which presents itself as a comparatively moderate force within the party system, and as a potential coalition partner. Therefore, a radical stance regarding the war would harm JA21’s future ambitions, both in terms of its attempt to appeal to a broader electorate and its ambition to cooperate with mainstream parties.


The Dutch government has been steadfast in its opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this regard, the populist Radical Right has not affected the government’s position. Although public opinion research (I&O Research/NOS, 2022) demonstrates that there is a (sizeable) market for a more critical position regarding the Russian invasion, support for Ukraine remains high. We observe a rally around the flag effect regarding Ukraine, contributing to the Dutch government having the leeway to support Ukraine. Although this effect generally tends to be transient, support for Ukraine within the Netherlands has remained comparatively strong (Houtkamp et al., 2022).

If the conflict were to continue for a prolonged period of time, this might change. The Netherlands is somewhat insulated from higher gas prices (in comparison with other countries) due to its own supply of natural gas. However, if the war were to continue, high energy costs and inflation might create a situation in which the more critical position of the populist Radical Right could become more influential, especially during an electoral campaign. Nevertheless, we do not expect the influence of the populist parties to dramatically change the government’s position. This does not imply, however, that the more critical positions of the PVV and the FvD have not been important for party politics in the Netherlands. On the contrary, their critical positions have served to solidify their position as populist challengers, demonstrated by what appears to be continued support among their constituents (Houtkamp et al., 2022).

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(*) Chris Nijhuis is a PhD candidate and instructor in the Department of Political Science at Radboud University, Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. His research concentrates on the impact of populist parties on the foreign policy of states, with a particular focus on the link between national identity and foreign policy.

(**) Bertjan Verbeek is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Radboud University, Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. He researches decision-making in foreign policy, including during crises, and the link between populism and foreign policy.

(***) Andrej Zaslove is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics in the Department of Political Science at Radboud University, Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. He conducts research on populism and political parties. He measures populist attitudes among voters and within political parties and examines the links between populism and democracy, foreign policy and gender. His publications can be found in journals such as Comparative Political Studies, West European Politics, Political Studies and the European Political Science Review.


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A foreign policy litmus test: How the war in Ukraine has fuelled populist rhetoric in Erdoğan’s Turkey

Erdoğan, Emre. (2023). “A foreign policy litmus test: How the war in Ukraine has fuelled populist rhetoric in Erdoğan’s Turkey.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0033


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The war in Ukraine is a defining historical moment that demonstrates the limitations of contemporary politics. Even the most pessimistic scholars did not conceive of a direct military conflict in the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Moreover, this conflict has exposed the limitations of populism in foreign policy. Despite rare instances of rhetorical cooperation with Russia, the populist politicians of Europe remained committed to Atlanticist foreign policies. Turkey, a textbook example of populist governance, offers a superb illustration of how the international zeitgeist constrains populist politicians’ goals. The “balanced” approach of Turkey’s foreign policy, which is dictated by its asymmetrical interdependence with Russia, aims to strengthen Turkey’s role as a regional force through mediation. In the meantime, the pressure of upcoming presidential elections and the country’s economic position are additional obstacles. An examination of Erdoğan’s speeches over the past year reveals that he has replicated this balanced approach in his discourse as the leader of Turkey.

Keywords: Turkey; Ukraine–Russia war; foreign policy; populism.



By Emre Erdoğan* (Istanbul Bilgi University)


The war in Ukraine has become a litmus test for European politicians. The unexpected conflict in Europe has prompted a revaluation of the capabilities of nation-states and international organizations. The same war has also served as a stage on which political leaders from several nations can perform for various audiences, domestic and international. Contrary to expectations, the Russians did not conquer Kyiv in a few days, and Ukraine’s resistance to unprovoked aggression has become a model for the world. The swift and decisive response of NATO and the European Union (EU) was equally unexpected, transforming the situation into a battle of attrition.

Among the numerous unanswered questions the war has brought to the fore, the responses of populist leaders’ have received significant attention. First, the working assumption has been that all populist leaders at least sympathized with Putin’s regime, if not directly under Russian influence. Second, the war has been framed and presented as a conflict between autocracy and democracy and between East and West, forcing us to consider which camp populists would favour. Third, the war generated an influx of refugees into parts of Europe that have exhibited fiercely anti-immigrant sentiments for some time. The question has thus been whether populist leaders would take advantage of this opportunity to garner support. Lastly, it is unknown whether the economic challenges caused by rising energy costs and the disruption to global trade will favour populist parties at the polls. A series of crucial elections in 2023 will shed light on these unanswered questions and the effects of the Ukraine conflict as it enters its second year.

Turkey, like Ukraine, a Black Sea country, now enters its second decade with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the helm. Erdoğan—a textbook example of a twenty-first-century populist politician—has been characterized as Russia’s “Trojan Horse” in NATO. Turkey’s leadership has strong authoritarian tendencies, and the country hosts more than 4 million refugees, contributing to social tension. In addition, the Ukraine conflict erupted as Turkey confronts two roiling crises — a war against militants along its long border with Syria and an ongoing economic crisis. As a NATO member, Turkey is central to the Western response to the war.

In this report, I will detail the reaction of Turkey’s populist leadership to the crisis, beginning with a brief review of populist foreign policy and concluding with a summary of Turkish foreign policy throughout the war. I will conclude by discussing Erdoğan’s speeches about the war and demonstrating how he has leveraged the conflict to reinforce his position as a strong leader.

Populist foreign policy

The global rise of populist leaders attracted the attention of experts to policy differences. Although there is no consensus on the definition of populism, Mudde’s minimalist definition is the most widely accepted. According to Mudde (2004), populism is

an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the “volonté Générale” (general will) of the people. (p. 543)

 Another group of scholars define populism as a style that includes “an appeal to ‘the people’ as both the audience and the subject embodied; a resort to ‘bad manners’ and coarsened political rhetoric; and a representation and performance of crisis, breakdown, and threat” (Moffitt, 2016, p. 46). Populism has also been perceived as a strategy, a set of methods or instruments mobilized by politicians in political competition. Weyland defines this strategy as “direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganised followers” (Weyland, 2001, p. 14). A newly developed synthesis presents populism in an ideational form integrating ideological and discursive approaches and excluding strategy or tactics. This approach’s essential set of ideas or beliefs is defined as the belief in the sovereignty and the moral superiority of people, presented as a homogenous unit.

All of these definitions share similarities that provide hints about the foreign policy populists pursue when they attain power. Nonetheless, I must emphasize that the influence of populists on foreign policy may be limited. If a nation’s foreign policy is institutionalized and based on the consensus of several societal actors, the influence of politicians may be somewhat constrained. Foreign policy provides politicians with less space for flexibility than other policy sectors. Ideology is another aspect that influences the foreign policy practices of populist parties in government. Several studies demonstrated that the standing of populist political parties is determined by whether they are right- or left-wing (Verbeek & Zaslove, 2017). Finally, we must consider the structural aspects of a country that influence the foreign policy practices of populists, such as geography, economic development, and established commitments or alliances (Destradi et al., 2021).

Due to populists’ Manichean worldview, which sets the people and elite at opposite ends of the spectrum, their foreign policy preferences are expected, in the first instance, to reflect their anti-elite orientation. This elite may be identified at the national level as capitalists, bankers, and bureaucrats, while foreign elites, such as international organizations and bureaucrats, may serve as useful scapegoats. Consequently, we expect populist leaders to be opposed to international institutions and counter-majoritarian entities (such as courts) at home or abroad.

Second, the notion of the “pure people” may influence populist international policies. A homogenous “us” is always positioned against “them” in populist discourse. Consistent with the nationalist perspective, the nation is the primary component of “us”. In the context of foreign policy, however, “the people” may encompass or draw on transnational elements such as religion, race, ethnicity, and social class. Populists thus define “the Other” automatically in contradistinction to the “pure people”.

As populist leaders position themselves as the authentic representation of the will of the people, this strategy will contribute to the concentration of governance in the hands of the populist leader. In conjunction with an antipathy to national elites, populist politicians favour de-institutionalizing and politicizing foreign policy. The ontological grounds of populist policies are incompatible with the notion that foreign policy is a technocratic arena ideally administered by a rational bureaucracy. Thus, a desire to displace foreign policy bureaucracies and personalize foreign policy decisions under populist governance is foreseeable (Destradi et al., 2021).

Scholars have posited that the individual characteristics of populist leaders may influence their foreign policy orientations in office. For example, it is often pointed out that populist leaders exhibit a very direct style of communication, eagerly assuming the role of “drunken dinner guest” in global forums and “agent provocateur” when confronting the distant policy prescriptions of international bureaucrats. Certainly, quantitative and qualitative studies have demonstrated that populists have distinct personality traits. However, it remains difficult to connect these traits directly to the foreign policies of countries led by populists (Nai & Martnez i Coma, 2019; Özdamar & Ceydilek, 2020).

In sum, researchers have concluded that the foreign policies of populist leaders are characterized by anti-elitism, the supremacy of the “pure people”, and the de-institutionalization and personalization of foreign policy-making. In addition, the discourse of populist politicians tends to emphasize victimization and nostalgia for an imagined glorious national past (Elçi, 2022).

Turkish foreign policy during the Ukraine war

During the Ukraine–Russia war, Turkey has adopted a “balanced” foreign policy approach to the conflict. In a broader context, this can be interpreted as a turning point in Turkey’s shifting foreign policy priorities. Since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed office in 2002, Turkey has favoured a “transactional”, “active”, and “assertive” foreign policy, eschewing the more cautious approach of earlier eras (Mankoff, 2022). The country’s urgent need for export markets and energy dependence pushed the government to establish close ties with the Arab and Turkic worlds. Meanwhile, the ruling elite’s ideological orientation fostered a desire to take a leading role in the Muslim world and serve as a bridge between East and West. This “assertive” policy’s short-term success ended with the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

According to observers, 2016 marks a turning point in the Turkish government’s foreign policy. After the departure of Ahmet Davudoğlu, the architect of the new foreign policy, and the government’s growing security worries, the ruling class embraced more realistic foreign policy objectives. The soft power strategy that aimed to engage Arab societies in the region has been cancelled. Instead, the government envisioned an autonomous foreign policy based on the country’s military capabilities. Prior to the epidemic, Turkey supported the rebels in Syria’s civil war, while relations with Egypt and Israel were nearly frozen due to support for Hamas and the Muslim Brothers. Tensions remained with Greece over disputes in the Aegean Sea.

These shifts split the Arab world nearly in two. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were unequivocally opposed to Turkey’s aggressive participation in the domestic affairs of Arab countries and its aspirations for leadership. Turkey’s close relations with Qatar were insufficient to compensate for sour relations with the other Arab powers. In the meantime, Turkey and the United States were at odds due to Ankara’s conflict with the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), the United States’ closest partner in the region (Keating, 2022; Pierini, 2022; Tapia, 2022).

However, after the epidemic, Turkey followed a more “realistic” approach due to the changing international situation. First, the Biden administration was less tolerant of Ankara’s foreign policy adventurism in the Middle East. Second, the economic and political challenges in Turkey compelled the government to seek international backing and increase financial inflows. Turkey reached out to mend fences with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, initiated discussions with Armenia and restored diplomatic relations with Israel. Third, Ankara’s preoccupation was keeping the Kurdish insurgent PKK and ISIS at bay and constructing a secure oil pipeline to offset rising energy expenses. Fourth, the approaching presidential elections have heightened economic and trade policy, not least the significance of Europe as Turkey’s principal export market (Tapia, 2022; Pierini, 2022).

The Ukraine–Russia war coincided with this “U-turn” in Turkey’s foreign policy, and Turkey sought to execute a “hedging” strategy navigating between Russia and the United States. Throughout history, Turkey’s ties with Russia have fluctuated between frigid antagonism (as in the Cold War), rivalry (mostly in Central Asia and the Caucasus), as well as indirect confrontation and forced cooperation (as in Syria since 2013). After 2016, Turkey was compelled to keep Moscow on side, as Ankara’s role in the conflict in Syria deepened and reliance on Russian energy (and tourism) grew. Despite being on the opposite side to Russia in crises in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh (not to mention being a NATO member for seven decades), the Turkish government has not hesitated in playing the role of back channel to Moscow (Lesage et al., 2022).

On the other hand, relations between Turkey and Ukraine have traditionally been very close. After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Turkey supported Kyiv and called on Moscow to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Turkey and Ukraine inked a strategic partnership agreement in 2020 and established free trade arrangements in 2021. Turkey has also provided Bayraktar TB2 drones (used by Ukraine’s armed forces against several high-profile targets since the invasion) and established solid military ties with Ukraine while signalling its support for Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership. At the same time, Erdoğan has slow-walked approving the Finnish and Swedish applications to join the alliance in order to extract political concessions in the lead-up to elections in May. Despite Russia’s reservations, Turkey continues to send Ukraine military assistance, including the Bayraktar TB2 drones, which have become an emblem of resistance. As these drones are manufactured by the company owned by President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, this circumstance has caught the attention of experts and become a highly contentious subject in Turkey.

Ankara’s unique positioning “between” NATO and Russia and its middle power foreign policy aspirations have driven the Turkish government’s desire to act as a mediator (Üstün, 2022). At the beginning of the war, Turkey urged both sides to find a peaceful resolution and attempted to act as a regional peace broker by utilizing its links to both sides. Ankara initiated indirect communication between Ukraine and Russia and planned formal talks with relevant parties in Antalya and Istanbul in March 2022. President Erdoğan has also dispatched special envoys to facilitate a peaceful resolution. Notably, Turkey voted in favour of the UN Security Council condemning the invasion while choosing not to join sanctions against Russia, which caused some trepidation among Western allies.

Turkey has also provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine and accepted refugees while accepting thousands of Russian nationals fleeing to Turkey after the Kremlin cracked down on media and dissent after February 2022 and sought to call up reserves to fight in Ukraine. Erdoğan also brokered the deal permitting Ukraine to export grain via the Black Sea under the supervision of the United Nations in July 2020. Ankara pushed several times to prevent Russia from reneging on the agreement. Turkey is one of the arrangement’s most significant beneficiaries of the deal. The Montreux Convention of 1936 handed Turkey control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, which connect the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This allows Turkey to limit the passage of naval warships and seal the straits to foreign warships during warfare or when threatened. Except for a few instances, Turkey has restricted the passage of all foreign warships since the war broke out.

Erdoğan’s rhetoric about the war

The aforementioned survey of Turkey’s recent foreign policy should not be read as a rationally planned sequence of actions aimed at leveraging the war’s gains and utilizing foreign policy to strengthen Erdoğan’s political fortunes. The most pressing challenge for Erdoğan is to win the upcoming elections, and his foreign policy of late reflects this imperative. He is an expert in winning tight elections against significant opposition, but his electoral “Midas touch” may no longer suffice against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy. The government has increasingly turned to populist boondoggles and “cash splashes” to stimulate economic growth, but it is unclear how these programmes will be supported. According to official estimates, inflation is running at 83% annually, and rising prices threaten Erdoğan’s chances of being elected because of the government’s unwillingness to hike interest rates. This is only exacerbated by rising energy costs during the war (Erlanger, 2022).

These concerns have a substantial international component, and it is impossible to distinguish clearly between domestic and international drivers when it comes to policy responses. Still, it is possible to analyse Erdoğan’s views regarding the war in Ukraine through the lens of his public pronouncements and discursive strategies. In order to do so, I have examined his speeches from January to December 2022, published on the Turkish presidency’s website and in various media reports across this period. I have calculated that in 123 of 224 public speeches during this period, Erdoğan discussed the war in Ukraine, although some references were brief and did not elaborate on the conflict in any great detail.

It is crucial to note that Erdoğan has a distinctive outlook on global politics and Turkey’s place in the world, which he sees as full of danger and knotty challenges. He has, paradoxically, long subscribed to the Turkish sense of “encirclement”, which sees Turkey as surrounded by hostile forces, whether it is Greece, Russia (and the Soviet Union before it), the United States, Kurdish separatists, or neighbouring states in the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, Erdoğan places stock in ensuring the Turkish government is sufficiently strong in military and economic terms to meet these threats (Euronews, 2022).

In Erdoğan’s discourse, clear divisions between “us” and “them” are manifest. This can be the “us” of Turkey set against corrupt “global elites” (he often criticizes the “Big Five” countries that control the United Nations and render it ineffectual; “the globe is more than five” is a frequent refrain). At other times, his discourse employs an “us versus them” dichotomy regarding the Muslim ummah versus the Islamophobic rest. And on occasion, Erdoğan foregrounds Turkey as a champion of the world’s “forgotten” peoples and the need for solidarity among the “silent majority” of poor and downtrodden nations (Batrawy, 2022).

President Erdoğan’s discourse vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine has typically reflected his general outlook. First, in the early days of the war, Erdoğan emphasized the legitimacy of Ukraine and reiterated Turkey’s support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He framed the Ukrainian struggle as an issue of honour and independence. Over time, Erdoğan stopped repeating the same point in his presentations and adopted a more balanced stance.

Erdoğan has stated numerous times that peace is the final solution. However, the fighting parties were not to blame for the failure. The United Nations and the West hypocritically prevented the reestablishment of peace between the two countries, first due to their inability and secondly because there were actors who did not desire peace between them. In this speech, Erdoğan criticized the UN Security Council and repeated his slogan. Using this paradigm, Erdoğan pitted the West, the United Nations, and the permanent United Nations Security Council members against the world’s populace and legitimized his anti-establishment rhetoric (Batrawy, 2022).

As the West and big countries were hypocritical, Erdoğan argued that Turkey might be a facilitator (he emphasized that he did not prefer the term “mediator” for Turkey’s role). According to him, Turkey had deep historical ties with both nations, and his close relationships with their respective governments might help foster peace. He reiterated multiple times that he had direct conversations with President Zelenskyy or Vladimir Putin, as well as personal contacts. Using this story, Erdoğan portrayed himself as a world leader capable of resolving a significant catastrophe. In addition, he believed that the world’s leaders admired his efforts. Following the historical ties and his personal connections, Erdoğan emphasized Turkey’s diplomatic capacity and projected it as a regional force and the only nation capable of adopting a balanced approach (A-News, 2022).

Erdoğan emphasized his accomplishment in negotiating the grain deal. He argued that the balanced approach and friendly relations with Turkey made this agreement feasible, while Turkey’s presence fostered a climate of trust between the two parties. He represented the underprivileged by stating they had an immediate need for the food produced in Ukraine and Russia. He positioned himself as the ally of the impoverished Africans. Moreover, he emphasized that the General Secretary of the United Nations has praised this action (Batrawy, 2022).

Public opinion polls reflected Erdoğan’s balanced stance. In the early days of the conflict, surveys indicated that the Turkish public strongly supported Ukraine, with two-thirds of respondents deeming Russia’s action unjust and 78% favouring a neutral stance during the conflict. The majority of participants were concerned about the harmful effects of the war (Tahiroğlu, 2022). Some 44% of respondents supported Turkey’s role as a mediator in the war, while only 13% favoured an active engagement in the conflict. The remaining 40% of respondents favoured keeping neutral (Ünlühisarcıklı et al., 2022). Furthermore, 61% of Turkish residents were satisfied with the government’s response to the war in Ukraine, according to a study done in the summer of 2022; however, just 40% of respondents were satisfied with Brussels’ response, compared to the EU average of 57%. (European Commission, 2022). Transatlantic Trends of the German Marshall Fund revealed that just 43% of respondents supported sanctioning Russia, 30% advocated prohibiting gas and oil imports from Russia, and only 33% supported Ukraine’s NATO membership (Weber et al., 2022). In a study performed in the autumn of 2022, respondents expressed opposition to the sanctions against Russia (Henley, 2022).

Given the government’s low popularity, these numbers indicate that the Turkish public supported Erdoğan’s “balanced approach” to the Ukraine conflict. Of course, there may be cultural reasons for this favourable view of Russia, such as its historical legacy. Nonetheless, it appears that Turkish citizens are more pragmatic and that asymmetrical reliance benefits Russia. However, whether Erdoğan can convert this acceptance into electoral support is questionable, as economic hardships weigh more than foreign policy opinions.


The experience of Turkey during the war in Ukraine provides insight into populist politicians’ freedom for manoeuvre. The conflict has coincided with a U-turn after a period of “aggressive” foreign policy positioning and has given Erdoğan a chance to play the role of “bridge” and “mediator” once again. As a country with strong economic, political, and historical ties to both the West and Russia, Turkey nominated itself as a mediator in the conflict, aiming for a speedy restoration of peace in the region. To establish a back channel of communication between the warring parties and NATO, balanced activism of the Turkish government was needed. These efforts have been rewarded by praise from Western friends who have been increasingly dissatisfied with its democratic track record. Thus, Turkey strengthened its status as a bridge between East and West.

In the meantime, as presidential elections draw near, Erdoğan has not hesitated to utilize this changing role in the region. A seasoned politician, he has characterized the war as a result of the current global order. He has also preferred to place himself and Turkey in opposition to the West as the advocate and champion of impoverished non-Western countries. He has also used the opportunity to emphasize Turkey’s military, diplomatic, economic, and political strengths. For Erdoğan, Turkey’s success in maintaining a balance between the conflicting sides has been a distinguishing trait closely tied to his vision of the country’s role in the world.

Turkey’s experience demonstrated that populists in power have some leeway for flexibility in foreign policy but not enough to act as they like. However, these limits do not inhibit their determination to maximize the war’s opportunities.

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(*) Emre Erdoğan is a member of the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. With a doctoral degree in Political Science from Boğaziçi University, he has served as a researcher and senior consultant in various projects in academia and civil society. His research focuses on political participation, foreign policy and public opinion, child and youth well-being, methodology and statistics. He extensively studies and publishes about youth in Turkey, integration of Syrian refugee youth in Turkey, othering, polarisation and populism.


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Batrawy, A. (2022, September 20). WATCH: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses the 2022 United Nations General Assembly. PBS Newshttps://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/watch-turkish-president-recep-tayyip-erdogan-addresses-the-2022-united-nations-general-assembly

Destradi, S., Cadier, D., & Plagemann, J. (2021). Populism and foreign policy: A research agenda (Introduction). Comparative European Politics19(6), 663–682. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41295-021-00255-4

Elçi, E. (2022). Politics of nostalgia and populism: Evidence from Turkey. British Journal of Political Science52(2), 697–714. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123420000666

Erlanger, S. (2022, October 16). Elections approaching, Erdogan raises the heat again with Greece. New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/16/world/europe/turkey-elections-erdogan-greece.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap

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Henley, J., (2022, October 14). Westerners in no mood for concessions to Russia in Ukraine, poll finds. The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/14/westerners-in-no-mood-for-concessions-to-russia-in-ukraine-poll-finds

Keating, J. (2022, June 8). How Turkey is turning the war in Ukraine to its own advantage. Grid Newshttps://www.grid.news/story/global/2022/06/08/how-turkey-is-turning-the-war-in-ukraine-to-its-own-advantage/

Lesage, D., Daskin, E., & Yar, H. (2022). The war in Ukraine and Turkey’s hedging strategy between the West and Russia. GIES Occasional Paper1, 55–62.

Mankoff, J. (2022, March 10). Turkey’s balancing act on Ukraine is becoming more precarious. Foreign Policyhttps://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/10/turkey-ukraine-russia-war-nato-erdogan/

Moffitt, B. (2016). The global rise of populism: Performance, political style, and representation. Stanford University Press.

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Mapping European Populism – Panel #7: Populist parties/actors and far-right movements in the Baltic countries and Belarus


Dr Andres Kasekamp (Professor at Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy).


“The legacy of the post-communist transformation in the agenda of Lithuanian populist parties,” by Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė (Researcher at Institute of International Relations and Political Science).

“A blossoming tree: The origins and present-day of the Estonian populist radical right,” by Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson (Associate Professor of Political Sociology at Tallinn University).

“What attracts people to populism in Latvia?” by Dr Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik (Head of the Baltic Department at the Institute of Central Europe / Catholic University of Lublin). 

“Is populism in decline in Belarus?” by Dr Tatsiana Kulakevich (Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies).


Mapping European Populism — Panel #6: Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in Benelux countries and Switzerland


Dr Hans-Georg Betz (Professor of political science at the University of Zurich).


“The state of the far right in Belgium: a contrasted situation” by Dr Benjamin Biard (Researcher at the Center for socio-political research and information (CRISP) and guest lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain).

Right-wing populism in Luxembourg: An exception to the rule?”  by Dr Paul Carls (Researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research).

The mainstreaming of populism in the Netherlands,  by Dr Carola Schoor (Programme Leader for Public Affairs at the Centre for Professional Learning (CPL), Leiden University).

“Populist discourses in Switzerland,” by Dr Alina Dolea (Associate Professor in Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy, Bournemouth University).

Protesters hold flags of many European countries. International blockade by 1000 activists of the Austrian Identitarian Movement of the border crossing near Spielfeld, Austria on November 28, 2015. Photo: Johanna Poetsch.

ECPS Symposium on the Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe

Date/Time/Place: March 8, 2023, 15:00-17:00 (CET), European Parliament in Brussels.

The symposium hosted by MEP Petras AUŠTREVIČIUS

The symposium is to mark one year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It aims to shed light on the challenges the war brought to the European political arena, particularly in the context of rising populism, and trigger a discussion on how to remedy these issues. To this end, ECPS prepared a report contributed by 30 scholars, reflecting the situation in 24 European countries. The conclusions of the report at the European level will be presented at this symposium.



Dr Simon P. WATMOUGH (Research Fellow, ECPS).

Opening Remarks

Sir Graham WATSON (Honorary President of the ECPS — via video conferencing).

Welcome Remarks

MEP Petras AUŠTREVIČIUS (Renew Europe).

Keynote Address

His Excellency Chentsov VSEVOLOD (Head of the Mission of Ukraine to the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community).

Presenters of the Report

Dr Emilia ZANKINA (Editor of the Report, Temple University-Rome).

Dr Gilles IVALDI (Editor of the Report, Centre de Recherches Politiques de Sciences Po).

Closing Remarks

MEP Radan KANEV (EPP, Bulgaria).

Q&A Session


Please mark your calendar and follow the symposium via

ECPS YouTube Channel


People are attending a political rally and marching through the city streets of Melbourne with a police escort in Victoria, Australia on March 16, 2019. Photo: Adam Calaitzis.

Mapping Global Populism — Panel #1: Populism and Far Right in Australia

Date/Time: Thursday, March 23, 2023 — 09:00-11:00 (CET)

Click here to register!


Dr John Pratt (Emeritus Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)


“From past to present: The question of populism, extremism and the far right in Australia,” by Dr Imogen Richards (Lecturer in Criminology at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia).

“Racism, white privilege and white supremacy in Australia,” by Dr Rachel Sharples (Lecturer of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University, Australia). 

“Masculinity, Populism and Religion in Australia,” by Dr Josh Roose (Political sociologist and Associate Professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia).

Click here to register!


Brief Biographies

Dr John Pratt is Emeritus Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His fields of research are comparative penology and the history and sociology of punishment. His books include Penal Populism (2007), Contrasts in Punishment (2013) and Law, Insecurity and Risk Control: Neo-liberal governance and the populist revolt (2020). His writings have been translated in 12 languages and he has been invited to lecture on his research at universities in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Australia. The awards he has received for his work include the 2009 Radzinowicz Award by the Editorial Board of the British Journal of Criminology, an invitation to take up a one year Fellowship at the Straus Institute for Advanced Studies in Law and Justice, New York University, 2010-1, election to Fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2012, and in 2013 he was awarded the Society’s Mason Durie Medal, given “to the nation’s pre-emiment social scientist.”

Dr Imogen Richards is a lecturer in Criminology at Deakin University. She researches in the areas of social, news, and alternative forms of online media, including the political economy of counter-terrorism and the performance of security in response to social crisis. She has books with Routledge and Manchester University Press exploring the political economy of neo-jihadist and counter-terrorist movements, and the public scholarly practices of criminologists. Her next book, Global Heating and the Australian Far right, will be published with Routledge in 2023.

Dr Rachel Sharples is a Lecturer of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University (WSU), Australia. She is a member of the Challenging Racism Project and the Diversity and Human Rights Research Centre (DHRRC) at WSU and the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (CRIS). Dr Sharples’ key areas of research include displaced persons, refugees and migrants in local and global settings; statelessness, citizenship and belonging; racism and anti-racism; and spaces of solidarity and resistance. Recent publications include anti-asylum seeker sentiment in the Australian population (Geopolitics), claims of anti-white racism in Australia (Journal of Sociology) and discrimination in sharing economy platforms (Geoforum). Sharples’’s manuscript, Spaces of Solidarity, was published by Berghahn Books in 2020.

Dr Josh Roose is a political sociologist and Associate Professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University, Melbourne. His research focuses primarily on political and religious extremism, populism and the intersection with citizenship, economies, masculinities, and the rule of law. He is currently a Chief Investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded study The Far Right: Intellectuals, Masculinity and Citizenship (2021-2024) and lead Chief Investigator of the ARC funded project Anti-Women online Movements; Pathways and Patterns of Participation (2022-2025).

Refugees, asylum seekers protest immigrants' deportation at Rautatientori Railway Square in Helsinki, Finland on March 11, 2017. Photo: Shutterstock.

Migration diet of populism versus migrant attraction in Finland

Populist movements and parties have been successful in gaining support by tapping into people’s emotions, fears, and grievances, and by promoting simplistic and often divisive solutions to complex problems. As long as these underlying factors exist and are not effectively addressed, populist movements are likely to continue to emerge and gain support.

By Ilkhom Khalimzoda

Contemporary populism has become a prevalent and polarizing topic in modern-day politics. Populist movements and parties have gained significant momentum in recent years, and their impact on the political landscape is undeniable. Populism has risen to prominence in several countries, such as the United States, Italy, Hungary, and Finland, as a response to globalization, inequality, and economic crises (Mudde, 2019). The topic of populism represents a significant shift in political dynamics, characterized by a rejection of political elites, a focus on emotions and identity, and a disregard for democratic norms (Weyland, 2018). 

In Finland, the populist movement gained momentum with the formation of the Finns Party, formerly known as the True Finns Party, in 1995. The party is primarily known for its anti-immigration stance, Euroscepticism, and opposition to globalization (Kuisma, 2019). The party’s early success was limited, but it experienced a significant surge in popularity during the European migrant crisis in 2015 (Salmela & Jungar, 2019). The Finns Party received 17.7 percent of the votes in the parliamentary election in 2015, making it the second-largest party in the parliament (Kuisma, 2019). 

Anti-migration discourse is a central theme of populist movements and parties in Finland. Populists use anti-migrant rhetoric to appeal to voters’ fears of losing their jobs, cultural identity, and safety (Kuisma, 2019). Some parties have been particularly vocal about its opposition to immigration, advocating for strict immigration policies and the expulsion of migrants with a criminal record (Kuisma, 2019). Party’s anti-immigrant stance has also been criticized for being xenophobic and racist (Jungar & Peltonen, 2018). 

Populist movements and parties benefit from the fear of the “other” by capitalizing on people’s anxieties and grievances. Populists use identity politics to create a sense of belonging among their followers, and they often blame migrants and minorities for the economic and social problems facing the country (Mudde, 2019). This strategy allows them to deflect attention from the underlying causes of these problems and instead offer simple solutions that appeal to voters’ emotions.

Polls have suggested that there is a significant level of anti-immigrant sentiment among the Finnish public, while others have shown a more positive attitude towards immigrants. For example, a survey conducted by the Finnish polling firm Taloustutkimus in 2019 found that a majority of Finns believed that immigration had a negative impact on Finland. The survey found that 55 percent of respondents believed that immigration had a negative impact on the economy, while 65 percent believed that it had a negative impact on social cohesion. Additionally, the survey found that 62 percent of respondents believed that the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Finland should be reduced. However, other surveys have suggested that Finns are generally more positive towards immigrants than these results might suggest. For example, a survey conducted by the Finnish National Agency for Education in 2020 found that 72 percent of respondents believed that it was important to promote multiculturalism in Finland, and that 70 percent believed that the country should be more open to accepting refugees and asylum seekers. Anti-migrant parts of the population are more likely to vote for populist parties. According to a survey conducted by the Finnish National Election Study, voters who expressed negative attitudes towards immigrants were more likely to vote for the Finns Party (Jungar & Peltonen, 2018). The study also found that the Finns Party had the highest share of anti-immigrant voters among all political parties in Finland. 

The anti-migration discourse in Finland has created a negative perception of the migrant population, leading to discrimination and exclusion in society (Salmela & Jungar, 2019). In the recent study, it was found that immigrants believe they are perceived more as a threat than a benefit to Finnish society (Nshom et al., 2022). The discourse has also contributed to the stigmatization of migrant communities, which has resulted in a lack of integration and social cohesion (Jungar & Peltonen, 2018). This dynamic perpetuates a cycle of fear and resentment, leading to further polarization and division. 

What Does Populism May Do to the Talent Attraction Attempts of Finland?

Finland has introduced a new immigration act, which is intended to make the immigration process more efficient and straightforward for migrants. It has launched a global marketing campaign to attract talent to the country, called “This is Finland” (Business Finland, n.d.). The campaign showcases the country’s quality of life, innovation, and business opportunities (Business Finland, n.d.). Additionally, various programs aimed at integrating willing residents with foreign backgrounds into mainstream society have been taking place. One potential explanation for Finland’s continued efforts to attract skilled workers is that the government is attempting to balance the economic benefits of migration with the political challenges posed by populist movements. Some researchers argue that policies promoting economic growth through migration can help mitigate populist backlash by addressing the underlying grievances of voters, such as job insecurity and economic inequality (Givens & Luedtke, 2020). These attempts have been affected by the populist rhetoric, as the anti-immigrant discourse has created a negative image of the country in the eyes of the potential migrants, argues Jylhä & Leinonen (2021). 


Populist movements and parties have been successful in gaining support by tapping into people’s emotions, fears, and grievances, and by promoting simplistic and often divisive solutions to complex problems. As long as these underlying factors exist and are not effectively addressed, populist movements are likely to continue to emerge and gain support.

The dilemma of growing populism and skilled worker attraction is not unique to Finland alone, as many other countries also face similar challenges. What is different is the specific context and characteristics of the Finnish society and economy. Finland, with a relatively small population, traditionally relied on exports and innovation for economic growth. In recent years, Finland has been facing demographic challenges such as an aging population and declining birth rates, which have created a need for more skilled workers to maintain economic growth and ensure the sustainability of the welfare state. 

Furthermore, many populist groups in Finland have been particularly vocal in their opposition to immigration, especially from non-Western countries. This has often taken the form of opposition to refugee resettlement and asylum-seekers, rather than opposition to skilled workers. However, populist groups in Finland (and elsewhere) often frame their opposition to immigration in terms of protecting domestic jobs and economic opportunities, which could potentially extend to opposition to skilled workers as well. But overall, it is more common for populist discourse in Finland to focus on refugees and asylum-seekers as a perceived threat to national identity and security. This has created a tension between the need for skilled workers and the political pressure to restrict immigration. Therefore, the specific context and characteristics of the Finnish society and economy make this dilemma somewhat unique, and it requires careful consideration and balancing of economic and political priorities.

It is important to note that the impact and influence of populism can be mitigated by promoting inclusive and participatory democratic institutions, strengthening social cohesion, and addressing the root causes of economic and social inequalities. While populism in a way is a legitimate form of political expression, reflecting the concerns and the grievances of a segment of a population (Mudde, 2019), anti-migration populism discourses are concerning. Especially so when it is polarizing, black-and-white, and often based on distorted facts and figures. This takes further the climate of us-and-them, prejudice, and division (Weyland, 2018). The negative perception of migrant communities perpetuated by the discourse can lead to discrimination and exclusion, which undermines social cohesion and appeal of new talents into the country. 


— (n.d.). “This is Finland.” Business Finland. https://toolbox.finland.fi/ (accessed on February 25, 2023).

— (2019). ”Maahanmuuttajien vaikutukset suomalaiseen yhteiskuntaan.” Taloustutkimus Oy. 

Givens, T. E. & Luedtke, A. R. (2020). “The Economic Benefits of Immigration: How the Biden Administration Can Use a Strategic Approach to Promote Growth, Innovation, and Inclusion.” Progressive Policy Institutehttps://www.progressivepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Immigration-and-Growth.pdf

Jungar, A. C. & Peltonen, J. (2018). “The Rise of Populism and the Crisis of Democracy in Europe.” Journal of Democracy. 29(2), 16-30. doi:10.1353/jod.2018.0020 

Jylhä, K. & Leinonen, E. (2021). “Attracting talents and retaining them: A case study on the Finnish immigrant experience.” Geoforum. 118, 93-102. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2020.12.009

Kuisma, M. (2019). “Populism in Finnish Politics.” In: R. Heinisch, C. Holtz-Bacha, & O. Mazzoleni (Eds.), “Handbook of Political Populism.” (pp. 1-19). Edward Elgar Publishing.

Mudde, C. (2019). “The Study of Populism as a Way of (not) Studying Democracy.” In: C. R. Kaltwasser, P. Taggart, P. Ochoa Espejo, & P. Ostiguy (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Populism. (pp. 96-114). Oxford University Press.

Nshom, E.; Khalimzoda, I.; Sadaf, S. & Shaymardanov, M. (2022). “Perceived threat or perceived benefit? Immigrants’ perception of how Finns tend to perceive them.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 86, 46-55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2021.11.001.

Nshom, E. (2022). “Perceived threat and support for right-wing ideology in Finland.” Acta Sociologica. 65(1), 43-54.https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12294

Salmela, M. & Jungar, A. C. (2019). “The institutionalisation of populism in Finland: An analysis of populist actors and their discourse.” Acta Politica. 54(1), 22-44. doi:10.1057/s41269-018-0104-9

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is seen at a rally in Grajau, São Paulo, Brazil on September 24, 2022. Photo: Wagner Vilas.

Before the last exit: Chance for Lula to save democracy and market in Brazil

Ozturk, Ibrahim. (2023). “Before the last exit: Chance for Lula to save democracy and market in Brazil.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 27, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0021



After the Cold War, not only the economic discontent created by capitalism and globalization went to the extreme, leaving the environment at the mercy of multinational corporations, but also the perception that the sovereignty, autonomy and independence of nations, and with them, the right to self-determination was increased to a limited extent. In particular, as the global crises of 2008-2009 hit people’s lives hard, the sense of “being left behind” prepared the ground for the demand and supply of populist politics. However, populist governments not only failed to achieve any progress on the main problems complained about, rather the contrary, but primarily right-wing authoritarian-populist governments also worsened the situation by threatening multilateralism, democracy, human rights and the free market economy worldwide. Besides, the Covid-19 pandemic since 2020 posed quite mixed results for the future of populism. While the populists gained strength in the opposition, the right-wing populists in government began to lose power. Therefore, in such an environment, in Brazil, the rise of Lula’s left-wing (and to some extent populist) government to power after defeating a right-wing authoritarian government has potential implications for the future of democracy, human rights, the market economy, and multilateralism. If the Lula government takes a reformist, transformative, and progressive path, it can become a positive role model for other countries under populism threat. However, this article questions the possibility of that under local and global constraints.


By Ibrahim Ozturk


After a fierce race against the right-wing authoritarian populist leader Jair Bolsonaro, the left-wing leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Lula (Lula, hereafter) took the lead on November 2, 2022, elections by a considerably narrow margin in Brazil. Given the fact that the local and global structural challenges are there, Bolsonaro’s loss of power does not indicate the final defeat of his right-wing populism. Latin America’s recent history shows that as long as the internal and external conditions that provide supply and demand conditions for populism remain in place, the ongoing vicious circle between the right and left populist pendulum will continue. For this reason, this result in Brazil can be seen as the beginning of a new showdown rather than a final victory against authoritarian tendencies in society that is highly characterized by authoritarian populist values. 

On the other hand, while the right-wing populism (RWP) poses an obvious threat to the democracy and human rights, it would be too simplistic to present the left-wing populism (LWP) as progressive, democratic, and pro-human rights from the viewpoint of hardcore populist theory. The current question is whether Lula, one of the established actors of Brazilian politics, who previously ruled Brazil for two terms, can show a genuine leadership for change and reform, and trigger a conjuncture with an overarching impact that might extend beyond Brazil, and trigger an anti-populist wave. Despite Latin America’s political graveyard, which imposes a political culture of excessive short-termism, Lula can lead Brazil in that direction.

To discuss these arguments, after analyzing the nature of the currently shifting global landscape towards populism in the second part, the third part deals with the overall political climate between right- and left-wing populism in Brazil. This section will consider Lula’s legacy (2003-2010), Bolsonaro’s populism in power and the expectations from Lula, who has returned for the third time. Finally, the fifth section considers the new global conjuncture and its implications for a comprehensive economic transformation, the need for funding and source of finance, efficiency considerations on the use of public money as well as the need for comprehensive tax reform to create a new source of finance such as wealth tax. Article ends with final remarks and observations.

Shifting Global Landscape Towards Populism

Many prominent economists, such as Stiglitz (2003), Rodrik (2011), Acemoğlu & Yared (2010), and Greider (2003), argue that hyper globalized capitalism has exceeded its limits and produced unsustainable social, political, economic, and environmental repercussions. With those self-reinforcing inherent mechanism, they argued, “excessive globalization” threatens democracy, human right, and market economy.  

Some alternative views, however, found that perspective overly pessimistic in an environment where socialist planning economies had collapsed in former Soviet Union in the early 1990s and nearly a decade after when China began transforming Mao’s regime to embrace and converge to the market economy led by Deng Xiaoping. After socialism collapsed and the possibility of communism as an alternative ideology lost its appeal worldwide, Fukuyama (1993) hastily published his “end of history” thesis, presenting capitalism as the most progressive and definitive form of an organization human beings can create. 

Besides China and Russia, the number of countries transitioning to democracy and the market economy system suddenly increased and that created illusions about the final victory of capitalism over its alternatives. This process of globalization which was driven by technological breakthroughs, trade-openness, and financial liberalizations paved the way for multinational national enterprises (MNEs) to accumulate disproportionate concentration of wealth and a worsening of global income distribution at the national and global levels (IMF7WEO, 2007). Besides the great recession of 2008-2009 and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, a recent UN report also underlines the impact that climate change, urbanization and international migration has had on global income inequality (World Social Report, UN, 2020). 

Global income disparities and a lack of opportunities are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration, and discontent across generations and consequently have serious negative repercussions in the rise of authoritarian populism. Societies detach from the institutional structures to which they are accustomed to and eventually become more receptive to the recipes of the populist politics. Therefore, in a sharp contrast to the expected “third wave of democratization” in the post-Cold War period, the world has experienced “the third wave of autocratization,” an era that can be termed “the New Cold War.” For the first time in the post-Cold War world, authoritarian-oriented regimes outnumber democracies. This number does not include countries that have already surrendered to authoritarianism, like Russia and China (Lührmann & Lindberg, 2019). As of today, the global conditions for freedom and democracy are clearly trending downward. The growing signs of democratic recession, spreading to the core of the world’s liberal democracies, particularly Europe and the United States. While these are the first serious doubts about the future of democracy in the advanced liberal democracies since the beginning of the third wave of democracythe erosion of liberal democracies is part of a broader downward shift worldwide. Besides the former president Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who lost the chair, recent autocrats include Hungary’s Viktor Orban, India’s Narendra Modi, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicholas Maduro formerly, Filipino Rodrigo Duterte, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz (Meyer, 2022). 

The key observation to make here is that the rise of the new global wave of populism in the so-called New Cold War era has been driven by the current distorted globalization, large MNEs spiraling out of control, and the Western-biased multilateral governance order (MLO) losing its relevance.  A rising multipolar world and new global powers such as Russia, India and China are the driving force of the populist tide, among others. As geopolitical competition between the West (especially the US) and these two geopolitical rivals intensifies, we are increasingly threatened with a regression to the Cold War days where alliances matter above democracy and human rights. The rulers who aspire to become autocrats, or to deepen their autocracy, perceive no serious consequences from “the international community.” Seeking a way to distance themselves from the West, many populist leaders are finding an opportunity to consolidate their power by exploiting the gaps in this emerging world (Aiginger, 2020).

A Quick Evaluation of the Populism in Opposition and in Power

Nested dolls depicting populist politicians Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the counter of souvenirs in Moscow.

Having lacked a coherent known ideology or a worldview, populism is better understood as a technique for striving for power. Populists increase their strength and adaptability through pragmatism and opportunism and, therefore, are compatible with an unlimited range of specific ideologies. It can be deployed anywhere through several rhetoric, such as anti-elite resentment, that can mobilize the masses, especially in countries where economic inequality and inequality in power sharing are widespread. The failure of the status quo to answer the ever-growing challenges such as economic woes, cultural fears, the speed of change brought about by globalization and digitization, and the failure of politics to manage the transition to higher levels of prosperity, provide the necessary supply and demand conditions for populist politicians to gain electoral support from the forgotten or socially neglected part of society. Under these challenging conditions people frequently turn to messianic solutions and demand extraordinary leaders with a cult of personality or metaphysical charisma who denies institutions and rules.

Left- and right-wing populists expose the following common characteristics: First, as Britannica emphasizes, a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the people’s will to consolidate his power also explains the inherent tendencies of populists towards authoritarianism. In this personalized form of politics, political parties lose their importance, and elections confirm the leader’s authority rather than reflect the people’s different allegiances. Believing themselves to be the “voice of the people and the right,” they keep themselves outside and above the norms of control and regulation, often acting dependent on the situation and the people, and even displaying purely arbitrary administration. 

Second, with no initial chance of coming to power alone, the populist parties seek social and political legitimacy by creating coalitions with “mainstream” parties. In situations where political elections reveal no majority rule options, they also play a more active part in the party and make further inroads until they dominate (Hayward, 2003). Once they finally take the lead by promoting simplistic solutions to complex problems, extreme promises, and superficial rhetoric, they entrench themselves by changing the rules and dismantling the separation of power among government, parliament and the courts. Additionally, they restrict media freedom, grow closer to the military, and close foreign borders. By harming MLO, the rule of law, democratic control mechanisms, human rights, and the market economy, populists ultimately incline to authoritarianism. Rather than do away with elections altogether, they hold pseudo-elections to legitimize their anti-institutionalist, plebiscitary, and majoritarian attitudes (Naím, 2022). 

A third related and common unifying feature of the RWP and LWP is their “divide and rule” strategy. They practice this by pushing intensely polarizing messages and dividing people binarily into the “us” and the “them.” The former is used to refer the ordinary people as virtuous citizens and the latter as a corrupt, self-serving elite. This divisive policy is shared among the populist, whether they are in opposition or in power. After the division of society into “the evil and happy minority” and “the good, unhappy and the silent majority,” the assertion that the great masses, i.e., the real people, also have an extremely homogeneous structure has significant consequences (Vidigal, 2022).

Relatedly, populist actors strive for “uniting the nation,” and perceive this as a permanent crisis. To that end, authoritarian populism tends towards extreme nationalism, racism, conspiracy-mongering, and scapegoating of marginalized groups. If there are sinister foreign forces and cultures that seek to intrude on the homogeneity of ‘our people’, country, nation, and religion, then the society needs protectors or guardians who can take care of society. All these factors help consolidate the leader’s power and distract public attention from the leader’s failures, the nature of the leader’s rule or the real causes of economic or social problems (Britannica, 2022).  

Fourth, when they are in power, as Diamond (2017) summarizes, (i) populists demonize the opposition as illegitimate, (ii) undermine the independence of the courts, the independence of the media, gain control of public broadcasting, put stricter control on the internet, (iii) subdue (depoliticize) other elements of civil society and the business community into ceasing support for opposition parties, (iv) use state control over contracts, credit flows, and other resources to enrich a new class of political crony capitalists, (v) extend political control over the state bureaucracy and security apparatus to purge professional civil servants and create loyal servants to the political party. (vi) They also use the state intelligence apparatus as a weapon against the opposition, manipulate electoral rules and gain control over electoral administration to retain power in the elections.

Fifth, in economics, populism refers to a process that results in heroism when they are in opposition; while in power, they might foster pleasure in short-run unsustainable policies. With their oversimplified interpretation of a society’s problems, they talk about fair income distribution, national sovereignty and independence. What they do in reality is that by ignoring scientists, professional and economic constraints, and efficiency considerations, they rely upon policies, such as excessive monetary expansion, inflationary financing, and accumulation of debt and, thus, unsustainable growth (Aiginger, 2020). Populists characteristically favor strong but somewhat selective government intervention in the economy to counteract market forces, which ends with economic inefficiency and unsustainable growth.

Sixth, in terms of “good versus bad populism” (Larry, 2017), one must first consider populist leaders’ main ideologies, not their pragmatism, opportunism, tactics or maneuvers (Huber & Schimpf, 2017). Hardcore ideologies like communism, capitalism, or fascism target to redistribute political power, economic dominance, and cultural leadership away from what they declare as corrupt, greedy, over-centralized, urban-based oligarchies in favor of empowering “the common people.”  In that context, three distinguishing characteristics of LWP than RWP can be mentioned: Because of their main leftist ideologies, LWP parties tend to define the people on a class basis, mainly referring to the poor. They, therefore, recognize class differences, consciousness, and conflicts of interest. In contrast, RWP parties define the people on a cultural and nativist base (Mudde, 2004). In other words, while LWP parties frame their criticisms economically and seek to protect the proletariat from exploitation by capitalists, RWP parties’ champion nativism (Mudde, 2007). 

Seventh, RWP and LWP differ regarding political inclusion but share similarities in their ideas of political contestation and control of power. While LWP parties generally do not discredit minority groups nor object to granting these groups political rights, they do not accept political competition for that they, and only they, are the true representatives of the people. Consequently, they consider political control through effective opposition and institutional power check mechanisms as obstacles that prevent them from implementing the people’s will. In this sense, left-wing populists are inclusive on the societal level and the dimension of political participation. Thus, left-wing populist parties differ from right-wing populist parties in that they embrace an inclusive as opposed to an exclusive view of society (Katsambekis, 2017; Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2013).

Eighth, like RWP, LWP parties are also anti-elitist and anti-establishment, but LWPs are more international than RWPs. This attitude might help bring about necessary institutional reforms to mitigate injustices, break monopolies, redistribute power and income, and therefore play a progressive role in integrating forgotten or left-behind groups in the system. In this categorization, LWP represents progressive, good populism, whereas RWP represents the “bad.”  However, the mentioned similarities should also not be overlooked. Populism, both right and left, is based on an individual’s personal preferences and their emergency management and arbitrary decision-making. They constantly try to increase power and adjust the system to their whims. RWP and LWP demand more power for the ruling executive to shift power away from parliaments and courts. They show no significant difference regarding their influence on mutual constraints.

Looking at the issue from this perspective, it is clear that the populist leaders from both sides should be under constant suspicion. Their act of undermining modern governance based on the separation of powers between the legislature, judiciary and executive, undermining media freedom and silencing civil society NGOs with various tactics should be resolutely opposed.

Populists often use a strong pragmatism full of empty promises (i.e., promising a return to non-existent past glory) that helps them defeat the status quo parties in the elections. Their underestimation or oversimplification of society’s problems cause them to severely underperform when in the power. However, that doesn’t mean they can be removed from power just for not fulfilling their promises. Removing the populists from the seat is likely to be much more complicated than ascending them. As Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Orban in Hungary have shown, they do not go as easily as they come. That is because of the crimes and corrupt activities they commit while in power. After “crossing the Rubicon” in power, they pass a point of no return, and “unable to leave power.” They try to hold on to power by any means within their courage and strength by undermining the democratic order that enabled them to come to power. They even invent a foreign enemy or dangerous power or, like Erdogan in Turkey, artificially organize a fake coup to consolidate their power. As Naim (2022) puts it, both left- and right-wing populists can be more ideologically different but more similar in their strategies to seize and retain power. 

In this respect, as Aiginger (2020) states, democracies are fragile in their efforts to protect themselves from destructive attacks by populists. Although the number of military dictatorships, which peaked in the 1980s, has sharply declined, they have been replaced by pseudo-democratic personal dictatorships (Lührmann & Lindberg, 2019). Given that an “authoritarian” regime refers to the absence of democracy, a system where free and fair elections determine who holds power, the most dangerous form of dictatorship in our time comes with the populist regimes. They are evolving under God-like charismatic leaders and seek legitimacy through a theater of rigged elections to govern their “pseudo-democracies” (Frantz, 2018).

In game-theory language, society may prefer “the least bad,” the so-called “second-best” where “the first best solution” is not possible in the given social pay-off matrix. However, when it comes to favoring populism over the established order, the situation expressed by the phrase “get caught by the hail while escaping the rain” can arise. As Martin Wolf puts it, “yes, indeed, the failings of the existing governmental and commercial elites – their indifference to the fate of large sections of the population, their greed and incompetence, which have been so clearly demonstrated – are hard to answer for; the solution does not lie with the populists.”

To conclude this section, populism does not allow a self-determined life to enrich human dignity and self-esteem. It does so by undermining life opportunities and lowering income. It also increases the probability of conflict with neighbors. Under populism, government expenditures for policy, border control, environmental degradation and health problems increase significantly, and this in turn leads to higher taxes and debt. 

In terms of fighting with populism, it has multiple roots which must be addressed, but there exist numerous better solutions for these problems if they are discussed with citizens. However, given the new majority rules and suppression of the media, if there is no candidate presenting an alternative or opposition is divided, the return to liberal democracy is difficult. In order to combat and reverse populism, the disappointments of the “big silent majority” must be addressed and their hope for the future must be managed on a realistic basis. 

In that regard, economic, cultural, and social expectations must be satisfied. The fears, anxiety, and concerns (i) like unemployment, income loss and inequalities, and rising cost of living in economics must be resolved. Also, negative repercussions of excessive globalization that comes with free trade and the unbounded activities of MNEs should be prevented from giving the impression of losing national autonomy, sovereignty, and independence. (ii) “Fear of foreigners,” that caused mainly by legal and illegal immigrants, are also perceived as a threat over the settled life patterns and civilizational values of native citizens. That should also be managed more accurately. Redrawing the picture without whitewashing must be the starting point of a new policy. It is necessary to explain the importance of a pluralistic society and its dynamism. Furthermore, it needs to be stressed that heterogeneity is not negative. The interaction of different cultures brings innovativeness, creativity and opens the door to further prosperity.

Moreover, each era has its own language, culture, and necessary organizations. Reactions should be appropriate. Instead of fleeing to the supposed “glorious centuries” of ancestors in different ages, it should be made clear that the necessary advances will never come through protectionism. Previous jobs and family structures will not be repeated either. As Rumi (1207-1273) once said: “My sweetheart faded away along with yesterday / No matter all the promises of yesterday / Now it’s time to say something new.”

In this respect, developing a vision outlining where the country or region wants to be in the medium term, for example by 2030, and defining the effective tools that can be used and partners found to achieve that vision are two Herculean tasks. In other words, it is important to structure the institutions, rules, instruments, actors, stakeholders, future industries, financial resources, and the place of the major national sectors in the global value chain and division of labor in a timely manner. All vision and measures should comply with good governance criteria, like transparency, accountability, and inclusion. The vision, which needs to be developed together with experts and policymakers, should be ambitious but achievable and shared by citizens, including the type of jobs to be created in a number of specific, future-oriented sectors.  The skills and educational level of the youth as well as emigrants should also be aligned with this overall vision. The vision should specify which public services should be provided and how living conditions can be improved. Performance should be assessed against sustainable development goals. Actions needed include comprehensive tax reform, transforming the education system, supporting the hybrid work systems, and taking public action to support the process, investing in climate change and supporting green sectors such as better public transport, electric car incentives, car sharing and renting unused houses.

Brazil between RWP and LWP

Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Bolsonaro participate in the debate over Brazil in Sao Paulo on October 16, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

To uncover the right-wing and left-wing populism of Bolsonaro and Lula, respectively, and to predict Brazil’s future in terms of democracy, human rights, and the market economy, it would be helpful to briefly examine the rhetoric of these two leaders on the one hand and their real policies and implementations in power on the other. Although they both refuse to be labeled as populist, both Lula and Bolsonaro cause political polarization, albeit in different tones, by adopting an exclusionary, discriminatory, marginalizing, and divisive language. This turns politics into a struggle between angels (the big silent majority) and demons (elites, professionals, bureaucrats).and reduces political competition to a dangerous struggle between “traitors” and “patriots.” According to a recent analysis by Käufer (2022), in the last election campaign, they both used terms like fascists, communists, devils, demons, thieves, agents of genocide, or Ku Klux Klan sympathizers to describe each other.

More specifically, Lula, who governed Brazil for two terms between 2003-2010, followed aggressive campaign rhetoric and insulted anyone who did not vote for him as “enemies.” Rather than pursuing a reconciliatory course to build bridges, repairing social fault lines, and uniting the nation, he used the environment Bolsonaro had divided to his advantage. It seems he found this to be a productive strategy in a socio-political culture where demand for strong political leadership, authoritarian and populist values is high. Lula was able to win the election with a majority, just 2 million votes more than his rival, and take charge of a deeply polarized country from January 1, 2023 by making different coalitions (León &Magni, 2022). Now, however, Lula has to mend this division he helped create and in such an environment he must propel Brazil into the future by giving the country a new vision.

Bolsonaro’s campaign was characterized by a fear of violence when he repeatedly cast doubt on the electoral system in October 2022Bolsonaro announced that “only God can remove him from the presidency” and suggested that if he received less than 60 percent of the vote that would mean “something unusual (fraud) happened.” Like former US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro refused to say whether he would leave office peacefully if he lost. He also scapegoated Lula by arguing that he is not only corrupt and a thief, but also will bring Communism to Brazil. The last, but not least, he blamed Lula for being pro-LGBTQ supporter, harming Brazilians morality. When he lost elections to Lula, Bolsonaro remained silent for hours after the result was announced and called on the military to oversee the vote count in October.

Both Bolsonaro and Lula have commonly attempted “scapegoating methods” to divert attention from their failures. Lula heavily relied on this strategy as he ruled the country for two terms (2003-2010). After the court rejected his candidacy, Lula ceded his post at the pinnacle of his popularity and social approval to another president (Dilma Rousseff – January 2011 – August 2016) from the same party, the Labor Party. Facing similar and serious controversial corruption-related lawsuits, Rousseff lost her post to Michel Temer (August 31, 2016, to December 31, 2018) as interim president, and then Bolsonaro rose to power from January 2019 to late 2022 (Käufer, 2022).

Looking at the language used by the two political leaders during Brazil’s last election campaign, one can say that both can be cited as “examples of subversive populism.” However, as the analysis presented in the first section concludes that LWP are expected to be more progressive than RWP because of the difference in their main ideology, we should focus on what they did in power in addition to their rhetoric. In this context, some selected practices of Lula and Bolsonaro (2018-2022) will be briefly discussed below.

Lula’s Legacy (2003-2010)

Lula, a politician who has made a name for himself as a unionist and struggling leader in Brazilian politics since the 1980s, gained experience on his way to the presidency. There were two main challenges for Lula to overcome: (1) Brazilians were overly politized and had a divided political culture and (2) Lula’s hardcore left ideology on economic management. 

In terms of the first issue, the important chronic challenge was that all presidents of Brazil since re-democratization in the late 1980s have had to form coalitions among rival factions in the Brazilian Congress to govern (Käufer, 2022).Considering that fact and his previous attempts at the presidency, he toned down his rhetoric and succeeded in increasing his stakeholders and coalition partners. Lula was able to win the 2002 elections as a result.

Regarding the second issue, Lula was aware of the uncertainty that was held amongst the public on how a left-wing leader, who used very harsh ideological language during the election process and was a union leader in his past, would act as leader of the country. Lula kept a flexible and pragmatic approach; He emphasized the unity of the country and tried to calm fluctuating markets by publishing market-friendly statements. For instance, by publishing a “letter to the nation,” Lula tried to relieve “financial capital” by ensuring to follow an “evolutionist, pro-market, not revolutionary” reform and change path if the phrase is appropriate. The old saying that “the crowned head grows wiser” was vindicated in Lula’s case. As soon as he came to power, he began to adopt very pragmatic policies as if to say, “what is said on the campaign trail stays there.” 

Lula was expected to take the necessary steps to resume economic growth during his first term in power, after almost 25 years of semi-stagnation, fight poverty, and improve historically deep income inequalities. Lula decided to continue the International Monetary Fund (IMF) program signed in 2002 by the former academic president Cardoso. Lula greatly benefited from the stability created by the Cardoso government, with the Plano Real taming inflation while avoiding recession and the privatization of monopolies increasing the inflow of foreign capital. To increase the credibility in his commitment to the market economy system, Lula also appointed Cardoso’s Minister of Finance Pedro Malan to the same position.  

Thanks to these measures, compared to other left-of-center reform projects, Lula caused fewer confrontations with internal political adversaries and economic elites. He gained a reputation as a moderate and pragmatic leader (Hughes, 2012). However, that level of pragmatism even risked disappointing his ideological supporters’. In a way to balance that perspective, he also stressed that rather than following the so-called Darwinian philosophy, implying the survival of the fittest where the big fish eats the small, advocated by the right-wing politicians, he would pay attention to the social policies to improve income distribution and alleviate poverty. In other words, Lula protected the balance between the elites, that is to say, the finance capita and the “silent majority”. The combination of social sensibility and fiscalresponsibility promoted him as a “modern left” (de Carvalho, 2008).

In addition to his capacity to build and maintain coalitions and his ability to promote a pragmatic-flexible approach to the economic management Lula was also lucky, which allowed him to benefit a great deal from changes underway before his presidency. Geologists found a huge new oil field deep in the ocean off the Brazilian coast, and ethanol production expanded. The tens of billions of barrels of oil discovered in the fields of Rio de Janeiro in 2006 have been declared one of the most important discoveries of this century. Many hoped this would bring an abundance of education and health and make Brazil one of the largest economies in the world (The Guardian, 2015). 

The most significant luck for Lula and Brazil was a new phase of globalization that encouraged an uninterrupted long growth cycle from 2002 till the burst of the global financial crisis in 2008. This new phase of globalization was driven by revolutionary developments in communication and transport technologies, the integration of China and then ex-Soviet markets into the world system via the WTO, and the breaking down of barriers to factor movements across the board. Globalization of production, trade, and financial flows, accompanied by great opportunities for energy and commodity-exporting countries like Brazil. As a result, unlike the period between 1990-2022, when, besides Argentina, Russia, and the South African Republic, Brazil recorded the lowest growth performance among developing countries (DCs) and, therefore, almost stagnated (Figure.1), during Lula’s two terms, a growth rate more than doubled in the 2000s and surpassed the OECD and world growth averages. Accordingly, nominal GDP increased fivefold from $500 billion in 2002 to over $2.5 trillion and per capita income from about $4,500 to $13,000 in 2010 (Figure.2). With that performance, Brazil came to the brick of successfully graduating from upper middle-income country status to becoıam a high-income country for the first time in its modern history. 

Source: The World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator


Source: https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/BRA/brazil/gdp-gross-domestic-product.

The growth performance and the associated social policies have contributed significantly to Lula’s phenomenal success in the social sphere (Green & Skidmore, 2021). Growing export surplus and rising tax revenues allowed the Lula government to fight widespread poverty by investing in social programs, such as the Family Stipend (Bolsa Família), which started in 2003, to reduce poverty and increase human capital. Former president Cardoso’s School Stipend (Bolsa Escola) preceded that program, and Lula merged it with his Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) campaign (Hall, 2006). Bolsa Família supported families with children with a per capita income of fewer than 70 dollars a month, granted a small sum of money per child (up to three children) as long as they were vaccinated, stayed in school and did not engage in illegal child labor. As of 2010, 12.4 million households had enrolled in the program, and, in sum, 20 to 30 million Brazilian escaped from poverty. 

According to Neri (2014: 25), one-sixth of Brazil’s strides in poverty reduction can be attributed to this program, which only costs 0.5 percent of the Brazilian GDP. Besides Bolsa Família, the creation of 13 million new jobs and the minimum wage surge from 100 to 205 dollars during his presidency helped him improve traditionally very skewed income distribution. According to the World Bank (2022) indicators, the Gini coefficient, an indicator of inequality, was above 0.60 in 1995s and 0.58 when he took office in 2003, declining to 0.53 at the end of his two terms in 2010, signifying a significant improvement. Rather strikingly, some experts like Hughes (2012) attribute Brazil’s success in securing the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, during his successor Dilma Rousseff, to Lula’s legacy. Among others, what is equally important to note is that the mentioned average rate of 4.5 percent annual growth during his two terms associated with a reduced public debt from roughly 60 percent to 40 percent of GDP, reduced inflation from more than 12 percent in 2002 to just under 6 percent in 2010, and increased trade surplus from $13.1 billion to $33.3 billion (The Economist, Sep.19, 2022).

To conclude, through pragmatism and a flexible attitude, Lula successfully balanced a market-friendly economic approach with his socially sensible programs. He aligned with the market expectations and did not give much space to the expected left-wing populism, which sacrifices fundamental macroeconomic balances at the expense of unsustainable high growth, income redistribution, and economic isolation policies. That is to say, he sacrificed neither social sensibility nor business responsibility and macroeconomic stability. After all, his ten years were a period of delivering high economic growth, macroeconomic stability, and social protection not only subsided reactions from international investors and national economic elites but also increased his approval rating among the citizens to an unprecedented rate of 87 percent.

The appropriate question is: Why did Brazil then surrender to right-wing populism in 2018? What lessons can we learn from the experiences of Lula and his Labor Party? Accordingly, what can be expected from Lula in his third term, which came at a drastically different local and global political and economic surrounding?Despite these positive aspects, Lula’s two terms in power were also subject to the following shortcomings. 

Among others, the most disdainful criticism against Lula’s government concerns his inability to propose a strategic transformation vision for the country. Particularly during the first term, when capitalism was in a period of favorable expansion, the opportunity to transform the overall economy and diversify the existing industrial base through the use of a large volume of foreign capital inflows and the revenue generated from commodity exports was largely missed. Instead, the resources were directed to bigger transfer expenditures for single use at consumption (de Carvalho, 2008). So, the big vicious-cycle and therefore source of fragility for Brazil is that while the country remained dependent on unstable income via the exports of commodities and unstable capital inflows, the significantly big size of the population became dependent on transfer expenditures from the budget.

Moreover, being subject to a host of special interest groups at congress, despite levying taxes at levels close to the OECD average, much public spending is misdirected into feather-bedding bureaucrats or oiling political machines. In other words, interest-seeking coalitions lobbying power led the government to misdirect the resources to the investment in the sunset industries of the 20th century, with lower productivity and innovativeness.For instance,Brazil hosted the football world cup and Olympic games in 2014 and 2016, respectively, while the country’s hospitals and schools fell into disrepair, causing severe economic problems and social tensions. Much of the explanation related to these failures have to do with governance. Brazil remains a relatively closed economy and has failed to develop internationally competitive exports outside of agribusiness and mining (de Paula, 2016; Jenkins, 2014).

If there is a “missing vision and wrong investment” somewhere, it is inevitable that corruption will follow it, and it points to a reality that is looming over Brazil like a nightmare. Relatedly, a period of big disappointment began in 2005 when Lula did not take “corruption rumors” seriously while in office. His involvement in the vast Odebrecht, a giant construction company[1], and Petrobras, Brazil’s most prominent public institution corruption scandals have not been appropriately investigated (Sotero, 2022; DW, 2020). There was a constant effort to hide all these corruption scandals involving the name of Lula. However, Lula’s reputation came crashing down after leaving office when he was convicted in a wide-ranging corruption probe involving the state oil company Petrobras. Corruption rumors during the presidency of his close colleague Dilma Rousseff, whom he handed over in 2010, were reheated. While Rousseff’s defense of playing the “three monkeys” was roughly summed up as “I did not see it, I did not hear it; I did not do it,” she preferred to explain the incident as a political revenge plot on her political career by her opponents. However, none of these defenses saved her from impeachment in 2016 by the senate. That is because, for years, Ms. Rousseff had been placed on the board of directors of Petrobras. 

Finally, she was replaced by the vice-President Michel Temer, who was also impeached and arrested during his tenure as acting president in 2016. Temer has been the subject of five court cases and one investigation, mostly related to passive corruption and money laundering. As part of the investigation, he was jailed in 2018 on bribery and money laundering charges and ultimately replaced by right-wing authoritarian leader Bolsonaro in the same year. After presidents Rousseff and Temer, this process eventually reached Lula, which led to his imprisonment for 580 days. However, the Supreme Court later ruled it as a mistrial, clearing his path to run for reelection. The inability of the judiciary to resolve these issues with the necessary transparency and impartiality in a country where all political leaders, including Lula, are prosecuted for corruption, impeached, or imprisoned has caused corruption to be legitimized, the public to lose its sensitivity to these scandals, thus, causing those involved to return to politics quickly. This social mediocrity points to a legacy that eclipses reformist and changer expectations for Lula. 

Bolsonaro’s Populism in Power

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during 74th Anniversary of Parachutist Infantry Battalion held at Military Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on November 23, 2019. Photo: Celso Pupo.

Bolsonaro came to power by successfully mobilizing anti-establishment anger towards the above-given political deadlock. He ran against the grain in a country roiled by scandals and suffering from a stagnant economy (Phillips, 2022). Moreover, the negative repercussions of the global economic crisis in 2008-2009 continued to hurt society. As a result, in 2018, after two years of economic crisis and several public corruption scandals, Bolsonaro came to power in this environment with intense anti-establishment populism. 

Bolsonaro began implementing policies that should be expected of a right-wing populist party. To mention just a few, he first worked to curb the judiciary’s power and attack electoral institutions. Second, with time, his aggressive and often profane manner and his attacks on women and journalists have left the population tired of him (Phillips, 2022). Third, the pandemic set an excellent example of how a populist denies science, scientists, expertise, division of labor, institutional capacity, and autonomy. Experts say the story of how Brazil’s leader went flaccid involves a litany of outrages, ineptitudes and errors committed during a chaotic four-year reign. At the height of the pandemic, like many other populists, Bolsonaro dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu” and promoted the unproven and possibly harmful remedy hydroxychloroquine (Burni & Tamaki, 2021). He has expressed skepticism of vaccines — he suggested they could cause women to grow beards and turn people into crocodiles — in a country that has embraced them. Not surprisingly, Brazil has recorded one of the worst COVID-19 responses—nearly more than 34.5 million cases and 700,000 deaths since 2020. Both are presumed to be significantly undercounted (Béland et al., 2021).

Surveys show that more than 40 percent of Brazilians rate Bolsonaro’s administration as “bad” or “very bad.” Many experts also accuse him of having a role in hundreds of thousands of Covid deaths and his fake news-fueled attacks on Brazil’s young democracy (Boyle, 2022; Villega, 2022). Therefore, it is expected that after losing power and presidential immunity, he might be subject to sanctions. With that fear, just two days before the successors’ inauguration ceremony, Bolsonaro left Brazil for Florida and did not specify his return date. This action breaks with the Brazilian convention of outgoing leaders being present at the ceremony.

Fourth, besides pandemic challenges in the supply side of the economy, rising inflation stagnated national income and declining per capita GDP (Figure.2), and rising government debt that reached a record high of 90 percent of GDP (as of 2020), 30 percentage points higher than a decade ago. Because he underestimated hunger and malnutrition, tens of millions were plunged into poverty. Rather strikingly, after Lula’s globally renowned success story in fighting against poverty, Brazil reappeared on the World Food Program’s “Hunger Map” of the United Nations (UN) in 2021, with 28.9 percent of the population living in food insecurity. Thirty-three million Brazilians face acute hunger, and 100 million live in poverty, the highest number in years. It is a significant setback for a country that had been removed from the map in 2014, after an economic boom and landmark social programs helped lift 30 million people from poverty during Lula’s administration (France 24, 2022). As the 10th largest economy in the world, the largest one in Latin America, and one of the world’s largest food producers and exporters, Brazil’s return to the UN’s hunger map is not easier to bring any convincing explanation.

Lastly and most dramatically, South America’s largest economy become an international pariah notorious for Amazon annihilation. Deforestation in the Amazon region returned with a vengeance, turning Brazil into a pariah in the global fight against climate change. After almost a decade of steady decline in the deforestation process, mainly under Lula’s administration, the damaging process took off again under Bolsonaro’s administration beginning in January 2019 (Figure.3).

Source: https://apnews.com/article/jair-bolsonaro-forests-brazil-middle-east-deforestation-863224be226725da06db7768b305c3ea.

Bolsonaro’s actions up to this point typically describe a populist politician; to exploit the failures of the incumbent regime, making grand promises, and ascendance to power using the democratic mechanisms that the system still allows. When in power, however, populist politicians do the opposite of what they promised resorting to unsustainable policies and not leaving power by employing all the available means when unsuccessful. Bolsonaro paid too much effort to reverse the situation towards the campaign’s final stretch to keep his power. Flagging billions of dollars of welfare payments designed to seduce poor voters and a suspected attempt at voter suppression by federal highway police on election day. With Brazilians struggling with double-digit inflation and an election just weeks away, Bolsonaro has cut fuel taxes to reduce prices at the pump and sent monthly cash transfers to low-income families. He has created cash benefits for truck and taxi drivers and dispensed $20 to families needing gas cylinders for cooking. Although energy prices stabilized, inflation started to decline, and employment rose, Bolsonaro lost the seat.

The legacy of Bolsonaro is that Bolsonaro’s policies weakening institutions, loosing macroeconomic stability, dismantling environmental regulations and agencies, and disregarding social programs. Brazil’s fiscal situation is worse: public debt is 78 percent of GDP and 93 percent of the budget is consumed by mandatory spending on things such as salaries and pensions. The global outlook is fraught. Though high commodities prices have helped the economy, inflation is hurting the poor. Political conditions are tougher, too. Brazil’s Congress is more avaricious and less cooperative (The Economist, Sept.19, 2022). The highly fragmented political system in Brazil remains the biggest concern. In his inauguration ceremony on January 1, 2023 Lula described the diagnosis he received from the Bolsonaro government as follows: “emptied the resources for health, dismantled education, culture, science, they destroyed the environmental protections, haven’t left resources to school meals, vaccines, public security, forest protection and social assistance” (Watson & Davies, 2022).

Lula’s Third Return and Expectations

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva walks among supporters on Augusta Street at São Paulo on the eve of the brazillian election on October 1, 2022. Photo: Yuri Murakami.

After his third-round successful presidency in his sixth run, Lula has once again overtaken a politically divided and economically devastated country. Bolsonaro has gone, but “Bolsonarism” remains strong, making Congress hostile to the new government and society more fragmented (Sabatini, 2022). Keeping a possibly wider reform coalition in such a surrounding is troublesome. For instance, many prominent backbenchers (to be translated as “political parasites”) are funded by agribusiness. Therefore, they could be a significant obstacle in Lula’s highest priority areas of protection of the Amazon forests. That is why much of his speech to Congress at the inauguration ceremony was about “unity” and “reconstruction” of the nation through keeping and enlarging his existing stakeholders, which took him to the election victory. 

Deep as they are, political divisions are not Brazil’s only problem. Economic problems are relatively high inflation, unemployment, high public debt, deep income inequality, massive poverty, and an almost stagnating economy (Ottis, 2022). Real growth in GDP per capita has averaged zero since 2011. The commodities boom that generously helped financing many of Lula’s social programs the first time around is over.

Very similar to what happened before he came to the power for the first time in 2003, during his third adventure to the power, Lula has once again tried to convince markets that he would not go on an uncontrolled spending spree. Similarly, he chose Geraldo Alckmin, a center-right and business-friendly former São Paulo Governor who was Lula’s rival in the 2006 election, as his Vice President. Going even beyond that, Lula has criticized a few of Rousseff’s policies, such as keeping fuel prices artificially low and offering tax breaks worth more than 450bn reais ($86bn) to businesses (which amounted to 7.5 percent of GDP). 

On the other hand, today’s fraught geoeconomics climate offers Brazil some opportunities as well. The country is rich in food, fuel and metals and has a flourishing renewable energy sector. It is located far from global conflict spots and has traditionally sought good relations with the US, China, Europe, and Russia. However, economic transformation, industrial diversification, and generating funding resources in an unfavorable global and national environment are pretty uncertain. By lamenting the drop in car production and Brazil’s dependence on commodity sales to China, Lula has underlined the need for “re-industrialization,” proposed solutions such as investments in technology and the green-energy transition. However, Lula will continue balancing his “market-friendly” approach with “society-centric sensibilities.” 

Lula’s quite ambiguous program involves the following topics: 

In terms of fighting with poverty, through the Bolsa Familia poverty-relief program that includes transfers, expansion of social-housing scheme as well as debt-relief, Lula wants to “put the poor back in the budget.” He targets 33m Brazilians, who live on less than 289 reais ($55) per month, the highest number since 2012. Accordingly, the poorest families will get 600 reais ($110) a month and those with children under six years of age will get an additional 150 reais ($30). His second major measures to improve income distribution involves “updating” the existing labor reform, which he calls “slaveholder mentality.” Accordingly, he will increase the minimum wage, provide equal pay for men and women, aims adding protections for part-time workers. 

Other challenges await Lula that are as important as overthrowing Bolsonaro through a legitimate and fair election. Lula must maintain the coalition he has formed, convince the highly politicized parliament to get support for the needed reforms, provide the necessary financial resources and restore the badly damaged financial balances. Implementation of a comprehensive tax reform, therefore, is one of his priority areas. 

The New Global Conjuncture

Putin, Biden and Xi Jinping in the form of Russian nesting dolls in a gift shop in Moscow. Photo: Shutterstock.

It is a very positive development that Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil were removed from their seats without being given a chance for a second term. However, after the right-wing authoritarian populist leaders lost elections in both countries, their supporters became even more divisive and did not accept the election results. Trump’s supporters in the US and Bolsonaro’s in Brazil have shown again that right-wing authoritarians come with free elections but try not to go by fair elections. At first, they wanted “military intervention” after the election results in October 2022. However, thanks to the army’s neutral position, it did not happen. After that, Bolsonaro fled the country to the US before Lula took office. Finally, with the encouragement and organization of the Bolsonaro team that occupied high-level security-oriented bureaucracy, his supporters attempted a coup d’état against the newly appointed government and stormed parliament. Thanks to his leadership and experience, Lula had no hesitation in declaring a state of emergency and dismissing many of the top security bureaucracies appointed by Bolsonaro. This evidence shows that Trump and Bolsonaro have gone, but Trumpism in the US and “Bolsonarismo” in Brazil have remained. This fact has deep-rooted implications that current global order and its structural characteristics feed populism at both the global and local levels remain. 

Multiple adverse effects of excessive globalization manifest themselves in DCs through transmission mechanisms like the activities of the MNEs, mainly in labor markets and foreign trade sectors. Among others, the primary outcomes appear in the form of unemployment, downward pressure on wages in traditional import-competing industries, and difficulties in regulating tax evasion of MNEs, generating income inequalities and poverty. It also cultivates a perception of a loss of sovereignty and national independence. The wave of global immigration, triggered by the mentioned process, not only increases the fear of local people losing their jobs but also alienates native people and feeds the perception of losing their endogenous values. Furthermore, international capital movements not only have weakened national governments’ regulatory and taxation autonomy, but they have also shifted the balance of power within nations away from labor towards capital and allowed it to accrue further political power and wealth, opening yet more opportunities for the internationalization of capital. 

According to a recent report by IPSOS Global Trends (2020), while six in ten (62 percent) globally agree with the meritocratic ideal (that if you work hard, you will get ahead), it is under threat in even in the most advanced and social welfare states in key European countries. For example, only half of those in Germany (53 percent) and Spain (50 percent) feel their economies produce rewards their efforts, as do just four in ten people in Italy (41 percent). One core response to this perceived inequality of outcome and opportunity is support for wealth redistribution – one of the top ten values of IPSOS in 2020. It encompasses the widely held view that national economies are rigged to advantage the rich and powerful (74 percent agree globally) and that large income differences are bad for society (76 percent). Finally, “the big silent majority,” who was entirely excluded from the decision-making processes but could not avoid its negative consequences, have come to rely more and more on populist rhetoric, which, given the excesses of hyper globalization, is obsessed with the idea that zero-sum situations invariably characterize market exchanges. 

To reverse the mentioned process, DCs need to balance excessive globalization through localization, poverty prevention, tax reforms, and improved skills and abilities for a comprehensive future oriented sectoral transition. These tasks require four interlinked transitions comprised of mainly manufacturing, fiscal structure, education, and governance sectors. To address these tasks following tasks must be fulfilled. 

i) Repositioning of the country in the global supply chains through re-scaling and re-shoring.

ii) Further localization of production and governance.

iii) Transition of energy systems towards renewables from fossil fuels, and

iv) Substitution of basic universal and targeted income through a comprehensive tax reform are the priorities.

Regarding the first three recommendations, the pandemic crisis has marked another turning point in the process already underway, which is leading many companies to transform their supply chains and invest in more resilient and often more localized production patterns (Zhan et al. 2020; Lawrence, 2020). Localization measures involve empowering community-based decision making, participatory budgeting, and local action on such issues as renewable energy, green infrastructure, public services, and food production. As thought from Brazil’s perspective, localization is especially beneficial for food production, as the pandemic has revealed the precariousness of global food supply chains. Yasmeen etal. (2020) adds that nearly one quarter of the world’s food crosses a border before consumption. Countries tend to specialize in a few products and import most others. Meanwhile, just a handful of mega-sized corporations dominate international food markets, and production often depends on the exploitation of vulnerable groups, such as migrant workers. As can be seen, one of the critical issues here is the balance between the quality of integration into the global order and localization. 

Lula’s vision to give more weight to the public sector in transforming the industries where Brazil has competitive advantages, particularly in infrastructure investments, transition to a green economy with low-carbon target in the 2030s, agribusiness has been one of the hot topics of discussion in the country. However, the quality of public sector leadership in industrial transformation through selecting the national champions or the potential winners has been a highly problematic issue, as we know it from the failed industrialization models of import substitution in Latin American countries. It is a story of failed models, squandered resources, entrenched crony capitalism in corruption, and widespread authoritarian regimes.

Similar to his earlier experiences, Lula insists on big infrastructure projects, like public transportation, energy and water with investment from both the public and private sector. He also advocates a heavy dose of intervention, describing a national food reserves policy, the exchange rate as an instrument to reduce volatility, and the need to “Brazilianize” petrol prices. Meanwhile, Lula does not talk much about reducing trade barriers or making public spending more efficient. 

Considering the nature of rising industries, in the age of fourth industrial revolution, Brazil should craft a model which carefully distinguishes between “crony-friendly,” “business-friendly,” and “market-friendly” approaches in search of attributing a new role to the public sector. In a crony-friendly policy regime, a few firms obtain many privileges from the government by leveraging their political connections. These include resources directly allocated by the state, such as public procurement contracts, public land, or subsidized credits. Politically connected businesses may influence the regulatory framework in a way that creates barriers to entry for potential competitors through several direct and direct lobbying. In a business-friendly approach, rather than bestowing favor on a few cronies, some businesses groups are supported in a transparent way to stimulate specific sectoral and regional development policies. Obviously, business-friendly policies are superior to crony-friendly policies. However, sometimes these policies may also disproportionately benefit a few. For example, suppose a tax benefit, cash subsidy, or import tariff protection are given in a sector or industry, where concentration ratio is high, dominated by a few big conglomerates. The “first best condition” is market-friendly policies as it fosters fair competition in the market after setting the rules and observing the proper implementation of the game’s rules.

In order for Brazil to grow faster, it needs reforms to improve the quality of spending and the business environment. Viewed in terms of the public sector effectiveness, when using public banks to finance large infrastructure projects, it must be ensured that this support remains at the level of providing a positive signal effect to the private players. The efficiency criteria are consistently met when the projects are carried out under more market-oriented conditions. Given the caveats above, a market-friendly public-private-partnership (PPP) (Matsumoto et al., 2021; Straub & Islam, 2022) model might trigger externalities in important sectors such as (renewable) energy, agroindustry, automotive, machinery, iron and steel, health, finance, and logistics, which, in turn, creates “crowd-in” effect for foreign as well as domestic investors. Foreign interest will emerge much stronger in the above sectors, especially as Brazil, with its 250 million population, raises its per capita income to the upper middle-income level and strengthens the middle class by improving the income distribution. 

Finally, in repositioning the country in the global supply chains through re-scaling and re-shoring, localization, and transition of energy systems also require resources, to be briefly discussed below. 

The Search for a Risky Flexible Budget

Photo: Shutterstock.

Since 2016 Brazil’s budget has been restricted by a Constitutional Spending Cap (CSC) that limits the growth of spending to the rate of inflation. However, such a restrictive anchor for Brazil, where crony business-friendly capitalism has been deeply rooted, is seen unacceptable (Limoeiro, 2020). First Bolsonaro announced that he plans to replace it with “more flexible” fiscal rules. However, the challenges with the COVID-19 crisis caused this constraint to be de facto out of action, as it did in other countries, without the need for a de jure amendment to fund COVID-19 spendings. However, these stimulus measures were also used to benefit former president Bolsonaro’s campaign and harmed the fiscal balances in the country. As a result, it has lost its power as a fiscal anchor.

Quite reasonably, Lula also wants a new fiscal framework that allows for more short-term borrowing while assuring markets that the debt-to-GDP ratio will come down in the medium term. Indeed, under Lula’s initiative, Brazil’s Congress has already suspended the government’s CSC to allow his government to raise expenditures on social welfare and public works, two urgent task and priority for his government. It corresponds to a spending of an extra $28 billion in 2023 outside of the CSC, sidestepping a fiscal anchor designed to keep free-spending governments in check (Pearson & Magalhaes, 2022).

However, several caveats should be noted also here. In Latin America in general, and Brazil in particular, the issue of fiscal flexibility points to a deep stalemate. On the one hand, the priority of Lula’s administration is to “put the poor back in the budget”, but, on the other hand, it is open to irresponsible populist abuses. As seen in the previous Bolsonaro era, the populist government ignored budgetary constraints, particularly the current anchor, leaving the Lula government financially vulnerable to extreme damage. This applies to both the national debt and budget deficits. The policy implication is that, in Latin America, where populism and short-termism dominate, lacking technical control over the use and draft of budget and borrowing can open the door to costly abuses. For that reason, that approval has prompted concerns in markets about the fiscal health and long-term growth of Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy. So, we have come to two conclusions: First, for sustainable economic growth, transparency and efficiency in public spending, on the one hand, and second, a disciplinary, albeit flexible, limitation on budget expenditure in the medium term, if not now, on the other, should be sought. However, in addition to these measures at the spending side, the biggest challenge in providing the required funding for development projects as well as for improving income distribution, a truly tax reform is needed.  

Wealth and Taxation

The tax reform could play a crucial role for Lula’s government to permanently reverse the waves of populism via improving the distribution of income. Since the lower social segments are dragged into deeper poverty due to job and income loss as well as rising cost of living recently, finding ways to support such vulnerable segments, for instance, through the provision of either a guaranteed/universal basic or targeted income, and the necessary financial resources for social expenditures have become one of the most urgent topics of discussion globally. The “guaranteed” basic income provides the same lump sum to all citizens regardless of circumstances, whereas a “targeted” basic income is available only to those who need it because their income falls below a minimum threshold. Their goal is to alleviate poverty and replace other need-based social programs that potentially require greater bureaucratic procedure.

It is evident that all these expenditures would increase the cost to government budgets, which are already being inflated by fiscal stimulus. Among others, one important source of income would come from levying a net wealth tax on the wealthiest without causing capital flight, tax base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS). OECD defines BEPS as “the tax planning strategies used by multinational enterprises that exploit gaps and mismatches in tax rules to avoid paying tax. BEPS is quite crucial in DCs due to their higher reliance on corporate income tax, and they, therefore, suffer from it disproportionately. Among other harms it causes, this undermines the fairness and integrity of tax systems because businesses that operate across borders can use BEPS to gain a competitive advantage over enterprises that operate at a domestic level. Moreover, when taxpayers see MNCs legally avoiding income tax, it undermines voluntary compliance by all taxpayers. Thus, the task of financing growth and development in DCs becomes clear; By evaluating in terms of efficiency, equity and administrative arguments the imposition of a net wealth tax on the richest will not cause capital flight and levying a tax on the earnings of MNEs from the country they operate in a way to prevent BEPS are the two interrelated tasks (OECD, 2018)

However, the needed measures such as the implementation of a comprehensive tax reform are relatively easier to pronounce but hard to execute for numerous reasons. First, governments have long feared that higher taxes would produce capital flight and discourage investment. As a result, countries are engaged in a “race to the bottom” on corporate taxation, which ultimately, they lose. Second, in a world of large MNEs, mobile capital, and seamless digital transactions, it is hard to identify where modern businesses with significant intangible capital, especially digital businesses, locate their activities to be taxed away. 

As a global public good, a tax reform requires international cooperation in renewing fiscal sovereignty through a new social contract. However, as Cobham (2021) notes, there are also potential arrears to be taxed away despite its complications along the way. As a matter of fact, according to the finalized landmark deal in October 2021, agreed by 136 countries and jurisdictions representing more than 90 percent of global GDP, MNEs will be subject to a minimum 15 percent tax rate from 2023, corresponding to more than $125 billions of profits from around 100 of the world’s largest and most profitable MNEs to be reallocated globally. Therefore, as the winners of globalization,paying a fair share of tax wherever they operate and generate profits will contribute to a more balanced globalization and multilateralism. 

Returning to the taxation of richest companies, in principle, a fiscally neutral reform pair higher income taxes on high earners with lower payroll taxes for firms to incentivize formal employment seems reasonable in Brazil. Lula is quite eager to move quickly on a reform that would increase taxes on the richest while simplifying the labyrinth of levies on consumption, which are seen as a drag on growth. Income tax and VAT reform are priorities, particularly in the context of one of Lula’s main pledges, which is to address the crushing poverty situation in Brazil and ensure a progressive tax system where the wealthy pay more tax than the poor. However, given the fact that involves complex negotiations with states and interest groups, and the polarized political divisions in Brazil, these herculean changes, like a tax reform seem almost unlikely.

To conclude this section, it should be noted that when the agenda of industrialization and transformation in new sectors for Brazil is combined with the plan of taxing MNEs and levying a “welfare tax” on the richest in the country: In the efforts to delegate a more active role to the public sector, crony capitalism through rent-seeking of the privileged segments that distort competition, effectiveness, and innovations should be carefully avoided. Brazil’s attractive potential should be opened to the world, and the above taxes should be levied on high earnings.


Only at the end of the 1980s did Brazil transform into a democracy, which was also quite unstable. Brazil’s experience has also shown that even if the modern bureaucratic apparatus, autonomous and professional institutions, and principal institutions of the state— executive, legislative and judiciary—are supplied, if culturally and mentally supportive epistemology is not there, the system will not cultivate the expected outcomes. 

In Brazil, the erosion of institutions in the last three decades have continued and they have become increasingly dysfunctional and politicized. In such an environment, corruption has become rampant, and the country’s presidents, including Lula, Rousseff and Temer, have been impeached or imprisoned on corruption charges. In the last case, Bolsonaro is trying to rid himself of the same fate by leaving the country. However, not only has the modern state apparatus failed to stop the rise of such a massive crony system and corruption, but also most of the impeached leaders were soon released from prison and compromised to return to politics, like Lula himself. These examples point to the poor quality of the judiciary and the institutionalization that is destroying public confidence in the system. That overall environment leaves voters open to losing their interest in the democratic system, adhering to short-term solutions and populist rhetoric. While the country’s authoritarian culture persists, populist discourse seems to dominate politics on both the right and left.

Externally, the imperfections created by the multilateral order in the post-WWII era and global capitalism, which both reflect Western values and dominance, have been subject to significant structural economic, political, social, and civilizational problems. The message is that, in the persistence of unresolved problems, the supply and demand conditions of populism at home and abroad also stay in place.

During Lula’s first two terms in power (2003-2010), the dimensions of left-wing populism were seen both in terms of progressive as well as regressive aspects. During his government, Lula followed a responsible, flexible, pragmatist path regarding the market and a socially sensible path adhering to societal expectations. Intending to improve income distribution, he focused on eliminating poverty. However, rather than driving the economy into a wide-range competitive transformation and boosting employment and income Lula addressed social vulnerabilities through regular social transfer expenditure aided by the fact that energy commodity prices gave Brazil relative fiscal flexibility in Lula’s first two terms. This shows that Lula’s vision was far from a fundamental transformation and relied heavily on the positive global conjuncture. Likewise, we can say that Lula supported the privileged classes and sectors with “business-friendly” approaches instead of being “market-friendly,” and therefore his government could not stay away from corruption rumors and gossip. He did not even take them seriously, until he left power in 2010, when all these allegations started to undermine the entire system in more than one decade. 

As of today, with the world teetering on the brink of authoritarianism and Brazil itself oscillating on the verge of such authoritarianism, Lula who has been active with a left-progressive rhetoric in Brazilian politics since the 1970s, might lead a radical reform leadership the impact of which would extend beyond Brazil. With that in mind, we can assume he sees it as “the last exit before the bridge.” Despite the social fragmentation and the split in parliament making it challenging to reach a consensus, Lula will have to build efficiency in governance and the economy and create competitive advantages in the sectors of the future through fundamental reforms. Provided that Lula keeps the “social and political coalition,” which led him to the victory in the last election, he can succeed these tasks and also overcome populism.


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— (2020). “Brazil’s Odebrecht changes name to Novonor.” DW. December 18, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/brazils-scandal-hit-odebrecht-changes-name-to-novonor/a-55994035 (accessed on December 16, 2022).

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[1] The Brazilian construction giant, known for its role in the “Operation Car Wash” scandal. The company has changed its name to Novonor in 2020 to repair its image with a new name.


Mapping European Populism – Panel #8: Populism, gender and sexuality in Europe


Dr Agnieszka Graff (Professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw, and a feminist activist). 


“Explaining the relation between populism and gender in Europe,” by Dr Elżbieta Korolczuk (Associate Professor in sociology at Södertörn University, Sweden).

“Language of reaction: European populist radical right and LGBTQA+ rights,” by Dr Eric Louis Russell (Professor in the Department of French & Italian and affiliated with the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Davis).

“Gender & Sexuality in Dutch populist voter profiles,” by Nik Linders (PhD candidate at Radboud Social and Cultural Research for Gender & Diversity Studies).

Populism and the backlash against gender equality: Feminist responses to right-wing populism in Europe,” by Dr Pauline Cullen (Associate Professor in sociology at Center for European and Eurasian Studies, Maynooth University, Ireland).