Armed protesters, including Boogaloo Boys, on the lawn of the Michigan capitol, denying the results of the recent election before the inauguration of Joe Biden in Lansing, Michigan, US on January 17, 2021. Photo:  Lester Graham

Boogaloo Bois: Violent Anti-Establishment Extremists in Festive Hawaiian Shirts

Kenes, Bulent. (2021). “Boogaloo Bois: Violent Anti-Establishment Extremists in Festive Hawaiian Shirts.” ECPS Organisation Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 16, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/op0006

 

As a pro-Second Amendment movement, the Boogaloo Boys are easily recognizable because of their Hawaiian-themed Aloha shirts and masks along with their semiautomatic weapons. Having the basic characteristics of anti-establishment far-right populists and seeing the outbreak of violence as something like a party, typically accelerationist Boogaloo Boys use these Hawaiian shirts to hide their intention to trigger a civil war to overthrow what they regard as a corrupt establishment in the US.

By Bulent Kenes

Through 2021, white supremacists and far-right extremists will remain the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the United States (US), where political and ideological divisions fall cleanly along racial lines (Newkirk II, 2019) according to a document prepared by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2020. However, former US President Donald Trump regularly downplayed this threat during his term (Sands, 2020). Many experts already associate rising far-right extremism with the rise of Trump. Hate crimes, anti-Semitism, and the number of hate groups have risen sharply since Trump’s campaign began in 2015. The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) (2020) also observed that these groups have been encouraged by Trump’s tweets about “liberating” states. Despite its resurgence under Trump, the problem of far-right extremism in the US is not new, and its history dates back to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) after the Civil War. 

In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, the US experienced the greatest risk of serious civil unrest and violent revolt since 1860, when 11 states refused to accept Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and eventually seceded from the Union. American citizens have already been armed to the teeth, with record firearms sales during the coronavirus pandemic, especially among first-time gun buyers (Brigety II, 2020). Thousands of these gun owners showed up during the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, that resulted in five deaths. The crowd falsely claimed the incumbent Trump had won the election and that then President-elect Joe Biden “stole” it through widespread voter fraud. Right-wing protests were also slated to occur at state capitols the weekend of January 17, and the “Boogaloo Boys” (a.k.a. Boogaloo Bois) were among those either planning the protests or planning to attend (SPLC, 2021).

The Boogaloo Boys were also among the most visible participants at state capitol protests after January 6, and specifically in Richmond, Virginia, on January 18. As a pro-Second Amendment movement, the Boogaloo Boys are easily recognizable because of their Hawaiian-themed Aloha shirts and masks along with their semiautomatic weapons. The shirts are a reference to “big luau,” which is an adaptation of the word “boogaloo” (SPLC, 2021). Aloha philosophy is associated with the Native Hawaiian spirit of love, compassion, and mercy – ironic, considering the shirts being worn by Boogalooers at violent demonstrations (Jones, 2021) intended to trigger a civil war to overthrow what they regard as a corrupt establishment (Hinton, 2021).

Despite the occasional adoption by luxury designers, the Aloha shirt is more commonly associated with midlife crises. An article in The New York Times once described the Hawaiian shirt as a “signifier of the style-challenged tourist” (Tudela, 2016). In his book “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands,” Dale Hope wrote about its “humorous, garish or tacky” associations. However, Scot Nakagawa, a senior fellow at ChangeLab, explained that lurid style is a long-held tradition of insurgent white nationalism. The KKK also made use of costumes and mythic rituals as they practiced extreme violence against African-Americans. More modern examples of clothing used by extremist subcultures include the Ben Sherman or Fred Perry shirts, Doc Marten boots, and suspenders worn by neo-Fascist groups from the punk era into 1990s Britain. In addition to identifying members of the groups, wearing these items served as a recruiting tool. Doing so may be an attempt to bait the less informed into assuming the group means no real harm – that they are, really, a goofy bunch of boys despite their military-grade weaponry (Pemberton, 2020).

Having the basic characteristics of anti-establishment far-right populists and seeing the outbreak of violence as something like a party (Giglio, 2020), the Boogaloo Boys use Hawaiian shirts to hide their intentions (Delgado, 2020). The result of an analysis of over 100 million social media comments has confirmed how the “boogaloo meme,” “a joke for some, acts as a violent meme that circulates instructions for a violent, viral insurgency for others.” According to the researchers, it is like turning off the transponders on 9/11 to enable the extremists to hide in plain sight, disappearing into the clutter of innocent messages (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). 

This interpretation is shared by Patrick Blanchfield of the Brooklyn Institute. He, and other experts on white nationalist extremism in the US, have stressed that such in-jokes are a longstanding practice of extremist movements born out of online message boards like 4chan and Reddit and, in the case of the Boogaloo Bois, Facebook. Joshua Citarella, a researcher of extremist behaviours on the internet, says this kind of Boogaloo imagery appeared to be “100 percent” co-opted by, among Gen Z, white nationalist groups who wanted not just a confrontation with the establishment, but also a full-fledged race war (Beckett, 2020). However, while a number of empty symbols have been appropriated by groups defined by white nationalist and anti-government ideologies – including Pepe the Frog, the “OK” hand sign, and a purple pigeon emoji – the Aloha shirt represents the first-time extremists have laid claim to a piece of clothing with largely benign associations (Pemberton, 2020).

The term “boogaloo” once represented a fusion of people and cultures, but now refers to an uprising against the establishment, overthrowing democracy, civil war – and even in some quarters, a race war. Boogaloo is no longer about music, but about menace – a word coined by black and brown people now used by some who envision a country without them.

The far-right extremists began referring to an impending civil war using the word “boogaloo,” a joking reference to “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” a 1984 sequel movie.

No Longer About Music And Dance, But About Menace

The story of the term “boogaloo” is also interesting. The movement was first noticed by extremism researchers in 2019, when fringe groups ranging from gun rights and militia movements to white supremacists began referring to an impending civil war using the word “boogaloo,” a joking (Patches, 2014) reference to “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” a 1984 sequel movie (Zadrozny, 2020; SPLC, 2021) about breakdancing teens battling to save their local community centre from corrupt politicians and corporate development. Sam Firstenberg, the Israel-born movie director of the cult classic explained that the “Electric Boogaloo” began as a meme on the internet. “In the last 10 years or so, it became equal with the word ‘sequel,’” Firstenberg said, in conjunction with the second civil war the Boogaloo movement aspires to create. “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo” began popping up on message boards (Abramovitch, 2020).

According to Allam (2020), the movie, which received poorly by critics, became a cult classic. The title has evolved into a meme in a sarcastic way to describe any unwanted sequel. In 1965, the word “boogaloo” emerged as a mash-up of black and Latin American influences. Some 50 years later, the word is still part of American pop culture, but now with a very different meaning. The word once represented a fusion of people and cultures, but now refers to an uprising against the establishment, overthrowing democracy, civil war – and even in some quarters, a race war. Boogaloo is no longer about music, but about menace – a word coined by black and brown people now used by some who envision a country without them (Allam, 2020).

The Boogaloo Boys also use other similar-sounding derivations of the word, including “boog,” “boojahideen,” “big igloo,” “blue igloo,” and “big luau” to avoid crackdowns and automated content flags imposed by social media sites to limit or ban Boogaloo-related content (Timberg et al., 2020). Intensified efforts by social media companies to restrict Boogaloo content have caused adherents to use terms even further detached from the original word such as “spicy fiesta” to refer to the movement (Barton, 2020). The Boogaloo movement has created logos and other imagery incorporating igloo snow huts and Hawaiian prints based on these derivations (Charter, 2020; Woodward, 2020). The Boogaloo Boys sometimes carry black-and-white versions of the American flag, with a middle stripe replaced with a stripe of red tropical print and the stars replaced with an igloo. The stripes sometimes list the names of people killed by the police, including Eric Garner, Vicki Weaver, Robert LaVoy Finicum, Breonna Taylor, and Duncan Lemp (Barton, 2020).

The Boogaloo Boys sometimes carry black-and-white versions of the American flag, with a middle stripe replaced with a stripe of red tropical print and the stars replaced with an igloo.

 

Boogaloo memes and ideas have been circulating since the 2010s; however, in the past couple of years, the movement’s adherents have been more visible at rallies and events (SPLC, 2021). The Boogaloo movement exploded into the mainstream after it came to light that Sgt. Steven Carrillo, who on May 29, 2020 used the cover of the George Floyd protests to gun down one federal officer and injure another in Oakland, California, claims allegiance to the group. Carrillo later scrawled the word “Boog” in his own blood on the hood of a stolen vehicle during a June 6 gun battle with police in Santa Cruz County that also claimed the life of a sheriff’s deputy (Abramovitch, 2020).

It is now obvious that the term “boogaloo” has been used to describe an uprising against a supposedly tyrannical or left-wing government, often in response to a perceived threat of widespread gun confiscation. For many, the word “boogaloo” is used jokingly or ironically, but for others, the boogaloo memes are shared alongside violent text and images, seemingly to incite an eventual confrontation. The ambiguity of the term “boogaloo” works to cloak extremist organizing in the open. “Like a virus hiding from the immune system, the use of comical-meme language permits the network to organize violence secretly behind a mirage of inside jokes and plausible deniability,” stated a report by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI (Zadrozny, 2020). Goldenberg and Finkelstein (2020) say this ambiguity is a key feature of the problem. Alex Newhouse, digital research lead at Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, says “It is very difficult to know if the ‘boogaloo boi’ you see standing in the middle of the street at a protest is there in solidarity or to incite violence” (Pineda, 2020).

While many still use the boogaloo meme jokingly, an increasing number of people employ the phrase in hopes of inciting the expected apocalyptic confrontation with law enforcement and government officials or to provoke ethnic warfare. Pemberton (2020) noted that it’s not uncommon to see heavily armed white men toting military-grade gear on American streets; however, the addition of the Hawaiian shirt is a new twist. The tactics the Boogaloo Boys have used to gain media attention have been honed over the course of decades, by extremist groups from the KKK to the “alt-right”: wear distinctive, lurid outfits; give your ideology a weird name; and use bizarre terms that journalists could reveal and decode for their readers. As an example, boogaloo supporters often call themselves the “Boojahideen,” a tribute to Afghanistan’s Mujahideen, who fought a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of their country (Beckett, 2020).

The Boogaloo movement originally grew from the weapons discussion section (“/k/”) of the anarchic anonymous message board 4chan where the meme was often accompanied by references to “racewar” and “dotr” (“day of the rope,” a neo-Nazi reference to a fantasy involving murdering what the posters view to be “race traitors”) (Zadrozny, 2020; ADL, 2019). By 2019, its culture had disseminated across social media into a mix of online groups and chat servers where users shared libertarian political memes. In recent times, this all began to manifest in real life, as users from the groups emerged at protests. The Boogaloo movement – which unites a wide variety of extremist and fringe movements, subcultures, andpeople (ADL, 2020a), some of whom have attempted to associate with Black Lives Matter and others with neo-Nazism (Crawford, 2020) – is the latest example of a mass of memes escaping from 4chan to become a real-life radical movement. As nationwide unrest intensified at the start of the summer of 2020, many Boogaloo adherents interpreted this as a cue to realize their main fantasy: armed revolt against the US government (Beran, 2020).

Part meme, part subculture, the Boogaloo Boys is a mash-up of anti-government apocalyptic screed, Second Amendment evangelism, and dark-humoured satire (Weiner, 2020). Relying heavily on humour makes their messaging more accessible and appealing, while also allowing them to underplay the more disturbing content as jest. This use of humour does not diminish the violence associated with Boogalooers’ expressed intent. While some Boogalooers try to frame their support for an armed rebellion only as a defensive measure against state-sponsored aggression, others embrace the notion of a full-scale civil war. To this end, members believe that civilians need to be armed with firearms and explosives to maintain the balance of power between the people and the state. As a decentralized movement that organizes largely online but whose presence has increasingly been felt in the real world, the Boogaloo Boys is a group favoured by the militia, gun rights, and anarcho-capitalist movements (ADL, 2020a).

It is not a secret that the connection of Boogaloo members and the US military is deep and many Boogalooers are active-duty service members or military veterans. Supremacists who believe whites are under attack in America and therefore seek to establish a whites-only nation where non-whites do not have basic civil rights – have found new members and support in the US military. 

Boogaloo supporters often call themselves the “Boojahideen” as a tribute to Afghanistan’s Mujahideen.

Inspired By “The Turner Diaries”

The unrest related to pandemic restrictions appears to have significantly boosted the profile of the Boogaloo movement. The conspiracy theory that the US government is using the pandemic to restrict American citizens’ freedoms has been exacerbated far-right calls for a civil war. Some Boogaloo supporters also believe that the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have helped raise awareness of their civil war narrative amongst wider populations (Crawford, 2020). Thus, Boogalooers have started articulating how COVID-19 could accelerate and enable the second civil war (ISD, 2020). As hardcore “accelerationists,” the Boogaloo Boys promote violence to speed up the collapse of society, and often seek to exploit moments of political or civil unrest, including widespread protests (Owen, 2020). 

“Accelerationism” is mainly based on William Luther Pierce’s 1978 novel “The Turner Diaries,” which is known as “the bible of the racist right” and a novelized blueprint for a white revolution (ADL, 2019) that would instigate a race war and bring about the federal government’s collapse (Valasik & Reid, 2020). The novel depicts the violent overthrow of the government of the US, nuclear conflagration, race war and the ultimate extermination of non-whites and “undesirable racial elements among the remaining white population” (Sarna, 2021). The widespread and extremely violent conflagration is also often called the “boogaloo” by its adherents (Inglis, 2021). Since publication, “The Turner Diaries” has inspired numerous violent acts, including the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Three years later, one of the attackers who murdered a black man in Jasper, Texas on June 7, 1998, also cited “The Turner Diaries” as his inspiration (Berger, 2016). 

The novel also features a secret group conspiring to create a “new world order.” This idea has taken numerous forms over the decades, from more anti-government beliefs about secret government conspiracies to race-based beliefs suggesting Jewish or minority-based cabals seeking to oppress, control, or replace the white race (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2020). These conspiracy theories are often adopted by groups with a more mainstream aesthetic and less overtly racist aims than their original creators. For instance, the term “white genocide” has given way to “the great replacement” to describe the idea that white people are being systematically replaced by non-whites in Western countries. This makes extreme ideas more palatable for a mainstream audience. Miller (2020) says the Boogaloo Boys have undergone a similar sanitation process.

On the other hand, according to Goldenberg and Finkelstein (2020), memes such as the boogaloo appear as either cryptic jargon or recreational subcultures to both web users and security experts and, thus, seem an unlikely source for large-scale national security risks. “But it is precisely this unfamiliarity that should signal profound concern: Facing a similarly alien subculture of enthusiasts, national security pundits, the US Military, and intelligence and defence agencies, were entirely caught off guard at the rapid mobilization of ISIS and creation of the caliphate. Foreign fighters from all corners of the world—having little  knowledge of ISIS ideologies, religion, or cause—were quickly recruited from flash to bang through savvy social media outreach,” write the authors. They add: “According to our research, boogaloo enthusiasts, who refer to themselves as the ‘Boojahideen’ may have stolen a page from the ISIS’ playbook” (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). 

Moreover, Brenton Tarrant’s “The Great Replacement” manifesto is the latest in a line of theories inspiring acts of domestic terrorism. In fact, prior to Tarrant’s manifesto, French author Renaud Camus released his 2012 book “Le Grand Remplacement,” arguing that immigrants are replacing European whites (Williams, 2017). These theories share a common theme of blending anti-government sentiments with racial bias to create dystopian images designed to inspire fear and violent acts (Berger, 2016). According to Amy Cooter of Vanderbilt University, some far-right groups have adopted “accelerationism” as “the idea that inducing chaos, provoking law enforcement, and promoting political tension will hasten the collapse of Western government, making room for them to establish a whites-only country” (Valasik & Reid, 2020). Therefore, the Boogaloo Boys have made police brutality one of their central issues (Owen, 2020).

Accelerationist Boogalooers, who infiltrate protests as a tactic, hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle, more and more people join the fray.

Conservative people from the far right movement, Proud Boys, and Boogaloo Boys join for a “Back the Blue” rally in Portland, Oregon/US on August 22, 2020. Photo: Robert P. Alvarez.

Accelerationist Boogalooers Infiltrate Protests As A Tactic 

Accelerationist Boogalooers, who infiltrate protests as a tactic (Beeman, 2020), hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle, more and more people join the fray. When confronted with extremes, so the theory goes, those in the middle will be forced off the fence and go to the side of the white supremacists. If violence can be increased sufficiently, the system will run out of lackeys and collapse, and the race war will commence (Byman, 2020). Accelerationists also take a nod from a Neo-Nazi, James Mason, who came into his ideas as a teenager in the 1960s and published a newsletter, Seige, from 1980 to 1986. Mason believed, “that only the full collapse of American democracy and society will bring conditions sufficient to bring order through Nazism” (Beeman, 2020). For accelerationism to succeed, traditional politics must fail. Dialogue, compromise, and steady progress are its enemies (Byman, 2020).

Despite the Boogaloo Boys creating a considerable sensation in recent times, no one has yet emerged as a “boogaloo” leader or a boogaloo spokesperson, and it’s far from clear how many people consider themselves affiliated with “boogaloo” ideology. As of April 2020, more than 100 “boogaloo” groups on Facebook had a total of more than 72,000 members, according to a report released by the Tech Transparency Project (2020). However, some of those users might be double-counted as members of multiple groups (Beckett, 2020). Nevertheless, it is a fact that the “boogaloo” boasts tens of thousands of social media users, exhibits a complex division of labour, evolves well-developed channels to innovate and distribute violent propaganda, deploys a complex communication network on extremist, mainstream, and dark web communities, and articulates a hybrid structure between lone-wolf and cell-like organization (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). 

On January 20, 2020, thousands descended on Richmond, Virginia, for the Virginia Citizens Defence League’s annual Lobby Day. As participants of the rally, the Boogaloo Boys donned Pepe the Frog iconography as well as patches evocative of the American flag emblazoned with an igloo in place of the 50 stars. Some Boogaloo members wore a skull balaclava, which is considered the face of 21st-century fascism. A participant boastfully declared on the Facebook page, “Some of the guys we were with aren’t exactly out of the military yet, so they had to keep their faces covered” (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). It is not a secret that the connection of Boogaloo members and the US military is deep and many Boogalooers are active-duty service members or military veterans (Beran, 2020). White nationalists – people who believe whites are under attack in America and therefore seek to establish a whites-only nation where non-whites do not have basic civil rights – have found new members and support in the US military (Inglis, 2021).

Military service has, traditionally, been a vehicle for marginalized individuals to make citizenship claims as a result of their military service (Burk, 1995). Yet extremist movements that run counter to integration and inclusion have also been attracted to military service – for a different reason. The links between the US military and white nationalists date back to the 1990s, with many believers seeing military service as an opportunity to hone their fighting skills and recruit others to their movements, particularly after serving (Belew, 2014). However, most Americans don’t know much about the level of white nationalism in the military (Spindel et al., 2020), while many do not view it as a serious problem. In particular, self-identified conservatives and those who hold highly favourable views toward the military are less likely to view white nationalism in the military as a serious problem (Ralston et al., 2020).

In 2017 and 2019, two Military Times polls found that about a fifth of respondents reported seeing signs of white nationalism or racist ideology within the armed forces (Shane, 2017, 2019). Nearly 42 percent of non-white troops said they have personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military, versus about 18 percent of white service members (Shane, 2017). This figure jumped significantly in a 2020 poll, when 36 percent of participants reported seeing evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military (Shane, 2020). The 2019 survey additionally found that about 35 percent saw the problem of white nationalism as a significant threat to the country (Shane, 2019). 

Civilian leaders and the general public have reason to be concerned if the military becomes a fertile recruitment ground for violent and extremist groups (Holthouse, 2006; Levinson, 2019). White nationalists with military service have committed mass acts of deadly violence after leaving the military (Ralston et al., 2020). The issue of extremists in the ranks gained national attention in 2019 after the arrest of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, a former active-duty Marine and Army guardsman, who was plotting a mass murder of political and media figures (Shane, 2019).

The problem of white supremacy isn’t just limited to the military. “With their enormous power, department-issued weapons and access to sensitive information police departments have also become attractive recruiting grounds for white supremacist groups,” says Vida Johnson, a law professor at Georgetown University (Inglis, 2021).

Since 2019, at least 31 people affiliated with the Boogaloo movement have been charged with crimes, including those who killed two security and law enforcement officers in California in May and June 2020 (Beckett, 2020a), a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Brigety II, 2020; Thompson & Fischer, 2021), incidents related to the George Floyd protests, and the storming of the US Capitol building. All of the Boogaloo Boys arrested were white (Perper & Sheth, 2020). While the number of active and former military members is believed to be small when compared to the overall size of the movement, extremism researcher Kathleen Belew has stated that their participation “is not a problem we should take lightly” due to the threat that they could “dramatically escalate the impact of fringe activism, pass on explosives expertise, [or share] urban warfare expertise” (Owen, 2020a).

There are mainly two wings of the Boogaloo movement. One side is made up of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, whose plan for destroying the government is to start a race war or white revolution. The other side is characterised as radically libertarian – notably, men carrying weapons and wearing Hawaiian shirts.

Armed protestors including Boogalooers arrive to support Donald Trumps baseless claims of election fraud in Lansing, Michigan, US on January 17, 2021. Photo: Lester Graham

Some Boogaloo Boys Are Explicit White Nationalists And Neo-Nazis 

The Boogaloo Boys is a loosely affiliated far-right movement that includes a variety of extremist factions and political views. According to Joan Donovan of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Business, there are always racialized and eugenic sub-themes in groups like the Boogaloo Boys. “It’s about who should live,” he said (Beckett, 2020). “You have everyone from neo-Nazis and white nationalists to libertarians,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the SPLC. What unites them is their interest in having complete access to firearms, the belief that the country is heading towards a civil war (Jones, 2021), and that mass civil conflict of this kind is the only way for the country to correct its path. 

These anti-government beliefs have found support beyond the movement’s racist roots, making it adaptable and easily spread (SPLC, 2021). Boogaloo Boys urge people to rise up against the government, which they see as tyrannical and essentially irredeemable (Jones, 2021). TTP’s analysis also found that some members’ profiles include white supremacist content, including images of Adolf Hitler, despite other group members rejecting white supremacist ideology (Mathias, 2020). J. J. MacNab of George Washington University believes participants were radicalized elsewhere prior to donning a Hawaiian shirt. She claims the Boogaloo movement “isn’t really a movement. It’s a dress code, it’s a way of talking, it’s jargon” (MacNab, 2020).

The Boogaloo culture operates as a diffuse movement rather than a traditional group organizational structure, with a single leader presiding (SPLC, 2021). According to Alex Newhouse of Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, there are mainly two wings of the Boogaloo movement. One side is made up of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, whose plan for destroying the government is to start a race war or white revolution. The other side is characterized as radically libertarian – notably, men carrying weapons and wearing Hawaiian shirts (Pineda, 2020Beran, 2020). While the white supremacist side veers into overt racism and makes no secret their desire for violence (Owen, 2020) the libertarian side takes offense at the “white supremacist” label (Pineda, 2020). Pineda argues that the group’s original members had ties to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, while many newer members are libertarian.

There’s no question that some Boogaloo Boys are explicit white nationalists and neo-Nazis who use the term “boogaloo” as a synonym for the coming race war. But there’s real disagreement, even among experts, about whether the Boogaloo movement as a whole should be described as “white supremacist.” Some members of the Boogaloo Boys even denouncewhite supremacists, saying they want to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter while other members make racist and anti-Semitic comments and mocked moderators for trying to be politically correct. However, numerous experts say that lip service from some Boogaloo supporters about wanting to be a multi-racial movement should not be taken seriously(Beckett, 2020a; SPLC, 2021). 

At the protests after George Floyd’s death, Boogaloo Boys were a conspicuous presence. Despite the members being overwhelmingly white, the movement has often presented itself as a race-blind. The Boogaloo meme itself emerged concurrently in white power online spaces in the early 2010s, today the term is regularly deployed by white nationalists and neo-Nazis who want to see society descend into chaos so that they can build a new fascist state (Miller, 2020). It is true that Boogaloo Boys participated in the rallies, and a few even supposedly sported Black Lives Matter (BLM) patches and rainbow flag patches, in alleged support of the BLM movement and LGBTQ rights. However, it’s unclear how much of this support is genuine, and how much is simple political opportunism as the movement attempts to muddy ideological boundaries in order to triage their image and draw in more adherents (SPLC, 2021)  

Despite this ideological messiness, it is telling that most of the movement’s “martyrs” are white men and women killed at the hands of law enforcement. It was also a white man, Duncan Lemp, who first galvanized the movement – not the deaths of the thousands of Black people killed by police (SPLC, 2021). It is only white men who the Boogaloo Boys view as deserving of liberty and autonomy; their deaths at the hands of the state are evidence of tyranny and injustice, while the deaths of black people largely are not. Viewed from this perspective, the Boogaloo Bois’ effort to join the BLM protests reads as nothing more than political opportunism (Miller, 2020). The only place Boogaloo and BLM activists seem to overlap is in their anger toward law enforcement, but the source of their grievances, proposed remedies, and visions for the future are completely distinct (SPLC, 2021). One way to capture the complex dynamics of “Boogaloo” ideology is to label it as a broad anti-government movement that is full of white power activists, believes Belew. Like the militia movement of the 1990s, not everyone who participates in “Boogaloo” events or groups is necessarily a white power activist, she added. (Beckett, 2020a).

As part of a larger anti-establishment extremist movement in the US, the Boogaloo Boys includes militia and “patriot” organizations such as the Oathkeepers and the Three Percenters, whose adherents have been implicated in bombings, murders and armed standoffs with federal law enforcement. Moreover, similar to other right-leaning extremist movements, the members of the movement are the product of an unhappy generation of young white men (SPLC, 2021)who compare their lot in life with that of men in previous decades and see their prospects diminishing. And with a mix of ignorance and simplicity, they view their discontent through the most distorted lens imaginable: internet memes (Beran, 2020). Therefore, like other most visible right-wing populist (RWP) social movements, the Boogaloo movement also prioritizes appealing to young male supporters (DeCook, 2018). Such appeals resonate with nationalist ideologies that emphasize traditional patriarchal gender relations and hostility to feminism and stand in opposition to the liberal, pluralist values purportedly advanced by “the elite” (Bornschier and Kriesi, 2012).

Working-class And Low‐income Groups Form The Core

On the other hand, class remains one of the most striking indicators of support. Working‐class and low‐income groups have formed the core of the Boogaloo movement (Bornschier and Kriesi, 2012). However, according to Beran (2020),Boogaloo Boys certainly do not face the economic disadvantages of the most marginalized groups in the US, but like the alt-right, they are unhappy enough to form their own radical identity politics of collective grievances. Lower educational achievement is also associated with an affinity for the movement (Gidron and Hall, 2017). Indeed, Boogalooers often use anti‐intellectualism as a tool, clumping elites and the educated together and encouraging a rejection of the “experts” (Merkley, 2020). What these men share is years of marginalization and a hatred of the present state of society (Beran, 2020).

It is not so abnormal for Boogaloo Boys to see the current federal government as illegitimate, while remaining deeply “patriotic.” They revere the Constitution and see themselves as the true descendants of America’s founding fathers. In their view, current US lawmakers are the equivalent of occupying British forces during the Revolutionary War. Among the “boogaloo” merchandise for sale online are images of George Washington armed with a modern, AR-15-style rifle (Beckett, 2020a). The Boogaloo Boys are entirely opposed to firearm regulations (SPLC, 2021).

“It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” Trump tweeted on May 30, 2020. “Don’t lay the blame on others!” During Trump’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security claimed the Boogaloo movement was not right wing – a claim disputed by experts. Trump’s unwillingness to name and shame far-right groups publicly is not harmless (Bertnard, 2020).While some anarchists have embraced “Boogaloo” rhetoric, these are primarily “right-wing anarchists,” who believe in “unfettered capitalism” – not left-wing anarchists, says Mark Pitcavage of the ADL (Beckett, 2020a). Newhouse also says the Boogaloo movement is a far-right movement. The Guardian has reported that experts on extremism concur that the Boogaloo movement is right wing. Daryl Johnson, a former DHS analyst, believed the DHS’ claim that the Boogaloo movement is not right wing, was “playing politics” (Beckett, 2020). 

A clear sign that the Boogaloo Boys are right wing is their decision to show up with guns to guard private businesses, first during demonstrations against public health shutdown restrictions, and later during the protests over Floyd’s killing. Showing up with guns to protect big corporations from property damage is not something that most left-wing protesters would do (Beckett, 2020a). Thus, the claim that the Boogaloo Boys is not a right-wing movement does not reflect reality.

The white supremacist and far-right extremist upsurge in the last half-decade has been repeatedly linked to the intensely racist, misogynist, and queerphobic culture that characterised /pol/ boards on 8chan and 4chan. The boogaloo meme is also popular on the TikTok video sharing application.

Social Media (Facebook): Boogalooers’ Fertile Habitat

The Boogaloo Boys, which stemmed from memes in social media pro-gun groups, have organized through Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube (Pineda, 2020). However, the true birthplace of the movement is 4chan’s /k/ section (Evans & Wilson, 2020), which is ostensibly devoted to the ownership and purchase of weapons, from knives to fighter jets. Half-serious posts about how certain weapons might be employed in “the boogaloo” evolved over time. Like many memes on 4chan, each new version was more cryptic than the last, a means to express insider knowledge and in-group status (Beran, 2020). 

One example of this is how “Boogaloo,” itself a euphemism, has been further disguised with the use of soundalike terms like “big luau” and “big igloo.” The term “icehouse” is yet another synonym for the term, descended from the “Big Igloo” variation (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Even the co-option of Hawaiian imagery and igloos is inherently cynical and meaningless. There is no connection to the group’s ideology outside of the linguistic resemblance of the word “boogaloo” to “igloo” or “luau.” But this co-option fits the ethos of online spaces perfectly, with a niche group celebrating its anti-government views by draping them in colourful jokes and nonsense that can be endlessly remixed and reinterpreted (Beran, 2020). 

The white supremacist and far-right extremist upsurge in the last half-decade has been repeatedly linked to the intensely racist, misogynist, and queerphobic culture that characterised /pol/ boards on 8chan and 4chan. The boogaloo meme is also popular on the TikTok video sharing application, where the #Boogaloo hashtag had over two million views as of June 2020 (Owen, 2020b). 

Some of the most active Boogaloo communities were on Discord, a chat program popular among online gamers (Bertnard, 2020). However, following media coverage – which included screenshots of a Discord server where members of the military were sharing their expertise – Discord shut down the server and deleted the accounts of its members. The community created and migrated to a subreddit after their removal from Discord, but Reddit banned the subreddit shortly afterward (Rodriguez, 2020). The website Tree of Liberty, which described itself as the “press platform” for the Boogaloo movement, was also taken offline by its cloud hosting provider on January 12, 2021 (Mac & Haskins, 2020). A Twitter spokesperson said that Twitter views Boogaloo content as free expression and does not ban accounts solely for their use of the term, but that they had banned numerous accounts that used the term for violating other policies.

The Boogaloo Boys have used social media to strategise, share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms, distribute illegal firearm modifications, and siphon users into encrypted messaging boards en mass.

The Boogaloo movement originally grew from the weapons discussion section (“/k/”) of the anarchic anonymous message board 4chan.

4chan Birthed Boogalooers, Facebook Helped To Grow 

Though 4chan birthed the Boogaloo Boys, above all, it is Facebook that has helped the group grow (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Researchers have repeatedly drawn attention to Facebook’s role in radicalizing extremist actors, and the consequences of allowing extremists to organize freely on the platform, to little practical avail. Research by the TTP showed that there were at least 125 Facebook groups devoted to the Boogaloo movement on April 22, 2020. The real number has since increased significantly, although determining an exact number is all but impossible due to the rapid evolution of the subculture (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Online extremists have used Facebook to plan and organize for a militant uprising in the US as they cast coronavirus lockdowns as a sign of rising government suppression (Pineda, 2020). NCRI researchers, who analysed more than 100 million social media posts and comments, found that through the use of memes extremists have pushed anti-government and anti-law enforcement messages across social media platforms. They have also organized online communities with tens of thousands of members, some of whom have assembled at real-world events (Zadrozny, 2020). Facebook management has long understood its role in promoting extremism but have elected not to act for fear of alienating conservative sensibilities, especially in the US (Evans & Wilson, 2020). 

The Boogaloo Boys have used social media to “strategize, share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms, distribute illegal firearm modifications, and siphon users into encrypted messaging boards en mass,” according to the NCRI report. The report also notes how the boogaloo concept has been monetized, through merchandise advertised through Facebook and Instagram ads, and marketed to current and former members of the military (Zadrozny, 2020). A range of boogaloo-related phrases emerged as the term became more popular in social media, including: “showing up for the boogaloo,” “when the boogaloo hits,” “being boogaloo ready” and “bring on the boogaloo.” Boogaloo-related hashtags have surfaced, including #boogaloo2020, #BigIgloo, #boojahideen, and #boogaloobois. The boogaloo meme soon spread from angry gun-rights activists to the militia movement and survivalists. The Telegram channel, “Boogaloo: How to Survive,” claims to show “how to survive in a post-society world through understanding the psychology of violence, attaining resources, and organizing to accomplish post society tasks” (ADL, 2019).

On public Facebook pages, Boogalooers circulate satirical posts about the overthrow of government, painting the Boogaloo as a viral online phenomenon rather than a real-world threat. But communications of boogaloo supporters in private Facebook groups accessed by TTP tell a different story: extremists exchanging detailed information and tactics on how to organize and execute a revolt against American authorities. This activity is occurring without any apparent intervention by Facebook. TTP found 125 Facebook groups devoted to the “boogaloo.” In several private boogaloo Facebook groups, members discussed tactical strategies, combat medicine, and various types of weapons, including how to develop explosives and the merits of using flame throwers (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). One group even shared a document detailing how to disrupt US government supply lines and discussing the possible need to assassinate government officials (Mathias, 2020). Some Boogalooers see the public health lockdowns and other directives by states and cities across the country as a violation of their rights, and they’re aiming to harness public frustration at such measures to rally and attract new followers to their cause (Tech Transparency Project, 2020).

A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found that “COVID-19 is being used to advance calls for the ‘boogaloo,’” and that two boogaloo-related Facebook groups have seen large spikes in engagement. One of the groups, Big Igloo Bois, saw an 88 percent jump in interactions in March 2020, according to the study (ISD, 2020). Moreover, Trump’s tweets about liberating Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota appear to have energized some elements of the Boogaloo movementAmong the most popular boogaloo-themed pages on Facebook is Thicc Boog Line, a boogaloo clothing brand that has attracted nearly 30,000 followers since its October 2019 founding (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). 

Despite many warnings from reporters and civil society organizations and employing 350 people on staff devoted to stopping people and organizations from using its platform to plot or engage in violence (Mathias, 2020), Facebook failed to remove the violent content proliferating on Boogaloo-related groups for months – enough time for the disjointed movement to congeal, organize, and grow its ranks (SPLC, 2021). Eventually, on May 1, 2020, Facebook and Instagram both updated their “violence and incitement” policy to ban the use of the term Boogaloo and related words when they occur alongside images or statements depicting or urging armed violence (Evans & Wilson, 2020; Pineda, 2020) and designated a network of “Boogaloo” groups as a dangerous organization similar to the ISIS (Beckett, 2020a). 

However, at the same time, research suggests that this policy has done virtually nothing to curb either the growth of the Boogaloo movement or reduce the violence of its rhetoric. Facebook remains a hospitable place for would-be insurrectionists, and it buried evidence that its platform facilitates the growth of extremism, due to a fear that combatting this would be seen as anti-conservative bias. But every day, tens of thousands of heavily armed people log on to repeat their hope for an American civil war (Evans & Wilson, 2020).

According to researchers, the Facebook groups were particularly dangerous, because they were helping to build local connections between nascent domestic extremists. The company removed 220 Facebook accounts, 95 Instagram accounts, 28 pages, and 106 groups as parts of the Boogaloo-affiliated network “after there were already bodies.” Some experts said it was too late: the scattered men drawn to the idea of being soldiers in an insurgency against the American government had already connected with each other directly (Beckett, 2021). In the wake of Facebook’s targeted takedown, Boogalooers have encouraged each other to avoid using old nicknames originally used to bypass censorship, phrases like “luau,” “igloo,” or “boog,” in favour of new ones, like “fiesta” (ADL, 2020b).

After Facebook started to de-platform Boogaloo adherents on June 30, 2020, amidst a boycott in which companies including Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Volkswagen announced they would no longer advertise on the platform due to “the hate speech and misinformation that persists on Facebook” (Menn, 2020; Collins & Zadrozny, 2020), many Boogalooers retreated to other social media platforms. However, some took an alternative path: rebranding their movement on Facebook using the names of prominent media companies. As part of this rebranding effort, Boogalooers on Facebook started to share memes and posts referring to the boogaloo as “NBC,” “Fox News,” and “Vice.” Yet no nickname has been adopted as widely as “CNN,” which has boogaloo supporters referring to themselves as “CNN bois” and using #CNN to refer to the Boogaloo itself (ADL, 2020b).

Boogalooers believe that emmeshing their cause with a popular brand will make it more difficult for Facebook to remove their content. While Facebook has already removed several of these pages, this latest episode illustrates how quickly the Boogaloo movement is able to adapt and demonstrates the need for continued monitoring to stem the spread of its violent messageApparently, Boogalooers are better positioned than more formalized groups to adapt to new conditions, because the movement is focused on a concept, not a centralized organization. The name of the group is secondary (ADL, 2020b).

Right-wing activist Duncan Lemp’s death helped solidify the nascent Boogaloo movement into a defined online subculture and galvanized their anti-police stance.

Violence: Boogalooers Target Police As Most Accessible Symbol Of Government

As Mudde (2021) notes, far-right extremism has generally been ignored in the US despite the DHS warning that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan might be particular targets for recruitment by extremist groups (DHS, 2009). The report sparked a conservative backlash, which accused the Obama administration of unfairly targeting conservatives and veterans. The situation has gotten worse since. In their effort to create an all-white country, the far-right extremists, including the Boogaloo Boys, often instigate violent confrontations that target racial and religious minorities (Spindel et al., 2020). Especially since 2018, far-right extremists have conducted more lethal attacks than any other domestic extremist movement (DHS, 2020). A CSIS report stated that the right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the US in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020 (Bertnard, 2020; Weiner, 2020).

As was expected, the military and police departments have been infiltrated and compromised by far-right sympathizers. Nearly one in five defendants in Capitol storming cases have served in the military (Mudde, 2021). In parallel, Boogalooers also generate and share memes glorifying the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany, and jittery graphics that borrow from the aesthetics of Atomwaffen and other overtly white supremacist accelerationist groups (Green, 2020). The war in Ukraine has attracted hundreds of foreign fighters with ties to the far-right who use the battlefield as a networking space. That includes dozens of Americans, some of whom have come home with new contacts and fighting experience. Outside Ukraine, white supremacist training camps exist in Poland, Bulgaria, and even the UK, and many white supremacist organizations operate transnationally (Weiner, 2020).

Boogalooers consider the police, which is the most accessible symbol of the government at public gatherings (Jones, 2021), an arm of the state that is enforcing “tyrannical” laws and directives. They foment this anti-law enforcement sentiment with references to past violent incidents as evidence of the government’s willingness to kill people who oppose its laws (ADL, 2020a). They refer to police as “soup bois” because federal agencies sometimes are referred to as “alphabet soup” due to their varied acronyms (Dazio, 2020). Boogaloo Facebook groups regularly featured jokes about men filling their lawn sprinklers with gasoline to light the police on fire (Beckett, 2021). One meme, posted in April 2020, showed a person in a helicopter shooting down at feral pigs on the ground with the caption “pig hunting: now.” The next image, captioned “pig hunting: boogaloo,” showed the same person shooting at cops (Miller, 2020). “If you look at their online spaces, their rhetoric is extremely violent,” SPLC’s Miller said. “A lot of it is kind of under this veneer of irony and humour, but there’s something very real to all of it,” (Jones, 2021).

Boogalooers have used the Files function in Facebook groups to upload dozens of planning documents, including military manuals, CIA handbooks, and instructions on how to reuse N95 facemasks, among other material. The most concerning document is one entitled Yeetalonians, a reference to the Boogaloo. At over 133 pages, the document provides an in-depth look at preparing for the Boogaloo and offers advice on what weapons should be used, what propaganda to distribute, and how to psychologically win over civilians to the cause. The document mentions “target selection,” noting that assassinations of figureheads are “overrated” but “some people have to go.” It discusses how to disrupt US government supply lines, noting that “national guard depots, police stations and factories that produce munitions are all very solid targets,” (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). According to the TTP report, the group engages in national-level coordination, as state and local chapters are where users share tactical information and survival tips, ranging from topographic map access to instructions for evading authorities (Mathias, 2020).

An assessment dated June 15, 2020, predicted that “violent adherents of the boogaloo ideology likely reside in the National Capital Region, and others may be willing to travel far distances to incite civil unrest or conduct violence encouraged in online forums associated with the movement.” It also noted that “while it identifies Washington D.C. as an attractive target, the Boogaloo ideology is not restricted to a specific region and those who wish to cause division are routinely using peaceful protests as means of cover” (Bertnard, 2020). 

Right-wing activist Duncan Lemp’s death helped solidify the nascent Boogaloo movement into a defined online subculture and galvanized their anti-police stance (SPLC, 2021). Police carrying out a search warrant shot and killed the 21-year-old Lemp during a SWAT raid in March 2020. Lemp’s family said he was killed while he was asleep in his bedroom. Groups honouring Lemp popped up in far-right internet spaces (Miller, 2020). In March 2020, a Missouri man (Timothy Wilson, 36) with ties to neo-Nazis was shot and killed when FBI agents tried to arrest him. Wilson told an undercover FBI agent that his goal was “to kick-start a revolution” and referred to his plans as “operation boogaloo” (Pineda, 2020). In May 2020, three Boogaloo members were arrested on terrorism-related charges in what federal prosecutors say was a conspiracy to spark violence during protests in Las Vegas over reopening businesses and Floyd’s death. Authorities allege the three white men filled gas cans and made Molotov cocktails in glass bottles and were headed to a BLM protest (Komenda, 2020).

During the riots in May 2020, after Floyd’s death, FBI agents got a tip that two members of the Boogaloo Boys had armed themselves. The suspects were talking about killing police officers and attacking a National Guard armoury to steal heavy weapons. The FBI deployed an undercover informant who posed as a member of Hamas and offered to help the suspects obtain explosives and training. After the suspects started talking about a plot to attack a courthouse, agents arrested them (Rotella, 2021). These cases show that, among others, violent instigators affiliated with the Boogaloo movement have hijacked peaceful protests and demonstrations across the country, (Pineda, 2020) for their own purposes (Valasik & Reid, 2020).

Far-right extremism is no longer solely dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence. The Boogaloo movement, in a divided, destabilised post-coronavirus landscape, could possibly contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities.

Anti-Mask Rally at the Ohio Statehouse – Boogaloo Boy infiltrates the counter-protest in Columbus, Ohio/US on July 18. 2020. Photo: Dan Fleckner.

Conclusion

The Boogaloo movement is part of a broader rise in far-right extremism in the US, as was predicted in the early years of the Obama presidency. US law enforcement agencies and the military have faced criticism for doing too little to monitor and prevent the radicalization of American citizens by violent white supremacists and other domestic right-wing extremists (Beckett, 2021) such as the Boogaloo Boys (or Bois). 

The pandemic has also been a fertile ground for far-right messaging, opening new platforms to radical activists and extremist movements. Violent extremists across the ideological spectrum have exploited the pandemic to take advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, desperate, and available—relegated to their homes with little to distract them aside from surfing the Web. The dearth of large public gatherings and crowds moved the terrorism battlefield inside and online. But with an anti-government message designed for online virality, twenty-first-century extremists and accelerationists were especially well positioned to profit from this shift (Weiner, 2020). 

As Crawford (2020) underlined, while it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of this trend, it is possible to sell some elements of far-right ideology, like the Boogaloo, to more mainstream audiences. Shifting those people away from these ideas may be as difficult as tackling the virus itself (Crawford, 2020). And the evidence so far suggests that the movement has succeeded in spreading its message – a message that can, as the recent arrests of Boogaloo movement adherents show, all too easily turn into real life threats (Weiner, 2020). While adapting themselves to the times, as Hinton (2021) noted, far-right extremism is no longer solely dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence. The Boogaloo movement, in a divided, destabilized post-coronavirus landscape, could possibly contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities

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Jair Bolsonaro during participation in the Unica Forum 2018 in Sao Paulo, Brazil in June 18, 2018. Photo: Marcelo Chello

Jair Bolsonaro: Far-Right Firebrand and Cheerleader for Dictatorship

Watmough, Simon P. (2021). “Jair Bolsonaro: Far-Right Firebrand and Cheerleader for Dictatorship.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 15, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0008

 

Jair Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. His caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Trump in his use of such platforms. He is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” — however, his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

By Simon P. Watmough

Introduction

On September 6, 2018, the then 64-year-old presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro was campaigning in the city of Juiz de Fora in Brazil’s southern state of Minas Gerais, about 189 km from Rio de Janeiro. The city —a stronghold of the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT)— nevertheless drew a massive crowd of supporters for the right-wing populist Congressman ahead of the first round of Brazil’s presidential election, set for October 7. According to some reports, some 30,000 supporters lined the streets (D. Phillips, 2019).

Videos—later shared widely on social media—captured the extraordinary scenes that followed. Dressed casually in his signature yellow and green t-shirt bearing the slogan “Meu Partido e Brasil” (“My party is Brazil”), the former army captain can be seen being carried aloft the shoulders of a mass of supporters moving along Juiz de Fora’s central plaza. He is smiling and waving jubilantly to crowds of well-wishers. Suddenly Bolsonaro grimaces in agony, clutching his abdomen. An assailant in the crowd has plunged a knife deep into his stomach, seriously wounding the far-right firebrand.

By all accounts, the attack nearly killed Bolsonaro, who was rushed to a local hospital having lost as much as two liters of blood. Internal injuries meant he was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was only removed well into his first month in office, in January 2019. Indeed, his injuries and hospitalization kept him largely off the trail for the duration of the campaign. Despite this, Bolsonaro came in first place in the October 7 first round, taking 46 percent in a crowded field of 13 candidates. He went on to win the second round on October 28, taking 55 percent of the votes cast against the PT candidate Fernando Haddad (Londoño & Darlington, 2018).

The stabbing “unwittingly boosted his TV exposure, just as his social media campaign took off” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95). Indeed, Bolsonaro drew adeptly on platforms like Facebook and Instagram to post images of himself in his hospital bed in surgical gowns receiving treatment to still-fresh wounds and in various stages of recovery. These bear a strong resemblance to Silvio Berlusconi’s parading of his bloody face and head wounds after being struck with a blunt instrument by a man at a campaign rally in Milan in April 2009 (Winward, 2009).

In this way, the attack formed a crucial backdrop to Bolsonaro’s campaign and eventual victory. Beyond the sympathy it garnered him, it seemed to reinforce two central aspects of his campaign. First, it made him a direct victim of the country’s disorder (thus reinforcing his claim to be one with ordinary Brazilians fed up with violent crime). Second— in surviving the attack—he bolstered his “tough guy” credentials, proving his uncompromising manhood and the “legendary” status he claims as his mantle.

Entering office as Brazil’s 38th president on January 1, 2019, Bolsonaro ushered in a new era in Brazilian politics, the contours of which are still falling into place. Before Bolsonaro’s victory, “Brazilian presidential elections … [were] marked by a virtual duopoly, with the left-leaning PT and the center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) as the predictable finalists” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). In presidential elections between 1994 and 2018, the two parties had consistently taken 70–90 percent of the vote between them. His victory thus marked a break in the relative stability of Brazil’s party system and the so-called “Nova República” (“New Republic”) that emerged when the army restored civilian rule in 1985 after 21 years of military rule (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93).

Hidden in Plain Sight

The thrice-married Bolsonaro was born in 1955 in Sao Paulo state to a large, lower-middle-class Catholic family. Neither strictly an insider nor a clear outsider, his rise was instead “hidden in plain sight” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 80). His backstory—a contentious but rather undistinguished military and congressional career—and controversial statements mark him out as distinctive. Yet, he is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” (Weizenmann, 2019) — or the earlier Latin American populists like Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Brazil’s own Fernando Collor de Mello. There is something to these comparisons, although arguably his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).

Bolsonaro began his career as a military cadet, serving 15 years in the army, much of it as a paratrooper. His military experience and identity as a former soldier are central to his political style and his approach to government. It may be fair to say that his military identity is the most salient aspect of his political brand, the foundation on which all else is built. His authoritarian leanings were evident even during his time in the army. Toward the end of his career, at the dawn of the Nova República, he began to court controversy. In 1986, he landed his first blow against the new democratic regime, going public with a series of critiques that the new civilian leadership was undermining the military. In an article published in Veja, a popular Brazilian tabloid, he lambasted the inability of elected elites to ensure adequate pay and conditions for ordinary soldiers (Polimédio, 2018). In 1987, he was arrested and drummed out of the military when it became clear he had sketched plans to bomb military installations to bring attention to the poor pay and conditions (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 12). He was found guilty by a military tribunal but was released soon afterward on appeal.

Almost immediately after the Veja controversy, Bolsonaro entered politics. From 1989 to 1991, he was a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro. Then he entered national politics in 1991. He won a seat representing Rio de Janeiro in the Chamber of Deputies, which he held for the next 27 years. During his time in Congress, he achieved little legislatively, and what moves he did make were concerned with improving the military pay and conditions (Polimédio, 2018). He was an inveterate party-switcher. Between his election to the National Congress in 1991 and his move to the presidential field in 2018, he changed parties seven times (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).

In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” was “the way out for Brazil”. Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship”

President Jair Bolsonaro takes part in the Brazilian Army Day celebration at the headquarters of the Brazilian Army Command in Sao Paulo, Brazil in April 18, 2019. Photo: BW Press.

 

“I am in favor of dictatorship”

Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. He infamously harassed one female Congresswoman, saying she “was ‘too ugly’ to be raped, claimed some black people were not ‘even good for procreation,’ and said he would rather one of his four sons ‘die in an accident’ than be gay” (Child, 2019). He has also described the conception of his fifth child — a daughter — as “a moment of weakness” (Brum, 2018).

However, it is arguably his open support for military rule and his yearning for a return to the period of military dictatorship that have most alarmed Brazilians. In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” (using the army to prorogue Congress and the courts to rule by decree as Peru’s President Fujimori had done) was “the way out for Brazil” (Brooke, 1993). Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship” (Weizenmann, 2019). He is on record publicly stating that the military dictatorship “should have killed more people” and that “You can’t change anything in this country with voting and elections” (Polimédio, 2018). Bolsonaro has long taken the view that the 1964 coup that felled Brazil’s post-WWII democracy was righteous and that the period of military dictatorship that ensued (1964 –1985) was “a glorious era” for Brazil, one “in which law and order prevailed” (Lichterbach, 2019).

His abhorrent views were cast into sharp relief in 2016 during the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (see below). A Congressman at the time, he voted to impeach Rousseff — who as a young leftist had been arrested and tortured by the military — and “dedicated his vote ‘to the memory of colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra’… one of the most sadistic torturers and murderers in the military dictatorship” (Brum, 2018). Many Bolsonaro supporters — including his own children — posted on social media wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan “Ustra lives!” (ibid.)

“Populism as Parody”: Visual Self-Representation and Political Style

Bolsonaro’s caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Donald Trump in his use of such platforms—especially Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube—to reach the Brazilian people directly, unmediated by traditional channels (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). His campaign “relied heavily on political microtargeting via social media —and focused especially on professionalising a ‘fake news’ industry. In a country in which 70 percent of the population is functionally illiterate… the effect of fake news disseminated via WhatsApp has been perverse” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95).

As Evangelista and Bruno (2019: 17) note, this social media campaigning exacerbated “political feelings [already] present in the political debate.” Facebook/WhatsApp and YouTube especially allowed him to steadily expand his support over time as his message went viral: “Social media was essential … to generate unexpected exposure to messages through viral and targeted dissemination of contents. Memes, emojis, and images were at the center of the discursive battle to build pro-Bolsonaro interpretive frameworks” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).

Bolsonaro’s distinctive mode of visual self-representation on social media stands out even among populist leaders worldwide. Mendonça and Caetano (2020) have argued persuasively that Bolsonaro deliberately curates his image on social media—especially Instagram—to emphasize simultaneous “eccentricity and ordinariness which makes his demeanor, his body, and his appropriation of institutional power function as a series of parodies” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 3). This chimes as well with Brum’s analysis of him as an “anti-president” who uses caricature and disdainful mockery to simultaneously emulate and disarm his opposition (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).

Mendonça and Caetano (2020: 12) note that Bolsonaro’s “visual aesthetic combines a sense of being of the people while at the same time projecting an understanding of himself as a charismatic exceptionality.” In this way, the authors argue, Bolsonaro has sought to make a parody of the office to simultaneously appropriate its symbolic power while crafting an image of being an outsider and “close to the people” via ordinary—almost hokey—images, including an Instagram post of him preparing breakfast with “ordinary bread rolls with sweetened condensed milk, poured directly from the can” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 14).

Bolsonaro’s ubiquitous social media presence and campaigning proved wildly successful. He retains fanatical support across Brazil. His fan base, which refers to him as “O Mito” (“The Legend”), skews heavily male and young. Indeed, one enterprising Brazilian company sought to cash in on his notoriety and has named one of its energy drinks — “Bolsomito” —after him (D. Phillips, 2018). His largest single support base is Brazil’s rapidly growing Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal community, which makes up around a quarter of the country. The rise of Brazil’s Evangelicals has occurred against the backdrop of a much broader shift in social values over the last 30 years, especially around the question of law and order: “Today, more Brazilians are in favor of legalizing capital punishment, lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults, and life without parole for individuals who commit heinous crimes” (Polimédio, 2018).

Bolsonaro was also supported during the campaign by a small — but highly vocal — coterie of popular social movements, whose demonstrations and protests were amplified by social media as well as the mainstream press. These groups include Movimento Brasil Livre (the Free Brazil Movement) and the Vem pra Rua (Come to the Street) movement (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). Eventually, Bolsonaro was able to unite the three strands of the right in Brazil — “the nostalgia right, who yearn for the security of the military dictatorship,” the religious right, primarily Brazil’s large and vocal Evangelical community, and the “liberal right [that is] always railing about the hypertrophy of the Brazilian state” (Child, 2019).

A toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system.

Millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against the government of Dilma Rousseff and ask for her impeachment in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 13, 2016. Photo: Alf Ribeiro.

A Perfect Storm: The Four Winds of Crisis Ushering in Bolsonaro’s Rise

As is generally understood, populist leaders mobilize support “from the perception of crises, breakdown or threat” (Moffitt & Tormey, 2014: 391–392). Bolsonaro’s rise is no different and must be understood against the backdrop of a broad-based set of crises that began in 2013, which Uri Friedman of The Atlantic has referred to as “the slow implosion of Brazil” (Friedman, 2016). Hunter and Power (2019) describe this systemic collapse as a “perfect storm” of four distinct but overlapping crises: an economic crisis, a crisis of law and order, a corruption crisis, and a political legitimation crisis.

Brazil’s post-2013 economic woes underlie everything else. Between 2000 and 2012, Brazil was among the fastest-growing major economies on earth, growing at an average rate of 5 percent per annum. Moreover, under the government of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the PT, which came to power in 2003, growth was widely dispersed—arguably for the first time in Brazilian history. Millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty as Lula’s administration diverted swelling government coffers into cash payments for low-income households, most notably via the Bolsa Familia program, the world’s largest cash transfer program (Gazola Hellmann, 2015). But in 2014, the boom turned to bust as Brazil was plunged into the deepest recession in its history (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72)

At the same time, Brazil’s violent crime rate—always high—skyrocketed, driving citizens in the major cities to despair. Gun violence is a particular problem, and seven of the world’s top 20 most violent cities are in Brazil. With over 68,000 homicides per year, Brazil has a murder rate that is over four times the global average (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93; Child, 2019). Indeed, one public opinion study found that violence—a social problem typically seen as best-handled by right-wing parties—was the most salient concern for Brazilian voters ahead of the 2018 elections (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).

Then, shortly after the economic crisis began to bite, Brazil was consumed by a corruption scandal on a scale that dwarfed anything before. Indeed, the “Lava Jato” (“Carwash”) investigations launched by federal prosecutors in early 2014 became the most extensive (and expensive) anti-corruption drive ever seen (Child, 2019) and seemed to capture almost the entire political class in its net. As Hunter and Power (2019: 73) note, between 2014 and 2018, the Carwash investigations “produced nearly one-thousand arrest warrants and 125 … guilty verdicts falling on politicians and private businesspeople alike. Although the investigation ensnared politicians from fourteen different political parties … the most important names were linked to the PT.”

These several crises fueled a fourth strand—namely, a toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system. The partisan crisis reflected the two emerging trends in Brazilian politics—namely, rising antipathy to the PT (known as “antipetismo”)—due to its perceived culpability in the country’s many crises—and growing nostalgia for the “order” and “clean government” of the military dictatorship (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72). As president, Rousseff was caught up in the corruption scandal, and in 2016 she was impeached and removed from office. Crucially, her predecessor and PT standard-bearer Lula —who had decided to again run as the PT candidate — was also implicated; in April 2018, he was imprisoned on corruption charges, making him ineligible for president (Iglesias, 2019).

The political environment, especially after Rousseff’s impeachment, grew toxic, leading to unprecedented declines in public support, not only for the PT government but for the system as a whole. A 2017 Ipsos survey found that 94 percent of Brazilians lack faith in the political elite (cited in Polimédio, 2018). Moreover, a 2018 Latinobarometer survey found that among 18 Latin American governments in 2017–18, Brazil’s recorded the lowest levels of public trust (cited in Hunter & Power, 2019: 74).

The 2018 Elections

As Weizenmann (2019) argues, “Any one of these… crises could have produced extremist demagoguery on their own. Taken together, dire economic circumstances, rising violence, and political delegitimization” opened up the perfect opportunity for a candidate like Bolsonaro. His campaign—announced in June 2018—very skillfully navigated the collapse in the established system. In so doing, Bolsonaro pushed a message perfectly crafted for the moment—a focus on “law and order,” strong leadership,” and being an “outsider” driving a total restructuring of the system.

Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan was “Brazil first, God above all” — a clear nod to the Evangelical section of his base. He enjoyed several high-profile endorsements, including from the world-famous former Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho, now retired (Savarese, 2018). It came despite his controversial campaign tactics, such as when he vowed to end the so-called “concessions” to native Brazilians and former slaves, known in Brazil as “Quilombolas” (The Independent, 2019).

A crucial turning point in the campaign came at the end of August 2018 when Lula was jailed and disqualified from the race, which essentially cleared Bolsonaro’s path. Lula had been “the front-runner in the polls until being disqualified” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). The PT hastily put Fernando Haddad up as an alternative candidate. While he remains beloved in Brazil and his personal brand went some way to overcoming the antipetismo sweeping the country after 2014, Lula’s continued sway failed to translate into support for Haddad. The October 7 first round indicated just how successful Bolsonaro would be with Lula out of the picture; he took 46 percent of the vote and moved decisively into the second round (Cowie & Child, 2018).

Simultaneously, elections were held for Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress. Support for Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (SLP) surged — the party won 52 seats in the 513-seat chamber, up from just one in 2014 (Hunter & Power, 2019; Weizenmann, 2019). In a highly fragmented party system, this gave the SLP the plurality of the popular vote. Crucially, the 2018 congressional elections also saw a sharp increase in support for parties within the so-called “Bancada da bala” (“Bullet faction”), the loose congressional caucus committed to the arms industry, and a more militarist approach to law and order and public security. Their share rose from 35 to 61 seats in Brazil’s lower house, with 15 Senators in the caucus elected, including Flavio Bolsonaro from Rio de Janeiro state: “Members want to legalize the arming of citizens and make the shooting down of bandits by the military and police exempt from punishment,” (Milz, 2018).

Overall, Bolsonaro benefited from the coalescing of the so-called “triple B” coalition, made up of “bulls” (i.e., agribusiness), “bullets” (the gun lobby), and “bibles” (Pentecostals). Underpinning all was a focus on Bolsonaro’s military credentials, his willingness to “shake up the system” and his fanning of the center-right obsession with the apparent spread of “cultural Marxism”—an amorphous ideology supposedly endorsing political correctness, multiculturalism, and feminism—throughout Brazilian society (Savarese, 2020).

Finally, against a backdrop of antipetismo and Bolsonaro’s promises to reform “the country’s broken pension system, reductions to the size of government, limits on social benefits, and a restructuring of the country’s taxation system” (Weizenmann, 2019), corporate Brazil came on board. In the end, “Brazil’s business community—at first dubious about the candidate’s purported free-market conversion… swung behind him when faced with the binary choice between Bolsonaro and the return of the statist PT” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 70).

The most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general.

President of Brazil Jair Messias Bolsonaro with ministers, governor and senator as well as authorities at the Military Police Soldiers Graduation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 18, 2020. Photo: Jorge Hely Veiga

A Government of Soldiers and Culture Warriors

Brazil’s cabinet picks reflected all the campaign themes and the “triple B” coalition that underpinned it. His ministerial appointments fall into three main categories—namely, technocrats, culture warriors, and military men (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96). On the first, Bolsonaro was compelled to overcome a sense that he was ill-prepared for office, especially to handle Brazil’s fractured economy. He had assuaged much of this on the trail by promising to appoint specialists and technocrats where needed (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96; Polimédio, 2018). His two key picks as “super ministers” — Paulo Guedes as economy minister and Sergio Moro as justice minister — reflected this drive.

Bolsonaro’s appointment of Moro—the lead judge in the Operation Carwash investigations— as his justice minister surprised many and seemed to cement the connection between Brazil’s corruption crisis and Bolsonaro’s win. However, this was shattered in mid-2019 when claims arose that Moro had shown a clear bias in the case against Lula. The investigative journalism newsmagazine, The Intercept, leaked messages purporting to show that Moro had collaborated with the prosecutors (a claim he denies) to ensure Lula’s conviction and disqualification from the 2018 campaign (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 3; Fishman et al., 2019).

Within a year, Moro had resigned his post, accusing Bolsonaro of political interference in police investigations at both federal and state levels. He left office in late April 2020 (McGeever, 2020). Moro’s allegations indicated the president had fired several police chiefs to head off investigations into his son’s alleged corruption. The Attorney-General then opened an investigation (Brito & Paraguassu, 2020). Indeed, for a politician supposedly a paragon of anti-corruption, Bolsonaro has himself become increasingly tarred with the corruption brush. His son, Flavio, has proved problematic (to say the least) dogged by allegations of misappropriating funds (and worse) from the beginning (Milz, 2019a).

Bolsonaro has also appointed prominent religious figures to his cabinet, notably Damares Alves (Women’s Affairs) and Milton Ribeiro (Education), both Evangelical pastors. Alves, who has been in the cabinet since the beginning, has courted controversy for her remarks about gender norms, women’s rights, and Brazil’s annual carnival season. On her election, she made headlines with the slogan, “it’s a new era in Brazil —boys wear blue, and girls wear pink” (Deutsche Welle, 2019a).

Ribeiro —who was appointed in July 2020 after the previous education ministers were forced to resign on account of scandal and corruption — has also caused issues with his focus on religion in schools and continuing Bolsonaro’s strategy of stripping the education system of leftists and “cultural Marxism.” Religious groups welcomed the move, saying, “the education ministry is key to boosting Christian values in Brazil,” and casting aside what they contend is leftist influence in the schools (Savarese, 2020).

Arguably most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general. By September 2019, Bolsonaro had appointed seven serving or former military officers to the government (Hunter & Power, 2019: 82), excluding Mourão. In early 2020, he capped off a cabinet of soldiers by appointing four-star army general and current army chief of staff Walter Souza Braga Netto as his presidential chief of staff. Braga’s appointment took the total number serving, including Mourão, to ten (Deutsche Welle, 2020a). While warnings of a potential coup have been repeatedly swatted back, the fact that military figures so dominate the government has alarmed many (Romero et al., 2020).

Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent.

Thousands of activists unite in protest for democracy and racial equality and against the Bolsonaro government in São Paulo, Brazil on June 07, 2020. Photo: Alf Ribeiro

The First Year: Protests, Paralysis, and Pensions

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro had promised “a conservative revolution.” Central to this was his promise to liberalize gun laws, which in Brazil are quite restrictive. Despite this, the country is plagued by terrible gun violence, arguably the most visible aspect of rampant criminality. In his first week in office, Bolsonaro moved on the gun issue—a presidential decree on January 14, 2019, expanded the number of firearms Brazilians could legally own and promised to remove “open carry” restrictions further on in the term (Marcello & Stargardter, 2019). Many of his early moves had the ring of empty symbolism — for example, in the first week, the new administration purged the federal government of so-called “leftist” public servants, who were simply legitimate appointees from previous administrations (The Independent, 2019).

The president and his inner circle stand accused of playing up divisions in the government and society as a kind of “symbolic politics” to bolster their political support: “In this regard, some commentators stress that Bolsonaro and his sons have choreographed certain movements. All the political confusion portrayed since the beginning… shows a pattern of rehearsed sketches to demonstrate cohesion around the conservative values they defend” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).The purpose here is three-fold: to mobilize the base, bolster the Bolsonaro’s “anti-system and transgressive credentials,” and distract commentators from the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the government (ibid.).

Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent, with the numbers saying they distrusted him outright, rising from 30 percent to 44 percent (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 98). These numbers reflect the key points of social resistance to Bolsonaro’s new administration, which erupted in widespread protest in his first few months in office. Indeed, they began in the campaign, with the nationwide #EleNao (“Not Him”) demonstrations dogging his campaign in 2018. Protests highlighted his anti-LGBT and anti-women attacks and his treatment of indigenous people. Brazil’s April 2019 Carnival seasons saw a slew of floats and parade groups mocking and protesting the president. In particular, there was a pointed response to Alves’ gender assertions, with female carnival-goers dressed in blue and men in pink (Deutsche Welle, 2019a). In the Rio Carnival of 2020, Evangelical Christians hit back with promises to “bring Jesus” to revelers (D. Phillips, 2020).

While he had promised “a conservative revolution,” Bolsonaro’s progress was plodding. He refused to play by the traditional political rules, shunning the country’s long-standing political culture of horse-trading for policy wins. Ironically, a similar approach brought down the country’s last populist leader Fernando Collor de Mello, in the mid-1990s (Panizza, 2000). Like Trump, Bolsonaro appears to believe that he can achieve policy wins by dint of sheer personality and his diffuse and vocal support among his support base.

The 2019 Amazon wildfires drew the world’s attention and calls for concerted international action, most notably from French President Emmanuel Macron. Bolsonaro burned a vast swathe of his political capital attacking foreign leaders’ attempts to address the issue, with France’s president and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany coming in for intense criticism. In August 2019, after a G7 meeting that promised a “rescue fund” for the Amazon forest, Bolsonaro lashed out, asserting sovereigntist claims, accusing Macron and the G7 of neo-imperialism (T. Phillips, 2019).

Toward the end of 2019, Bolsonaro scored a victory with the passing of pension reform. Brazil’s pension system had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, and without some changes, it threatened to blow up the federal deficit. Fixing the problem had been a central plank of Bolsonaro’s campaign. After much wrangling in Congress and a June 2019 general strike opposing Bolsonaro’s plans to right-size the pension system, reform passed in October 2019. The win did not appear, however, to staunch his bleeding popular support. By late 2019, his approval ratings had fallen to 31 percent—down from 49 percent when he was elected in October 2018 (Milz, 2019b).

The experience of dealing with an uncompromising Congress has clearly affected the maverick politician, by all accounts has been infuriated by the congressional argy-bargy involved in prosecuting his agenda. At the end of the year, the notorious party-switcher announced he was forming a new party, the Aliança pelo Brasil (Alliance for Brazil). It was also announced that his son Flavio—a senator from Rio de Janeiro who ran on the SLP ticket—would take a senior leadership role in the new party. “The party platform ‘recognizes God’s place in the life, history and soul of the Brazilian people,’ is anti-abortion, rejects ‘socialism and communism,’ and supports the right to possess firearms” (Deutsche Welle, 2019b).

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the pandemic crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll.

People wait in a big line to receive food donations for lunch in a downtown street during a severe economic crisis caused by COVID-19 pandemic in Sao Paulo, Brazil on June 2, 2020. Photo: Nelson Antoine

The Second Year: COVID-19, Policy Failure, and an Electoral Rebuke

After the October 2019 pension reform victory, Bolsonaro’s fortunes might have looked up. However, in early 2020 the COVID-19 crisis hit, dominating Bolsonaro’s second year in office. The crisis has struck Brazil particularly hard and has only been exacerbated by the Bolsonaro administration’s failure to adequately address the public health emergency and coordinate a response among Brazil’s state and municipal governments. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. He even emulated Trump’s dosing with hydroxychloroquine, which he has called “a miracle cure” (Eisele, 2020). Furthermore, just as Trump did, Bolsonaro self-represented his own infection with COVID-19—which occurred after months downplaying its virology and impact—as part of his “real man” macho image. In so doing, in March of 2019, he referenced his September 2018 stabbing, telling his large social media following that if I am “able to survive being stabbed, then a “little flu” was unlikely to kill [me]” (Eisele, 2020).

Brazil, a federation of 26 states and one federal territory, has devolved responsibility for health and public health. This has played into Bolsonaro’s hands, allowing him to play up “local elites” who stand in the way: “The 65-year-old has repeatedly and harshly criticized the virus-related restrictions to everyday life — some of which have since been relaxed — imposed by states and municipal governments… [In July 2020], he vetoed a law passed by Congress on nationwide regulations concerning the wearing of face masks in public” (Eisele, 2020).

The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll. In local elections held across the country in November 2020, Bolsonaro-backed parties lost ground, as did the main opposition PT. Moreover, in a “direct rebuke to Bolsonaro, voters in Belo Horizonte, the sixth-largest city, re-elected mayor Alexandre Kalil, who took tough quarantine and social distancing steps that were criticized directly by the president” (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). The established center-right and conservative parties saw a return to electoral fortune after their poor showing in the 2018 congressional elections. Bolsonaro’s former party, the SLP, failed to take top place in a single election (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). His Aliança pelo Brasil did not stand candidates, as the party had formed too late to gather the necessary signatures to register as an official electoral party (Ying, 2020).

Conclusion

After just over two years in power, the very worst predictions about Bolsonaro’s presidency have not materialized. Certainly, the military has so far remained firmly in the barracks and has swatted back calls for intervention in politics (Romero et al., 2020). None of this should be taken as a call to celebrate. Indeed, it is really down to a fortuitous mix of incompetence on the part of the administration — most evident in the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the checks and balances in Brazil’s federal system. Bolsonaro’s own stubborn refusal to play by established rules and establish a governing congressional coalition is also a key factor, meaning his agenda has largely stalled in the legislature. Thus, like Trump in his first term in office, institutional inertia has managed to blunt and slow the worst effects of Bolsonaro’s radical agenda.

Nevertheless, much damage is being done to the fabric of Brazilian society. As The New York Times recently noted: “The upheaval in Brazil is leading investors to rush for the exits. Capital flight is reaching levels unseen since the 1990s. The World Bank expects the economy to contract 8 percent this year. Car production, a once-thriving pillar of the economy, has plummeted to its lowest level since the 1950s” (Romero et al., 2020). However, Bolsonaro continues to enjoy widespread — if minority — support in the electorate, as this brief has detailed at length. Moreover, his new party, Aliança pelo Brasil, is an as-yet untested legislative vehicle and could well do very well at the next general election scheduled for October 2022. Much depends, of course, on Brazil’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the trajectory of further reform efforts.

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The Independent. (2019). “Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil’s new far right president fires hundreds of ‘left wing’ civil servants.” The Independent. January 4. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-president-civil-servants-fire-far-right-left-wing-a8711116.html (accessed on December 22, 2020).

Weizenmann, P. P. (2019). “‘Tropical Trump’? Bolsonaro’s Threat to Brazilian Democracy.” Harvard International Review. August 23. https://hir.harvard.edu/tropical-trump-bolsonaros-threat-to-brazilian-democracy/ (accessed on December 22, 2020).

Winward, F. (2009). “Silvio Berlusconi hit in the face.” The Guardian. December 13. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/13/silvio-berlusconi-punched-face  (accessed on December 22, 2020).

Ying, X. (2020). “Alliance for Brazil Concedes Inability to Field Candidates in 2020 Elections.” The Rio Times. February 28. https://riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/brazil/politics-brazil/alliance-for-brazil-concedes-no-longer-running-for-the-2020-elections/ (accessed on December 22, 2020).

Thousands of people turn out for the anti racism - anti-Donald Trump and Nigel Farage rally through central London on March 18, 2017. Photo: John Gomez

Populists International (I) — Populists Hand in Hand: Farage and Trump

How Does International Cooperation Work Between Populists? 

The last decade has seen a rise in cooperation between xenophobic right-wing populists, both in Europe and internationally. Elsewhere, we’ve seen the rise of anti-Western populists from majority Muslim countries and left-wing Latin American populist leaders. My hope with this commentary series is to begin a fruitful discussion about this cooperation. I will start by examining the stunning cooperation between British right-wing populist Nigel Farage and former US President Donald Trump, the populist held power in a country long viewed as the beacon of democracy.  

By Mustafa Demir

The relationship between former US President Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and hard Eurosceptic, went beyond the limits of a mere friendship to become an international cooperation, if not a coalition. As such, it is relevant to international populism studies. The two supported the other’s political campaigns and gave statements and interviews promoting one another’s political agendas. They even physically appeared at each other’s election rallies as “guests of honour.” They readily endorsed the other as a fellow “man of the people.” 

Farage routinely commented or posted on social media in support of Trump. Shortly after Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU), Farage appeared at a Trump campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi in August 2016. He was introduced to the crowd – by Trump – as “the man behind Brexit.” Addressing the pro-Trump crow, Farage stated that, “I wouldn’t vote for Hilary Clinton if you paid me.”

He continued as follows: “[UKIP] made 23 June our Independence Day when we smashed the Establishment… If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals.”

Farage also used this opportunity to lambast Prime Minister David Cameron and former US President Barack Obama for backing the “Remain” campaign. He drew parallels between the US elections and the Brexit referendum, and he urged “the ordinary people” of the US to “stand up to the establishment and take back control with a ‘people’s army.’” 

He successfully appealed to the emotions of the crowd, saying: “I come to you from the United Kingdom with a message of hope and a message of optimism. If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals – and we did it…[You, the Americans, have a] fantastic opportunity with November’s election. And you’ll do it by doing what we did for Brexit in Britain. We had our own people’s army or ordinary citizens… If you want change, you better get your walking boots on, you better get out there campaigning; and, remember, anything is possible if enough decent people are prepared to stand up against the establishment.”

Daniel Bates of the Evening Standard noted that Farage’s appearance was an historical moment, in the sense that it was the “first time a British politician has ever addressed a Republican Presidential rally.” 

Farage also appeared in the most recent election campaign. He appeared in Arizona in November 2020. Marina Hyde, of the Guardian, broke the news with the title “Behold Trump’s pre-election secret weapon: Nigel Farage, ‘king of Europe.’” She was quoting Trump, who welcomed Farage to the state with the moniker, “the king of Europe.” Farage responded by calling Trump, “the single most resilient and bravest person I have ever met in my life.” 

Of course, this “favour” was not one sided. Trump came Farage’s aid during the Brexit campaign. When former President Obama visited London in April 2016, his comment on the upcoming Brexit referendum – and its possible negative consequences for Britain – upset Farage, who called it a “monstrous interference” in British politics. It was: “…A monstrous interference, I’d rather he stayed in Washington, frankly, if that’s what he’s going to do. You wouldn’t expect the British Prime Minister to intervene in your presidential election, you wouldn’t expect the Prime Minister to endorse one candidate or another. Perhaps he’s another one of those people who doesn’t understand what [the EU] is.

Despite this, Farage always welcomed Trump’s support for the campaign. And despite his supposed reservations about foreign interference in elections, he did not hesitate to take the stage in Jackson, where he urged the American people not to vote for Hilary Clinton. Farage reacted to the possibility of Obama’s sharing his opinion supporting the “remain” campaign and said,

After assuming power in January 2017, less than seven months after the Brexit referendum, Trump repeatedly commented on British politics. For example, he did not hesitate to criticize former PM Theresa May’s Brexit plan. In July 2018, speaking to the Sun, Trump said, “I would have done it much differently… I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”

During May’s visit to the White House in January 2017, Trump claimed Brexit was a “blessing for the world” and a “beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Trump was ecstatic about Brexit. The “Leave” campaign echoed his own populist themes and showed the sea-change that was happening in Western politics and the increasing popularity of anti-establishment candidates. Brexit was undeniably a warning sign that populism and nationalism were gaining momentum. It was not an isolated accident, but a groundswell that would redefine political paradigms.

Despite his support for Brexit, Trump has always been a highly unpopular figure in the UK. In contrast, Farage seems highly popular with Trump’s far right supporters. The US media saw Farage’s 2020 appearance in Arizona as “yesterday’s man” who was “forced to travel abroad to seek a spotlight.” Farage’s influence in the UK has waned since Brexit. 

Farage has also not hesitated to join far-right, pro-Trump, conspiracy-spreading radio programmes and gave interviews supporting Trump’s narratives and policies. Among many others, some of the conspiracies he spread included the lie that Obama is a Muslim plotting against the US and that Trump’s impeachment was a “Jewish coup.” In some of these interviews, Farage repeatedly discussed a supposed plot by bankers and “globalists” to impose a world government, a conspiracy theory strongly linked to antisemitism.

Similarly, during and after the Brexit campaign, he hosted Trump on his radio show on LBC radio. LBC is a respected radio station providing platforms to different segments of society. In October 2019, Trump joined Farage’s programme and commented positively on the performance of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the process of Brexit while criticising Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and then opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Although Trump has never been popular in the UK, the fact that he joined the conversation in support of his good friend Farage is worth highlighting. It should also be noted that the LBC has announced Farage stepping down “with immediate effect” in June 2020, following a radio show in which he compared Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests to the Taliban. 

When it comes to cooperation between these two populists, Gideon Rachman underlines the link between the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump. Rachman marks with bold letters that both these incidents “will forever be linked in history. The two events took place within a few months of each other. Both were populist revolts that appealed to similar constituencies.” 

Supporting Rachman’s view, Laetitia Langlois (2018: 16) rightly argues that: “The pro-Brexit and the pro-Trump votes rest on the same dynamics: they are both angry votes against the elite, against immigration, against globalisation. It is no surprise then that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are so close: as the embodiments of the rage against the system and the two populist voices in the anglosphere, they had common ideas, common targets and common objectives.”

Trump and Farage view the concerns of their constituents as basically the same. Speaking at the Jackson rally, with Farage at his side, Trump said: “They voted to break away from rule by large corporations and media executives who believe in a world without borders…They voted to reclaim control over immigration, over their economy, over their government…. Working people and the great people of the UK took control of their destiny.”

As a final note, Trump spoke to his supporters while seeing himself out of the White House and off Florida. He said, “we will be back in some form.” After his acquittal in his  2nd impeachment trial, on 13th of February, 2021, Trump released a press statement, celebrating his acquittal. He said: “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun. In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people.”

If he manages to make a come-back, there is no doubt that he would not leave his good friend Nigel jobless. Thus, it is not surprising to see Farage celebrating Trump’s acquittal, as evidenced by the following Tweet:

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli

Erdogan’s Political Journey: From Victimised Muslim Democrat to Authoritarian, Islamist Populist

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). “Erdogan’s Political Journey: From Victimised Muslim Democrat to Authoritarian, Islamist Populist.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 14, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0007

 

With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled.

By Ihsan Yilmaz

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a controversial figure, one who has frequently appeared in international media due to his brusque remarks and increasingly authoritarian practises, both abroad and domestically. During his premiership and subsequent presidency, he successfully changed Turkey’s political fabric and is now aiming to influence international politics in unprecedented ways. Erdogan’s journey, from mayor of Istanbul to prospective leader of the Muslim world, has been facilitated by exploiting existing power structures – or dismantling them, if they don’t serve his needs. All the while, he’s retained his charisma as an influential Islamist leader working in the best interests of “the people” and the “ummah.” By using populist strategies and manipulating democratic institutions, Erdogan is increasingly a populist authoritarian. 

Since his National View (Milli Gorus) years in 1970s and 80s under the mentorship of Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s worldview and narrative had always had populist elements that constructed him and practicing Muslim Turks as the real and morally superior owners of Turkey but they had been victims of the Kemalist elite that oppressed them and denied their general will. However, Erdogan’s populism has been intensified after he consolidated his power in early 2010s and its anti-Westernist conspiratorial content has increased. 

A recent study (Lewis et al. 2019) published in The Guardian shows that Erdogan is the only right-wing leader labelled ‘very populist.’ Based on the extent to which their speeches have populist ideas, each populist leader under study was given an average populism score. The speeches were graded on a 0-2 scale, ranging from not populist to very populist.According to the study, the average populism score across all 40 countries has doubled from 0.2 in the early 2000s to around 0.4 in 2019. Erdogan was ‘somewhat populist’ between 2007-2014. However, between the years of 2014-2018, he was ‘very populist’ with a score of 1.5 out of 2.0. Only Hugo Chavez (1.9) and Nicolas Maduro (1.6) received higher score than Erdogan while Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi had a score of only 0.8. 

The Republic of Turkey was built in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire. The events that followed the First World War cost Turkey an empire, a monarchy, caliphate, and the majority of its lands, save for the Anatolian heartland. This has caused immense trauma, anxiety and insecurity among the ruling elite. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dreamed of reviving a republic from the ashes of empire. Defeated at the hands of the European powers, Ataturk and several followers were convinced that “reinventing” the nation and its “ideal citizens” in the mould of the European civilisation would provide the foundation for a modern, secular republic. For 80 years, Kemalism promoted a nationalist homogenising narrative hinging on the national reconstruction of a Turkey detached from its Ottoman past and rebuilt according to a secular blueprint. However, detaching the Turkish people from their Ottoman roots has proved unsuccessful; and Kemalism succeeded only in marginalizing and victimising all ethnic, religious and political minority groups that didn’t fit the prototype of the Kemalists’ desired citizen, Homo LASTus – Laicist, Ataturkist, Sunni, and Turkish (Yilmaz, 2021).

More than eight decades of repression and denial of the Ottoman past and heterogeneous fabric of society gave room to a resentful counter narrative to rise. While Homo LASTus isolated non-Muslims and non-Turkish groups, it is the conservative Sunni majority who have given birth to an Islamist populist voice. The man voicing their anxieties, discontent, grievances, insecurities, fears and future hopes is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose populism has shapeshifted – from centre-right to far-right (Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). His early coalition and representation of resentful liberals, democrats, Muslim and non-Muslim groups, ethnic minorities and civil society organizations that were marginalized and even demonised under Kemalism has gradually transformed to a narrow core of vindictive conservative Sunni, Islamist, ultra-Turkish nationalists. 

Through his long political career, Erdogan has always had the benefit of positioning himself as a man of the people due his humble beginnings. This has set him apart from the political and military “elite” (Lowen, 2017; BBC, 2002). The fairy tale-esque nature of his childhood story – the upward mobility of a poor boy raised in a poor and angry urban setting at the margins of Istanbul’s more prosperous and Westernised areas becoming the leader of Turkey (Cagaptay, 2017) – inspired his voters. Some even see him as the chosen “sultan” or “caliph” for a “New” Turkey – and possibly even for the Muslim world; others rightly criticize his populist and autocratic tendencies (Lowen, 2017). Yet when closely observed, Erdogan’s political ideology is mostly that of the shape-shifter; he ensures his political survival at all costs – even if those costs are damaging the institutional fabric of the country and widening deep rifts in a multi-ethnic and religious society (Genc, 2019).

There have been many studies published on the Erdogan and AKP’s recent populism (e.g. Selçuk 2016; Yabancı 2016; Kirdiş and Drhiemur 2016; Özpek and Yaşar 2018; Yilmaz 2018; Castaldo 2018; Özçetin 2019; Sawae 2020; Taş 2020; Yilmaz 2021). As such, this profile will not discuss the Erdogan’s populism in detail, leaving it to the other excellent studies to do so. Instead, this will focus on the emotional aspects of Erdogan’s populism – including Ottoman nostalgia, anxiety, hate, antagonism, victimhood, and resentment – and how they are used to mobilize voters. 

During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party, which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution.

Late Islamist populist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

 

The Shape-Shifter: Islamism and Young Erdogan

To understand his politics and personality, one must start with Erdogan’s childhood. Born in the poor Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa, most of his early life was spent in Rize province, in Turkey’s Black Sea region(Lowen,2017). Raised in a working-class family, Erdogan was sent to a religiously-oriented Imam Hatip school by his father, a ferry captain (Genc, 2019). It is unclear if he ever received a university degree from Marmara University due to ambiguity surrounding the issue (BBC, 2016). Nevertheless, his years at the Imam Hatip greatly impacted him. He studied the Quran, the life of the Prophet, and Muslim teachings. He also spent a considerable amount of time improving his Quran recitation, which earned the praise of his friends (Genc, 2019; BBC, 2002).

During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi – MSP), which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi – MNP) that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution (Koni, Rosli, & Zin, 2015). Erbakan was a prominent voice against the secular ideology of Kemalism, which had isolated many Muslim Turks. As an adolescent, Erdogan was exposed to the manifesto of Erbakan’s Milli Gorus which based its Islamist ideology around severing the Turkish nation from secularism, Westernism and Capitalism. Milli Gorus was also sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and harshly critical of Zionism. Milli Gorus’s ideology was civilizationalist and pan-Islamic and urged the nation to cut its ties with Europe and align with Muslim-majority countries (Sahin & Dogantekin, 2019)

Erdogan spent considerable time within the MSP’s youth group and gained recognition when he organized a boxing match during the visit of the Afghan mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The profound influence of religion on Erdogan’s early life was evident when he turned down a spot on an Istanbul city soccer team because the city had a ban on the Islamic beard at that time (Genc, 2019).

After a second ban, Erbakan re-founded his party yet again, this time named the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi – RP). Erdogan’s commitment to the party earned him a spot as the party’s provincial head in Istanbul. He possessed the art of amassing a huge number of volunteers to hand out flyers and hang posters, displaying his leadership and organizing skills. Most of his time was occupied in political work, and he was soon known for his great oratory skills with emotive mobilizational power. He delivered emotional and resentful speeches decrying “the evil new world order” and supporting “Muslim brothers” across borders that resonated with the victimhood mood of the conservative sections of society (Genc, 2019)

Erdogan’s earlier political affiliations helped him not only identify with Islamist populism but also see its value in Turkish society. Kemalists had for years suppressed a chain of Sunni Islamist parties as part of their secular agenda, only breeding further resentment. To attach populism with a divinely sanctioned ideology – Islam in this case – was a viable opportunity. Thus, Erdogan did not shy away from using public sentiments and emotions towards religious oppression to gain prominence for himself. 

Rising to prominence in 1994, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul. In 1998, the Welfare Party was closed down for violating the tenets of Kemalism. Erdogan became a vocal critic of the government and was arrested for reading a poem that the state claimed, “incited violence.” While the arrest was the highlight of his tenure, his agenda was public focused, including improving traffic congestion, dealing with water shortages, and controlling pollution. He remained more pragmatic than Islamist (BBC, 2002).

At the same time, there were hints of religiously motivated actions taken during this period. First, he symbolically limited the use and sale of alcohol (Ozbilgin, 2013). The step was taken under the guise of “public safety,” appealing to both religious voters and concerned citizens. He also rebelled by not asking his wife to uncover her head and instead avoided bringing her to official functions and government spaces – covered women were barred from entering public offices and educational institutes as part of the Kemalist ideology to secularize Turkey (BBC, 2002)

His blend of public works and subtle moves to please Islamist groups made him popular. When asked about why he’d developed such a good reputation, Erdogan responded, “I am Istanbul’s imam” (Genc, 2019). His statement reflected two major things about his populism. Firstly, as early as the 1990s, his confidence in himself as “the chosen one” was not rooted in democratic measures and values; rather, it was always attached to a “divine” element. The word imam[1] gave him an air of Islamist populism. Secondly, his smirky response shows belief in the idea that Islam and liberal democracies can be merged for the welfare of “the people.” Thus, positioning himself as a “Muslim Democrat” – one who is able to tolerate non-Muslims and yet at the same time be “Muslim enough” allowed him to amass great public support. 

His “imamet” of the city came to an abrupt end when his recitation of a controversial Islamo-nationalist and militarist poem landed him in jail for four months (he was sentenced to ten). The poem featured the lines, “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…” Due to its clear Islamist references, the poem was considered unconstitutional (Genc, 2019). His jail time added to his victimhood and populist popularity; he was viewed as “bold” in the face of the victimising evil Kemalist elite and not afraid of the Kemalist regime that had for decades muffled freedom of expression and religious affiliation. Erdogan established himself as the antithesis to the status quo, another populist hallmark. 

For Erdogan, the ultimate aim has always been power, and everything could be instrumentalized to achieve this. He signalled this in the 1990s when, as mayor of Istanbul, he said, “…democracy can’t be an objective but an only an instrument… democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” 

Erdogan, following his imprisonment, found himself without a party. Increasingly, the public viewed him as pious and courageous; his humble beginnings added to his credibility as a leader of the “people.” Moreover, his reformist attitude and promising improvements during his tenure as mayor of Istanbul earned him a voter base across large sections of society, especially the conservative segments across the rural landscape of Anatolia.

To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.”

The ceremony of Third Bosphorus bridge was attended by then Turkish President Abdullah Gul and then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 29, 2013 in Istanbul. Photo: Sadik Gulec

 

Rebellious Erdogan with Moderate Views

While he had been able to connect with the discontent conservative masses, to survive the secular military and judiciary – and also to attract a large voter base of non-Sunnis, non-Muslims, and non-Turks – Erdogan rebranded himself. He moderated his views, especially on the west, to appeal to voters in national elections (Yilmaz, 2009). This was the first example of his pragmatic, populist shape-shifting. He issued statements that were more populous than religious, claiming, “We don’t need bearded men who are good Quran reciters; we need people who do their job properly” (Genc, 2019)

The prohibition of Welfare Party in 1998 paved the way for the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi – FP), which was also banned in 2001. The dissolution of the Virtue Party led to the birth of two conservative parties. One of them was the Justice and Development Party (AKP), under the leadership of Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arınc. Erdogan was also a major figure in its founding, although he was technically still banned from politics. He described his role in the party, very much the opposite of what it is today, as part of a group of leaders: “a cadre will run the party, and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader…” His role, in his words, was that of an “orchestra chief.” He declared, the “age of me-centred politics is over” (Genc, 2019).

The other party to rise from the Virtue Party’s ashes was the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi – SP), which over the years, despite being a right-wing party, has taken an anti-Erdogan stance. During AKP’s first election, it was nearly banned, which resulted in Gul running as the party’s main candidate, since Erdogan was still technically banned from contesting elections because of his conviction for reciting the poem. Eventually, through a by-election and verdict from the judiciary, Gul stepped down as prime minister in 2003; Erdogan assumed office. 

He was ushered in as the beginning of the era of Muslim Democrats (Yilmaz, 2009). It was a model hailed by many as a blueprint for success for the Muslim world. Its proponents claimed it brought “the best of both worlds,” combining a hint of religion with liberal democratic values. 

But the party never truly embraced the image. Instead, this was a survival move for the AKP and Erdogan, who were able to win votes on a broad spectrum of anti-Kemalist sentiments and among those hoping for a truly democratic Turkey. This appeal to the latter groups was the populist side of Erdogan’s Islamist politics. 

Erdogan’s first tenure as prime minister was marked by impressive economic growth for the country and a quest to bridge the gap with Europe. Erdogan boasted, “When we first came to government… our relations with some of the countries in our region were almost non-existent… [now] we have friendly relations with most of our neighbouring countries… we have relations in [the] political, economic, social, cultural, commercial, military areas with many of the countries in the region” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). Playing the role of a pro-Western conservative, he insisted on Turkey’s presence in NATO and in a bid to secure membership of the European Union (EU) (Söylemez, 2012; Genc, 2011)

To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.” He launched a “democratic war” against the Kemalist elite and the country’s system of military tutelage. It is now clear that these were more of a means to an end, as most populists consolidate ideologies to gain support as a way of easing into power. 

Erdogan often tried to have it both ways. The Turkish government offered to launch a joint fact-finding mission, with Armenia, into the genocide that took place at the end of World War I; however, the government refused to actually admit the genocide took place. At an intentional forum, Erdogan plainly explained, “Diasporas in some countries lobbying for resolutions in the parliaments of other countries is like an extrajudicial… it’s an extrajudicial execution because there is no fact-based process here. So, this is something that Turkey cannot accept… we told our friends, but we still do not have a response,” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007).

As Erdogan’s second national election approached, there were nationwide protests about fears that he and the AKP planned to change Turkey’s constitution (de Bendern, 2007; BBC, 2007). Erdogan’s populist theatrics garnered public political support and centred around the hope that “new Turkey” would be part of the EU and an economic power. 

Populists often use the media and the political bully pulpit to become public fixtures, deepening their connection with the people. It makes them more human and relatable. In the midst of the on-going countrywide protests, Erdogan apparently “fainted” inside his car, which led to a mass panic and a dramatic rescue attempt. The episode added to Erdogan’s narrative as a “wronged man” who was being betrayed despite doing all he could for the people and the country (Genc, 2019; Dincsahin 2012)

In 2008, an attempt to close the AKP again failed, although it led to the party’s funding being limited. However, Erdogan’s relatively moderate first term had resonated with voters: in 2007, he linked his party’s win to the ethos of Turkey’s democratic and secular values. By electing him, the country had passed the test: “The Turkish Republic is a democratic, secular social state governed by the rule of law, and throughout this process this year, Turkey has gone through an important test of democracy and come out stronger than before from these elections,” Erdogan stated (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). 

By the end of his second term, it was clear that Erdogan was gifted at fully utilizing the rifts in Turkish society to gain a popular mandate. He had made “the people” those who were disenfranchised by the Kemalists, positioning himself as a humble outsider – as compared to the Kemalist elite who were the others. He would use his experience to address the country’s core issues through democratic means. Economic growth, better diplomatic ties, and a bid to join the EU established him as the “leader” of a people failed by the Kemalist Homo LASTus project.  

After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology. This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the EU membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Kursat Bayhan

 

The Authoritarian Populist Surfaces

Erdogan’s worldview has always contained populist elements, dating back to his National View (Milli Gorus) years in the 1970s and 80s. In the National View narratives, practicing Muslims were framed as the real owners of the homeland (“the people”) but had been victims of the pro-Western and secularist Kemalists (the “evil elite”) that oppressed them. However, with the economy slowing down in 2009, Erdogan’s populism intensified and soon became the core feature of his narrative (Dinçşahin 2012; Yilmaz and Bashirov 2018). After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology (Onbaşı 2016). This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the European Union membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism (Bashirov and Yilmaz, 2020).

This also has roots in Erbakan’s National View Islamism and the totalitarian ideology of Erdogan’s more influential role model, Necip Fazil Kisakurek, which included a strong religio-moral component and claimed that “the people” they represented did not only refer to those who were exploited, excluded, oppressed, and victimised but also to practicing Muslims who were constructed as morally superior (Tugal 2002)

He is an Islamist; however, different from other Islamists. He developed an Islamist populist style to further appeal to the grievances, resentfulness and hopes of the conservative Turkish Sunni masses that were victimised by the “evil” Kemalist elite who were the pawns of the West. In this narrative, he constructed himself as the only genuine representative of the people and their general will.

Public Enemies

After spending a considerable amount of time wearing the guise of a Muslim Democrat, Erdogan made a final shape-shift, gradually exposing his populist autocratic style of rule in the aftermath of the 2011 elections (Turkish Weekly, 2011). He used trials such as Sledgehammer (Balyoz) and Ergenekon to increasingly target the military and position himself and the AKP as the voice of democracy against the “corrupt” military. The Kemalist military was public enemy number one. Through populist “otherizing,” Erdogan continued to eliminate his greatest opponents and further polarize support in his direction. His actions were justified: they were bringing justice to the Turkish people who had, for generations, been wronged by the elite and corrupt military.

The Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations, which occurred between 2008 – 2011, gave more legitimacy to Erdogan. High-ranking military generals were put on trial and, as a consequence of the 2010 Constitutional Referendum, a number of Kemalist judiciary members were replaced. This led to a weakening of institutional checks on the AKP from the Kemalist factions. This was one of the first examples of Erdogan undermining democratic institutions by using populist divisiveness to consolidate his position. He justified it as in the best interest of the people.  

Erdogan’s commitment to democracy was gradually side-lined for populism, and then Erdogan re-introduced Islamism to the picture. As part of this transformation, the “black Turks” – conservative Muslims who had been oppressed by the Kemalist “white Turks” – were position as “the people” and the Kemalists, non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, and non-Turks were the “other” (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). Erdogan and the AKP used the classic populist card of segregating the “pure” people and the “corrupt” elite. He was the people’s man – their voice.

Islamism was at the heart of Erdogan’s populist agenda. Erdogan lifted the rules of banning women from wearing headscarves in public offices and departments. This was celebrated, as it gave women the autonomy to choose what they wanted. However, it was not done to give women democratic rights, but to consolidate Erdogan’s status as a “good Muslim” who stood up for the historically oppressed group. Increasingly, he expressed more conservative views regarding women; for instance, three years later, he publicly claimed, “no Muslim family should consider birth control or family planning… we will multiply our descendants,” (BBC, 2020). 

Moreover, during his third term, Erdogan imposed hefty taxes and restrictions on alcohol sales (Ozbilgin, 2013). The tax meant that Turkish Airline stopped serving drinks on domestic flights; stores could no longer sell alcoholic beverages between 10 pm to 6 am. Lastly, stores selling alcohol had to be at least 100 meters from places of worship or educational institutes. Violators were to face mammoth fines. Brushing away criticism, Erdogan defended his actions: “There are such regulations everywhere in the world. The youth of a nation should be protected from bad habits,” (Ozbilgin, 2013). As Erdogan consolidated his power, he used Islamism to change the social fabric, divide society, and legitimize his decisions through “pure” religious motivations. 

Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power.

Crowd protesting in Gezi parki, Taksim, istanbul on May 31 2013.

Erdogan also gradually and successfully turned the media and civil society into “public enemy number one.” The Gezi Protests, in 2013, allowed Erdogan to “otherize” anyone who questioned the government’s policies. Of people gathered in Gezi, he said: “Are the people only those at Gezi Park? Aren’t those who came to meet us at Istanbul airport people, too? Those who are gathered now in Ankara; aren’t they people, too?” Erdogan called on the protesters to face off in local elections the next year. “Instead of [occupying] Gezi Park or Kugulu Park [in Ankara], there are seven months [until the elections]. Be patient and let’s face off at the ballot box.”

The protests allowed Erdogan to play on the existential insecurity of Turkish voters. He played up conspiracies that Western or outside powers were trying to destabilize the country. This again played on the public’s collective paranoia, which dated back to the Treaty of Sèvres, when the allied forces divided the defeated Ottoman Empire. This lingering trauma is deeply rooted within many Turkish people. 

The Gezi Protests sprang up in the wake of a government plan to build a shopping mall and mosque on the site of Gezi Park, a public area in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. At issue was Erdogan’s clientelism: he was increasingly running the country by buying the patronage of various individuals. A vast majority of “welfare” projects were centred around privatizing public sectors, and this led to the rise of a new bourgeoisie who profited from the neo-liberal reforms. They were naturally loyal to Erdogan’s patronage (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Lowen, 2017)

The Gezi Protests erupted after nearly three years of “welfare” being used a guise to hand out contracts to Erdogan-friendly businessmen. The development of the park symbolized the frustrations of marginalized groups: public space was being privatized, to benefit Erdogan and his allies. The peaceful protests were met with state violence; 11 people were killed due to police brutality (Lowen, 2017). Erdogan “otherized” the protestors and their sympathizers, defining their support as “terrorism propaganda” or “insulting” the country’s leadership. He also attacked the media supporting the protestors and criticizing the government. In a statement, he said, “There is no difference between a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their pen and position to serve their aims” (Lowen, 2017).

Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power. All the while, he effectively dismissed any opposition as “propaganda.” 

In December 2013, a series of police investigations revealed corruption involving high-level AKP elite, including Erdogan’s son Bilal and three cabinet ministers. The regime refused to let the investigations proceed: Erdogan characterized them as a “judicial coup” carried out by members of the Gulen Movement and initiated a comprehensive crackdown against the Movement. The police officers in charge of the investigation were arrested. The prosecutors on the case were replaced, and the cases were subsequently closed. In the following months, the regime seized Gulen Movement-affiliated media organisations, appointing trustees and turning them into pro-AKP mouthpieces. They seized other Gulen Movement organisations and businesses, effectively usurping thousands of private properties (Day, 2016).

The Gulenists became yet another “enemy.” Erdogan alleged members of the Movement were wiretapping himself and other Turkish officials, endangering the state (The Guardian, 2014). Mass arrests of police, civil servants, and members of the judiciary followed. Erdogan accused Gulen of establishing a “parallel structure” within the state. Erdogan pledged that he would “go into their lairs” and bring an end to the parallel structure (Butler, 2014).

Amidst this backdrop, in 2015, Erdogan was elected President. He presented himself as the “man who holds Turkey together” amidst constant threats and crises (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020). Many of these conflicts and crises were of Erdogan’s making. 

The 2016 coup attempt was to become the magnum opus of Erdogan’s populism. He called it a “blessing in disguise.” Without evidence, Erdogan blamed the coup on Gulenists. He was targeting Gulen when he said, “I have a message for Pennsylvania (referring to Gulen)… you have engaged in enough treason against this nation. If you dare, come back to your country.” Following the coup attempt, any opposition to Erdogan and his party was opposition to Turkey, a country surrounded by “enemies” inside and out (Flinks, 2016)

The purge following the failed coup attempt was merciless. The remaining opposition was crushed. It is estimated that more than 150,000 public servants were deposed from their former jobs, and thousands more were arrested (BBC, 2020).

In the wake of the failed coup, a 2017 referendum abolished the office of Prime Minister, replacing it with an executive presidency. It gave President Erdogan the power to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the legal system, and impose a state of emergency (BBC, 2020). Erdogan had successfully “otherized” all potential opponents – Kemalist institutions, civil society organizations, and the media. These “others” were a threat to the very survival of Turkey – a thread made crystal clear during the failed coup attempt. Using populism rooted in anti-Western sentiment, pro-Islamist ideology, Turkish nationalism, and conspiracy theories, Erdogan suppressed dissent, broke institutional checks and balances, and established a “new elite” who were a loyal support base in the private sector for himself and his party. He was even able to co-opt the secularist and nationalist opposition parties (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020; Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). Under such circumstance, the referendum was always bound to pass. 

As President, Erdogan has become more belligerent, especially towards the West. The man who wanted to build bridges between the West, Middle East, and Turkey has been in constant spats with Western countries. Erdogan has been constantly creating and managing international crises, while at the same time fighting off the “terrorist threat” facing Turkey from Kurdish militias (Tol, 2020).

No credible opposition remains. With Kemalists drawn out of power, religious propaganda in his hand, and the creation of multiple “enemies,” he has a comfortable hegemony over Turkish politics. Religion is used to run his “security state” and shore up support. Since disbanding thousands of schools and educational institutes linked to the Gulen Movement, Erdogan has turned them into Islamist schools. The Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) is also used as a tool. His handpicked Islamic scholars have issued a fatwa to support the Erdogan regime’s actions following the coup. 

The views of his most adamant supporters are reflected in a comment by one supporter who expressed his feeling for President Erdogan before the 2017 referendum: “He speaks our language, gets aggressive like we do – and tells the world what we want to say” (Lowen, 2017). He has become the embodiment of “the people”: they see themselves reflected in his words and actions. 

Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war.

Supporters wait for the arrival of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a referendum rally in Istanbul on April 8, 2017. Photo: Thomas Koch

 

Leader of the Ummah

Modern Turkey still basks in the glorious history of its long Ottoman past. The collapse of the Empire as a result of Treaty of Sèvres led to the formation of the modern-day republic. Erdogan has harnessed the resentment, grievances, trauma, anxieties, fears, insecurity and siege mentality that still exist over the partition of the Empire, occupation of Turkey by the Western powers, the imposition of westernising and secularising Kemalism and its victimisations.

Thus, a wave of Ottoman restorative nostalgia is visible in Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy. Within Turkey, he has used the education system, media, and scheduling of public holidays to shape the common narrative: that Turkish Sunni Muslims should take pride in their Ottoman heritage. Through these gestures, he seeks to restore the country to its former “glory,” embedding the idea of “greatness” in Turks. Organizations such as TURGEV and Ensar are collaborations with the Diyanet to facilitate the construction of this narrative (Yabanci, 2019)

Moreover, Erdogan has not only banned critical content from the media. He has successfully replaced it with more “Islamist” or pro-Ottoman oriented content, such as the global hit “Diriliş: Ertugrul,” a fictional tale inspired by the alleged founder of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s support is visible for such shows when he visits their sets with his family members and “gifts” the show to fellow “brother Muslims” countries for free, in good faith, so that “young minds” can be exposed to a “counter” to Western influence (Banka, 2020)

Erdogan has used religion as a cudgel, to continue dividing society and consolidating his support. His ideology is perhaps best reflected in his speech after Hagia Sophia was controversially reconverted to a mosque, in 2020: “World War I was designed as a fight to grab and share Ottoman lands. In an era when the world order is shaken at the foundations, we will frustrate those who dream the same about the Republic of Turkey … We tear up those scenarios of those who want to siege our country politically, economically, militarily by realizing a much large vision … To those who are surprised by Turkey … rising again like a giant who woke up from its century old sleep, we say: ‘it is not over yet!’” (Global Village Space, 2020).

Media and educational institutions are broadcasting Erdoganist ideology overseas. Turkey has given the broadcasting rights of Ottoman-based fiction shows to Azerbaijan and Pakistan. At the same time, the Diyanet has been active in its engagement with the Turkish diaspora as well non-Turkish Muslim minorities living in the West. Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war: “The West sided with terrorists, and all of them attacked us. These include NATO countries, as well as European Union countries. Weren’t you against terrorism? Since when you have been acting with them?” (Jones, 2019)

His rhetoric was as strong as ever when he called the French people “sponsors of terrorism” and their head of state “retarded” in the aftermath of a crackdown on radical Muslims following the murder of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth (Mishra, 2020). He strained relations with Germany after issuing highly insensitive remarks calling out the “fascists” who “will never destroy Turkey’s honour” and asking Turks to “defy the grandchildren of Nazis” (Lowen, 2017). Not shying away from championing his “Islamist cause,” he has lent his sympathies to the Egypt based pan-Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and is known to showcase their four-finger salute called the “rabaa” (BBC, 2020)

In addition to lending verbal support to causes such as Palestine and Kashmir, the Turkish military has become involved in conflicts in various Muslim-majority countries such as Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan. It held joint exercises with Azerbaijan just before its conflict with Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh (BBC, 2020). Turkey has sent “peacekeeping troops” to Qatar, Somalia, and Afghanistan, further expanding its role in the Muslim world (Tol, 2020). While Erdogan harbours Sunni Muslim views, he has also urged the Muslim world to unite. 

At home and overseas, Islamist Erdogan is the Muslim leader who is the “real” one, representing the authentic values of “the people” or “ummah” – but mainly Sunni Muslims (Çapan & Zarakol, 2019). Erdogan’s version of Islam excludes not only non-Muslims, but also Alevis (Yilmaz and Barry, 2020). The “white Turks” at home are the domestic enemies, while externally, the Western and Zionist “lobbies” are out to cripple the Muslim world (Erdemir & Lechner, 2018; Yılmaz Z. 2017). Erdogan is the voice of the deprived “real” people, their champion against the interests of the “others.”

Ironically, his anti-Western stance and goodwill towards the ummah are circumstantial. Once, Erdogan pledged to seek justice for the Palestinians and has expressed antisemitic views; yet, the softening towards Israel by the Gulf countries has led Erdogan to also take a softer stance: he does not have a problem with the nation itself, but only “the top level.” He said, “It is impossible for us to accept Israel’s Palestine policies. Their merciless acts there are unacceptable.” However, he further elaborated, “If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different … We would like to bring our ties to a better point,” (Aljazeera, 2020)

While Erdogan has been critical of Western countries, exploiting the religio-cultural divides, he has been busy cultivating closer ties to countries such as Russia and China (despite China oppressing and detaining millions of Uighurs in an obvious attempt of genocide). Russia is an Orthodox Christian majority state, and China is a hybrid-communist state without an official religion (Tol, 2020). Thus, it is evident that religion is a means to an end, an effort to gain influence at home and abroad. It has worked: Erdogan increasingly presents himself abroad as the presumptive heir of the Muslim Ummah. 

He expounded on this in a speech he gave at the World Muslim Minorities summit in 2018: “Differences should not be an obstacle to love and brotherhood… Just like the direction of the Qibla — the direction that a Muslim takes when praying — is the same, the hearts of all Muslims are also same despite them being in different locations around the world … Today, attacks on Muslims and refugees have become commonplace in many states that practice democracy and law… Muslim women are being harassed on streets, at workplaces just because they wear headscarves. The Western world wants to defend its own ideology and way of life through anti-Islamism.”

While the Kemalists were embarrassed of their heritage, Erdogan has embraced Turkey’s Ottoman past. His narratives provide pride and hope to “the people.” He has promised them glory through nostalgic references and used a pan-Islamic populism that is transnational in nature to extend Turkey’s influence in Muslim countries. Erdogan has placed himself at the heart of dreams of the caliphate’s revival. He is the Islamist populist Muslim leader of an increasingly autocratic, populist and necropolitical republic that encourages its citizens to sacrifice their lives for the nation, state, religion and its leader (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021).

Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.”

The pictures of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk are seen at the building in Istanbul on February 14, 2014. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

 

Conclusion 

The republic is facing its first reconstruction. While Ataturk was the founding father of the Republic, today Erdogan has become the father of New Turkey. Having reconstructed the republic, he now seeks to influence the broader Muslim world (Genc, 2019)

His populism can be summed up as the “Erdoganist ideology” or “Erdoganism” (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018) and has helped him craft a new national identity based on “Islamism, majoritarianism, Muslim nationalism, authoritarianism, patrimonialism, personalism, [the] personality cult of Erdogan, Ottomanist restorative nostalgia, Islamist myth-making, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, victimhood, Islamist populism, civilizationism, anti-Westernism, resentfulness, vindictiveness, and anti-Western conspiracy theories to support and legitimize his position in power” (Yilmaz, 2021). In other words, he constructed all the tools to craft an Islamist populist political stage on which to rise. 

Beginning his journey in the midst of conservative and Islamist political parties, Erdogan understood that his early survival in politics depended on his ability to pose as a “democrat”; thus, he modelled himself and the AKP as “Muslim Democrat.” The only “others” were the corrupt, Western, and elite Kemalists. Thus, the first stage of his political life was supported by a heterogeneous “people” who were Kurds, non-Muslims, and conservatives along with those let-down by eight decades of Kemalist rule. By his third term in office, Kemalist institutions had been diminished, laying the groundwork the emergence of an autocratic leader. 

The second transitional phase in Erdogan’s political career came when he was faced with increasing homegrown opposition and rejection by the EU. Feeling insufficient, exposed, vulnerable, and attacked, Erdogan was successful in launching a series of attacks on any opposition. These were supported by conspiracy theories. Erdogan made Turkey a “vulnerable state,” attacked by conspirators, parallel structures, and devious foreign influence; only he, the strongman, could “save” Turkey restore its glory, dormant for 100 years. To consolidate power, changes in the constitution were introduced in the name of “security”; those defined as the “people” narrowed, driven by ultra-nationalism and Islamism. All the while, Erdogan assumed the position of a strong leader and guide for a great nation that was under attack from all sides. 

Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas, such as promises of a “great” Turkey or a “new Turkey.” Erdogan, the “leader” or “hope” of the Muslim world is the sole figure at the movement’s centre. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.” Erdogan has become once “the people” – his success is theirs, and vice versa (Yilmaz, 2021).

Erdogan’s intervention in the media and educational spheres mean Turkish youth are exposed to his narrative. Thus, not only has he been able to galvanize support from an existing voter bank; he has also been creating a “loyal army” of supporters who believe in the ideals of their leader and identify with an imagined Ottoman Islamist identity that instils in them a “duty” to spread Islam in the public sphere, establish ties with “brother” Muslim and Turkic peoples, and defend the “oppressed” Muslim world against the “anti-Muslim lobby” (namely, the West and Israel) and not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for this cause (Yilmaz, 2021).

With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled. All this has been done in the name of “the people.” After nearly two decades, Erdogan remains at the centre of it all. 

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Yılmaz, İhsan (2018). “Islamic Populism and Creating Desirable Citizens in Erdogan’s New Turkey.” Mediterranean Quarterly. 29 (4), 52–76. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10474552-7345451 (accessed on January 9, 2021).  

Yılmaz, İhsan. (2021). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge University Press. 

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[1] The word imam symbioses someone as a leader or model for Muslims 

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan. Photo: Awais Khan

Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021). “Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 10, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0006

 

Imran Khan is not the first to use populism to wield power in Pakistan. Religious leaders, political figures, and military generals have used faith and the promise of a better life to gain support or legitimize their actions. The uniqueness of Khan’s populism lies in the fact that he has been able to condense a host of diverse ideologies into a coherent populist narrative that has endeared him to “the people.” 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Imran Khan’s journey to the corridors of parliament is unique for a country like Pakistan. Most political personalities in Pakistan have risen from the landed elites (the jagirdars), a small group of business tycoons, or the military – the latter, dictators turned “democrats.” 

Pakistan’s first democratic, pseudo-populist leader, the iconic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a member of the landed elite in Sindh; his grandfather and father were both active in the politics of British India. Following Bhutto’s execution, leaders from his party, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), were family members, including his daughter Benazir Bhutto, his son-in-law Asif Ali Zardari, and currently, his grandson, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. 

The other major leadership during the country’s intermittent democratic periods have emerged from the Sharif family. With a background in the steel industry, the brothers Shahbaz and Nawaz Sharif rose to power in the 1980s, promoted by the dictator Zia ul Haqas as a right-wing counter to the left-leaning PPP. The Sharifs rose to power from the heartland of Punjab; today, the second generation of Sharifs is guided by Mariam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz, the faces of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N). 

Amidst this backdrop, smaller parties have also horse-traded, generally relying on fraternity, kinships, wealth, and religion to amass support. 

Imran Khan’s immediate family did not come from an elite business or agrarian background. Rather, he was raised in an upper-middle-class family with an engineer father and a homemaker mother. He did not pursue politics as a career until his late 40s; before politics, played international cricket. To understand Khan’s political personality, one must thoroughly understand his public image before his political career began.  

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

The Iconic Sportsperson  

It is notable that many populist leaders portray themselves as a political “outsider,” thus promising a fresh start. Khan is also considered an outsider. An iconic cricketer, Khan dominated the cricketing world in the 1980s and 1990s. He was an Oxford-educated, anglicized Pakistani sportsman who spent most of his time overseas. Even before he became a national hero in 1992, Khan was a well-liked figure in Pakistan, due to his boyish charm and sportsmanship.

He became a hero while captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team. Under his captaincy, Pakistan won its first and only Cricket World Cup in 1992 after a hotly contested match against England. Cricket is one of the most watched and followed sports in Pakistan and holds a deep national significance. To millions of Pakistanis, Khan was the leader who led the nation to the much-awaited victory. The victory is cemented in the collective memory of Pakistanis as a miracle made possibly by Khan’s leadership. The Prime Minster and his party members have repeatedly used the victory to reaffirm the people’s faith in the “Captain’s” capabilities.      

To gain legitimacy as a political leader, Khan extensively changed his personal outlook, from that of a Westernized cricketer to an Islamized philanthropic politician. In 1988, Khan published an autobiographical account of his life in Imran Khan: An All-Rounder View. Revised in 1993, this was an account of his cricketing career. He also discussed coming to terms with his Muslim heritage and identity after spending considerable time in Western institutions. Khan put out another title in 1989, Imran Khan’s Cricket Skills. This book was meant for fans of the sport, to be used as a guide for honing their cricket skills. Using his celebrity status, Khan published a travelogue, Indus Journey: A Personal View of Pakistan in 1990. After admitting that he had come to terms with his identity, in his travelogue, Khan crossed the country and relived his memories of visiting key settlements and remains along the Indus River, showcasing Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage[2]

Three years later, in 1993, Khan published Warrior Race: A Journey Through the Land of the Tribal Pathans. The books dug even deeper into his heritage. The progression of his books shows that during the last years of his cricket career, he increasingly identified with his Pakistani and Muslim identity, shunning his westernized influences. His increasing interest and concern for Pakistan was visible in the considerable amount of time he began spending on philanthropy. Khan established the first cancer hospital in Pakistan, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, in 1994. There was a personal side to this act, as Khan’s mother had succumbed to cancer which inspired him build the hospital. 

The hospital now has branches in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi (under construction). They provide world class free healthcare to oncology patients who could otherwise not afford treatment. Khan’s charitable work also led him to establish a not-for-profit educational institute, Namal. 

He accomplished these mega projects with tremendous support and faith from the public. He ran unparalleled cross-cultural campaigns to raise funds. The fundraisers were high-profile events; Princess Diana of Wales even attended one, while at the grassroots level, children called “Tigers” collected funds for the cause.  

The “reformed” image of an anglicized schoolboy become Pakistan’s hero philanthropist helped start Khan’s political career: Khan launched his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI),[3] in 1996. PTI was a small, personality-driven party, run by Khan and several of his close friends and family members. The party catered to the population with a promise of reformist ideals – to deliver “justice” to “the people.” 

Khan needed to cut his ties with this “Western” past. He needed to move from national hero to Islamic philanthropist. Starting his sentences with “Bismillah,” thanking god for his blessings, and using rhetoric claiming he’d fallen “victim” to the “colonial” ways before finding the “true path” helped connect him to many Pakistanis.

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

The Beginning of a Political Career

In his most recent publication, Pakistan: A Personal History, published in 2011, Khan largely focused on his struggles with the PTI. He repeatedly and aggressively asserts his “Muslimness” in this book, a shift that coincides with his changing political ideology. Khan aligned himself with the populist religious sentiments of the conservative populace, a necessity for gaining political support.  

Khan was married to Jemima Goldsmith from 1995 to 2004. Goldsmith comes from a well-known Jewish family from Britain; this was a huge problem for Khan’s public image in Pakistan, where anti-Semitism and Zionist conspiracy theories are common (Aafreedi, 2019). It was unclear during the period if Goldsmith accepted Islam or not, another scandalous issue for Khan. He was also frequently photographed at niche, elite parties, where alcohol was the norm.[4]There were alleged affairs with models and socialites, further tarnishing his image. To make matters worse, Sita White, an American heiress, claimed Khan was the father of her daughter born out of wedlock (a claim disputed by Khan)[5] (Irish Times, 1997)

Khan needed to cut his ties with this “Western” past. He needed to move from national hero to Islamic philanthropist. Starting his sentences with “Bismillah,” thanking god for his blessings, and using rhetoric claiming he’d fallen “victim” to the “colonial” ways before finding the “true path” helped connect him to many Pakistanis, who feel defying the “Western” way of life is a test of one’s Muslimness. 

Khan was offered positions in the government of dictator General Zia ul Haq in 1988 and later in a caretaker government in 1993; he declined both (Mir, 2018). His decision to stay as an “outsider” further bolstered his claims as a political leader not chasing money or power but seeking to fight for the people. 

Amidst this backdrop, Khan and the PTI competed in their first general elections in 1997. Their symbol was the cricket bat, despite Khan focusing more on his humanitarian work inspired by key Muslim figures such as Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Though the party lost handily, Khan stayed in the public eye. He was critical of the PML-N government and the military status quo under Pervez Musharraf. Khan’s message was simple: “end corruption, clear out the political mafias” (The Guardian, 2008). He again declined invitations and pressure to join the pro-Musharraf alliance led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-Q), once more maintaining his status as an outsider (Mir, 2018)

It was during this time that Khan became a fixture on the evening shows on several newly formed private television channels. He used this platform to voice his concerns for what he called “the people’s issues.” 

The PTI won their first seat in the National Assembly in 2002. Post-9/11, Pakistan was engulfed in the war on terror. Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan made it a close ally of the US and the Bush administration. On Pakistan’s western front, a porous border, wild terrain, a lack of governance, and the presence of local radical factions allowed for fleeing Taliban members to seek shelter. Over the next decade, Pakistan was seriously impacted by the war in Afghanistan. Public and military buildings – including markets, shrines, and schools – were targeted by  suicide bombers; radicalism surged, and so did the military’s involvement in various operations in an attempt to drive out the radicals. The US used drones to target various radical and Taliban leaders, killing large numbers of civilians and destroying property. The region saw an influx of refugees from Afghanistan and scores of internally displaced people, too. 

It was during this time that Khan became a fixture on the evening shows on several newly formed private television channels. He used this platform to voice his concerns for what he called “the people’s issues.” He railed against the government for not aiding internally displaced citizens and for becoming so dependent on the US, it wouldn’t object to the drone strikes on sovereign Pakistani soil. Educated, middle-class Pakistanis responded to his humanitarian narrative: “Are these people not humans? These humans have names. Drone attacks are a violation of human rights” (Chowdhry & Houreld, 2012).  

Khan took an openly critical view of the situation, and one of his interviews sums up his stance: “We (Pakistan and the CIA and USA), created these militant groups to fight the Soviets… Jihadis were heroes then……. the US packs up and leaves Afghanistan… And we were left with these groups…. Pakistan again joins the US (post 9/11) in the war on terror and now we are required to go after these groups as terrorists… so, Pakistan took a real battering in this” (Press Trust of India, 2019)

Opposition to government and US involvement continued throughout this period. These views were in line with public sentiment, as most conservatives opposed the US and civil society felt cornered under the autocratic, military-led government. Another humanitarian issue, popular in war torn areas and amongst civil society groups, concerned missing persons[6]. Khan also took up the mantle for this cause, specifically missing persons from Balochistan. Once more, the government was seen as negligent and too beholden to the US (Mir, 2018)

Khan was the politician who brought these issues to light while the PPP and PML-N stayed silent on matters regarding, for instance, the right to a free trial and other civil liberties and safeties. Khan was “brave” and “outspoken,” a man who spoke for “justice” by standing up to the US. After winning his first seat in the National Assembly, Khan continued his crusade against US influence and “puppet politicians” as he spent most of his time in office acting as a lone opposition voice on terrorism-related issues and civilian rights. By the end of the Musharraf regime, Khan had staged several protests – such as hunger strikes – for the restoration of unconstitutionally dismissed judges and actively took part in an alliance along with other major parties and civil society members to call for new and fair elections in 2008 (Inskeep, 2008; Walsh 2007)

Khan’s increasing anti-West rhetoric also coincided with his divorce from Goldsmith in 2004. The former cricketer, who once frequently wore Western clothes, now appeared increasingly in the Pakistani-styled kurta and shalwar and was no longer married to a “Jewish foreigner.” He increasingly raised “Muslim” issues and characterized the American war in Afghanistan and its impacts on Pakistan as a “West versus Islam” issue, a highly popular narrative with the general public. He became the face of the protests surrounding issue of desecrating the Quran at Guantanamo Bay in 2005. Khan exclaimed, “This is what the US is doing… desecrating the Quran” (Rajghatta, 2005). His comments greatly undermined Musharraf, causing mass civil unrest in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which led to 16 people killed in rioting in Afghanistan (The Week, 2020). As part of his opposition to Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror, he also led protests to blockade food and army supplies from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at the Peshawar highway, en route to Afghanistan (Express Tribune, 2011). All of this was viewed as “heroic” in the eyes of many Pakistanis who did not approve of their country’s involvement in the American’s Afghan war.       

Khan refused to partake in the 2008 elections, which he felt were not free and fair. Questioning the electoral credibility of the country’s democratic system added a new dimension to his populism. Before the elections he said, “Across the spectrum, from the right to the left, [Pakistanis] want Musharraf to go…. The U.S. administration must be getting this information. In Pakistan, according to all the polls, [U.S. officials] are backing someone who is deeply unpopular in the country” (Inskeep, 2008). He expressed deep resentment towards the regime.  Soon, Musharraf resigned, and a PPP-led government came to power while Khan remained outside politics until his party participated again in the 2013 elections, where they had their most successful campaign ever, winning a majority of seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. 

Remodelling the Kaptan[7]  

Khan rapidly rebranded from 2008-2013. His new, populist, Islamized brand was spread on private media channels and on social media platforms such as Facebook.

He increasingly asserted that his decision to enter politics was for “the people” and not for fame, money, or power – in contrast to the “corrupt elite” politicians who were in power. Khan also asserted he felt the “pain” of the masses and sought inspiration from the work of pan-Islamist philosophers and freedom movement political leaders, to finally realize the Pakistan that Muhammad Ali Jinnah had envisioned. Since his autobiography’s publication in 2011, Khan used the examples of Prophet Mohammed and the first four Muslim Caliphs to highlight his aspirations to deliver good governance on the “Islamic model.” 

By the early 2010s, Imran Khan had shunned his western ways and aligned with populist issues concerning religion and governance. He said, “I call them [‘Westernized’ Pakistanis] coconuts: brown on the outside, white on the inside, looking at Pakistan through a westernised lens” (Walsh, 2011). Before the 2013 elections, he leaned into anti-American rhetoric, anti-corruption slogans, and quick fixes to the people’s problems – and he spread this message at huge rallies called jalsas, hosted across the country. 

While Khan had become more “Muslim,” his outlook and rhetoric balanced this newfound religiosity with a host of liberal ideologies. While using references to Islam and anti-corruption slogans, he was also able to masterfully use crude, common, and at times bold language to challenge the status quo, which resonated with the masses.     

While Khan had become more “Muslim,” his outlook and rhetoric balanced this newfound religiosity with a host of liberal ideologies. On most issues, he remained vague – the biggest example of this being his conviction about the “good” and “bad” Taliban. Khan has repeatedly asserted that the Taliban were created by the US as a counter to the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s; abandoned by the US, these groups – originally called the Mujahideen – turned against their former allies, resulting in the 9/11 attacks (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017). Khan sought a peaceful resolution to the conflict and blamed the Pakistani and American governments for using controversial measures. To liberal factions, his call for meditation and rehabilitation was appealing, as military intervention had only made matters worse. At the same time, anti-West rhetoric was popular in conservative groups and his sympathy for the group, which Khan believed was justified by Islam, earned him the trust of extremist factions which previously saw him as part of Zionist conspiracy theories (Boone, 2012).

Khan saw cosmic justice or karma in the Taliban’s “freedom fight” against the “outsiders”; with full confidence, Khan asserted, “It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad …The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad” (Boone, 2012; Dawn; 2012). Khan supported the ultra-right-wing coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and opposed operations against radical militants in the tribal areas. He also protested madrassa reforms. Together, these stances earned him the moniker, “Taliban Khan” in international media – and favourable reception at home in both conservative and liberal circles (Pataudi, 2012; Guardian, 2005).  

Corruption and governance were frequent features in Khan’s vocabulary. The PPP’s leader, Asif Ali Zardari, was known for rampant corruption during his wife’s last two tenures as prime minister. This supported Khan when he called out the “corrupt elite.” The PTI leader soon attacked PML-N leaders, such as Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, questioning their development programs in Punjab – and in particularly Lahore, the province’s capital and the hometown stronghold of the Sharifs. These programs were accused of focusing on infrastructure and beautification, ignoring the rampant poverty. Khan cast himself as an outsider and promised to fix the “people’s” problems. He wouldn’t fill his pockets with “blood money.” Khan’s views can be summed up in an interview: 

“I have been critical of the generals in the past. I told them they are selling our blood for dollars…But this is not martial rule.[8] It’s up to our corrupt government to take responsibility… We [him and the PTI] would go back to the people”(Walsh, 2011).

Media and social media brought Khan unapparelled fame, as his populist rhetoric was well received by the masses who yearned for change and relief. PTI jalsas were a unique occurrence and designed to create an intimate connection between “the leader” and “the people.” PTI might have been the political party with many faces, but Imran Khan was the face of these gatherings. 

Paradoxically, Khan’s image successfully attracted members of the middle class to his gatherings. These events were like much loved melas[9]. Unlike other political rallies, they featured dancing – with women free to partake – and musical performance by leading Pakistani bands and singers. Particularly attracting urban younger and more “modern” citizens,[10] these rallies – headlined by fiery speeches by Khan – were a mainstay of social media; tabdeli was a trending hashtag. The huge fan following that Imran Khan amassed led his followers to be called youthias (youngsters), or more commonly insafyans (justice seeks). By the early 2010s, Khan’s populism was an amalgamation of piecemeal ideologies rooted in Islamism, anti-Westernism, anti-elitism, calls for public reforms, and a desire to give “power” to the people. Together, he was seeking change – or what he called tabdeli. Thousands had gathered at the PTI’s Lahore gathering in 2011, making Khan a formidable contender by the 2013 general elections. 

The PR rebranding had paid: had transformed from a Western captain to an Islamized kaptan (Urdu word for captain). These mass gathering were called tsunamis – a symbol for the revolutionary change that Imran Khan would bring; using his “bat” he would “knock out” the wicked and corrupt and lead the country to the “people’s victory” and “glory.” 

This image was not accidental: it was crafted in the speeches Khan delivered. While using references to Islam and anti-corruption slogans, he was also able to masterfully use crude, common, and at times bold language to challenge the status quo, which resonated with the masses. He was considered bold for calling out the state’s pattern of taking a “begging bowl” to the IMF or US. At the same time, he crudely yet hysterically poked fun at Zardari and the Sharifs on the basis of their appearances or policy decisions, evoking deep emotions through his charisma combined with a “common” style (Kari, 2019).        

Khan became a pop cultural icon. Clothing lines designed women’s clothing such as kurtas and scarfs with Khan’s faces on them; kids and women painted their faces with the colour of PTI flags for the rallies (Dawn 2015). Fan carried or wore pop-art posters and badges. Wearing an Imran Khan themed item was a political statement against the status quo. Khan’s online army of insafyans was busy sharing video featuring his rallies and quotes, as well as memes comparing him to the country’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Mufti, 2016).

Polls showed that 68 percent saw Khan as the favoured leader in the county. During this period, Khan’s “official account got around 100,000 hits daily and a Facebook account [received] 500,000 [hits]” (Mufti, 2016). The virtual space worked in his favour; given his background as a sports star, he knew how to optimize his public presence and earned the title “Facebook Khan” (Gulzar, 2018). Khan was a national populist phenomenon who captivated conventional and social media.     

Social media followers still rave when Khan’s official account posts his workout pictures, which make him seem active, hard-working, and glamorous compared to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif, known for his gluttonous indulgences. Khan’s social media army is highly intolerant of any opposition directed at their leader; they have been known to be abusive towards various factions of society, a sign of how deeply they believe in Khan and his message. Some call them “blind followers” (Mehdi, 2013). The supporters’ sentiments have been adopted by Khan’s increasingly autocratic populism. He has openly targeted his critics by calling them agents of “India’s fascist government”; since taking power, he has simply used regulatory authorities to muffle dissent or criticism directed towards him or the party.                

From Pakistan’s Last Hope to “U-Turn” Khan 

Imran Khan successfully framed the election as a choice between corrupt politicians and an honest man who already had money and fame but was willing to risk it all because he felt the nation’s pain and wanted to restore Pakistan to greatness.

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to his supporters during public gathering held on December 11, 2012 in Lodheran. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

 

Mainstream Opposition (2013-2018) 

Before 2013, Khan announced that his party would hold internal by-elections to prove they were different from the mainstream parties, which remain feudalistic and hereditary. This further strengthened his image as a populist outsider who was willing to diverge from business as usual. However, this was merely a distraction from the criticism that was mounting when PTI welcomed “electable” politicians – defectors from the mainstream political parties (Mufti, 2016).Khan’s experience made him understand the need for electable politicians. Khan argued: “You contest elections to win. You don’t contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win. I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe. I can’t import European politicians” (Rehman 2018). In a party statement, PTI said: “The nation must strengthen the hands of Imran Khan since he is the only politician who can steer the country out of the prevailing crisis” (Sadaqat, 2017). Thus, anyone critical of the party’s leader was a supporter of the corrupt elites – or, worse, an unpatriotic citizen who did not want to make Pakistan a better place. “True people” were those who supported PTI; the rest were naïve or traitors and following the “old ways”; they weren’t ready for the change that would build a “New Pakistan.”           

Two major developments occurred when Imran Khan secured his tenure in the 2013 elections. Firstly, PTI formed a provincial government in KPK province by aligning with the ultra-right Jamaat-e-Islmai (JI). Khan pledged to reform KPK over the next five years. The party implemented new policies, include welfare reforms, a reformist agenda for public office, an effort to improve technology, and calls for justice. All of this was in line with Khan’s promises for a naya[11]Pakistan (Daudzai, 2018).  

The technocratic solutions in KPK, made to directly benefit the people, were placed in sharp contrast to the infrastructure-led developments made in Punjab, the stronghold of the Sharif brothers and the ruling party. He mocked the PML-N leaders as jangla-Sharifs with their jangla bus project;[12] While Khan’s policies benefitted the people, the PML-N was accused of using development projects to support their steel business by pocketing public funds (Daily Motion, 2017). PTI’s tree planting drive in KPK also earned Khan great support, as he became a rare politician who was concerned about climate change in a country where the leaders never pay attention to it (Gishkori, 2020).  

Unfortunately for Khan and the PTI, it was soon clear that his populist agenda was not easily translatable into effective policies. While KPK was the model for PTI’s policies, the technocratic reforms brought little development for the common people, as governance – especially at the local level – remained incapacitated, making it impossible to implement policies (Daudzai, 2018).

Moreover, Khan had pressed for “peaceful” resolutions to the insurgent violence in the province; yet during the PTI’s tenure, two military operations were carried out – Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad. Further, to appease the JI faction of their coalition, Khan turned a blind eye to the Islamization of school curriculums in the province; rather than rehabilitation and deradicalization – a PTI promise – public education was Islamized, with Quran classes made compulsory in schools (Abbasi, 2017; Dawn, 2014)

Ironically, Khan – who had opposed the Lahore transit project launched by Shahbaz Sharif – developed his very own metrobus project in Peshawar, KPK’s capital. He carefully marketed it as holistic, transparent, cost effective, and for the people; in reality, the project was behind schedule and over budget (Khan, 2019). And after having railed against corruption, Khan’s “tree tsunami” project was embroiled in a corruption scandal (Gishkori, 2020)

To divert attention from PTI’s failure to deliver on its promises, Khan used his time in office to attack PML-N’s leadership. It was an effort to gain anti-establishment support. Khan’s magnetic presence in the media allowed him to shift attention elsewhere. His crafty oratory, frank mannerisms, and fiery speeches made him the man to “save” Pakistan from the PML-N’s corrupt leadership. 

Khan successfully framed the election as a choice between corrupt politicians and an honest man who already had money and fame but was willing to risk it all because he felt the nation’s pain and wanted to restore Pakistan to greatness (Yousaf, 2015; Dailymotion, 2016).

His skills were highlighted when the 2014 “Azadi March” was launched. It featured scores of political rallies across the country, and PTI joined hands with the right-wing religious party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), which was spearheaded by Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri for a mass sit-in in Islamabad. The mission of the march was to “unmask corruption,” but Khan famously said, “This [the Azadi March] is beyond it [election rigging campaign]… the Pakistani people are not sheep that can be herded; we must empower people” (Dailymotion, 2014).

The usual jalsas were attended by thousands. They were no longer just for the middle class, but the working class, too. Khan gained support for his naya Pakistan agenda. His plan merged three key elements: Islamism, conspiracies, and a promise for welfare reforms. The country was seeing price hikes of basic commodities despite huge foreign investments being made by China. Khan merged the ideologies of welfare-ism and Islamism when he promised that naya Pakistan would be modelled on the state of Medina, from the times of Prophet Mohammad. Khan promised to end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days, and a key feature of this promise hinged on bringing “back every single penny of the looted money from the corrupt political leaders” (The News, 2020). 

Khan introduced a highly ambitious 100-day agenda which promised to bring back looted wealth and to implement welfare policies and governance for the people (Pakistan Today, 2018). His party has presented him as the “struggling hero” who sleeps on the ground or in a container, in the cold, just like the ordinary people. The party has also emphasized his struggle to bring power to the Pakistani people and to guide them in the light of the Qur’an and best Islamic practices, to eliminate the injustices and corruption of the political elite and foreign powers (Dailymotion, 2014).

The release of the Panama Papers further aided Khan’s cause of driving out “corrupt politicians,” when the names of Nawaz Sharif and his family members surfaced in money embezzlement cases. Khan promised vengeance and liberation from the “blood sucking” politicians, a message that especially resonated with young voters. One of his speeches summarized his tone: “Nawaz Sharif! Nawaz Sharif you shall be held accountable! You all shall be held accountable! Nawaz Sharif you will be the first one held accountable and after that each and every one shall be accounted for!” (YouTube, 2016). The crowd chanted, “Go Nawaz Go,” in support of Khan – the chant became the number one trending hashtag in Pakistan. 

In addition to the mass rallies, Khan pushed court cases against Nawaz Sharif and his family members; this led to the former being disqualified from office. During a “Thanksgiving” jalsa[13] Khan started his speech by thanking Allah and congratulating the masses on their first “victory.” He claimed this was only the beginning of the country’s journey to greatness (Khan, 2016). Like most populists, Khan promised deliverance without clear plans, yet the pro-public sentiment of his statements earned considerable support among the disaffected populace.  

By 2018, Khan had transformed into a kaptan by promising a Muslim welfare state where all the corrupt sinners would be jailed and Pakistan would no longer be a beggar or a puppet of America. Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification was his trophy, which he flaunted to the public ahead of the 2018 elections.

Imran Khan previously criticized politicians as “ribbon cutters” who used ceremonies for PR purposes; however, since assuming office, he has attended countless ceremonies of projects that have been launched at the planning level but have not yet been fulfilled. Faced with constant U-turns, Khan has also used a blend of conspiracy theories and misuse of state institutions to distract from the shortcomings of his leadership and government. 

Imran Khan, addresses a press briefing on April 20, 2016 in Islamabad. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

 

Leadership (2018-Present)

Since assuming office as prime minister, Khan has done something of a U-turn. Since coming to power, the PTI has been unable to deliver on any of its promises, other than building a special task force to recover looted national wealth (Dawn, 2021). Promises of shelter, social welfare, youth job creation, access to quality education, and other ideals have been left on the drawing board or halted (Dawn, 2021). For instance, the promise to end corruption in the first 100 days vanished

Imran Khan previously criticized politicians as “ribbon cutters” who used ceremonies for PR purposes; however, since assuming office, he has attended countless ceremonies of projects that have been launched at the planning level but have not yet been fulfilled (Qayum, 2020)

To gain clout, Khan has successfully renamed welfare programs for PR purposes; for example, the Benazir Income Support Program’s (BISP) elements have been merged and branded with the Ehsas Welfare Program; and health cards that were launched during the last government are now rebranded as the Sehat Suhalat Program (Shat Suhalat, 2021; Junaidi, 2016). Such rebranding is a common practice in Pakistan. Khan promised to end Pakistan’s “brain drain” by inviting technocrats from overseas to “fix” the country, and so far, it has ended in a disaster, as Tania Aidrus, who was leading the digital Pakistan initiative, has resigned, and Zafar Mirza, the advisor on heath, did the same. Khan’s failure to deliver has meant that his promise to attract foreign investment from expat Pakistanis has failed to materialize (Khan, 2020). 

Not only has Imran Khan been unable to instil change, but under his leadership, a lot of backtracking from promises has been made. Two examples include Dr. Atif Mian being dismissed from the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) based on his religious identification with the Ahmadi school of thought,[14] and Khan taking “the begging bowl” to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after years of severe criticism of the IMF (Farmer, 2020; Dawn, 2020). 

Faced with constant U-turns, Khan has used a blend of conspiracy theories and misuse of state institutions to distract from the shortcomings of his leadership and government. Since coming into government, he has used the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to attack opposition media such as the Jang Group and subsidiaries such as Geo Channel (Ellis-Petersen & Baloch, 2019). Under the Khan government, any anti-state or government content seen on social media is portrayed as an “outside” attack, intended to alter the perspectives of Pakistani citizens (Butt, 2021)

Moreover, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has, throughout PTI’s tenure, targeted various PML-N leaders on suspicion and accusations of corruption. While there are credible accusations of corruption, PTI has mostly escaped scrutiny despite similar allegations (Farooq, 2020; Shar; 2019, Zubair, 2019). In addition to PEMRA, Khan’s government has created tighter rules for social media regulation under the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020; these acts grant the government a permit to ask Google, YouTube, and other sites to ban or block content they consider unfit (Chabba, 2020).

Khan has also been directly confrontational towards the judiciary. In 2007, he went on a hunger strike to support the judiciary, and in 2017, he praised them for their “just” decision to dismiss Nawaz Sharif from office; during his tenure, he has pressured the judiciary on two occasions. Khan and the PTI used parliament to overrule the judiciary, extending the service tenure of the Chief of Army Staff. He also challenged the death sentence handed out to dictator Pervez Musharraf.Referencing Musharraf’s death sentence, Khan said, “People’s trust in judicial system has been shaken” (Dawn, 2020)

Khan’s tenure has seen increasing inflation and unemployment, in addition to the already dire economic conditions. The opposition parties have formed a coalition to challenge his office. Khan has called this opposition anti-state and enemies of the state; he’s called them “Indian” agents and members of foreign plots against Pakistan. This populist rhetoric resonates with Pakistanis who have been using conspiracy theories for decades to externalize the nation’s failures. Thus, it has now become a fight between the “state” and its “people.” Imran Khan has publicly called Nawaz Sharif a traitor, and Khan’s government has banned media from airing Sharif’s speeches due to “seditious” content (Dawn, 2020). 

Khan and PTI have also deflected attention by externalizing blame. He uses the “honest man” strategy, positioning himself as the one humble man the people can trust. He believes that he had an “unfair” start because the system is so corrupt and damaged that he cannot deliver his promises with 100 days. He admits his failures and has pled with the people to give him time; he promises he will deliver only if they have “faith in him” (Khawar, 2020). Simultaneously, he has also externalized blamed, pointing the finger at India for allegedly sponsoring terrorism in the country and lobbying against Pakistan in the global arena. These are highly sensitive nerve endings amongst the public, who feel touched by Khan’s humbleness while also feeling sorry for his plight. All the while, they believe his claims; a majority of Pakistanis view India as a malicious actor.

Imran Khan has used the state apparatus to launch witch hunts against political rivals and silence opposition. This is dangerous in a country where, historically, the separation of power between the judiciary, parliament, the state bureaucracy, and security forces are muddled.

Enthusiastic Youth going towards the venue Minar-e-Pakistan to attend Imran Khan’s political rally on October 30, 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

 

Khan’s Populism and its Consequences  

Imran Khan is not the first to use populism to wield power in Pakistan. Religious leaders, political figures, and military generals have used faith and the promise of a better life to gain support or legitimize their actions. The uniqueness of Khan’s populism lies in the fact that he has been able to condense a host of diverse ideologies into a coherent populist narrative that has endeared him to “the people.” 

An example of this is the Single National Curriculum Plan (SNCP), which aims to bring equity to the education system by having a single curriculum for public and private schools. In a country where quality education is a privilege few enjoy, SNCP is a symbol of equity and the promise of justice in naya Pakistan. At the same time, its highly Islamized aspects – including teaching Quranic verses and the life and sayings of the Prophet (from a Sunni interpretation) – appease the religious sentiments of the populace. SNCP also represents a move away from “Westernized” education to a more indigenous model. PTI advertises SNCP as true to the values and norms of Pakistani culture (in reality, Sunni Islamic culture). Thus, in one policy proposal, Khan combines anti-Western and anti-elitism with Islamism and reform.

In three years, Khan has used the state apparatus to launch witch hunts against political rivals and silence opposition. This is dangerous in a country where, historically, the separation of power between the judiciary, parliament, the state bureaucracy, and security forces are muddled. Khan has again merged various ideologies such as anti-corruption, anti-elitism, conspiracies, and a quest to make Pakistan a “just Islamic state” modelled on Medina to justify his vindictive, autocratic behaviour. 

These choices have set up a choice between the “people” – that is, those pure ones on the right (religious) side – and those who oppose the people. This latter group includes traitors and Indian spies, members of the elite, or those brainwashed by Western sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The “otherization” of critics and those who do not identify with Khan’s narrative leaves little room for pluralism.                   

Khan’s merged ideologies and populist rhetoric are primarily defined by Islamism as a way of viewing the world and an agent of change to answer all social issues. His supporters are overwhelmingly young (again, a majority of Pakistanis are under 30), which makes his support worrying. His tenure has promoted Quranic education, Muslim victimization, a wave of pan-Islamism, and fear of the “West” and non-Muslims. For these policies, and radicalizing the country’s youth, Khan has been named amongst “The Muslim 500” (The News, 2020). When a number of Shia and ethnically Hazara were massacred in 2021, Khan blamed India for “sponsoring terrorism,” even though his policies have done little to ensure that interfaith harmony is promoted in an already radicalized society. 

Captaincy of the country has led Khan to make many compromises or U-turns; his image as a political “outsider” or miracle worker are no longer valid; he has struggled to turn populist dreams into the reality of a naya Pakistan. To cover his shortcomings, like other populist leaders, he has misused power and deflected blame to imagined external threats. He also doubled down on his populism, “otherized” internal critics, and tried to construct their criticism as illegitimate. Moreover, by codifying populism into educational policy and spreading conspiracy theories, Khan’s tenure is likely to have far-reaching consequences for Pakistan’s social fabric.

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Footnotes

[1] Tabdeli is an Urdu work that is used to describe reform and change. This word has become synonymous with Imran Khan.    

[2] The Indus River is the largest river system in Pakistan. Historically, cities and settlements, from north to south, have developed along the river. Thus, it holds immense cultural significance.   

[3] Pakistan Movement for Justice  

[4] In Pakistan possessing and drinking alcohol is a punishable offense.   

[5] In Pakistan sex outside marriage is a punishable offence. The Hudood Ordinances, at the time, consisted of Zina (extramarital) Ordinance, which before 2006, could hand jail sentences of up to 10 years along with stoning to death for the adulterer and a public whipping of 100 lashes for a fornicator. 

[6] In Pakistan ‘missing persons’ are people who have gone missing by being abducted or killed by state intuitions. These occurrences have also been called the ‘enforced disappearances.’   

[7] Captain 

[8] Talking about the central PPP Government and PML-N Punjab government

[9] Funfairs where locals celebrate with family and friends. They were once a common occurrence in Pakistan, but the wave of suicide bombings severely limited or hampered these once frequent occurrences where dance and music were common.   

[10] It is noteworthy that Pakistan has one of the youngest populations around the world. People under the age of 30 make up over 64% of the total population.  

[11] New Pakistan 

[12] Jangla-Sharif refers to the Metro Bus project in Lahore. PML-N had heavily invested in infrastructure projects during their two terms in Punjab.   

[13] After the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif Khan gathered his supports in a ‘Thanksgiving’ rally as they were ridded off ‘kind of corrupt.’    

[14] Ahmadis are a subsect of Muslims who have been declared non-Muslims in Pakistan; they are a highly persecuted group who face discrimination and even loss of life due to their religious affiliation. Extremist right-wing groups consider them wajib-ul-qatal (eligible to kill).   

Greta Thunberg, climate activist, has been demonstrating on Fridays outside the Swedish Parliament. Photo: Liv Oeian

Greta Thunberg: Climate Populism As Productive Double?

This commentary considers aspects of populism that Greta Thunberg’s climate movement exposes and transforms. Dr. Hart also considers Thunberg’s “spectrum superpower” and the force of activist community-building in a climate crisis that is already here.  

By Heidi Hart

In today’s polarizing politics, xenophobic populism is usually seen as a distant opposite of grassroots progressive movements. The reductive binary of evil twin/good twin is tempting, too, but what happens if we look at ways in which a youthful climate movement mirrors and transforms populist action? The double or Doppelgänger, when it appears in literature and film, is both familiar and other, in Freud’s sense of the uncanny (Glynn, 2016). If viewed through the mirror-lens, Thunberg’s role as an unexpectedly charismatic leader of a viral movement can seem as populist as that of autocrats who whip up nationalist feeling in their followers. What her work does, though, is to reveal the power of soulful activism to transform group dynamics for an outward cause rather than toward self-preservation. Though her position as a white female from a wealthy Nordic country has overshadowed less privileged young activists (Mernit, 2019), Thunberg’s movement is a useful case study in how populist impulses can speak truth to power, to use the old Quaker phrase, rather than sow fear and hate. 

Climate populism, which “tends to take ‘the people’ to be a global subject rather than a national project” and has led to the “quick uptake” of projects like the Green New Deal, can certainly risk dilution (Bosworth, 2020) and denial of Black and Brown community concerns (Coleman, 2021). At the same time, it holds potential for what Geoff Mann and Joel Wainright have called “Climate X,” a future vision that does not compromise endlessly for the sake of neoliberal planetary “management” on the one hand or surrender to autocratic oppressions on the other. This vision calls for “a rapid reduction of carbon emissions by collective boycott and strike,”[i] very much in line with Thunberg’s project. Though the authors recognize the “impractical” idealism of transnational, anti-capitalist revolution, from the neoliberal perspective, they hope for class struggles and local, Indigenous-informed efforts to “subtract” communities from damaging power systems,[ii] taking inspiration from the “palpable urgency”[iii] in mass movements like Fridays for Future.

Thunberg’s unexpected “superpower” (Rourke, 2019) in her Asperger’s has been remarkably effective in focusing the Fridays movement on specific, concrete goals rather than on feel-good platitudes. In its “ghost” role as a suppressed aspect of normative European culture,[iv] the autism spectrum exposes gifts buried under assumptions that “human” means “neurotypical” (Morris, 2004). In a recent essay by Thunberg’s mother, related to the family’s new book,[v]Malena Ernman recounts Greta’s years of facing bullying at school while refusing to eat at home. After being diagnosed with “high-functioning Asperger’s” and beginning to talk about her humiliations at school, Greta found her vocation in the very dissonance she experienced, painfully, between modern comforts and planetary disease. “She saw what the rest of us did not want to see. It was as if she could see our CO2 emissions with her naked eye” (Ernman, 2020).

Having been raised in a well-educated family, with an opera singer mother with the luxury of posting “sun-drenched selfies from Japan” – and later regretting this (Ernman, 2020) – Thunberg continues to call attention to the blind privilege of travel as consumption and to corporate powers whose carbon footprints dwarf those of even the most profligate tourists. 

Thunberg’s insistence on uncompromising truth about global warming, her sailing to the US for the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 (Brady, 2019) despite criticism for white yachting privilege (Parker, 2019), and her ability to stare down Donald Trump (Rosen, 2019) have led not only to internet fame but to an equally viral youth movement as well. Online spread via YouTube videos, memes, and tweets is common to both far-right and climate populism, but younger activists disrupting autocratic power structures bring an open, 1960s-like energy to their efforts (Ellis, 2019)

Thunberg has certainly inspired Gen-Z activists to TikTok their way to organizing Black Lives Matter events and embarrassing Donald Trump at a largely empty rally (Herrman, 2020). At the same time, she does not take credit as a sole actor, citing her own inspiration from the Parkland shooting survivors in the US and from earlier activists, many unrecognized because they did not come from the global North and “many of whom had been raising the climate alarm for years.”[vi] Thunberg also recognizes that although the Fridays movement may have started with her lonely, quiet presence outside Parliament with a sign, it has grown through “the work of thousands of diverse student leaders, their teachers, and supporting organizations.”[vii] The recent documentary on Thunberg has received some negative reviews, not because it adds to scoffing from the right or left, but because it valorizes her as one savior figure in a movement that needs multitudes, a critique with which she would agree (Bradshaw, 2020).

The power of the pause – refusing to attend school once a week, holding one’s ground despite the bullying Thunberg now faces on a global scale – has proven inspiring to many in its own right. In a world that runs on an assumption of “endless growth” fueled by extractivism,[viii] simply stopping normal routines can open up a space for questioning what “normal” even is. The COVID year has brought to light what privileged humans deeply fear: failure of the drive for more stuff, more speed, more work, more travel, more development, more corporate comforts. In this very stoppage, though, is hope for a planet already in crisis. In her recent video, released close to the Paris Agreement’s five-year anniversary, Thunberg reflects on how little “big speeches” have done to halt carbon emissions and enact the “system change” the planet needs (Common Dreams, 2020). Her own speeches may be small in comparison, but they serve a crucial role in calling for a halt to the mythology of endless growth. 

So, what comes next? A 2020 document published anonymously in France, more radically subverting individualist privilege than Thunberg’s movement does, holds that neither calling out governments on the one hand nor altering consumer habits on the other is enough to address climate crisis at its depth. This text, titled “Re-attachments” (Anonymous, 2020/2021) does call for strikes and direct action (along the lines of Mann and Wainwright’s “Climate X” and Thunberg’s stoppages) but adds another antidote: an ecology of “presence” rather than “absence.” 

This means that instead of feeling helpless in the face of mass extinctions and lost habitats, we can mourn these while fostering commitment to new forms of community in an already compromised world. “In order to develop constituent forms of material and political autonomy, we need to communize spaces, land, wastelands, buildings, churches, houses, and parks” (Anonymous, 2020/2021). Learning from Indigenous practices of ecological co-regulation (in a respectful way, without cultural extractivism or appropriation) can aid in developing stronger bonds between humans and other species, too. Greta Thunberg’s model of quiet, searing clarity has been a giant step toward mobilizing climate action; the communities her work continues to form, in contrast to the chat rooms of fear-based populism, may be its greatest gift.   


References

[i] Mann, Geoff & Wainright, Joel. (2018). Climate Leviathan. Verso Books. p. 160. 

[ii] Ibid. 175.

[iii] Ibid. 173.

[iv] Mindell, Arnold. (1995). Sitting in the Fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Lao Tse Press. 69-70.

[v] Thunberg, Greta and Malena Ernman, Svante Thunberg, Beate Ernman. (2020). Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis. Penguin.

[vi] Klein, Naomi. (2020). “On Fire.” All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. Penguin Random House. p. 42.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Higgs, Kerryn. (2016). Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. MIT Press.

Supporters of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wave party flags during an election rally in Istanbul on June 3, 2015.

The AKP’s Authoritarian, Islamist Populism: Carving out a New Turkey

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). “The AKP’s Authoritarian, Islamist Populism: Carving out a New Turkey.” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 5, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/op0005

 

The global tide of populism will leave a profound mark on Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) success during the past two decades, has hinged on Islamist authoritarian populism and been driven by its long-time leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “New Turkey” is now a reality. The AKP has been successful at dismantling the Kemalist ideals – ironically, perhaps, by using similarly repressing techniques, such as cracking down on civil liberties and democratic rights.

By Ihsan Yilmaz

The Survival of Islamic Parties in Turkey

The Republic of Turkey was born in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a symbol of power in the Muslim world for over six centuries. The decay and eventual collapse of the Ottomans following the First World War left the former Ottoman populace facing an identity crisis. With the monarchy disbanded, Turkey embarked on a transformative journey –a new republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who is credited with moulding the country in his image. The “Kemalist” ideology hinges on six pillars: republicanism, nationalism, statism, populism, laicism, and reformism, all standing in sharp contrast with traditional Ottoman Muslim culture (Los Angeles Times, 1991)

For approximately eight decades, Kemalism prevailed as the state’s main narrative, with its intense focus on a homogeneous nation rooted in Turkish identity and disassociated from its Ottoman past. However, since the core of Ottoman rule was religion – the Ottoman Empire was the last remnant of the “caliphate” – the new Republic isolated a large number of conservative citizens. The focus on nationalism also isolated a significant number of non-Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims, and non-Turks. 

The leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) initially positioned itself as a populist party that voiced the anxieties and grievances of the populace by not only representing the conservative factions but also a number of individuals/groups who felt rejected by Kemalist principles.

Yet, during its two decades in power, the AKP has increasingly identified with the “black Turks,” those who felt excluded by the politics of the “white Turks.” However, this has merely isolated the “white Turks.” Power, in contemporary Turkey, now rests with religiously “pure” Sunni-Turks predominantly from Anatolia. This populace embraces their “glorious” Ottoman past and seeks vengeance for decades of being wronged by Western powers and the “white Turks,” who are held up as representatives of Western ideals.  These “black Turks” – deeply religious, predominantly Anatolian Sunni Muslims – are “the people.”   

The AKP has been successful at manoeuvring its way into power by tapping into the population’s latent anxiety, paranoia, resentment, a sense of victimhood. The party has further divided Turkey between “the people” and “the other.” Increasingly, it uses the same tactics to defend its autocratic tendencies (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The AKP’s populism has gradually eroded Kemalist nationalism, birthing a new institutionalized narrative for Turkish citizenry – a “New Turkey” (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020). The AKP has constructed this counter ideology using autocratic populism legitimized by Islamist nationalism (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).

Late Islamist populist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

The AKP is the first successful modern Islamist party to complete its term in power, in Turkey. Formed in 2001, the party comes from a line of members who have either been directly involved with or influenced by a series of right-wing ideologies, primarily from Necmettin Erbakan and his political parties. Erbakan’s Milli Gorus (National View) had, since the 1970s, given a generation of Turkish politicians a right-wing, pan-Islamic inspiration and direction. Milli Gorus focused on calling Muslims to save Islam from becoming lost in Western values, thus calling Muslim “brothers” to unite in their efforts against the quote “Zionist” lobby. Erbakan, throughout his life, was a vocal critic of the West and “Zionists.” He was known for his anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic statements: 

All Infidel nations are one Zionist entity”; “Jews want to rule from Morocco to Indonesia”; “The Zionists worked for 5,767 years to build a world order in which all money and power depend on Jews”; “The US dollar is Zionist money”; “The Jewish ‘bacteria’ must be diagnosed for a cure to be found”; “Zionists initiated the Crusades”; “Jews founded Protestantism and the Capitalist order”; “Bush attacked Iraq to build Greater Israel, so Jesus can return” (Vielhaber, 2012).

Traditionally, the highly secularized military had kept major Islamist parties at bay, while the majority of the public had been “secularized” by  the ideals of Kemalism. Yet, eight decades of crafting a new identity amongst a highly diverse and somewhat religious populace had created fissures in the society. 

Founding members of the AKP, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arinc, were raised on such rhetoric. They would eventually belong to the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi – FP). The FP was banned for violations against the constitution, which protected the Kemalist ideology. The disbanded members of the FP formed two separate parties – the AKP and the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi – SP) (Koni, Rosli, & Zin, 2015)

Traditionally, the highly secularized military had kept major Islamist parties at bay, while the majority of the public had been “secularized” by  the ideals of Kemalism. Yet, eight decades of crafting a new identity amongst a highly diverse and somewhat religious populace had created fissures in the society. Not only did Sunni Muslim factions feel marginalized, but so too did Kurds (15-20 percent of the country’s population) and Alevi (10-15 percent of the population). These groups were institutionally discriminated against or denied recognition, all in an effort to form a singular Turkish identity. This would be an ideal citizen, the secularized Sunni Turk (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017)

Widespread discrimination created resentment against the Kemalist governments. The AKP found an opportunity in this growing discontentment. It emerged as a “Muslim Democrat” party that would represent the discontented Sunni conservatives and historically marginalized ethnic and religious factions. In 2001, the AKP broke away from the Milli Gorus doctrine and positioned itself as a centre-right party. It was for the people and an answer to the rifts within society. 

While the AKP took a more reformist agenda with younger leaders from the former party, SP was led by Erbakan and a group of older Sunni Muslim men who stood by their hard-line views rooted in Milli Gorus. The AKP craftily separated itself as a reformed religiously “moderate” democratic party that offered an alternative to the status quo – the promise of liberalized Islamic democracy. One of Erdogan’s statement shows how he viewed the new party: “We don’t need bearded men who are good Koran reciters; we need people who do their job properly” (Genc, 2019).

The February 28, 1997, came down hard on Islamists and other non-Kemalist parties. The AKP’s earliest version used this oppression to position itself as a better alterative compared to the “secular elite” led by the military establishment. It became the voice of “the people”: Erdogan promised the party was dedicated to the welfare of the people rather than any ideology or personal agendas. “A cadre will run the party,” he said, “and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader…” 

His role was that of an “orchestra chief,” in his own words. The “age of me-centred politics is over,” he insisted (Genc, 2019). The AKP cautiously stepped into the corridors of power in 2002, winning 34.28 percent of the vote and defeating the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP). The military took a “wait and see” approach to the AKP; as a Turkish diplomat in 2002 said: “Erdogan knows what will happen if he oversteps a line.” 

Tip of the Iceberg: Two Sides of the AKP  

The performance of the AKP during its initial years hinged on making Turkey a prosperous nation – it was what their reformist agenda promised. They needed to make the economy strong, improve public welfare, and make Turkey a “bridge” between East and West. However, over the years this promise disintegrated and the AKP evolved into a populist authoritarian party. 

In 2007, to secure a second term in office, the AKP showed an early sign of its populism. Under Kemalist principles, to modernize and secularize society, women were barred from wearing a headscarf in public offices and educational institutions. The AKP predominantly represented Muslims; the potential first lady wore a headscarf. This was a point of contention –a clash of two ideologies, between the Kemalists and the AKP. As the AKP sought to reverse this ban, they were met by harsh criticism from the military, a digital campaign called “a digital coup”, and massive “Republican Rallies” in major cities calling out the increasing role of Islam in the supposedly secular fabric of Turkish society. 

In a bid to stop the AKP, a trial was launched by the military to keep the party in check. The trial did not lead to the AKP being banned, but severely limited the party’s funding. However, this fed into the AKP narrative of the corrupt elite and military trying to interfere in the democratic process.

The ceremony of Third Bosphorus bridge was attended by then Turkish President Abdullah Gul and then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 29, 2013 in Istanbul. Photo: Sadik Gulec

 

In a bid to stop the AKP, a trial was launched by the military to keep the party in check. The trial did not lead to the AKP being banned, but severely limited the party’s funding. However, this fed into the AKP narrative of the corrupt elite and military trying to interfere in the democratic process. It very successfully played to the victimhood and fear of its conservative voter base, which had felt always coerced by the “westernized” military trying to impose “un-Islamic” principles on them. It also played the “humanitarian” card, where it defended freedom to practice one’s religion. As Hayrünnisa Gül explained, “There are not more headscarves than before; the headscarf-clad women have begun to be more active and as a result of this, more visible in social life” (Elver, 2014). The AKP won a second term with even more votes than in 2002. 

The AKP’s second term saw the infamous Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. These were the AKP’s first moves to ensure that the Kemalist institutions could no longer threaten the party. The trials targeted Kemalist military generals and their accomplices, who were accused of plotting a coup against “the people.” During these trials, the AKP successfully used anti-Kemalist media propaganda and the anxieties of the Turkish people who had been denied freedoms by the “elite and military.” They needed the judiciary to “set an example” of those who tried to interfere with democracy. 

The trials were the preamble to the AKP’s 2010 Constitutional Referendum, which proposed a number of amendments to the Turkish constitution. In the build-up to the vote, the AKP increasingly positioned Kemalist institutions, like the military and judiciary, as the “enemy of the people” through Sledgehammer and Ergenekon. The 2010 referendum limited the military’s power and also paved way for more political control over the judiciary. It also financially benefitted the pseudo-capitalist AKP by allowing businesspeople with tax debts to go overseas (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017; Şahin & Hayirali, 2010). Essentiality, “the others” were defeated in favour of “the people.” The vote, to conservatives, represented that the “White Turks” had been dealt with – a reward for the former’s decades of suffering and humiliation during the Kemalist era. 

There was a marked change in the AKP’s posture following 2010. In early 2013, the Gezi Park protesters were brutally dealt with, and, to deflect criticism, the AKP painted them as “enemies” of the people. After this point, any opposition directed towards the AKP was “otherized” through a host of conspiracy theories playing on fear and paranoia. The Gezi Park protests, which began as a movement against the government’s plans to convert the public park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square into real-estate development, were peaceful – until riot police arrived and brutalized the protestors (Julia, 2018).

Civilians were visiting the Gezi Park and Taksim Square during Gezi Park protests at night. Photo: Ipek Morel

 

These peaceful protests were a symbol of resistance against the AKP’s clientelism, Islamism, and increasing autocratic tendencies. The riot police’s intervention led to many arrests and the deaths of 11 individuals. In the party’s defence, Erdogan emphasized that the protestors were Western sponsored liberal “terrorists,” who opposed development. He said, “we need to be courageous,” in defence of the riot police’s actions. Thus, civil society was deemed pro-Western, foreign-sponsored “terrorism” – in stark opposition to the “black Turks,” who were pious, pure, and dedicated to the party and state. The two – party and state – had become entwined, as the AKP was the flagship of faith and hope for security and prosperity (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017).                

The AKP’s first two terms were marked by several welfare-centric policies and public works that were promoted by the government, which helped it maintain the people’s confidence. This period saw a huge flux of neo-liberal reforms – including privatizing the public sector, which promised improved service delivery, and infrastructure development. These reforms drastically improved the country’s socio-economic standing in less than a decade. 

While these measures temporally improved conditions, in reality, they were – and are – being used as means to an end by the AKP. The party has currently plunged the country into an economic crisis, with inflation rates touching 12 percent and the Turkish lira drastically reduced against the US dollar. The crisis has only been made worse by the COVID-19-induced economic slowdown (BBC, 2020).      

Crony capitalism obscured by welfare-ism and neo-liberal reforms has placed AKP loyalists in various businesses, reinforcing a strong support (and donor) base for the party. The AKP uses state institutions as revenue collection bodies. Privatization and public procurement offices reward loyalists and punish opposition-owned or aligned businesses (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). Recklessly seeking financing for mega infrastructure projects has increased the public debt, yet the showcase projects have appealed to the general public. AKP supporters often espouse the view, “Sure, he may be stealing, but look at the new airports, hospitals, roads and bridges!” (Bilici, 2020). In other words, through such public investments, corruption is made socially acceptable. Thus, the AKP has successfully made visible changes to show that it has been doing something for the people, all while rewarding its loyalists and punishing opposition groups within the business and media communities. 

The AKP’s corruption was widely exposed for the first time in the December 2013 corruption and bribery scandal. In a leaked phone call between Erdogan and his son Bilal, they discussed how the father was not pleased with a bribe of USD 10 million being offered by Sıtkı Ayan, a fossil fuel company owner. Erdogan, who was then Prime Minister, urged his son, “Others can bring it, so why can’t he, huh? Who do they think is? But they are falling now, they’ll fall on our laps, don’t worry!” (Bilici, 2020). This bribe won Ayan and his petro-company a bid to construct a natural gas pipeline connecting Iran and Turkmenistan to Europe; in addition to winning the contract, the company was granted a huge state subsidy excepting it from various taxes (Bilici, 2020). A clear pattern is visible where the Treasury guarantees various loyal businesspersons when they try to access European banks for growth and investment (Bilici, 2020).  

A few months earlier, the AKP launched an attack on another civil society group: it labelled a pluralistic Islamic organization, known internationally as the Gulen Movement, as an enemy of the people. This attack was done to deflect attention from the government’s corruption, shifting the public’s attention. It was an autocratic move disguised as populism. Those who took up further investigations were soon purged by the AKP government. As the AKP gained more power, the identity of the “other” was constantly shifting – from Kemalists and “White Turks” to Gulenists, all of whom were used as scapegoats to divert attention from AKP corruption and to eliminate future opposition. 

Following the corruption probe, thousands of police officers, judges, and prosecutors were purged from their jobs – allegedly for “spying” on the government. Gulenists were accused of having erected a parallel structure within the state, undermining the AKP’s “pure” efforts. The government claimed members of this parallel structure had fabricated the corruption scandal. A potential critic was once more silenced through autocratic means. 

Another example of the AKP using populism to further its position in power revolves around its shattered hopes to join the European Union (EU). During its first two terms, the AKP faced pressure to meet EU membership requirements. To do so, the AKP not only needed to show that Turkey was financially prosperous – at that time, the country was on the road to achieving it – but it also had to comply with liberal democratic values. Its “Muslim Democrat” image was useful – it potentially offered a successful hybrid of Islam and liberal democratic values (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017). However, post-2013, the AKP’s increasing autocratic tendencies and the EU’s disinterest in Turkish accession have ensured that the AKP is not shy about its Islamist autocratic behaviours.  

Alongside creating a new bourgeoise to support itself, the AKP has also silenced freedom of the press by dismantling critical media and redistributing its “bounties” to pro-AKP media figures. This creates an environment where the AKP’s autocracy goes unchallenged, and the cover for it are fear and conspiracy-driven narratives that justify the AKP’s strict actions.

The AKP government appointed trustees to Zaman Media Group in Istanbul on March 4, 2016.

 

To hide its crony capitalism, the AKP has not only targeted civil society but also punished several media entities who have proved critical of the government. A prominent example is the Ipek Media Group, a media house which was even charged in court for “causing terrorism.” The media house was brutally raided, with police breaking windows and firing tear gas. The result of the charges led to a trial and subsequently the company was stripped of a significant number of subsidiaries that were given to public officials and its operation was handed out to designated “loyal” AKP trustees. The 2016 coup attempt led to the total shutdown of Ipek Media Group and forced the family to flee overseas, as members of the family were sentenced to as many as 79 years in prison for allegedly being members of a “terrorist group” (Bilici, 2020)

Thus, alongside creating a new bourgeoise to support itself, the AKP has also silenced freedom of the press by dismantling critical media and redistributing its “bounties” to pro-AKP media figures. This creates an environment where the AKP’s autocracy goes unchallenged, and the cover for it are fear and conspiracy-driven narratives that justify the AKP’s strict actions.

The autocratic tendencies have spread to the international sphere, too. In the spirit of liberal democracy, the AKP during its first term offered to launch a joint investigation with Armenia, a “fact finding” regarding the genocide which Turkey has denied for decades. The Ottoman genocide of the Armenian population has always been a controversial topic in Turkey; the previous Kemalist regimes and governments refused to recognize it. Armenia refused the AKP’s offer and demanded outright recognition (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). Over the next decade, as Turkey’s EU hopes faded, the AKP used the Turkey-Armenia rivalry to gather populist support at home.

Increasingly, the AKP has blended its autocracy with Islamism and pro-Turk nationalism, which is carried out through penal populism. In a trickledown of the post-2013 events, the AKP has promulgated an image of “being tough on crime” by criminalizing the ever-expanding category of “others.”

The party has also practiced “trans-populism.” In 2020, the AKP involved itself in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia (BBC, 2020). In a proxy-war facilitated by Azerbaijan, Turkey emerged as a “strong” Muslim nation, militarily boosting its neo-Ottoman claims at home and allowing the AKP to distract the Turkish people from the country’s dire economic situation. By claiming a victory for “the pure people” and the “ummah,” the AKP bolstered its Islamist image and justified its foreign interventions.  

Increasingly, the AKP has blended its autocracy with Islamism and pro-Turk nationalism, which is carried out through penal populism. In a trickledown of the post-2013 events, the AKP has promulgated an image of “being tough on crime” by criminalizing the ever-expanding category of “others.” For example, in 2015, the AKP strained relations with the Kurds by dismantling a truce with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); the party needed a new antagonist to divert attention for the party’s own failures (Karadeniz, 2015; Smith, 2005). Erdogan justified his government’s actions by positioning pro-Kurdish factions in the society as a threat: “It is not possible for us to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood” (Karadeniz, 2015). The end of the truce meant that domestic terrorism rose in the country, creating the need for a party that was “tough.” Of course, the AKP fit the bill. 

The Kurds – specifically the PKK – had already been side-lined under previous Kemalist governments. Even speaking Kurdish can land a person in jail in Turkey. But the AKP drummed up a security conflict to make the populace feel threatened and insecure, ensuring that people desired a “strongman” party to once again lead them out of this “crisis” (Karadeniz, 2015)

The AKP’s use of penal populism is not limited to Kurdish separatist groups. To curb opposition political parties, the AKP has craftily extended this “threat” to encompass not just “terrorist” Kurdish separatists but also any party that is sympathetic to the ethnic group. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) routinely secured a significant number of votes in local elections, helped mediate the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, and, in the 2015 parliamentary elections, briefly became the third largest party in the country. Following the 2016 coup attempt, the HDP has been widely persecuted by the AKP based on allegations of “ties” to the PKK (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017; Karadeniz, 2015)

The AKP has successfully used security crises as a pretext to use state institutions of law and order to persecute potential political opposition. After the HDP’s decision to defy Erdogan and enter the next election, Erdogan started the re-certification of the HDP, saying, “I visited 5 cities, the mayors of which were members of HDP. None of those mayors came to welcome me. Because they had orders from the mountains. They are commanded by the mountains. They have no will of their own.”[1]

Here he is referring to the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK’s headquarters are, implying that the HDP mayors – who underwent security checks and clearances by Turkish judicial institutions and intelligence agencies before the elections and were democratically elected – were terrorists. 

The AKP’s shift from pluralist to right-wing Islam is a way of legitimizing the AKP’s position as it plays on the trauma and victimhood many Turks have experienced since the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Hagia Sophia was converted into the mosque by the Erdogan regime in Turkey on July 10, 2020. After that, several groups have celebrated the decision in front of Hagia Sophia. Photo: Ugur Ferhat Baloglu

 

In a similar vein, the AKP had promised to return properties seized from various minority groups, including the Holy Cross Armenian Cathedral on Akdamar Isle in Van Lake and the re-opening of the Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir. These promises became a token of good faith. Erdogan even said, “The times when a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religion, ethnic origin, or different way of life are over” (Sheklian, 2018; Arsu, 2011). However, when faced with a severe economic crisis and other policy failures, the AKP instead chose to rely on Islamic populism to solidify its support. In 2020, the two iconic Istanbul churches were converted from museums to mosques, the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Serhan, 2020). 

Hagia Sophia’s first congregational prayers after its reconversion were led by Erdogan himself and Ali Erbas, the head of Diyanet (the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs). Erbas said, “The reopening of Hagia Sophia… is the return of a sacred place, which had embraced believers for five centuries, to its original function.” This conveniently denied the church’s rich past tracing back to Byzantium (Dawn, 2020).

This shift from pluralist to right-wing Islam is a way of legitimizing the AKP’s position as it plays on the trauma and victimhood many Turks have experienced since the end of the Ottoman Empire. In this instance, the AKP promises retributive justice for the wronged “Black Turks” by restoring what is rightfully theirs.     

After more than a decade in power, the AKP lost its Parliamentary majority in 2015. However, it maintained significant control through the presidential office, which Erdogan had assumed. To undo the effects of the 2015 elections, a number of “disasters” took place, always orchestrated by the “enemies” of the Turkish people. Erdogan called an early election due to PKK terrorism and the government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists (Cornell, et al, 2015). Following the July 2016 coup attempt, the AKP was able to consolidate nearly all political and legal power in its hands. 

What actually happened during the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, is still murky. Whatever happened, it was the distraction the AKP needed to deflect attention from its increasing autocracy and other policy failures. Fethullah Gulen, once viewed as an AKP ally, had been public enemy number one since the fallout after the 2013 corruption and bribery scandal. The AKP accused Gulen and his followers of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, supporters of Gulen were purged from their jobs; many were arrested or forced to flee the country (BBC, 2020)

What actually happened during the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, is still murky. Whatever happened, it was the distraction the AKP needed to deflect attention from its increasing autocracy. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, supporters of Gulen were purged from their jobs; many were arrested or forced to flee the country. Within a year, the AKP obtained absolute power through a constitutional referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one.

A military coup attempt plunged Turkey into a long night of violence and intrigue on July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.

 

Within a year, the AKP obtained absolute power through the 2017 Constitutional Referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This change gave Erdogan – now president – the power to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the legal system, and impose a state of emergency (BBC, 2020). The AKP had successfully used populism to prey on the populace’s fears and insecurities. The party had also succeeded at labelling all opposition – Kemalists, Gulenists, civil society, political parties, and the media – as threats to the country. Thus, the government justified the highly inhumane and undemocratic arrests carried out following the failed coup. 

As part of this purge, the AKP seized media companies and educational centres. The party understood these institutions posed a threat to its populism. The organizations were shuttered or became AKP mouth pieces. Post-July 2016, the AKP took over or closed down all educational institutions associated with the Gulen Movement. The institutes taken over have been given to pro-AKP NGOs or the Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The AKP government also used it ties with certain countries to extradite Gulen employees living abroad, close foreign Gulen-affiliated school, and re-open the schools under control of loyal NGOs or other organizations (Aljazeera, 2016).

The AKP has effectively used terror to sow multiple conspiracy theories to delegitimize the “others.” Not only has the government accused Gulen of masterminding the coup attempt, but it also claims the Gulen Movement is funded by the United States and bent on destroying Turkey. 

Excuses like this create an external enemy while also covering up AKP failures. For instance, the former Finance Minister explained why the Turkish currency was so devalued by blaming, without any evidence, foreign conspirators: “Some countries are in [on] this scheme, as well as financial institutions and the interest rate lobby. These include some Muslim countries, too. I will not name names here, I am only drawing the framework” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2018). Thus, America and the “Jewish lobby,” along with its Gulf allies and Saudi Arabia, are the biggest “enemies.” 

This myth is further legitimized in the public view when it is linked to the Treaty of Sèvres, which partitioned Ottoman territories among European powers (this was followed three years later by the Treaty of Lausanne, which created the Republic of Turkey, but also disconnected it from its Muslim past). Thus, capitalizing on this past trauma, the AKP has incited fear of “outside conspiracies” that seek to destabilize the country. The country hides behind these conspiracies while also using them to solidify its base. 

According to the AKP’s narrative, reinforced through its nearly total control of the media and the Diyanet, “New Turkey” is destined for greatness. Erdogan, in recent years, has vowed “not to make the same mistakes again” in reference to facing “defeat” at the hands of the Western-Jewish lobby. In one of his speeches, he made this explicit: “World War I was designed as a fight to grab and share in Ottoman lands. In an era when the world order is shaken at the foundations, we will frustrate those who dream of doing the same about the Republic of Turkey… We tear up the scenarios of those who want to besiege our country politically, economically, and militarily … To those who are surprised by Turkey’s rising again, like a giant who woke up from its century-old sleep, we say: ‘it is not over yet!” (Global Village Space, 2020).

The AKP has crafted a “New Turkey,”  a country populated by paranoid, insecure, vengeful, and conservative Muslims. As opposed to the stigma attached to traditional ways of life under Kemalism, the AKP’s “New Turkey” has created space for the Sunni Muslim citizen to fully embrace his or her religious heritage.

A Supporter of ruling AKP holds party flags during an election rally in Istanbul, Turkey on June 3, 2015. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

The AKP and its ‘New Turkey’ 

The AKP has always been the party of Erdogan. The pre-2017 Turkish constitution highlighted that anyone selected as President must abandon his/her affiliation with any political parties and remain impartial. However, when Erdogan was elected president, in 2014, he ignored this. Even after his election as president, he did not fully separate himself from the AKP. He wanted to rule over the party through proxies. For example, fearing of losing his influence on the party, Erdogan did not let the AKP, then under Ahmet Davutoglu, form a coalition government after it lost its majority in June 2015 and instead pushed for a snap election in November of the same year. He also forced Davutoglu to resign/abdicate party leadership in favour of an Erdogan loyalist, Binali Yildirim.  Those posing a threat to Erdogan’s control of the party – including founding members – were gradually eliminated (Pitel, 2020). Having changed the constitution and introduced a sui generis presidential system in April 2017, Erdogan “legalized” his connection with the AKP and he resumed his role as party leader. This phenomenon is named the “President with a party system (Partili Cumhurbaşkanlığı sistemi) (Gözler, 2017).

Following the 2017 referendum, Erdogan now has the ability to choose his own officials for the highest offices in the country, ranging from the judiciary to vice chancellors of universities. This foundational change to Turkey’s democratic structure was made possible by the AKP’s populism. The party used the anxiety over “the other” to justify its desire for a more centralized government. The formation of the “President with a party” system was the final step in the AKP’s authoritarian transformation. The AKP can use force entirely at its discretion, as a large portion of the population trusts the party to keep them safe. 

Thus, the AKP has crafted a “New Turkey,”  a country populated by paranoid, insecure, vengeful, and conservative Muslims (Yilmaz, 2021). As opposed to the stigma attached to traditional ways of life under Kemalism, the AKP’s “New Turkey” has created space for the Sunni Muslim citizen to fully embrace his or her religious heritage. That same citizen fully believes that Turkey is ready to avenge its historical loss – the destruction of the Ottoman Empire – and dominate the world once again. All the while, the AKP ensures that any threats to this new utopia are dealt with swiftly and strictly; no one can “mess” with Turkey like they once did.  

Erdogan and his party have emphasized their position as “authentic Turks.” For instance, Erdogan famously said, “In this country there are White Turks, as well as Black Turks. Your Brother Tayyip is from the Black Turks” (Ferguson, 2013). At this point, any dissenting voices are either jailed or driven out of the country, as they are not truly representatives of “the people’s” views and are deemed foreign propaganda (Göknar, 2019)

To religiously legitimize its authoritarian turn, the AKP has relied on fatwas and support from religious institutes to provide it validity. For example, Diyanet’s head, Mehmet Gormez, issued a statement after the 2016 failed coup attempt. It read: “Praise to Allah for granting the calls to prayer that silenced the coup, after the [past] coups that have silenced calls to prayer” (Fabbe & Guiler, 2016). Adding more divine legitimacy to the issue, Erdogan added that the coup attempt was as “a gift from God” that has “fortunately” unmasked the “parallel” structures within the state, thus saving the people, their party, and the leader (Fabbe & Guiler, 2016). 

The AKP is now extending its populism to other countries. It has been busy generating a neo-Ottoman narrative rooted in a blend of civilizationalism and pan-Islamism. Turkey is increasingly involved in Africa and Asia’s Muslim-majority countries. This takes the form of joint military exercises, trade agreements, welfare programs, cultural exchanges, lending diplomatic support, and at times aiding in conflicts. Recent examples include support given by Ankara to Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir territory. Erdogan also boosted Turkey’s role in Libya, saying, “The road to peace in Libya goes through Turkey” (Maziad and Sotiriadis, 2020).

To consolidate support ahead of the next election in 2023, the AKP is floating an expanded neo-Ottoman fantasy – that Turkey has the “right” to demand the return of its lost Ottoman territories in Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, and Iran. According to Erdogan, after 100 years, the Lausanne Treaty will have come to an end; then, Turkey will wield its “real” influence – influence that has been kept in check by Western power and financial lobbies (Elitas & Serpil, 2019)

Increasingly, the AKP and Erdogan have positioned themselves as the rightful heir of the Sunni Muslim world, referencing their Ottoman past and Muslim Democrat image. This posturing hasn’t always taken the form of overt political manoeuvring: the famous AKP-supported TV serial, “Dirilis: Ertugrul,” has taken by storm a number of countries where “New Turkey” looks to deepen its influence. The story narrates the fictional, humble-yet-courageous beginning of the Ottoman Empire at a time when disunited Muslim tribes were victims of the Crusaders and “pagan” Mongols. Thus, according to the story, the Muslim’s plight was answered by Ertugrul, who eventually established the Ottoman Empire (Maziad and Sotiriadis, 2020). This show is spreading Turkey’s neo-Ottoman narrative – that Turkey has the solutions to problems facing the (Sunni) Muslim world.  

The AKP-led “New Turkey” has been built around nepotism, clientelism, authoritarianism, conspiracy theories, populism, and an Islamism closely mirrors the Milli Gorus ideology that, at one point, the party was eager to distance itself from. Yet today, the AKP proudly espouses these values, working them deep into the socio-political fabric of Turkish society (Cornell, at all 2015).

Whatever happens in 2023, it is undeniable that the AKP has transformed Turkey from a Kemalist state to a more right-wing Islamist populist state that seeks to export its ideas and influence on other Muslim majority countries. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli

The AKP’s Future  

Turkey’s 2019 local elections showed that the AKP has fallen in popularity – at least in cities, where the CHP remains the main opposition force (Gill, 2020). Although the AKP won a plurality of votes, the CHP won the mayoral elections in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, Turkey’s three biggest cities.  

In the past, the AKP has shown tendency to successfully either engulf parties within the AKP or shut them down. However, it is still unclear what the AKP will do about the CHP as the critical 2023 general elections draw closer. It must not be forgotten that the AKP draws most of its support from rural areas; thus, its defeat in secularized cities cannot be a clear indication of its nationwide defeat. The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the Turkish economy, and the financial situation may only get more precarious as the Turkish lira sinks even lower against the dollar. Erdogan has fired a number of officials that have been used as scapegoats, including his very own son-in-law, the now former finance minister, Berat Albayrak (Gill, 2020).

Whatever happens in 2023, it is undeniable that the AKP has transformed Turkey from a Kemalist state to a more right-wing Islamist populist state that seeks to export its ideas and influence on other Muslim majority countries. 

Conclusion 

The global tide of populism will leave a profound mark on Turkey. The AKP’s success during the past two decades, has hinged on Islamist authoritarian populism and been driven by its long-time leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP and Erdogan are like conjoined twins. During his one interregnum as leader, during his first presidential term, he ruled the party through his proxies and then changed the Constitution to “legalize” his control over the party and the parliament. 

Although the AKP once campaigned as a Muslim Democrat party, it has over the years turned to Islamist authoritarianism and populism to hide its failures and transgressions, exploiting Turkey’s existing anxieties and religions and ethnic divides to survive. It has gradually expanded the definition of “the other,” starting with the Kemalist elite before demonizing civil society, “foreign-sponsored” Gulenists, and non-Turkish groups such as Kurds. All of these “others” have been used as scapegoats, creating an atmosphere of terror that the AKP has used to curb any political opposition. All critical media and educational institutions have been subdued into silence. Almost no critical voices remain in Turkey. Those who might speak out risk being labelled a traitor. By creating a state of constant threat, the AKP can resort to calls for “law and order” – something that only the strongman AKP can deliver. Thus, the party can justify “going tough” on the various “terrorists” who are trying to undermine the nation’s wellbeing, further eliminating any opposition.            

The party uses three gambits to support itself. First, successive changes to state institutions have led to displacement of the former Kemalist regime and strong institutional checks and balances. Second, the presidential system increasingly allows the AKP to legitimately practice its authoritarian actions and policies. It uses the same power to crush any political, civil, or media opposition. At the same time, it has used educational institutes and the Diyanet to spread its narrative, producing a generation of AKP loyalists who are susceptible to the anxieties that the party has used to amass power and secure its future. Lastly, the AKP has been able to use its position in power to create a new bourgeoisie, one whose business deals are facilitated by public officials; in return, a patronage-based relationship is established, to ensure the AKP has powerful friends and allies in the private sector. 

“New Turkey” is now a reality. After twenty years of AKP rule, the party has been successful at dismantling the Kemalist ideals – ironically, perhaps, by using similarly repressing techniques, such as cracking down on civil liberties and democratic rights. Yet the AKP’s ideology is a dangerous entanglement of religion and nostalgic pride in Ottoman culture, giving it unparalleled legitimacy in the eyes of its Turkish supporters and also in the eyes of Muslims around the world, where the AKP seeks to export its specific variant of populism.  

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[1] https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/news/542/32504/cumhurbaskani-Erdoğan-adanada

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021). “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement.” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 3, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/op0004

 

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) used to be an activist party at a time when civil society was highly subdued under a military regime. Through modest civil disobedience, it has graduated to the status of a formidable opposition party. It has used populist rhetoric and tactics to delegitimize and “otherize” the conventional parties and position itself as the ideal voice and hope for “the people.” It has used a wide array of ideologies to support its populism, which tapped into deep-rooted anxieties in the public’s psyche.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Since its inception, Pakistan has faced several crises of governance. As a young state, it lost its founding father in 1948, hardly a year after its birth, leaving the country in the hands of relatively inexperienced politicians who mainly came from the landed elite. Poverty, ethno-linguistic rifts, civil war, a lack of economic output, and refugee crises – along with internal and external security issues – all challenged the country, which oscillated between military dictatorships and brief periods of populist democratic-turned-autocratic governments.

The late 1980s and 1990s brought a window of opportunity for political parties; however, during government instability coupled with corruption and resource mismanagement led to the general public seeing their needs unmet. Through consecutive failed democratic governments led by the two main parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), corruption, rampart poverty, insecurity, and growing external debt were core issues. Amidst this backdrop of crumbling institutional capacity emerged a small party called the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).[1]

PTI was founded by the iconic Pakistani sportsman, Imran Khan, in 1996. Khan was a national hero: under his captaincy, Pakistan’s national cricket team has won its first and only Cricket World Cup in 1992, after a hotly contested match against England. He was a well-respected public figure who had spent a considerable amount of time in philanthropy, establishing the first cancer hospital in Pakistan. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre was established in Lahore on 29 December 1994. In 1985, Khan’s mother had scumbled to cancer, inspiring him to build a hospital for the poor who had no access to cancer treatment. There are now branches of the hospital in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi (the latter under construction), and they provide world-class free healthcare to oncology patients who could otherwise not afford the treatments. 

Khan’s charitable work also led him to establish the not-for-profit tertiary educational institute, Namal. Khan had spread his campaigns across every section of society, making him a beloved figure. His fundraisers were high profile – Princess Diana was even present at one – while at the grassroots level, children called the “Tigers” collected funds for his causes. Thus, when Imran Khan launched PTI in 1996, he was seen as an honest and dedicated figure, despite speculation about his ability to survive the Pakistani political arena. He had no history of corruption and, most importantly, was a man who felt dard (pain) for the common people. 

Activists of Tehreek-e-Insaf are holding protest demonstration against detention of social media activists by law enforcers on May 22, 2017 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

From an Infant Party to Activist Party 

PTI in its early years struggled to gain a mass following. With no experience in politics, surviving in a country like Pakistan was difficult. Most mainstream parties have dynastic, feudalistic, and baradari (caste-based) voter banks and roots. In the first elections that it contested, in 1997, the party was unable to win a single seat in the national or provincial assemblies. In this period, it didn’t accept offers by PML-N to join their party, as PTI believed the status quo to be corrupt. 

Throughout the latter part of the 1990s, PTI’s membership was restricted to a group of reformist elite who were seeking to address Pakistan’s core issues, such as poverty, health inequality, out-of-school children, and other human development issues. A group of Western-educated members under the leadership of Khan, himself an Oxford graduate, sought to bring change to the people. 

Following the Kargil disaster, where Pakistan was defeated by India in the disputed territory of Kashmir, a military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government. In 2001, Musharraf instituted the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, installing himself as President and calling for fresh elections in 2002. Post 9/11, PTI remained a one-man party, and it supported Musharraf’s reformist agenda of eradicating terrorism and other core issues. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League Quaid (PML-Q) won the most votes in 2002, and PTI, in its second election, won one seat in the National Assembly, from Mianwali Khan’s hometown; it formed a coalition with minority parties jointly called the National Alliance (NA). 

PTI refused invitations from Musharraf to join the ruling coalition, remaining true to NA coalition, one that included prominent figures such as the former President Farooq Ahmad Lagari and religious cleric turned politician Tahir-ul-Qadri and his Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT). Winning a seat in the National Assembly gave PTI a platform to voice its agenda. The head of the party made proactive use of Pakistan’s newly privatized media landscape. During the Musharraf regime, censorship was a huge issue, yet the media market was also highly liberalized; as a result, several private news channels emerged (Hasan, 2017).

It was during primetime talk shows that PTI gained a market for its populist ideals. Imran Khan became a fixture on media shows and spread, in the early days, an “activist” populism. By this point, Khan opposed the authoritarian Musharraf Presidency and his supposed “US backing.” For the second time in two decades, America had involved Pakistan in its affairs with Afghanistan. The “war on terror” led to a number of Taliban crossing the porous Pakistan-Afghan border and to seek refuge in the tribal Western regions of the country. The “Talibanization” of these remote areas led the US to attack many hotspots in Pakistan via drone strikes – strikes that killed a large number of innocent civilians as well as militants. 

Pakistan was caught in the crosshairs. On the one hand, US drone strikes; on the other, the Taliban frequently targeted schools, public offices, places of worship, and markets. These attacks killed thousands of Pakistani civilians. This gave PTI the perfect opportunity to adapt itself to the new political realities and use populist anti-US sentiment to gain a foothold in the political debates on primetime shows and in other news media.

This was a shift. In the 1990s, its concerns were more humanitarian; now, it addressed divisive issues that were highly charged, such as the US’s involvement in Pakistan, the drone strikes in tribal areas, the future of democracy in the country, and the worsening security situation for the average Pakistani. PTI spent this time carrying out modest rallies and protests as well. For instance, Imran Khan staged a hunger strike in 2007 when Musharraf unconstitutionally dismissed the country’s Chief Justice (Walsh, 2007). PTI went on national TV and talked about the taboo topic of “missing persons,” such as Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and those “disappeared” in Balochistan (Mir, 2018). Touching the “forbidden” issues gave PTI the image of a party that was brave and not afraid of the military government or the US. The anti-US rhetoric was hugely popular, growing PTI’s popularity in a society where anti-West feelings run deep.

During this period, Imran Khan publicly called out Musharraf, exclaiming at one public protest, “your General Musharraf will not survive nor shall the money you looted be safe”. It was during this period that PTI aired its concerns over “foreign” involvement in the country; Khan, the only elected member from his party, was very vocal about America and the colonial attitudes of Western powers. In an interview, he aired his views by saying: “Across the spectrum, from the right to the left, [Pakistanis] want Musharraf to go …. The U.S. administration must be getting this information. In Pakistan, according to all the polls, [U.S. officials] are backing someone who is deeply unpopular in the country” (Inskeep, 2008). For his outspoken stance and part in the Lawyers Movement, the PTI leader was jailed in 2007. 

PTI was an activist party at a time when civil society groups were curbed. It gained public notoriety through its populist anti-West and pro-democracy rhetoric, holding itself in opposition to Pakistan’s fourth military dictatorship and the second American-led Afghan war (Montagne & Reeves, 2007).

Rise to Opposition 

In 2008, PTI took its activism against the regime very seriously. Unlike the mainstream political parties such as the Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP) and PML-N, it was not an established part of the political landscape. As such, it decided to not partake in the 2008 general elections, once again positioning itself as the “outsider” who refused to play by the “dirty” and “corrupt” rules. The party firmly believed that the Musharraf regime was still in control and would skew the election results. In an interview Khan said: “Sooner or later, we will have to have free and fair elections…… Any government coming out of these fraudulent elections is not going to last long” (Inskeep, 2008).

As Khan was out of parliament between 2008-2013, his party now focused on using media and mass campaigns to position itself as an “external” opposition. The PPP-led Zardari government saw a rise in inflation, corruption, and external debt, and by 2013, the people were tired of the PPP government and the passive opposition of the PML-N. The presence of PTI as a party with a “non-corrupt” leader greatly appealed to the people; during this period, PTI increased its presence on social media and attended many marches and gatherings called jalsas before the 2013 elections. PTI was becoming an immensely popular personality party, a fact that was evident in October 2011, when masses of people flooded the PTI jalsa in Lahore’s Minto Park (Dawn, 2011).

These gatherings were new in the sense that they featured women, children and young people in unprecedented numbers. The jalsas featured musical concerts by famous singers/bands such as Ibrar ul Haque, Shehzad Roy, the Strings band, and Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi. They also featured fiery speeches opposing the corrupt Zaradari oligarchy delivered by Chairman Khan. Khan used his crude and witty remarks to speak the mind of “the people.” These gatherings were a sharp contrast to other political rallies, which rarely used music in the way PTI did and were not “family friendly”; few political rallies allowed women, children, and youth to participate (Mullah, 2017).

PTI’s support increased as it increasingly positioned itself as the party for insaf (justice); thus, the supporters were commonly referred to as insafians (justice-seekers) and at times as youthias (the youth), given its immense popularity amongst younger Pakistanis.

Activists of Tehreek-e-Insaf and PTI members of Provincial Assembly are holding anti corruption rally passing through the road, on May 06, 2016 in Peshawar. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

PTI’s support increased as it increasingly positioned itself as the party for insaf (justice); thus, the supporters were commonly referred to as insafians (justice-seekers) and at times as youthias (the youth), given its immense popularity amongst younger Pakistanis. In a society where police and the courts, the pinnacles of justice, take bribes to do their jobs, the call for “justice” was a chord that struck deep. This was especially true for youth who’d grown up hearing about corruption, terrorism, inflation, and unemployment. In the early 2010s, urban areas and in particular the middle class gravitated towards PTI’s anti-status quo stance, attracted by its lack of corruption and the fact it was a new party, free of the usual hereditary politics. And unlike the PPP and PML-N, PTI didn’t have a history of broken electoral promises (Warraich, 2018).

In 2012, in response to continued drone killings, PTI took the courageous decision to launch a motorcade “march” in the drone-impacted areas on Pakistan’s western frontier. Its presence in South Waziristan brought the party great acclaim at home, as no other party had dared to venture into the troubled region, again assuring its supporters that PTI was unlike others and possessed the courage to make the right decisions (BBC, 2012). The party and its chairman became the voice of dissent on the issue of the Taliban. While terrorism claimed lives in Pakistan on an almost daily basis, PTI argued that military intervention was not the solution. This solidified its support amongst the predominantly foreign-educated and upper middle-class elites (Mullah, 2017).

At the same time, PTI voiced its sympathy for the Taliban, who they believed had been “used” by the US during the Soviet era and were now being hunted.  Khan believed there were “good” and “bad” Taliban, a common conservative position at the time (Mullah, 2017). The party talked of mediation, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation. Thus, PTI was seen as a rational and pro-peace building party that believed in reforming and integrating the “good” Taliban back into society (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017; Dawn, 2011). Again, PTI had struck a populist chord and appeased two polar opposite sides of society.

The anti-US rhetoric and a narrative of change, anti-corruption, and peace, coupled with the jalsas and the chairman’s past charity, all buoyed PTI before the 2013 general elections. The hopes for a Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan) throughtabdeli (change) embedded in justice led to a boost in support for PTI. This tsunami would bring change to society. For over 60 years, the country had seen the deterioration a promise of change and worsening social and economic conditions. The media and social media coverage helped position PTI as the “outsider” led by the kaptan (captain). The charisma of the kaptan was the core of PTI. 

Pakistan-PTI

Ascent to Power and ‘Container’ Politics 

Until 2011, PTI opposed aligning itself with “politically electable” candidates, but as the 2013 elections neared, a number of prominent figures such as Shah Mehmood Qureshi (current Foreign Minister) from the PPP and Makhdoom Javed Hashmi and his brother from the PML-N joined the party (Rao, 2018). A small number of ex-PML-Q members also joined the party, such as sugar tycoon Jahangir Tareen. In addition, many notable elites joined the party. These included s Dr Arif Alvi (the current President) and Dr Shireen Mazari (the current Federal Minister for Human Rights) (Dawn, 2011). PTI gradually gained momentum by not only amassing a cult of insafians but also key political players. It made a comprise which it justified as means to an end. That end? Secure power to usher in meaningful change for the people. 

In its third general elections, PTI fared well. It was not able to secure a majority of the votes nationally, but it won a majority in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) by securing 19 percent of the votes and winning 48 seats (Election Commission of Pakistan, 2013). PTI formed its first coalition government with the far-right Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), left-leaning Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), and a host of independent candidates. This odd coalition (when PTI already had a comfortable majority) was led by Pervez Khattak, a reformist ex-PPP supporter. 

PTI also secured seats in Punjab, where it positioned itself as the opposition. 

In KPK, a war-torn region severally impacted by the war on terror, PTI launched a number of reformist programs that focused on technocratic solutions pertaining to good governance, e-governance, public-private partnerships, accountability, and anti-corruption. It established several commissions to promote businesses, provided infrastructure for commerce in the region, and make it smoother to deal with street-level bureaucracy (Daudzai, 2018).

These policies and measures failed to alleviate the widespread problems, especially as PTI failed to implement the 18thConstitutional Amendment, which gave provinces the autonomy to establish local governments that support the implementation of policies (Daudzai, 2018). To appease its partner JI, school curriculums were “Islam-ized” and Quran classes became compulsory – this despite PTI campaigning on de-radicalizing youth (Abbasi, 2017; Dawn, 2014). During its first term, PTI acted as a populist party in two ways. It compromised by Islamizing school curriculum, appeasing its right-wing partner, and it was unable to effectively translate its populist ideals into realities that benefited the people.

Inayatullah Khan, the local Governance Minister, pointed out, “There are errors in current textbooks which go against our values.” He explained, “We live in an Islamic society, women don’t wear skirts here.” The Minister further showed his contempt for the previous government, which removed the religious chapter and replaced it with “chapters on Nelson Mandela, Karl Marx, Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama and Neil Armstrong” (Dawn, 2014).

Unable to live up to its promises, the party frequently hid its failures behind increasingly dense and intensifying populist rhetoric focusing on vindictive character assassinations of political opponents, specifically through the use of crude and foul language.

PTI frequently shied away from the realities on the ground and blamed the federal government (under control of the PML-N) for not providing funds to fully achieve its goals. For instance, a senior PTI party member conceded that the party had failed to bring about transparency and accountability in the province but asserted that, “The nation must strengthen the hands of Imran Khan since he was the only politician who can steer the country out of the prevailing crisis”(Sadaqat, 2017).

Unable to live up to its promises, the party frequently hid its failures behind increasingly dense and intensifying populist rhetoric focusing on vindictive character assassinations of political opponents, specifically through the use of crude and foul language. It also petitioned the courts, alleging “rigged” election results. In its quest to drag down Nawaz Sharif, PTI framed him as the “enemy” of the people, not merely a political rival. The call for Naya Pakistan was contrasted to the corrupt and dismal current Pakistan. 

Together, these steps were enough to distract people from the party’s own poor performance. The jalsas from the pre-election days gave PTI the street power to galvanize supporters. Post-2013, the mass turned into dharna (container) politics, in which Imran Khan roused huge mobs while he sat inside a shipping container, only to emerge to deliver his fiery speeches – thus earning the name “container politics” (BBC, 2014).

The speeches talked about bringing dignity to the wronged people by kicking out the “corrupt” and making the country “great” for the ordinary masses. PTI was certainly not the first or last to use this style of container politics; however, its populist message was so well received that it staged one of the longest dharnas in the country’s modern history (Khan, 2019).

Soon after the 2013 election results, PTI launched a court case against the ruling PML-N government, accusing them of vote-rigging (Lashari & Mirza, 2013). PTI’s populist drive for “justice” was buoyed by young people and the party’s social media “army,” which took the internet by storm, demanding change and spreading the party’s populist narrative (Jahangir, 2020). 

In 2014, PTI collaborated with right-wing religious scholar Tahir ul Qadri and his PAT; together, they launched mass civil disobedience campaigns that started on 14 August 2014 and were called off on 17 December of the same year (Express Tribune, 2014). In 2013, Qadri and his disciples had blocked the main intersection in Islamabad, protesting against the “corrupt government.” This came to be known as the “Long March” (2013). Qadri had amassed support on the promise that, “tomorrow, the injustices will end, and these corrupt people will no longer run the government” (Rodriguez, 2013).

After the protests and elections in June 2014, several of Qadri’s disciples from his religious NGO Minhaj-ul-Quran were killed in Model Town, Lahore, by Punjab Police. The killings led PAT to join PTI’s Azadi March (Freedom March) or the Tsunami March with new zeal as they sought to avenge the blood of the “martyrs of the Model Town Massacre” (Imran, 2014). PTI strategically used a national tragedy to join forces with the religious right-wing populist party in an effort to pressure the government into resigning and calling new elections. It was deeply cynical, but PTI convinced its supporters that this was a necessary part of ridding Pakistan of “the corrupt politicians” (Mullah, 2017).

For 126 days, PTI and its partner organized marches across Pakistan and sit-ins, mainly in Islamabad and other key cities. They demanded tribunals to investigate alleged election fraud. These protests were given 24/7 live coverage on numerous media channels; primetime “analytical gurus” buzzed about the future of Pakistani politics and the rise of a highly popular Khan. PTI was now a serious political contender. PTI trended across all media platforms. The party’s anti-corruption call, and their insistence that foreign involvement end, became household discussions around the country. 

PTI was the perfect messenger. It was a relatively new party, with no substantial corruption allegations against it and a charismatic leader who communicated with the masses in plain and frank language about their core issues and gave them hope for a better, fairer society – a utopian, Naya Pakistan (Mullah, 2017)

By the end of the protests, PTI was increasingly seen as a “silver bullet” for the country’s problems: its anti-corruption message was the answer to it all. It was simple logic, according to the PTI: Pakistan was a poor country with no money because the corrupt had looted it; thus, once the corrupt elite – including the politicians – were brought to justice, the money would return, and the country would be prosperous (Mullah, 2017).

This “common-sense” populist logic helped the party connect to people all rungs of society. “Go Nawaz Go” became a national slogan, which PTI supporters chanted at rallies and hash-tagged across social media (Dawn, 2014).

PTI dominated the politics of the period, despite being in the opposition. It also triggered a second court case against PML-N and its core members such as Nawaz Sharif and his family – this time, for an alleged money laundering scheme. PTI vowed to bring justice by prosecuting the corrupt Nawaz oligarchy. This movement gained credibility after Nawaz family members were linked to the leak of the Panama Papers (Cheema, 2017). During the year-long trial, PTI was again all over the media in an effort to gather public support and call out the sitting government. They also organized a series of sit-in, dharnas, and protests in front of key government buildings, as well as the Sharif’s residence itself in Riwind, Lahore (Cheema, 2017; Specia, 2017)

PTI’s was increasingly exerting pressure on state intuitions, such as the judiciary, to follow their directives, a highly undemocratic use of public protests. When PTI was called out for using its protests to pressure the judiciary, Khan lashed out, saying, “Is seeking justice from the courts the equivalent of pressure?” He went on to say, “They (PML-N) are the ones pressuring us!” He also warned Nawaz Sharif, “Hear me loud and clear, Nawaz Sharif: whatever you are doing here, now you shall see that the Pakistani nation will no longer silently tolerate all this!” (Cheema, 2017). Any state institution or media group that sided with the Sharifs was deemed corrupt or serving the oligarchy. In extreme cases they were “the other,” who were working against the interests of the people for selfish motives – or even carrying out foreign objectives. 

PTI increasingly positioned any opposition from the government to curb it or counter it as “schemes” by the ruling parties to deny justice to the people. Thus, any attack directed at PTI was an attack on “the people,” a populist manoeuvre to gain immunity from criticism by being one with the people. 

PTI Chairman Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

At the concurrent PTI gatherings, the same rhetoric was used to reassure the people that they were a “great nation,” and only the corrupt, status quo politicians stood in the way of achieving their destiny. Imran Khan and other PTI members repeatedly called the Nawaz brothers by various nicknames, including “blood sucking cowards,” Gidd-Sharif (vultures), Mian-Panama Sharif (mocking Nawaz for his involvement in the Panama leaks), circus-Sharifs, Drama-Sharif, and Show-baz Sharif (an actor). Following the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying Nawaz Sharif, PTI celebrated with a “thanksgiving” gathering. Within 24 hours of the ruling, thousands rallied to Islamabad to attend the event. This was portrayed as a victory of the people – not the party. PTI increasingly positioned any opposition from the government to curb it or counter it as “schemes” by the ruling parties to deny justice to the people. Thus, any attack directed at PTI was an attack on “the people,” a populist manoeuvre to gain immunity from criticism by being one with the people. 

Imran Khan increasingly focused on the narrative of an azad qoum – a nation free from the tyranny of the oppressive political elite and the Western agendas that had led to Pakistan’s external debt. 

Between 2013-2018, PTI came into direct confrontation with police, in particular the Punjab police, during its mass protests. The party argued that the policemen were their “brothers” or countrymen who were being used by the sitting government to create “division within the country,” serving the self-interests of the political elite. 

The sitting government was repeatedly warned that they would be held accountable for the sins they had commented against the people, and that once those who were “robbing the country in the name of democracy” were thrown behind bars and the Swiss bank accounts emptied, then, “god willing, this great country and a great nation” would have justice achieve its “true” greatness. PTI’s populist rhetoric meant that, as the voice of the people, it was always pure in its actions and intentions. The same rhetoric deflected all blame to the “status quo.”

PTI’s agenda for the 2018 elections centred around a welfare state modelled on the first Islamic state of Madinah (Riyasat-e-Madina). It would be dedicated to serving the people, and this would be made possible by PTI ensuring that “the 5 to 10 thousand people that are sucking the blood of this country” would be weeded out and the money returned to the people. The party’s simple, populist logic for highly complex problems was accepted by the public in a country where belief in miracles is common and education is a rare commodity. 

By the end of PML-N’s term, the party had lost its main leadership, as various members of the Sharif family and fraternity were under investigation in a multitude of money laundering and tax-evasion cases, a great win for the PTI which had legitimized itself by leading the charge for these investigations. 

PTI was able to muster support that went beyond religious-cultural divides. Its promise of a welfare state based on Medina’s were accepted by liberals, moderates, and conservatives who saw this vague promise through the lens of their own interpretations. The calls of the anti-establishment parties had resonated with all sectors of the populace.

With PML-N and PPP leadership engulfed in corruption scandals, the PTI had an opportunity. Unlike other opposition parties – for example, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) that relied on ethnicity alone religious parties like JI – PTI was able to muster support that went beyond religious-cultural divides. Its promise of a welfare state based on Medina’s were accepted by liberals, moderates, and conservatives who saw this vague promise through the lens of their own interpretations. The calls of the anti-establishment parties had resonated with all sectors of the populace (Ahmed, 2018; Judah 2018). Its smear campaign to delegitimize the “corrupt” political parties left PTI as the only legitimate choice. 

PTI’s victory was secured when it welcomed several defectors from the PPP and PML-N along with former PML-Q members. It had promised various incentives to these factions, securing their loyalty – for example, the South Punjab parties were promised a separate province,[2] and after the election many key posts from Punjab and the Federal Government were handed to these factions (Adnan, 2018). PTI was politically shrewd and welcomed the likes of Shaikh Rahseed, who was a former political rival known for mocking PTI and Imran Khan. PTI welcomed and later gave ministries to the likes of Fawad Chaudhry, who previously worked with the Musharraf regime and PPP governments. In defence of the party’s sudden open-arms policy, Khan argued: “You contest elections to win. You don’t contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win. I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe. I can’t import European politicians”(Rehman 2018). Given Khan’s clean history, disillusionment with the current political parties and PTI’s simple promises to complex solutions, supporters dismissed this cynical manoeuvring as a necessary evil.

Breaking Promises — The Ass in Lion’s Skin

In the 2018 general elections, PTI won the most votes, securing 31% of the popular vote and  winning 149 seats in the national assembly (Election Commission of Pakistan, 2018). 

PTI’s leaders had pledged to its supporters that if elected to office, they would end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days. A key feature of both promises hinged on bringing “back every single penny of the looted money from the corrupt political leaders” (The Express Tribune, 2018; The News, 2018). The party had an overly ambitious 100-day agenda which outlined all the problems in the country and PTI’s promises to solve them (Dawn, 2018). However, all that glitters is not gold: PTI struggled to meet its pledges. 

On the economic front, PTI has failed to live up to its ambitions for employment, small business-led growth, and support for export driven sectors; even before the pandemic, Pakistan’s debt and liabilities surged by Rs11 trillion (more than $70 billion) within one year. During the same period, the Pakistan Stock Exchange, the KSE-100 index, saw a sharp slump coupled with one of the worst devaluations of the Pakistan Rupee against the US Dollar. Matters were made worse by the inflation rate at 7 percent, unemployment at 9 percent – it was worse among youth – and the rising prices of petrol and utilities (Eusufzye, 2018; Jamal, 2018). Thus, like any other populist party once in power, PTI found it hard to achieve its promises through its “simple” populist solutions.

Apart from the economic disaster, PTI also failed to live up to its most basic promises. None of the socialist programs inspired by Islamism panned out. The Naya Pakistan Housing, youth programs, SMEs Loans, Ehsan welfare programs, the Sehat Insaf Cards, even Tree Tsunami … all are under investigation for corruption charges (Qayyum, 2020; Khan, 2020; Mehmood, 2019). In the past, the party had said it would not “take the begging bowl” to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in search of a bailout, yet after a year of delaying, PTI eventually opted for an IMF package (Farmer, 2020). When faced with the realities of a large population and nearly empty state coffers, the party has had to backtrack. Populist rhetoric is difficult to translate into actual socio-economic change. 

The party had to rely on the US, China, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries at various points for loans, a practise which PTI had previously condemned. Since assuming office, the government has not been able to solve the Kashmir dispute with India, despite their promises for a “quick fix” to the prolonged regional conflict. In fact, matters have only been made worse post-August 2019, when India scrapped the region’s autonomous status by dismissing Article 370 and 35A. In the international arena, Pakistan has found no ally other than China and Turkey to support its claims about the disputed territory (Janjua, 2020). To mask its diplomatic embarrassment, PTI leadership in the foreigner ministry has repeatedly externalized blame to the Indian and Israeli “lobbies” working to destabilize Pakistan. 

On its accountability and institutional reformist agendas, the party has also failed to meet its promises. PTI sought an end to “VIP culture,”[4] yet as the party eased into power, its ministers frequently and lavishly went on foreign tours and maintained full escorts and private facilities (Pakistan Today, 2018). In addition, PTI has failed its liberal supporters, too. Dr. Atif Mian was dismissed from the Economic Advisory Council (EAC)[5] based on his religious identification with the Ahmadi school, a blow to minority rights (Dawn, 2020).

Moreover, while the PTI government flaunts its peace initiative of welcoming Sikh pilgrims to sacred landmarks such as Kartarpur, the country sees regular forced conversions, abductions, target killing, and murders of Shia Muslims and non-Muslims. PTI remains silent on most of these issues. A number of PTI members are former JI members or from JI’s student wing; thus, it did not come as a surprise when Ali Muhammad Khan, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, claimed on Twitter that beheading is the fit punishment for those who mock Prophet Mohammad (Inayat, 2020). PTI had specifically distinguished itself as having a higher moral ground on humanitarian issues, yet it has failed to deliver here, too, as it has either maintained silence on such issues or deflected the blame to India for sponsoring “terrorism” – using another layer of populism to cover its failed populist agenda.

Over the past two-and-a-half years PTI has taken an apologist approach, conceding that not all of its ministers have performed and that governing is “complex.” However, Khan has said, “The people have to decide whether we have improved their lives or not.” The fault now lies with “the others” – including people those who refused to pay taxes – and not the government. (While in the opposition, PTI blamed the previous governments for not collecting the revenue.) 

Activists of Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are holding protest demonstration against rape and murder of minor Rabia, on April 22, 2018 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

PTI rose to power on the back of an unregulated media, but is now heavily reliant on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to censor any content it deems unfit, may it be biscuit advertisements that are “not in line with cultural values” to banning the speeches of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on charges of sedition.

In a recent interview, Khan was asked why Pakistan has a high rate of child and sexual abuse, rather than talking about the need for the government to start dialogues around sex education and abuse, he blamed the “Western porn sites” and “influences” as the cause of the horrific crimes, again shunning responsibility, shifting the blame and making use of the popular anti-West sentiments (Hum News, 2020). 

Amidst COVID-19, the government initially did little more than tell people, “Aap ne ghabrana nahi hai” (you must not panic), while the responsibility for the ravaging pandemic was blamed on the provinces, if PTI was not the majority party, or chalked up to the public’s non-cooperation (John, 2020; Dawn, 2020). When populists fail to deliver, they deflect blame and portray themselves as victims. 

PTI has also directly targeted the opposition. To ensure its survival, the party is not shy about undermining the institutional integrity of other state pillars, proof of its populist, as opposed to democratic, values. From its inception, PTI has given support to the army, and this was visible when the judiciary was targeted by PTI members after the courts handed out a death sentence to President General Pervez Musharraf. In contrast to their pervious stance on Musharraf in the 2000s, after assuming power, PTI supports the institution. Fawad Chaudhry, a Federal Minister said: “You pushed the institution [army] against the wall. It is an honour-based institution. If you keep doing this, won’t they react?” He also directly threatened the judiciary (Qayum & Haider, 2019; Gulf News, 2019).

PTI has dragged Justice Isa Qazi and his wife to court after the judge made an anti-establishment comment (Global Village Space, 2019). Imran Khan has challenged the writ of the court by objecting to the Supreme Court blocking the extension of the current army chief (Farmer, 2019). The PM stated, “The people’s confidence in country’s judicial system has been shaken and now they are looking towards the PTI government for improvement in the system” (Dawn, 2020). PTI has used pressure and mudslinging when the judiciary has not sided with them or helped them with “pro-public” decisions to maintain its grasp on power. 

PTI rose to power on the back of an unregulated media, but is now heavily reliant on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to censor any content it deems unfit, may it be biscuit advertisements that are “not in line with cultural values” to banning the speeches of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on charges of sedition. The government has also targeted the head of Jang Group, Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, who was arrested on corruption charges in March 2020; journalists within the group had dared to publish content critical of the government. Rehman’s defenders have also faced backlash. 

The Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) is another tool PTI’s used to control all forms of media, along with the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules of 2020, which aims to regulate social media (Mahbubani, 2020). The ambiguous language of the bill allows for it to ban content on charges of “terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violent and national security” (Rehman, 2020).

Moreover, civil society’s dissenting voices have been squashed. Several humanitarian NGOs and INGOs have been sent packing for their “anti-state” agendas (Sayeed, 2018). While PTI once showed its support to the plight of the Pashtun victims of the “war on terror,” it is currently targeting members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) – a civil society movement that seeks peaceful conflict resolutions in the aftermath of several military operations in the region (The News, 2019).

Conclusion

PTI has evolved through three stages of development. It was an activist party at a time when civil society was highly subdued under a military regime. Through modest civil disobedience, it graduated to the status of a formidable opposition party. It used populist rhetoric and tactics to delegitimize and “otherize” the conventional parties and position itself as the ideal voice and hope for “the people.” It used a wide array of ideologies to support its populism, which tapped into deep-rooted anxieties in the public’s psyche.

In a country where politicians are conventionally corrupt, relations with neighbouring countries are strained, social welfare is absent, Islamism is rampant, and economic decline is a constant, PTI has successfully positioned itself as the voice of the people. It promised to drive out the corrupt elite and alleged “foreign” interventions and influences. It invited people with open arms to lively rallies where the leader spoke the language of the people, voicing their concerns and worries and presenting simplistic solutions they understood. It clearly identified the enemy and positioned itself as the solution to all problems. PTI has used religion, anti-West sentiments, its outsider status, support for welfare, and a host of social issues to craft a populist narrative that appealed to the people.

Its third evolution – becoming the government – has been a turbulent process. PTI has broken several of its promises. To deflect blame, it has used oppressive tactics, blanketing and muffling the media, charactering COVID-19 as the cause of its failures, and externalizing blame. It has blamed Western and foreign influences and called opposition parties anti-state and anti-democratic. 

Freudian displacement, projection, and rationalization have become the hallmarks of PTI’s first tenure in office. Its populist rhetoric has only intensified as the party increasingly hounds the opposition as “seditious.” Increasingly, PTI gravitates towards homegrown Islamism and pan-Islamism, all in the bid to consolidate its power while trying to appease the masses it has long placated with its populist rhetoric – a public hungry for help after prolonged socio-economic deprivation.              

References 

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Abbasi, Ansar. (2017). “KP govt makes Quranic education compulsory in schools.” The News. Jan. 21, 2017. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/180736-KP-govt-makes-Quranic-education-compulsory-in-schools (accessed on December 27, 2020).

Adnan, Imran. (2018). “PML-N’s south Punjab defectors to join PTI.” The Express Tribune. May 8, 2018.

Afzal, Madiha. (2019). “Imran Khan’s incomplete narrative on the Taliban.” Brookings. Oct. 13, 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/10/14/imran-khans-incomplete-taliban-narrative/ (accessed on December 27, 2020).

Ahmed, Bilal. (2018). “The Counter Elite: An Ascendant Middle Class in Pakistan.” Center for Strategic and Contemporary Researchhttps://cscr.pk/explore/themes/politics-governance/the-counter-elite-an-ascendant-middle-class-in-pakistan/ (accessed on December 27, 2020). 

Cheema, Hasham. (2018). “How Pakistan’s Panama Papers probe unfolded.” Dawn. Dec. 24, 2018. https://www.dawn.com/news/131653 (accessed on December 28, 2020). 

Daudzai, Khan, Riaz. (2017). “Successes and failures of PTI in governing KP.” The News. May 2, 2018. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/311536-successes-and-failures-of-pti-in-governing-kp (accessed on December 28, 2020).

Eusufzye, Shehram, Khan. (2018). “100 days of promise galore.” The Nation. Dec. 9, 2018. https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/566836-100-days-promise-galore (accessed on December 28, 2020). 

Farmer, Ben. (2019). “Imran Khan’s Pakistan forced to swallow IMF medicine in return for $6bn bailout.” Telegraph, May 13, 2019. www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2019/05/13/imran-khans-pakistan-forced-swallow-imf-medicine-return-6bn/ (accessed on December 28, 2020).

Hasan, K. (2017). “Why did a military dictator liberalize the electronic media in Pakistan.” In: Udupa, S., McDowell, S. D. (Eds.), Media as politics in south Asia. (pp. 77–94). London and New York, NY: Routledge.

Imran, Kashif. (2014). “Nation awaiting overthrow of Nawaz-government: Dr Qadri.” ARY News. Sep. 25, 2014. https://arynews.tv/en/nation-awaiting-overthrow-of-nawaz-government-dr-qadri/ (accessed on December 27, 2020).

Inayat, Naila. (2020). “In Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan, a minority commission without minority.” The Print. May 7, 2020. https://theprint.in/opinion/letter-from-pakistan/in-imran-khans-naya-pakistan-a-minority-commission-without-minority/415976/ (accessed on December 28, 2020). 

Innskeep, Steven. (2008). “Imran Khan Brings Anti-Musharraf Effort to U.S.” NPR. January 25, 2008. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18402782 (accessed on December 28, 2020).

Jahangir, Ramsha. (2020). “Like in PTI’s Social Media Bubble.” Dawn. Aug. 17, 2020. https://www.dawn.com/news/1574529 (accessed on December 28, 2020).

Jamal, Nasir. (2018). “100-day roundup: Has the PTI government delivered on its promises?” Dawn. Dec. 18, 2018. https://www.dawn.com/news/1447754 (accessed on December 28, 2020). 

Janjua, Haroon. (2020). “Pakistan risks losing Arab allies over its ‘new Kashmir policy’.” DW. Aug. 21, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/pakistan-risks-losing-arab-allies-over-its-new-kashmir-policy/a-54651681 (accessed on December 28, 2020).

John, Asher. (2020). “Coronavirus will spread but ‘Aap ne ghabrana nahi hai’.” Pakistan Today. March 18, 2020. https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2020/03/17/sindh-govt-to-lock-down-province-as-virus-toll-reaches-236/ (accessed on December 28, 2020). 

Judah, Ben. (2018). “Pakistan’s Pivot to Asia.” The Atlantic. Oct. 19, 2018. www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/imran-khans-pakistan-foreshadows-globalism/573316/ (accessed on December 28, 2020).

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Khan, Sohail. (2020). “Supreme Court intends probe into ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’: Hard to breath in various cities, says CJP Gulzar Ahmad.” The News. Dec. 2, 2020. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/752176-sc-intends-probe-into-billion-tree-tsunami-hard-to-breath-in-various-cities-says-cjp (accessed on December 28, 2020).

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Mir, Hamid. (2018). “The Imran Khan I know.” The News. Aug. 7, 2018. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/351820-the-imran-khan-i-know (accessed on December 28, 2020).

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Footnotes 

[1] The party name translates to Pakistan Justice Movement 

[2] For some time now South Punjabis have demanded a separate province based on ethno-lingual distinctions and a history of low development, which they have felt is hijacked by politics form Eastern or Central Punjab. 

[3] Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme promised subsidized housing to the working and lower middle classes to address the housing shortage. SMEs and Youth Loans have been initiated to promote small businesses and to offer job placements or internships to fresh graduates. The Tree Tsunami is an afforestation campaign. Insaf Sehat Cards and Ehsa welfare programs are aimed to provide social protections such as healthcare and cash handouts. 

[4] Where special treatment is given to elected officials or members of the government out of public funding 

[5] A Prime Minister led group of handpicked leading Pakistani economists.

A concert of Norwegian band Wardruna at Cathedral Cave, Kirkehelleren on Sanna Island during Traenafestival that is a music festival taking place on the small island of Traena in Norway on July 8, 2017. Photo: Melanie Lemahieu

Music and the Far-Right Trance

By Heidi Hart

On a cold-soaked January night in Berlin, less than a week after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, I stood with several thousand counter-protesters on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate. On the other side, a smaller group of PEGIDA demonstrators had gathered with German flags and nationalist signs. Armed police held a line under the iconic pillars. Anger at the rise of xenophobic populism, which in turn had been fueled by the Paris attack, was palpable in all the bodies around me. The crowd chanted, “Nationalismus ‘raus aus den Köpfen,” a plea to unplug internalized nationalism. Loudspeakers pounded Turkish rap from a nearby truck. As the chant grew more synchronized and the crowd pressed closer to the barricade, I understood in a kinetic way what I had been researching in my doctoral work, on the power of rhythm to entrain the body politic, synching heart and breath rate to a march beat. 

In a famous scene in Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, the main character disrupts the rhythm of a Nazi march by beating a waltz on his drum, and then breaking into a syncopated foxtrot.[i] The spell of crowd manipulation breaks, if only for a short, chaotic time. Likewise, as the chanting fell off kilter in Berlin that January night, our voices syncopated by the nearby rap, I was relieved. Though my hopes for an inclusive Germany lined up with the beliefs of others around me, we could easily be swept into a pulsing trance state and lose our criticality. This embodied experience comes to mind as I track the ongoing use of music in far-right recruitment in Europe, where rapid-fire rhythms and pagan fascinations have proven dangerously effective in giving young people a sense of atavistic destiny and rhythmic accord with groups that operate as much on fear as they proclaim faux-tribal grit.

By summer 2016, nearly a hundred far-right musical events had taken place in Germany in that year alone (Staudenmaier, 2016), and have continued, most notably in the former East. Though some of these events take the form of festivals attracting large numbers of neo-Nazis, also from the U.S. (Engel & Denne, 2020) many do not come off as stadium-style rock concerts but appropriate the “high-culture” term Liederabend (Staudenmaier, 2016), traditionally a classical recital with voice and piano. Now in popular singer-songwriter format, these intimate settings allow young people who might not identify as hard-line racists to become convinced of the dangers of migration and “Islamification” in their local towns. Associating the tradition of Schubert songs with notions of nationalist superiority also echoes the Nazi co-opting of German classical music, which Thomas Mann diagnosed as collective sickness in his 1947 novel Doktor Faustus. This all-too-familiar melding of musical intimacy with far-right ideology sounds alarms for a generation raised after decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or reckoning with the past, in Germany. “Never forget” risks becoming, as some of my Trump-supporting students in the U.S. have glibly put it, “Hitler wasn’t so bad.”

The German Linke (Left) party has described fascist-flavored music as a “gateway drug,” (Staudenmaier, 2016) recalling the words of Hanns Eisler, one of Brecht’s musical collaborators during the Nazi era, who warned of music’s capacity to serve as a socio-political “narcotic” (Shams, 2019). As neo-Nazis jolt their bodies in time with hate-rock’s machine-gun beat, they are not operating in the rebel-against-everything world of punk’s rapid rhythms, but rather training their senses in rage against particular, marginalized groups. Heavy metal and its many subgenres have sometimes aligned with racist ideology over the past forty years, encouraging kinetic immersion in violent theatrics, though bands such as Rammstein have denied the white-supremacist leanings some of their fans espouse (Braun, 2019). As musicologist Lawrence Kramer has pointed out, ideology is “sticky” and can adhere to many kinds of music, because musical “meaning” is mainly associative and sound is experienced in a directly physical way[ii] (Reybrouck & Eerola, 2017).

Some bands do not attract right-wing fans just through guttural singing or harsh, precise rhythms that some might consider “Teutonic” (Herbst, 2019). Sturmwehr and Unbeliebte Jungs take pride in their overtly racist lyrics (Shams, 2019); the far-right AfD party in Germany has used such bands to recruit like-minded adherents (Corte & Edwards, 2008) and though the party has found such efforts more difficult in the past several years (Mischke, 2019) “community spread” continues to occur in gaming communities and on dark web platforms as well (Kamenetz, 2019). In 2019 police shut down several white-power concerts in Thuringia due to banned songs being performed (Shams, 2019), but “hatecore” continues to draw young people, some of whom do commit hate crimes as their commitment to white supremacy grows.  

More recently, neofolk and “Vikingarock” bands have gained large followings in Scandinavia and beyond, thanks in part to the Netflix series Vikings and The Last Kingdom. Because of the unavoidable history of Nazism’s Norse fascinations, these bands tend to disavow the fascist ideology their music tends to attract, but that disavowal can be fuzzy. Ultima Thule in Sweden, active since the 1980s, cannot avoid associations with the Nazi use of the same name for an imaginary Aryan homeland (Crane, 2019). They have brought their Viking-inflected mashup of folk, punk, and rock to numerous skinhead concerts, and, with a focus on national pride in their lyrics, are commonly known as a “white power” band.[iii]In a country where the now-defunct New Democracy party (like the AfD in Germany) included white power music in its youth recruitment (Corte & Edwards, 2008), and where the equally xenophobic Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson has been known to party with Ultima Thule (Radio Sweden, 2015), the band’s statements denying a racist agenda while valorizing national “roots” (Ultima Thule, 2007) remain problematic.

On the other hand, the Norwegian neofolk band Wardruna has set out to take back Viking-era instruments and imagery from the far right. Known in the blogosphere as “antifascist neofolk,” (ANZUS, 2018) Wardruna’s music (part of the soundtrack for Vikings) includes not only hard-driving hits like “Helvegen,” about the journey to the Norse land of the dead, but also unplugged “skald” or bard songs with simple string instruments, and songs using Celtic musical modes. Still, the lines can blur when calling up pagan mysteries once celebrated in Nazi torch parades and propaganda films. One of Wardruna’s members, who has since left the group, did have far-right leanings in his former black-metal days (ANZUS, 2018), and like the current Netflix nature-cult trend (the Danish series Equinox as an example of mood-TV that makes pagan rites seem equally dangerous and attractive), Viking-associated music can still draw fans who want to picture themselves like the costumed “shaman” who joined the U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Some antidotes to far-right “stickiness” include satire, however brutal, as in the Swedish film Midsommar (as critical of American tourism as it is of neo-pagan pretensions), and even farcical humor, as in the Monty Python-style series Norsemen. In Germany, music counters music, often in the form of rap, as in songs by Japanese-German Blumio (Kuniyoshi Fumio), whose “Hey Mr. Nazi” is too catchy to sound pedantic about racist stereotyping. The pop group Misuk takes up antifascist texts by Bertolt Brecht and reimagines them for the 21st century, giving them a playful ease that appeals to younger listeners. The German Netflix series Dark draws on pagan tropes, but with a philosophical grain and chilling soundtrack that show the danger of immersion in primordial caves. 

In the literary world, Sarah Moss’ 2019 novel Ghost Wall shows where uncritical neo-paganism can lead: an anthropologist involves his family in a Stone Age role-play fantasy that becomes all too real when his daughter discovers she is meant to be a human sacrifice. Though the book begins with what some reviewers have called an “incantatory” prologue (Hagy, 2019) the story itself works against this trance-inducing language, to show what can happen when human bodies get caught up in drumming, chanting, and torch-bearing. Luckily in this case, the spell breaks as the narrator refuses to join in the chant, “no longer afraid or ashamed.”[iv]

Note: This commentary draws on my previous research on antifascist music in Germany and the narcotic effects it works to interrupt, as well as on my recent work on music in dark- ecological art and film. 

 


References

[i] Grass, Günter. (1997). Die Blechtrommel (1959), Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. 151-156

[ii] Kramer, Lawrence. (2018). The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening. University of California Press. 115-116.

[iii] Pred, Allan. (2019). Even in Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination. University of California Press. 219. See also Teitelbaum, Benjamin R. (2017). Lions of the North: Sounds of the New Nordic Radical Nationalism. Oxford University Press. 

[iv] Moss, Sarah. (2019). Ghost Wall. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 124. 

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro speaks in an act to support to Assembly Constituent in Caracas, Venezuela on May 23, 2017.

Nicolas Maduro: A populist without popularity

Oner, Imdat. (2021). “Nicolas Maduro: A populist without popularity.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 2, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0005

 

Lacking personal charisma and booming oil revenues, Nicolas Maduro has struggled to obtain his predecessor’s popular support and failed to legitimize his rule at the polls. Instead, Maduro consolidated his power through sharing it with elites and the military. Externally, the country’s social, economic, and political environment has contributed to the growing perception among international actors that the regime is becoming ever more authoritarian and unstable.

By Imdat Oner*

Latin America has long been a fertile political landscape for populist leaders. Argentina’s Eva Peron, Peru’s Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, Brazil’s Getulio Vargas, and Ecuador’s José María Velasco Ibarra are all well-known populist leaders. For these politicians, populism was a viable political strategy, one they used to mobilize people against the “elites” on their way to obtaining and retaining power. Claiming to be the embodiment of the “pure” people, Latin American populists have rejected checks and balances that would limit their power, which they view as derived from the people’s will.

A second wave of populism has taken root throughout Latin America with the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Kirshner in Argentina, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. They mainly rose to power amid the rising sentiment against neoliberal policies. Adopting an anti-American discourse and anti-neoliberal approach, these pink-tide leaders have continued the region’s populist tradition. Like their predecessors, these new populist leaders appeal to the excluded masses by mobilizing against the establishment and promising better lives for their supporters. 

The rise of Chávez in Venezuela has especially inspired academic studies of populism, which is known as one of Latin America’s most enduring political traditions. Elected on the promise of ending neoliberal economic policies and corrupt politicians, the late President Chávez ruled Venezuela from 1999 to 2013. His movement, Chavismo, drew heavily on the charismatic populist connection between his leadership and the people. While he was planning to remain in power until 2021 (La Tercera, 2008), he passed away at the age of 58 after a long battle with cancer. Following his death in 2013, Nicolas Maduro – in full, Nicolás Maduro Moros – came to power as Chávez’s handpicked successor. Maduro, Vice President under Chávez, was sworn-in in April 2013 as Venezuela’s interim President until new elections could be held. He inherited the leadership of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela; PSUV) and announced he would be the party’s candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. 

Designated by Chávez as his political heir, Maduro narrowly won the election. Despite a less favourable international situation and complex domestic socio-economic conditions, Maduro committed himself and his regime to further authoritarianism, to solidify his hold on power. Under his administration, Venezuela has been an emblematic case of severe democratic erosion while suffering a major economic and humanitarian crisis. This paper will seek to introduce a detailed profile of Maduro and his place within the region’s populist politics.

Maduro’s Background

Born in 1962 into a family that had heavily engaged in leftist politics and labour movements, Maduro followed his parents’ footsteps and began his political life in the student union during his high school years (The Guardian, 2013). His educational career is murky. Several records indicate that he could not finish high school (Cola, 2018). The most well-known fact about Maduro’s early age is that he worked as a bus driver. In those years, Maduro was actively attending labour union activities. He got involved in politics through leftist groups such as Rupture and the Socialist League (Dobson, 2018). At 24, Maduro moved to Cuba and attended a one-year course at the Escuela Nacional de Cuadros Julio Antonio Mella, a political training centre run by the Union of Young Communists (Oropeza, 2013). He trained to become a professional revolutionary (Naim and Toro, 2018). His connection with Cuba at this young age would later play a critical role in his regime’s survival.

Maduro was long part of Chávez’s inner circle. His first connection with Chávez dates to the early 1990s. Maduro participated in the 1992 military coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez, which was led by Chávez (Oropeza, 2013).After the failed attempt, Chávez was sent to a military prison; Maduro campaigned for his release (The Guardian, 2013).Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, led the legal team that worked to get Chávez freed. Since the beginning, Maduro and his family were among Chávez’s most faithful supporters. 

Maduro’s strong ties to Chavismo and Chávez have been critical factors advancing his political career. Maduro slowly but surely climbed the political career ladder.

The former presidents of Cuba, Raul Castro (L) and of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez (c) and Nicolas Maduro (R) in Cumana, Venezuela on April 17, 2009.

Maduro’s strong ties to Chavismo and Chávez have been critical factors advancing his political career. Maduro slowly but surely climbed the political career ladder. First, he took an active role in founding the Fifth Republic Movement, initiated by Chávez ahead of the 1998 elections. After Chávez’s successful rise to power in 1998, Maduro became part of the Constituent Assembly, which drafted the new Venezuelan constitution. Then, he served a long string as a deputy at Parliament. He was re-elected in the 2005 parliamentary elections and became the President of the National Assembly. One year later, Chávez appointed him Minister of Foreign Affairs. The former bus driver was the longest-serving minister at this post during Chávez’s reign (Alarcon Deza, 2014). In 2012, shortly after Chávez’s victory in the presidential election, Maduro became Vice President. Before leaving for surgery in Cuba in December 2012, Chávez picked his long-time loyal confidant as his successor. In his last public appearance, President Chávez described Maduro as “a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work, for leading, for handling the most difficult situations” (Chuck, 2017).

Is Maduro A Populist Leader?

Jan-Verner Mueller (2013) has raised a critical question: “Can populism thrive without a genuinely popular and charismatic leader?” It is generally accepted that populist leaders derive their legitimacy and authority from the people and their popular support. Claiming to have the people’s support, populists believe in popular sovereignty as manifested by regular elections and referenda representing the people’s will. Put simply, this has never been the case for Maduro. First of all, Maduro was appointed by Chávez as his successor. While carrying out his role as interim president, he ran for office in special elections convened in April 2013, in the wake of Chávez’s death. Maduro had neither Chávez’s charisma nor his support. Calling himself “the son of Chávez,” Maduro narrowly won the election against opposition leader Henrique Capriles by a mere 1.5 percent. Compared to other populist leaders, he has grown deeply unpopular since his election. 

Lacking Chávez’s charisma, Maduro has been unable to enjoy the level of popular support Chávez did. Shortly after he assumed office, his job approval suffered amid rising economic problems, including hyperinflation, devaluation, and rampant poverty. Among the populace, there was a growing distrust of the Maduro government. According to Corrales and Bergen (2016), there was no single indicator of governance that improved under Maduro, and he was perceived as the weakest president in Venezuelan history. The existing problems pointed to significant losses for Maduro and his party in upcoming elections. Reliable polling indicated that Maduro’s approval rating stood below 25 percent before the end of 2014, and around two-thirds of the country believed that he would not be able to complete his first presidential term (Reuters, 2014). These numbers make more sense when put in context and compared to his predecessor’s approval ratings. Since Chávez first came to power in 1999, his party, The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV), has dominated Venezuelan politics. During the Chávez era, PSUV won every election, both presidential and parliamentary. And remarkably, Chávez won his last election, in 2012, by 11 points and enjoyed a 57 percent approval rating just before he died (Corrales and Bergen, 2016). 

Maduro’s low approval rating suggests he lacks a unique feature of populist leaders: charismatic appeal. As Carlos de la Torre has written, in hyper-personalistic regimes, charisma cannot be transferred to a handpicked successor (De la Torre, 2017). As Maduro lacks personal charisma, he constantly invokes Chávez’s memory and legacy to capitalize on the latter’s genuine popularity among the people. Before he was elected in 2013, Maduro overwhelmingly relied on his predecessor’s political capital and legitimacy to gain the people’s support. Maduro and party followers strongly endorsed the slogan of “Chávez lives! The struggle continues! Always fighting for victory, Comandante!” (Angosto-Ferrández, 2016). Although Maduro sought to emulate Chávez’s tactics and style, his fierce rhetoric without strong charisma failed to galvanize Chávez’s electoral base.

Maduro’s low approval rating became more evident in the 2015 parliamentary elections. The electoral coalition of the opposition parties, called Mesa de Unidad Democrática, (Democratic Unity Table – MUD), won a landslide victory against the ruling party PSUV. The result was a record 74 percent turnout, with 58 percent of voters supporting the opposition and only 42 percent supporting the government (Neuman, 2015). PSUV lost control of the assembly for the first time since Chávez came to power in 1999. The opposition achieved a three-fifths majority, which enabled them to pass laws, censure, and remove government ministers and the executive vice president.

Despite lacking charisma, Maduro has displayed one classic trait of populism, by framing Venezuela’s struggle as the “pure” people against the oligarchs. A recent study from the Global Populism Discourse, which identifies populist discourse in the speeches of world leaders, labels Maduro as “very populist” on the basis of speech analysis (Lewis et al., 2019). Like his predecessor Chávez, Maduro’s discourse permanently seeks to divide society into two separate groups and explicitly articulates an existential struggle between them. The discourse mostly revolves around confrontational rhetoric, framing politics as a zero-sum game between the people and the conspiring elite. Similar to other populist leaders, Maduro treats his political opponents not as competitors but “enemies of the homeland” to be defeated (Rodriguez-Garavito and Gomez 2018). Rhetorically, he portrays himself as a victim, even at the height of his power, blaming domestic or foreign elites. Ultimately, the populist discourse aims at legitimizing the use of any means to stay in power.

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, which started under Chávez, was a long and gradual process. While Chávez used populism to entrench his power and consolidate a competitive authoritarian regime in the country, Maduro scaled up to full-blown authoritarianism in the face of eroding support for his government. 

The members of the Venezuelan resistance protested against the Maduro government in Caracas, Venezuela on April 26, 2017.

New Authoritarianism Under an Unpopular Populist Leader

Even though Maduro differs from other populist leaders in terms of lower popular support, he shares another commonality with them: posing a danger to liberal democracy (Hawkins and Ruth, 2016; Weyland, 2013). After inheriting a hybrid regime, Maduro followed a playbook left in place by his predecessor. The deepening socio-economic crisis and increasing domestic instability have increased pressure on Maduro. To maintain his power, he has become more radical, adopting authoritarian tactics on several fronts, including weakening state institutions, undermining checks and balances, polarizing society into two camps, and stacking the playing field against his opponents.

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, which started under Chávez, was a long and gradual process. During the Chávez era, Venezuela was governed by a semi-authoritarian regime, with extremely weak democratic institutions and skewed checks and balances. While Chávez used populism to entrench his power and consolidate a competitive authoritarian regime in the country (Corrales and Penfold, 2011; Levitsky and Loxton, 2012), Maduro scaled up to full-blown authoritarianism in the face of eroding support for his government. As a Freedom House (2017) report indicated, under the Maduro administration, Venezuela gradually transitioned from a “partly free” democracy into a “not free” authoritarian regime. As Maduro’s support has waned at home, the executive branch increasingly engages in traditional authoritarian practices to consolidate political power and eliminate any efforts that would threaten its survival. Facing internal and external crises, the Maduro administration has adopted all sorts of repressive measures, including undermining state institutions, arresting opposition leaders, and suppressing the press (Corrales, 2015: 44).

In this respect, the parliamentary elections in 2015 became a litmus test of whether the regime would accept losing any power through elections (Marsteintredet, 2020). Faced with a sweeping opposition victory, Maduro initially acknowledged the results by saying, “The bad guys won, like the bad guys always do, through lies and fraud” (The Guardian, 2015). But before long, the government implied that it had no intention of sharing its power with an opposition-led parliament. Within two years, the parliament was weakened, first by the electoral council’s denial of the seats necessary for a supermajority, next by the Supreme Court’s rejection of the authority of the legislative body, and finally by a constituent assembly that rules in the place of the National Assembly. 

In the years following the 2015 elections, the country was riven by deep polarization and faced a political impasse, as Maduro felt more insecure about holding power. By early May 2016, the opposition had submitted petitions with some 1.8 million signatures to call for a referendum that would remove Maduro from power. Nevertheless, with the help of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which the government has filled with Maduro loyalists, the referendum was blocked. This manipulation was simply another confirmation that the ruling party would not accept the results of an election that it might lose. 

Similarly, the Supreme Court repeatedly undermined the opposition-dominated National Assembly’s authority as an equal branch of power, routinely overturning the laws that it enacted. The Court has been turned into a political weapon of the Maduro administration. Shortly after the opposition gained control of parliament in 2015, Maduro repacked the Court with unconditional loyalists by circumventing the judicial appointment procedures outlined in the constitution (Freeman, 2020). The Supreme Court nullified nearly all legislation that the National Assembly passed in 2016 and stripped it of its budgetary powers. Moreover, Maduro asked the Court for extraordinary powers to govern by decree, bypassing the legislative body’s checks and balances.

Political interference in the judiciary is not new in Venezuela. This “judicial shield” was also used by Chávez, who packed the Court with his loyalists (Correa and Recinos 2016). Yet, the Supreme Court during the Maduro administration has become an arm of an authoritarian executive (IJC, 2017). A report by the International Commission of Jurists’s (IJC) indicates that the executive has decisively co-opted the Court, whose members mainly consist of members of the ruling party and ex-government officials. For example, last year, the Supreme Court unilaterally appointed a new electoral commission, which was supposed to be appointed by parliament. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court argued that the opposition-run legislature was in “unconstitutional omission.” The Court suspended the leadership of the two leading opposition parties (Primero Justicia and Acción Democrática) and appointed Maduro supporters to lead both parties instead. Finally, the Court increased the number of seats in the National Assembly from 166 to 277, a means of packing the legislature (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

While the CNE and the Supreme Court significantly curtailed the National Assembly’s authority and ability to legislate, Maduro aimed to fully dissolve it in 2017. The government controversially created a new Constituent Assembly to supersede parliament’s authority and bypass its legislation. Its alleged purpose was to draft a new constitution, yet it never happened. The Constituent Assembly assumed de facto power and made all the country’s important political decisions, giving Maduro full control of the process. This explicitly marked Venezuela’s exit from democracy. 

Under the Maduro administration, electoral irregularities have also become more common (Corrales, 2016). The regime understands that it cannot survive a free and fair election, especially after the resounding defeat in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Although the remine has inherited several “legacy” irregularities from Chávez, Maduro has also introduced new, election-specific irregularities of his own (Corrales, 2016). It is widely accepted that electoral conditions under Chávez were never free and fair, and the incumbent party enjoyed an uneven playing field, but the elections were more competitive and happened mostly on schedule (Corrales, 2016). During the Maduro administration, Venezuela has experienced significant electoral irregularities, including the abuse of state power to the incumbent’s advantage, gerrymandered electoral districts, and public media access for opposition candidates (Alarcón, Álvarez, & Hidalgo, 2016).The government’s electoral strategy is designed to turn out its core supporters while discouraging its opponents from voting. Maduro has created an environment that enables the ruling party to hold elections without any risk of losing. 

Meanwhile, the number of political prisoners has significantly increased under the authoritarian Maduro administration. Like other populist autocrats, Maduro has labelled the opposition leaders “traitors” serving as allies of foreign countries. Popular opposition members have been mostly side-lined from the political process, either through being jailed or forced to live in exile; some have been disqualified from holding office (Singer, 2019). The leader of the Popular Will Party, Leopoldo López, was one of the most popular opposition leaders; he was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison for a series of alleged crimes related to his participation in the protests of early 2014. Another popular opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who has run twice as a presidential candidate, was barred by Maduro’s government from running for office. The Supreme Court also lifted parliamentary immunity for Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly’s vice president, who the government accused of crimes for his involvement in street protests (Semple, 2017)

As part of a larger authoritarian playbook, the political prisoners have also been used as a bargaining chip by the Maduro administration. For instance, in August 2020, the Venezuelan government pardoned more than 100 opposition politicians, including more than 20 legislators who had been accused of conspiring against the government (Reuters, 2010). Maduro attempted to use these prisoners as part of an ongoing negotiation ahead of parliamentary elections.

Amid diminishing government support, Maduro is increasingly bolstered by a loyal security apparatus, including the military and police. After losing Chávez’s political capital amid the deteriorating economic situation, Maduro has leaned increasingly on the military, which has become vital to his regime’s survival.

Nicolás Maduro with First Lady Cilia Flores and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López are seen as watching a military parade in Caracas on February 1, 2017.

The Alliance with the Military 

Chávez’s main strategy was to use plebiscitarian mass support to transform established institutions and concentrate power in the hands of the President (Weyland, 2013). However, Maduro, unlike other populist leaders, lacks the charisma to appeal to popular support. Instead, he consolidated support among the Chavista’s inner forces and the military (Romero and Mijares, 2016). Lopez Maya (2018) describes Maduro’s government as a “neopatrimonial rule”; it is not a simple populist regime. According to her, Chávez’s close circle coalesced around Maduro, letting him rule along with his family, friends, and the military. Maduro originally derived his legitimacy from those implicit domestic coalitions rather than the people’s vote.

Amid diminishing government support, Maduro is increasingly bolstered by a loyal security apparatus, including the military and police. After losing Chávez’s political capital amid the deteriorating economic situation, Maduro has leaned increasingly on the military, which has become vital to his regime’s survival. Maduro and his allies understood that the military would be a decisive player in the political game. The lack of charismatic leadership and popular support has made a power-sharing arrangement with the military necessary.

It is important to note here that the high “militarization” of Venezuelan politics dates back to Chávez, who espoused a narrative of the “civil-military alliance” even in the early years of his administration (Strønen, 2016). A significant number of military officers entered into the traditionally civilian space of public offices, effectively militarizing the political system. While many military officers were purged during the Chávez era, some loyal officers were promoted to critical civilian posts.

With Maduro, the Venezuelan military has become even more involved in politics through a series of rewards granted by the government in accordance with implicit power-sharing arrangements. Maduro sought to shore up his support in the armed forces after the defeat in the parliamentary elections (Smilde, 2015). Losing a critical branch of power, Maduro rewarded “profit-seeking soldiers” with access to cabinet posts and the control of banks and other financial institutions (Correa, 2020). High-level bureaucratic cadres and political posts have been staffed with military officers. The officers have a massive presence in the presidential office, vice-ministries, and among governors, mostly without giving up their military offices. As of 2020, eight members of Maduro’s 33-member cabinet – and seven of the nineteen governors who belong to the ruling party – are active or retired military members (Correa, 2020). Several key sectors now rest in the hands of military officers, including the distribution of food and basic products. Maduro appointed Defence Minister General Vladimir Padrino López as head of the “Grand Supply Mission” in 2016, handing him control of Venezuela’s entire food supply system. Since then, the Venezuelan army has become the main authority regulating food and medicine distribution across the country

Maduro has surrounded himself with a group that faces high exit costs if the ruling party loses power, thereby ensuring their support for his survival in office (Cannon and Brown, 2017). For example, David Smilde (2016) argues that Maduro has picked generals for his inner circle who are on the US blacklist for drug trafficking or human rights violations. Theseindividuals have much to lose in any political transition favouring democracy and the rule of law. Any transition to democracy could lead to prosecution and long-term imprisonment. High ranking military officials are expected to remain loyal to their commander-in-chief, since their ability to avoid justice depends on Maduro’s survival.

Maduro has needed to consolidate support amongst the military: since he came to power, the likelihood of a coup has increased. Fed up with rampant corruption, rapid democratic backsliding, and the dire economic situation, some factions of the opposition considered the possibility of a military intervention. Maduro, in fact, claims there have been several attempted coups against his government (Lansberg-Rodríguez, 2015). Some Venezuelan opposition members and generals were arrested by intelligence agents and indicted on charges of conspiracy against the government. According to Corrales (2020), by mid-2019, the Maduro administration held 217 active and retired military officers in prison, many of them without trial. While the Venezuelan government fingered opposition members, generals, and businesspeople as plotting a “coup” against Maduro, he also accused the United States of masterminding an attempt to overthrow him.

The army has played a significant role in supporting Maduro’s legitimacy and power, especially at critical turning points. The military’s support of Maduro smoothed the way for his consolidation of power. That support has not been uniform, however. In 2019, dozens of military members joined Juan Guaido’s uprising attempt. However, none of them were upper-level military members, and the attempt failed. 

Oil pump jack and oil barrels with Venezuelan flag.

Fall of the Petro-state Under the Maduro Administration

Maduro also lacks another significant asset that Chávez enjoyed: booming oil prices. Oil accounts for around 90 percent of petro-state Venezuela’s exports (OPEC, 2016). Instead of saving the oil revenue for the future, Chávez just funnelled booming oil revenue into social programs targeting the poor, including subsidized food, free healthcare, and education. Even though Chávez was a highly charismatic leader, his popularity also heavily depended on his government’s economic performance and generous social programs funded by oil money, which in turn spurred the voters’ support for him.

Maduro was elected president amid an unfavourable economic environment and would soon feel the long-term economic pain that Chávez wrought for the sake of short-term gain. Shortly after Maduro took office, the global price of petroleum crashed, triggering Venezuela’s most serious economic and social crisis in recent history. Since 2013, the country has lost 62 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Bull and Rosales, 2020). The economic crisis has rapidly spiralled into a serious humanitarian crisis marked by worsening public services, malnutrition, and shortages, including for food and medicine. 

Venezuelan oil production has also declined because of international sanctions and a lack of maintenance in the oil sector. Instead of market-friendly economic reforms and relaxing price controls, Maduro chose to continue with his predecessor’s populist economic policies, including nationalizations, tight state control of the economy, and uncontrolled printing of money. Some short-term relief did not solve the complicated problems. Losing his popular support, Maduro was, indeed, not in a position to deviate from Chávez’s socialist policies mainly due to a fear of losing his base (Smilde, 2015). Maduro’s economic management was also marred by a series of incompetent appointments. At a critical time when the economic crisis deepened, Maduro appointed a professor who believed inflation does not really exist (Ellsworth, 2016).

The decline in state revenue due to the sharp fall in oil prices also resulted in reduced social welfare programs. As social programs benefiting the poor, the clientelist social networks providing services in exchange for political support has significantly expanded under Maduro’s rule. Even though food distribution and other social programs have long been in place, at least since Chávez was in power, the massive misuse of state resources became more frequent through solid patronage and clientelist politics under the Maduro administration (Buxton, 2017). Maduro explicitly used government resources to guarantee his re-election for another term. For example, before the presidential elections in 2018, Maduro expanded food subsidies nationally to assure a high electoral turnout (Penfold, 2018). Under military control, food was used as a political tool to reward and mobilize supporters and punish opponents. The voters who were not ideologically aligned with Maduro were excluded from food distributions and other social programs (García-Guadilla and Mallen, 2019)

The neo-patrimonial rule under Maduro also allowed corruption and illicit businesses to flourish across the country. According to Transparency International (2019), Venezuela is among the most corrupt countries in the world (of a total of 180 countries included in the Corruption Perception Index, Venezuela ranks 169). A recent example of the complex corruption schemes initiated under Maduro’s rule is the “Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP) program.” Initially created to provide subsidized food to poor citizens, the program has turned into a complex corruption network that made money from overvalued contracts, which eventually enriched high-level officials (Reuters, 2019). While corruption has proliferated under Maduro’s rule, other illicit businesses, including drug trafficking, have emerged as a key source of profits for the ruling elite (Naim and Toro, 2018).

Opposition protested against the government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela on April 26, 2017.

Anti-Maduro Protests 

This difficult economic situation has been accompanied by a pronounced deterioration in social issues and, consequently, an increase in the levels of political conflict. Deteriorating economic conditions, economic mismanagement, and rampant corruption have undermined Maduro’s unravelling support over the years, leading to widespread discontent among broad sectors of the population, even including some faction of Chávez supporters. Inevitably, the worsening situation triggered several massive protests across the country against rising repression, the high cost of living, and misgovernance.

Amid growing frustration, in 2014, the government faced the first massive demonstrations. Leopoldo López, an opposition leader, led national street protests in opposition to Maduro as part of a strategy known as “La Salida” (The Way Out). Hard-line members of the opposition and students took part. The demonstrations were severely repressed by Venezuelan security forces, resulting in the deaths of 43 people. 

The country witnessed another set of widespread protests in 2017, when the Supreme Court stripped the opposition-led parliament’s legislative powers. This decision prompted widespread outrage in the country. A month of huge protests against Maduro’s rule involved instances of looting and violence. Maduro reacted to these protesters by referring to them as “vandals and terrorists” and called his supporters to the streets (Romo and Marilia, 2017). Similarly, he ramped up his fierce rhetoric against the right-wing opposition and external powers.

Maduro violently cracked down on the protests and imprisoned his major political rivals. Security forces repeatedly used excessive force to repress anti-government demonstrations, resulting in dozens of deaths. Several international institutions documented human rights violations committed by state authorities. Recently, a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission identified findings about extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture committed in the country since 2014 (UN Human Rights Council, 2020). Similarly, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor reported that there is a “reasonable basis” to believe Venezuelan civilian authorities, members of the armed forces, and pro-government individuals had committed crimes against humanity (Reuters, 2020).

Maduro’s Presidency Facing Questions of Legitimacy 

Under conditions significantly favouring the incumbent party – including voting irregularities – the main opposition parties decided to boycott the next presidential (2018) and parliamentary elections (2020), saying the electoral system was rigged in favour of Maduro and his party.

In May 2018, the presidential elections took place amid criticism of domestic and international actors. Maduro was re-elected with 67 percent of the vote, although only 46 percent of eligible voters participated. The high abstention rate was due to the opposition’s boycott.The election was rejected and labelled illegitimate by several countries and international organizations, including the United States, the Lima Group (12 of 13 Latin American member countries and Canada), and the European Union. 

In January 2019, Maduro was sworn in for his second term as president amid questions about his legitimacy. Only two weeks after Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony, the President of the National Assembly and the opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the country’s acting President. His claim rested on a provision in the 1999 constitution that allows the president of parliament to assume power temporarily in the absence of a president-elect. The opposition argued that Maduro had not been elected legally, and, therefore, the country was without a president. Since 2019, Venezuela has been caught in a political conflict between the two men who claim to be its rightful president.

President of Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaido talks to the people during a rally in Caracas, Venezuela on January 23, 2019.

Even though Guaido was recognized as President by more than 50 countries, he has remained powerless and struggled to gain control. Most critically, he did not succeed in persuading the upper echelons of the military – the most critical power player in Maduro’s survival – to turn against the regime. With Maduro firmly entrenched in power, Guaido-led efforts have failed to change the political dynamic on the ground. In June 2020, ruling-party lawmakers elected one of the opposition members backed by Maduro to lead the parliament, depriving Guaidó of his position (Krygier and Faiola, 2020). While the opposition declared this move a “parliamentary coup,” Guaido’s popularity significantly declined only one year after he promised to remove Maduro from power. 

Seeking to bolster his legitimacy, Maduro continues to hold elections significantly stripped of their democratic requirements. In the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Guaidó-led faction of the opposition refused to participate due to serious electoral irregularities. The electoral system has been re-designed in favour of the government. In June 2020, the Supreme Court stripped three of the four main opposition parties of their leadership, allowing the parties to be co-opted by pro-government politicians. Along with an expanding of the National Assembly, from 167 to 277 seats, this severely weakened the opposition. The Maduro administration also refused to allow international electoral observers.

With low voter participation, the president and his left-wing allies won 257 of the 277 seats in the assembly, taking 67.7 percent of the vote. Regardless of civilian disenchantment with politics, solidified his grip on the last democratically elected institution in Venezuela. 

Another Populist Playbook: Foreign Plots

Maduro has another similarity with other populist leaders: he feeds fears of external plots to distract the public’s attention from daily problems inside the country. From the outset of his reign, conspiracy theories have been central to Maduro’s discourse (Carey, 2019). Shortly after he took office, Maduro accused foes of plotting to assassinate him and claimed that “imperialist” enemies infected Chávez with cancer (Reuters, 2013). The Venezuelan government has trumpeted the conspiracies as a way of rallying its supporters around a shared, unsubstantiated enemy. Both Chávez and Maduro used conspiracies as a weapon to discredit or demonize adversaries and to generate a fortress mentality among supporters (Piñeiro, Rhodes-Purdy and Rosenblatt, 2016).

Unable to control the collapse of the economy and chronic issues inside the country, Maduro sustained typical Chávez-style conspiracy theories and claimed foreign states were the main culprit of the country’s problems.In 2016, Maduro announced a plot orchestrated by the US and its alleged domestic conspirators to sabotage the Venezuelan economy. Two weeks later, he announced that the US Embassy, with the participation of opposition leaders, carried out a cyberattack against the banking system (Telesur English, 2016).He also explicitly attributed the country’s socio-economic misery to “external dynamics” by constantly invoking the “economic war” waged against his government by internal and external enemies (Reuters, 2018). Maduro has also constantly characterized the widespread protests and rallies as attempted coups fostered by the United States against his government. For Maduro, there was an international right-wing conspiracy working with the radical opposition inside the country to oust him.

Meanwhile, the US’s increasingly aggressive policy towards Venezuela helped Maduro paint himself as the victim of a foreign plot by the US in an effort to gain favour at home and abroad. First, the Obama administration declared Venezuela as an “an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security” and imposed sanctions on a few high-ranking government officials in 2015 (Neuman, 2015). Then, the Trump administration further increased the pressure by adopting a “maximum pressure” policy to topple Maduro and pave the way for a democratic transition inside the country.Washington imposed another set of sanctions against Venezuela in 2019 in a bid to oust Maduro. The PDVSA state-led oil company was barred from accessing US financial markets as of 2017 and from selling oil to any US-related individual or corporation as of 2019. 

These sanctions disrupted he flow of petrodollars. But the aggressive policies also provided Maduro with a tailor-made excuse: he could blame the crisis on external powers and establish more sweeping government control over key government institutions (Dempsey, 2018). Similarly, Maduro used the sanctions to shore up his domestic supporters and loyalists. Maduro shouted to a large crowd: “I invite the entire Venezuelan people, in all the states and regions of the country, to join in. No one messes with our country. The Yankee boot will never touch it,” (New York Times, 2015).

Being in dire need of economic and financial relief, the Maduro government managed to find ways of evading sanctions by deepening its alliances with like-minded regimes. In response to rising isolation in the region, the Maduro administration has become more reliant on alliances with Iran, Turkey, China, Russia, and other autocratic populist international actors.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the opening ceremony of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Porlamar, Venezuela on September 17, 2016.

An Authoritarian Coalition with Like-minded Regimes

Maduro’s less favourable conditions after Chávez were not limited to domestic dynamics. Venezuela’s position has significantly changed in the regional and international context since Maduro assumed the presidency. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Latin America experienced a “Pink Tide,” as a wave of leftist governments took power in the region. While this surge, which began with Chávez’s election in Venezuela in 1998, created a favourable environment for Chávez, it had begun – and continues – to recede as right-wing parties once again gained power in the region.

With the demise of potential left-wing allies, Maduro’s government has become increasingly isolated in the Western Hemisphere. Rising repression, human rights violations, economic crisis, and widespread corruption cases have all accelerated the regime’s regional isolation. 

The changing price of raw materials has also altered regional dynamics (Romero and Mijares, 2016). In 2005, Chávez launched PetroCaribe, which provided a stable oil flow to many Caribbean and Central American nations on preferential payment terms. When Venezuela’s oil production plunged and the US sanctions ramped up, the Maduro administration scaled back the program. In return, Venezuela lost the diplomatic support of those small countries, which had until then that blocked nearly every resolution put forward by other member states condemning or pressuring the Maduro government.

Venezuela’s isolation in the regional context has become more visible in the initiatives led by the Organization of American States (OAS), which is an influential regional organization that includes 35 independent countries in the Western Hemisphere. The OAS has become the principal body through which the countries in Latin America have exerted pressure on the Maduro administration as instability intensified in the country. The Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, called the Inter-American Democratic Charter in May 2016, a process that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the organization. The Maduro government formally withdrew from the regional body in April 2019 (Gallón, 2019)

More external pressure and increased isolation in the region further destabilized the economy and the state’s income. Being in dire need of economic and financial relief, the Maduro government managed to find ways of evading sanctions by deepening its alliances with like-minded regimes. In response to rising isolation in the region, the Maduro administration has become more reliant on alliances with China, Russia, and other autocratic populist international actors. Strong ties with China and Russia have strengthened the resilience of the Maduro administration. During the Chávez era, these bilateral relations blossomed due in large part to the close personal relations between presidents. These two revisionist powers have been eager to trade their financial and diplomatic support to Venezuela as part of their geopolitical intentions in America’s backyard. With that intention, Moscow and Beijing have played a crucial role in keeping the Venezuelan regime afloat, primarily through loans and other contributions (Rouvinski, 2019)

Several other countries also appeared eager to cooperate with the Venezuelan government despite the risk of more sanctions. These countries have become vital partners, filling the void at a time when many Western companies express reluctance to engage in business with Venezuela for fear of incurring US sanctions. A widening array of friendly countries seemed to expect preferential access to Venezuela’s market and to cultivate lucrative commercial relationships. Erdogan’s Turkey is one of the opportunistic new “allies” that has extended a lifeline to Maduro (Oner, 2020).

Meanwhile, Cuba still remains an influential actor in Venezuela. Cuban security officials are reportedly involved in various key areas of the administration, including intelligence services. Maduro’s connection to Cuba, cultivated when he was a young man, has made Havana more pervasive during his rule (Naim and Toro, 2018). It is believed that Cuban security training and technical assistance has significantly helped the Maduro government to establish a firewall against internal and external threats (Fonseca and Polga-Hecimovich, 2020). In return for this aid, the Maduro administration provided significant oil support to Cuba. While Cuban military and intelligence personnel help Maduro stay in power, the oil provided by Venezuela continues to provide much-needed support to the Cuban economy.

Conclusion

The last seven years under Maduro have been marked by rising polarization, election irregularities, looming economic crisis, and massive protests. Maduro’s incompetent policies have further propelled the country into a downward spiral, which eventually forced more than five million people to leave the country. The same political, economic, and social shocks contributed to the regime’s rising authoritarianism. As the opposition gained popular support through the elections and external pressure on Maduro grew, the resorted to anti-democratic means to maintain his grip on power.

There is a widespread consensus that Maduro is an unpopular leader. Despite his lack of popular support, Maduro still shares particular features with other populist leaders. His discourse and political style – framing politics as constant battle between the good and corrupt – is notably populist in nature. Similarly, his struggle for power at the expense of rising repression and restrictions is in line with the autocratic practices of other populist leaders. As several scholars argue, Maduro has transformed an inherited, semi-authoritarian regime into a full-blown authoritarian one (Corrales 2020; Marsteintredet, 2020).

Lacking personal charisma and booming oil revenues, Maduro has struggled to obtain his predecessor’s popular support and failed to legitimize his rule at the polls. Instead, Maduro consolidated his power through sharing it with elites and the military. Externally, the country’s social, economic, and political environment has contributed to the growing perception among international actors that the regime is becoming ever more authoritarian and unstable. In the face of the greatest threat to its survival both at home and abroad, Maduro and his allies eliminated Venezuela’s remaining democratic institutions. 

The Maduro administration remains reluctant to make any concessions that might erode its power. With implicit and explicit power-sharing arrangements with key actors at the domestic level, Maduro has been able to cling to power. Currently, the military still supports Maduro; there are no signs this will change anytime soon. As the recent political events suggest, and barring free and fair elections, unpopular populist Maduro will remain in power. 

(*) IMDAT ONER is a Senior Policy Analyst at Jack D. Gordon Institute. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Florida International University. He holds a M.A. degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the same university. He specializes in International Relations with major focuses on foreign policy in Latin American. Oner has extensively published on Venezuelan politics, Venezuelan foreign policy, and Turkey-Venezuela relations. His articles published in War on the Rocks, The National Interest, Americas Quarterly, Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica, Ahval and Miami Herald.

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