Dr. Kai Arzhemier, Professor of Political Science at the University of Mainz, Germany.

Professor Kai Arzheimer: Exposed AfD Meeting Echoes Ideologies of 1930s-1940s, Reminiscent of Plans to Exterminate Jews 

In an exclusive interview, Professor Kai Arzhemier assessed the recent exposure of a meeting involving right-wing extremist AfD politicians and neo-Nazis, where discussions about deporting millions of people with a non-German ethnic background, including citizens, took place. Professor Arzheimer characterize this meeting as echoing the ideologies of the 1930s-1940s, reminiscent of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate Jews. Arzheimer underscores that the meeting adds to the concerns about the AfD’s trajectory over the past few years, aligning with right-wing extremism.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Kai Arzhemier, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Mainz, discussed the evolving landscape of populist radical right movements in Europe, with a specific focus on the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The interview delves into various aspects, including the historical context of Germany’s resistance to right-wing populism, the ideological transformation of the AfD, and its impact on German and European politics.

One of the key highlights is the recent exposure of a meeting involving AfD politicians and neo-Nazis, where discussions about deporting millions of people with a non-German ethnic background, including citizens, took place. Professor Arzheimer framed this meeting as echoing the ideologies of the 1930s-1940s, reminiscent of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate Jews. According to Arzheimer, the meeting adds to the concerns about the AfD’s trajectory over the past few years, aligning with right-wing extremism.

The discussion also touches on the upcoming European Parliament elections and the potential performance of the AfD. Dr. Arzhemier suggests that, based on current polling trends and the historical pattern of European elections with lower turnout, the AfD could replicate the success of Geert Wilders’ party in the Netherlands, securing a robust performance ranging between 20-30 percent of the vote.

There are calls from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to ban the AfD due to the presence of individuals within the party who openly talk about remigrating people based on ethnic criteria. Dr. Arzhemier discusses the arguments both in favor of and against banning the AfD, emphasizing the high legal hurdles involved and the potential risks of the party exploiting such actions to portray themselves as victims of political suppression.

The interview explores Dr. Arzhemier’s research on the impact of ‘place’ on populist radical right sentiment in Germany. He discusses how regional disparities, especially in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), still influence political sentiments. Factors such as authoritarian remnants, low immigration rates and a sense of “place resentment” contribute to increased support for the radical right in these regions.

Dr. Arzhemier reflects on his prediction from five years ago, stating that the rise of a right-wing populist party in Germany has made the country less flexible and more inward-looking. While acknowledging Germany’s increased flexibility in response to external factors like the war in Ukraine and Brexit, he suggests that debates about the AfD have absorbed significant political energy that could have been directed elsewhere.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Kai Arzheimer with some edits.

Radical Right’s Influence in Europe Is on the Rise

Your research focuses especially on the populist radical right in Europe. How have you observed the evolution of far-right parties across different European countries in recent years? How do you see the impact of economic factors on the rise of these movements, and to what extent do cultural and identity issues play a role?

Kai Arzheimer: First and foremost, I think the radical right’s influence in Europe is on the rise. Across various countries, we observe an increase in the vote share of these parties, marking a shift from the political margins to the mainstream. This evolution is evident not only in their electoral significance but also in their impact on other parties and in the shaping of public discourse. The discourse, influenced by the radical right, centers around the concept of crisis. Consequently, the transformations in different European countries, both in terms of societal composition and economic structures, are portrayed as crises. The radical right positions itself as the defender of ordinary people against these perceived threats, contributing to its growing prominence.

Regarding the second part of your question, the two aspects of this perceived crisis are closely intertwined. It is not solely about concerns over immigrants potentially taking away jobs or jobs relocating to regions like China or Central Eastern Europe. Additionally, it involves the perception that immigration and other transformative economic processes, such as the decline of traditional industries like mining and the phase-out of internal combustion engines, are altering our way of life in a manner framed as a threat to the native population. Analyzing public opinion data makes it empirically challenging to separate the effects of economic anxieties from cultural threat perceptions. While they are not identical, these factors are intricately linked in the minds of voters.

Germany was considered an exception to the success of populist radical right and far-right parties until the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). What factors contributed to Germany’s resistance to right-wing populism for an extended period, and how did the AfD manage to break this trend? In other words, how do you explain the success of ‘cordon sanitaire’ until very recently and what factors could contribute to its demise?

Kai ArzheimerYou are right. The AfD, established just a decade ago, represents the first successful national radical right party in Germany since at least the 1960s. The establishment and maintenance of a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against the radical right in Germany can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, right-wing and far-right actors in Germany have often adopted extreme approaches. Unlike the most successful radical right parties in Western Europe, such as those in Scandinavia, the PVV in the Netherlands, and even the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France, which have moderated their stances over time to appeal to a broader electorate, far-right actors in Germany have tended to adhere closely to the roots of German right-wing extremism from the 1930s and 1940s. This historical connection, understandably, has been repugnant to most Germans, limiting the success of such parties.

Another contributing factor has been the historical division within the far-right in Germany. Numerous relatively small parties competed with each other, preventing any single one from surpassing the 5 percent threshold. Additionally, the mainstream right party, the Christian Democrats, has traditionally embraced a broad spectrum of ideologies, ranging from center-left to robust conservatism. Over the decades, they successfully appealed to a wide array of voters, some of whom later shifted to the far-right AfD once it emerged as a viable alternative.

One crucial aspect to consider is how the AfD successfully broke through the ‘cordon sanitaire,’ especially given that they did not initially identify as a radical right party. When they emerged in 2013, their platform primarily centered around soft Euroscepticism. The most notable member and co-founder, a former Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) member, contended that the CDU had left him due to a perceived leftward shift under Merkel’s leadership. This initial positioning made them acceptable to voters who had previously supported mainstream right parties like the Free Democratic Party (FDP), CDU, and Christian Social Union (CSU).

It was only over the first three years of their existence that it became evident that the AfD was transforming into a fully-fledged radical right party. By that point, they had already secured a presence in Parliament, become a significant political force, and garnered considerable media coverage. Through this evolution, they managed to establish themselves despite the long-standing ‘cordon sanitaire.’

Political Landscape Underwent Significant Changes with Influx of Refugees from Syria

Co-chairpersons of the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla at a meeting in Berlin, Germany on July 4, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

 

Your research discusses the transformation of the AfD from its moderately Eurosceptic beginnings to a more radical right-wing stance. Can you elaborate on the key factors and events that led to this ideological shift within the AfD?

Kai Arzheimer: First and foremost, it’s crucial to acknowledge that right from its inception, the party encompassed various right-wingers with diverse perspectives. While the individuals I mentioned in my earlier response, those with previous ties to the CDU or FDP, were more prominently featured, they represented just a segment of the broader ideological spectrum within the party. These individuals took center stage as front-row politicians for the fledgling party.

As early as 2014, a power struggle emerged within the AfD, pitting the more moderate proponents against the growing influence of radical elements within the party. By 2015, this internal conflict had escalated to the point where one of the co-founders and arguably the party’s most prominent figure decided to leave, taking approximately 10 percent of the membership with him. Notably, this group comprised a disproportionately high number of individuals from the middle management level of the party, contributing significantly to a division between the more moderate faction and the increasingly influential radical forces within the party.

Moreover, the political landscape underwent significant shifts with the arrival of numerous refugees from Syria and the broader Middle East in 2015 and 2016. This influx propelled the issue of immigration to the forefront of public discourse, providing an opportunity for the AfD to strategically capitalize on this altered agenda. Concentrating on immigration and multiculturalism emerged as a key strategy for success. This emphasis not only resonated with a segment of the electorate but also bolstered the influence of more radical voices within the party.

Finally, the party had solidified its position to such an extent that even more radical elements within its ranks, openly connected to traditional right-wing extremism both outside and inside the party, prominently rose to the forefront. This was exemplified by the regional leader in one of the Eastern States, who has become the face of the ultra-radicals within the party. Despite numerous attempts to expel him, none have succeeded, solidifying his status as a significant figure within the party. It is now challenging to envision any significant developments within the party occurring without his approval.

AfD Pushes Other Parties to Adopt a Tougher Stance on Immigration

Apparently, the AfD has emerged as a formidable force in German politics. How has the party altered the political landscape, and what repercussions does its presence carry for German politics? What impact is the AfD likely to have on the political trajectory of the CDU and CSU? Considering the broader context, what implications does the AfD’s prominence hold for the European Union?

Kai Arzheimer: Firstly, the AfD wields significant influence in several State Parliaments in Germany, particularly in the Eastern States, where it currently stands as the predominant party, commanding around 35 percent of the vote. This success has compelled the CDU to engage in unconventional coalitions with the Greens, SPD, and FDP at the state level, forming heterogeneous and oversized coalitions to avoid collaborating with the AfD. This impact is enduring, with three upcoming state elections, and the possibility that the AfD might even contend for State Premiership, potentially becoming the leading force in one of the Eastern States.

Secondly, the AfD has exerted substantial pressure on the CDU, as many politicians within the party feel a loss of both support and a portion of their conservative identity to the AfD. A discourse has emerged within the CDU asserting that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership of the party and the country was detrimental. Some argue that she shifted the party too much towards the center or even the left during her 16-year tenure as chancellor. Despite her prolonged majority control, this is perceived as a problem by a faction within the party, prompting a desire to adopt a tougher stance on immigration and cultural issues, aiming to realign the CDU with positions now advocated by the AfD. On the other hand, opposing voices within the CDU contend that societal changes have been significant, and Merkel’s success lies in her recognition of these shifts, allowing her to strategically reposition the CDU to maintain its political dominance for one and a half decades. This presents a second impact of the AfD’s success.

I believe the third impact is even more significant. In response to the AfD’s successes, there is now a discussion within the SPD and the FDP about the necessity for these parties to reposition themselves. The prevailing sentiment is that they must adopt a tougher stance on immigration and reconnect with their traditional constituencies. For the SPD, this involves appealing more to industrial workers and working-class individuals, while downplaying emphasis on issues such as gender equality or climate protection. This signifies a notable shift in the overall discourse towards a more right-leaning perspective.

The implications for Europe pose a distinct question. Personally, I don’t foresee the AfD entering into any form of coalition at the national level. There remains a broad consensus within the German political landscape that European integration, if not unification, is generally beneficial. While there is a push for fiscal prudence in Germany’s European relationships, it doesn’t undermine the fact that both major German political parties and the population, broadly speaking, are pro-European. Even the AfD, despite their criticisms of the European Union, doesn’t attribute a significant part of their current success to this issue. Strangely enough, the impact on the matter of European integration seems rather minimal at the moment.

A potential consequence could be that successful German governments may lean towards supporting more restrictive European policies on integration. Historically, the German government has maintained a relatively liberal stance within the European Union. However, there is a shift occurring, as a minority of European governments still support this more liberal approach. Domestically, there is pressure on the German government to adjust its position, and to some degree, this adjustment has already taken place.

Anti-Immigration Sentiment: A Fundamental Driver of AfD Support

EU elections campaign of Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Munich, Germany in May 2019. German nationalist, right-wing populist and Eurosceptic AFD is the largest opposition party in Bundestag. Photo: Shutterstock.

Could you explain how the AfD’s current support aligns with the typical image of European radical right voters? What fundamental motivations drive support for the AfD among its voters? How significant is the role of anti-immigration sentiment in the AfD’s ascension?

Kai Arzheimer: It is absolutely essential for the support of the AfD, just as it is for other European radical right parties. Concerns about immigration, particularly from non-European countries, play a pivotal role in driving support for these parties. While not every individual skeptical about immigration aligns with radical right policies, a close examination of the AfD’s electorate in Germany, as well as that of comparable parties like the PVV in the Netherlands and others across Europe, reveals a notable correlation: it is challenging to find a supporter of these parties who views immigration as a positive development.

There are other motives as well. A range of secondary issues, including climate change denial, concerns about gender equality, and opposition to same-sex marriages, among others, align closely with support for the radical right. While Euroscepticism is present, it is essentially a secondary motive. Stripping away these secondary concerns reveals that the primary and most significant factor for the AfD, and many similar parties, is resistance to immigration and the apprehension towards European societies becoming more diverse and multicultural.

One of your studies explores the impact of ‘place’ on populist radical right sentiment in Germany. Regarding the impact of ‘place’ on populist radical right attitudes, how do regional disparities, such as those in the former GDR (German Democratic Republic), still influence political sentiments, and what policy implications does this have? 

Kai Arzheimer: That’s a very interesting question. What we observe across Europe is a concentration of support for these parties in specific regions, often in rural areas or smaller, economically challenged towns. In our study, we sought to quantify the impact of objective indicators of deprivation, such as demographic changes, declining public infrastructure, high unemployment, and significant immigration rates, among other factors. Even after accounting for the demographic composition of the local population—for example, recognizing that younger, more educated individuals are less likely to support the radical right, while older men with lower levels of formal education tend to support it disproportionately—we discovered a persistent effect related to places being in the former GDR 30 years after reunification. There seems to be something enduring about this part of Germany that contributes to increased support for the radical right, and there are various possible explanations for this phenomenon.

One possible explanation is the lingering influence of the authoritarian regime in the former GDR, which might have left behind an authoritarian mindset. Additionally, the low levels of immigration into the GDR, even up to the present day, could contribute to the phenomenon. Rural parts of the former GDR, in particular, have relatively few immigrants, leading residents to be less accustomed to exposure to individuals who look different or have a different culture. There’s also the argument that individuals in the former GDR, having been ridiculed, treated as second-class citizens, may harbor a backlash against perceived Western superiority.

While all these potential explanations seem to align in a similar direction, disentangling them from each other proves challenging. However, a noteworthy factor that stands out is what we term “place resentment”—the sentiment that the area, town, or region where one lives lacks sufficient recognition and resources. This sense of being overlooked, especially in terms of recognition, appears to be a significant contributing factor to the peculiar and enduring GDR effect observed to the present day.

Hurdles for Banning AfD are Exceptionally High

Photo: Shutterstock.

Given the growing strength of the AfD, there are calls from the SPD to ban the party. How do you evaluate the arguments and considerations behind these calls for banning the AfD?

Kai Arzheimer: The hurdles for banning a party in Germany are exceptionally high, with only three institutions—the Federal Council, Federal Government, and Federal Parliament—having the authority to initiate such a process. However, they lack the power to enact a ban; they can only request the highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, to consider it. Convincing the court requires demonstrating that the targeted party poses a threat to the existence of democracy in Germany, and even if this argument is made, a supermajority of the court, two-thirds of the sitting judges is needed for approval. The last successful attempt to ban a party was in 1956 when the Communist Party was prohibited, and even then, it was a controversial decision. There have been two subsequent attempts to ban the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), another far-right party, which is now relatively small. Despite being labeled a real neo-Nazi party openly aligned with Nazi ideology, the Federal Constitutional Court concluded that, while they may espouse neo-Nazi views, they are essentially a tiny political sect and not a significant threat to the constitutional order of Germany, preventing their ban.

The potential for failure in this process is substantial, and many politicians are concerned that it could be perceived as restricting political competition. Such an attempt would likely align with the AfD’s narrative of victimization and marginalization in German politics. The party could exploit the situation to portray themselves as suppressed, with the establishment resorting to legal means to limit competition and disenfranchise their supporters. The risk of this narrative gaining traction is significant, and even if the process were initiated, it might turn out to be a protracted endeavor. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee of success, as the Federal Constitutional Court could ultimately decide against banning the party, which would, in essence, be seen as a tacit endorsement. Given these concerns, many German politicians and the government are highly reluctant to pursue this course of action.

The argument in favor of a ban stems from the presence of individuals within the AfD who pose genuine threats to the constitutional order. They quite openly talk about remigrating people, suggesting that individuals with a German passport, those who have legally resided in the country, or even their parents, should be expelled because their skin color is the “wrong tone,” or their surname is of the “wrong kind.” This sparked considerable controversy in German politics last week, although such sentiments are not new. These voices have persisted for an extended period, with concrete evidence such as a book authored by Björn Höcke in 2020 where these individuals actively campaigned for reprehensible ideas. The potential elevation of figures like Björn Höcke to significant positions, such as Minister, President, or State premier of a German State, is particularly concerning. Additionally, if the AfD emerges as the dominant political force in various parts of the German East, it raises legitimate concerns about the threat to liberal democracy.

This is why some politicians, journalists, professors, and others argue that we should, at the very least, contemplate the possibility of banning the AfD before it reaches a point of irreversibility. These are the key arguments both in favor of and against such actions. Despite the substantial political risks and the lengthy process involved, proponents argue that it might be a necessary step due to concerns that some individuals within the AfD are actively attempting to undermine the democratic principles that define Germany.

The last sentence of your article titled “Don’t Mention the War! How Populist Right-Wing Radicalism Became (Almost) Normal in Germany” reads: “Therefore, my prediction is that as in other countries, the rise of a right-wing populist party will make Germany less flexible and more inward-looking than it already is. This does not bode well for German and for European Politics.” It is an article written in 2019. Five years later, do you believe your prediction has been vindicated, or has Germany, in fact, become more flexible and outward-looking?

Kai Arzheimer: In a sense, my perspective has been vindicated, as Germany has indeed devoted significant energy to discussions about the rise of the AfD. The debates on accommodating voters, considering more restrictions, and emphasizing national interests have absorbed the attention of German elites and political energy that could have been directed elsewhere. In a sense, yes, Germany is even more inward-looking than it was five years ago. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the geopolitical landscape has undergone radical changes, marked by the war in Ukraine, Brexit, and the need to contemplate European security in light of a possible second Trump presidency. In response to these external factors, Germany has shown increased flexibility in its approach to using military power, providing military support to Ukraine, collaborating with European neighbors, and welcoming Ukrainian refugees. However, Germany was compelled to take these actions due to external factors. While I may not have been entirely accurate in my predictions, there is a sense of vindication in understanding the context behind Germany’s decisions.

AfD Poised to Secure 20-30 Percent of the Vote in EP Elections

How do you assess the recently exposed meeting involving AfD politicians and neo-Nazis, where discussions about deporting millions of people with a non-German ethnic background, including citizens, took place?

Kai Arzheimer: Well, I’ve already touched upon that. It sparked public outcry, and rightly so, given its disturbing resemblance to the ideologies of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the Nazis’ plan to exterminate Jews. This development is significant, aligning with the trajectory of the AfD over the past 5 to 6 years. Martin Sellner, a prominent figure in right-wing extremism from Austria and former leader of the Identitarian movement, attended the meeting, adding weight to the concerns.

Officially, the AfD asserts an incompatibility between membership in the Identitarian movement and the AfD. However, in reality, numerous members, especially within the youth wing of the AfD, are affiliated with the Identitarian movement. Furthermore, individuals from the Identitarian Movement have been hired as staffers for AfD members of Parliament. During the recent party conference for the upcoming European Parliament election, when the list of candidates was drawn up, many expressing similar ideas were present. The party leadership was in attendance, and no one seemed oblivious to the implications. While not entirely surprising news, it does contribute to a growing public awareness of these concerning tendencies within the AfD.

And lastly, what is your prediction regarding the AfD’s potential performance in the upcoming European Parliament elections? Do you believe the AfD could replicate the success of Geert Wilders’ party in the Netherlands?

Kai Arzheimer: I think that’s quite possible. Currently, the AfD stands at approximately 20-21 percent in national polls. However, European elections typically witness lower turnout, as some individuals may not view them with the same seriousness as national elections. The lower threshold becomes relevant for the AfD in this context. Consequently, people might be more inclined to experiment with their votes and support outsider parties. As a result, I anticipate a robust performance by the AfD in the European election, ranging between 20-30 percent of the vote. 

Activists of Bangladesh Nationalist Party form a human chain to mark International Human Rights Day as they protested human rights violations against leaders and activist in Dhaka, December 10, 2023. Photo: Mamunur Rashid.

Mapping Global Populism – Panel #9: Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Date/Time: Thursday, January 25, 2024 — 10:00-12:00 (CET)

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Moderator

(Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia).

Speakers

“Islamic Extremism, Populism and Formation of National Identity in Bangladesh,” by Mr. Bobby Hajjaj (Department of Management, North South University, Bangladesh).

“Masks of Authoritarianism: Hegemony, Power and People in Bangladesh,” by Dr. Mubashar Hasan (Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo, Norway). 

“Religious Extremism and Islamist Populism in Contemporary Bangladesh,” by Dr. Maidul Islam (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta).

“Civilisational Populism and Buddhist Nationalisms in Sri Lanka,” by Dr. Rajni Gamage (Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore). 

“Will Rise of Religious Nationalism and Populism in the Maldives Lead to Another Authoritarian Reversal?” by Dr. Mosmi Bhim (Assistant Professor, Fiji National University).

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Brief Biographies and Abstracts

Dr. Syaza Shukri is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia. Her area of specialization is in comparative politics, specifically in democratization and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her current research interests include populism, identity politics, inter-ethnic relations, political Islam, geopolitics, and gender studies, specifically in Muslim-majority contexts. Among Dr. Shukri’s recent works is “Populism and Muslim Democracies,” published in Asian Politics & Policy. She is also currently working on a book chapter on Islamist populism in Malaysia since 2018. Dr. Shukri has degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (where she graduated summa cum laude), the London School of Economics and Political Science, and International Islamic University Malaysia. She can be reached at syazashukri@iium.edu.my.

 

Islamic Extremism, Populism and Formation of National Identity in Bangladesh

Mr. Bobby Hajjaj is an academic and a noted political activist in Bangladesh. He teaches at the North South University and his research focuses on nationalism, political leadership, and political parties. He has always been a loud and vocal advocate for democracy through free and fair elections.
 
Abstract: The foundations of any nationalism are based on a set of core myths and traditions, which are malleable over time. Bangladesh’s history provides a rich tapestry of identity markers that have contributed to two diverging sets of nationalist identities that divide large parts of its polity today. One of these, the language-based identity called ‘Bengali nationalism’, was born through populist politics, while the other, based on an Islamic religion-based identity called ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’, was empowered through a geopolitical shift in Cold War politics towards the Middle East and beyond, especially stretching from Iraq to Pakistan, between the 1970s to the 1990s. Since the end of the Cold War, however, these also gave rise to high tides of what has been called Islamist extremism. This talk will shed light on the more significant ways populism and Islamic extremism has affected nationalism in Bangladesh the first two decades of the twenty-first century, and what can be expected in the near future.

 

Religious Extremism and Islamist Populism in Contemporary Bangladesh

Dr. Maidul Islam is a Political Scientist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Previously, he has taught Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata and at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. He was also a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. As a Clarendon-Hector Pilling-Senior Hulme scholar at Brasenose College, he studied political theory for his doctoral studies in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. His doctoral thesis at Oxford University was published as Limits of Islamism: Jamaat-e-Islami in Contemporary India and Bangladesh (Cambridge University Press, 2015). His second book, Indian Muslim(s) after Liberalization (Oxford University Press, 2019; Ebook, 2018), is a companion volume to Limits of Islamism by looking at the socioeconomic conditions and political expressions of the largest religious minorities in the world’s largest electoral democracy. His third book, Political Theory and South Asian Counter-Narratives (Routledge, 2022; Ebook, 2021), evaluates the promise of human progress and secularism in grand political narratives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, comparing counter-narratives of South Asia within the context of a fast-changing twenty-first century. Besides being an accomplished scholar in the discipline of Political Science with contributions in the field of political theory and South Asian politics, he has also written on the overlap between socio-political issues and popular cinema. As a public intellectual, he occasionally writes for newspapers and digital platforms in both English and Bengali. As a political analyst, he occasionally appears for Bengali news channels and gives expert opinions on Indian and West Bengal politics to various national and international media houses.

Abstract: Religious extremism and Islamist populism are two different conceptual categories used in this presentation. Religious extremism is some form of violent act that uses religious sentiments in mobilising those who perform such violent activities. Religious extremists could be found among some sections of believers in most organised religions and range from violent attacks on free speech, religious minorities, atheists, and sexual minorities to full-fledged terrorist activities. In contrast, Islamist populism is a peaceful strategy of political mobilisation across various sectors of the Muslim population by using the symbolic language of Islamic religion against secular nationalist governments in the Muslim world. Islamist populists often take part in democratic elections, unlike the former set of religious extremists in the Muslim world. In the case of contemporary Bangladesh, while Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) are examples of religious extremist organisations, the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh is a moderate Islamist populist party. However, a clear assessment of the strength of the religious extremists and Islamist populists needs to be made instead of a panic-ridden section of experts who cried the clarion call of Bangladesh becoming the next Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the context of several terror activities in Bangladesh in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, a detailed analysis of terror activities done by both quantitative and qualitative approaches shows us that the peak period of terrorism in Bangladesh was in the 1990s. Moreover, the dominance of the secular policies of the national populism of the Awami League has hindered the political growth of Islamist populist parties like the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Although, a few years back, there were some incidents of violent attacks on atheist bloggers in Bangladesh by Islamist fanatics, particularly between 2013 and 2016 and a massive terror attack in Holey Artisan Bakery on 1st July 2016, the number of violent attacks by religious extremism have steadily gone down when compared to the 1990s. By all counts, both religious extremism and Islamist populism face a crisis at multiple levels: leadership, financial and political.

 

Civilizational populisms and Buddhist nationalisms in Sri Lanka

Dr. Rajni Gamage is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore (NUS). She holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Queensland, Australia. Her PhD was titled ‘Nation as Village: Historicising the Authoritarian Populist Regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’ and is political economy analysis of the authoritarian populist Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka. Her current research focus is on the politics of state transformation, elite politics, and development and inequality in Sri Lanka, grounded against related developments in South Asia and globally.

Abstract: The rise of populism in Western ‘advanced democracies’ over the past 10-15 years is interpreted in different ways, one of which is that it is a popular backlash to the economic inequalities and decline in global status of these countries, which are at odds with the growing aspirations of their majority electorate. Civilizational populism as a concept gained usage in the context of social groups (mainly from a Judeo-Christian background) in these countries responding to the influx of Muslim (and ‘Other’) immigrants from the Global South. In the Global South, however, civilizational populism has other connotations – ground in historical experiences of colonialism and their material position in the global political economy.

In Sri Lanka, the dominant paradigm Sinhala Buddhist nationalism continues to borrow from the civilizational-centric discourse of a key Sinhala nationalist during anti-colonial movements in British Ceylon. The rise of Sinhala and Buddhist nationalist political parties and movements since the 2000s have shaped the political space significantly since. There are three key features to Buddhist nationalism and civilizational populism in the present context: First, the close link between the state and Buddhism has continued, despite the recent crises, and the institutional features of a civilizational state are seen in the Constitution and state institutions such as the Executive Presidency. Second, Political Buddhism has proved to be resilient, adapting itself to the times to remain socially and politically relevant. Third, more inclusive Buddhist nationalisms are unlikely to gain any real popular support and will remain at the fringes.

 

Will Rise of Religious Nationalism and Populism in the Maldives Lead to Another Authoritarian Reversal?

Dr. Mosmi Bhim is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Ethics & Governance, Fiji National University (FNU). Dr. Bhim teaches politics, ethics, values, and social sciences.”

Abstract: The Maldives embarked on a rocky path to democratisation with the atoll nation’s inaugural multi-party elections in 2008, and its fourth multiparty elections in 2023. The first democratic President Nasheed’s tenure in office was truncated in 2012 due to the legacy of authoritarianism, as well as the impacts of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism. The post-independence leaders and political parties in the Maldives have engaged in strategies of populism to harness support and justify their rule. This paper will discuss the different populist strategies of post-independence political leaders in the Maldives and its impact on the outcome of the 2023 Presidential elections. Strategies of populism utilised in the Maldives include nationalism, Islamic nationalism, religious populism and political Islam. The utilisation of religious populism and political Islam have had drastic impacts on religious freedom and civil liberties in the Maldives. The return to transition to democracy in 2018 was perilous as leaders towed the dangerous line of pandering to religious fundamentalism to retain political power. This meant that civil liberties continued to be under threat under the democratic government of President Solih. The current President Muizzu’s political party is aligned to religious fundamentalism. Muizzu’s populist style will be examined to deduce its impact on the party’s 2023 electoral victory and whether it creates greater prospects for democratisation or authoritarian reversal in the Maldives.     

Kurt Weyland

Professor Kurt Weyland: Democracies Possess Inherent Defensive Mechanisms against Populist Challenges

Arguing that democracy is less susceptible, less precarious, and less endangered by populist leadership, Professor Kurt Weyland of the University of Texas emphasizes, “Populist leaders inherently lean towards illiberal tendencies, aiming to consolidate power at the expense of democratic principles. However, democracy possesses inherent defensive mechanisms.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Kurt Weyland, a political scientist and Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, shared insights into the evolving nature of populist movements and their impact on democracies. The interview covered key aspects of his research, addressing the weaknesses of personalistic plebiscitarian leadership, the comparative analysis of populism‘s impact on democracy in Europe and Latin America, the role of charismatic leadership in damaging political-party systems, and the long-term impact of populist movements on the political landscape.

Professor Weyland emphasized the challenges faced by populist leaders due to their domineering and self-assured nature, which often leads to arbitrary policy decisions and a lack of systematic governance. He highlighted the difficulties in forming coalitions and the intentional polarization fostered by populist leaders to maintain plebiscitarian support. 

The comparative analysis of populism‘s impact on democracy revealed insights into the resilience of democratic institutions, emphasizing the significance of institutional frameworks, robust party systems, and the role of society. Weyland discussed conjunctural opportunities that populist leaders exploit, such as windfall rents and crises, and how these factors contribute to their mass appeal.

Addressing the impact on party systems, Weyland highlighted the corrosive nature of charismatic leadership, causing fragmentation within opposition parties and affecting the overall quality of democracy. He expressed optimism about the future of democracy, acknowledging its record of resilience despite populist challenges.

Regarding the potential re-election of Donald Trump in the United States, Weyland raised concerns about ongoing turmoil but maintained confidence in the strength of US institutions to prevent significant deterioration. He discussed the challenges faced by personalistic leaders in institutionalizing their rule, citing examples from Turkey and Bolivia.

Weyland’s analysis extended to the global perspective, critiquing alarmist findings on the decline of democracy by institutions like the V-Dem Institute. He emphasized the need for nuanced evaluations, considering potential biases in subjective ratings and acknowledging the historical context of democracy’s progress.

Weyland emphasized the significance of tackling representation deficits and addressing citizen concerns, pointing to proactive immigration systems as potential strategies for mainstream parties. He illustrated this point by referencing the Danish Social Democrats’ adoption of restrictive immigration policies, a move that had a profound impact on the populist Danish People’s Party.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Kurt Weyland

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu's Judicial Coup in Israel. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

Professor Kurt Weyland: Democracies Possess Inherent Defensive Mechanisms against Populist Challenges

Arguing that democracy is less susceptible, less precarious, and less endangered by populist leadership, Professor Kurt Weyland of the University of Texas emphasizes, “Populist leaders inherently lean towards illiberal tendencies, aiming to consolidate power at the expense of democratic principles. However, democracy possesses inherent defensive mechanisms.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Kurt Weyland, a political scientist and Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, shared insights into the evolving nature of populist movements and their impact on democracies. The interview covered key aspects of his research, addressing the weaknesses of personalistic plebiscitarian leadership, the comparative analysis of populism’s impact on democracy in Europe and Latin America, the role of charismatic leadership in damaging political-party systems, and the long-term impact of populist movements on the political landscape.

Professor Weyland emphasized the challenges faced by populist leaders due to their domineering and self-assured nature, which often leads to arbitrary policy decisions and a lack of systematic governance. He highlighted the difficulties in forming coalitions and the intentional polarization fostered by populist leaders to maintain plebiscitarian support. 

The comparative analysis of populism’s impact on democracy revealed insights into the resilience of democratic institutions, emphasizing the significance of institutional frameworks, robust party systems, and the role of society. Weyland discussed conjunctural opportunities that populist leaders exploit, such as windfall rents and crises, and how these factors contribute to their mass appeal.

Addressing the impact on party systems, Weyland highlighted the corrosive nature of charismatic leadership, causing fragmentation within opposition parties and affecting the overall quality of democracy. He expressed optimism about the future of democracy, acknowledging its record of resilience despite populist challenges.

Regarding the potential re-election of Donald Trump in the United States, Weyland raised concerns about ongoing turmoil but maintained confidence in the strength of US institutions to prevent significant deterioration. He discussed the challenges faced by personalistic leaders in institutionalizing their rule, citing examples from Turkey and Bolivia.

Weyland’s analysis extended to the global perspective, critiquing alarmist findings on the decline of democracy by institutions like the V-Dem Institute. He emphasized the need for nuanced evaluations, considering potential biases in subjective ratings and acknowledging the historical context of democracy’s progress.

Weyland emphasized the significance of tackling representation deficits and addressing citizen concerns, pointing to proactive immigration systems as potential strategies for mainstream parties. He illustrated this point by referencing the Danish Social Democrats’ adoption of restrictive immigration policies, a move that had a profound impact on the populist Danish People’s Party.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Kurt Weyland with some edits.

Dr. Kurt Weyland, a political scientist and Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

Lacking A Systematic and Well-informed Approach, Populists Are Prone to Fail

In your research on “How Populism Dies,” you discuss the political weaknesses of personalistic plebiscitarian leadership. Can you elaborate on the key weaknesses and how they impact the ability of populist leaders to sustain their movements over time?

Kurt Weyland: When examining populist leaders, I often characterize them as embodying personalistic plebiscitarian leadership. Personalistic leaders tend to be domineering and self-assured, exemplified by their belief, as articulated by figures like Donald Trump, that “only I can do it.” Consequently, these leaders often eschew extensive reliance on expertise, consultation, or collaborative decision-making, leading to haphazard and arbitrary policy decisions. Lacking a systematic and well-informed approach, they are prone to making numerous mistakes. 

This article primarily scrutinizes populist leaders in governmental roles, emphasizing their policy enactments. In many instances, these leaders struggle to accurately identify problems and design comprehensive solutions. While my focus is primarily on economic policymaking, recent events, such as the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, have underscored the bumbling responses of various populist leaders. Such shortcomings not only weaken their performance but also sow doubts regarding their charismatic prowess, potentially eroding popular support.

Another challenge stemming from personalistic leadership is the difficulty in forming coalitions due to these leaders’ desire to be number one. They want to be in command. They are domineering. Other politicians don’t easily cooperate and collaborate with leaders like that. Their domineering nature and preference for command make collaboration with other politicians challenging. Populist leaders, in fact, often intentionally foster polarization and conflict to bolster their plebiscitarian support. By antagonizing the political establishment and mainstream parties, they create an environment where cooperation becomes even more elusive. Predictably, mainstream parties seize opportunities to retaliate and attempt to remove these personalistic leaders. 

The article primarily concentrates on government performance, and among the approximately 30 populist leaders examined, about 8 to 10 are quickly ousted due to a combination of protest-driven upheaval, impeachment resulting from policy mistakes, and opposition from the elites they antagonize. The main focus of the article is on the intersection of policy performance and governance sustainability. This is encapsulated in the title “How Populism Dies,” emphasizing that many populist leaders are swiftly ousted, particularly when their policy performance is erratic. A recent example is Pedro Castillo in Peru, who, after a year and a half marked by inexperience, lack of consultation, and various mistakes, was swiftly removed from power.

In “When Democracy Trumps Populism,” you provide a comparative analysis of populism’s impact on democracy in Europe and Latin America. What are the key lessons that can be applied to understand populism’s interaction with democratic institutions globally?

Kurt Weyland: In my initial attempt to analyze the threat of populism to democracy from a comparative perspective, a topic I delve into more comprehensively in my upcoming book, the core message remains consistent. I argue that democracy is less susceptible, less precarious, and less endangered by populist leadership. Populist leaders inherently lean towards illiberal tendencies, aiming to consolidate power at the expense of democratic principles. However, democracy possesses inherent defensive mechanisms, which I term resilience in my forthcoming book.

I stress the significance of institutional frameworks in this early analysis, acknowledging the strength and character of these structures. Additionally, I underscore the importance of robust party systems. Nevertheless, upon further reflection, I now consider the nature of society to be a more pivotal factor than the strength of parties and established party systems, as highlighted in my initial work.

In societies characterized by relative prosperity, a strong middle class, and educated sectors, populist leaders encounter greater challenges in garnering widespread support. Conversely, in economically disadvantaged regions like Latin America, where material deprivation and lower education levels prevail, populist figures such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela find it easier to amass overwhelming mass support.

A pivotal aspect elaborated in my book is the role of conjunctural opportunities that certain populist leaders exploit to bolster their mass appeal. Surprisingly, these opportunities arise from two opposite directions. On one hand, massive windfall rents, as exemplified by Hugo Chavez’s oil revenues in Venezuela, enable leaders to purchase support broadly, achieving popularity levels of 65-70% that nobody can resist. This unchecked popularity can lead to the erosion of democratic principles. However, without such substantial windfalls, it becomes significantly more challenging for populist leaders to achieve the same level of support.

Another unforeseen conjunctural opportunity arises during deep, acute, yet resolvable crises. When populist leaders effectively navigate and combat such challenges, they can emerge as heroes or, as Max Weber described, “charismatic saviors” of their countries. This narrative is exemplified in instances such as Nayib Bukele in El Salvador overcoming the challenges posed by the banking sector and Viktor Orban in Hungary successfully addressing an acute economic crisis. Similarly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey which faced a profound economic downturn in 2001, discrediting mainstream parties. However, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) managed to lead the country out of crisis, fostering economic growth and garnering substantial support.

These were the four factors I emphasized in the initial version of the upcoming book, set to be released in a few weeks. My primary focus revolves around institutional strength and conjunctural opportunities. I have streamlined the framework to zero in specifically on these key factors, making the analysis more concise and focused.

Disintegration of Opposition Contribute to the Corrosive Impact of Populism

Your research on “How Populism Corrodes Latin American Parties” highlights the role of charismatic leadership in damaging political-party systems. How does this phenomenon impact the broader democratic landscape, and what challenges does it pose for opposition parties?

Kurt Weyland: This question is interesting as it delves into the perceived danger of populist leadership. My primary argument contends that populist leaders pose less of a threat to the survival of democracy than commonly believed, even though their influence adversely affects the quality of democratic systems.

Populist and personalistic leaders exhibit domineering traits, seeking to bypass intermediaries and establish a direct plebiscitarian connection with large masses of people. Parties, along with their leaders and activists, become perceived obstacles in their efforts to reach followers directly. Consequently, populists tend not to invest in building strong parties of their own, preferring to undermine mainstream political structures. This approach makes it difficult for opposition parties to coalesce, resulting in a corrosive impact on party systems.

According to democratic theory, parties play a crucial role in maintaining the quality of democracy. Common citizens often find it challenging to form opinions on various issues, relying on parties to provide coherent policy packages from which they can make informed choices. Therefore, the corrosive influence of populism on party systems poses a significant challenge to the overall quality of democracy.

In the case of Turkey and Venezuela, for example, populist leaders with their overbearing and autocratic tendencies mobilize diverse opposition groupings. However, the opposition remains fragmented and lacks a cohesive organization due to the wide range of elements from various parties and new movements. The failure to build robust parties and the disintegration of opposition contribute to the corrosive impact of populism on the democratic landscape.

The Role of Institutional Weakness and Conjunctural Opportunity in the Rise of Populists

In your recent article, ‘How Democracy Survives Populism,’ you express optimism about the future of democracy, stating, “Democracy’s record tells us that it does not die easily.” What factors contribute to your optimism, especially in the face of the rise and strength of populist movements?

Kurt Weyland: In examining the instances where populist leaders have effectively undermined democracy and propelled their countries toward authoritarianism, I conducted a comprehensive analysis of 40 cases in my book. Surprisingly, only in 7 of these cases did democracy really get strangled by populist leaders. This prompts the question: under what conditions does such a transformation occur? The article summarizing the book’s main argument emphasizes that this shift occurs primarily under two conditions.

Firstly, institutional weakness is a contributing factor, prevalent in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, institutional weakness alone is not sufficient. The second crucial condition is the existence of a specific conjunctural opportunity that enables populist leaders to bolster their mass support. As mentioned earlier, this can be a massive windfall, such as the petroleum revenues that benefited leaders like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa, or the successful resolution of an acute crisis. These conditions are inherently restrictive. The era of the global commodities boom, particularly benefiting oil-exporting countries due to nationalized industries, has passed. Severe crises, such as hyperinflation, are infrequent. Moreover, not all populist leaders manage to effectively address these crises. Therefore, the circumstances under which a populist leader can truly destroy democracy are narrow and demanding.

Our perception of the threat posed by populism to democracy tends to be distorted, as we often recall emblematic cases. While figures like Chavez, Orban, and Erdogan are well-known, numerous populist leaders serve only one term or fail to succeed in destroying democracy, eventually getting ousted by Congress, mass protests, or impeachment. Examples like Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil, Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, or Petro Castillo in Peru are often forgotten. Populist leaders indeed have the potential to harm democracy, but success in this regard is far from guaranteed. Many fail, and even those who secure re-election, like Menem in Argentina or leaders in Colombia, often encounter institutional constraints that signal the end of their time in power. Examining the empirical record and the specific conditions required for the populist destruction of democracy reveals a more nuanced and challenging reality than the commonly perceived threat. It’s not that easy.

‘Javier Milei May Be Ousted from Office within One or Two Years’

Ultra-right-wing Argentine politician Javier Milei during the PASO elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 13, 2023. Photo: Facundo Florit.

When you wrote the article, we did not have the election results in the Netherlands and Argentina. Considering that Geert Wilders, known for his Islamophobic stance, won the elections in the Netherlands, and the populist libertarian Javier Milei emerged victorious in Argentina, would you still assert that democracies can survive populism?

Kurt Weyland: Absolutely. Initially, it’s important to note that populist leaders can indeed be elected, as seen in recent events. However, the victory of figures like Geert Wilders does not necessarily spell doom for Dutch democracy. In European parliamentary systems, the proportional representation and extensive party fragmentation make it exceedingly challenging for a populist leader to secure a majority vote. In the case of Hungary, an unusual scenario unfolded due to the 2008 crisis, which eradicated established government parties, enabling Viktor Orban to achieve a super majority and potentially undermine democracy. Yet, this is an exception.

Geert Wilders, for instance, won the election with less than 25 percent of the votes, requiring coalition partners. His populist and radical stance makes forming a governing coalition challenging. Even if he becomes Prime Minister, coalition partners will likely be skeptical and averse to his views, preventing any authoritarian tendencies. They’re not going to support Wilders becoming dictator of the Netherlands. This aligns with the nature of European parliamentary systems, where leaders like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy served three terms without destroying Italian democracy. In fact, during Berlusconi’s tenure, various rating systems, including Freedom House, indicated an improvement in the quality of Italian democracy due to heightened civic mobilization and participation stimulated by the populist government. So, even if Geert Wilders becomes Prime Minister of the Netherlands, he is not going to destroy Dutch democracy. 

Argentina presents a different scenario due to its presidential system, unlike European parliamentary systems. The institutional framework in Latin American countries, including Argentina, tends to be weaker. Javier Milei, despite having a small faction of supporters in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, relies on the backing of other parties. However, his political influence is limited, making it challenging to implement his proposed adjustment program.

The severity of the crisis in Argentina, marked by a staggering 150% annual inflation rate and the failure of his predecessor Mauricio Macri’s gradual adjustment program, adds complexity to Milei’s situation. While Milei aims to enforce a drastic neoliberal adjustment program, he lacks the necessary political strength. The legislative branch, exemplified by Congress, is likely to resist approving his ambitious Mega decree, leading to potential modifications or rejections.

Given the strong opposition, particularly from entrenched Peronists in Congress, unions, and among governors, Milei’s political standing appears precarious. Predicting outcomes in political science is inherently challenging, but it seems likely that Milei, compelled to pursue a drastic neoliberal agenda, will face significant opposition. My projection is that, within one or two years, he may be ousted from office. Comparisons to Fernando de la Rua, who was forced out after a two-year term about two decades ago, suggest a parallel trajectory for Milei’s political tenure.

‘Trump Has a Strong Chance of Being Reelected’

Former US President Donald Trump with a serious look as he delivers a speech at a campaign rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA – August 2, 2018. Photo: Evan El-Amin.

Drawing from your analysis in “Why US Democracy Trumps Populism,” how do you assess the long-term impact of populist movements on the political landscape in the United States, especially in terms of institutional resilience and democratic norms? Considering the possibility of Donald Trump winning the 2024 elections, some suggest that the United States could lose its liberal nature and the system of checks and balances. What are your thoughts on the fate of American democracy if Trump is reelected?

Kurt Weyland: The United States is the problem case among advanced industrialized democracies. As seen in the case of Geert Wilders in European parliamentary systems, populist leaders typically don’t come close to winning a majority. Even if they attain the position of Prime Minister, their political strength remains limited. The US, however, stands out as an exception and a problematic case due to its two-party system.

In the United States, a populist figure, exemplified by Trump’s outsider status and minoritarian position in 2015 and 2016, can potentially secure a party’s candidacy through open primaries. If successful, he could then win the presidency, garnering significant political influence. This unique scenario makes the US susceptible to challenges, and I am genuinely concerned that Trump has a strong chance of being reelected.

The potential reelection of Trump raises concerns about ongoing trouble, turmoil, conflict, and unending convulsions in the United States. Democratic norms could once again suffer as Trump, fueled by a sense of grievance from the 2020 election, may seek revenge. Moreover, he has a committed support base that may be inclined to carry out his directives, adding to the potential challenges faced by democratic institutions in the country.

On the other hand, I maintain the belief that US institutions are very strong. Even within the Republican Party, although few openly oppose him, there is a notable amount of resistance. The challenges faced in selecting a House Speaker, revealing a divided Republican delegation with radical and far-right factions, indicate internal dissent. Moderates within the party are unlikely to support a substantial assault on the essence and core of American democracy.

The Senate, with its more independent senators possessing the authority to resist Trump’s influence, provides a check against potential abuses. Senator Mitch McConnell’s apparent distaste for Trump and his reluctance to see Trump wield unchecked power further reinforces this internal resistance. Meanwhile, Democrats are well-prepared to counter Trump’s potential assaults.

The US courts, in Trump’s first term, demonstrated a willingness to rein in his actions, issuing rulings that restrained certain presidential actions. Additionally, the strength of civil society in the US is a formidable force against the transformation of the country into an authoritarian regime.

While I acknowledge the likelihood of Trump’s reelection leading to considerable trouble and conflict, I believe American democracy will ultimately endure. The degradation of democratic norms and the assault on democracy will undoubtedly impact its quality, but the resilience of US institutions will prevent a significant deterioration. Trump’s actions, despite their negative effects, have had unintended positive consequences. His outrages mobilize civil society and politics, resulting in increased electoral participation, diverse candidate representation, and heightened political interest.

Despite the countervailing tendencies at play, the overall quality of democracy in the US is not expected to decline significantly. Contrary to some depictions by democracy rating agencies, which may have downgraded American democracy, I consider such assessments seriously mistaken. While acknowledging the challenges faced, including the damage inflicted by Trump, it is crucial to recognize the counteracting effects that have, to a certain extent, mitigated the decline in democratic quality.

‘Turkish Election Outcome Proves a Significant Disappointment’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

Referring to Turkey in your article, you highlight Erdoğan’s success as an authoritarian leader. Regarding the 2016 coup, do you view it as an ‘autogolpe,’ akin to those seen in Latin America?

Kurt Weyland: In Latin America, an autogolpe is typically defined as an incumbent president orchestrating a coup-like assault on political institutions to seize authoritarian power. An example is Fujimori in 1992, where, as the democratically elected president and the incumbent, he utilized the military to shut down Congress and the courts. In contrast, the situation in Turkey doesn’t precisely fit this definition, as the incumbent did not initiate the coup. Some analyses suggest that Erdogan may have intentionally provoked the coup or baited certain factions into attempting it, though the conspiratorial argument that he orchestrated the entire event is dubious.

I would not subscribe to the conspiratorial argument suggesting that he orchestrated the entire event to take advantage of it. However, there is evidence of shamelessly leveraging the failed coup, a tactic reminiscent of what occurred in Venezuela in 2002. In that instance, Hugo Chavez, who had been evicted by a coup for a brief period, made a triumphant comeback and exploited the failed challenge to purge the military, consolidate his command, and strengthen his control over the country. This approach involves an incumbent president with authoritarian tendencies taking advantage of a thwarted challenge to discredit the opposition, implement repressive measures, and augment their personalistic control by claiming more powers. So, it differs from an autogolpe as seen in Fujimori’s case but shares similarities with exploiting a failed challenge, reminiscent of Hugo Chavez’s actions in Venezuela.

Erdoğan won the last elections held in May 2023 again. What do you foresee for Turkish democracy and Erdoğan’s one-man rule?

Kurt Weyland: The outcome of the Turkish election proved to be a significant disappointment, as hopes were high for the opposition, especially after their unification. Erdogan’s handling of the economy and the revelation of corruption within his regime, highlighted by the earthquake and questionable building licenses, had fueled optimism for a potential opposition victory, as indicated by polls. However, Erdogan’s triumph signifies a greater political resilience than initially perceived.

In the short term I think the prospects are not good for Turkish democracy, which has been destroyed. I would classify Turkey as an authoritarian regime, especially after the self-coup and the big crackdown and the repressive turn of the Erdogan regime. The personalistic and charismatic leadership style common among populist leaders tends to lack institutionalization, creating inherent weaknesses. While these leaders assert absolute control in the short term, their dominance can stifle potential successors and generate latent discontent among those aspiring to power.

Populist leaders, by their nature, rarely institutionalize their rule, and the personalistic, plebiscitarian leadership they exhibit inherently creates weaknesses. A typical personalistic leader asserts absolute command, dominating the political landscape. However, prolonged dominance by a single leader obstructs the ascent of other potential leaders. In cases where a leader, such as Erdogan, holds unparalleled control, only a select group of loyal associates can rise, fostering latent discontent akin to a simmering volcano.

Aspirants to power desire roles beyond being mere cronies of the ruling leader. This discontent among those who seek influence creates the potential for a challenge to the leader’s authority. Over time, the leader inevitably confronts their own mortality and grapples with the issue of succession. Choosing a family member, like Erdogan appointing his son-in-law as finance minister, or cultivating one’s own successors may not be well-received, as it excludes other potential leaders indefinitely.

The succession issue, particularly if it arises abruptly due to health concerns or other unforeseen events, unveils the fragility of personalistic populist rule. While such leadership may project an image of solidity and stability on the surface, beneath lies a host of brewing challenges. The example of potential health issues, like a heart attack, underscores that personalistic populist rule may seem robust externally but conceals underlying complexities and vulnerabilities.

Consider the case of Evo Morales in Bolivia, who appeared firmly in control when seeking a third consecutive re-election. During my visit to Bolivia in 2018, I witnessed the transformative changes he had implemented in the country, leading me to believe that a significant portion of the population would express gratitude through a clear majority. However, Morales encountered a formidable challenge, and to my surprise, he was ousted. This example highlights the transient and precarious nature of populism. It lacks firmness, solidity, and institutionalization, relying heavily on personalistic leadership. Populism, as demonstrated by Morales’ experience, lacks firmness, solidity, and institutionalization; instead, it heavily depends on personalistic leadership. It’s more of a temporary and precarious phenomenon, akin to a rental arrangement. This characteristic instability may hopefully also be observed in the case of Erdogan.

‘Meloni’s Success Resulted from Failures of Populist Leaders’

Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, attend a center-right coalition rally in Rome, Italy on March 01, 2018. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

In the article, when discussing Italy, you mention the late Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Interestingly, you do not refer to Giorgia Meloni and her neo-fascist party Brothers of Italy. How do you explain her success?

Kurt Weyland: I don’t categorize Meloni’s party as a populist party; rather, it aligns more with neo-fascist ideologies, indicating a distinct ideological stance. Ironically, I attribute her success to the failures of various populist leaders. Berlusconi, a dominant figure in Italian politics for two decades, faced decline due to age and scandals, rendering him ineligible for re-election. Following him, Matteo Salvini emerged as a prominent leader in 2018-19 but overplayed his cards, attempting to seize government power and eventually being excluded. This pattern mirrors a typical feature of populism—meteoric rise followed by a swift fall. Populist leaders often aim to grab power without solid support, and Salvini’s failed attempt to secure the Prime Ministership exemplifies this trend.

Additionally, the Five Star Movement, known for its amorphous and weak nature, served as the main coalition partner during Salvini’s tenure but eventually imploded. The failure of these populist figures created a political vacuum that Meloni filled. It’s crucial to recognize that the apparent strength of populist leaders like Salvini may not have substantial staying power; they often resemble shooting stars, dazzling briefly in the political sky before fading away.

The last sentence of your article is as follows: ‘While the threat of populism requires constant attention and energetic countermeasures, there is no need for global alarmism.’ Yet, the V-Dem Institute (Varities of Democracy) of Gothenburg University says in its 2023 Democracy Report: ‘Advances in global levels of democracy made over the last 35 years have been wiped out. The world has more closed autocracies than liberal democracies – for the first time in more than two decades.’ What is your take on V-Dem’s alarming findings?

Kurt Weyland: I think it’s exaggerated, which is why I titled my forthcoming book “Countering Global Alarmism.” The prevailing alarmist sentiment, epitomized by phrases like “how democracies die,” has been fueled, in part, by assessments such as those provided by V-Dem. While V-Dem is undeniably sophisticated and scientifically sound but it relies on subjective ratings by political scientists, which can be influenced by prevailing opinions and biases.

There seems to be a left-leaning inclination among political scientists, leading to a statistically significant bias against right-wing regimes in V-Dem’s assessments. This bias manifests in harsher grading and downgrading of right-wing governments. Considering the subjective nature of these ratings and the existing alarmism, I believe there is an element of exaggeration in the assessments made by V-Dem.

I have to admit I haven’t looked at that report specifically. But in 2023, the starting point of the advances in the last 35 years, would be 1988. At that time, we had Soviet Union and we had communism in Eastern Europe. That hasn’t been all reversed, even if Putin establishes an authoritarian regime, it’s nothing like the post totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. A good part of Eastern Europe is still freer than before. 

‘Mainstream Parties Should Bridge Representation Gaps and Address Concerned Citizens’ Fears’

Thai protester with face mask shows the sign “Listen To The People” at Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand against the government. Photo: Shutterstock.

Given the evolving nature of populist movements, what do you see as the future challenges and opportunities for democracies worldwide in dealing with the populist surge?

Kurt Weyland: You highlight the evolving nature of populist movements, a characteristic described as the “cameolionic nature” by Paul Taggart. This opportunistic flexibility allows them to exploit various opportunities, making it challenging to defend democracy effectively. Populist leaders can capitalize on any weaknesses, representation deficits, or unaddressed issues within the democratic system. However, what stands out to me is the resilience of democracy in the present era.

In my recent book, I explored the challenges faced by established democracies during the interwar years, a period marked by tremendous troubles and crises. Even in those challenging times, established democracies managed to survive. I am optimistic about the likelihood of their survival once again, given the considerable institutional strength, institutional interest, and democratic spirit present today. Populist movements, on the other hand, exhibit their own weaknesses and troubles, with some of them imploding when they assume governance roles due to inadequate performance.

I believe one unfortunate reality that democracies must confront, particularly in advanced industrialized countries, is the emergence of populists what we often perceive as eccentric or unconventional leaders like Trump. These leaders challenge the democratic system by exploiting inherent weaknesses, such as representation deficits. Certain segments of the population may feel unrepresented, excluded, and believe that their interests, needs, resentments, and fears are being neglected. In my view, when these segments constitute a substantial portion, around 20-30% of the population, mainstream political parties will be compelled to address, in some manner, the substantive aspects of these issues. I recognize that this perspective may be controversial.

Consider Europe, where migration is a significant concern for many. Paradoxically, European countries with low birth rates rely on migrants for sustenance. However, the apprehension often stems from the perceived loss of control, as people fear an unregulated influx of migrants. Both of us, residing in countries as migrants, understand the cosmopolitan perspective and empathize with migrants. Nonetheless, when a substantial portion of the population advocates for more restrictions and control, mainstream political parties will be compelled to address some aspects of this issue.

While it’s crucial to denounce illiberal and distasteful approaches, democracy necessitates responding to the concerns raised by a significant portion of citizens. Mainstream parties should not leave such issues solely for populist leaders to exploit. Instead, they should acknowledge and engage with the underlying substance of the issue. This doesn’t mean endorsing measures like building walls, as seen in Trump’s approach, but rather initiating reforms, changes, and improved control over the immigration system.

For instance, it appears that much of the immigration process is currently reactive, with individuals arriving at borders and claiming asylum. Countries tend to respond to these situations reactively. I believe a more proactive immigration system could involve countries selectively recruiting and welcoming certain individuals. This approach would prioritize legal migration while making illegal migration and verbal asylum claims more challenging. It’s a potential avenue that mainstream parties and governments may need to explore.

Consider the Danish case, where the Social Democrats made a move towards a more restrictive immigration policy. This shift significantly impacted the Danish People’s Party, which saw a decline in support from 21% in 2015 to around 8% in 2019, eventually becoming a minor outfit by 2022. Danish Social Democracy’s move, although distasteful and unpalatable for some, addressed the representation deficit on the right regarding immigration.

Mainstream parties might find themselves compelled to make such accommodations if there’s a significant representation deficit and considerable demands from sectors of the population. The specifics of how and to what extent this should be done remain unclear, but a responsive move, even if provocative, may be necessary in a democratic system.

Photo: Shutterstock.

Revealing the Intricacies of Gendered Islamophobia and Populism through the Lens of Transnational Feminist Endeavors

As transnational feminist scholars and activists, it becomes imperative for us to intervene in feminist epistemologies by carefully discerning the nuances among the concepts of anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobia. An essential focus lies in understanding the ongoing transformation of the new transnational anti-Islamic movement from ethnic-based nationalism and oppressive authoritarianism towards a liberal standpoint that advocates equality, justice, and democratic values. This involves active participation in knowledge production through the experiences and agency of the complex subjects central to debates: Muslim immigrant women.

By Hafza Girdap

Societal perceptions in the Global North often oversimplify and stereotype immigrant women from the Global South, particularly focusing on Muslim immigrant women. This tendency is magnified within transnational feminist studies and civil society works, where categorization frequently portrays these women as a homogeneous group, primarily depicting them as victimized bodies.

The exclusive emphasis on rights, coupled with the need to consider global governance frameworks linked to class privilege and education, impedes a comprehensive understanding of this complex issue. A significant challenge faced by transnational feminist work is its struggle to transcend established affiliations such as nationality, ethnicity, race, and religion.

Recent research and activism on racism and Islamophobia, while valuable, fall short without a nuanced gender analysis. Existing approaches either overly prioritize gender or disproportionately underscore race and religion, neglecting the intricate and intersectional impact of these factors on the everyday experiences of Muslim women and women from the Global South. Addressing this gap necessitates treating these women as ‘complex subjects’ and meticulously examining their identity formation within diverse circumstances, thereby accentuating their diversities across multiple temporal and spatial signifiers.

Clarification of Some Crucial Terms

In this particular context, it becomes essential to elucidate terms like Islamophobia, anti-Islam, and anti-Muslim, given the influential role of framing and mobilization in identity politics. Islamophobia is defined as an irrational, emotional fear, while anti-Islam signifies a theoretical shift from reaction to action, aligning with the prevalent agency-oriented perspective in social movement analysis (Berntzen, 2019).

The incorporation of liberal viewpoints that depict Islam as a threat to Western civilization and as an ideology incompatible with democratic and progressive values provides justification and legitimacy for the transnational mobilization of far-right groups. Central to the discourses of this liberal far-right are discussions surrounding women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and their alignment with Islamic traditions. Termed an “ideological duality” (Berntzen, 2019), the anti-Islamic far-right espouses a semi-liberal worldview and approach towards Islam, portraying it as incongruent with modernity, human rights, and liberal principles. 

Identity Formation and Intersectionality

Stuart Hall’s (1990) concept of identity as an ongoing process significantly shapes the (de)construction of identity. As a Muslim immigrant woman scholar and activist, I consistently underscore the impact of various elements within the identity process, focusing on the experiences of exploring (Muslim) immigrant women as they navigate self-discovery and re-identification within the realms of interaction, adaptation, and religion.

The concept of “cultural identity” and its intersection with politics, gender, ethnicity, and race gains particular significance in this context. Understanding identity formation necessitates the consideration of both origin and resettlement spaces, along with the influence of temporal and spatial factors.

Extending racialization theories, particularly focusing on the experiences of Muslim women, becomes imperative. This involves scrutinizing the impact of contextual factors on the reidentification experiences of Muslim immigrant women, intending to challenge prevailing paradigms such as whiteness and populism, evident in far-right, far-left, and even liberal politics.

This analysis explores the nuanced ways in which Muslim and non-Western women grapple with otherness and double-marginalization at the intersections of gender, race, class, and religion, both as migrants in Western contexts and as local women in their homelands.

Transnational Feminism and Analytical Tools

Scholarly work, grassroots activities, and political mobilization must meticulously consider the push factors for migration and subsequent reidentification experiences of these women. Addressing hegemonic masculinity in their homelands and its impact on citizenship discourse, with a focus on heteronormative requirements, adds depth to the understanding of challenges faced by Muslim women.

Transnational feminism emerges as a pivotal analytical tool in comprehending the construction, reconstruction, and deconstruction of identities among immigrant women. It is imperative to critically examine terms like “Third World Women” and “women of the Global South” to highlight the complexities and pitfalls of homogenizing diverse groups. An intersectional analysis becomes necessary, considering historical, regional, ethnic, racial, and religious factors.

Knowledge Production and Counter-Hegemonic Discourse

In light of these considerations, knowledge production becomes a critical practice aimed at dismantling prevailing knowledge frameworks dominated by Western perspectives. This strategic approach is essential to challenge Islamophobic populist discourses impacting particularly Muslim immigrant women.

As the term ‘Global South’ transcends a metaphor, encompassing narratives of colonialism, neo-imperialism, and ongoing disparities, scholars and activists must continue developing concepts and practices of solidarity drawn from experiences in the Global South. Emphasizing the importance of recognizing diverse experiences, challenging binary constructions of identities, and engaging in transnational alliances is crucial. Grewal and Kaplan’s (1994) idea of a “politics of location,” delving into the tension between temporal and spatial theories of subjectivity, provides a valuable framework. Discourses and language use, aligned with Bell Hooks’ (1989) concept of a “dialectical space,” prove instrumental in dismantling binaries and discriminations.

Resistance and Counter-Hegemonic Discourse

Such an understanding underscores the potential of resistance through the creation of spaces that facilitate the transformation of the current reality. It also highlights the importance of challenging enduring colonial and discursive homogenization through counter-hegemonic discourse. Research and civil society engagements contribute to the generation of diverse perspectives and epistemologies, particularly through the experiences and agency of Muslim immigrant women.

In conclusion, attention to the emotional impact of activism on immigrant women and the potential for reduced emotional distress when actively advocating for equality is essential. The ability to reconceive culture and religion as spaces that allow reasoned, autonomous, and democratic participation, aligning with the approach of exploring reidentification experiences “on them, by them,” becomes pivotal in transnational feminist work challenging any forms of (gendered) populism. This includes far-right, far-left in Western contexts, as well as authoritarian, Islamist populism in the Global South. Contextual factors in origin and resettlement spaces play a crucial role in adaptation and integration processes, influencing the manifestation of identities.

Highlighting the transnational impact of the growth of the far-right and an anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America, an anti-Islamic activism of pioneering movements and political parties in Europe is conducted through hypocritical discourses and acts by far-right politicians and activists who portray themselves as liberals. This is done to avoid stigmatization by using certain discourses of human rights as proxies to exploit anti-Islamic agendas. Women’s and gender-based rights are conveniently claimed by these politicians and other social actors, for instance, to “denigrate Muslimness.” 

Thus, a significant shift is observed within the approach of populist rhetoric, particularly of the far-right, towards Islam and Muslims. This is actually a shift from authoritarian and ethnocentric to a modern, liberal, and transnational anti-Islamic activism. In other words, the far-right takes on a liberal attitude and appearance through a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality, animal rights, and the preservation of Christian and Jewish heritage (Berntzen, 2019).

By framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology posing a threat to Western civilization, the far-right appears to shift from its traditional, radical, and authoritarian stance to a more liberal, modern, and rights-based strategy. This strategy places a greater emphasis on the ideology (Islam) rather than the individuals (identities). 

Consequently, as transnational feminist scholars and activists, it becomes imperative for us to intervene in feminist epistemologies by carefully discerning the nuances among the concepts of anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobia. An essential focus lies in understanding the ongoing transformation of the new transnational anti-Islamic movement from ethnic-based nationalism and oppressive authoritarianism towards a liberal standpoint that advocates equality, justice, and democratic values. This involves active participation in knowledge production through the experiences and agency of the complex subjects central to debates: Muslim immigrant women.


References

Berntzen, L. (2019). Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century. Routledge.

Hall, S. (1990). “Cultural identity and diaspora.” In: J. Rutherford (Ed.) Identity: Community, culture, difference (pp. 222-237). Lawrence & Wishart.

Hooks, Bell. (1989). “Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media36, 15–23.

Grewal, I. and Kaplan, C. (Eds.) (1994). Scattered hegemonies: Postmodernity and transnational feminist practices. University of Minnesota Press.

Election officials and witnesses count ballots papers of presidential election at polling station in Banda Aceh, Aceh Province, Indonesia on April 17, 2019. Photo: Shutterstock.

Competing Populisms, Digital Technologies and the 2024 Elections in Indonesia

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Yilmaz, Ihsan; Triwibowo, Whisnu; Bachtiar, Hasnan & Barton, Greg. (2024). “Competing Populisms, Digital Technologies and the 2024 Elections in Indonesia.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 2, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0029

 

Abstract

The upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Indonesia on 14 February 2024 are poised to involve over 200 million citizens out of a total population of 285 million. Among these eligible voters, approximately 115 million belong to the millennial or Gen Z demographic. Within this electoral landscape, the presidential race features a diverse array of candidates, where populism plays a significant, albeit not the dominant, role in shaping the campaigns and agendas of three key contenders. This study aims to explore the relationship between various forms of competing populisms and their utilization of digital technologies. It examines how these dynamics intersect with the digital divide, democracy, pluralism, and social cohesion within Indonesia’s electoral framework. Additionally, the paper outlines potential areas for further research in this domain.

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Whisnu Triwibowo*, Hasnan Bachtiar & Greg Barton**

Introduction

When Indonesia goes to the ballot box for the parliamentary and presidential elections on February 14, 2024, more than 200 million of Indonesia’s 285 million citizens will be eligible to vote, and more than half (~115 million) will be millennial or Gen Z voters. The forthcoming presidential race in Indonesia presents a diverse array of candidates (Prabowo Subianto, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan), each embodying distinct and evolving political personas. Within this context, populism emerges as a pivotal, albeit not dominant, element shaping the campaigns and platforms of these three presidential candidates. 

Furthermore, the landscape of Indonesian leadership stands redefined, characterized by nuanced shifts and strategic recalibrations among key contenders. Analyses focusing on the manifestations and impact of competing populisms in the political landscape, specifically within the realm of digital campaigning, technological utilization, the digital divide, and the dissemination of disinformation are urgently needed.

Against this backdrop, this paper examines the interplay between diverse forms of competing populisms and their engagement with digital technologies, the digital divide, democracy, pluralism, and social cohesion within the Indonesian electoral context with a focus on the presidential candidates. It also suggests some avenues for further research. 

The Presidential Candidates

Ganjar Pranowo, as Central Java Governor, at a cultural festival in Batang / Central Java Regency, Indonesia on October 2, 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

Anies Baswedan, once identified with Islamist populism, now takes center stage with a recalibrated persona, shedding overt affiliations while gathering support from influential right-wing religious factions (Bachtiar, 2023). This transformation marks a departure from his previous political maneuvers during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial race, presenting Anies as a potential unifying force for Indonesia’s diverse populace.

On the other hand, Prabowo Subianto’s trajectory since his last electoral defeat in 2019 has been a paradigm shift, pivoting towards a role within Jokowi’s cabinet as Minister of Defense. Prabowo first contested the presidential elections in 2014 as a classical ‘man on horseback’ strongman populist. He literally rode a chestnut stallion in military uniform whilst inspecting his ‘troops’ at a key campaign event in the National Stadium, where he also addressed his supporters dressed to imitate Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. Formerly associated with cultural nativism and a stance against foreign influence, Prabowo has rebranded himself as a stalwart advocate for the people, navigating the choppy waters of geopolitical upheavals and external pressures. This transformation aims to project resilience and solidarity amid the evolving global landscape.

The third candidate, Ganjar Pranowo, following in the footsteps of his mentor President Joko Widodo, affectionately known as Jokowi, has embarked on a metamorphosis from a popular leader to a technocrat deeply engaged in bolstering public services and fostering developmental initiatives (Bachtiar, 2023). Paralleling Jokowi’s trajectory, Ganjar’s evolution underscores a shift towards a more technocratic approach centered on tangible progress and societal welfare.

Remarkably absent from the direct electoral fray is Jokowi himself, particularly following the setback of his proposal to extend the presidential term limit. His endorsement of Prabowo, coupled with the astute political calculus surrounding his son Gibran Rakabuming’s vice-presidential candidacy within Suharto’s son-in-law’s camp, delineates a nuanced political landscape, painting a mosaic of calculated realignments and strategic choices.

Jokowi has navigated a distinctive trajectory throughout his ten-year tenure as the incumbent president. Emerging from entirely outside the realm of Jakarta’s political elite, Jokowi initially embodied the quintessential underdog, advocating for the interests of the common populace upon entering national politics. His ascent was marked by a palpable sense of grassroots support, culminating in a commendable approval rating that continues to soar, defying global standards at around 70% to 80%. 

However, the landscape of his leadership has undergone a discernible evolution. While initially associated with a strain of populism, Jokowi has transformed into a bastion of development-focused governance, aligning himself closely with Indonesia’s preeminent political entity, the PDI-P. This shift has effectively overwritten earlier populist tendencies, reshaping him into an influential figure within the Jakarta establishment.

Yet, this metamorphosis has not occurred without repercussions. The paradigm shift towards a development-oriented presidency has coincided with a subtle erosion of accountability and scrutiny. Within this context, Indonesia has witnessed a nuanced regression in democratic tenets under Jokowi’s stewardship. The narrative of authoritarian developmentalism, often veiled in the rhetoric of populism, has become the reflexive justification for this incremental decline in democratic checks and balances.

Ganjar Pranowo, the nominee representing the PDI-P party and currently serving as the governor of Central Java, diverges notably from traditional populism in his approach. His candidacy is characterized by a departure from populist rhetoric, signaling a potential shift towards a more nuanced and pragmatic governance style.

Contrastingly, retired general Prabowo Subianto, making his third bid for the presidency, has surged ahead in social polling since March 2023. Prabowo has long cultivated an image as a stalwart strongman and populist advocate for the people. His political trajectory has been marked by a consistent portrayal of himself as a champion of the masses, embodying the tenets of populist leadership.

Occupying a steadfast position in the social polling rankings, former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan represents a distinct faction within the electoral landscape. Baswedan garners support from the forces aligned with Islamist “civilizational populism” (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022a; 2022b), constituting a third but significant bloc within the upcoming presidential election. His candidacy embodies the fusion of religious identity with populist ideals, marking a distinctive presence in the political spectrum.

The diverse range of candidates vying for Indonesia’s presidency underscores the multifaceted nature of the electorate, with each contender offering a distinct and changing ideological and governance framework to the voters.

Competing Populisms in Indonesia

Prabowo Subianto gives a speech about the vision and mission of the 2019 Indonesian presidential candidate in front of a crowd of supporters on the campaign in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on April 8, 2019. Photo: Aidil Akbar.

The evolution of Indonesia’s political landscape since the conservative shift, highlighted by scholars like Bruinessen (2013), Assyaukanie (2013), and later examined by Sebastian et al. (2021), manifested prominently in the 2016 Islamist civilizational populist demonstrations in Jakarta. These events notably contributed to Anies Baswedan’s victory in the gubernatorial race, marking a pivotal moment in the country’s political trajectory.

This shift towards conservatism and the subsequent rise of Islamist civilizational populism coincided with an overarching trend towards authoritarian inclinations within the governance framework of Indonesia. Scholarly works by Power (2018), Diprose et al. (2019), and Mietzner (2018; 2020) have extensively documented this progression, highlighting the observable authoritarian undertones within the political landscape.

Simultaneously, the response from the established government to curb Islamist civilizational populist movements, exemplified by the banning of entities like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), indicated a proactive stance against such groups. However, the manner in which these actions were executed, often without due process, raised concerns among scholars, signaling a potential deconsolidation of democratic norms and practices within the country.

Scholars and analysts have echoed apprehensions about the state of Indonesian democracy, painting a picture of a system under duress and potentially in regression. Works by Warburton & Aspinall (2019), Schäfer (2019), Power & Warburton, and Aspinall et al. (2020) collectively underscore the prevailing sentiment that Indonesia’s democratic foundations face formidable challenges, with some even suggesting a retreat from the established democratic principles. This confluence of events and scholarly observations emphasizes the complexities and potential threats facing Indonesia’s democratic fabric.

In the field of populism studies, the concept of ‘competing populisms’ elucidates the simultaneous existence of multiple populist ideologies within a singular political milieu, i.e. the nation-state. Scholars such as Mietzner (2020), Hadiz and Robinson (2017), and Vampa (2020) have showcased the relevance of competing populisms in understanding the complexities of political dynamics. Hadiz and Robinson’s analysis in 2017 sheds light on the landscape of populisms in Indonesia, identifying two prominent and competing strands: secular-nationalist populism and Islamist populism. Their argument posits that the rise of these rival populisms is deeply rooted in societal and ideological divides prevalent within the country. However, crucially, they attribute the ascendance of these populist movements primarily to the perception of enduring ‘systemic injustices’ that have persisted in the wake of a two-decade-long democratic era following three decades of authoritarian rule.

This perspective offers a comprehensive framework for understanding the genesis and proliferation of competing populist ideologies in Indonesia. The legacy of authoritarianism and the subsequent transition to democracy created a breeding ground for societal and ideological rifts, laying the groundwork for the emergence of rival populisms. The societal and ideological divides, amplified by historical and contemporary grievances, have given impetus to these divergent forms of populism. 

The divisions delineate the contours of competing chauvinist, Islamist, and technocratic populisms (Mietzner, 2018; 2020), where distinct factions vie for ideological dominance. The chauvinists, Islamists, and technocrats represent divergent populist visions for the nation’s political and socio-religious landscape. The clash between these populisms manifests as a multifaceted struggle, with each faction endeavoring to shape the narrative and direction of Indonesia’s political trajectory. It must be noted that the mere existence of these divisions within society is not adequate; instead, their active politicization by a populist leader becomes imperative (Mietzner, 2020). This process involves the strategic engagement with discourse surrounding socio-economic disparities, often framed within overarching primordial and ideological divisions. This viewpoint resonates with a broader body of literature that examines the relationship between populism and societal dynamics. It emphasizes that populism does not emerge in a vacuum but rather thrives within the fertile grounds of existing societal, economic, and ideological rifts and emotive polarizations. 

Populism, Emotions and Digital Technologies

DKI Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan with residents of Kampung Akuarium in Jakarta, Indonesia on April 14 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

In a comprehensive literature review focusing on emotions, religion, and populism (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021), it was shown that populists frequently utilize emotions as a potent tool to garner support, establish connections with their audience, and influence public opinion. Their rhetoric is crafted to either create new or capitalize on existing collective grievances or aspirations, evoking intense emotions like fear, anger, hope, nostalgia, resentment, or vindictiveness, which deeply resonate with their followers. Through these emotional appeals, populists construct a narrative that pits ‘the people’ against ‘the elite,’ often portraying the elite as collaborating with or serving the interests of ‘dangerous others,’ typically marginalized groups and minorities. Consequently, this emotionally charged dichotomy reinforces a sense of victimhood, identity, and belonging among their supporters, simultaneously portraying their opponents as outsiders or adversaries. In Indonesia’s context, this becomes particularly evident as various populist movements tap into and amplify these divisions and emotive polarizations, thereby fueling their own narratives and agendas.

Populism often capitalizes on pre-existing fault lines within society, exploiting them to mobilize support and consolidate power. This dynamic interaction between populism and existing societal fissures perpetuates a cyclical relationship where populism both exacerbates and is influenced by these underlying divisions. By framing socio-economic inequalities within broader primordial and ideological contexts, populist leaders resonate with specific segments of the population, further deepening the societal fault lines they seek to exploit. This interplay underscores the complex and symbiotic relationship between populism and the existing socio-political landscape.

The notion of ‘systemic injustices’ serves as a catalyst for the traction gained by these populist movements. The perceived inadequacies and persisting inequalities within the democratic system have become fertile ground for the mobilization of support behind secular-nationalist and Islamist populist narratives. These narratives often capitalize on the grievances stemming from economic disparities, political marginalization, and cultural divisions, resonating with segments of the populace disenchanted with the post-authoritarian democratic order (Barton et al., 2021a; Barton et al., 2021b; Yilmaz et al., 2022; Yilmaz and Morieson, 2023).

The evolution of technology, particularly the advent of the internet and digital media, has dynamically reshaped the landscape of political engagement. This transformation has not only ushered in new avenues for communication but has also catalyzed the surge of divergent populist movements.

In contrast to traditional media outlets like newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, which were often beholden to the interests of media magnates, new media platforms operate on a different paradigm. The internet, especially when access is widespread and unrestricted, empowers citizens to freely engage with political messages disseminated by various populist figures. This direct interaction allows for real-time responses and active participation in shaping the discourse.

Media anthropologists underline the transformative potential of new media, emphasizing how these platforms revolutionize individual thought processes and communication patterns (Anderson, 2003; Eickelman and Anderson, 2003;Hirschkind, 2017). These digital landscapes present novel opportunities for fostering digital egalitarianism, enabling diverse voices to be heard and empowering individuals to actively engage with populist narratives. In essence, new media stands as a powerful intermediary, fostering direct and unfiltered communication between populist leaders and the populace. Through digital platforms, these leaders can directly connect with and mobilize their supporters, shaping and amplifying their messages in real-time, creating a dynamic and interactive political sphere.

The concept of digital equality as a catalyst for democratization is a compelling notion. However, the realization of this potential largely hinges upon the actions and intentions of the media users themselves. In the realm of political competition, the digital sphere becomes a battleground where self-image can be meticulously crafted to present an idealized and flawless persona. Conversely, it becomes a tool to fabricate negative narratives about political adversaries.

This phenomenon has contributed not only to the proliferation of misinformation but also the deliberate dissemination of disinformation. While misinformation refers to the misuse of accurate information in an inappropriate context, disinformation entails the deliberate spread of false or misleading information with the explicit aim of undermining political opponents, particularly those seen as opposition figures. Consequently, the aspiration to expedite the evolution of benevolent democratic practices through digital media confronts the harsh reality of its manipulation by entities that disregard fundamental values such as truth, integrity, equality, fairness, and civil liberties. This challenge poses a significant impediment to the genuine realization of digital platforms as drivers of democratic progress, highlighting the urgent need to address the ethical and moral dimensions of digital engagement in the political sphere.

The landscape of digital media in Indonesia has evolved into a key domain for political mobilization, offering an avenue for ordinary citizens to engage in the political discourse. This evolution, however, is marred by the proliferation of fake news, hoaxes, hate speech, and other divisive behaviors that run counter to democratic values (Lim, 2017). The online rivalry of competing populisms has notably exacerbated societal and political divisions, amplifying the polarization within Indonesian society.

This amplification of societal cleavages through the mediation of digital media in populist politics has significantly impacted Indonesia’s socio-political history over the past two decades. The period following the democratic transition that commenced in 1998 has been marked by intricate complexities stemming from the lingering effects of collective trauma, widening socio-economic disparities, and the exacerbation of public grievances fueled by competing populist groups. Consequently, this dynamic has posed formidable challenges to Indonesia’s pursuit of democratic consolidation in this era.

On the other hand, the control wielded by the governments and capital owners over key infrastructures presents a clear demonstration of their capacity to impact political contestation through means like access restrictions, hacking, surveillance, and even total control cut-offs. In instances where a ruling government maintains complete dominance over a country’s digital operations, political contestation tends to be severely lopsided, with one side significantly advantaged due to excessive control over technology. Consequently, this imbalance fosters an environment conducive to digital authoritarianism (Yilmaz, 2023).

Importing advanced digital technologies entails not just acquiring access but also welcoming a certain degree of influence from the exporting entities. This influence can extend politically, leading to interference between the technology’s owner/exporter and the user/importer, potentially empowering specific political entities, like the establishment, to monitor and manipulate their adversaries. This dynamic doesn’t just create opportunities for digital authoritarian behavior; it also introduces a transnational dimension wherein such behaviors are inherited or transmitted from external sources (Yilmaz, 2023).

Conclusion

The complexities surrounding the competing populisms in Indonesia, particularly in the lead-up to the upcoming February 2024 elections, present a complex and cyclical interplay within the realm of democratic processes. The dynamics of consolidation and deconsolidation in democracy create a compelling and challenging landscape that merits thorough investigation and extensive research to fully comprehend its multifaceted nature, demanding a comprehensive exploration to reveal its nuanced dimensions. There is an urgent need to explore the following key areas:

i) Understanding Diverse Manifestations: Investigate and categorize the varying forms and expressions of competing populisms within a specific country. Analyze their ideological underpinnings, rhetoric, and mechanisms of mobilization.

ii) Interplay with Democracy: Examine the complex relationship between competing populisms and democratic institutions. Investigate how populist movements impact the functioning, resilience, and legitimacy of democratic systems.

iii) Impact on Pluralism, Polarization, and Social Cohesion: Assess the effects of competing populisms on societal structures, focusing on their influence on pluralism, polarization, and social cohesion. Explore their implications for social fabric and unity.

iv) Digital Technologies and Populist Movements: Study the utilization of digital platforms and technologies by these populisms. Investigate how social media, online networks, and digital tools are employed to propagate populist ideologies and mobilize support. Explore the role of disinformation campaigns in shaping public opinion and polarizing societies.

v) Digital Divide and Its Implications: Analyze the digital divide’s role in the context of populist movements. Explore how disparities in access to technology and information contribute to social fragmentation and exacerbate existing societal divides.

vi) Mapping Transnational Dimensions: Explore the transnational aspects of competing populisms. Map connections, influences, and collaborations among populist movements across borders, identifying shared ideologies and exchanges of strategies.

By addressing these critical research areas, scholars can help to deepen our understanding of contemporary political dynamics, contributing to informed policymaking and the preservation of democratic values in an ever-evolving global landscape.


 

(*) Whisnu Triwibowo is an Assistant Professor (Communication) and the Head of Undergraduate Studies at the Universitas Indonesia. He holds a PhD in Information and Media from Michigan State University. His research interests are at the intersection of information studies and communication science. Especially in investigating the social dynamics of the internet, such as digital divides, inter-organizational networks, internet use, and persuasion in the digital environment. Email: w.triwibowo@ui.ac.id

(**) Greg Barton is research professor in Global Islamic Politics at the University of Deakin, Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Barton is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. Email: greg.barton@deakin.edu.au


 

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Yilmaz, I. and Morieson, Nicholas. (2022a). “Civilizational Populism: Definition, Literature, Theory, and Practice.” Religions13, 1026. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13111026

Yilmaz, I.; Morieson, N. and Bachtiar, H. (2022b). “Civilizational Populism in Indonesia: The Case of Front Pembela Islam (FPI).” Religions, 13:12, 1208. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13121208  

Yilmaz, I., and Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “A Systematic Literature Review of Populism, Religion and Emotions.” Religions, 12, no. 4: 272. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040272

Yilmaz, I. and Morieson, N. (2023). Religions and the Global Rise of Civilizational Populism. Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.

Ultra-right-wing Argentine politician Javier Milei during the PASO elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 13, 2023. Photo: Facundo Florit.

Populism in 2023: The Year in Review

In 2023, populism continued to shape the electoral landscape worldwide, notably in Europe but also in East Asia and Latin America. And it is clear that 2023 did not see the outright resurgence of populism worldwide as some had predicted but instead produced another year of mixed results, with critical successes and also major setbacks for populists at the ballot box.

By Simon P. Watmough*

As 2023 draws to a rapid close, it is time to review the year in populism. With key electoral contests scheduled throughout the year, observers were keen at the outset to see whether and how populist movements might fare electorally after the“mixed bag” of 2022, which saw populists rewarded (think Georgia Meloni’s stunning win in Italian parliamentary elections at the helm of the neo-Fascist Fratelli d’Italia and Viktor Orbán’s success in achieving a fourth consecutive term for Fidesz in Hungary) but also rebuked (most obviously in the outgoing administration of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in January and the decisive defeat of Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election in April).

In 2023, populism continued to shape the electoral landscape worldwide, notably in Europe but also in East Asia and Latin America. And it is clear that 2023 did not see the outright resurgence of populism worldwide as some had predicted but instead produced another year of mixed results, with critical successes and also major setbacks for populists at the ballot box.

In this commentary, I review the scorecard for populism globally in 2023. Looking back over the last twelve months, I detail the performance of populist parties and leaders, their electoral successes and failures and the significant political events of the year as they relate to populism. After surveying the major electoral events of the year, I offer some critical insights into their implications, in particular, with a view to the year ahead in 2024. Indeed, some have dubbed 2024 the “Year of Elections”, as it will be the biggest ballot year in world history, with some 2 billion voters going to the polls across the globe.

Key Wins and Losses

Populism globally in 2023 was characterized by a series of regional wins and losses, most notably in Europe in the first half of the year. The second half of 2023 saw notable gains for populist parties, culminating in Geert Wilders’ shock landslide win in the Dutch general elections in November.

A Win for Pluralism in the Czech Republic and for Populism in Slovakia

The year began with a decisive win for pluralism in the Czech Republic when retired NATO general Petr Pavel took 58% of the vote against Andrej Babiš, a billionaire industrialist, former prime minister and populist firebrand, in the second round of the presidential election on 27–28 January. The first round in mid-January had been much closer, with Pavel — who ran on a pro-Western, pro-European Union (EU) and pro-Ukrainian platform — taking 35.4 % of the popular vote, just ahead of Babiš (34.99 %). Babiš, who was facing criminal charges for corruption at the time of the election, led a divisive campaign featuring strong populist rhetoric and deep scepticism about the EU and Western support for Ukraine on the eve of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. In a strong signal of the strength of Czech pluralism, voter turnout in the second round was high at over 70 % (up from 68 % in the first round).

In neighbouring Slovakia, the pendulum had swung the other way by the middle of the year. In late September, disgraced two-time former prime minister Robert Fico — who had resigned from office in March 2018 after widespread protests following his being implicated in the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak — led his left-populist but socially conservative SMER (Direction–Social Democracy) to a surprise first position in parliamentary elections. With the issue of support for Ukraine high on the agenda (Fico declared he would end arms shipments to Slovakia’s embattled neighbour), fears rose in Brussels and Washington that a Fico victory would challenge the European consensus and embolden the camp of pro-Putin leaders in Europe led by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. In a highly fractured party system, SMER took 22.9% of the vote and 42 seats in Slovakia’s 150-seat National Council. As head of the largest party, Fico was commissioned to form a government, and after much wrangling, President Čaputová swore him in as prime minister on 25 October in a government that included the ultranationalist Slovak National Party.

Estonia and Finland

In the northern Baltics region, as well, 2023 was characterized by a pendulum swing. In parliamentary elections held on 5 March in Estonia, incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’s Reform Party increased its numbers. True to form, the far-right populist anti-immigrant Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) ran a highly divisive campaign focused on language politics, uncompromising border control, anti-immigration and opposition to further refugees from Ukraine. Under its new leader, Martin Helme, the party actually lost support but still came in second due to the collapse of the Centre Party, which had been caught up in a corruption scandal. Over half of ballots in the 2023 elections were cast online, and Helme cited supposed “anomalies and technical errors in the e-voting process” in his unsuccessful petition to Estonia’s Supreme Court to annul the results. In the end, Kallas returned to government at the head of a centrist coalition.

In neighbouring Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin was unable to head off a challenge led by the far-right nationalist Finns party (formerly the True Finns), who campaigned on a predictably anti-immigration and anti-EU platform and — like EKRE in Estonia — sought to make the climate transition a point of difference (challenging the Marin government’s carbon neutrality targets). Actually, in a campaign fought mostly on economic policy terrain, Marin’s own Social Democratic Party picked up three seats, while the Finns gained seven to take 46 seats, its strongest showing since the party was founded in 1995. Still, the Finns’ win came mainly at the expense of Marin’s far-left coalition partner, Left Alliance, whose vote share plummeted. After Marin and the other leftist parties ruled out forming a government with a party they described as “openly racist”, Petteri Orpo, leader of the victorious centre-right National Coalition, reached out to the Finns, the Swedish People’s Party, and the Christian Democrats to form a narrow majority government. In 2015–2019, the Finns were part of a coalition government — although mired in almost constant controversy and party splits — and already in June and July 2023, Finns’ ministers were courting media scandal for various anti-immigration remarks and harassment of journalists.

Unlikely Twins: Turkey and Thailand

Duncan McCargo and Ayşe Zarakol have famously dubbed Turkey and Thailand “unlikely twins” since — despite many obvious differences — they share histories as long-established nations that escaped direct colonization, allowing them the space to shape national modernization largely on their own terms, evolving very distinct “hybrid” forms of “tutelary democracy” as a result. In 2023, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Thailand’s Pheu Thai — two national–populist outfits formed in the early 2000s against a backdrop of economic and political crisis and helmed by “anti-establishment outsiders” with natural populist appeal — again faced the voters.

With parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey scheduled for May 2023, many hoped that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s time was up after nearly two decades in power and an economy in serious trouble (not to mention his government’s initial poor handling of severe earthquakes in the southeast at the start of the year). Observers were especially keen to know whether the six-party coalition ranged against Erdoğan — the Nation Alliance, including the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) headed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu — would fare better than the “United for Hungary” coalition against Viktor Orbán in Hungary in 2022. Alas, the Nation Alliance shared the same fate, failing to put forward a convincing campaign (coalition members bickered constantly) and Kılıçdaroğlu, while much-respected, seemed to lack Erdoğan’s legendary vim and vigour on the campaign trail. While Erdoğan narrowly failed to secure a majority in the first round (winning 49.5 % of the popular vote), he won a convincing second-round win against Kılıçdaroğlu to earn a third term in the presidential office, the first candidate to do so since the 1950s.

Thais also returned to the polls in May 2023 for the first truly free and fair elections since the Thai military coup of 2014 ousted the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, head of the populist Pheu Thai party and sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself ousted in a military coup and sent into exile in 2006. Thailand was primed for a populist revival after years of stagnant military rule, and the 2023 campaign was fought on issues of progressive reform and a complete restoration of democracy. Pheu Thai and the progressive Move Forward party cornered the reformist, pro-democracy vote. In a fragmented field of over 60 parties vying for voter support, Move Forward — whose program was dominated by appeals to younger urban voters — took a whopping 151 seats out of 500 in Thailand’s House of Representatives (up from 81 in 2019) and pipped Pheu Thai — which ran a classic rural populist campaign that featured giveaways and promises to the poor and elderly, including an innovative proposal to provide Thais aged over 16 with a 10,000 baht (US$287, €263) “digital wallet” to purchase essential items — to the post (38 % of the vote to Pheu Thai’s 29 %). Initially, Move Forward and Pheu Thai joined forces at the helm of a governing alliance that signed a memorandum of understanding a week after the election. However, talks broke down over the summer, and Pheu Thai began negotiations with the military-backed parties to head an alternative coalition without Move Forward. And when Thaksin announced he would return to Thailand and hand himself in to serve jail time, it was clear that a deal had been struck between Pheu Thai and the palace–military establishment. Over three months after the elections, on 22 August, the same day Thaksin returned to hand himself in to authorities, the king appointed Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin as prime minister.

Two Big Blows Struck for Pluralism: Spain and Poland

Two key elections during the year proved populists can be defeated at the ballot box. In July, Spain’s socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, fended off an electoral assault from the right headed by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and Spain’s far-right populist Vox party. The PP underperformed expectations even as it won the largest number of seats. Quite unexpectedly, Vox’s vote share plummeted, ensuring that the PP had no viable partner to form a majority coalition even with its plurality. As a result, King Filipe commissioned Sánchez to form a new government, and he was sworn in for a second term in September 2023. The ballot box defeat of the far-right, anti-immigration Vox — which had surged in the 2019 elections and again ran a campaign focused on anti-immigration, rolling back hard-fought rights for women (including on abortion) and the LGBTQ+ community, limiting the power of autonomous communities, as well as curtailing Spain’s international climate commitments — proved that despite their frustration with the ruling left-wing government, Spanish voters have no stomach for the kind of virulent anti-immigrant and anti-progressive agenda Vox advances.

October saw the resounding victory of Donald Tusk’s “coalition of coalitions” led by his “Civic Coalition” (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO) against the ruling national–populist Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PIS) government — a continuous thorn in the side of Brussels and Berlin — which was defeated after eight years in power. As I wrote in an ECPS commentary earlier this month, Tusk’s victory was simultaneously a win for Polish pluralism and democracy (voter turnout, especially among the young as well as Poles living abroad, broke all records) and for Europe, especially ahead of European Parliament elections in July 2024: “PiS’s defeat represents a clear win for Polish democracy, for pluralism writ large, and for Europe”. This conclusion holds even in the light of Geert Wilders’ shock victory in the Dutch elections in November (see below).

An Indian Summer for National Populists?

The autumn also saw several key ballot box events that confirmed the enduring strength of national populism worldwide.

Elections in the German states of Bavaria and Hesse on 8 October saw a surge in voter support for the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), with the party coming in second in Hesse and third in Bavaria, mainly at the expense of left-wing parties. These results indicated a growing “normalization” of the party among the electorate and fears that Germany’s far-right “firewall”, which sees the major parties refusing to work or vote with the AfD, may not hold ahead of federal elections scheduled for 2025.

October also saw a decisive defeat of the Voice Referendum in Australia, a proposal by the centre-left government of Anthony Albanese to establish constitutional recognition for Australia’s indigenous peoples for the first time and a related advisory body — the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament — to inform the legislature and executive on the impact of government policy on policies affecting Australia’s indigenous communities, who represent the oldest continuously existing culture on earth. The failure of the referendum indicates in no uncertain terms the thriving of Australia’s far-right populist “sovereign citizen movement” and its attendant social media ecosystem — made up primarily of far-right politicians and media commentators and internet trolls who spread mis- and disinformation, not to mention absurd conspiracy theories, about the referendum on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but also messaging services like Telegram and WhatsApp. This campaign highlights that despite the Labor Party’s decisive May 2022 defeat of the incumbent centre-right Liberal–National Party coalition — dominated since 2010 by avowed right-wing populists — the underlying infrastructure for far-right populist mobilization in Australia remains alive and well.

State elections in India at the end of the following month also signal growing support for Narendra Modi’s right-wing national–populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. Modi — an avowed national populist who stands accused of abetting anti-Muslim riots that killed thousands when he served as first minister of his native Gujarat in the early 2000s — was buoyed by wins for the BJP in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and the prominent state of Rajasthan across November, which seem to show his mix of Hindutva (Hindu chauvinism) ideology and anti-Muslim policies at home and nationalist foreign policy abroad is working ahead of general elections set for mid-2024 that seem likely to secure him a third term in office. Since the BJP first returned to power nationally in 2014, Modi has overseen a steady centralization of power in India and democratic backsliding that have seen observers increasingly concerned about the rule of law and pluralism in the world’s largest democracy.

November Surprise: Shock Victories for Milei and Wilders

No sooner had policymakers in Berlin, Brussels and Washington let out an audible sigh of relief at Donald Tusk’s decisive win in Poland in October than the map of populism was again scrambled with shock wins in late November for Javier Milei in the second round of the Argentinian presidential election and for Geert Wilders PVV in Dutch elections.

Let’s begin with the ultra-right libertarian Milei, an economist whose only political experience before the national elections was as a one-term member of the Chamber of Deputies from Buenos Aires. In the first round in October, the leftist candidate Sergio Massa pulled out an unexpected win (taking 36 % of the vote to Milei’s 30 %), leading some to contend that the threat from the flamboyant and mercurial Milei — who ran on a platform of laissez-faire economics and radical deregulation (he had previously described himself as an “anarcho-capitalist”, including a controversial proposal to dollarize the Argentinian economy and abolish the central bank — was overdone. But in the second round on 19 November, Milei, who paradoxically marries ultra-libertarian positions on questions of drug policy, guns, prostitution, and LGBTQ+ issues and a fervent opposition to abortion and euthanasia, won a resounding 55% of the popular vote. With protests against his sweeping, radical agenda already growing, led by the country’s voluble trade union movement, only time will tell how a president who cuts entirely against the grain of Argentina’s long-standing Peronist tradition will fare, especially given his limited support in the national legislature.

The shock of the year, however, came with the victory of Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam and anti-immigration Party of Freedom (PVV) in the Dutch elections on 22 November, which were fought mainly on issues of immigration and the economy and, worryingly, with several violent incidents against the far-right Thierry Baudet, came after a feud over refugee policy brought down the fourth government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. In “one of the biggest political upsets in Dutch politics since World War II”, the PVV took 37 seats in the 150-seat parliament and now — as the largest party in the legislature for the first time — is in prime position to head a coalition government. Wilders — a firebrand’s firebrand who has been a feature of Dutch politics for decades but always from the sidelines — ran an openly racist campaign focused on banning new mosques, ending immigration to the Netherlands, leaving the EU and imposing harsh assimilationist policies on migrants already settled in the country.

Given his avowedly Christian nationalist (“I don’t hate Muslims. I hate Islam”) and anti-immigrant positions, the PVV victory triggered shockwaves across the political landscape in the Netherlands and Europe, with many seeing it as a harbinger of an ascendant far-right in Europe or even a return to fascism. Still, negotiations to form a government in the Netherlands are generally tortuous and always result in a moderation of partners’ positions. In the end, much of the PVV agenda is unconstitutional and will never be implemented. Moreover, if Wilders wishes to be part of a governing coalition, let alone prime minister, he will have no choice but to moderate his positions, something he has already pledged to do. As of the end of 2023, Only one other party with a significant number of seats has committed to a formal agreement with the PVV, and the likely long-drawn-out negotiations may not even result in the party being in government. Still, with the PVV taking nearly 25 % of the popular vote, it would be foolhardy to ignore the signal sent by Dutch voters in the November elections that they want to see an end to “business as usual”.

Implications: Looking ahead to 2024

As mentioned at the top, 2024 is shaping up to be the biggest ballot year in human history, with over 2 billion voters heading to the polls, including nearly 1 billion registered voters in India alone, where national elections will be held in April and May of 2024. Other key national elections will be held in Indonesia and Pakistan (February), Portugal (March), South Korea (April), the European Parliament and Mexico (June), South Africa (mid-year), the United Kingdom (likely late in the year) and the United States (November), to name just a few. Populism will be on the ballot of most, if not all, of these critical electoral contests.

We may gather the key implications into four key categories. The first concerns crises and breakdowns in the social contract. Elections in Finland, Slovakia, Argentina, and the Netherlands have shown that voters are turning to populist parties out of frustration with the failure of incumbent governments to address pressing social and economic concerns, including cost of living pressures. Take housing, for example. While the Dutch election was cast in terms of debates about immigration, rising urban densities and overcrowding and attendant shortages of affordable housing proved to be at the root of much of the electorate’s concerns.

The second implication is that populist politics has become the “new normal” in many countries and that subnational (state and municipal) elections and referendums can also be subject to populist pressures. The Voice Referendum in Australia showed that the “far-right media infrastructure” is still in place for populists to use as a mobilizing tool to spread mis- and disinformation. State elections in India and Germany in late 2023, in which populists saw a surge of support, send a dangerous signal ahead of national elections in those countries in the middle of 2024.

Third, in the EU populists are on the march ahead of European elections in June 2024. Fears are growing that a surge in anti-immigration politics and Euroscepticism off the back of Wilders’ shock win in late 2023 (and notwithstanding Poland’s return to the pluralist camp). Beyond the success of Robert Fico in Slovakia and the AfD at the state level in Germany, populists have no doubt been buoyed by gains in Italy, Hungary and Sweden in 2022.

Finally — and on a positive note — the stunning results in Spain and Poland tell us that voters in large democracies are put off by the most virulent anti-immigration and xenophobic appeals and that populists can be beaten decisively at the ballot box, especially when the opposition is united and has access to media and ensures “a savvy campaign platform that rallies … natural supporters while also allowing [for appeals] to the base of support of the populists.


 

(*) Simon P. Watmough is a researcher based in Leipzig in Germany and a non-resident research fellow in the research program on authoritarianism at ECPS. Dr. Watmough’s research interests sit at the intersection of global and comparative politics and include varieties of post-authoritarian states, the political sociology of the state, the role of the military in regime change, and the foreign policy of post-authoritarian states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently writing a book on the global history of populism.

Far-right Golden Dawn party supporters attend the main pre-election rally outside the party's headquarters in Thessaloniki, Greece on June 15, 2014. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Populism and Incompetence in Updating the ‘System’

Why do many societies suddenly exhibit xenophobic and anti-systemic tendencies? Persuading those with phobic views is essential, and if persuasion fails, it indicates a failure in addressing the underlying issues. The examples illustrate that populism thrives in environments where social problems remain unresolved or experience significant delays due to incompetence or bureaucratic practices. Instead of efficiently solving problems, responsible agents often opt for the easier route of criticizing populist approaches, which proves to be ineffective.

By Hercules Millas

The rise of populist discourses in recent decades, posing a threat to democratic regimes and fostering contempt for fundamental institutions, particularly the judiciary system in this context, is often linked to the failure of some states to address the everyday needs of their citizens. The expectation is that citizens should uphold and adhere to democratically established laws and the constitution of their country, resisting the demagoguery of populist leaders. However, a fundamental shift is required and at this point what is needed is to put the horse in front of the cart: laws and constitutions should be designed to earn respect and compliance by serving as effective tools for problem-solving rather than mere principles to be upheld out of propriety. Without this transformation, the proliferation of populism is likely to persist, eroding trust in institutions such as justice and law over the long term.

As an introduction, a case in Greece serves as an enlightening example to illustrate the challenges associated with illegal property occupation, particularly concerning second homes. The issue of squatting transcends national boundaries and is prevalent in both developed and developing countries. Effectively addressing this phenomenon is consistently complex, expensive, and time-consuming. While, in theory, the unauthorized occupation of another person’s property is considered illegal, practical deterrents and punitive measures often fall short. Squatters, armed with manuals, often sourced from the internet, employ strategies to prolong their stay in properties against the will of the rightful owners.

The state security forces, upon receiving complaints related to illegal property occupation, typically restrict their involvement to referring the cases to the appropriate court. This approach results in significant delays in restoring possession. Often exceeding a year, the process is prolonged due to the occupiers’ utilization of various procedural delaying tactics, such as presenting false rental contracts, filing harassment complaints against owners, lodging appeals, and more. In Greece, in particular, the retrieval of access to one’s property can span several years, during which the property is usually found vandalized and looted.

A potential “solution” to the problem gained attention in Greece when the far-right racist organization Golden Dawn took action in 2009. It is important to note that this organization has since been dissolved, and its leaders are incarcerated for their involvement in murders and actions reminiscent of Nazi ideology. However, for a period, its members effectively assisted property owners grappling with squatting issues. The process was straightforward: applying to the organization was sufficient. Within a few days, the property would be returned to the owners, sometimes even cleaned, and painted. Golden Dawn employed a simple method: threatening squatters with physical harm and more severe consequences.

In similar cases, citizens faced a dilemma: to remain law-abiding and watch their homes from a distance or to circumvent the law and reclaim their houses with the help of Golden Dawn. Most Greeks trust the state and its law-enforcing mechanisms expecting that they will be protected against outlaws and criminals. But on this issue of squatters they see that Golden Dawn was more efficient. The crucial point is this: The collaboration of the owner of the house with the criminal organization is not perceived by many as something against humane behavior or against established law and order. This perception stems from the frustration with the slow administration of justice by state mechanisms, including local police and the court. Although the state condemns squatters and recognizes the property rights of owners, the prolonged legal processes make citizens feel abandoned and unprotected. The populist promises of Golden Dawn-type entities, advocating for quick solutions by bypassing the law and established order, resonate as sensible and promising to many voters.

Naturally, this example is extreme, involving a criminal organization resorting to bullying and force. Despite ignoring potential justifications of the squatters in this case, it serves the purpose of illustrating how populist promises may seem more practical, sensible, and useful to many. The counterargument, suggesting that such “solutions” herald the end of democratic regimes and foster anarchy and authoritarianism, lacks persuasiveness for individuals desperately fighting for rights acknowledged by all but unsecured by the existing administration. The notion of a potentially dangerous rise in anarchy does not resonate as sensible to citizens already experiencing anarchic treatment, such as by squatters, in an environment where protection is lacking. In these conditions, an anti-systemic stance or understanding gradually gains supporters.

The argument that a democratic regime is “slow” in addressing similar social problems, and that this is the price societies pay for maintaining a lawful and orderly milieu, can be perceived as resigned acceptance, saying, “Sorry, there is nothing to be done!” While it’s true that time-consuming and exhausting bureaucratic procedures aim to prevent injustice or harm, the concern that expedited processes may lead to injustice contributes to a mood conducive to populism. Populist leaders claim to transcend unnecessary obstacles, presenting themselves as “practical” and “pragmatic.” They don’t waste time on trivial “details” such as courts, appeals, constitutions, and the like. This narrative aligns well with the image of a “single” man, a strong, determined, and daring leader.

There are several areas where democratic governments struggle to address problems promptly and take decisive measures. Issues such as illegal immigration, terrorism, general security and anarchy, inflation, unemployment, and police force bullying are among these challenges. While some of these problems are inherently complex, some fears and demands expressed by the public are often considered unwarranted phobias and unjustified whims. I will delve further into the topic of immigration.

In recent decades, there has been a surge in population movements from developing countries to developed ones, particularly towards the United States and the European Union. This trend was not at all notable prior the Industrial Revolution, as global disparities in welfare standards were not as stark as they are today. The factors driving immigration, besides economic considerations, include a) increased access to information about new opportunities, b) greater ease of travel compared to the past, c) improved living standards in developing countries, enabling the “middle classes” to afford the costly journey to their desired destination, and d) the capacity of host countries to accommodate and absorb newcomers either as cheap labor or as immigrants with limited prospects of repatriation. The net result is a growing influx of economic migrants to these “wealthy” countries.

However, it is evident that this trend presents a considerable challenge. The “poor” countries of Asia and Africa make up roughly 70 percent of the world population. Even if only 1 percent of the potential immigrants were to seek relocation, it would amount to sixty million people, and the 10 percent nearly equals the combined population of the USA and the EU. Moreover, only 19 percent of illegal immigrants were repatriated in recent years (See: Migration Information Source, ‘Recalcitrant’ and ‘Uncooperative’). The legal frameworks governing immigration were established at a time when the issue of illegal economic immigration was not as prominent. (It’s important to note that the refugee issue is a distinct economic, political, and ethical matter, which will not be addressed here.)

The issue of illegal economic immigration has created a strained social atmosphere within the EU, and this will be the focus of my discussion. The unrest is complex and multifaceted: some perceive an intrusion of “foreigners” threatening the social and national composition, as well as the unity of their country; others express their fear that their jobs are jeopardized; and still others emphasize the costs incurred by the country in trying to accommodate the newcomers. There are also those who dismiss these views as irrelevant, nationalistic, or even racist, opting to approach the entire issue from a humanitarian standpoint.

Eventually, in December 2023, the European Parliament and the Council reached an agreement on the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum of the EU,” initially proposed in December 2020. This new pact is aimed at managing and normalizing migration for the long term, ensuring a more rapid and effective response to future crises, including the instrumentalization of migrants. It took the EU three years to reach a consensus on measures that may seem self-evident. Understandably, the EU needed additional time to identify the problems and propose new measures. The implementation of these measures is expected to take further years, highlighting the lengthy process involved in recognizing and addressing complex issues. During those years of “dormancy,” populist attacks on the existing “system” resonated as logical and appealing. Tensions within the EU were escalating, providing a fertile ground for populist narratives. Populist leaders skillfully exploited the delays, criticizing and condemning the perceived inefficiencies of the “system.” They advocated for pragmatic, efficient, and strong single leaders as an alternative and their complaints found hospitable ears.Unfortunately, the New Pact on Migration of the EU arrived belatedly, contributing to the populist narrative of systemic failure.

The issue of populism cannot be solely framed within the dichotomy of good or bad, right or wrong, useful or harmful and legal or illegal. This complexity arises from its connection to popular perceptions and aspirations. In a democratic society, determinations of what is right, ethical, wrong, or unethical are not dictated by experts or authorities, as in authoritarian regimes. Instead, these categories of right/wrong and the related laws are relative and shaped by the democratic process—through votes, elections, and decisions made by elected bodies. Constitutions or internationally recognized principles like human rights may act as a “safety valve.” Still, even these are neither “holy” in the sense that they may not be changed, nor established in the absence of some kind of social and communal consensus.  

To fight populism solely based on “humanitarian principles, ethics, laws,” without considering the perceptions and wishes of the citizens, is counterproductive. The priorities lie with the needs and understanding of the voters, which should take precedence over abstract principles and laws. It’s essential to recognize whose principles are being referred to if they are not reflective of the people’s. Haughtiness and great trust to one’s convictions do not constitute a democratic approach to problems. The “worried” citizens do not change their minds when they are accused and confronted as racists, xenophobic and as being “wrong in their judgments.” On the contrary, they feel that the populist leaders who are called “racists” are closer to them, since they share their worries. 

Populist leaders leverage their arguments by addressing the immediate needs and demands of the masses, which may sometimes be influenced by undemocratic or racist perspectives. However, these concerns should not be dismissed outright. It is crucial to comprehend, address, and confront them, not on theoretical grounds, but by actively solving problems, dispelling fears, and curing phobias. To ignore and disregard offhandedly phobias, prejudices, stereotypes, xenophobic tendencies and similar manifestations of a section of a community, calling names and by assigning negative characterizations stops short of understanding what is going on. Labels at best describe situations but don’t explain what happens and why they occur. The undemocratic tendencies are not to be cured by psychoanalysis and/or by philosophizing on ethics.  They may be superseded when the conjuncture which creates them vanishes.

The main point of my argumentation can be succinctly summarized: Why do many societies suddenly exhibit xenophobic and anti-systemic tendencies? Persuading those with phobic views is essential, and if persuasion fails, it indicates a failure in addressing the underlying issues. The examples provided illustrate that populism thrives in environments where social problems remain unresolved or experience significant delays due to incompetence or bureaucratic practices. Instead of efficiently solving problems, responsible agents often opt for the easier route of criticizing populist approaches, which proves to be ineffective. The relevant procedures – which were decided in the past for societies that faced different problems – should be expedited, if needed risking some harm that may incur to some. Delays involve much more serious harm to many. 

Dr. Rafał Riedel, Full Professor and Head of the Department of Political and Administrative Systems at the University of Opole and visiting fellow at the Vienna School of International Studies.

Professor Rafał Riedel: Undoing Poland’s Eight-Year Illiberal Trend Demands Significant Time

Dr. Rafał Riedel of the University of Opole: “The illiberal trend in Poland persisted for a duration of eight years, during which Prawo i Sprawiedliwość / Law and Justice (PiS) party extensively seized control of the state. The changes PiS party implemented were so deeply ingrained that reversing them will require a considerable amount of time. While I won’t specify another eight years, it is evident that this is not an overnight transformation. In my view, certain changes may materialize in weeks, others in months, and unfortunately, some changes may take years or prove irreversible due to entrenched processes.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Rafał Riedel, Full Professor and Head of the Department of Political and Administrative Systems at the University of Opole and visiting fellow at the Vienna School of International Studies, delves into the challenges of reversing Poland’s eight-year illiberal trend. As the new government, led by Donald Tusk, takes the reins, Prof. Riedel acknowledges the deeply ingrained changes implemented during the illiberal era, emphasizing that the transformation won’t be an overnight process. The illiberal trend, characterized by the party-state capture, state-market relationship shifts, and erosion of liberal democratic values, necessitates time and strategic interventions.

Reflecting on the recent elections, Prof. Riedel highlights the central role of collective memory manipulation in shaping political discourse. He cites examples of Germanophobia during the campaigns, underscoring the strategic use of historical narratives for political gain. The interview delves into the impact of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość / Law and Justice (PiS) party’s populism on Poland’s political landscape, emphasizing the generational divide and the need to reassess the conservative label.

Discussing the illiberal turn, Prof. Riedel outlines the key indicators, including violations of liberal democracy and the phenomenon of state capture. The interview addresses the implications for democracy in Poland and the potential for reversing this illiberal trend through democratic means. The upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024 are anticipated with caution, considering the Eurosceptic sentiments, while concerns about a surge of far-right parties in the broader European context are analyzed in the context of Poland’s political dynamics.

As the interview concludes, Prof. Riedel emphasizes the significance of the October elections as a potential impetus for a positive shift in Central and Eastern Europe. Poland, with its substantial size and influence, has the potential to pioneer a new trend, challenging the illiberal status quo and reaffirming its commitment to European values.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Rafał Riedel with some edits.

Manipulating Collective Memory for Populist Political Gains

March of a Million Hearts. Hundreds of thousands march in anti-government protest to show support for democracy in Warsaw, Poland on October 1, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Thank you so much for accepting our interview request. So, I start with the first question in the context of a liberal trend in Poland. How do you see the role of collective memory manipulation and its connection to authoritarian Populism? Considering your paper on collective memory manipulation and its connection to authoritarian populism, do you see any evidence of such manipulation in the recent electoral campaigns, and how might it impact democratic processes in Poland?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: Thank you for your invitation. Your question is impressively detailed and tailored to my work. 

Now, regarding the mentioned paper itself, it’s essential to note that it serves primarily as a conceptual framework, offering a tool for analyzing how memory manipulation, particularly collective memory, can be employed manipulatively by populist and authoritarian politicians. The focus is on understanding the mechanisms through which political leaders shape and exploit collective memory to further their agendas.

Secondly, the paper primarily offers a conceptual framework and does not delve into empirical analysis of specific cases, such as Poland or Hungary. However, if we focus on the context of Poland, especially considering the recent election, my simplest answer would be, “yes.” Concrete examples can be provided, and while I could share various instances, I’ll highlight one general and another specific example in detail.

It’s crucial to understand that in Polish politics and in Poland in general, history and historical education wield significant influence. This isn’t merely a subjective observation; scholars have extensively discussed the pivotal role of history, historical education, and what is termed “Gedächtnispolitik” in German, in Poland. This prominence is likely attributed to Poland’s dense and rich history, where the narrative of victimhood plays a central role. Political forces across the spectrum frequently recycle collective memory in the public sphere, saturating discourse with history, storytelling, and historical context. Unsurprisingly, this historical narrative becomes a potent tool in politics, at times employed in a manipulative manner.

If we look for recent examples from the election campaigns preceding the parliamentary elections on October 23, the role of Germany stands out, presenting a particularly intriguing case. The complex history between Poland and Germany, spanning over 1,000 years, is marked by various challenges. In terms of manipulation, a notable instance is the Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczyński. They engage in what I call “Germanophobia” in some extend. While it’s valid to maintain a critical stance towards neighbors, this fraction exploits and amplifies anti-German sentiment at every available opportunity. The inspiration for such sentiment is evidently drawn from historical narratives. To illustrate, a frequently used phrase during the political campaign in Poland was “Für Deutschland” which has become the subject of jokes and memes on the Internet.

I’m not sure how acquainted you are with the Polish discourse, but “Für Deutschland” originated from two words taken out of context from Donald Tusk’s speech. He was expressing gratitude to Angela Merkel after receiving the Charlemagne Prize. This speech, delivered in German, was extensively exploited by a particular political party, turning it into a crude instrument of party propaganda, suggesting Tusk’s servility towards Germany. Unfortunately, these two words were repeated several hundred times daily, by the politicians, and in the so-called public TV by the PiS media officers.

This repetition was part of a negative campaign aimed at portraying Donald Tusk in an unfavorable light. The use of “Für Deutschland” in their discourse is highly representative, as the term “German” was transformed into an epithet in their campaign. It ceased to be merely an adjective describing their adversary; instead, it became an offensive epithet. The discursive coalition, consisting of high-ranking party representatives, opinion leaders, and quasi-journalists, played a crucial role in shaping this narrative. Some individuals who were supposed to be journalists failed in their role and instead became instrumentalized by a particular political party.

The manipulation went beyond political communication and delved into the realm of discursive coalition, where the word “German” carried a pejorative connotation. 

It appealed significantly to 30-40 percent of the electorate, making it a functional tool. This example, with its Germanophobic and anti-German meta-narrative inspired by historical references, illustrates a manipulation that goes beyond electoral strategies and touches on broader societal sentiments. Certainly, there are numerous elements to this discourse, and one could delve into discussions about Second World War compensations from the perspective of international law. However, I’m not attempting to initiate such a debate on the justification or lack thereof. I’m emphasizing this from an electoral standpoint, where this historical topic was evidently utilized as a tool, instrumentalized for political purposes. This is why I categorize it as a manipulation—because it served a strategic function in the electoral context. 

PiS Party Predominantly Supported by Older Demographics

How do you perceive the impact of PiS party’s populism on the overall political landscape in Poland, particularly in terms of shaping public discourse and political behavior? PiS has often framed its policies as defending national sovereignty and traditional values. In your view, how has this populist narrative resonated with the Polish electorate, and what demographic groups are particularly influenced by it?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: I’m afraid I have to affirmatively respond to this question. So yes, PiS party’s populism certainly impacted the political landscape. Regarding the resonance of this popular narrative among different demographic groups, the answer to the last part of your question is relatively straightforward. Analyzing the electoral groups and their preferences in the recent elections, it’s evident that the PiS party garnered support predominantly from older demographics, or using a politically correct term, those who are chronologically advanced.

However, despite their victory in terms of seats won, they, in a sense, lost because they lacked coalition potential. The so-called democratic opposition, as a coalition, secured more votes and parliamentary seats. This outcome was driven by the mobilization of younger electoral groups who found PiS party to be an unappealing choice, viewing it as a more conservative, passe (old) type of party. This generational gap was observable not only in the leaders of the party but also in the messaging and support they garnered, including how they distributed resources and allocated the public funds.

While PiS party may address several electoral sectors as a massive party, its primary focus lies in Eastern Poland and older fractions of the electorate. Nonetheless, the younger demographic was mobilized during the elections, contributing to the high turnout, which was exceptional by Polish standards and indicative of a revolutionary momentum, which we witnessed in October elections.

It’s conceivable that when you tailor your message to an older electorate, it naturally aligns more with conservative values. Despite PiS labeling themselves as conservatives, I’m quite skeptical about this characterization. Often, when we discuss traditional values and national sovereignty, we automatically associate them with conservatism. While potentially conservatism is a significant ideological tradition, the PiS party’s message and behavior did not genuinely reflect conservative principles.

In my view, not every regressive idea qualifies as conservatism. I’m not aware of conservatives who disregard and actively undermine institutions, which is precisely what PiS party did. Their actions amounted to the vandalism of liberal democratic institutions. Consequently, I find it challenging, among other reasons, to label them as conservatives. While PiS party attempted to frame themselves as defenders of national sovereignty and traditional values, this was largely a verbal strategy. Upon closer inspection of their actions, decisions and policies, there was little evidence of a genuine commitment to defending national sovereignty or upholding traditional values. 

Liberal Democracy Encompasses More Than Mere Majoritarian Voting

In your paper “Populism Is the Only Game in Town. Poland’s Illiberal Turn as an Authoritarian Threat,” you argue that Poland has been experiencing an illiberal turn. Could you elaborate on the key indicators of this illiberal shift and its implications for democracy in Poland?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: Certainly, the indicators of Poland’s illiberal turn can be observed through various international rankings, such as Freedom House and Bertelsmann, which show a decline in liberal democratic ratings. However, delving more deeply into the developments on the ground in Poland, I would highlight two significant dimensions of this shift.

Just as liberalism can be defined in various ways, the same holds true for illiberalism. It’s important to note that illiberalism is not merely anti- or counter-liberalism. Rather, it can be analyzed along multiple dimensions. One such dimension can be termed as social-political, while another is distinctly economic. 

Primarily, illiberalism involves a rejection of liberal democracy. This rejection is evident not only in the most recent elections but also in preceding ones. Illiberal forces have successfully created a semi-cleavage, dividing the electorate into those aligned with liberal values and messages, and those favoring a more social-oriented approach. The illiberal factions vehemently oppose the liberal message, marking a significant aspect of their ideological stance.

At the same time, I get the sense that their opposition to liberalism was specifically directed at neoliberalism. Their message resonated strongly with those who felt disillusioned by the changes in Poland, particularly within the broader context of Central and Eastern Europe. While our focus is on Poland, it’s important to acknowledge that the post-1989 reforms were socially challenging, shaped significantly by the principles of the neoliberal paradigm.

The reforms were implemented during a Zeitgeist dominated by Thatcherism, Reaganism and a global shift toward neoliberalism. Many scholars argue that, given the prevailing atmosphere, there seemed to be little alternative. Fast forward one and a half decades, and the rise to power of these forces can be seen as a backlash against the weariness induced by the previous trend—a response to the fatigue stemming from the transformations of the late 20th century. In essence, this strain of illiberalism emerged as a counter-revolution, a reaction to the 1989 revolution and the subsequent wave of transformations.

And I believe this aligns well with various interpretations of illiberalism. Rhetorically, they skillfully placed blame on liberal democracy itself. As political scientists, we engage in debates about whether there exists any democracy other than liberal democracy. Even when simplistically defined, liberal democracy extends beyond mere majoritarian voting; it involves the safeguarding of minority rights. It also means that the political process operates within legal boundaries, encompassing non-majoritarian institutions such as the constitutional court and central bank, which are respected for their independence.

From this political perspective, the key parameters I would identify are the violations of liberal democracy and the phenomenon of state capture. In essence, I would characterize it as a party-state capture, as they have taken control of institutions like public media, the constitutional court, the Supreme Court, NGOs, foundations, and more, staffing them with party functionaries. While there may be some parallels with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, it’s crucial to avoid direct comparisons due to the numerous differences in their approaches.

Now, a brief overview of the second dimension, focusing on economic terms. If we examine various parameters related to the state-market relationship, the post-communist reforms, characterized by liberalization, commercialization, and marketization—following a neoliberal Washington Consensus-type program—were similarly disregarded. Instead, there was a preference for increased state involvement in the market and economy. However, I hesitate to label it any form of a coordinated market economy, as the outcome was quite the opposite. What transpired was, once again, a form of state capture. Party functionaries took control of state-owned companies. At one point, they advocated for the “Polonization” of the banking sector, emphasizing the need for “re-Polonization.”

For example, the underlying assumption was that, following the privatization process post-Communism, the banking sector fell into the hands of foreign entities. To restore economic independence, they asserted the necessity to reclaim and “re-Polonize” the sector. Using public funds, they frequently acquired or, at times, coerced the sale of assets from foreign investors, manipulating legislation and employing various political maneuvers. While the outcome increased Polish capital in the banking sector, it concurrently meant a return to public ownership. Presently, it comprises state-owned banks or capital groups, including investment funds and insurance companies. Ultimately, this “re-Polonization” amounted to simultaneous “re-nationalization,” marking a regression from the trajectory of building a more privately oriented capitalist economy. It is again a backlash and represented a counter-revolution against the earlier trend of market liberalization. These two parameters stand out as significant indicators of the shift toward illiberalism in both the economic and political spheres.

The Key Lies in Distinguishing Between Democratic and Non-Democratic Forces

Donald Tusk speaks at an election rally after a televised debate on government television at the end of the campaign in Warsaw, Poland on October 9, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Given the recent elections in Poland and the success of Donald Tusk, how do you interpret the results in the context of your research on populism and illiberalism in the country?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: The most appropriate answer, without leaning towards any particular viewpoint, would be to adopt a wait-and-see approach. It is still too early to draw definitive conclusions. Although the elections occurred in October, the constitutional periods were extended by the previous ruling party, and the new government was officially appointed on December 13, just a week ago. Speculation at this point is limited, and interpretations remain relatively soft, given the evident change in democratic mood in Poland.

Personally, I harbored some skepticism about the smooth transition of power, given my negative assessment of authoritarian populist politicians. I was even doubtful about whether the power transition would occur seamlessly, particularly considering earlier instances in Brazil and the United States where transitions faced challenges. While I am not suggesting a regular coup, there have been examples, often inspired by figures like Donald Trump, who served as an intellectual ally to these politicians. As of our current conversation, the formal transition of power is underway, with the President appointing a new government led by Donald Tusk.

The illiberal trend in Poland persisted for a duration of eight years, during which they extensively seized control of the state. The changes they implemented were so deeply ingrained that reversing them will require a considerable amount of time. While I won’t specify another eight years, it is evident that this is not an overnight transformation. In my view, certain changes may materialize in weeks, others in months, and unfortunately, some changes may take years or prove irreversible due to entrenched processes.

As of our conversation, there is an ongoing international spotlight on Poland, particularly concerning the battle over public media. The previous administration continues to occupy the buildings, creating a standoff with the new government attempting to usher in new leadership. While they may have formally relinquished political power, their presence persists in numerous institutions. For someone like Donald Tusk, governing becomes a formidable task when facing opposition in public media, the Central Bank, Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, and more. The process of disentangling from these entrenched positions will undoubtedly take time.

Another significant and pressing question is whether reversing this trend is feasible through democratic means. While democratic expectations dictate that the process adheres to legal standards, there is uncertainty about its effectiveness in a reasonable timeframe. On the democratic front, the hope is for a proper and lawful reversal, but pragmatic considerations introduce the possibility that it may be a lengthy process, potentially facing another risk of backlash.

Categorizing these political forces in a simplistic right-, left-wing spectrum doesn’t suffice, as they transcend such conventional distinctions. The crux lies in distinguishing between democratic and non-democratic forces, with some aligning with authoritarian tendencies. This isn’t a standard political game unfolding within the democratic arena, with all players respecting the democratic principles. 

One of your articles explores the concept of “De-Europeanization of Eastern peripheries.” How might the recent elections impact Poland’s relationship with the European Union, and what implications could this have for democratic norms and values? Do you think that Tusk’s government could stop the de-Europeanization of Poland? 

Dr. Rafał Riedel: Yes, I think so, because this was one of the main points during the electoral campaign. The question of Europe emerged as a crucial point of reference, shaping the political discourse. On one side, there was Donald Tusk and the entire democratic coalition, explicitly declaring a pro-European stance. On the other side, the PiS party increasingly adopted a Eurosceptic position. In my view, they have shifted from soft Euroscepticism to a more assertive hard Euroscepticism, with their post-election message being distinctly hard-Eurosceptic. This marks a significant transformation in Polish European politics. The recent EU summit showcased the reception of leaders like Donald Tusk, signaling a positive response. There are high expectations, both pragmatically regarding the unfreezing of the recovery fund—frozen due to concerns over democratic backsliding—and symbolically, as a return to a closer relationship with Europe. The structured shift in Poland is apparent, touching both on practical matters like the recovery fund and symbolic aspects, emphasizing a reconnection with Europe.

Exchange of Knowledge and Know-How Among Populist Movements Across Borders

Chairperson of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Tomasz Kudala.

Considering the rise of populism globally, how do you see Poland’s political landscape influencing or being influenced by broader international populist movements?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: I’m currently collaborating with a colleague from Vienna on a paper exploring the diffusion of populist ideas across borders. Specifically, regarding the type of authoritarian populism seen in Polish politics led by Jarosław Kaczyński and his party, it’s clear that they drew significant inspiration from Viktor Orbán, openly expressing this influence. In 2011, after losing the parliamentary elections, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, famously claimed that he was “convinced that one day, we will have Budapest in Warsaw,” providing a stark acknowledgment of his admiration for Orbán. The frequent meetings between Kaczyński and Orbán facilitated a learning process, with such influences openly declared in the Polish context.

The diffusion of illiberal ideas is working though transnational networks of the populists. There are numerous instances highlighting their admiration for figures like Donald Trump and their favorable view of how he was received in Poland ruled by PiS party. In contrast, after Joe Biden’s election, the Polish President notably delayed sending diplomatic congratulations to Washington. These populist leaders forged alliances through various means, organizing meetings, supporting one another, and hosting politicians from across Europe, such as Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, and others. They collaborated on conferences and attended events like Vox’s electoral events in Spain, showcasing the extent of knowledge and know-how exchange among populist movements across borders.

What are your expectations for the European Parliament elections in Poland scheduled for June 2024?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: Certainly, I wouldn’t attempt to predict the results as it’s too early, and I’m not a fortune teller. Typically, European topics hold significant importance in Polish discussions. I anticipate a highly spirited campaign, especially since it coincides with the ongoing pan-European debate about the future of Europe and federalization.

Presently, the PiS party and other Eurosceptic parties seem to be adopting a defensive stance, a trend likely to continue into the next year. If we manage to achieve re-democratization and re-Europeanization in Poland, I will predict the victory of pro-democratic, pro-European forces. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that around 30 percent or more of the population holds Eurosceptic views, be it soft or hard Euroscepticism, and this will be reflected in the elections. The key question is whether the Eurosceptic camp will be dominated by PiS party or if it will be divided between PiS party and Konfederacja, a more right-wing and more Eurosceptic party in the Polish political spectrum.

Poland Can Once Again Emerge as a Pioneer in the Broader European Context

Lastly, how concerned are you about a possible surge of far-right parties after the Netherlands in the upcoming European Parliament elections in June?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: On the Polish political spectrum, my skepticism about categorizing PiS party as a far-right party, as I’ve previously mentioned, aligns with the reservations many political scientists have about the oversimplified notions of right-wing and left-wing. Such labels often fall short, especially considering that their economic program may not neatly fit into conventional right-wing characteristics. However, it’s undeniable that PiS party exhibits strong nationalist tendencies and holds hard Eurosceptic views. I anticipate their continued association with the European Parliament fraction, known as The European Conservatives and Reformists Group.

In the European context, I don’t anticipate PiS party achieving more than 30 percent. In fact, I expect even less, considering the prevailing trends in Europe, as you mentioned, such as in the Netherlands. While they secured around 20 percent in their electoral result, it’s crucial to recognize the Dutch political system’s fragmentation and optimization, making it unlikely for a significant number of Dutch deputies from the right-wing spectrum to be elected, despite being the leading party. Looking at Germany, especially in East Germany, anti-migration sentiments could potentially boost right-wing parties. However, European elections are often considered second-order elections, meaning that domestic issues frequently take precedence over European topics in the discourse. Hence, I believe this analysis needs to be conducted on a nation-state level rather than a pan-European level. The absence of a European public sphere and pan-European parties, coupled with the fragmented nature of campaigns, necessitates an examination within the domestic political systems of the 27 member states. Each country’s specific political dynamics will play a crucial role in determining outcomes.

Just to conclude, I consider the October elections in Poland as a significant impetus. The prevailing mood in Central and Eastern Europe, dominated by figures like Orbán and Kaczyński, had been rather disheartening. However, the results in Poland bring a sense of hope and a breath of fresh air. Given Poland’s substantial size in terms of territory, population, and economy, it has the potential to exert a powerful influence. Orbán, with his anti-European and illiberal stance, finds himself more marginalized, lacking a Polish ally in Brussels. I hope that akin to its role in 1989, Poland can once again emerge as a pioneer, regional leader, and initiator of new trends in the broader European context.

Ganjar Pranowo, as Central Java Governor, at a cultural festival in Batang / Central Java Regency, Indonesia on October 2, 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

Ganjar Pranowo’s Quest: Resisting Islamist Civilizational Populism in Indonesia

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Please cite as:

Bachtiar, Hasnan. (2023). “Ganjar Pranowo’s Quest: Resisting Islamist Civilizational Populism in Indonesia.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 19, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0028

 

Abstract

Ganjar Pranowo stands as a pivotal figure within technocratic populism, anticipated to advocate for the people’s volonté générale and counter the sway of Islamist civilisational populism within Indonesia. The impending 2024 election positions him in a direct contest against Anies Baswedan and Prabowo Subianto, both politicians who garnered support from Islamist populist factions in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial and 2019 presidential elections, respectively. Perceptions of Ganjar’s political stance vary, with some viewing him as a populist figure. However, in essence, he embodies the antithesis of populism, distinct from narratives and rhetoric persistently leveraging Islamism for political gain. This article seeks to delve into Ganjar’s political prospects in the upcoming 2024 election, shedding light on his role in confronting rivals and their supporters entrenched in Islamist populism. While widely seen as the most compelling figure for upholding the continuity of a vibrant democracy, his emergence also sparks inquiries into the trajectory of substantive democratic progress within the nation.

By Hasnan Bachtiar

Introduction

Dan Slater, an American political scientist, contends that Indonesia’s “vibrant democracy” stands a better chance of continuity under the continued leadership style of Jokowi (Slater, 2023). Among the limited pool of potential presidential candidates, Ganjar Pranowo emerges as a leading contender, viewed as the most fitting successor to Jokowi. Pranowo’s potential lies in his ability to potentially surpass other candidates, notably Anies Baswedan, who enjoys support from an Islamist “civilisational populist” (Yilmaz et al., 2022) group (Bachtiar, 2023), and Prabowo, classified as a chauvinist populist (Mietzner, 2020).

However, the upcoming 2024 political contest presents an unexpected turn as Jokowi aligns himself with Prabowo, positioning his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming, as the vice-presidential candidate within Prabowo’s political coalition. This move poses a significant challenge to Ganjar’s standing, pitting him against both his political mentor and a potent political force. It seems plausible that Jokowi, recognizing that no one can precisely fill his leadership role, seeks to extend his influence through his son, whom he can effectively oversee.

Indonesia, in its ongoing pursuit of economic development and democratization, appears to lean towards an authoritarian trajectory (Power, 2018) following two decades of democratization since the 1998 political reform. Within this landscape, Jokowi’s inner circle comprises bureaucrats who echo the political ethos of the New Order era. This group notably includes Prabowo, serving as the Minister of Defense, and Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, holding the position of Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment Affairs in Indonesia. Their influence transcends their designated roles due to their adeptness in driving strategic state development. Trained and accustomed to Suharto’s militaristic approach, characterized by precision and effectiveness albeit often entailing human rights violations, they now wield considerable power.

This authoritarian inclination gains momentum amidst the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak and concurrent challenges stemming from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, triggering crises in food and energy. A recent illustration is the displacement of indigenous people from their customary lands in Rempang, Batam Island. This displacement aims to pave the way for the ambitious transformation of the region into Indonesia’s Eco-City, a venture seeking significant foreign investment from the Chinese corporation Xinyi Glass Holdings.

In his role as a symbol of popular sovereignty, Jokowi endeavours to persuade his cabinet that any developmental initiatives under his leadership should not undermine democratic progress. Their objective is to ensure the sustenance of formal democracy throughout the stipulated five-year periods between general elections. This perspective contrasts with criticisms asserting that Jokowi is eroding democratic principles (Mujani & Liddle, 2021; Lindsey and Butt, 2023). Consequently, the fate of substantive democracy in the nation remains uncertain.

The intricate web of relationships among political leaders, business figures, parties, and various influential actors significantly shapes the practical dynamics of politics, thereby shaping the gradual evolution of substantive democracy. However, prevalent manoeuvres seem to exhibit a recurring pattern that weakens democratic structures. Collaborations among political entities, leaders, and business elites often lead to multifaceted political manipulations (Bachtiar, 2020). Notably, the diminishing authority of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and its apparent tolerance toward corruption, particularly in strategic party projects, signify regressive steps detrimental to democracy.

A recent, contentious incident spotlighting the country’s political landscape involves Jokowi’s facilitation of his son, Gibran, assuming the position of Prabowo’s vice-presidential candidate. This manoeuvre involved leveraging legal and political channels excessively, evident in the Constitutional Court’s proceedings (Baker, 2023). Through his brother-in-law, Chief Justice Anwar Usman, Jokowi influenced legal amendments to ease the eligibility criteria for his son to run for office before turning 40.

Ganjar’s challenge extends beyond contending with Jokowi’s political influence. Amidst the stakes involving economic development, political stability, and the precarious state of substantive democracy, Ganjar confronts the remnants of post-Reformasi political manoeuvring, notably Islamist populism, which, while recently receding, still poses a significant challenge. Anies and Prabowo, figures supported by Islamist populist forces in the 2017 gubernatorial and 2019 presidential elections respectively (Barton et al., 2021a; Barton et al., 2021b), exemplify this trend. While Prabowo acquiesced to becoming Minister of Defense in Jokowi’s cabinet, Anies, having risen to Governor of Jakarta by defeating Ahok, remains in opposition.

This article aims to explore Ganjar’s approach to combating Islamist populism, particularly when certain political entities employ identity politics as a tool in their contestations. Examining Ganjar’s stance in this context will elucidate whether he indeed embodies the ideal figure capable of upholding a vibrant democracy and whether he exhibits the empathy necessary to drive substantive changes within the landscape of Indonesian democratization.

Who is Ganjar Pranowo?

On October 28, 1968, Ganjar Pranowo was born in Karanganyar, Central Java, Indonesia. He studied law at Gajah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. This is the same campus that Jokowi and Anies graduated from. He subsequently completed postgraduate studies at the University of Indonesia. He had been a student activist since 1992. Three years later he was a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) during the New Order era. In the party, he was a loyalist of Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of the country’s founding father, Soekarno. Ganjar joined the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in early 2003, before running for parliament in the 2004 legislative elections, but he lost. However, after his rival (the winning candidate) was appointed Ambassador, Ganjar was also appointed to sit on the DPR RI Commission IV.

It was his tenacity and courage to speak out that made his political reputation grow. From 2009 to 2014, he had been entrusted with the position of Vice-President of Commission II in charge of internal affairs. He was experienced in serving on the Commission of Inquiry investigating the Century Bank case, Indonesia’s largest unresolved corruption case. In September 2012, with the support of the Central Java PDI-P Regional Leadership Council, he decided to run against the incumbent deputy governor, Rustriningsih, in the Central Java gubernatorial election. Ganjar Pranowo-Heru Sudjatmoko was officially sworn in as Governor and Deputy Governor of Central Java for the period 2013-2018 on August 23, 2013. After being inaugurated, he promised to execute the “Agenda 18” program, a kind of regional development blueprint that is considered progressive and pro-people. 

Ganjar is known as a populist figure, a subject of political performance and ideology. Populism, in this context, is the simplest form of populism that is in favor of the interests of the people. In fact, he also portrays himself as a technocrat who cares about people’s everyday lives. This is the same image that his predecessor Jokowi has built up. In his official speech as governor of Central Java, he said, “…we must serve the people well, not betray them. And why this infrastructure development is so important because it is one of the main requirements to revive the people’s economy” (Pranowo, 2022). Ganjar can therefore be called populist, at least performatively and ideologically.

Ganjar’s Chance in 2024 Presidential Election

As governor of Central Java, he has a reputation for being a good leader, popular and close to the people. He is working to imitate Jokowi. He often makes impromptu visits (blusukan) or goes down to the grassroots to see and talk directly with ordinary people. Through this unique way, he evaluates whether his programs in government are working well or not. He also ensures that his policies benefit people’s lives. This made him a well-known figure and built his image as a leader close to the people. In addition, all his activities are always publicized through various social media, especially X/Twitter (@ganjarpranowo), Instagram (ganjar_pranowo) and YouTube (@GanjarPranowoOfficial). Taking advantage of his popularity, he has become one of the leading candidates who will take part in the presidential elections of 2024.

Prabowo Subianto gives a speech about the vision and mission of the 2019 Indonesian presidential candidate in front of a crowd of supporters on the campaign in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on April 8, 2019. Photo: Aidil Akbar.

As a candidate, Ganjar Pranowo faces competition from Anies Baswedan and Prabowo Subianto. Anies, a professor at the University of Paramadina, holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University, USA. Although not affiliated with any political party, he has been declared as the presidential candidate of the Nasdem party and enjoys support from Islamist populist groups. Prabowo, on the other hand, is the former military commander of the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) and was once the son-in-law of Indonesia’s powerful figure, Suharto. Since being involved in various significant special operations, Prabowo has faced accusations of human rights violations, which has been a contentious issue for his party during election seasons. A co-founder of the Gerindra party, Prabowo has been a prominent political figure who contested against Jokowi in the 2014 and 2019 elections. Anies was part of Jokowi’s cabinet in 2014 but later underwent reshuffling. In contrast, Ganjar is perceived to share similarities with Jokowi, a sentiment reinforced when Jokowi expressed a preference for a presidential candidate with white hair and a wrinkled forehead, a description that notably aligns with Ganjar’s characteristics.

According to the Indikator Survey (October 2023), Ganjar Pranowo holds a significant lead in electability with 29.5%. He surpasses other candidates, including Anies Baswedan (22.8%), Prabowo (19.5%), Ridwan Kamil (5.7%), Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (1.9%), Erick Thohir (1.4%), Puan Maharani (1.3%), Khofifah Indar Parawansa (1.1%), Hari Tanoesoedibjo (1.0%), and Sandiaga Uno (0.8%). Even when compared to the prominent leader of Islamist populism, Habib Rizieq Shihab, Ganjar’s electability remains the highest (Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting, 2020). This dominance in popularity may be attributed to several factors, including his identity as a Muslim and Javanese, as well as his avoidance of identity politics that instrumentalize Islam in practical political contests. Ganjar positions himself as a pro-diversity figure, aligning with Indonesia’s multicultural nature.

Furthermore, Ganjar’s standing within the PDIP, the victorious party in the 2019 elections, is firmly established. He enjoys support not only from Megawati, the influential figure in control of the party but also from her daughter, Puan Maharani, who was initially his competitor within the party. While Puan was groomed to succeed Megawati and was expected to run in the 2024 elections, her extensive political experience did not translate into public electability. Despite holding key positions, such as Chairperson of the PDIP faction in the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat/DPR) from 2012-2014, Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture of Indonesia from 2014-2019, and Speaker of the DPR from 2019-2021, Puan was not retained as a candidate for the 2024 elections. Puan’s internally strong but nationally weak position put her at odds with Ganjar. Hence the emergence of a symbolic polemic depicting a bull (banteng) against a wild boar (celeng), successively thought to represent Puan and later Ganjar.

Ganjar is known for his resilience and sagacity in confronting challenging decisions, although some perceive him as stubborn. However, he would certainly not contemplate attacking his own mother, let alone a larger animal like a bull. When questioned by a student about whether, as President, he would be a party cadre and officer (petugas partai) or a leader for all the people, he diplomatically responded, “When I led Central Java for ten years, did I prioritize only my party?” (Televisi UI, 2023). He aimed to convey that, as a party cadre, his role is to serve the people. On his official website, he states, “I’m ruled by the people, the Governor is just a mandate” (https://www.ganjarpranowo.com/).

Although considered the most fitting successor to Jokowi, Ganjar faced a practical challenge as Jokowi’s political moves diverged from PDIP. Without formally leaving PDIP, Jokowi nominated his son, Gibran Rakabuming, the mayor of Solo, as the vice-presidential candidate alongside Prabowo Subianto. Gibran is a PDIP cadre and won local elections on the party’s ticket, but his candidacy at the age of 35 is viewed as premature. Public perception suggests Jokowi’s involvement in dynastic politics, potentially impeding substantive democratization. This presents a significant obstacle to victory. On the other hand, Ganjar’s vice-presidential candidate is Mahfud MD, the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs (Menkopolhukam). Known for his outspoken stance against corruption, especially among high-ranking officials, Mahfud shares Ganjar’s clean bureaucratic record and pro-pluralism stance, enhancing their chances in the race.

With his traditionally pro-people populist positions, a clean track record, experience as a technocrat, strong anti-corruption stance, and pro-diversity credentials, Ganjar was expected to appeal to a broad voter base, including moderates and individuals of various religious backgrounds. He still stands a chance to emerge victorious, but the outcome remains uncertain. The Prabowo camp, currently supported by Jokowi, poses a formidable force that the PDIP cannot underestimate. However, Ganjar has capitalized on public dissatisfaction with Jokowi’s perceived involvement in ‘dynastic politics.’ Additionally, Jokowi, once seen as a pro-democracy figure, is now viewed by some as an executioner of democracy itself. If Ganjar secures victory, the question arises: will he follow in Jokowi’s footsteps in handling populist Islamic groups?

Ganjar and Identity Politics 

Identity Politics is a political strategy that employs specific identities to gain a political advantage. Typically, this involves appealing to the masses, particularly the majority, to secure their votes, as large population segments are often considered favorable voting blocs in formal representative electoral politics. However, this approach is not without challenges, particularly in the context of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, characterized by thousands of ethnic groups, languages, and notable ethnic diversity. How does Ganjar navigate the complex landscape of identity politics in Indonesia, given its unique demographic and cultural context?

As the presumed successor to Jokowi, Ganjar embodies the charisma of a nationalist champion of the people. He possesses the essential qualities associated with the presidency: a Javanese figure connected to the populace, a tendency to avoid controversial statements, loyalty to the decisions of the prevailing political party, and a consistent reluctance to challenge the established power structure, even during instances when the ruling government had to counter opposition that often employed majority identity politics, such as Islam, as a political tool. Embracing the Pancasila ideology, Ganjar frequently emphasizes the need to protect and preserve diversity, considering it a crucial aspect that should be shielded from any form of degradation or destruction by any group. Despite being pro-government and pro-people simultaneously, he supports various democratic mechanisms, including demonstrations. However, he disagrees with protests and popular movements that employ the term “people power,” finding it discriminatory, intolerant, and undermining the values of unity in diversity.

In some respects, it is evident that Ganjar engages in identity politics, leveraging his Javanese, Muslim background to present himself as a nationalist Pancasilaist closely connected to the people. Simultaneously, he strategically criticizes those who exploit Islam as a tool in a confrontational, intolerant, and violently negating manner for realpolitik purposes. Ganjar takes a firm stance against groups like Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Defenders Front of Islam (FPI), considering them ideological opponents of Pancasila, which promotes coexistence in a diverse society encompassing various elements such as ethnicity, religion, race, and class. His opposition intensified after the official government ban on HTI and FPI, with Ganjar, in his capacity as governor, issuing explicit instructions to civil servants not to associate with banned organizations. He vowed to dismiss any civil servant found violating his populist policies in this regard (Pranowo 2021b).

In this way, Ganjar positions himself as pro-government (establishment), pro-Pancasila, and pro-people. This is how he presents himself performatively. Notably, he also critiques Anies and Prabowo, his two main competitors, who, in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2016 and the presidential election in 2019, capitalized on the power of Islamist populism. As the well-known Nusantara saying goes, “once you have rowed, you have passed two or three islands (sekali mendayung, dua tiga pulau terlampaui).”

Ganjar and Islamist Populism

DKI Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan with residents of Kampung Akuarium in Jakarta, Indonesia on April 14 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

Practical political contestation has exacerbated the polarization of Indonesian society, with identity politics playing a pivotal role in this process. On one side, there are nationalists who lean towards pluralism, while on the other, there are Islamists. This polarization is a direct consequence of the 2019 presidential election, where Jokowi faced Prabowo. Prabowo garnered support from the populist Islamist movement, although this alliance soured when the movement deemed Prabowo a ‘traitor’ for accepting a ministerial position in Jokowi’s government. Consequently, the populist Islamist group is now throwing its support behind Anies for the 2024 presidential elections. This coalition aligns with a popular political narrative aimed at challenging elites perceived as incapable of representing the collective will of the people and others deemed threatening to populist interests.

Indeed, there is no ‘stable and fixed’ theoretical concept of populism (Muhtadi, 2019). It is inherently contextual and dynamic, adapting to the prevailing circumstances. Generally, following Cas Mudde’s minimal definition (2004: 543-4; 2017), populism is a set of ideas or ideologies that dichotomize society into two homogenous and antagonistic groups—the pure people versus the corrupt elite. It is rooted in the moral belief that the elite either fails to serve the general interests of the people or actively corrupts them. When manifested as an ideological movement, populism tends to disregard the rule of law, champion popular sovereignty, emphasize people power, and is often viewed as detrimental to democracy. It can manifest as a street-level force, enabling mobocracy, where the crowd determines political direction and even the interpretation of truth.

In its expression, Islamist populism in Indonesia employs a civilizational rhetoric that diametrically contrasts ‘us’ and ‘them’ using cultural and religious language (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023). Within the Indonesian context, populists employ terms such as Islam against the West and China, the ummah against oppressive rulers, or the marginalized (mustadhafin) against the oppressors (mustakbirin). A recent addition is the dichotomy of defenders of Islam against blasphemers, which emerged from Jakarta electoral politics in 2016. However, despite emphasizing the rhetoric of civilizationism, the Islamist populism that has gained prominence lacks any inherent connection with the genuine interests of the people. Notably, NU and Muhammadiyah, claiming a combined mass of 100 million people, have expressed opposition to Islamist populism, considering it a disruptive minority that tends to hijack democracy, foster social polarization, discriminate against minorities, and threaten national integration (Triono, 2023).

While Islamist populism strategically deploys religious ideology and civilizationism as political instruments to advance its populist objectives within mainstream political contestation, practical political actors leverage the populist group to secure support from their voter base. This dual instrumentalization operates on two levels. Initially, it exploits religion to stir mass emotions, foment animosity toward elites, and create a narrative of “civilizational populism,” framing resistance to populist adversaries as a religious and holy struggle (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). Subsequently, Islamist populism becomes a political tool that recognizes the social and cultural significance of religious symbols within the majority of the population.

Ganjar takes a clear stance in opposition to Islamist populism. Unlike his political rivals Anies and Prabowo, who have benefited significantly from the maneuvering of Islamist populism to increase voter percentages in previous elections, Ganjar emphasizes identity politics. He positions diversity, pluralism, and nationalism as political symbols that can strengthen the ‘Indonesianess’ of society. Consequently, he challenges rivals like Anies and Prabowo, as well as Islamist populist actors such as HTI and FPI. Ganjar’s explicit warning to government officials in Central Java, under his jurisdiction, prohibiting their involvement in the activities of banned organizations (HTI and FPI), serves as evidence of his stance against Islamist populism.

The effectiveness of Ganjar’s confrontation, whether on an ideological or instrumental level, remains somewhat ambiguous. If his confrontation operates on an ideological level, it is rooted in his status as a cadre of the PDIP, the ideological successor of Soekarno’s nationalism. In this capacity, he positions himself as a defender of Pancasila, promoting ideas of pluralism, tolerance, inclusiveness, and human rights. Alternatively, if his confrontation in the instrumental level, it is because his appearance should be an Indonesian instead of Javanese Muslim. This strategic shift is essential due to the diverse composition of his voters, representing the varied demographics of Indonesia. Furthermore, Ganjar must craft his political narrative as the successor to the ‘Javanese King’ Jokowi, a figure whose actions, according to political scientists, have played a significant role in steering Indonesia toward authoritarianism through the political banning of HTI and FPI (Power, 2019).

Thus far, Ganjar has played the role of Jokowi’s mouthpiece, navigating important policy decisions in the political arena, even though this poses a dilemma as Jokowi is in disagreement with Megawati and the PDIP. Ganjar is the attacking pawn in the game of political chess that is ready to fight for the elimination of the agents of Islamist populism. However, in this game where he has not succumbed to the adversary, he also has the opportunity to ascend to the position of Crown Prince. Ultimately, he emerges as the frontrunner to succeed the king, especially as Jokowi hesitates to extend his term beyond the constitutional maximum of two terms. Meanwhile, Jokowi’s nomination of his son, Gibran, as Prabowo’s running mate is both a strength and a political experiment, but it also presents a vulnerability by fueling discourse around dynastic politics and authoritarianism, which has faced public criticism (Muhtadi & Muslim, 2023). This weakness in Jokowi’s strategy clearly works to Ganjar’s advantage.

If Ganjar genuinely takes on the challenge of eradicating Islamist populism – which, in the Indonesian context, presents an opportunity for elites to pursue democratization – on both ideological and practical-instrumental levels, he positions himself in the middle ground between the flawed elite and the oppressed people. He can be a successor to Jokowi and a committed member of the victorious party, making it easier to garner voter support, while also serving as a political force that counters Islamist populism. Simultaneously, he can align with the suffering populace by steadfastly upholding diversity and facilitating communication with the ruling elite, ensuring that the people’s aspirations are better understood. This approach may pave the way for new policies that prioritize the interests of the people.

On the flip side, Islamist populist entities can also function on two simultaneous levels: ideological and practical politics. Ideologically, Islamists aim to influence the electoral agenda and advocate for the implementation of Sharia, while instrumentally, their elites have historically been employed by previous rulers (such as Soeharto) to obstruct civil society’s efforts to compel the government to address the economic crisis of the late 1990s. Regardless of the level, Ganjar persists in countering them, driven by his robust ideological and nationalist convictions, as well as the pursuit of victory in the 2024 presidential election.

Ganjar Pranowo, the governor of Central Java, is visiting Purwokerto, Indonesia on August 20, 2022. Photo: Ainul Ghurri.

Conclusion

Ganjar’s prospects in the political arena are not without challenges, despite his viable chance of winning. Prabowo, supported by Jokowi, holds significant influence, even among Megawati and her dedicated supporters. In a hypothetical two-round election scenario where Anies loses in the initial round, it is anticipated that Anies’ voters would likely shift their support to Prabowo rather than Ganjar. This shift signifies that endorsing Anies aligns with supporting Islamist populism and other conservative Muslim factions. With only two choices—Prabowo and Ganjar—voters tend to lean towards Prabowo due to his previous candidacy in 2019, despite subsequent characterizations as a traitor and his current support by Jokowi. Ganjar’s candidacy does not align with the original intentions of Islamist populism, leaving the alternative for them to abstain from voting altogether.

Ganjar staunchly advocates for diversity, positioning himself as an anti-Islamist populist figure. In contrast to Islamist populism’s labeling of figures using derogatory terms, Ganjar consistently emphasizes the symbol of Pancasila and the motto of ‘unity in diversity’ to unite the nation and voters. He emerges as a significant advocate for democratization, emphasizing inclusivity in politics, religion, and fostering social tolerance.

While Ganjar may rhetorically support substantive democratization, his ability to maintain a vibrant democracy hinges on navigating the complexities of economic development, largely influenced by New Order cadres, ensuring political stability, and upholding national security. However, these complexities do not necessarily guarantee the concurrent advancement of substantive democracy.

The fragile democratic landscape in Indonesia is susceptible to conservative and authoritarian shifts, both signaling democratic regression. Though less superficial than in previous years, the highly polarized role of identity politics poses challenges to substantive democratization. Yet, persistent issues like oligarchic competition, weakened anti-corruption institutions, and eroding judicial roles remain significant hurdles.

The current political scenario underscores the difficulties in making informed political choices during elections, primarily due to the diverse interests among the three candidates—Anies, Prabowo, and Ganjar. This underscores Indonesia’s elite-centric political landscape, limiting substantial participation from the populace. The opaque and unpredictable nature of practical politics in the country constrains the organic development of democracy rooted in the demos. The evolving situation emphasizes the vital importance of substantial democratic progress. Ganjar’s capacity as a democracy-builder aligning with the people’s aspirations will ultimately stand the test of time.


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