EvianeLeidig

From Extreme Right to Populist Wave: Dynamics of the Far Right in India

Dr. Eviane Leidig’s presentation situates the rise and success of the far right in India through the lens of Hindu nationalism. It provides a historical overview of the ideology and types of organisations within this far right landscape, focusing in particular on the global aspects of what is commonly portrayed to be an isolated local phenomenon. This talk then turns to the contemporary dynamics of the Indian far right through the ascent of Narendra Modi, widely viewed to be a populist, charismatic leader who will usher in India’s revival and golden age. The presentation sheds light on the far right as both global and transnationally connected through a case study of India, while also proposing new ways of conceptualising far right movements in postcolonial, Global South contexts.

Caricature of The Five Star Movement in carnival parade of floats and masks, made of paper-pulp in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy in January 2018.

Prof. Paul Taggart: I do not agree populists will inevitably fail

British political scientist Paul Taggart does not regard populism as a “pathology” nor as “evil” and contends that it could be even useful in terms of heralding the problems of democracy. “Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously,” says Taggart.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Prof. Paul Taggart of Sussex University does not agree that populist politics will, in the end, fail, as some of his colleagues argue. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, Taggart said populist leaders sustain their power by resorting to authoritarian mechanisms. The British political scientist does not regard populism as a “pathology” nor as “evil” and contends that it could be even useful in terms of heralding the problems of democracy. “Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously,” he says.

Stressing that there has been no significant surge in the number of populist leaders around the world, Taggart says populism should be assessed in perspective. He underlines that there is no magic formula to fight populism as populists in power do not all behave the same way. According to Taggart, once in power, populists can pursue several distinct strategies—either moderating their populism, reshaping political institutions to suit their populism, or behaving like an opposition in power. Given there is no single model, Taggart says the response to populist leaders should be tailor-made.

The following excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

You argue that you do not regard populism as a “disease” or a “pathology” nor as “evil.” How have you come to this conclusion?

This is an assumption and not a conclusion. I think we need to consider populism as objectively as we can. The fact that it is “thin-centered” and fuses with other ideologies means that we need to be careful about generalizing about it without considering whether we are focusing on populism or on the ideas that it attaches to.

You use the term “democratic corrective” in relation to populism. Does this mean populism is useful to a certain extent?

Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously. That does not mean to say that we should uncritically accept whatever populists say. But it also means that we should not automatically dismiss populist critiques of democracy. Instead, we need to be alive to the possibility that populism may be correct to assert that politics is not working well.

You also argue that populism is becoming one of the main challenges to the liberal-democratic regime. Is there a contradiction between this argument and populism being a “democratic corrective”?

Liberal democracy has two elements. On the one hand, it embraces the idea of popular sovereignty, and this means representation and majority rule. But it also stresses the importance of process, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities, and of core rights. There is often, in liberal democracy, a tension between these two aspects. Populism is a challenge to liberal democracy in that it focuses on the first aspect of liberal democracy—popular sovereignty and representation—at the expense of the liberal aspect. Populism rarely talks in terms of rights or minorities. You need both for liberal democracy. Suppose popular sovereignty—and the representative connection—is weak. In that case, populism might be useful to call for that link to be strengthened, and so it can potentially be a corrective for democracy. But if this is at the expense of rights, the rule of law, and minorities, this will undermine liberal democracy.

Is there a magic formula to deal with or contain populist parties once they are in power?

No, there is no magic formula if you want to combat populism in power. Populists in power do not all behave the same way. They tend to pursue one of three strategies —moderating their populism, reshaping political institutions to suit their populism, or behaving like an opposition in power. These different approaches to power mean that any response needs to be tailored to whatever approach is being used.

It seems the EU is not very successful in dealing with populists when they are in power. What is Brussels problem?

I am not sure it is the EU’s role to deal with populism. The rise of populism in many European states says as much about those states as it does about the EU itself.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a flurry of articles predicting that liberal democracy had won and would spread worldwide. Yet we see a surge of populism and populist parties. What went wrong? Why are illiberal democracies gaining ground, in particular in Central Europe?

It was wrong to say that liberal democracy had “won.” Politics is not a sports game in which a result is clear—it is an ongoing process and to expect a clear “score” is naïve. We are seeing a lot of populism around at the moment. But we are also seeing a lot of other forms of politics. Populism is spectacular, which means that it commands attention and that some people tend to over-generalize it.

Looking at the massive surge of populist leaders worldwide, shall we start talking about “the end of liberal democracy” and the “dawning of illiberal ones”?

There is no massive surge of populist leaders. There are a few around the world, but most leaders are not populist. We need to consider populism in perspective.

Populists usually and inevitably fail because they do not know how to govern. However, some populist leaders like Erdogan, Orban, and Putin have kept the power for a long time. How can their extended stay in power be explained?

I don’t agree that populists inevitably fail. Some populists sustain themselves in power by resorting to authoritarian means.

Are there any tested successful ways to fight against populist leaders and populist movements? Will they keep gaining ground?

If you want to fight populism, then there is no magic formula. The one thing that does not seem to work is to pretend it does not exist or completely shun it from political life as this only feeds the idea that populism represents the excluded. Historically, populism has usually had a limited shelf-life. It has not built lasting political families as other ideologies have done. I suspect that it will fade—but that it will also re-emerge later.

Who is Paul Taggart?

Paul Taggart is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex. He has previously served as the Director of the Sussex European Institute, Head of the Department of Politics, and Deputy Head of the School for Law, Politics, and Sociology at Sussex. He has acted as an external examiner for Strathclyde University, Birkbeck College, Aston University, the University of Bath, and Goldsmiths College, London. His focus is on comparative politics, and his research focused primarily on populism and on Euroscepticism, and more broadly on the domestic politics of European integration. He has published six books and numerous articles in these areas.

Professor Taggart is also a former editor of the journal Government and Opposition and is now chairs the journal’s Board of Directors. He is the former editor of the journal Politics and co-Convenor (with Prof. Aleks Szczerbiak) of the European Referendums, Elections and Parties Network (EPERN). He has been a visiting scholar at the University of Gothenburg and the University of Sarajevo, a visiting scholar at the Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University, and a visiting professor at King’s College London. Taggart is a regular commentator on British, European, and US politics for BBC local radio.

Paul Lendvai.

Paul Lendvai: Orbán’s Hungary is a “Führer Democracy”

Viktor Orbán has built an extraordinarily centralized strongman regime, which can be described as “Führer Democracy.” Nowadays, Paul Lendvai argues, even the term “Führer Democracy” is no longer valid for Hungary, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. Soon, all that will be left is “Führer.”

Interview by Alparslan Akkus

In 1989, a 26-year-old law student addressed a protest in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. In his speech, the young Viktor Orbán called for an end to the communist dictatorship, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, and the holding of free elections. Later on, Orbán attended Oxford on a scholarship funded by George Soros, and after turning back to Hungary, he founded the political party FIDESZ or the Alliance of Young Democrats. He was hailed as the future of a new Hungary.

Today, Orbán is Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the European Union. He obsessively attacks George Soros as an enemy of the people and considers China and Turkey as role models. In our interview with Paul Lendvai— a Hungarian-born Austrian journalist who has written extensively on Central and Eastern Europe for more than 60 years—we discussed how Orbán turned into one of the most successful populist autocrats of our times.

Lendvai’s latest book Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman (2018, Hurst and Princeton University Press), has been published in English, German, Hungarian, Slovene, and Polish (and later this year in Croatian). It portrays Hungary as an authoritarian system under the rule of Orbán. Exploring the deterioration of the country’s rule of law, the end of the separation of powers, and mass clientelism, Lendvai succeeds in tracing Hungary’s rapid slide toward authoritarianism in his excellent book.

The following excerpts from our interview with Paul Lendvai have been lightly edited for brevity and length.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gives a speech to convince his respondents in Szeged on March 4, 2014.

The term “populist” carries negative connotations in current political culture. However, this may not sound valid for a ruthless authoritarian leader who is often referred to as the “Viktator.” Do you think being defined as a “populist” just serves to shadow Viktor Orbán’s more negative features?

Every politician can be called populist, but basically the question is whether it’s claiming to represent people without really paying attention to the issues and does everything to get or remain in power. There is no question that, in this sense, Orbán is a populist. In the early 1990s, he changed his political line because he realized that he could not get elected with his earlier ideals. He left the center-left position and moved then to center-right, then more and more right, and that is how he seized power in 1998. Then, he lost power in 2002, and following that, he showed his ability as a politician by getting re-elected after eight years in 2010. He is often described as right conservative in the international media. But actually, he is a right-wing populist nationalist. Regardless of the adjectives, his only ideology is to use every means to remain in power.

Do you think Orbán inherited much of his ruthlessness and vengefulness from his father, who is a product of “goulash communism” under Janos Kadar? And if we can speak of a sort of Kadarism creating a populist leader like Orbán, what should we expect for the future generations raised under Orbánism?

As a matter of fact, Orbán was a very rebellious person, and it is something of a personal contradiction that someone who was such a rebel could turn into a kind of authoritarian strongman in politics. He rebelled at school and in the army. And he also rebelled against his father, who was a typical product of Kadarism. His father, Gyözö Orbán, was not only a party member, but he was also allowed to go to Libya as an expert. He is now 81 and has become extremely rich. Orbán has luxurious private residences—one is a little bit like Putin’s palace, although not that huge—but it’s all under the name of his father and his son-in-law. His two brothers are also in business.

But turning back to your question, in terms of education and upbringing, Orbán’s father was very ruthless, beating Viktor up even at the age of 16. Perhaps we need a psychological study to fully understand how he became the person he is today.

Very Skillful Politician and A Very Cynical Person

As you note in your book, today, the country’s president, the speaker of parliament, and the author of Hungary’s 2012 constitution all happen to be Orbán’s friends from Bibo College days—indeed, from the very start of FIDESZ, the Alliance of Young Democrats that Orbán and his friends set up in 1988. How do you emphasize the characteristics of this political brotherhood?

It is something exceedingly rare to see this kind of fraternity in the top leadership of a European country. They were a group of young people who were very committed to their ideals. They started their movement in 1988, and, in effect, the critical party positions have been retained by these 20–25 people or their relatives. It is not only the speaker of the parliament or the president but also many other positions. For instance, the chief justice is the wife of a former European MP who wrote the new constitution. She has now become a member of the Supreme Court for ten years. Following his second electoral victory in 2014, Orbán wanted full power over his party, his government, and the country. Therefore, he broke with his close collaborator, Lajos Simicska, the man who had built up the entire business empire of FIDESZ.

Another feature of Orbán is that he gets rid of people who can be potentially dangerous but never kicks them totally out. For instance, the present president [János Áder] was allegedly planning a plot against Orbán in 2006. He was then “exiled” to Brussels when he was elected as a European MP. When the FIDESZ government had the chance to nominate the president in 2010, he was passed over. Only later did Orbán call him back, and he was given a second chance. In 2017, he was re-elected for another five-year term as president. So, Orbán is very clever in the way he deals with potential adversaries. He has complete control over this tightly knit group, making him the most powerful politician in the European Union (EU).

To what extent Orbán’s “plebeian” roots played a role in transforming once liberal, anti-clerical, and anti-nationalist FIDESZ into an illiberal, clerical, and nationalist–populist party? And how do you assess FIDESZ’s policies toward minorities, especially the Roma people, its antisemitism, particularly against Soros, and its Islamophobia?

Orbán is a very skillful politician and basically a very cynical person. Take the Roma issue as an example. In 2011, when Hungary took over the rotating chairmanship of the EU for six months, Hungary promised to do many things for the Roma people (officially numbering 300,000 in Hungary; in reality, probably over 700,000). In practice, they did nothing. They just appointed a figurehead under their control; he was a profoundly corrupt figure. So, it was very cleverly handled without really doing anything essential.

We can see a similar move by Orbán with respect to the 100,000 strong Jewish community. As to antisemitism, no one has ever heard Orbán utter an anti-Jewish statement or remark in public. The point is not whether he personally is antisemitic or not. What really matters is what his politics are. He rewrote Hungarian history in an entirely new constitution, which the youngsters learn at school from the very beginning. It’s all about whitewashing Hungarian history in contrast to Germany or, to some extent Austria for the last 20 years.

Orbán is also deft at splitting the Jewish community or splitting the political opposition. Orbán is on good terms with a Jewish Hasidic Rabbi, who represents perhaps five or eight percent of the Jewish community in Hungary but has many wealthy supporters in the US. And he has excellent relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. So, if anyone attacks Hungary about antisemitism, then this Rabbi objects to that.

On the other hand, Orbán conducted an antisemitic campaign against the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros, who had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Eastern Europe and Hungary. Still, no one can attack Orbán as an antisemitic; Netanyahu and his Hassidic friends would reject these claims.

Controlling Media and Judiciary Is the First Step Toward Authoritarianism

Drawing necessary lessons from his defeat eight years earlier, Orbán made two bold moves after his triumphant re-election in 2010. First, he took away most of the Constitutional Court’s power, and second, he took over the public and most of the private media. Which one do you see more critical-controlling the judiciary or the media? And do you think that controlling major checks on power is a first step on the way to authoritarianism?

I think they’re both extremely important. The judiciary was the basic steppingstone since they can approve everything [a government does] in contrast to Poland. For instance, the Hungarian centralization of power has always been seen as above board because the Constitutional Court approved most of the measures. FIDESZ started by appointing new judges and bringing the court gradually under their control. It took a certain amount of time, but there is no question that the Constitutional Court of Hungary is no longer a balancing to the executive.

As for the media, the move against the free press and the setting up of his own media, by chance, coincided with Hungary taking over the rotating chairmanship of the EU in 2011. Already after a year in office, it was quite clear internationally that Hungary’s public television and radio had come under government control and the other media outlets were under pressure. In the last years, the media has been subject to near-total pressure by the government. Some 80 percent of the news today is supplied either by government media outlets or by media companies controlled by oligarchs who are very close to Orbán or FIDESZ personally.

Both of these checks are especially important in a democracy and are connected. After all, an independent judiciary is a guarantee of the freedom of the press, and the free press is the guarantee of an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, both of them are under government control in Hungary today. Now the entire justice system will be totally taken over. And, of course, controlling these sectors is the first step toward authoritarianism.

Anti Immigration poster from Viktor Orban government in the streets of Budapest during the 2018 general elections campaign.

Thinking of Orbán’s building a fence on the border with Serbia to keep out refugees and representing himself as the last protector of Europe, how do you assess the relationship between FIDESZ and the EU? Hard- or soft-Eurosceptic or Europhobic? Could you detail how FIDESZ has turned its anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies into an advantage in its relations with the EU?

These are two different but interconnected questions. Number one is the refugee issue, which was used by Orbán to consolidate his power and was unfortunately met with a high degree of approval by the Hungarian public. As a result of the hate campaigns by the government-controlled media, building a fence on the border and the entire anti-refugee policy was approved. But the situation has also changed in Germany and other EU countries.

And the other point of your question is about the EU’s approach toward Hungary. Ever since 2011, Hungary has been a target in numerous resolutions. But, FIDESZ remained a member of the European People’s Party, the EPP, for almost a decade. It was only in March this year that Orbán has recalled his 11 MPs from the EPP.

But it is a different matter regarding Hungary’s membership as a state in the EU. Once you are a member of the EU, it is tough to discipline a country defying the European principles of human rights and equality. Thus, over the next five or seven years, Hungary is in line to receive a minimum of €18 billion in transfers from the EU budget, plus €7 billion from the COVID-19 reconstruction fund.

Orbán Built Up A Kleptocracy For His Friends And His Family

How do you think corruption and kleptocracy paved the way for Orbán’s Hungary to emerge as a mafia state?

There is a significant difference between other countries and Hungary. For instance, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was elected prime minister four times. But he had become very rich before he seized the top position. In the case of Hungary, Orbán was a politician who first occupied the top political position and only afterward built up a kleptocracy for his friends and his family. There is the famous case of Lörinc Mészáros, a gas fitter in a small village. Mészáros went to the same elementary school as Orbán. And they met again in this small village of 1,800 people, and he became a close friend of Orbán. Then he became mayor of this little town and then the chairman of the local soccer club. He was running a small firm on the edge of bankruptcy. Today, he is the second richest man in Hungary, with assets of €1 billion across 200 different companies. This man has been accused in parliament by the opposition of being a crony of Prime Minister Orbán. Orbán’s spokesman says that the prime minister has nothing to do with business affairs.

Officially Orbán’s assets are tiny—half of a small flat with his wife in Budapest. Actually, it all works differently. For instance, one of his daughters is married to a young entrepreneur. Suddenly, this man, at the age of 32, became the 33rdrichest person in Hungary. So, this is all done in a very clever way. The people don’t get worked up by abstract overall figures. Several studies on the mafia state in Hungary conclude that were there a real change of government system through free elections and the imposition of a functioning system of rule of law, the group of people at the top would end up behind bars.

Orbán’s cabinet contains quite a few women. Yet he is on record saying he considers women to be insufficiently tough or cut out for politics. How do you see the relationship between populism and gender issues?

Until 2018, there was no woman in his cabinet at all. Proportionately, Hungary has the least number of women MPs in Europe. For instance, there are more women even in the Albanian parliament than in Hungary. In 2018, Orbán appointed two attractive young women; one as Minister of Justice and one as Minister for Women’s Affairs. They speak very good English. So, they can sell the government policies much better than their predecessors. But it doesn’t change the fact that the country has very strict anti-lesbian and anti-homosexual laws, prohibiting same-sex marriages or same-sex couples adopting or fostering children, etc. It is a much more restrictive and conservative society in this sense compared to Western Europe, and gender issues so far have not triggered massive protests.

From Left: Hungary PM Viktor Orban, Poland PM Beata Szydlo, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakia PM Robert Fico pose prior their meeting in Prague on February 15, 2016.

As a journalist who spent several decades reporting on Central Europe for the Die Presse and the Financial Times, do you think Orbán would export his regime to Visegrad Four (V4)?

Yes, definitely. He uses this Visegrad Four group for this purpose. The four countries—Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—emerged in 1990 mainly as a symbolic group. It became only in 2015 under Orbán’s leadership a kind of protest alliance against the influx of refugees. The turning point was the election of the right-wing PiS [Law and Justice Party] in Poland in 2015. There still exists a so-called Hungary–Poland axis for the moment. But there is one major difference between Hungary and Poland in terms of their relations with Russia. Despite the close collaboration between Budapest and Warsaw, one must not forget that the Poles are very suspicious of Russia and vehemently opposed to the Russian interference in the Ukraine. Whereas Orbán has met Putin at least nine times bilaterally in the last eleven years, and they have excellent relations. The network of corruption also connects the two regimes in Hungary and Russia. 

And a newcomer as an Orbán ally is Slovenia, the most developed country in Central Europe, which was the first to join the Eurozone and NATO. It has been run for a year now by Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who in 1990 was a courageous anti-communist but has now become an extremely right-wing and corrupt politician, and above all, a very close friend of Orbán.

Biden Administration Knows What Is Going On In Hungary

The Hungarian leader seeks to be a European figure. Orbán was the first European leader to congratulate Donald Trump after his election victory in 2016, and the US didn’t raise any objection to Orbán during the Trump era. The honeymoon is now over because the new administration has a totally different policy toward Hungary. The new Secretary of State [Anthony Blinken] has close ties with Hungary; his mother is Hungarian, his father served as the US ambassador to Hungary between 1994 and 1998. So, this administration knows what is going on in Hungary.

You settle on the term “Führer Democracy” to emphasize the extraordinary centralization of power in Orbán’s hands. Can you please clarify how we should understand the term “Führer Democracy”?

The term “Führer Democracy” was not invented by me but by the moderate Hungarian political scientist Andras Körösenyi. And, it’s a very apt term. It means he is a führer and has a very strong position that cannot be overthrown by peaceful means like elections. As the great Austro-British political scientist Karl Popper said, democracy is based on the principle that bad rulers can be gotten rid of without bloodshed, without violence, by majority vote. But it is no longer possible in Hungary due to the change of the election system, gerrymandering, and the power positions the Orbán regime has built up.

As a matter of fact, even if there were a change of government in 2022, it doesn’t necessarily mean the system will change immediately. Every key position is in the hands of Orbán loyalists. So, the “Führer Democracy” is basically a strongman regime. It is, however, different from China, which is a führer regime but not a democracy. And, unfortunately, nowadays, this “Führer Democracy” term is no longer valid for Hungary either, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. So, in the end, only “führer” will remain. For the moment, the term seems to stick because there is the pretense of a democracy.

Orban Might Resort to Strong-arm Methods

The last chapter of your book is entitled “The End of the Regime Cannot Be Foreseen.” With Orbán as the dominant central power against the two major opposition parties—the post-Communists and the far-right party, Jobbik, which seem unable to unite against the government—how do you predict the future of Hungary?

No regime lasts forever, but you have to take into account several things in addition to the basis of the system like the army, the secret police, the prosecutor’s office, the judiciary, the media, the Constitutional Court, the election system, and so on. In addition to this, Orbán is only 58 years old. I raised eyebrows in Hungary very recently when I said in an interview for US media that he could lead the country for 20 more years. I mean, if you look at Joe Biden, for instance, he is 78 years old.

But you can’t predict anything. Everything is possible in politics. for instance, A combination of economic and social crises could arise. Orbán has no real advisers. Like every strongman, he is also intoxicated by power. If there were to emerge a real strong opposition threatening his power in the elections, then Orbán would take off his gloves and become a naked strongman. We are not yet there, but in the last year or so, state control has been tightened in the cultural and educational fields. Traveling abroad is free, but the state of emergency resulting from the epidemic helps him consolidate the power and tighten his grip. We don’t know what the results will be of the epidemic and the economic downturn. There will be unpredictable consequences. And the EU, despite everything, might tighten the rules. In that sense, everything is possible.

But on the present assumptions, I am rather pessimistic that anything major, dramatic will happen in the foreseeable future. The lack of a real united opposition allows him, for the moment, to do whatever he likes. Actually, Orbán is a very clever political operator. Thus, he pre-empted the right extremist party, Jobbik, through his strict refugee policy, by demagogy, and by helping the most impoverished working families through public works, by cheating, and by corrupting Jobbik MPs as he did with the socialist party.

The big question is whether the opposition parties can ever combine forces. If all the opposition parties were to join forces, they could theoretically win the elections. I don’t exclude the possibility that the opposition could threaten Orbán’s power in future elections. He might then resort to strong-arm methods. For the moment, however, the opinion polls don’t show a dramatic change.

Who Is Paul Lendvai?

Paul Lendvai was born in 1929 in Budapest to Jewish parents. He worked as a journalist but was arrested and jailed in 1953 and banned from the media until the Hungarian uprising. In 1957, he sought political asylum in Austria. He was the Vienna correspondent for The Financial Times for 20 years, covering Eastern Europe. He subsequently worked as editor-in-chief of the Austrian state television, again covering Eastern Europe, and director of Radio Austria International, the shortwave broadcasting service. Lendvai is the author of 18 books published in 10 languages.

Erdogan supporters gather in Takism square after an attempted coup d’etat in Istanbul, Turkey on July 19, 2016.  Photo: John Wreford

What Went Wrong in Turkey?

Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “What Went Wrong in Turkey?” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 6, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0001

 

The volume titled Islamism, Populism, and Turkish Foreign Policy, edited by Burak Bilgehan Ozpek and Bill Park (Routledge, 2019), reveals that Islamism and populism have long united forces in Turkey to mobilize the masses from the periphery to the center to capture the state “by” the support of the people, but neither “for” nor “with” them. 

Reviewed by Mustafa Demir
 
What went wrong in Turkey? This was the question in the minds of the contributors who embarked on the intellectual journey that gave birth to Islamism, Populism, and Turkish Foreign Policy. As an observer of Turkish politics, I welcome this work, not only as a contribution to the literature but also as an effort, concordant with intellectual and scholarly responsibility, to critically contextualize and record another important shift in the life of modern Turkey, one that has been dubbed the “Islamist populist turn” in Turkish history (Yilmaz, 2021).

The book is a collection of articles first published in a special issue of Turkish Studies dealing with Islamism and populism in Turkey and its impact on Turkey’s foreign policy. It consists of six comprehensive articles in which the concepts of Islamism and populism serve as connective tissues. 

The book begins with an editorial introduction by Bill Park. He provides a concise contextual background from which the AKP has emerged as a force of democratization and discusses how “a decade and a half later” the AKP has completed its “domination of Turkey’s political life” as an authoritarian regime. Park also explains how the AKP regime masterfully mobilized the “hitherto alienated masses” and captured the secular Turkish state with their help. He highlights how the expected “consolidation of democracy” as an end product of the AKP era has been superseded by the current reality of “centralisation of power, growing authoritarianism… and a purge of all kinds of political opposition.” Park also briefly points out the shift in the country’s foreign policy from a Western-oriented emerging soft power in its region to an aggressive, revisionist actor with worsening relations with the West that reflect the country’s internal shift towards authoritarianism. Following this quick depiction of Turkey’s internal and external picture, Park presents the central question that ties all six articles together: “What went wrong [in Turkey]?” 

Burak Bilgehan Ozpek and Nebehat Tanriverdi-Yasar highlight the tension between democracy and secularism in Turkey and explain how the AKP regime has exploited this tension to craft its Islamist populist appeal against the country’s secular establishment. They also discuss how the EU membership process has been instrumentalized/weaponized and used in the marginalization of the Kemalist military and institutions and their depiction as the “internal” enemy of the “real” people of the country. Finally, the authors highlight that all attempts to destroy the Kemalist system are justified in the eyes of the “real” people of the country. 

Birol Baskan’s article is also a significant contribution that details the Islamist foreign policy perspective of the AKP. He places the worldview and policies of Turkey’s former foreign minister and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu under the microscope to lay out what an Islamist foreign policy perspective looks like. Baskan details how a “civilizationist–populism” came to be adopted in forging foreign relations and how — seen through this lens — the world can be reduced to one unified Muslim civilization versus the rest. He also rightly argues that this understanding has shaped “neo-Ottomanism” and informed Turkish foreign policy decisions during the Arab uprisings. Indeed, the author notes how artificially demarcated borders and the impact of the Arab uprisings brought forth a millennial opportunity to remedy historical “problems” to create a culturally, politically, and economically integrated region. This understanding also reflects a major departure from Kemalist foreign policy towards the region. 

Another article by Mustafa Serdar Palabiyik focuses on post-2010 Turkey. It looks at how the current regime politicizes history to create populist binaries. Here, the Kemalists and their precursors are portrayed as internal collaborators of the Western powers, “the enemy” of the “real” people in Turkey. In this narrative, Kemalists and their historical precursors are cast as the scapegoats for all the losses and defeats the Porte faced before its demise. This revised history has been crucial in the justification of current foreign policies since the regime and its elite are presented as the vanguard of an Ottoman revival. 

Mustafa A. Sezal and Ihsan Sezal’s contribution is a critical attempt to analyze the role of Islamist ideology in the AKP. This chapter explains in detail how Islamism as an ideology has empowered the AKP ruling elite and provided them with “efficient” tools to alienate the Kemalist establishment, coding them as a foreign element and presenting them as an enemy of and threat to the “real” people of the country. This chapter argues that Islamism has been the central dynamic shaping the AKP’s worldview from the outset. The authors contend that Islamism has been the core principle of the AKP and has been applied to both its internal and external relations. However, I think this conclusion does a disservice to many former members of the party—like Reha Camuroglu, Ertugrul Gunay, Yasar Yakis, and many others—who waged a genuinely heroic struggle to democratize the country within AKP ranks during its first two terms (2002–2010). All departed the party following its anti-democratic turn and once its authoritarian tendencies became salient after 2010. 

Neatly complementing the Sezals’ discussion, Menderes Cinar’s article highlights the transformation of the AKP from a moderate democratic Islamic party to a more populist party with a civilizationist outlook and growing anti-democratic tendencies and practices. I suggest that Cinar’s article be read alongside that of Mustafa Sezal and Ihsan Sezal. Cinar highlights how “the AKP’s nativist practices have aimed at redefining as a Muslim nation by using a civilizational discourse” (p. 8). He also argues that the AKP’s ideology was “unformed” when it was established, after which the party gradually developed a populist authoritarian character. 

However, alternatively, I would suggest that when the party first came to power, it was a rather motley coalition of different segments.  Only gradually did the Islamist partner come to dominate the other parts, either through cooptation or purges. Thus, it would be beneficial to highlight the internal changes within the party that saw it transform within a decade from a coalition of reformist progressive liberals and former Islamists (who claimed they had become “pro-European conservative democrats”) to an anti-Western, revisionist, and populist Islamist political party. 

This point of mine is also endorsed by Park in the introduction. Park says that none of the contributions “in this volume draw attention to the change in the AKP after it assumed power” (p. 5). However, I think this point requires further attention because overlooking transformation within political parties is not specific to the chapters in this volume. It is an understudied topic in Turkey and the AKP era overall. And it requires further research to produce a more complete and nuanced view of the topic.

Turkish academia has long assumed that political parties are “fixed units” that carry certain ideologies. This oversight is a real problem not only for Turkey in the AKP era but in general. For example, without discussing the transformation within the CHP over time, it would be difficult to properly understand the party’s shifting foreign and domestic/security policies towards ethnic and religious minorities and practicing Muslims. It would also do a disservice to the reformist, progressive liberals—like Canan Kaftancioglu, Sezgin Tanrikulu, Ahmet Unal Cevikoz, and many others—who have been championing progressive reformist politics within the party’s ranks in recent years. 

The final chapter has been written by Mustafa Kutlay and Huseyin Emrah Karaoguz. It focuses on the economic aspects of recent AKP rule. Although the article seems to stay out of the frame of Islamism and populism, it provides an important account of the lack of “bureaucratic autonomy” in Turkey and an important discussion of the political economy of Turkey’s populist present. Here, the arbitrary authoritarian interference by political forces in the economic sphere (mirroring political interference in civil spheres) is seen as the central driver of Turkey’s recent economic turmoil. The authors contend that this interference—especially in the allocation of funds and resources— “in the formulation and implementation of R&D policies” stems mainly from the regime’s “populist motivations” (p. 123).

Islamism has long served as a sub-strata political ideology in Turkey. Attempts to surface it were retarded by secular state forces up until the end of the 20th century (for further details, see Cizre and Cinar, 2003). However, managed to find a crack in the surface, rising to inundate and subsume the socio-political spectrum in Turkey in the last decade.    

By addressing Islamism and populism, the edited volume offers an account of the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey as well. However, instead of dealing with these two terms as separate phenomena, it would have been beneficial to underline the interconnectedness of the authoritarian turn and the rise of Islamist populism under the AKP regime in Turkey. Certainly, some of the articles discuss these notions together. However, given the conceptual discussion on the links between Islamism and populism is relatively shallow, it would have helped to provide a stronger theoretical frame to structure the chapters.

In general, this book reveals that Islamism and populism have been constants in modern Turkey and have been deployed to bring the masses from the periphery to the center (Mardin, 1973) and capture the state and its institutions “by” mobilizing the support of the people, albeit neither “for” nor “with” them. However, neither in the book nor in my observations of Turkish politics in general—and the AKP era in particular—is it clear whether the Turkish populists have combined their “thin-centered” populist ideology with Islamism or if the Islamists in Turkey have used populism as a vehicle and strategy to “conquer” the secular state. This seems to be the “chicken and egg” question of scholarship on populism —namely, whether it best understood as an ideology (Mudde, 2004) or a strategy (Barr, 2009; Moffit, 2017).


References

Barr, Robert R. (2009). “Populists, Outsiders and Anti-Establishment Politics.” Party Politics, 15(1), 29–48. 

Cizre, U. & Menderes Cinar. (2003). “Turkey 2002: Kemalism, Islamism, and Politics in the Light of the February 28 Process.” South Atlantic Quarterly. 102(2-3): 309–332.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-102-2-3-309.

Yilmaz, I. (2021). “Islamist Populism, Islamist Fatwas, State Transnationalism and Turkey”s Diaspora.” In Akbarzadeh, S (ed), Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. Routledge, Abingdon, Eng., pp.170-187, doi: 10.4324/9780429425165-14. 

Mardin, Ş. (1973). “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?” Daedalus, vol. 102, no. 1, pp. 169-190.

Moffit, B. (2017). “Transnational Populism? Representative Claims, Media and The Difficulty of Constructing A Transnational “People”.” Javnost: The Public. 24(4), 409–425. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2017.1330086

Mudde, C. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4), 541–563.

Hart-Soyer-Parry

Shoshone Nation leader Darren Parry: All decisions should be based on the ‘seventh generation’ principle

Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City, calls for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead.

Gultasli-Pratt

Prof. John Pratt: Populist Leaders in the West Tend to Have Short Political Lives

In an exclusive interview with ECPS Prof. John Pratt of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand argued that in Western democracies populist leaders who gain power usually have short political lives. Prof. Pratt underlined that the reason for this was populist leaders were quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. He added that the best example was former US President Donald Trump but stressed that the situation in non-Western societies was different. Because democratic institutions were not as strong as in the US, the populist leaders were staying in power for long periods of time.

Pollution

Whose Anthropocene? Climate Grief and Climate Justice

This commentary considers problems of privilege in climate anxiety and grief, asking which humans have left the deepest marks in planetary history, in the sense of the Anthropocene or “human age,” and who will suffer most as a result. 

By Heidi Hart

If far-right populism favors only certain people, in the sense of “Herrenvolk democracy” or populism for the white and preferably wealthy, does the climate-active left risk exclusionary thinking as well? When discussing the Anthropocene, an often contested but still useful term for the human age on earth, which humans’ traces in the geologic record hold most weight? Who has done the most to add untenable amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, and who will suffer most as a result? What about thinking beyond the human, to grieve endangered and already lost species? And whose voices are heard most loudly, asking these questions?

The realities of climate collapse can feel overwhelming, even for those not yet directly affected. I recently came up against a blind spot in my own work, curating a climate grief project involving mostly white women, when I read a thoughtful essay on the “whiteness of climate anxiety.”  Sarah Jaquette Ray (2021) asks an even more pressing question than in my list above: “is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get ‘back to normal,’ to the comforts of their privilege?” She notes that ecoanxiety (a term the American Psychological Association defines as “chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017) can lead to “eugenic thinking” (Wilson, 2018) and other explicitly racist aspects of ecofascism.  

This sounds like a dramatic leap, especially for well-meaning environmentalists who may have delighted in Covid-era news of quieting oceans, goats meandering down Welsh streets, or dolphins swimming in Venice canals, however, false many of those reports (Daly, 2020) and who now bemoan the return of carbon-emitting, human-driven machines to the roads, seas, and skies. This seems like an innocent and even virtuous outlook. But when I hear casual comments about “the planet telling us to go away,” I now hear a dangerous implication there, too, one that I have felt myself in fantasies of green growth overtaking highways and the windows of suburban homes. If humans are a part of nature, too, we need to repair and adapt without simply imagining our own demise – or worse, that of those who lack the resources to make art about their fear and grief.

Anxiety about impending floods and wildfires is easier to bear when you can afford to move away. The pang of having to give up transatlantic flights, red meat, or the Instagram excesses of fast fashion is hardly the pain of losing one’s home with nowhere to go, or of having to keep working in dangerous conditions while others enjoy remote work, in a pandemic that is also tied to climate crisis through habitat loss. From this perspective, even grief for lost species, performed in contemplative, virtual art experiences such as Parallel Effect’s Vigil for the Smooth Handfish (2020) begins to feel like something of a luxury. So does the pleasure of watching dystopian films and TV series, designed by corporate media that “gauge the sociopolitical moment and hope to capture audiences who are now sensitized to dangers without taking things so far as to alienate audiences or the conservatives” (Kaplan, 2016: 12)

Superkilen public space in immigrant neighborhood in Copenhagen. Photo: Heidi Hart

When confronted with the problem of art as luxury, I have to step back and remember the motivation for my own curatorial project. During a fall 2020 workshop at the Sixty-Eight Art Institute in Copenhagen, I was faced with the choice between holding onto hope for a return to planetary “normalcy” and accepting that climate collapse is already happening. Even the conceptual move of acceptance led to an embodied reaction (panic, heaviness, confusion about where to turn my attention) and a need for help in the process of grief. I recalled the practice of music thanatology, or improvising harp music in response to a dying human body, and I wondered what would happen if that practice were extended to the collective grief for the world as we humans know it. 

Six months later, the project is developing into an international constellation of public events, audiovisual art, and “extinction theatre.” The goal is not to wallow in despair (another critique of “collapsology”) but to face loss – not only of endangered species but also of our own innocence and environmentally costly comforts – in order to move forward into new ideas for the future.  As Roy Scranton (2015) puts it, in his influential book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, “as biological and cultural diversity is threatened across the world by capitalist monoculture and mass extinction, we must build arks: not just biological arks, to carry forward endangered genetic data, but also cultural arks, to carry forward endangered wisdom” (109). Our Climate Thanatology project is an ark of sorts, a holding place for a moment of realization: we are losing the planet we know, and everyone will be affected, as all have been by the pandemic.

Humans and other species are inextricably linked in the “biocultural phenomenon” of extinction (Rose et al., 2017: 5). But because not all will be harmed in the same way, the situation calls for change, too, in individual choices and in institutional power structures. But how to move toward change, a change based on climate justice, not only for endangered plants and animals but for the humans suffering as well?  Part of our project is to learn from Shoshone tribal leader Darren Parry (interviewed here last month) to better understand collective grief from the perspective of a descendant of massacre survivors in the American West. Learning how generational grief and restoration can occur, not only in families but also in the land itself, can help us better imagine the long-term process of coming to terms with a damaged planet, and our complicity in that. 

We are also questioning “who counts as a witness” (Nixon, 2011: 16) in places struck by climate trauma. Because most of our work takes place in Scandinavia, we are well aware of the uncomfortably hot summers that are quickly becoming a “new normal” (Steinthorsdottir, 2019), but we have not arrived here after fleeing war, fire, drought, or flood. Seeing our arts constellation as a tool and not as an end in itself is helpful. As we prepare for public programs in Copenhagen, learning from refugee communities will be a part of our project, with awareness that they have their own criticality and imaginative work to contribute. 

Assistens Kirkegård (Lost Species Walk), Copenhagen. Photo: Heidi Hart

One of our events is a Lost Species Walk in Assistens Kirkegård, the historic welfare cemetery in a part of the city now chafing at “ghetto” status (Achiume, 2020). Participating in a parallel walk through the Refugee Voices Tours project will help us to see the city as an ecosystem that complicates Copenhagen’s “greenest city” reputation and that includes grief over lost homelands. We do not want to be “extractive” as many public programs are, in borrowing from other cultures for their own use, however inclusive they proport to be (Costanza-Chock, 2020: 89).  We want to learn what we are missing. 

Our collective is also learning from other climate grief projects as they do their own reckonings with privilege. For example, the Remembrance Day for Lost Species project recently hosted a video presentation on their process of understanding terms like “extinction” … “in terms of violence [and] its use in white and Euro-centric discourses to invisibilize, justify and even promote colonial acts” (Mitchell, 2020). As I work to develop a curatorial methodology, I am also learning from museum workers who critique nationalist and exclusionary practices in order to “drop the usual contrast between a supposedly sealed ‘inside’ and a critical ‘outside’” in exhibition spaces (Bayer et al., 2021: 24)

If the Anthropocene has become a “loaded term for the end to the dream/nightmare of a hyper-separated nature” (Rose et al., 2017: 5), this demise is also an opportunity. Naming a geologic age after ourselves risks human hubris, certainly, but it also allows for critical distance. When that space opens up, it is no surprise if grief enters. To see consumer and corporate excesses and their costs to others (human or not) can be painful. I recently came across these lines in a new book on waste published in Denmark (Frantzen, 2021), quoting the poet Inger Christensen (translation mine): 

Now we turn on the light. Somewhere we use up

long-concentrated plankton. Humans

consuming a million summers a day. 

Clear seeing, however difficult, can lead to clarity in action, too. We can’t get those “million summers” back, but we can grieve the loss and imagine a more responsible future that puts care before consumption and community, for humans and other species, before post-human dreams. 


References

Bayer, Natalie; Belinda Kazeem-Kaminski and Sternfeld, Nora. (2021). Curating as Anti-Racist Practice. Espoo, Finland and Vienna: Aalto ARTS Books/University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha. (2020). Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Frantzen, Mikkel Krause. (2021). Klodens Fald. Copenhagen: Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology Publications.

Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Rose, Deborah; van Dooren, Thom and Chrulew, Matthew. (2017). Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

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.

Prof. Pratt: Populist Leaders in the West Tend to Have Short Political Lives

Professor John Pratt: “I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously. But, I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with ECPS Prof. John Pratt of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand argued that in Western democracies populist leaders who gain power usually have short political lives. Prof. Pratt underlined that the reason for this was populist leaders were quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. He added that the best example was former US President Donald Trump but stressed that the situation in non-Western societies was different. Because democratic institutions were not as strong as in the US, the populist leaders were staying in power for long periods of time.

Despite the rise of populism and populist leaders worldwide, Prof. Pratt sounded optimistic about the future of Western democracies. Stressing that democracies have largely held firm, he argued that populist leaders were ‘ignorant clowns.’ ‘I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists, often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns,’ said Pratt.

The following are the excerpts from the interview:

Thank you very much Professor Pratt for the interview, my first question is, how do you define penal populism and how popular is it in different countries, and what lies behind it?

Well, let’s take that one step at a time and, first, I think I would define penal populism by first defining what populism is:what it means to me. It refers to the moods and sentiments and voices of distinct and significant sections of the public that feel that they’ve been ignored by governments. They feel there are more favored and less deserving groups. They’ve been left behind or disenfranchised in some way by government policy. These significant sections of the public does speak out against the machinery of government which they judge of being complicit in conspiracies against the worthy members of society that they see themselves as being.

And if you take that on to penal populism, then that refers to the way in which criminals and prisoners are thought to be favored at the expense of crime victims, in particular, and the law abiding public in general. It feeds on expressions of anger, disenchantment and disillusionment with what it sees as the insidious workings of the criminal justice establishment. That is to say senior officials, ministers of Justice and corrections department judges, academics, members of the police and parole boards. It holds these members of the establishment responsible for a much too liberal criminal justice policy which has put ordinary people at risk of crime.

And so, remind me again the second question. 

Populist Politics Is a Different Phenomenon From Penal Populism

How popular is it in different countries. And what lies behind it?

Well, I think it’s been particularly popular or virulent in the Anglo American world. Not so much in the other European countries, although they haven’t been free from it, but certainly I think it’s been most strongly experienced in the Anglo American world. It is no coincidence that it’s been in those countries that the conditions necessary for penal populism have been strongest and its effects are being seen with the dramatic rises of imprisonment in most of the Anglo American countries.

What lies behind it, well, I think it emerges out of the neoliberal restructuring that began to take place in these societies during the early 1980s and onwards which produced significant benefits for many in terms of access to wealth and freedom to choose how they spend the money through lower taxes and so on, but which, at the same time left as I’ve said already, a lot of people behind. A lot of people didn’t share the benefits and they only experienced anxiety and uncertainty as the world around them seem to be changing very rapidly due to this restructuring and they struggled to find a legitimate place for themselves in it. How did they then turn their attention to crime and worry about crime in an era when crime itself has been rapidly declining? Well part of that restructuring has involved deregulation of the mass media and privatization of the media.

Up to the mid 1980s in most countries, the TV was terrestrial and consisted of access to just a few channels. With deregulation, with technological development, it’s opened up to a massive 24/7 television network, a lot of those channels are news programs competing with each other. What’s the best way to attract an audience and buy advertising, because they don’t receive funding from the state? Well it’s concentrating on crime and it’s the same to do with the way in which the newspapers have become much more tabloid entity feeding on sensational stories rather than the kind of authoritative statements of government policy that used to find in the broadsheet press.

Social media takes public discourse further away again from control by government and allows all manner of opinions to be expressed, but mostly to do with crime and fear of crime, and you know that’s a very strong theme of talkback radio. So that combination of factors swirling around together with neoliberal restructuring let loose in conjunction with growing distrust of central government and in career politicians and what they can achieve: all these lead to this phenomenon that I’ve referred to as “penal populism.”

Right and what gave birth to penal populism, you already answered this question. Does each populist government has penal populism?

Well, I don’t think it does. Because I think our penal populism, for the most part, as I said, it’s been concentrated primarily in the developed world in the Anglo American society, but now you are getting the rise of populist politics right across Western society. That’s a different phenomenon from penal populism and, in some ways, it uses the same mechanisms that made penal populism more powerful relying on common sense, anecdotes, and downright lies.

If you look at the Scandinavian countries, the Nordic countries, you find right across quite strong populist parties. But, the emphasis is not so much on crime, it’s on fear of immigrants and what they might do to those societies. Populist parties have become very powerful in that region by wanting to keep those Nordic countries as they are with their very strong welfare states, a strongly protective state, for what they see as authentic citizens of those countries. That doesn’t include the wave of immigrants that are headed towards that region over the last 10 years or so, both legal and illegal immigrants.

Populist Politicians Are Quickly Shown Up to be Fraudulent and Full of Empty Rhetoric

After the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 Turkish President has imprisoned tens of thousands of people with flimsy evidence and sacked hundreds of thousands, without any meaningful objection mechanism, how long can a leader use penal populism, to consolidate his power?

It’s a difficult question to answer, and I wish I could give you a definitive answer to that. I think if you look outside of Turkey, you see, in the Western democracies, politicians who try to use populism to gain political power tend to have quite short political lives. Because, they are quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. One of the best examples of that is Donald Trump in the US. Fortunately for American citizens and the rest of the world, the democratic processes were held up against all the efforts he made to undermine them. So there you have very strong tradition of democracy and it takes a much more astute, more intelligent and more clever politician than Trump to undermine it. In Turkey, I think, it is rather different because you haven’t got such a strong tradition of democracy. Your democratic institutions of government are not so firmly embedded and it allows the current president to disregard what we in the West would see as absolutely central elements of the rule of law.

How long, he will last in in power, I can’t give you a prediction. In populism, I think, wherever it takes root usually has a finite life. It may be shorter in some societies, longer in the others.

Professor, why does penal populism decreases when populism increases?

Again, I’m looking primarily at the Anglo American world where those countries that most strongly experienced penal populism and what I’ve argued in some of the work I published is that penal populism was used by neo liberal governments to essentially maintain the status quo, and that is to say, they didn’t think de-structuring programs that neo liberal governments were pursuing despite all the inequalities and divisions that it created. 

Having penal populism, as part of the program of government performed a very useful function, because it told the general public that: Look your enemies are criminals and law breakers or people who are putting you at risk. We are prepared to use really extraordinary measures. So look how much we’re taking care of you against those who pose the greatest risk to your well being. So it was a way of maintaining social cohesion and allowing the status quo of neo liberal governments to be pursued. Now, it decreases when populist politics become stronger. Because there comes a point when penal populism wasn’t able to fulfill that function, it wasn’t able to maintain the status quo that neo liberal politicians had hoped for.

And I think there are two reasons for that. First of all, was the 2008 global financial crisis which increased social disadvantage and inequalities and allowed a minority to become even richer, so that those inequalities became more and more glaringly obvious and thereafter as well, it was followed by the high levels of immigration, particularly from the Middle East to the West or South to the North, East to the West. And those who had already been left behind in the Anglo American world, seem to feel threatened even more by immigration. Not only did it seem to be endangering the jobs or their prospects of getting a job, but it seemed to be an endangering on all left to cling to, like national identity.

Because immigrants were bringing different traditions, different cultural values with them into these societies. So,populist politics which are using and exaggerating many of the tactics associated with penal populism was no longer interested in maintaining the status quo. Its appeal to its supporters like Trump supporters, for example, was that you know we’re going to change things, we’re going to have a revolution. We’re going to make America great again by turning the clock back to some sort of dream time or the 1950s when America was ruled principally by white men. With the Brexit campaign in Britain, we want to stop all this collusion with foreign people in Europe, because Britain can make it on its own; sort of replaying themes from Second World War and the days of empire and all the rest of it.

Populist politics in those societies have arisen out of the failure of penal populism to maintian the function that was expected of it. That is, the failure of penal populism, to maintain social cohesion and, which would then have allowed the neo liberal program of government to continue. After the 2008 crash and growth of immigration, populist politics says no, we don’t want to maintain the status quo, we want to dramatically change. And, the way to do that is to trust on strongmen leaders who know best, who know better than the experts, who know better than career politicians and civil servants and bureaucrats people like Trump and (Boris) Johnson in Britain.

In your works, you have quoted Francis Fukuyama. You know hes famous for the argument that human race has reached at the end of history, and we would witness the universalization of western liberal democracy. However,liberalism seems to lose ground to populism. What went wrong?

Well, I am sure that Fukuyama himself with that knowledge was being wildly over optimistic when making that comment. It was certainly not the end of history, it was the start of a new chapter in history characterized not by the tradition of social democratic post-war governments. “The end of history” that he was talking about i.e. the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain already coincided with the growth of neo liberal program of governments. Economic and social restructuring that occurred witnessed a lot of people became winners and enjoyed things they could never previously have dreamed of, but many people who got left behind felt embittered and trapped.

Trapped in what we call in New Zealand: Modern societies’ bargain basement. They had no way out of it for the $2 stores. Outside the $2 stores, they could see all the winners or in these casino economies that’s been created, all the winners gliding up the escalator of success, but they were stuck in the bargain basement.

That was what went wrong with Fukuyama’s prediction. It wasn’t the end of history at all and the continuance of Social Democratic policy came to an end. It was the beginning of neoliberal governments which caused great social divisions.I’ve come home to roost in all kinds of ways in the last few years in western societies. 

Specialist in hazmat suits cleaning disinfecting coronavirus cells epidemic in Ukraine.

Things Successful Against Covid19 Are Antithetical to Populism

Professor, you argue that Covid-19 pandemic has turned into an antidote against populism. Can you please elaborate a bit on this?

It is remarkable in some ways, given all the damage that Covid-19 has done to individuals and societies. But at the same time, I do believe it does act as an antidote to populism and that’s because all the things that have been successful against Covid-19 are at the same time antithetical to populism.

I’ve argued in papers, I’ve written, that the most successful ways to control the virus have been ways which simultaneously contradict and undermine populism. For example, it’s been the way in which science and expertise have come to the fore again and being able to convince governments that they know best.

It’s also been strong central government, but accountable government, who are able to tell the truth to the citizens. Whether it’s bad news or good news they’re conveying to them. They’re not afraid of the truth, unlike populist politicians like Trump or Johnson who feel that they have to tell good news all the time that’s the only way in which they can keep the public on their side. But in New Zealand, we’ve had a very strong central government, which has been absolutely straight with the population, the whole time. So, two things that are anethema to populism: science and expertise. They know more about the virus and how to cure and control it, than the ‘the strongman’ leaders who say ‘I’m a magician. I know best.’ No, you do not know best. People don’t want their snake oil cures. They’d much rather believe in or hear what science and expertise have to offer, and then you got strong democratically accountable government which is able to win the trust of the public. 

At the same time, people have been very anxious to find out about the virus and what risks it carries. Many of course turn to social media and listen to all the conspiracy theories i.e. that it is unleashed deliberately by China or it’s a plot by the democrats to undermine Trump and so on. But, most people have turned back to state broadcasting organizations and the BBC, for example, has been enormously popular because it tells people the truth. People trust it much more than social media. Something very similar has happened in New Zealand which has had great success in controlling the virus.

For example, Radio New Zealand’s audience increased dramatically with its news broadcast so people turning back to the state broadcasting because that’s where the truth is. At the same time, I think, despite all the damage that Covid-19 has done to societies it’s actually helped to develop social cohesion, at least in some societies.

One of the reasons why New Zealand has been so successful is because of the very strong social cohesion that exists in this society due to willingness to support the government in the fight to control the virus. 

In societies where there has been success against the virus we see very strong compliance with things like wearing a mask, social distancing and so on. And, at the same time, the social cohesion has meant that people are not so distressful or antagonistic towards strangers.

In many ways the homelessness problem is being tackled by governments in many societies, because they recognize if you’re going to control the virus then it’s not a question of dividing societies, you have to unite them and all have to be helped and cured and protected from the virus. If you leave some people out then it’s likely they’re going to spread the virus. Social cohesion have also lead to all kinds of volunteer groups helping the poor and disadvantaged to a much greater extent than before. Then the virus itself is being defeated, but at the same time, this is a different kind of politics and a different kind of social action.

But I get some other examples from this part of the world as well. In our election last October (2020), which was a triumph for the Labour Party and Prime Minister Jacinda Arden because of the successful way she has managed to control the virus and keep New Zealanders safe through these strategies that I’ve just told you about. Meanwhile, the right-wing populist party in this country, New Zealand First, disappeared from Parliament.

There have been similar types of state elections in Australia as well, another success story against the virus where you get the triumph of mainstream political parties and right-wing populist parties have been largely defeated.

Penal Populism Is Essentially Used to Undermine Human Rights

Professor it has been witnessed in many countriesfor example in France, that many new criminal statutes have been accepted for their impact on public opinion rather than the actual effectiveness at reducing crime? How do populistsinstrumentalize legislation for the sake of penal populist objectives?

Well, I think, when they do that, it galvanizes public opinion against particular groups in society who may or may not be dangerous, usually, in a not very big way. In so doing, the strategy of penal populism is essentially used to undermine human rights.

Instead of protecting the rights of individuals, caught up in the criminal justice process, penal populism argues that it’s the rights of the public to protection that government should take care of. So, they try to redefine what constitutes human rights and there’s usually as well, a very large bill to pay for these kinds of policies. Because they nearly always involve increases in imprisonment with very damaging economic and social effects and by starting these campaigns, they intensify division between particular sections of the society.

What kind of risks and threats emerge through the politicization of criminal justice because of populist punitive law and order tactics in an attempt to gain support from the public?

I think, as I’ve said, they relate to the erosion of human rights, which have been a feature of Western society, particularly in that post-war era from 1945 through to the early 1980s. One of the ways in which Western societies distinguished themselves from other social formations was to say “well look, we have the rule of law here.”

If individuals get into difficulties or in trouble here, then we protect their human rights, and that is what makes us world – at least that is what we used to say. Now, it strikes me that one of the dangers penal populism present is the way in which it erodes that understanding of human rights and tries to substitute a new understanding based around public protection by using measures that involve variously retrospective legislation or hybrid legislation or changing rules of evidence to make convictions easy.

These kinds of strategies that fundamentally undermine the rule of law and allow for initiatives that were previously thought to have no place in democratic world. I’ll give you an example. We have public protection orders in New Zealand which mean that if sex offenders coming to the end of a finite prison term are still judged to be a serious risk to the public. The Court can order that they must be detained in prison at the end of this sentence indefinitely. They don’t call it ‘prison’, because this is the West and we don’t lock people up arbitrarily when they haven’t committed a crime. It’s called ‘civil detention’, but essentially they stay in prison.

Once Populists Come to Power, It is Shown to be Nothing More Than Ignorant Malevolent Clowns

Penal populism gives way to harsher mechanisms for social control to address the publics demand to be tough on crime. How do you assess ties between penal populism and authoritarianism?

Well, I think those who are associated with it, and promote it as strategies, usually say that “We’re doing this, to protect democracy. We are the defenders of democracy against these criminals, law breakers, terrorists who pose such a risk to us.” And, at the same time, they’re very coy with the language they use. I just gave you the example, the way in which post-prison detention in New Zealand isn’t actually called ‘prison,’ it’s called ‘civil detention’ to give it some sort of legitimacy. Whereas in authoritarianism, I would guess, they just don’t bother to pretend they are defending democracy at all. Democracy, in the eyes of authoritarian leaders would seem to be a dangerous exercise all together and it’s much better to have strongman leaders like Trump and do away with democracy, all together. Because, people make the wrong choices, or the wrong people vote. They are more likely to try to involve the military to prop up the rule because they got no particular interest in pretending that they’re defending democracy. So, that is the distinction, I would make between them.

All right Professor, my last question: When one talks about penal populism, it is the name of the Philippines’s Duterte that first comes to mind. However, he is not only the one in the world, could you please make a short list of penal populists or law and order populists around the world?

I don’t know how good my geography is and I don’t have knowledge of all the world’s leaders. I mean my knowledge of the world is confined in the mainly to Western Europe and some of the Asian countries. Rather than giving you a list of leaders who have relied on penal populism, to maintain their power, I would give you governments or countries where you’ve had triumph of social democracy against populism and we’ve had that in New Zealand you’ve had that in a number of Western countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia.

I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously, but I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.

Trump is the best example of that. But, we’ve had other examples. I think, in Italy, the collapse of the populist government is another example of the way in which leaders who rise to power on a populist wave of support quickly get found out and come undone. In Austria, something similar happened. So, I think there should be hope around the world. I think Covid-19, despite everything it’s done and the damages caused, one of its biggest casualties will prove to be populism.

All right, Professor. Thank you so much for your time.


Who is John Pratt?

John Pratt is a Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His fields of research are comparative penology and the history and sociology of punishment. He has published in eleven languages. He is currently undertaking research on the relationship between risk, populism and criminal justice.

Pope Francis warm welcomed by the people of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, during his visit in Erbil on March 7, 2021.

The Pastoral Populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani

The pastoral populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 

By Lydia Khalil*

In 2015, Pope Francis delivered his Easter message in the midst of the global effort to reclaim territory from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a proxy war in the region and the height of the refugee crisis. In his address in St Peters Square, he prayed for “all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence” and that the “international community not stand by before the immense humanitarian tragedy unfolding.” His prayers were not answered in 2015 as the international community did turn away from the suffering in Syria. Yet, his commitment to the region did not wane; he made multiple pastoral visits to the Middle East since and a pastoral visit to Iraq, becoming the first pope to do so. The papal visit to Iraq in the midst of pandemic and ongoing instability was done at great risk but it was heralded as a successful and significant emissarial mission to bear witness to the suffering and advocate for the rights and safety of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority and advance interreligious cooperation. 

 

Amid the footage of joyful celebration welcoming Pope Francis to Iraq, emerged a playful Twitter post by historian Vefa Erginbas. He posted a picture of the Pontiff’s meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani showing the two leaders dressed in respective black and white robes sitting opposite each other in Sistani’s sparse home and posed the question – “What are they talking about? Wrong answers only…” Among the many quips was one that stood out  –“How are neither of us chess pieces?” If global politics is, like its often described, a chess game, then the playful remark on their contrasting robes, was an appropriate metaphor for the role that Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani – the black and white bishops – have played in reorienting politics to address the needs of masses and promote a new kind of populism – a pastoral populism.  

The meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis is likely to be the only direct encounter between the two. Sayed Sistani is 90 years old and does not leave his home. The Pope is in his 80s and unlikely to return to Iraq. But even this one meeting was a consequential move, in that it revealed that they are working concurrently to promote a version of populism rooted in the morality of their respective faith traditions that focuses on the needs of the masses. There are 1.2 billion Catholics and Shia make up almost 200 million of the Muslim faithful. Through their moral and spiritual leadership, they have signalled to their followers and exhorted politicians in government, not only to lead, but to care and administer. As the statement issued by Sistani’s office on the meeting signalled, the encounter between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis was to “urge the concerned parties – especially those with great powers – to prioritize reason and wisdom and not to promote their self-interest over the rights of the people to live in freedom and dignity.”   

Pope Francis’ Relationship to Populism

To fully appreciate the significance of their meeting and their complimentary notions of pastoral populism, it helps to understand the background that each of them brought to the board. When the Jesuit Pope took the name Francis, he went in a conspicuously different direction than his predecessor. He aligned himself with the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, which emphasises mercy for the sinner, administering to the poor, protection of nature and eschewing power and political status. Vatican commentator and author, John L Allen, observed that in taking his name, the Pope wedded the institutional church with the charismatic, populist tradition of St Francis of Assisi whereas previously they had been distinct spheres of the Catholic tradition. Like his namesake, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the world to ‘hear the cry of the poor’ and the suffering; to put the common good and human dignity before disposable consumerist and utilitarian tendencies that dominate our post-capitalist systems. He has placed pastoral care above theological professionalism and has stood down criticism for doing so from the conservative, right flank of the Catholic church while rebuilding the Catholic church in his image.  

In harkening St Francis and through his latest encyclical – Fratelli Tutti – which he completed a few months before his Iraq sojourn and published on the saint’s feast day – Pope Francis uses that opportunity to outline an alternative pastoral populism which focuses on fraternity and pastoral style of leadership. Dr. Anna Rowlands, a professor of religion at Durham University, and one of the panellists who presented the Fratelli Tutti encyclical, makes a compelling point about the Pope’s relationship to populism and how he provides a convincing rebuttal to the forces of violent nationalism and xenophobia that often accompanies it. “He gets populism. He gets what is the drive toward it and he rescues the notion of what it means to be ‘a people’ from the hands of the [far right] populists…” The Pope has done this by identifying the insecurity and fear that drives support for far-right populists while offering an alternative framework with which to address that insecurity and fear.

Sayed Sistani’s Expansive and Pastoral Type of Populism

Sayed Sistani has symbolised and advanced a similarly expansive and pastoral type of populism within Shiism and within Middle East. The cleric, who has rented the same, sparse home in old Najaf, has also voiced the needs of the poor and marginalised and has consistently provided a counter narrative to sectarianism by encouraging temperance and unity amid Iraq’s ongoing tumultuous political transition. 

In his analysis of Sistani’s role in Iraq’s early transition to democracy, Babak Rahimi, a specialist in medieval and modern Islamic history, writes that within his Shiite Quietist tradition, Sistani could have remained completely aloof from politics while still retaining his credibility and authority. Instead, as Rahimi argues, during a time of “perceived moral decadence, political corruption, great injustice, or foreign occupation, he can become more active in political affairs by engaging in activities such as consultation, guidance, and even the promotion of sacred norms in public life.” Sistani did this time and again over the past two decades. He insisted that Iraq’s post Baathist constitution be ratified by popular vote. He urged Iraqis to vote in elections despite a deep disenchantment with the political class. He called on Iraqis to combat the Islamic State through popular militias when the state security forces fell apart in the face of the onslaught. And he rebuked many of those forces when they became Iranian proxies and perpetrated sectarian violence. 

Though Sistani’s profile in the Western world has increased after the US invasion of Iraq, the lay person could be forgiven for not knowing the true extent of his religious standing and influence. Because the fraught history and ongoing political tensions between the United States and Iran, Shi’ism in the Western imagination is most associated with the Iranian theocracy and their militant enforcers the IRGC and other Iranian backed militias throughout the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and indeed Iraq. 

Yet Ayatollah Sistani is one of the most revered and influential leaders in the Muslim world and he and his allies have a theological position on the role of religion in government that  stands in contrast to the Iranian ayatollahs who established velayet-e faqih – rule by Islamic jurists – after the fall of the Shah of Iran. Sistani, who claims lineage from Prophet Muhammad and is a link in a long chain of clerics dating back to the Safavid dynasty, has arguably more religious credentials and moral authority than Iran’s Ali Khamenei. Even though we hear more about Iranian regional manoeuvres and their influence over the Shia Crescent, Sistani’s followers are by no means limited to Iraq. They span millions over the Shia world as his foundation sponsors seminaries and social programs in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As important as he is to Iraq, his influence expands much wider; millions of Shia Muslims around the world turn to Sistani for daily guidance on how to live their lives.  

Sistani Offers an Alternative Vision of the Role of Religion

The 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath may have eliminated a geostrategic counterweight to Iran through the removal of Saddam Hussein and provided the opportunity for Iranian influence in Iraq. However, it had the opposite effect when it came to religious influence within Shia Islam between Qom and Najaf. Under Saddam’s rule, Sistani remained under house arrest and his influence stifled. The removal of Saddam Hussein meant that the Najafi cleric had more space to promote his own interpretation of the role of religion in governance counter to the Iran’s vision that both religious and political authority be enacted in the same body. Sistani offers a viable alternative vision of the role of religion to governance among the Shia faithful.  

In contrast to the Iranian clerics, Sistani’s authority does not come from his position as an authoritarian jurist. Rather, as leader of the Hawza in Najaf, Sistani represents the ‘quietest’ school of Shia politics and acts instead as a moral authority that does not necessarily seek to endow himself with political power. Even though Sistani and the Hawza rejects the Iranian model of velayet-e faqih and eschews a role in politics, has had to, reluctantly perhaps, fashion some role for himself during Iraq’s tumultuous political transition. Iraqi authorities remain beholden to him and his influence and he has used this influence to robustly defend the interests of the Shia Muslim community by holding political authorities to account and has done so in contrast to Iranian-backed Iraqi parties by pushing back against, instead of inflaming, sectarian tendencies.   

Like Pope Francis’ unanswered prayers for international intervention to stem the human suffering in Syria, on sectarianism, Sistani has not been entirely successful. Despite his calls for unity after the 2006 al-Askari Shrine bombing, his exhortation could not contain the civil war that followed. However, he remains a powerful and decisive force in Iraq’s political transition and healing from civil war. Sayed Sistani has, repeatedly, served as the last bulwark, in Iraq’s descent into sectarianism and civil conflict. As Iraq has lurched from crisis to crisis, and corrupt government to inept government, Sistani has played an important and unifying role. And he has done so with an eye of protecting the interests of the masses – particularly his Shia faithful – but while also linking the Shia struggle with a comprehensive vision for human dignity and solidarity across sects. This is not only the result of Sistani as an individual religious leader. It is also the result of the longstanding stance of the Hawza institutionally.

In 2019, Iraq, like other countries in the region, was engulfed in a second wave of popular protests that were met with the predictable government crackdowns. Sistani came down on the side of the popular protesters which ultimately led to the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s resignation. He rebuked, once again, the political class that has maintained its power and privilege through corruption and their exploitation of the informal sectarian based quota system and their ties to Iran. Sistani’s removed intervention via his Friday sermon siding with the popular protests for dignity and economic opportunity signalled a similar approach to Pope Francis’ populism one that, as he said, “does not give an unfair advantage to current political parties, but gives a real opportunity to change the forces that have ruled the country.”

Their Pastoral Populism Focuses on the Long Game

In their separate yet similar ways, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani have articulated a pastoral populism grounded in their respective religious traditions. Their coming together is all the more consequential because both faith leaders provide models for how religion can be a force in politics and do so in contrast to, not only far right politicians in the West and corrupt authoritarian political elites in the Middle East, but the more reactionary strains within their own religious communities that have traditionally served the powerful. They have offered alternative visions to, respectively, the Catholic Right aligned with conservative far-right politics and Iranian political theocracy based on velayat-e faqih or government via Islamic jurists, both of which are more concerned with politicising and policing social norms or wielding political influence to advance their narrow interests. Their version of populism serves as a rebuttal to the recent variety of far-right populism founded on xenophobia, anti-elitism, crisis thinking and ‘bad manners’  that bombarded us from the likes of populist leaders Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and Duterte. They are not merely ‘moderate’ leaders that preach temperance and tolerance but rather a different, more substantial vision.  

Crucially, they do not seek for religion to supplant politics, but rather insist on holding governments to account in pursuit of the common good – a different approach to other modern religious leaders who either attempt to displace the state or co-opt it in service of the religious hierarchies’ narrow interests. Sayed Sistani and Pope Francis both have an intuitive understanding that engaging with politics but not holding political power is the key to their effective advocacy for the masses. Pope Francis, in his second encyclical Laudito Si, subtitled ‘the care for the common good,’ clearly stated that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

Similarly – Sistani views himself as a guide only. His insistence to be remove from the state is all the more significant given the power vacuum that arose after the deposition of Saddam Hussein which Sistani could been filled or becoming an overbearing influence who only advances Shia interests. Instead, Sistani continually insisted that Iraq’s momentous issues be worked through the transitional and political process and pleaded the case for the rule of law, anti-sectarianism and broader Iraqi national identity.  

Through their lived history, their similar view of the role religion should play in politics and their complementary vision of pastoral populism, they have played a role true to their metaphorical chess piece – the bishop. A ‘good bishop’ in chess – is one who has freedom of movement and is thus better able to protect its pawns and can often help win the game. The bishop is also used most effectively in conjunction with other pieces when playing the long game. Their pastoral populism focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 


(*) LYDIA KHALIL is a Research Fellow in the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and manages the Lowy Institute’s core partnership with the Global Network on Extremism & Technology. She is also currently a research associate at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute and a fellow with the Centre for Resilient & Inclusive Societies. She has professional background in politics, international relations and security has focused on US national security policy, Middle East politics, counterterrorism and intelligence. She was international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where she analysed political and security trends in the Middle East. She also served as a political advisor for the US Department of Defence in Iraq. In Australia, Lydia held fellowships with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Macquarie University, specialising in intelligence, national security and cyber security.

Racist and hateful message saying "Refugees Go Home", painted on a traffic sign with stickers and paint all over in Karlskrona, Sweden on January 13, 2016.

Dr. Mette Wiggen: Racism Is Key to Understanding the Far-right Everywhere

Dr. Wiggen: “Without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, I can’t see how you can understand the development of the far-right anywhere. Many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. To challenge racism and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.”

Interview by F. Zehra Colak

Dr. Mette Wiggen from the University of Leeds studies radical right trends in Scandinavian countries and welfare chauvinism. She has argued that without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, one cannot understand the development of the far-right anywhere. She notes that many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. In this series of interviews on populism, Wiggen observes that “To challenge racism, and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.”

Dr. Wiggen focuses closely on the new racism, extreme-right-wing parties, and their impact on mainstream politics and public opinion concerning immigration and welfare. Her research underscores that while most people do not see immigration as a threat, politicians and the media have tried hard to win political gain from scapegoating immigrants, especially during the pandemic.

According to Dr. Wiggen, the colonial mindset is very much at play in Scandinavia despite a political focus on equality and “state feminism,” which has never included “the Other.” She notes how a “lack of awareness and unconscious bias seems worse in Norway than in the UK.” Referring to the role of ignorance around diversity, sexism, and racism in explaining the reproduction of inequality, Wiggen stresses that right-wing populist views have not necessarily made the representation of Muslim women worse in Western societies. “It has probably got worse for men who have been targeted as anti-feminist and oppressive,” she argued.

The following excerpts from the interview with Dr. Mette Wiggen have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How do you think the radical right has gained a strong foothold in Scandinavia? Do you think the mainstreaming of the far-right is linked to the instrumentalization of immigration issues?

There are many reasons, and it varies from country to country. In Norway and Denmark, where the radical right (RR) has been the strongest and most successful, you need to look at where the parties came from. By 1990, such parties were well established and accepted as part of the democratic party systems. They had also started gaining more than 10 percent in national elections. There was a breakthrough then as they put anti-immigration on the agenda in the late 1980s. In both countries, the forerunners of the established RR parties started as anti-taxation parties protesting the social democratic universal welfare state, high taxation, and the redistribution of wealth.

The parties were libertarian with no focus on immigration. Nor did they have any links to a fascist past, making the threshold of voting for RR parties lower than in countries where they have clear links to Nazism or fascism. This doesn’t mean that the Scandinavian parties didn’t attract voters with neo-Nazi or fascist sentiments. From the 1990s, the mainstream was challenged by the electoral support the parties got, but instead of confronting the anti-immigration ideology, they embraced it. In Sweden, the mainstream has to this day refused to accept the Sweden Democrats (SD) as a legitimate party despite the SD gaining nearly 18 percent in the last elections (they are now polling at 20 percent).

“Scandinavian Solidarity with Migrants Has Always Been Exaggerated”

Scandinavia is considered nearly the strictest in Europe in legislating immigration, with confiscation of refugees’ assets in Denmark, deportation of young Afghans in Norway, and the construction of refugees as a burden on public finances in Sweden. So, what happened to the famed Scandinavian solidarity with and tolerance toward immigrants?

I think Scandinavian solidarity with and tolerance toward migrants has always been exaggerated. But because of the generous universal welfare states run by genuine social democrats, there wasn’t so much protest in the past. With the privatization of the welfare state and welfare retrenchment across the board, neoliberal politicians have turned limited access to welfare and competition around rights to resources into a central political issue. Most people probably believe there is not enough money to go around. They also hear from the top that the costs of including immigrants are too high but nothing about international obligations.

Liberal democracies have never been particularly tolerant toward immigrants and have often portrayed immigrants as “outsiders” as a “problem” and a “burden” rather than focusing on solidarity, international obligations, and the richness migration can bring. In Scandinavia, scapegoating immigrants (and refugees in particular) as a drain on society must be linked to right-wing ideology and neoliberalism. In the past, the universality of the welfare state sheltered those in need more, and as services were universal, there was broad support for them. Most parties on the “left” as well as the right are, in fact, neoliberal now and argue that the countries can’t afford to extend the welfare state to immigrants and refugees.

With the economic crisis in the early 1990s, there has been a massive drive to privatize healthcare, especially in Sweden. With that comes a focus on profit and not tolerance, solidarity, and human rights. The idea that there isn’t enough to go around has become normalized, and most people fear what might come as they worry about what they might lose if “the Other” is entitled to the same support as those with family roots and connections. This development has coincided with an enormous boost to RR parties in Denmark and Norway as they were the first such parties. Now that it has become so normalized, it’s difficult to know the difference between the RR and mainstream parties on immigration. The Danish social democratic party with their anti-immigrant prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, are particularly extreme. The government recently stripped 94 Syrian refugees of their residency permits, claiming Damascus is a safe place to return to. Amnesty International says the decision is appalling and a “reckless violation of Denmark’s duty to provide asylum.”

In your work published after the terror attacks in Utøya and Oslo in 2011, you hold mainstream political parties responsible for not confronting racism, sexism, and ignorance in debates around immigration and integration, rather for reproducing anti-immigrant extreme right-wing rhetoric. How do you explain this reticence among mainstream politicians in Norway to defy right-wing populist views? What might have they done to effectively respond to the far-right?

I think a lot of it has to do with unconscious bias—many politicians and journalists can’t see it. But many do, and it was made very clear by the then PM Jens Stoltenberg that racist anti-immigrant rhetoric had to stop. It didn’t, and the social democrats kept drifting to the right on immigration. Some of the explanations as to why the social democrats weren’t clearer and more supportive of immigration and immigrant might be found in their concern about electoral competition from the right. Denmark becoming stricter on immigration was also an issue; some central Norwegian social democrats said they were concerned about immigrants coming to Norway instead of Denmark if they didn’t follow Denmark’s lead. The strategy didn’t work, and in the 2013 national elections, the far-right Fremskrittpartiet (Progress Party) was invited by the mainstream right to join a national coalition for the first time. The media has a lot to answer for when it comes to anti-immigrant rhetoric and reporting. I’m actually shocked to see how much of the media compare rates of COVID-19 infection with “country-born” against “foreign-born” and how they have created the term “imported infection” as they focus on various immigrant groups’ behavior without adding any analysis of socio-economic factors.

“Most People Don’t See Immigration as a Threat”

In one of your articles, you mention how the populist and nationalist Senterpartiet (Center Party, SP) in Norway is gaining popularity by tapping into the grievances of people suffering from uneven development and without referring to immigration issues. What might explain this rhetorical shift? Do you think the “migration issue” is losing popularity among populists because the current mainstream attitudes toward immigration already reflect right-wing populist views?

I don’t think SP ever was an anti-immigration party, nor are they on the right. They don’t see immigration as a problem in the same way as the RR or the social democrats, who for many years seem to have copied RR immigration policies. I think the “migration issue” is losing popularity, especially among young voters across the board. Still, the RR has toned it down a bit, considering very few refugees have arrived in the last few years. Local municipalities appeal to the government to accept more refugees saying they have more than enough capacity. Most people don’t see immigration as a threat and have other more pressing issues to think about. Still, politicians and the media have tried hard to win political gain from scapegoating immigrants during the pandemic. There are national elections in September 2021, and the electioneering seems to have started.

What are the specific characteristics of the Scandinavian populist right-wing parties compared to the far- or extreme-right populist parties in Europe? How do you explain similarities across the European far-right, especially regarding the “issue ownership” of immigration and Islam?

In Norway and Denmark, the parties have no links to a fascist past (Sweden is a different matter). Still, more answers can be found in the countries’ and the parties’ colonial past and a shared anti-immigrant, nativist ideology and welfare chauvinism. The links are easier to understand, or more obvious, if you look at Rassemblement National (the National Rally) and its forerunner, the Front National, and legacies of colonialism and anti-republicanism in France. French settlers in Algeria—the so-called pieds-noirs (“black feet”) who came back to the south of France after independence—played an important role in the party’s success that was to become the Front National, one of the most influential RR parties in Europe.

In Norway and Denmark, RR parties have also long been accepted as “normal” by the other parties and have worked in local coalitions, even with the social democrats. In Sweden, as in many other countries, a cordon sanitaire was in operation; mainstream parties refused to accept them as legitimate political parties, never mind collaborating with them in coalitions. This has backfired in Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats have established themselves as the main opposition party. The SD has long listened to working-class people’s grievances and now poll at 20 percent.

In your analysis of the radical right, you refer to the history of intolerance and inequality targeting ethnic minorities, such as the Sami population in Sweden and Norway, and the culturalization of racism to establish difference. How do you explain the role of racism in understanding the development of the far-right in Scandinavia and why most analyses of the far-right fail to acknowledge its importance?

We have to understand history and colonialism and how that shaped our world and its prevailing ideas. There is an ongoing competition over resources both in Sweden and Norway over the right to continue exploiting and demanding resources on Sami territory. Still, the Sami are gaining support from international organizations. Without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, I can’t see how you can understand the development of the far-right anywhere. Many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. To challenge racism and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.

“Right-wing Populist Views Are Worse for Muslim Men”

Your work looks at how Muslim women have been targeted by Western media and politicians and inaccurately represented as victims of their culture while their voices are significantly overlooked. What reasons do you think lie at the root of this obsession with the so-called emancipation of Muslim women in Western societies? How has the normalization of the right-wing populist views in Scandinavia affected the representation of Muslim women in mainstream public and political discourses?

I think we can understand this best by putting it into a historical context. Many Western feminists are still influenced by colonialism and don’t understand “feminism is not a

Western invention,” as the late scholar Nawal El Saadawi said. Saadawi reminded us that women fighting the patriarchy and capitalism is historical and global.

In Scandinavia, this colonial mindset is very much at play despite a political focus on equality and “state feminism” that goes back to the 1970s, one that never included “the Other.” On the contrary, the lack of awareness and unconscious bias seems worse in Norway than here in the UK. Ignorance around diversity, sexism, and racism ensures the reproduction of inequality. There is also a sense of superiority and arrogance that comes with being “the best country in the world,” as several journalists used to report when UNDP human development reports showed Norway on the top. I don’t think right-wing populist views have made the representation of Muslim women worse. Instead, it has probably got worse for men who have been targeted as anti-feminist and oppressive. In Norway, a survey showed that Muslim women had easier access to the labor market than Muslim men. But there is still an obsession with head coverings—wearing the niqab, and the burqa was banned in Denmark and Norway in 2018.

Black Lives Matters Protest in Stockholm, Sweden on June 3, 2020.

“Young People Need to Be Heard and Taken Seriously”

Different analyses show how the far-right in Europe has tried to capitalize on the Covid-19 pandemic. In contrast, others have argued that the pandemic has exposed the political incompetence of the far-right parties. How have the far-right parties in Scandinavia responded to the pandemic, and what might be the pandemic’s consequences for far-right there?

Radical right parties in Scandinavia have largely supported the governing parties, apart from in Sweden where there was no lockdown and more than 13,400 have died to COVID-19. The Sweden Democrats asked for stricter border controls and targeted immigrant communities and blamed immigrants for spreading the virus in March 2020. The governments in Norway and Denmark took a very different approach and locked down on March 12, 2020. The death rate in Denmark is just over 2,400, and in Norway, only 650 and the governing parties have gained support while the RR is weaker than ever. However, this is not due to political incompetence exposure but more because the governing coalitions have adopted the RR’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies largely across the board.

Your work also focuses on increasing the engagement of young people in politics and society. Why is it important to foster political engagement among youth, and what are the most effective ways to facilitate their active and critical participation in responding to the global challenges that affect our contemporary society?

At the top of my list is the eradication of poverty. There must be access to and funding of education for all, from nurseries to primary and secondary schools, colleges and further education, universities, youth clubs, music, and sports. There must be an end to austerity and welfare retrenchment. Young people also need to be heard and seen and taken seriously. The young have made an enormous contribution to climate change demonstrations, protests to improve women’s safety, and Black Lives Matter marches in the last year. It’s worrying how police treat protesters, especially in the UK at the moment where things are moving in the wrong direction. Freedom of assembly to demonstrate and protest is more important than ever. A new bill the UK government has recently proposed could lead to legislation that will ban protest. That would be detrimental to democracy and young people’s participation in politics and their chances of having their voices heard.