Israelis protest at Tel Aviv against Netanyahu's anti-democratic coup on April 1, 2023. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

Professor Filc: Netanyahu’s Era Is Coming to an End, Influence of Clerical Fascism Will Likely Persist

Offering profound insights into the dynamics of Israeli politics and the evolving role of radical right-wing populism in the country, Professor Dani Filc of Ben Gurion University confidently asserts that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of conclusion. However, he also underscores that the influence of “clerical fascism” in Israel is poised to persist.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Dani Filc, a distinguished scholar in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, confidently asserts that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu, a longstanding figure in Israeli politics, is on the verge of conclusion. However, he also underscores that the influence of clerical fascism is poised to persist.

Offering profound insights into the dynamics of Israeli politics and the evolving role of radical right-wing populism, the interview delves into the historical transformation of the ruling Likud. From its roots as a radical right vanguard to its current status as a sui generis form of right-wing populism, Likud’s evolution is explored. The discussion tracks Likud’s inclusive elements and examines the ideological shifts that occurred during Netanyahu’s tenure.

Addressing the intersection of populism with identity politics, Professor Filc highlights the dangerous chain of equivalencies used to demonize Israeli Arabs and the instrumental use of religion to differentiate the “in-group” and the “out-group.” Professor Filc also provides insights into Israel’s global alliances, pointing out the alliance with European far-right parties. Filc touches on the evolution of Likud under Netanyahu and its alignment with illiberal, right-wing populist movements in Europe. 

Asserting that the ongoing war in Gaza signals the end of Netanyahu’s dominance in Israeli politics, Professor Filc predicts that “with the conclusion of the war in Gaza, Netanyahu will fall, leading to the abandonment of the judicial reform.” However, he expresses concerns about the lasting impact of the ongoing conflict on populist movements and calls for a just peace in the Middle East, highlighting potential dangers associated with civilizational populism or a clash of civilizations.

In this comprehensive interview, Professor Filc shares invaluable insights into the intricate landscape of Israeli politics, the evolution of populism, and the challenges posed by religious and right-wing populist movements in the country.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Dani Filc with minor edits.

How has populism manifested in Israeli politics historically, and are there specific events or periods that stand out? Can you provide insights into the historical roots and evolution of the radical right in Israel?

I think the first populist moment was when Menachem Begin, who was the then-leader of the Herut Party, the main party of the coalition, became the Likud party, which is the party now in government. Sometime in the early to mid-1950s, Begin led a transformation of the Likud party from a radical right, a vanguard type of party to a populist party. This process was relatively a prolonged one, starting in the mid-50s and reaching its peak when Likud arrived in government in 1977, winning the elections against the Labor party, which had been in government from 1948 until 1977.

Likud, under Menachem Begin’s leadership, was a kind of sui generis type of populism. Why? It was a nationalist party with right-wing views on Israel, a commitment to the idea of Greater Israel, and a denial of the existence of a Palestinian people or a Palestinian state. However, it also had inclusive elements, especially for Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Arab countries). Likud was symbolically inclusive, politically inclusive, and had some material inclusion measures, particularly in areas like housing and education for Oriental Jews. Mizrahi Jews became the central leaders within Likud, ministers, members of the Knesset in a way, and Oriental Jews also became part of the Likud. There were some measures that included Oriental Jews and improved their material conditions. Although there is a kind of commonality between left-wing populism and inclusive populism, and right-wing populism and exclusionary populism, Likud was not more exclusionary than the Labor Party that preceded it while it has not been inclusive towards Israeli-Palestinian citizens. So, Likud’s populism was not stereotypical, and it had some inclusive characteristics, making it a sui generis form of right-wing populism.

Likud Transformed into Extreme Radical Right-wing Populism

On the ideological front, despite Takis Papas define populism as anti-liberalism, Likud under Begin was not anti-liberal. It adopted conservative liberal views, especially in the relationship between judicial power and the executive or legislative power. As people like Ernesto Laclau and Margaret Canovan described, populist ideologies are often framed as against the hegemonic ideology, the ideology of the power, and since the Labor Party in power held socialist rhetoric, Likud’s adoption of a more liberal rhetoric can be seen as opposition to the then-elites or at least to their rhetoric. This situation made Likud under Begin a kind of sui generis populist party. 

With Begin’s departure from politics in 1982, Likud underwent a period of transition, with internal conflicts between the more populist wing and the more conservative liberal wing. This lasted until 1992, when Netanyahu became the Likud leader. Between 1992 and 2006, Netanyahu aimed to make Likud a near-conservative party as Ronald Reagan’s or George W. Bush’s Republican Party with radical neoliberal, nationalist, and realistic in international politics and culturally conservative characteristics. When he was replaced by Ariel Sharon as leader of the Likud and he was Sharon’s minister of finance, he performed more radical neoliberal transformations within Israel.

When Sharon split from Likud in the 2006 elections, the Netanyahu-Sharon split occurred because Sharon supported a one-sided retreat from the Gaza strip without an agreement. Netanyahu opposed Sharon on this issue. Netanyahu became the chairperson of Likud once again, and in the 2006 elections, Likud, led by Netanyahu, obtained only 12 seats in the Knesset, which was 10 percent of the vote. These were the worst elections for Likud since the elections to the second Knesset in the early 1950s.

In my view, Netanyahu understood the limits of the Neo-con project in Israel, leading him to shift towards a radical right exclusionary populist party. However, he wasn’t the pioneer of radical right populism in Israel. The pioneer was Avigdor Levi Lieberman, a former Likud member. When Netanyahu was elected chairperson of Likud in 1992, he appointed Lieberman as the CEO of Likud, the principal executive. In 1999, Lieberman split from Likud and created a party called “Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home),” which is a clear-cut exclusionary radical right-wing populist party. They even have observers in the radical right populist group in the European Parliament.

Eventually, Lieberman became the first politician with a clear exclusionary rhetoric and policy against Israeli Palestinians. He was also the first to assert that Israeli Palestinians posed a greater threat to Israel than the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Using populist rhetoric, he positioned himself as the voice of the people against the oligarchy. However, he clarified, “we are not anti-elitists because elites are good, but there is not an elite. There is an oligarchy, and we are anti-oligarchic.”

Netanyahu also embraced that exclusionary rhetoric and approach, and their parties ran together in the 2013 elections. Despite Netanyahu’s ability to build a coalition, the merger was not successful. Lieberman eventually split from the alliance. This marks the moment when Likud transformed into a radical right-wing populist party, even verging on extreme radical right-wing populism, with some members exhibiting characteristics almost akin to fascism.

Religion Is Instrumental for Likud

To what extent does populism in Israel intertwine with identity politics, particularly concerning issues such as nationality and religion (Jewishness)? Are there populist narratives that specifically target or resonate with certain social groups?

Okay, so for sure, nationalism is nativism as Cas Mudde calls them are very central element of Likud’s populism. The demonization of Israeli Arabs is achieved by creating a chain of equivalences that asserts ISIS is like Iran, Iran is like Hezbollah, Hezbollah is like Hamas, and Hamas is like the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority is then equated with Israeli Arabs, and Israeli Arabs are likened to the leftist traitors that support them. This chain of equivalencies places national identity at its core.

Regarding the role of religion, it is more instrumental. Most Likud members are traditionalist, observant Jews. However, they are not explicitly religious, and many do not wear a kippa to cover their heads. While they respect some religious mandates, they disregard others. Religion is primarily used functionally to distinguish between the “in-group” and the “out-group.” This is why Likud is much more tolerant in issues such as the LGBTQ community and women’s rights compared to orthodox religious parties.

How does the media landscape contribute to or counter populist narratives in Israeli politics? Have you identified any patterns in the use of media by populist and radical right figures?

They use social media due to the algorithm and the business model being highly conducive to supporting populist leaders and populist politicians. Social media supposedly enables a direct relationship between the leader and the people, eliminating the need for intermediary organizations such as political parties. It creates a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” The impact of social media is evident globally, from Trump in the US to other leaders. In this context, Netanyahu stands out as a master in the use of social media.

Israel started as a secular country and the Zionist movement strongly supported separation of church and state. Then religious populism gained ground and became so powerful today. What went wrong? How did religious populism become such a strong movement?

At the beginning of Zionism, there was a prominent socialist current. However, when the Labour Party did not succeed, or perhaps chose not to, in 1948 to establish a constitution that would formalize the separation between Church and State, things took a different turn. Due to their political alliance with the national Jewish religious party, decisions regarding the relationship between state and religion were postponed. Consequently, Israel does not recognize civil marriages and civil divorces. The religious establishment often dictates personal matters in many areas such as marriages or funerals. The state funds a national rabbi.

So, from the outset, there was no clear separation between the State and the church. 

I believe populism, in terms of establishing a distinction between the in-group and the out-group, has a strong religious identity at its core. However, Likud’s populism is not strictly religious. There is a party called Shas, an ultra-orthodox party, which has exhibited even more pronounced populist characteristics in the past, though this is not the case for Likud. For instance, one of Likud’s prominent leaders is openly homosexual, illustrating that despite its strong core religious identity, Likud is not a religious party. It seems to use religion in an instrumental manner.

Radical Right Populists in Europe are Strong Allies to Likud

Professor Dani Filc.

In the article you co-authored, ‘Israel’s Right-Wing Populists: The European Connection’, you argue: ‘The partnership between Netanyahu’s Israel and Orbán’s Hungary is indicative of the enormous change that Israel has undergone during Netanyahu’s era. Israel has become, much like Orbán’s Hungary, a right-wing, populist, illiberal powerhouse. And it is not above joining forces with a European far right with antisemitism in its lineage.’ How do you explain this enormous change, what are the dynamics of this change and how did Netanyahu achieve it?

I believe this change is part of a broader global shift marked by the rise of radical right populism in the US and Europe, which supports Likud’s Israel’s policies towards the Arab world. Notably, the Palestinian issue takes precedence over the problematic antisemitic past of many of these leaders. This holds true for figures such as Georgie Melonie and the fascist history of her party, as well as Jean Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen and the antisemitic past of the Front National. Considering Likud’s worldview and its current commitment to exclusionary radical right populism, it seems that radical right populists in Europe are strong allies to Likud. This alliance is especially evident in the close relationship between Poland’s PiS and Likud, despite the potential challenge posed by PiS’s revisionist stance on Poland’s attitudes during the Nazi regime. However, the focus appears to be more on the present than on the past.

As for the strength of Likud, its main supporters are the lower middle class, middle class, and upwardly mobile middle class, particularly among oriental Jews. The loyalty of these social groups to Likud can be explained by Likud serving as an instrument of social and political mobility for them. Likud has also evolved into a more populist party. Netanyahu, in particular, was willing to adopt more heterodox economic policies, deviating from his earlier radical neoliberal stance. Between 2009 and 2019, the decade during which Netanyahu held continuous power, there was a notable process of social mobility for these groups. The minimum wage increased by 38 percent, accumulated inflation was no more than 20 percent, and the Gini Index decreased in Israel for the first time since the mid-1980s. The two lower quintiles showed improvement compared to the higher quintiles. During this period, private consumption in Israel surpassed the average private consumption in OECD countries for the first time. From a security standpoint, the conflict remained relatively quiet, and economically, there was positive development for the social groups that constituted Netanyahu’s main support base.

Clerical Fascism Supports Colonization of Occupied Palestinian Territories

In the same article, you mention ‘the ongoing Israeli colonialism in the occupied territories.’ Do you see Israel as a colonizer? If so, what role does religious populism play in colonizing Palestinian lands?

The question is quite tricky in today’s context. I don’t think that the colonization process should encompass all of Israel, as some advocates of “free Palestine from the Jordan to the sea” claim. However, I do contend that the policies within the occupied territories reflect a colonizing approach, and there is a connection between this type of process and the rise of radical right populism, which is associated with the colonization process. Presently, the primary role in the settlement of the occupied Palestinian territories is not played by Likud as a radical right populist party, but rather by the radical religious right, which is not populist at all. They hold an avant-garde, and in many ways, an anti-democratic conception of populism. My understanding of populism is that it is inherently democratic. While it may support an illiberal form of democracy, it is not anti-democratic in my view. This is why fascism cannot be considered a form of populism; these are distinct phenomena. What is referred to as the religious Zionist party in Israel appears to be a form of religious fascism, and some scholars even characterize it as clerical fascism, providing significant support for the colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories.

In the same article, you underlined that ‘Netanyahu has turned to nativism and xenophobia, mostly in the form of Islamophobia.’ What does this Islamophobic populism mean for the Israeli Arabs and Palestinians?

For Israeli Arabs, it entailed the denial of their collective rights and the delegitimization of their political leadership. Netanyahu employed this tactic rhetorically multiple times. During the 2015 elections, he asserted, “Jews come to vote because the Israeli Arabs are coming by the hundreds in buses paid for by leftist NGOs.” This statement was made on election day. Between 2019 and 2021, there were four rounds of elections. In one of these rounds, Netanyahu and Likud advocated for the inclusion of cameras in voting booths to combat fraud. However, it was evident that this measure was targeted specifically against Israeli Arabs with the aim of reducing their voting percentage. This move backfired. In the subsequent round of elections, there was an attempt to mitigate this nativism, but it resurfaced with full force in the latest elections.

How do you explain the close relationship between Netanyahu’s Likud and the far-right populist parties in Europe like Vlaams Belang in Belgium or the Freedom Party in the Netherlands?

As mentioned earlier, Likud is currently a populist radical right party. Its messages closely mirror those of the Vlaams Belang and Freedom Party, and I see Islamophobia as essentially a replay of the traditional role that antisemitism played for the radical right in Europe. In many ways, they are like brothers in their promotion of Islamophobia. Islamophobia takes precedence over antisemitism. Given that Islamophobia seems to supersede and, in a way, legitimize their shared narrative.

What do you think about the fate of the so-called judicial reform being pushed by Netanyahu? Do you think the Israeli people will agree to it?

The proposed judicial reform has faced opposition for quite some time; as you may be aware, there were extensive protests against it, and the nation became divided following the massacre of October 7th. The ongoing war in Gaza seems to mark the end of Netanyahu’s dominance in Israeli politics. I hope for a swift resolution to the war, and I anticipate that with its end, Netanyahu will fall and leading to the abandonment of the judicial reform.

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv, Israel on July 18, 2023, against Netanyahu’s anti-democratic coup as a bill to erase judicial ‘reasonableness clause’ is expected to pass despite 27,676 reservations. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

A Just Peace Is Crucial to Preventing Reemergence of Radical Right Ideologies

How does the current war with Hamas will impact the Populist movements in Israel? Some argue that the era of Netanyahu is about to end. Would you agree with that?

I believe Netanyahu’s era is coming to an end, but the influence of clerical fascism will likely persist. In Israel, as in many democratic countries, populism arises from the blind spots and a lack of self-criticism within liberalism, particularly due to its association with neoliberalism. My optimism is limited concerning a significant shift in liberal self-critique, especially as neoliberalism remains a potent factor contributing to the emergence of populism, specifically the populist radical right in Israel.

While Netanyahu may face setbacks, and there might be a temporary decline in the power of the populist radical right, I am concerned that, in the medium and long term, we may witness a resurgence of the radical right if there are no changes in socioeconomic policies. Additionally, a shift toward a just peace in the Middle East, considering the collective rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, is crucial to preventing the reemergence of radical right ideologies.

Do you believe that the recent conflict in Gaza could potentially trigger a wave of civilizational populism beyond Israel and Palestine, and even beyond MENA region? How would you characterize this wave: as civilizational populism or a clash of civilizations?

I do not categorize all right-wing ideologies as populist. My greater concern lies with the potential emergence of clerical fascism or fascism within right-wing populist movements. It’s important to note that clerical fascism or religious fundamentalism does not necessarily have to be populist, and its non-populist manifestation can be particularly dangerous. I sincerely hope for a swift resolution to the ongoing conflict, as it could prevent an escalation and a clash of civilizations that would only lead to more circles of death and destruction. Ending the war promptly is crucial, and it should be followed by a broader understanding that the only sustainable solution for Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the entire region, is an agreement that respects the right of self-determination and security of both peoples, while safeguarding their collective and individual rights and respect it.

P&P

Workshop – The Interplay Between Migration and Populist Politics Across Europe Ahead of European Parliament Elections

Key Dates

Paper abstract submission: December 22, 2023. 

Decision about abstract acceptance: January 15, 2024.

Submission of draft papers due: April 19, 2024.

Workshop: First Day In Person: May 22, 2024 at Oxford University / Second Day Virtual: May 23, 2024.

Populism & Politics (P&P) is a digital journal dedicated to advancing the study and understanding of populism-related phenomena and populist challenges in historical and contemporary contexts. 

Migration, with its multifaceted socio-economic and political implications on voting behavior, stands at the nexus of the factors that have fueled the demand for populism in Europe and beyond. As the 2024 European Parliamentary elections approach, comprehending the trends in voting behavior and the role of immigration-related populism necessitates an interdisciplinary approach. To this end, P&P invites scholars, researchers, policymakers, and civil rights advocates to engage in a workshop looking into the interplay between populism and migration.

The central theme of the workshop revolves around elections and anti-immigration populism in the European context. Suggested topics include but are not limited to:

Impact of Migration on Voter Behavior: Examine the influence of refugee flows and migrant populations in the EU member countries on voting patterns, party preferences, and electoral results. Case studies from both individual EU countries and groups of countries are encouraged.

Integration Policies and Political Effects: Investigate the relationship between different approaches to immigrant integration (e.g., multiculturalism vs. assimilation) and their political consequences, including support for populist radical right (PRR) parties.

The Role of (Social) Media in Shaping Migration Politics: Examine how media coverage and political/populist discourse on migration issues influence public opinion and political decision-making, particularly in the context of populism.

Migrant Political Participation: Explore the political engagement and participation of migrants, including their involvement in local politics, voter turnout, and the emergence of migrant-led political movements, and investigate those movements’ stances vis-à-vis populist politics. 

Nationalism and Anti-Migrant Sentiment: Investigate the impact of nationalist ideologies and anti-migrant sentiment on electoral politics in different European countries and regions.

Immigrant Political Mobilization: Study the strategies and effectiveness of immigrant-led advocacy groups and political movements in counteracting anti-immigrant policies, both at national and EU levels.

Migration and Welfare State Politics: Analyze how immigration affects the design and sustainability of welfare state policies, including debates about social benefits, welfare chauvinism, and access to healthcare for migrants, and in this context, explore the impact of populist discourses on welfare state policies.

Asylum Policies and Populist Discourse: Examine the relationship between asylum policies, populist rhetoric, and public opinion, particularly regarding the acceptance or rejection of refugees.

Border Security and Political Agendas: Investigate how populist narratives and debates over border security, border controls, and border crises shape the political agendas of European governments and parties.

Election Campaign Strategies on Migration: Analyze how political parties use migration issues in their election campaigns, including framing policies and campaign rhetoric.

The European Union and Migration Governance: Examine the EU’s role in shaping migration policies across member states and the impact of EU decisions on national politics with regard to populist anti-migrant policies in member states. 

Local Politics and Migration: Investigate the role of local governments and municipal policies in addressing populist anti-immigrant discourse.

Populist Discourse and Gendered Othering: Analyze how populist discourse constructs and reinforces gendered “othering” of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers and its implications for policy and public opinion.

Migrant Women’s Political Mobilization: Study the role of migrant women in political movements and advocacy efforts, addressing gender-specific issues and advocating for gender equality within migration policies in a populist era.

Gender and Populist Party Support: Examine what kind of role gender plays in support of anti-immigrant populist parties, including populist appeals to different gender groups.

Selected papers will undergo expert review and receive constructive feedback before and during the workshop. After the workshop, authors will be asked to revise their papers for publication in Populism and Politics (P&P).

The deadline for submitting the paper abstract (400-600 words) and a bio (max. 400 words) is Friday, December 22, 2023. Draft papers are expected to be submitted by Friday, April 19, 2024. The workshop will be a two-day event, taking place on May 22, 2024, in person at Oxford University, UK, and on May 23, 2024, virtually.

For submissions, please contact: ecps@populismstudies.org

For guidelines and additional information, please visit: https://www.populismstudies.org/journals/pp-periodicals/about/

Photo: Shutterstock.

Digital Authoritarianism in Turkish Cyberspace: A Study of Deception and Disinformation by the AKP Regime’s AKtrolls and AKbots

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Please cite as:
Yilmaz, Ihsan & Kenes, Bulent. (2023). “Digital Authoritarianism in Turkish Cyberspace: A Study of Deception and Disinformation by the AKP Regime’s AKtrolls and Akbots.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 13, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0026



Abstract

This article explores the evolving landscape of digital authoritarianism in Turkish cyberspace, focusing on the deceptive strategies employed by the AKP regime through AKtrolls, AKbots and hackers. Initially employing censorship and content filtering, the government has progressively embraced sophisticated methods, including the weaponization of legislation and regulatory bodies to curtail online freedoms. In the third generation of information controls, a sovereign national cyber-zone marked by extensive surveillance practices has emerged. Targeted persecution of critical netizens, coupled with (dis)information campaigns, shapes the digital narrative. Central to this is the extensive use of internet bots, orchestrated campaigns, and AKtrolls for political manipulation, amplifying government propaganda and suppressing dissenting voices. As Turkey navigates a complex online landscape, the study contributes insights into the multifaceted tactics of Erdogan regime’s digital authoritarianism.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Bulent Kenes

Since the last decade, authoritarian governments have co-opted social media, compromising its potential for promoting individual liberties (Yilmaz and Yang, 2023). In recent years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan-led Turkish government has staunchly endeavoured to control online platforms and manipulate digital spaces to consolidate power, stifle dissent, and shape public opinion. Given the large online user base and the declining influence of traditional media, the internet has become a crucial platform for opposition voices. In response, President Erdogan’s “authoritarian Islamist populist regime” (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018) has implemented various measures to regulate and monitor the digital space to suppress dissent (Bellut, 2021).

Turkey’s domestic internet policy under the Erdogan regime has shown a convergence towards information control practices observed in countries like Russia and China, despite Turkey’s nominal compliance with Euro-Atlantic norms on cyber-security (Eldem, 2020). This convergence is characterized by increasing efforts to establish “digital sovereignty” and prioritize information security, often serving as a pretext for content control and internet censorship (Eldem, 2020). The Erdogan regime takes a neo-Hobbesian view of cyberspace and seeks to exert sovereignty in this realm through various information controls (Eldem, 2020). Under the Erdogan regime, there has been an increase in the surveillance of online activities, leveraging the surveillance and repression tools provided by social media and digital technologies. Once the regime established its hegemony over the state, it expanded its surveillance tactics to govern society. 

In Turkey, a combination of actors including riot police, social media monitoring agents, intelligence officers, pro-government trolls, hackers, secret witnesses, informants, and collaborators work together to identify and target individuals deemed “risky.” This surveillance apparatus follows the hierarchical structure of the Turkish authoritarian state, with President Erdogan overseeing its developments (Topak, 2019).

The article examines the Turkish government’s pervasive use of trolls, internet bots, orchestrated campaigns, and transnational manipulations that have shaped the country’s online environment. Social media platforms, especially Twitter, are central to these manipulation efforts in Turkey. While Twitter has taken action against thousands of accounts associated with the ruling party’s youth wing, the resistance from the government highlights the significance of these online campaigns.

The use of fake accounts, compromised profiles, and silent bots further deepens the complexities of digital authoritarianism in Turkey. These accounts serve as vehicles for spreading disinformation, astroturfing, and manipulating social media trends. While efforts have been made to identify and remove such accounts, the adaptability of these manipulative actors poses a significant challenge. Many of these bots remain dormant for extended periods, resurfacing strategically to create and promote fake trends while evading conventional detection methods (Elmas, 2023). These software applications play a pivotal role in amplifying government propaganda, countering opposition discourse, and creating an illusion of widespread support. From replicating messages to retweeting content across hundreds of accounts, these automated bots have become instrumental in shaping online narratives and suppressing dissenting voices (Yesil et al., 2017; Eldem, 2023).

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls

The Erdogan regime appointed trustee to Zaman daily in Istanbul, Turkey on March 4, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

Digital authoritarianism is extensive utilization of information control measures by authoritarian regimes to shape and influence the online experiences and behaviors of the public (Howells and Henry, 2021). These regimes have adeptly adapted to the mechanisms of internet governance by exploiting the vast reach of new media platforms. They employ various forms of censorship, both overt and covert, to suppress dissent and control the dissemination of information. 

The literature on digital authoritarianism extensively explores how China has effectively utilized digital technology to maintain and strengthen its rule (Polyakova & Meserole, 2019; Dragu & Lupu, 2021; Sherman, 2021). While China relies on sophisticated surveillance systems and targeted persecution of individuals, the people of Russia experience the impact of digital authoritarianism through internet censorship, manipulation of information flow, the spread of disinformation, and the mobilization of trolls and automated bots (Yilmaz, 2023; Timucin, 2021).

In the realm of digital authoritarianism, disinformation has become a favored tool (Diamond, 2021; Tucker et al., 2017). Authoritarian regimes obscure information, engage in deception, and manipulate the context to shape public opinion (Bimber and de Zúñiga, 2020). It is important to note that digital authoritarianism is not a uniform strategy; different regimes adopt various approaches. Some directly restrict access to the internet, while others rely on heavy censorship and disinformation campaigns (Timucin, 2021; Polyakova & Meserole, 2019). 

The Russian model of digital authoritarianism operates with subtlety. Manipulating social media networks is easier to accomplish and maintain compared to comprehensive monitoring systems (Timucin, 2021). In these cases, the open nature of social media becomes a double-edged sword, enabling the widespread distribution of both accurate information and misinformation while amplifying voices from various ends of the political spectrum (Brown et al., 2012).

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls in Turkey

During the third term of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2011, Turkey witnessed a shift towards increasing populist authoritarianism. Since then, the dissidents and critics of the AKP government have been framed and demonised as the enemies of the Turkish people (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018). 

Initially, the government targeted conventional media outlets, subjecting them to various tactics employed by President Erdogan (Yanardagoglu, 2018). Many critical media organizations were forced out of business, and their assets were taken over by pro-government entities. The persecutions both preceding and after the state of emergency in 2016 heightened, leading to the confiscation of media groups like the Gulen-linked Samanyolu Group, Koza Ipek Group, and Feza Publications (Timucin, 2021; BBC 2016).  These actions effectively created a clientelist relationship between the government and the media, as anti-government entities were closed and transferred or sold to pro-government supporters (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018).

The government’s dominance over traditional media outlets served as the foundation for Erdogan’s digital authoritarianism, granting the government control over the “formal” form of digital media (Timucin, 2021). Faced with limitations in conventional media, the public turned to online sites, alternative media, and social media platforms in search of reliable news and information.

The Gezi Park protests in 2013 marked a significant moment in Turkey’s social movements and the role of social media activism. These protests initially started as a peaceful sit-in at Gezi Park to oppose the demolition of trees for a shopping mall construction but quickly escalated into one of the largest civil unrests in Turkey’s recent history. During the early days of the protests, traditional media outlets did not provide adequate coverage, leading people to seek alternative sources of information. Social media platforms played a crucial role as a source of news, organization, and political expression, particularly among urban, tech-savvy youth (Yesil et al., 2017). The number of Twitter users in Turkey skyrocketed from an estimated 2 million to 12 million during the protests (Ozturk, 2013; Varnalı and Görgülü, 2015). Social media allowed for a more decentralized and inclusive form of communication during the protests, as it facilitated the rapid dissemination of information and bypassed traditional media gatekeepers (O’Donohue et al., 2020). 

The corruption scandal in December 2013 was another event where social media played a crucial role in shaping public opinion and disseminating information. Government opponents utilized social media platforms to share incriminating evidence of corruption involving President Erdogan, his party, and his cabinet. In response, the ruling AKP adopted a heavy-handed approach, detaining Twitter users and implementing bans on platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. The government positioned social media as a threat to Turkey’s national unity, state sovereignty, social cohesion, and moral values (Yesil et al., 2017; Kocer, 2015).

In recent years, Turkey has made efforts to assert control over social media platforms and internet service providers. In 2020, a “disinformation law” was introduced, pressuring these entities to remove “disinformation” from online platforms. Proposed changes to Article 19 in 2022 aim to enhance control over the cyber space, granting more powers to the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) to regulate the internet. These developments indicate Turkey’s increasing efforts to curb the flow of information, maintain a favorable narrative, and suppress dissenting voices, potentially impacting freedom of expression and the right to access information in the country.

The increasing level of digital governance in Turkey has manifested in various forms, leading to significant consequences. Content regulation has played a crucial role in the government’s efforts to control the internet. Bodies such as BTK have been granted the power to block access to online content deemed threatening. This has created a climate of increased pressure on internet service providers to comply with the state’s requests regarding content removal and access to personal user data. Failure to adhere to these obligations can result in penalties or even the revocation of licenses. There are also speculations that service providers may face bandwidth reduction and limitations on advertisements as a means of exerting further control.

Furthermore, cybercrime provisions intended to safeguard against hacking and online harassment have been instrumentalized by the state to gather user information for investigation, prosecution, and cooperation with “international entities.” Individuals found guilty of online offenses can be brought to court and punished under specific articles of the Turkish Penal Code.

In summary, the government introduced legal restrictions, content removal requests, website and social media platform shutdowns, prosecution of internet users, state surveillance, and disinformation campaigns. These measures have resulted in a significant decline in internet freedom and the rise of digital authoritarianism in Turkey between 2013 and the controversial coup attempt in July 2016.

Technical Instruments and Surveillance Methods to Monitor and Control Cyberspace

The Erdogan regime has employed various technical instruments and surveillance methods to monitor and control online activities. Reports indicate that Western companies provided spyware tools to Turkish security agencies, which have been in use since at least 2012. These tools include Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, enabling surveillance of online communications, blocking of online content, and redirecting users to download spyware-infected versions of software like Skype and Avast. Additionally, the Remote-Control System and FinFisher spyware programs are used for extracting emails, files, passwords, and controlling audio and video recording systems on targeted devices (Privacy International, 2014; Yesil et al., 2017; CitizenLab, 2018; AccessNow, 2018).

The Erdogan regime also established a “Social Media Monitoring Unit,” a specialized police force responsible for monitoring citizens’ social media posts. There is also a group known as AKtrolls, who can act as informants and report social media posts of targeted users to security agencies, potentially leading to arrests. The AKP has also formed a team of “white hat” hackers, ostensibly for enhancing Turkey’s cyber-defense. Furthermore, civilian informants have been mobilized for internet surveillance, with ordinary citizens encouraged to spy on each other online, creating a culture of “online snitching” (Yesil et al., 2017). This pervasive surveillance approach, utilizing both software and social-user-based surveillance, creates a climate of self-censorship and vigilance among users (Saka, 2021; Morozov, 2012).

The National Intelligence Organization of Turkey (MİT) has been granted extended surveillance powers, both online and offline, following the post-Gezi Park protests. Law No. 6532 allowed MİT to collect private data and information about individuals without a court order from various entities. The law also granted legal immunity to MİT personnel and criminalized the publication and broadcasting of leaked intelligence information. MİT operates within the authoritarian state’s chain of command. Given MİT’s lack of autonomy, it is highly likely that the Erdogan regime exploits the agency’s expanded powers for unwarranted surveillance, political witch hunts of dissidents, journalists, and even ordinary online users, aiming to suppress any online criticism (Yeşil, 2016).

In October 2015, the AKP implemented the “Rewards Regulation,” which offered monetary rewards to informants who assisted security agencies in the arrest of alleged terror suspects. This measure encouraged journalists, NGOs, and citizens to monitor online communications and report dissenting individuals (Zagidullin et al., 2021).

The Turkish police introduced a smartphone app and a dedicated webpage that allowed citizens to report social media posts they deemed as terrorist propaganda. The main opposition party claimed that the police prepared summaries of proceedings for 17,000 social media users, and they were attempting to locate the addresses of 45,000 others (Eldem, 2023). Consequently, the state of emergency (SoE) decrees following controversial coup attempt in 2016 further tightened the government’s control over the internet. Decree 670 granted “all relevant authorities” access to all forms of information, digital or otherwise, about alleged coup suspects and their families. Decree 671 empowered the government to take any necessary measures regarding digital communications provided by ISPs, data centers, and other relevant private entities in the name of national security and public order. Finally, Decree 680 expanded police powers to investigate cybercrime by requiring ISPs to share personal information with the police without a court order (Topak, 2019; Yesil et al., 2017; Eldem, 2023).

Prior to Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023, Turkish prosecutors initiated investigations into social media users accused of spreading disinformation aiming to create fear, panic, and turmoil in society. The Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the Twitter account holders who allegedly collaborated to spread disinformation, potentially reaching around 40 million social media users (Turkish Minute, 2023).

The Erdogan regime has significantly expanded its online censorship toolkit through legislative amendments passed in October 2022 (HRW, 2023). As an example of the restrictions imposed, on May 14, 2023, Twitter announced that it was restricting access to certain account holders in Turkey to ensure the platform remains available to the people of Turkey.

AKtrolls 

The Erdogan regime responded to critical voices on social media during the Gezi Protests by employing political trolls. This strategy of political trolling, whether carried out by humans or algorithms, is closely associated with Russia and has been adopted by AKP’s trolls, known as AKtrolls, who exhibit similarities to Kremlin-operated networks. The deep integration of political trolling within the political system and mainstream media in Turkey has been highlighted in a study by Karatas and Saka (2017). These trolling practices are facilitated through the collaboration of political institutions and media outlets. Trolls act as precursors, disseminating propaganda and testing public opinion before mainstream political figures introduce favored populist policies and narratives.

The AKP’s troll army was initially established by the vice-chairman of the AKP and primarily consisted of members from AKP youth organizations. Over time, it has grown into an organization of 6,000 individuals, with 30 core members responsible for setting trending hashtags that other members then promote. Many of these trolls are graduates of pro-AKP Imam Hatip schools. It is worth noting that these trolls receive financial compensation, and there are indications that pro-AKP networks provide additional benefits to successful trolls, including entities like TRT (Turkish Radio and Television) and mobile phone operator Turkcell.

The first network map of AKtrolls was provided by Hafiza Kolektifi, a research collective based in Ankara, in October 2015. This map revealed the close connections among 113 Twitter accounts, including not only ordinary trolls but also politicians, advisors to President Erdogan, and pro-government journalists. The map was created based on the analysis of a popular and aggressive troll named @esatreis, who was identified as a youth member of the AKP. By monitoring the users followed by @esatreis using the Twitter Application Programming Interface (API) and conducting in-depth network analysis, two distinct groups were identified. The first group consisted of politicians, Erdogan’s advisors, and pro-government journalists, while the second group comprised anonymous trolls using pseudonyms. The study demonstrated that @esatreis acted as a bridge between the troll group and the politicians/journalists, with Mustafa Varank, an advisor to Erdogan and currently the Minister of Industry and Technology, serving as a central connection node between these two groups (Karatas & Saka, 2017).

It was revealed that politicians and state officials maintained their own anonymous troll accounts, in addition to their official ones. Instances have surfaced where AKP officials were caught promoting themselves through fake accounts. For instance, Minister of the Environment and Urbanization Mehmet Ozhaseki and AKP’s Bursa Mayor Recep Altepe were exposed for sharing supportive tweets mentioning themselves mistakenly from their official accounts instead of their fake ones. Another case involved AKP deputy Ahmet Hamdi Çamlı, who inadvertently opened his front camera while live-streaming parliamentary discussions with a fake account using a female name (@YelizAdeley) and a teenager’s profile photo. Within the AKP, different trolls seem to specialize in specific subjects aligned with the party’s policies and strategies. For example, accounts such as @WakeUpAttack and @UstAkilOyunlari fabricate conspiracy theories related to international affairs, while @AKKulis shares tweets from state officials and provides updates on AKP’s latest news and activities. Another troll account, @Baskentci, shared lists of journalists to be detained and media outlets to be shut down, as well as advanced information on post-coup attempt decisions (Tartanoglu, 2016).

AKP trolls specifically target and disrupt social media users who express opposition to the ruling party, openly identifying themselves as its supporters. While they are known within party circles, they remain anonymous to outsiders. However, some trolls, driven by rewards and recognition within their social networks, choose not to conceal their identities. In fact, Sözeri (2016) describes how certain pro-government journalists themselves act as political trolls and even lead the attacks. It is important to note that political trolls are not necessarily anonymous or isolated individuals. When aligned with a ruling party led by a president with increased powers, many trolls shed their anonymity, and some even threaten legal action when called out as trolls (Saka, 2021). Realizing that such tactics were not improving the AKP’s popularity, the party changed its approach just before the 2015 general elections by establishing the New Turkey Digital Office, which focused on more conventional forms of online propaganda (Benedictus, 2016).

The proliferation of digital disinformation coordinated networks of fake accounts, and the deployment of political trolls have had a significant impact on online discourse in Turkey, hindering the free expression of critical voices and fostering an environment of manipulation and propaganda. Much like the Russian “web brigades,” which consist of hundreds of thousands of paid users who post positive comments about the Putin administration, Erdogan regime also recruited an “army of trolls” to reinforce the declining hegemony of the ruling party shortly after the Gezi Park protests in 2013 (Bulut & Yoruk, 2017). Their objective is to discredit, intimidate, and suppress critical voices, often resorting to labelling journalists and celebrities as “traitors,” “terrorists,” “supporters of terrorism,” and “infidels.” Consequently, Twitter has transformed into a medium of government-led populist polarization, misinformation, and online attacks since the Gezi protests (Bulut & Yoruk, 2017). The situation worsened after the events of 2016, exposing critical voices to open cyberbullying by trolls and intensifying their persecution (Saka, 2021).

One prevalent form of political trolling is the deliberate disruption of influential voices on Twitter who contribute to politically critical hashtags or share news related to potential emergencies. Trolls and hackers primarily target professional journalists, opposition politicians, activists, and members of opposition parties. AKtrolls repeatedly attack and disturb these individuals using offensive and abusive language, labelling them as terrorists or traitors, intimidating them, and even threatening arrest. However, ordinary citizens who participate on Twitter with non-anonymous profiles are also vulnerable targets for AKtrolls. Being targeted by trolls often leads to individuals quitting social media, practicing self-censorship, and ultimately participating less in public debates (Karatas & Saka, 2017).

AKtrolls specifically target critical voices that share undesirable content or use specific hashtags. They employ tactics such as posting tweets with humiliating, intimidating, and sexually abusive insults. Doxxing, the act of revealing personal and private information about individuals, including their home addresses and phone numbers, is also a common strategy employed by AKtrolls. In some cases, AKtrolls may have connections to the security forces, particularly the police. Additionally, hacking and leaking private direct messages have been popular tactics used to discredit opposing voices on Twitter. Pro-AKP hackers affiliated with the AKtrolls have targeted numerous journalists. The initial stage often involves hacking into the journalist’s Twitter account and posting tweets that apologize to Erdogan for criticism or betrayal. Furthermore, AKtrolls frequently engage in collective reporting to Twitter in an attempt to suspend or block targeted Twitter handles (Karatas & Saka, 2017).

A significant event within the ruling AKP was the forced resignation of then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu by Erdogan. Prior to his resignation, an anonymous WordPress blog titled the “Pelikan Declaration” emerged, accusing Davutoglu of attempting to bypass Erdogan’s authority and making various allegations against him. This declaration was widely circulated by a group of AKtrolls who later became known as the “Pelikan Group.” It is worth noting that this group had close ties to a media conglomerate managed by the Albayrak Family, particularly Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and Turkey’s former Minister of Economy, as well as his elder brother and media mogul Serhat Albayrak (Saka, 2021).

AKbots

The Erdogan regime extensively utilizes internet bots, which are software applications running automated tasks over the Internet, to support paid AKtrolls (Yesil et al., 2017). Researchers have demonstrated that during the aftermath of the Ankara bombings in October 2015, the heavy use of automated bots played a crucial role in countering anti-AKP discourse. Twitter even took action to ban a bot-powered hashtag that praised President Erdogan, leading Turkish ministers to claim a global conspiracy against Erdogan (Hurriyet Daily News, 2016; Lapowsky, 2015).

The use of automated bots differs from having multiple accounts in terms of scale. The presence of bots becomes noticeable when a message is replicated or retweeted to more than a few hundred other accounts. It is worth noting that as of November 2016, Istanbul and Ankara ranked as the top two cities for AKbot usage, according to the major internet security company Norton (Paganini, 2016; Yesil et al., 2017; Eldem, 2020).

Furthermore, DFRLab (2018) has revealed that many tactics, including doxing (revealing personal information), are employed through cross-platform coordination. It is important to recognize that in the Turkish context, the influence of AKtrolls extends beyond internet platforms and involves close cooperation with conventional media outlets under Erdogan’s control (Saka, 2021). In October 2019, DFRLab identified a network of inauthentic accounts that aimed to mobilize domestic support for the Turkish government’s fight against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria (Grossman et al., 2020). This network involved fabricated personalities created on the same day with similar usernames, several pro-AKP retweet rings, and centrally managed compromised accounts that were utilized for AKP propaganda. The tweets originating from these accounts criticized the pro-Kurdish HDP, accusing it of terrorism and employing social media manipulation. The tweets also targeted the main opposition party, CHP. 

Additionally, the accounts promoted the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum, which consolidated power in Erdogan, and sought to increase domestic support for Turkish intervention in Syria. Some English-language tweets attempted to bolster the international legitimacy of Turkey’s offensive in October 2019, praising Turkey for accepting Syrian refugees and criticizing the refugee policies of several Western nations. The dataset of accounts included individuals who appeared to be leaders of local AKP branches, members of digital marketing firms, sports fans, as well as clearly fabricated personalities or members of retweet rings (Grossman et al., 2020).

In 2019, a significant proportion of the daily top ten Twitter trends in Turkey were generated by fake accounts or bots, averaging 26.7 percent. The impact was even higher for the top five Twitter trends, reaching 47.5 percent (Elmas, 2023). State-organized hate speech, trolls, and online harassment often go unchecked (Briar, 2020).

In 2020, Twitter took action to remove over 7,000 accounts associated with the youth wing of the ruling AKP. These accounts were responsible for generating more than 37 million tweets, which aimed to create a false perception of grassroots support for government policies, promote AKP perspectives, and criticize its opponents. Many of these accounts were found to be fake, while others belonged to real individuals whose accounts had been compromised and controlled by AKP supporters. Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, issued threats against Twitter for removing this large network of government-aligned fake and compromised accounts (Twitter Safety, 2020; HRW, 2023a).

A study published in the ACM Web Conference 2023 identified Turkey as one of the most active countries for bot networks on Twitter. These networks were found to be pushing political slogans as part of a manipulation campaign leading up to the 2023 elections. Alongside the reactivated bots, the main opposition presidential candidate, Kilicdaroglu, warned about the circulation of algorithmically fabricated audio or video clips aimed at discrediting him (Karatas & Saka, 2017).

Bots on social media engage in malicious activities such as amplifying harmful narratives, spreading disinformation, and astroturfing. Elmas (2023) detected over 212,000 such bots on Twitter targeting Turkish trends, referring to them as “astrobots.” Twitter has purged these bots en masse six times since June 2018. According to Elmas’ study, the percentage of fake trends on Twitter varied over time. Between January 2021 and November 2021, the average daily percentage of fake trends was 30 percent. After Twitter purged bots around November 2021, the share of fake trends decreased to 10 percent in March 2022. However, it started to rise again and reached 20 percent by November 2022. As of April 7, 2023, just before the 2023 Turkish election, the attacks continued, and the percentage of fake trends fluctuated between 35 percent and 9 percent (on weekends). Notably, many bots in the dataset were silent, meaning they did not actively post tweets. Instead, they were used to create fake trends by posting tweets promoting a trend and immediately deleting them. This silent behaviour makes it challenging for bot detection methods to identify them, with 87 percent of the bot accounts remaining silent for at least one month (Elmas, 2023). 

In May 2023, during the election month, Turkey saw 145 million tweets shared from 12,479,000 accounts, with 23 percent of these identified as bot accounts by the Turkish General Directorate of Security. An examination of the top 10 trending hashtags revealed that 52 percent of accounts using these hashtags were bot accounts (Bulur, 2022). It was also reported that approximately 12,000 Russian- and Hungarian-speaking Twitter accounts had been reactivated, along with reactivated Turkish-speaking accounts, accompanied by numerous bot followers to amplify their posts. Although only 27 percent of the Turkish population is believed to use Twitter, the impact is significant, with 20 percent of the trending topics on Turkish Twitter in 2023 being manipulated and not reflective of public discourse. A dataset covering the period from 2013 to 2023 indicated that 20 to 50 percent of trending topics in Turkey were fake and primarily propelled by bots (Soylu, 2023, Unker, 2023). 

Hackers

Photo: Shutterstock.

The Erdogan regime’s extensive investments in domestic and global information operations, include the recruitment of hackers worldwide. The regime has also established a “white hat” hacker team ostensibly for enhancing Turkey’s cyber-defense (Yeşil et al., 2017). However, there are suspicions that this team has been utilized offensively to silence government critics (Cimpanu, 2016).

The private Cihan News Agency, known for its accurate and swift reporting of Turkish election results since the 1990s, faced a significant cyberattack for the first time during the local elections on March 30, 2014, raising concerns about election security (Haber Turk, 2014). Opposition newspapers, including Zaman, Taraf, and Cumhuriyet, which faced similar cyberattacks, pointed to Ankara as the source of these attacks, raising discussions about the state and service providers’ negligence and potential involvement (Akyildiz, 2014).

A similar situation recurred during the 2015 general elections when concerns about the Erdogan regime manipulating election results intensified. On the evening of June 7, 2015, during the ballot counting, a cyberattack targeted the Cihan News Agency, disrupting its services. Zaman newspaper reported that the attack was linked to a special team established within TÜBİTAK, with connections to foreign countries established through TÜBİTAK computers and botnet networks used to direct the attacks and obscure the source (Internet Haber, 2015).

Starting from 2009, Erdoganist hackers also targeted numbers of western countries whose politicians expressed anti-Islamic views or criticized Erdogan regime in Turkey (Souli, 2018; Hern, 2017; Space Watch, 2018; Goud, 2018). In a striking illustration of how cyber activities often align with geopolitics, the Turkish hacktivist group Ayyildiz Tim faced accusations of hacking and taking control of the social media accounts of prominent US journalists in 2018. Their aim was to disseminate messages in support of President Erdogan. These cyber incidents unfolded amidst a period of notably strained US-Turkish ties. Additionally, Turkey grappled with an economic crisis, widely attributed to Erdogan’s ill-advised economic policies, although he consistently laid the blame on the US. The US-based cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike exposed the activities of Ayyildiz Tim, a group active since 2002. There is evidence indicating potential ties between Ayyildiz Tim and security forces loyal to Erdogan (Space Watch, 2018; Goud, 2018).

In January 2023, a Turkish hacker collective known as “Türk hackteam” initiated a call for cyberattacks targeting Swedish authorities and banks, coupled with a warning, stating, “If you desecrate the Quran one more time, we will begin spreading sensitive personal data of Swedes” (Hull, 2023). Several prominent Swedish websites reportedly suffered temporary outages due to DDoS attacks, with responsibility for these attacks claimed by the Turkish hacker group Türk Hack Team. Identifying themselves as nationalists, they alleged their lack of affiliation with Erdogan, who had previously stated that Sweden should not expect Turkish NATO support after the Quran incident (Skold, 2023).

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the 2023 presidential elections, Turkey’s primary opposition leader and presidential candidate, Kilicdaroglu, made allegations that the ruling AKP had engaged foreign hackers to orchestrate an online campaign against him, employing fabricated videos and images (Turkish Minute, 2023a).

Demonstrating the Erdogan regime’s keen interest in hacking endeavors, an annual event known as “Hack Istanbul” has been hosted by Turkey since 2018. This unique competition challenges hackers worldwide with sophisticated real-world cyberattack scenarios crafted under the guidance of leading global experts (Hurriyet Daily News, 2021). The Turkish Presidency’s Digital Transformation Office has been responsible for organizing these hacking competitions, which offer substantial financial rewards. Furthermore, the regime has initiated Cyber Intelligence Contests as part of its training campaigns, effectively expanding the pool of individuals with cybersecurity skills (Cyber Intelligence Contest, 2021). 

Conclusion

The evolution of information controls in Turkey began with first-generation techniques, such as censorship and content filtering, aimed at restricting access to specific websites and online platforms. However, as technology advanced, the government adopted more sophisticated methods. One prevalent tool has been the instrumentalization of legislation, through which laws have been enacted to curtail online freedoms and enable state surveillance. Additionally, regulatory bodies, originally intended to ensure fair practices, have been weaponized to enforce censorship and impose restrictions, eroding the independence of online platforms. Furthermore, the Turkish government has resorted to tactics like shutdowns, throttling, and content removal requests to suppress dissenting voices and control the flow of information. 

In the third generation of information controls, Turkey has focused on establishing a sovereign national cyber-zone characterized by extensive surveillance practices. Advanced technologies have been employed to monitor online activities, creating a pervasive atmosphere of surveillance and curtailing privacy rights. Critical netizens, including activists, journalists, and dissidents, have faced targeted persecution, enduring harassment, intimidation, and legal prosecution to silence opposition and stifle open discourse. Moreover, regime-sponsored (dis)information campaigns have played a significant role in shaping the digital narrative. 

Central to the concept of digital authoritarianism in Turkey is the extensive deployment of internet bots and automated tools. The use of internet bots, fake accounts, and orchestrated campaigns for political manipulation is indeed pervasive in Turkey, particularly in shaping public opinion, supporting government policies, and undermining political opponents. Numerous studies have revealed the extensive deployment of automated bots by the Erdogan regime and its supporters to amplify government propaganda, counter anti-government narratives, and create a false perception of grassroots support. 

The deployment of individuals known as “AKtrolls” has been used to disseminate pro-government propaganda and attack dissenting voices. Automated bots have been utilized to amplify certain narratives while suppressing opposing viewpoints, distorting the digital discourse, and undermining the integrity of online discussions.

As the Turkish political landscape evolves, the role of social media in shaping public opinion and electoral outcomes remains a critical concern. The elections intensified the battle for online influence, with the government attempting to purchase accounts and engage with dark web groups. The landscape of online manipulation in Turkey is further complicated by the prevalence of fake accounts, compromised profiles, and silent bots that intermittently generate and promote false trends. Silent accounts, which quickly delete tweets, evade detection, making it challenging to identify them. 

Additionally, the manipulation of social media in Turkey has a transnational dimension, with instances of foreign interference and coordinated campaigns coming to light. The use of extensive networks of fake or compromised accounts to amplify certain political views or spread false information on social media has become increasingly prevalent, particularly during politically sensitive periods like elections. Many of these coordinated networks are dedicated to promoting pro-Erdogan perspectives, and the regime occasionally presents their artificial presence as evidence of grassroots support for its policies.


Funding: This research was funded by Gerda Henkel Foundation, AZ 01/TG/21, Emerging Digital Technologies and the Future of Democracy in the Muslim World.


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Mapping Global Populism — Panel 5: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan

Please cite as:
Sithole, Neo & Nguijol, Gabriel Cyrille. (2023). “Mapping Global Populism — Panel 5: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 13, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0044   

 

This report is based on the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan,” which took place online on September 28, 2023. The panel featured renowned scholars on populism in Pakistan. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the distinguished panelists.

By Neo Sithole* and Gabriel Cyrille Nguijol

This report summarizes the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan,” which took place online on September 28, 2023. The panel was jointly organised by the ECPS, The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), and the Department of Politics and International Relations, which featured renowned scholars on populism and authoritarianism in Pakistan, was moderated by Dr Susan de Groot Heupner (Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in Melbourne, Australia) and the speakers were Dr Samina Yasmeen (Professor, Head of Department of International Relations, Asian Studies and Politics in University of Western Australia’s School of Social Sciences), Ramsha Jahangir (A media professional and researcher), Dr Fizza Batool (Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at SZABIST University, Karachi, Pakistan), Dr Raja M. Ali Saleem (Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan) and Dr Afiya Shehrbano Zia (Pakistani feminist researcher on gender and social development).

 

In starting the panel our moderator for this session Dr Susan de Groot Heupner (Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in Melbourne, Australia) provided us with a brief introduction where it was articulated that Pakistan has been considered one of the four nations of the forerunners of the mainstreaming of populism in Asia.  As such, Pakistan holds particular importance in giving focus to populism in non-Western regions considering the domination of populist scholarship in European, American, and North American scopes of populism that largely exclude other aspects of populism found in populism elsewhere. 

Dr. Samina Yasmeen: “Imran Khan’s Populist Narratives”

The consequences of Khan’s narratives, as outlined by Dr. Samina Yasmeen, include societal divisions, contributing to reduced social cohesion in Pakistan. The exclusive nature of his populist rhetoric led to berating and discrediting those with differing opinions, fostering closed-mindedness. This division ultimately led to Khan’s loss of power through a vote of no-confidence in 2022, revitalizing the role of military and judiciary in maintaining peace, law and order.

In her presentation, Dr. Samina Yasmeen delved into the populist models of Imran Khan, drawing parallels between his popularity rooted in military activism (pre-2018) and other populist figures worldwide who employ militant narratives. However, she emphasized the inherent limitations of this model.

Dr. Yasmeen initiated her talk by outlining the dynamic between ‘master narrators,’ responsible for crafting populist narratives, and ‘informal narrators,’ individuals connecting to and disseminating these narratives. Imran Khan’s narrative, as identified by Dr. Yasmeen, portrays Pakistan’s current state as stagnant, necessitating a transition to its ‘ideal state.’ Notably, this ‘ideal state’ is articulated with strong Islamic undertones, asserting that Pakistan’s true potential lies in embracing its Muslim identity.

This narrative underscores the existence of obstacles hindering the realization of the ‘ideal state,’ primarily corrupt political elites are portrayed as the archetypal antagonists in populist rhetoric: Corrupt political elites who had deprived ‘the people’ of the right to a comfortable life and as hinderances of reaching to the ‘ideal state.’ Imran Khan intertwines this elite corruption with the notion of a Western conspiracy, collaborating with local leaders who oppose Khan’s Islamist views and defend a more liberal Pakistan. The judiciary becomes part of this group when Pakistan Supreme Court ruled against Imran Khan’s attempt to dissolve parliament.

Another dimension of Khan’s populist narrative, according to Dr. Yasmeen, is the elevation of the military, suggesting a collaborative effort between the civilian and military sectors to achieve the ‘ideal state.’ Notably, this narrative predates Khan’s falling out with the military, which had allegedly assisted in his 2018 election victory.

Dr. Yasmeen highlighted Khan’s strategic language use, combining Western liberal ideas for societal elites and Islamic principles, phrases, and metaphors for the broader population. This linguistic approach, coupled with Khan’s utilization of social media and mass rallies, significantly bolstered his popularity.

The consequences of Khan’s narratives, as outlined by Dr. Yasmeen, include societal divisions, contributing to reduced social cohesion in Pakistan. The exclusive nature of his populist rhetoric led to berating and discrediting those with differing opinions, fostering closed-mindedness. This division ultimately led to Khan’s loss of power through a vote of no-confidence in 2022, revitalizing the role of military and judiciary in maintaining peace, law and order. Despite differing interpretations, Imran Khan’s fiery speeches, mixing colloquial and modern ideas, played a significant part in shaping Pakistan’s current environment.

In conclusion, Dr. Yasmeen argued that while Khan’s narratives engaged the youth, they also sowed seeds of division in the country. Whereas the current environment demands a more united approach to address Pakistan’s challenges, emphasizing the need to move beyond divisive narratives. His narratives grabbed attention but led to division, which the current environment cannot afford.

Ramsha Jahangir: “Media and Populism in Pakistan”

Journaslist Ramsha Jahangir’s findings revealed that Imran Khan’s Twitter communication during his prime ministership exhibited softer populism compared to his typical political rhetoric. The focus was primarily on referencing the people, aligning with populist discourse, with less emphasis on the exclusion of dangerous “others.” Notably, Khan emphasized creating a national identity linked to a religious group, addressing people as ‘Pakistanis’ and frequently speaking on behalf of Muslims and Kashmiris, framing national identity within a civilizational struggle context led by nationalism and religious belonging.

In this second panel presentation, Ramsha Jahangir offered a journalistic perspective on populism in Pakistan, drawing from a 2022 study analyzing 1,035 English-language tweets by Imran Khan between 2018 and 2022. The study aimed to understand Khan’s communicative style on Twitter and identify populist characteristics within his tweets. 

Jahangir utilized three indicators for assessing populism: references to the people, positioning, and exclusion of dangerous others. The findings revealed that Imran Khan’s Twitter communication during his prime ministership exhibited softer populism compared to his typical political rhetoric. The focus was primarily on referencing the people, aligning with populist discourse, with less emphasis on the exclusion of dangerous others. Notably, Khan emphasized creating a national identity linked to a religious group, addressing people as ‘Pakistanis’ and frequently speaking on behalf of Muslims and Kashmiris, framing national identity within a civilizational struggle context led by nationalism and religious belonging.

Examining Imran Khan’s communication style while he was Prime Minister, the study identified an engaging and intimate approach, characteristic of populist personalities. Khan’s tweets showcased his endorsement of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) officials, engagement with party members, updates on government policies, promoting his sentiments and opinions with his followers. He actively promoted youth empowerment, offering personal recommendations including encouraging them to read specific books, watch shows or make reference to other activists and showcasing his informal online engagement rooted in his background as a former cricketer.

In summary, Ramsha Jahangir highlighted that the study’s findings aligned with literature on personality politics and populism due to findings which show that Khan’s style was more informal and conversational even when promoting PTI. However, she emphasized the uncertainty of whether Khan personally posted these tweets, acknowledging the involvement of social media teams and raising questions about the results’ validity.

Before concluding, Jahangir explored the impact of Khan’s communication style on social media’s political landscape in Pakistan. Post-PTI’s downfall, social media politics intensified and became more divisive. PTI’s success in using digital media for political communication by running coordinated campaigns against opponents. This situation has raised concerns about media pluralism and the safety of journalists, as critical speech has become less tolerated. PTI’s success prompted other parties to become more active on social media, though their campaigns have not matched PTI’s sophistication and impact. This extensive use of social media has both positive and negative implications, creating space for various forms of communication but also posing challenges in controlling misinformation due to the openness of social media platforms and regulatory difficulties.

Dr. Fizza Batool: “The Land of Pure: Islamic Populism in Pakistan’s Identity Project and the Rise of Radical Islam”

Dr. Fizza Batool argues that addressing the challenge of deeply embedded populism in the country’s name requires a potential re-conceptualization of Pakistan’s identity. Shifting from religious nationalism to a more inclusive concept of a ‘nation’ could offer a path forward, embracing pluralism and recognizing the existence of multiple nations globally while respecting their political rights. In essence, redefining what it means to be a Pakistani could be the path forward.

This third presentation redirects the discussion from narrative building to the manipulation of Islam in Pakistan’s populism. Dr. Fizza Batool initiates the presentation by framing populism as a discursive phenomenon, examining how politics is communicated. She emphasizes viewing populism as a phenomenon rather than a tool for defining populist parties or leaders, referencing Laclau’s concept of ‘Empty Signifying’ and its application by populists.

Dr. Batool explores how populists define the nation as a framed concept, distinguishing ‘the people’ as a population separate from others while nationalists define what the nation is. Populists often use ‘the people’ ambiguously, blending meanings without clarification. In this context, Dr. Batool focuses on ethnos when discussing ‘the people,’ specifically related to nationalist discourses. While nationalist and populist discourses overlap, they differ in defining the nation as a concept.

Addressing Islamic populism in Pakistan, Dr. Batool delves into the intricate relationship between Pakistan and Islam. The country’s name, ‘Pakistan’ (‘the land of the pure’), reflects a strong connection to religiosity, with the creation of separate Muslim states linked to the original vision which resulting in the use of the term ‘Muslim’ as a criterion for differentiation. The inherent meaning of being a good Pakistani or a pure Pakistani aligns with being a good Muslim, creating a link between Pakistan and Islam. Dr. Batool explores how radical religious movements and parties justify their goals in line with their vision of a ‘pure’ Pakistan, contributing to the moralism and antagonism ingrained in the national identity and this narrative continued to pit Muslims against Hindus.

Using examples such as the Kashmir movement, Dr. Batool illustrates populist elements in the discourse that emphasize Muslims’ differences from Hindus. This populist narrative permeates Pakistan’s political history, fostering ambiguity and moralism in its identity.

Dr. Batool contends that ‘the people’ has become an empty signifier, with political parties offering their definitions of a ‘pure Pakistani’ based on their beliefs. This ambiguity extends to elected and non-elected regimes contributing to various interpretations by different political actors, including religious radicals and moderate liberals. Religious radical movements like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) see themselves as purifiers of Pakistan, but their interpretations of ‘purity’ differ. Even moderate or liberal political actors such as the People’s Party suggest a form of Islam based on their beliefs.

In conclusion, Dr. Batool argues that addressing the challenge of deeply embedded populism in the country’s name requires a potential re-conceptualization of Pakistan’s identity. Shifting from religious nationalism to a more inclusive concept of a ‘nation’ could offer a path forward, embracing pluralism and recognizing the existence of multiple nations globally while respecting their political rights. In essence, redefining what it means to be a Pakistani could be the path forward.

Dr. Raja M. Ali Saleem: “Military and Populism in Pakistan”

Dr. Saleem unravels the complexities in the relationship between Imran Khan and the military, revealing initial support followed by emerging differences. The military, initially seen as supportive, later took an anti-populist stance, leading to increased harassment, abductions, and legal cases against PTI party leaders. This turbulent turn of events resulted in what Dr. Saleem terms a “messy divorce” between Khan and the military.

The fourth presentation in our panel delves into the global role of the military and populism within a historical context. Dr. Raja M. Ali Saleem explores the intertwined history of populism and the military in Pakistan, focusing particularly on Imran Khan and his association with populism. Dr. Saleem identifies two key connections between the military and populism: First, military generals or coup leaders directly adopting populist actions, often stemming from anti-colonial struggles or socialist movements where the generals were also decolonial leaders and leaders of the left-wing. Second, the military indirectly supporting or opposing populism, playing a role in the modernization of post-colonial societies as a part of the middle class in search of education, lifestyle upgrading and interaction with international militaries.

Dr. Saleem’s presentation highlights a historical period (1930s to 1960s) when military leaders embraced populism to bolster their governments and vilify adversaries. Notable figures include Juan Perón of Argentina, Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, often leaning toward left-wing populism. There were fewer instances of right-wing populism, such as the regime of Konstantinos Karamanlis in Greece.  The role of the military in the newly independent countries was often that of a modernizing force. They aimed to revolutionize and develop their nations. However, by the 1970s, the military in post-colonial countries transitioned into a status quo force, prioritizing rule and stability over revolutionary change.

In the case of Pakistan, populism initially emerged in the eastern part (later Bangladesh) of the country as opposition to the military, with leaders like Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. West Pakistan witnessed its first populist leader in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The period from the 1950s to the 1970s saw confrontations between populist leaders from the eastern wing and the Pakistan military. The late 1970s marked a shift, with the military supporting right-wing populist leaders like those from the Jamaat-e-Islami, disrupting politics and challenging democratic governments. 

By the 1990s, the military adopted tactics of coercion and influence to align popular electables with their preferred political parties. They aimed to win support for their preferred parties. The entry of Imran Khan brought about a significant shift, portraying him as the savior of Pakistan and heralding a ‘New Pakistan.” That led to a marked shift in Pakistan’s political landscape. Part of this shift can be attributed to the heavy involvement of the military in media and social media, creating narratives to shape public perception which saw Pakistan’s military being praised for its effective use of media in the so-called fifth-generation warfare. 

Dr. Saleem unravels the complexities in the relationship between Imran Khan and the military, revealing initial support followed by emerging differences. The military, initially seen as supportive, later took an anti-populist stance, leading to increased harassment, abductions, and legal cases against PTI party leaders. The military allowed other political parties to take action against Imran Khan. This turbulent turn of events resulted in what Dr. Saleem terms a “messy divorce” between Khan and the military. 

In conclusion, Dr. Saleem emphasizes the challenges of using populist leaders as tools for the military. Populists, due to their fluid nature, are difficult to fully control, retaining followers and manipulating perceptions to their advantage. The unprecedented criticism faced by the military in response to Imran Khan’s populist rhetoric has left it divided for the first time in Pakistan’s history. This shift complicates the military’s support for any future populist leader, as populists are less likely to become subservient to a powerful establishment, given the charismatic nature of populism, as evidenced by the disruption caused by Donald Trump in the US Republican Party.

Dr. Afiya Shehrbano Zia: “I Am Democracy’: The Appeal of Imran Khan’s Populism for Pakistani Women”

Dr. Afiya Shehrbano Zia emphasizes that Imran Khan’s promises of welfare and freedom are not aimed at liberating women from patriarchy but rather address a broader form of subjugation linked to historical colonial baggage and the concept of ‘ghulami’ or slavery. Imran Khan’s pledges are not directed towards achieving temporal emancipation or promoting feminist equality. His rhetoric, framed within a heavenly context, weaves together politics and religion, promoting a distinctive blend.

In the last presentation of the panel, Dr. Afiya Shehrbano Zia explores the intricate connections between Imran Khan’s populist rhetoric and its resonance among Pakistani women. The session begins with visual context-setting through short videos, enhancing the audience’s understanding (refer to the recorded panel for visual references). Dr. Zia’s content unfolds across three overarching themes: Khan’s appeal to women, Victimhood and Competitive Sovereign Subject, and Political Magical Realism.

The first theme revolves around Khan’s appeal to women, grounded in notions of Muslim morality and piety. Dr. Zia emphasizes that Khan’s promises of welfare and freedom are not aimed at liberating women from patriarchy but rather address a broader form of subjugation linked to historical colonial baggage and the concept of ‘ghulami’ or slavery. Khan’s pledges are not directed towards achieving temporal emancipation or promoting feminist equality. His rhetoric, framed within a heavenly context, weaves together politics and religion, promoting a distinctive blend.

The second theme explores victimhood and the concept of the competitive sovereign subject in Khan’s narratives. His vision of the ideal state of Medina taps into Pakistani Muslims’ nostalgia for the egalitarian era of Islam, which is perceived as an equal rights-based and democratic that was later corrupted by patriarchal misinterpretations, colonialism, and modernity. His rhetoric positions women as symbols preserving and actively reproducing the nation. Khan’s warnings against feminism and criticism of culturally alien movements, such as women’s marches, contribute to the narrative of women safeguarding Islamic culture. In this context, Khan promises to rescue the post-colonial subject from a multitude of influences, including what he terms ‘infidels,’ the pernicious influence of Bollywood culture, and even the lurking designs of change propagated by the US. Women’s bodies and gender roles must be controlled and protected from various forms of occupation, including the infiltration of Western ideas, Western dress codes, and aspirations. Khan’s warnings against feminism and his criticism of culturally alien movements like women’s marches all form part of this narrative. All of these push the idea that women are the bastions of Islamic culture.

The third theme, Political Magical Realism, encompasses elements like myth-making, iconic representations, rumors, references to black magic, and Khan’s own sex appeal. These elements shape Khan’s appeal and image, offering unique opportunities to strategize for strengthening civilian democracy over military hegemony, improving gender relations, and promoting feminist ideologies.

Beyond these themes, Dr. Zia explores women’s expressions of despair and intense emotional responses in the videos, highlighting their impact when presented in the public domain and on social media. Pious female sentimentality, often described as ‘affect’ and ‘agency,’ has historically played a pivotal role in various facets of Pakistani society. The concept of “piety populism,” a performative mourning that acquires distinct value and impact, is introduced. Dr. Zia delves into the historical role of female agency and affect which have played a critical role in military recruitment and in the narrative of the sacrifice of sons to continue to protect mothers through Jihad efforts and terrorism.  

This encompasses the regular enlistment of individuals into the Pakistani military services, as extensively detailed in the scholarly work of researchers like Maria Rashid. Notably intriguing is the utilization of mothers’ agency for making sacrifices in support of jihad, a phenomenon elucidated by scholars such as Samina Yasmeen. The perceived dignity of women as active contributors to their own and their community’s advancement has emerged as a foundational rationale for backing radical groups. For instance, in 2005, women in Swat, Pakistan, rallied behind Taliban commander Fazlullah, actively financing his campaign for Sharia law. This engagement provided them with a sense of political autonomy by challenging local patriarchal norms. A parallel scenario unfolded in 2007 when radical women from the Jamia Hafsa madrasa in Islamabad engaged in moral crusades against perceived immorality in the capital, showcasing their continued exercise of pious agency and embodied virtue.

Khan’s appeal targets politically disenfranchised women, especially those from urban middle-class backgrounds, who publicly perform feminist and revolutionary poetry for their conservative male leader. Dr. Zia points out that Khan has mobilized more women into political and public spaces compared to many other leaders. This expansion and legitimization of women’s freedom of expression and political agency have distinct implications, especially as seen in the post-Imran Khan era, where his removal from the prime minister’s office triggered public debates, including those within veteran military families.

The presentation also addresses cognitive dissonance within Khan’s woman support base, where conservative positions are defended despite their detriment to women’s wellbeing. The defense often comes from both men and women, arguing that Khan’s views are taken out of context, showcasing the success of Khan’s appeal to conservative values.

In summary, the three highlighted themes provide profound insights into Imran Khan’s populism, revealing a co-opting of liberal ideals and elite elements that effectively shift towards the right. This shift minimizes the gap between the right and left in Pakistan’s political landscape.


(*) Neo Sithole is an intern at the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).

KennethTan

Authoritarian Populism in Singapore

With its reputation for political stability, social cohesion, and economic wealth, global-city Singapore is very rarely discussed as a case for thinking about populist politics. Kenneth Paul Tan will explore what lies behind this reputation and discuss how the Singapore system, led by a government celebrated as clean, meritocratic, and pragmatic, is now showing signs of change not necessarily in the direction of democratization, but towards authoritarian forms of populism, first of the right and then of the left.

Professor Kenneth Paul Tan delivered this presentation during the “Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia & Singapore” panel on October 26, 2023, organized as part of the Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series.

Kenneth Paul TAN is a tenured Professor of Politics, Film, and Cultural Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He teaches and conducts interdisciplinary research at the Academy of Film, the Department of Journalism, the Department of Government and International Studies, and the Smart Society Lab. His books include Asia in the Old and New Cold Wars: Ideologies, Narratives, and Lived Experiences (Palgrave MacMillan, 2023), Movies to Save Our World: Imagining Poverty, Inequality and Environmental Destruction in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2022), Singapore’s First Year of COVID-19: Public Health, Immigration, the Neoliberal State, and Authoritarian Populism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Singapore: Identity, Brand, Power (Cambridge University Press, 2018), Governing Global-City Singapore: Legacies and Futures After Lee Kuan Yew (Routledge, 2017), Cinema and Television in Singapore: Resistance in One Dimension (Brill, 2008), and Renaissance Singapore? Economy, Culture, and Politics (NUS Press, 2007). Previously, he was a tenured Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. He has held visiting fellowships, and honorary and adjunct professorships at the Australian National University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Georgetown University (on a Fulbright Fellowship), Harvard University, Sciences Po, the University of Duisburg-Essen, and the University of Hong Kong. His degrees are from the University of Cambridge (PhD, Social and Political Sciences) and the University of Bristol (BSc First Class Honours, Economics and Politics).

Lindberg-Nord

V-Dem’s Lindberg and Nord express deep concerns about potential victory of far-right populist parties in 2024 EP elections

In an exclusive interview exploring the intricacies of declining democracy, the rise of far-right populism, and the adaptability of democratic systems, Prof. Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord voice their deep concerns, highlighting that this is a matter of significance for all. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes, “We’ve demonstrated through various publications that far-right extremist parties are not only populist but also hold anti-pluralist views in their rhetoric and policies. When they attain power, they often spearhead the ongoing wave of autocratization. I would be very concerned if that also translates into and materialized in the European Parliament elections.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

The state of democracy across the globe is under intense scrutiny as the world grapples with shifting political landscapes and the rise of authoritarian tendencies. In an exclusive interview, Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, provide valuable insights into the complexities of this critical issue.

Addressing criticisms from Professor Steven Levitsky in an interview with the ECPS on October 12, 2023, the interview begins with a robust response to his contention that the global democratic decline highlighted in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report may not be as dire as depicted. Lindberg and Nord emphasize the significance of their data, underlining the approach of population-weighted data, which accounts for the global impact of democratic changes in countries with large populations. 

The interviewees discuss the apparent resilience of democracy and its concurrent decline, emphasizing that these findings are not necessarily contradictory. They point to countries such as that have made significant democratic improvements, as well as others where the situation has deteriorated. These varying experiences contribute to the complex global picture of democracy.

Prof. Lindberg explained the use of population-weighted data to assess the state of democracy worldwide, emphasizing that it gives more weight to countries with large populations due to their greater impact on the global state of democracy. This approach led to the conclusion that the global average for democracy regressed to 1986 levels in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report

Dr. Nord also pointed out that even when looking at country averages, there is a decline, which dates back to 1997. However, she highlighted the resilience of democracy in terms of the continuation of elections in many countries. The interviewees delve into the multifaceted nature of democracy, highlighting that it encompasses much more than the mere presence of elections. Dr. Nord notes that while elections may still take place in certain countries, the decline in essential democratic attributes such as freedom of speech and freedom of association is a pressing concern. 

Prof. Lindberg also expressed a deep concern about the potential surge of far-right populist parties in the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024. He emphasized that extremist and anti-pluralist parties often drive the current wave of autocratization, and their rise in Europe is worrisome.

Moreover, the interview explores the adaptation of democratic systems to specific cultural and socio-political contexts. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes the inherent contradiction in the concept of an “illiberal democracy” and highlights that the core principle of liberalism is the acceptance of opposing views, which is not compatible with an illiberal stance.

The interviewees conclude with the discussion of the recent Democracy Report by International IDEA, aligning with the findings in the V-Dem Project’s report. Professor Lindberg and Dr. Nord emphasize the urgency of collective action in the face of the growing number of countries undergoing autocratization.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord.



Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.  Photo: Johan Wingborg.

V-Dem’s Lindberg and Nord express deep concerns about potential victory of far-right populist parties in 2024 EP elections

In an exclusive interview exploring the intricacies of declining democracy, the rise of far-right populism, and the adaptability of democratic systems, Prof. Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord voice their deep concerns, highlighting that this is a matter of significance for all. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes, “We’ve demonstrated through various publications that far-right extremist parties are not only populist but also hold anti-pluralist views in their rhetoric and policies. When they attain power, they often spearhead the ongoing wave of autocratization. I would be very concerned if that also translates into and materialized in the European Parliament elections.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

The state of democracy across the globe is under intense scrutiny as the world grapples with shifting political landscapes and the rise of authoritarian tendencies. In an exclusive interview, Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, provide valuable insights into the complexities of this critical issue.

Addressing criticisms from Professor Steven Levitsky in an interview with the ECPS on October 12, 2023, the interview begins with a robust response to his contention that the global democratic decline highlighted in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report may not be as dire as depicted. Lindberg and Nord emphasize the significance of their data, underlining the approach of population-weighted data, which accounts for the global impact of democratic changes in countries with large populations. 

The interviewees discuss the apparent resilience of democracy and its concurrent decline, emphasizing that these findings are not necessarily contradictory. They point to countries such as that have made significant democratic improvements, as well as others where the situation has deteriorated. These varying experiences contribute to the complex global picture of democracy.

Prof. Lindberg explained the use of population-weighted data to assess the state of democracy worldwide, emphasizing that it gives more weight to countries with large populations due to their greater impact on the global state of democracy. This approach led to the conclusion that the global average for democracy regressed to 1986 levels in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report

Dr. Nord also pointed out that even when looking at country averages, there is a decline, which dates back to 1997. However, she highlighted the resilience of democracy in terms of the continuation of elections in many countries. The interviewees delve into the multifaceted nature of democracy, highlighting that it encompasses much more than the mere presence of elections. Dr. Nord notes that while elections may still take place in certain countries, the decline in essential democratic attributes such as freedom of speech and freedom of association is a pressing concern. 

Prof. Lindberg also expressed a deep concern about the potential surge of far-right populist parties in the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024. He emphasized that extremist and anti-pluralist parties often drive the current wave of autocratization, and their rise in Europe is worrisome.

Moreover, the interview explores the adaptation of democratic systems to specific cultural and socio-political contexts. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes the inherent contradiction in the concept of an “illiberal democracy” and highlights that the core principle of liberalism is the acceptance of opposing views, which is not compatible with an illiberal stance.

The interviewees conclude with the discussion of the recent Democracy Report by International IDEA, aligning with the findings in the V-Dem Project’s report. Professor Lindberg and Dr. Nord emphasize the urgency of collective action in the face of the growing number of countries undergoing autocratization.


Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord with minor edits.

Democratic Erosion Prevalent Worldwide Across All Metrics

Prof. Steven R. Levitsky, in his article ‘Democracy’s Surprising Resilience’ co-authored with Professor Lucan A. Way, argues that the data does not support your findings in V-Dem Project’s 2023 report. He writes: ‘The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project’s 2023 report claimed that global levels of democracy had declined to 1986 levels and, thus, that the global democratic advances of the last thirty-five years had been “wiped out’’. What is your response to Prof. Levitsky’s assessment?

Staffan I Lindberg:  The data supports our findings otherwise, we wouldn’t publish it. It’s essential to note that this is a quote based on our calculations using population-weighted data. This approach gives more weight to larger countries with significant populations. The rationale behind this is that when we assess the overall state of democracy worldwide, the country-weighted averages treat all territories with governments equally. In this method, countries with small populations, like the Seychelles with 90,000 inhabitants, carry the same weight as a giant nation like India with 1.4 billion people. While this approach serves specific purposes, we believe that, in the context of assessing the state of democracy worldwide, it’s more meaningful. For example, when democracy declines in a country as populous as India, with 1.4 billion people, it has a more significant impact than democracy improving in the Seychelles with 90,000 inhabitants. According to the population-weighted measure, the global average regresses to 1986 levels. Marina, do you have anything to add to what I just mentioned?

Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Marina Nord: Well, I would like to add that even when we look at country averages, we still observe a decline. While the decline might not be as dramatic, it harks back to 1997, if I recall correctly. Nevertheless, there is still an overall decline.

Prof. Levitsky highlights ‘Democracy’s Surprising Resilience’ all over the world which is exactly the opposite of your findings in the 2023 Democracy Report. How do you explain the two very different findings?

Staffan I Lindberg: These findings are not necessarily contradictory. It’s important to acknowledge that there are numerous countries globally that have made significant improvements in terms of democracy compared to their state in 1989. Large portions of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa have made substantial progress, to name a few examples. However, there are also countries where the situation has deteriorated, and in some cases, significantly so. It’s entirely possible to have countries that democratized during the third wave of democratization, as Stephen Levitsky mentioned, and have since remained stable or even improved their democratic standing. Yet, the global average declines because other countries have witnessed declines. These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive.

Resilience in Elections Amidst Diminished Democracy Quality

Marina Nord: If one only considers the survival of democracy as the presence of contested elections, then, in many countries, elections are still being held. However, the quality of these elections and other aspects that contribute to democracy, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association, are in decline. This is indeed surprising. So, while we observe resilience in terms of the continuation of elections, the decline in the quality of democracy and its essential attributes is a noteworthy concern. These findings don’t necessarily contradict each other; they provide different dimensions of the overall picture.

Alright. In his article ‘Democracy’s Surprising Resilience’, Prof. Levitsky further argues that: ‘Thus, even if Freedom House and V-Dem are correct in identifying an increase in incumbent abuse over the last decade or so, the consequences of that abuse appear to be modest, for many autocratic-leaning incumbents are failing to entrench themselves in power.’ How would you comment on this judgement?

Staffan I Lindberg: Well, if you were to ask serious observers of countries like Turkey, Hungary, and others, it’s not necessarily a viewpoint shared by many. The term “many” is quite flexible. While it’s true that we’ve witnessed cases where autocratizing incumbents have been defeated or removed from power recently, such as in Poland where transition is still ongoing, like Bolsonaro in Brazil and the Trump administration in the United States, there have also been reversals in countries like Zambia. We’ve seen periods of decline in South Korea that were eventually reversed. So, there are indeed significant instances where the autocratizing incumbents have failed. However, based on our data and assessments by organizations like Freedom House, there are many more countries where autocratizing parties and leaders have continued to undermine democracy and, in many cases, have dismantled democratic institutions. This broader trend is what we observe globally, rather than the isolated instances where incumbents fail to solidify autocracy.

Marina Nord: I would agree with that.

Autocratization Has Worsened Since 2019

In your article ‘A Third Wave of Autocratization is Here: What Is New About It?’ co-authored with Anna Lührmann and published in 2019, you argue that a new wave of autocratization is emerging. Given the time that has passed since its publication, do you still stand by its findings?


Staffan I Lindberg: No. We began our work on that article in 2016-2017, and it was eventually published in 2019. At that time, we observed the emergence of a third wave of autocratization, and it was still unfolding. I would say that it’s still ongoing, but I must clarify that it has worsened. In our subsequent research on waves of autocratization, and also in the work we conducted for the democracy report, that wave has become much worse. In the article, if I recall correctly, the maximum number of countries undergoing autocratization simultaneously was 28. In last year’s democracy report, in which Marina was also involved, we counted 42 such countries. This represents a significant increase. What I would not agree with in that article is the notion that there is no cause for panic and alarm.

Exactly. That’s next question: In the same article you underlined that ‘As it was premature to announce the “end of history” in 1992, it is premature to proclaim the “end of democracy” now.’ You argue that democracy is in decline, but it is no reason to panic. It seems that you agree with Prof. Levitsky when he says that democracy has proved to be resilient.

Staffan I Lindberg: No. I hope it’s still too early to declare the end of democracy globally. However, I find myself in a different position today than Anna Lührmann and I were back in 2018 before that article was published. I believe there is a reason to be very, very concerned, if not to panic, which might be an extreme reaction, but to be deeply concerned. Many others share this sentiment. I think that what Professor Levitsky and some other commentators are doing when they suggest that not much is changing is doing a disservice to the world. When I examine our data and witness daily news reporting, I see democracy under attack in so many places, including my own country, Sweden, where signs of another far-right, extreme anti-pluralist party have emerged. This is putting pressure on our current government and could lead to a trajectory of autocratization. It’s deeply worrisome when established democracies start experiencing these challenges. So, while it may not be a time to panic, I believe it’s essential to be extremely concerned and very worried.

Marina Nord: I agree with the sentiment that “panic” might not be the right word, but being worried is indeed appropriate. To provide you with some statistics, our latest data from 2020 indicates that 43 percent of the world’s population resides in autocratizing countries. This is a global trend. What’s concerning is that not only democratic countries like Brazil, Ghana, or Greece are undergoing autocratization, but already autocratic countries are further regressing into autocracy, such as Hungary, India, the Philippines, and Russia. In the case of Russia, which was already a stable autocracy, we’ve observed further autocratization. This is the reason for concern. So, I would say it’s a time for action, not panic, but to take action and pay attention.

Autocratization and Growing Discontent with Democracy 

One of the findings of the Democracy Report 2023 by V-Dem is that the global advances of democracy achieved in the last 35 years has been wiped out. The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 is down to 1986 levels. How do you explain the dynamics of this downfall? What went wrong?

Staffan I Lindberg: Yes, I think that’s what it is called these days as one-billion-dollar question. I don’t think we have an answer, and the explanation is likely quite complex. Various forces are at play simultaneously in many countries and regions of the world, including local dynamics. What’s remarkable is that it’s a global phenomenon. We observe this trend in every region of the world, with countries undergoing autocratization across different levels of socioeconomic development, various ethnic, linguistic, and social identity configurations, ranging from countries with dominant/homogenous groups to highly heterogeneous ones, and varying levels of economic development and pre-existing democracy. 

This diversity suggests that there are global forces at play. We know about some of these forces, such as Russia, which played a role in the third wave of autocratization. Putin in Russia turned things around in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and its subsequent actions, including the invasion of Ukraine, involvement in Brexit, interference in American elections, and support for far-right extremist parties and groups across Europe. Then there is China, which has been pushing back against the democratic wave since the mid-1990s, impacting both established democracies and countries in the global south. Let’s not forget about Saudi Arabia. They have been doing a similar thing by supporting anti-democratic Salafist movements. Salafis used to be the microscopic, little part of the Muslim world. It is no longer. Iran is another player on that side. Of course, there are many versions of practicing Islam, that are compatible with human rights and democracy and women’s rights, and so on. Salafism is not.

There’s a growing body of research suggesting that a significant increase in relative economic inequality, which began in the 1980s and spread worldwide, is providing fertile ground for wannabe dictators to exploit dissatisfaction and fears for the future often associated with inequality. While there’s no solid scientific consensus, a growing body of evidence points in this direction.

Marina Nord: I would agree that each case has context-specific factors, but a general explanation could be a growing discontent with democracy as a regime. In each instance, it might be triggered by factors like inequality, an economic crisis, or migration, which are often country-specific. This discontent can give rise to populist movements, ultimately paving the way for wannabe dictators to come to power within democracies. Once in power, these leaders significantly undermine elections.

What distinguishes contemporary autocratization from historical examples is that it’s often a gradual process, not happening overnight, and it often occurs under the facade of legality. This process is frequently referred to as “democratic backsliding” or “democratic corrosion,” marking a substantial decline in a country’s democracy over time.

Having Legislature Does Not Automatically Translate into a Democracy

In the V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2023, you underline that “Democracy broke down in seven of the top 10 autocratizing countries in the last ten years: El Salvador, Hungary, India, Serbia, Thailand, Türkiye, and Tunisia.” What do you mean by democratic break-down? In Turkey, for example, elections are still held, and the Parliament is open and keeps legislating.

Staffan I Lindberg: The same is also the case in Russia. The mere presence of multiparty elections and a functioning legislature on paper doesn’t equate to having a democracy. Back in the 1990s, Thomas Carothers and others referred to this as the “electoral fallacy.” Democracy necessitates more than just holding multi-party elections. To be considered a democracy, it’s crucial that these elections are genuinely free, fair, and held periodically. Furthermore, even if elections meet these criteria, it’s essential that opposition parties are not harassed, oppressed, prosecuted for political reasons, or otherwise impeded between elections. 

Beyond this, democracy also requires freedom of speech, particularly in terms of media and individual freedom of speech. In a genuinely democratic environment, people can express their opinions freely. However, in cases like Hungary, where, since around 2018, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have gained control over 98 percent of the media, it becomes challenging to maintain a climate of free speech. Even if individuals on the street can technically voice their opinions without consequences, having a media regime controlled by those in power can shape public perceptions, leading to beliefs that align with the government’s agenda. In Hungary, for instance, the government-loyal press has propagated stories like Putin being compelled by NATO to invade Ukraine, thereby legitimizing Russia’s actions. Many people in Hungary have accepted this narrative, not because of freedom of speech but because of the media environment. Holding elections and having a functioning legislature does not automatically translate into a democracy. Furthermore, civil society’s ability to express opinions, demonstrate, and criticize the regime is vital for a true democracy. In the case of Turkey, many leaders, academics have been imprisoned or subjected to harassment, making it challenging for civil society to operate freely.

Marina Nord: I would like to emphasize that there are only six countries worldwide that do not hold elections at this moment. Therefore, democracy encompasses much more than just the act of voting. To illustrate, the Soviet Union had regular elections, but they were devoid of meaning. So, the mere presence of elections does not automatically signify the existence of a democracy.

Many pundits argue that the upcoming European Parliament elections in June 2024 will witness a surge of far-rights populist parties. How concerned are you about a possible victory of far-right parties?

Staffan I Lindberg: Very concerned and I think everyone should be. We’ve shown in a number of publications, also using the varieties of parties and party organization data set, which is separate from the regular V-Dem data set, but with data on individual parties that are far right, extremist parties which are not only populist, but they are anti-pluralist in the rhetoric and policies that when they come into power they are the ones in the current wave of autocratization that typically drive those processes. There are also a few instances of left-wing parties and leaders that have also talked recently, but they’re very few and far between

in comparison to the vast majority that are driven by these right-wing. So yes, I would be very concerned if that also translates into and materialized in the European Parliament elections.

Marina Nord: I would agree.

Illiberal Democracy Is an Oxymoron

Leaders like Erdogan and Orban who deviate from democracy and veer towards authoritarianism often claim that they have not strayed from democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedoms. They even argue that they are models for other aspiring democracies. They defend these claims by arguing that they have embraced a form of democracy tailored to their country’s socio-cultural characteristics. What is your response to the claim that beyond the democractic systems with universal values and forms we are familiar with, there can be different forms of democracies adapted to each country and culture?

Staffan I Lindberg: Yes, of course. We already see that among the established democracies. It’s been very different the way democracy has functioned in the United States, since they got a really good democracy in around 1970, very different from France and France is very different from Sweden in many ways. And in Ghana it also functions different as a culture, different cultural background, and so on. We can go down the line, of course. That doesn’t mean that any version of what some leader proclaim is democracy is a democracy. China also claims that they are actually -the last white paper they put out on that- the only democracy that works in the world. That was a white paper they issued after the first democracy summit that the Biden administration put together. 

(Viktor) Orban claims to have or wants to have an illiberal democracy. That is an oxymoron. That is a contradiction in terms. A democracy cannot be illiberal because the founding principle of liberalism is the reciprocal acceptance and tolerance of opposing views. If you’re illiberal, you don’t accept the opposing views and that’s not compatible with democracy. Now, Orban tries to frame this in terms of LGBTQI and women rights and conservative family values and all that. But that’s just a framing. The real politics is about eradication of opposing views and opposing political forces. And that’s not compatible with democracy.

Marina Nord: I would just add that I have heard several times in Russian political circles that Russia is called as a “guided democracy,” and that also contradicts this definition of democracy that we have. 

Lastly, latest Democracy Report by International IDEA found that almost half the countries have suffered a notable decline in democratic values. ‘What may be worse is that it is the sixth consecutive year in which countries with net declines outnumbers those with net advances, the longest such pattern in our data set’ argues the report. Are you surprised or feel vindicated by the findings of the report?

Staffan I Lindberg: These findings align closely with our Democracy Report, and they come as no surprise because most of the data used in the International IDEA report originates from V-Dem. While I don’t have the latest figures, it used around 70 percent of their data sourced from V-Dem. Therefore, the patterns observed in their report, released nine months after ours, closely mirror those in our Democracy Report.

Based on the findings of the IDEA report, what are your thoughts on where this trend is leading us?

Staffan I Lindberg: We are not in a position to make predictions; our role is to present the facts as they are. The stark reality is that the number of countries undergoing autocratization has seen a significant increase in recent years, and we have yet to witness a reversal of this trend. This is a cause for concern that should prompt collective action.

ECPS-MGP-Panel6-Video

Mapping Global Populism — Panel #6: Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia & Singapore

Moderator

Dr. Garry Rodan (Honorary Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland).

Speakers

“Political Islam and Islamist Populism in Malaysia: Implications for Nation-Building,” by Dr. Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid (Professor of Political Science, University Sains Malaysia).

“Islamist Civilizationism in Malaysia,” by Dr. Syaza Farhana Mohamad Shukri (Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia).

“Authoritarian Populism in Singapore,” by Dr. Kenneth Paul Tan (Professor of Politics, Film, and Cultural Studies, School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University). 

Populism, religion, and anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes in Malaysia,” Dr. Shanon Shah (Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London).

Autonomous community of Madrid elections in Spain on May 05, 2021. Photo: Sangiao Photography.

Panel by ECPS & SZABIST University: Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World

Date/Time: Friday, November 17, 2023 – 10:00-12:20 (CET)

 

This panel is jointly organized by The European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) and SZABIST University.

 

Click here to register!

 

Moderator

Dr. Fizza Batool (Assistant Professor, SZABIST University, Karachi)

Speakers 

“The Radical Right and the Radical Left in Anno 2023: What Does Populism Got To Do With It?” by Dr. Andrej Zaslove  (Associate Professor – Empirical Political Science, Radboud University.) 

“Psychological Roots of Populist Voting,” by Dr. Bert N. Bakker (Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam). 

The Psychological Appeal of Populism,” by Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington (Associate Professor of Social Psychology, London School of Economics and Political Science)

“Electoral Populism in Pakistan and India,” by Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui (Associate Professor, QAU).

“Populist Strategies of Erdogan in 2022 Elections,” by Dr. Salim Cevik (Associate at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS), SWP, Germany). 

 

Click here to register!

 

 

Abstract and Brief Biographies

Dr. Fizza Batool is an academic and policy researcher with a particular interest in Comparative Politics, Comparative Democratization, Peace Studies and Populism. She is currently an Assistant Professor (Social Sciences) at SZABIST University, Karachi. Previously, she worked for over a decade in the research and development sector where she served in important managerial positions. Her works have been published in some prestigious research journals like South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Pakistan Horizon etc. She is currently authoring a book on Populism in Pakistan, scheduled to be published in 2024 by Palgrave Macmillan. She also contributes to English dailies in Pakistan and international research magazines such as South Asian Voices. She was one of the 2020 SAV Visiting Fellows at Stimson Center, DC.

The Radical Right and the Radical Left in Anno 2023: What Does Populism Got to Do with It?

Abstract: Populist radical right and populist radical left parties are stable members of party systems in Western Europe. The rise of the populist radical right can be traced back to the 1990s, while the transformation of left-wing parties into populist radical left parties is more recent. This presentation will discuss the recent electoral success of left and right-wing populist parties. It will discuss some of the more recent changing features of these radical parties, discussing the extent to which, for example, the populist radical right has expanded it issue base. And it will assess the role of populism, for the parties and for their voters, discussing the manner in which populism remains important for the parties in question.

Dr. Andrej Zaslove is an Associate Professor of Empirical Political Science at Radboud University. He conducts research into populism and political parties. He measures populist attitudes among voters and political parties and examines the links between populism and democracy, foreign policy and gender. He also examines the impact of populism on party systems.  

Psychological Roots of Populist Voting

Dr. Bert N. Bakker is an Associate Professor at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (University of Amsterdam). His work focuses on contemporary issues social polarization and populism. In particular, he studies the psychological roots of citizens’ political beliefs with the most attention to the role of personality and emotions. His work has appeared in journals such as Nature Human BehaviourJournal of Communicationthe American Political Science Review and the Journal of Politics. He also serves as an Associate Editor at the Journal of Experimental Political Science. He is the co-founder of the Hot Politics Lab – a lab-group studying the role of emotions and personality in politics. He is also the founder and co-organizer of the Dutch Political Psychology Meetings which are held twice a year at the University of Amsterdam.

The Psychological Appeal of Populism

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington is currently a Visiting Associate Professor in Psychology at New York University Abu Dhabi. She is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological & Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics, a Faculty Affiliate of the LSE International Inequalities Institute, and an Associate Editor at the European Journal of Social Psychology and the British Journal of Psychology. Jennifer’s research examines (1) the consequences of material and social adversity on cognitive performance, self-regulation, affect, and decision-making, and (2) the psychological underpinnings of political attitudes such as egalitarianism and support for populist platforms. In drawing out the social and policy implications of her research, Jennifer has worked with the British Psychological Society, the UNDP, the World Bank, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the Indus Health Network, Pakistan.

Electoral Populism in India and Pakistan

Abstract: The electoral popularity and victory of populist parties in India and Pakistan is often explained in terms of their mobilization and electoral strategies which detail a mix of incentives including bringing the younger generation of non-voters into the voting matrix combined with reliance on existing patronage networks. Moving beyond such explanations, the argument broached here borders on the production of a neo-religious ethos in India and Pakistan that pervades the electoral space. In India’s case, religion was a protracted feature of local electoral politics in the post-colonial years which was entrenched and equally evident in the politics of the Congress party. Under the BJP, the neo-religious Hindutva electoral politics has only become more pronounced and pervasive, a proposition that allows for surveying shades of electoral populism under the Congress party and the BJP. In Pakistan, religion had a symbolic and ideological appeal, which captured the imagination of high politics under the Pakistan People’s Party government in the 1970s, with the result that it provided grounds for the weaponization of the blasphemy laws and discourse. This weaponization worryingly in present times sways the imagination of not only religious political actors but more controversially also mainstream political parties, as evident in their electoral politics. In this sense, both India and Pakistan represent case studies of a majoritarian and hegemonic neo-religious revivalism utilized for electoral gains with devastating consequences for social cohesion, diversity-acceptance and peaceful coexistence.

Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqi is an Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His research interests border on ethnic politics, federalism, conflict analysis/resolution, societal security, and crisis management in Pakistan and South Asia. His new co-authored book, Introducing International Relations: Concepts, Theories, and Practices was published by the Oxford University Press in 2023. He is also the author of, The Politics of Ethnicity in Pakistan: The Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir Ethnic Movements (Routledge, 2012). 

Populist Strategies of Erdogan in the 2022 Elections

Abstract: Ahead of Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections in May 2023, many polls predicted that Erdogan would lose power after 20 years in power. But contrary to the expectations of many, Erdoğan has managed to cling to power through a series of populist and nationalist maneuvers. First, he accused the opposition of not being “national and authentic” and openly questioned their national loyalty. He also claimed that the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was the favorite candidate of terrorist organizations. Thus, he attacked the legitimacy of opposition actors rather than their concrete policies. His tight control over the media enabled him to spread this line. 

Second and relatedly, he played on techno-nationalism. Ambitious projects such as the national automobile and the national fighter jet were used to garner support. Developments in Turkey’s defense industry, exemplified in particular by the global success of Turkish drones, were used to bolster Erdoğan’s image as a capable leader with a global reputation. Constant references to the defense industry and the militarization of Turkish foreign policy dominated the discourse to the extent that a parallel was drawn between Erdoğan’s fate and the fate of the nation. Thus, opposing Erdoğan was presented as opposing the nation’s security.

Finally, Erdoğan pursued populist economic policies and went on a spending spree in the year leading up to the election. He granted early retirement rates, large salary increases, debt write-offs. While such measures are likely to worsen the economy in the long run, in the short term they have been very useful in restoring his popularity.

In response to Erdoğan’s tactics, the opposition has tried to build the broadest possible alliance. However, this has weakened the opposition parties because they have had to make direct or indirect alliances with parties at the opposite end of the political spectrum. But more importantly, the opposition entered the election with a weak and uncharismatic leader who was unable to counter the government’s propaganda, demonstrating the importance of the right candidate to defeat populist authoritarian leaders.

Dr. Salim Çevik is a fellow at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) established at the Berlin-based think tank German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Prior to joining SWP, he held researcher and/or teaching positions at Columbia University, Istanbul Bilgi University, Ipek University, Lund University, and the Free University of Berlin. He received his PhD from the Political Science Department of Bilkent University in 2015. His main areas of research are religion in politics, democratization, nationalism, and nation-building. His most recent publications are “A Comparative Approach to Understanding Regime Trajectories of Tunisia and Turkey” published by the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, (co-authored with Pelin Ayan Musil) and “New Turkey and Management of the Religious Realm: Continuities and Ruptures,” published by the European Journal of Turkish Studies.

European Parliament offices and European flags in Brussels, Belgium on July 20, 2020. Photo: Lena Wurm.

What surrounds the 2024 European elections?

In anticipation of the upcoming 2024 European Elections, let’s take a closer look at the political landscape of Europe. The rise of populism has steadily gained momentum since the 2014 elections. The 2019 European Elections demonstrated the sustained growth of populism, which is associated with Euroscepticism. How will this trend influence the 2024 elections? This analysis explores the implications of populism for the 2024 elections within the broader context of Euroscepticism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and migration pressures. It will argue that Euroscepticism is linked to reactionary emotional responses to global challenges and changes. The psychological drivers of populism, such as fear, anger, and mistrust, have influenced the political climate, exacerbated by social media. The article underscores the need for EU member states to address these issues and strive for political consensus to foster trust in democratic institutions and counter the populist wave.

By Konstantina Kastoriadou

The European elections are approaching, with the date set for June 6-9, 2024. They are one of the most critical procedures for the European Union (EU), producing MEPs of the European Parliament, who participate in revising the regulations proposed by the European Council and are also responsible for electing the Head of the European Commission. European Parliament is the only institution directly elected by the people of the Union’s member-states and, therefore, monitors compliance with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and highlights problems and violations in Member States (European Parliament, 2020).

In light of the upcoming elections in 2024, it is helpful to reflect on what is taking place in Europe today and what could be done. The 2019 European election showed that populism, which seemed to be established in the 2014 elections, has not ceased, but on the contrary, has risen significantly since. Thus, it is of great interest to better understand how this trend will be in the upcoming 2024 European elections, as populism is not only a European tendency but is a phenomenon that progressively spreads around the globe. 

Within the European structure, populist parties are closely linked to Euroscepticism. Euroscepticism is a broad sense, it’s as vague as populism. It emerged as a term to describe those who were sceptic about the governing model of the EU – those who opposed the further integration of their countries (ECPS, 2020). However, Majistorovic (2022) argues that Euroscepticism became a broad term used as a reference for hostile sentiments and actions against democracy. Hence, observing Eurosceptic rhetoric expressed by parties and party members will help us measure populism in Europe.

According to Treib (2021), there was a rise in Eurosceptic parties (who previously emerged in the 2014 elections) in the 2019 elections. While in 2019, there were some concerns about the size of the populist parties in the European Parliament, as results showed, there was no significant change. In 2019, more than 28 percent of MEPs belonged to populist/Eurosceptic parties (Treib, 2021: 177). Within the European Parliament, there are two major party groups, which have traditionally been in the lead – the EPP (European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)) and the S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament). Smaller party groups are Renew Europe, ID, Greens, ECR, GUE/NGL and NI (non-attached). The two major groups (European Parliament, 2019), the EPP and the S&D in the previous elections sustained some damage in the last elections, but the populist parties did not benefit from it. Interestingly, though, populist parties seemed to turn further to the right than the left. In total, in the 2019 European elections, after Brexit, 185 populist MEPs were elected, from whom, 112 were in the radical-right sphere – a number significantly bigger than the radical left populists which have 20 seats in the European Parliament (Treib, 2021: 177-179).

In 2023, after the Covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions, along with refugee pressures and inflation plaguing the world, there seems to be a concerted shift of Europe to the right, with the rise of right-wing coalitions with far-right parties across Europe (Lynch, 2023). Silver (2022) presents an extensive graph showing that since 2000, the populist trend from Greece to Sweden has progressively grown. Bergmann (2020) argues that nationalist populism emerges after a major crisis. The above is verified in Silver (2022), as especially after the economic crisis in 2008, there is a simultaneous upward trend in most European countries, but also the emergence of populist parties, such as Syriza (Greece), and Podemos (Spain). Populist parties, according to both Silver (2022) and Bergmann (2020), appeared after the migration flows in 2015. So now, after a major crisis, it is “natural” for populist parties to gain more strength and spread, especially since many countries have been unable to “recover from the shock” of 2015.

Populism in Member States

The top five radical right populist parties (by MEPs) are Lega (Italy), National Rally (France), Fidesz (Hungary), AfD (Germany) and Brothers of Italy (Treib, 2021: 178). Lega is the now ruling party of Italy, National Rally is the second party in France, and Fidesz is still the government of Hungary. On the national level, according to Silver (2022), AfD in Germany, as well as SYRIZA in Greece, for example, dropped dramatically since the previous national elections. However, in Germany, the most critical country in the European Union (in terms of administration), there seemed to be a twist, as the AfD came third in the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, behind the CDU and CSU (Burchard and Angelos, 2023). The trend for AfD is upwards as polls show the party leading in the former East Germany with 28 percent. It is also expected to come first in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Brandenburg Thuringia and Saxony (Angelos, 2023).

In Greece, for example, SYRIZA is the opposition party but lost a fair share of votes. In the 2023 national elections, it’s the first time that three far-right populist parties made their way into the Greek Parliament. The first of them is a party named Spartans – which is a successor to the Nazist party Golden Dawn (which was in the European Parliament as well in 2014). Second came the Greek Solution – a party already in the parliament since the 2019 elections, and third came Victory (NIKI in Greek). The three combined are over 10 percent of the parliamentary seats (34 out of 300) (Ministry of Interior, 2023).

In 2023, in the elections held in the Netherlands, the populist BBB (Farmer – Citizen Movement) party, was the big winner, as it got 19 percent of the votes, securing seats in the parliament (Henley, 2023).  Netherlands’ economy is based on the farming industry, as the agricultural sector exports around €65 billions of agricultural produce per year (Ministerie van Economische Zaken, 2023). The rise of BBB is due to Rutte’s government, which wanted to pass a law to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50 percent by 2030, as the Dutch soil is severely polluted by nitrous oxide, ammonia or nitrate emission (Vallet, 2022). Farmers felt attacked and started protesting shortly after the announcement of the new policy. In the Netherlands’ case, it is evident that anger and resentment towards the government were the cause of the BBB party’s rise in the elections. 

Psychology of Populism

The above cases serve as examples, to show two things. First, it provides evidence that populism is a growing phenomenon within the European Union. Second, the Netherlands example shows that the emergence of BBB is due to negative feelings in a significant portion of the population. Maybe the case of the Netherlands can explain the rise of populism in other EU countries. 

Fear and anger are powerful emotions, believed to be the primary emotions fueling support for populist parties (Rico et al., 2017). Fear is a means for populist leaders, according to Müller (2022), but also, to some extent, it seems to be the raison d’être of their social and political existence. Anxiety stems from insecurity or rapid social and economic change. Due to the fear of the unknown, people turn to populist movements, which keeps the vicious cycle of populist tendencies and trends running (Rico et al., 2017). Nowadays, fear and anxiety are systemically being cultivated in societies, mainly via social media. 

According to Rico et al. (2017: 446): “The basic principle of evaluation is that people’s reactions to stimuli depend largely on the conscious and preconscious interpretations that each individual makes of a situation. [..] the way in which people appraise the environment in connection with their personal goals ultimately determines which particular emotion is aroused.” After a long period of economic instability within the euro area, which also caused intra-EU migration, the refugee influxes of 2015 brought the situation to a head. In the same period, terrorist attacks in Paris and Spain, for example, did not work in favor of the difficult situation created, as the European Asylum System proved problematic in managing the situation. 

Migration is a topical issue within the EU and inevitably a main factor in favor of populism. In the past few days, the EU tried to settle the irregular migration. In the pre-agreed text of the deal that was about to be sealed in Granada, Spain, on the 5th and 6th of October 2023, Poland and Hungary opposed the hosting of migrants from Middle East or Africa, while Slovakia, Czech Republic and Austria abstained in the final vote (Baczynska, 2023). In Granada, Hungary and Poland refused to sign the final text, forcing the EU to drop the migration deal (Caulcutt et al., 2023).

Thoughts on the Upcoming Elections

A general view of the hemicycle during of a plenary session on BREXIT vote of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium on January 29, 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

The preceding analysis and examples serve as an indicator which based on comparative analysis. Thus, it shows how the populist parties of the 2019 elections are holding up today. The only way to predict the results of the European elections is to observe the political trends and results of the national elections. The results of the national elections usually indicate the results of the European elections, as there are no significant discrepancies as to which parties will enter the European Parliament.

The aftermath of the pandemic and war fueled fear, anger, and anxiety, promoted even more via social media. Social media can have a positive impact on politics, as a venue to transmit information and exchange opinions. On the other hand, it can undermine democracy by spreading mistrust about democratic institutions and civil society. This was evident, in social media about growing public opinion against the governments and their policies to tackle the pandemic, especially during the Covid-19 restrictions. Mistrust towards democratic institutions is a fuel that keeps populism going. 

Mistrust can also be transformed into anger. Anxiety and insecurity first appeared among the left-wing populist parties in the countries most heavily affected by the 2008 economic crisis (Podemos – Spain, SYRIZA – Greece). Populist parties after 2015 were mainly right and far-right parties due to a need for shielding and securing European societies from refugees and migrants. This “second wave” grew in northwestern Europe (France, Netherlands, Germany, etc.), but also, in Greece and Italy, for example, more right-wing populist parties began to rise, as both countries suffered the heaviest pressures with the 2015 flows.

All in all, it seems that in these elections, populist parties will not cease. Either the number of populist parties will remain the same, or increase. If the Member States and the EU don’t work towards stabilizing societies, the turmoil will continue to benefit the populist parties. On one hand, it seems almost impossible for the EU to achieve such a goal within the next six months. On the other hand, the sooner states start developing a political consensus to sort out their problems and differences, the sooner the EU will prove that citizens should trust the institutions and their governments – that a proper democratic solution can be found.


References

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— (2020). “The Lisbon Treaty.” Europarl.europa.eu. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/about-parliament/en/powers-and-procedures/the-lisbon-treaty (accessed on September 30, 2023).

— (2020). “Euroscepticism.” ECPS. December 26, 2020. https://www.populismstudies.org/Vocabulary/euroscepticism/(accessed on October 9, 2023).

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Angelos, J. (2023). “Germany’s far-right ‘firewall’ cracks”. POLITICO. October 4, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-firewall-afd-elections-thuringia/ (accessed on October 9, 2023).

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Rico, G., Guinjoan, M. & Anduiza E. (2017). “The Emotional Underpinnings of Populism: How Anger and Fear Affect Populist Attitudes.” Swiss Political Science Review. August 2017. Vol. 23. No. 4. Pp. 444 – 461. DOI: 10.1111/spsr.12261. 

Silver. L. (2022). “Populists in Europe – especially those on the right – have increased their vote shares in recent elections.” Pew Research Center. October 6, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/10/06/populists-in-europe-especially-those-on-the-right-have-increased-their-vote-shares-in-recent-elections/ (accessed on October 6, 2023). 

Treib, O. (2021). “Euroscepticism is here to stay: what cleavage theory can teach us about the 2019 European Parliament elections.” Journal of European Public Policy. Vol, 28. no. 2. pp. 174-189. March 9, 2021. DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2020.1737881 

Vallet, C. (2022). “In the Netherlands, a drastic plan to reduce nitrogen emissions angers farmers”. Le Monde. July 14, 2022. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/environment/article/2022/07/14/in-the-netherlands-a-drastic-plan-to-reduce-nitrogen-provokes-farmers-anger_5990080_114.html (accessed on October 11, 2023).

Interview: 

Majistorovic, S. (2022). Interview conducted in the context of the course: “Foreign Policy in the Balkans” via Google Meet on January 25, 2022.