Populism (studies) does not exist, but it still matters

By Aurelien Mondon

Despite the provocative statement made in the title, the aim of this article is not to argue that populism (studies) does not exist or that it cannot be a useful concept, or that there may not be space for a lively field of populism studies to develop. Yet the argument developed here is that it is only possible if our understanding of populism serves a purpose such as helping us make better sense of the world around us. If, on the contrary, the term is used to obscure, deflect and divert attention away from processes of power formation and consolidation, then populism and populism studies do not exist: they are a simulacrum, a con. To explore these issues, I first (re)engage with the concept of ‘populist hype’ originally developed with Jason Glynos (2016) and apply it more precisely to academia. I then turn to one key contradiction in populism studies whereby definitional debates are both incredibly lively and yet often used to conceal power. In both sections, I explore the way in which populism has often been conflated with the far right, losing its explanatory power and legitimising such politics. Finally, I conclude with some reflections on the future of populism studies.


The title of this article is a reference to Pierre Bourdieu’s 1973 lecture ‘Public opinion does not exist’ as it seems particularly fitting here. As Bourdieu explained ‘in saying that public opinion does not exist, I mean it does not exist in the form which some people, whose existence depends on this illusion, would have us believe’ (Bourdieu, 1973). This, in a nutshell, is the argument I deploy in this article with regard to populism and populism studies. My aim is not to argue that populism does not exist or that it cannot be a useful concept, or that there may not be space for a lively field of populism studies to develop. Yet this is only possible if our understanding of populism serves a purpose such as helping us make better sense of the world around us. If, on the contrary, the term is used to obscure, deflect and divert attention away from processes of power formation and consolidation, then populism and populism studies do not exist: they are a simulacrum, a con.

While definitional concerns are not core to the argument of this article, it is worth clarifying nonetheless that my work is generally closer to the discursive approach (see Stavrakakis et al., 2018; Katsambekis, 2016, 2020) than to Bourdieu’s. Here though, I would like to focus on the way we as academics use populism, our role in shaping ideas and public discourse, and the impact this has on society. As such, this article is indebted to and builds on an increasingly vibrant self-introspective field (Hunger and Paxton, 2021; Goyvaerts, 2021; Brown, 2022; Dean and Maiguashca, 2020; Eklundh, 2020; Katsambekis, 2020; Kim, 2021; De Cleen and Glynos, 2021). To do so, I first (re)engage with the concept of ‘populist hype’ originally developed with Jason Glynos (2016) and apply it more precisely to academia. I then turn to one key contradiction in populism studies whereby definitional debates are both incredibly lively and yet often used to conceal power. In both sections, I explore the way in which populism has often been conflated with the far right, losing its explanatory power and legitimising such politics. Finally, I conclude with some reflections on the future of populism studies.

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Is populism a kind of ideology, or is ideology only a part of populism’s definition?

By Franz X. Barrios Suvelza

Contemporary social science has been interested in highly charged topics such as populism. However,theses discussionhave neglected to address the pure methodological challenges that defining such topics can pose. Since debates on populism’s definition have been bogged down in discussions of content, this article proposes to explore specific formal methodological techniques of definition building, that populism experts have used without necessarily being aware ofthem, or which they considered uninteresting, or which they have simply ignored. Three of them are discussed: i) backtracking the generic formal families of analysis, ii) constructing a three-segmented definitional field, and iii) articulating a multistoried definitional procedure. These three methodologies, which draw on Althusserian and Weberian methodological works, are then tested by analysing what role the dimension of ideology plays in the whole definitional work on populism.


Defining populism has been plagued by many difficulties. Looking at the dynamics of these debates, at least three patterns can be identified. First, the discussions tend to initially focus on what specific theme should determine the definition of populism. Thus, one major issue has been whether populism should be defined as an ideology or as a strategy (Mudde, 2017; Weyland, 2017). Focusing on one theme, however, is only one option within a specific family of analysis of which those who struggle for the appropriate theme to define populism are not necessarily aware. Second, scholars often believe they are defining populism, when in fact they are defining either an aggravated version of the definiendum, i.e., an authoritarian, charismatic leader who mobilises masses to achieve his or her selfish political goals; or what counts as populism is an object that is merely adjectivised as populist. And third, the definition of populism usually culminates in an initialsentence, which provides sufficient groundwork for research, but is inevitably incomplete. Though scholars understandably want to keep their definition simple, it seems inevitable to come to terms with a follow-up sentence that includes further definitional aspects until one arrives at a more than minimal, yet compact definition of populism.

The purpose of this article is to highlight several formal definitional techniques that can help address these three shortcomings in the definitional work on populism and, on this basis, clarify the role of ideology in defining populism. Formal techniques do not care about substantive aspects of definitions, nor do they care about normative expectations associated with the definiendum. Moreover, the evidence supporting the methodological formal techniques presented here lies not in the actions of populists in reality, but in the impact of mental maps on our way of grasping the world. The formal requirements in definitional work can range from the most basic to the most complex. As for the former, the definition of populism is already in formal disarray when scholars jump from one topic to another in one and the same text (critical Mudde, 2007, p.12). So Peruzzotti (2013, pp. 62, 65, 72), who refers to populism in the same article linking it interchangeably to concepts such as ‘regimes’, ‘movements’, and ‘strategy’, or ‘form of politics’. This article will, however, focus on more sophisticated formal challenges in the definitional work.

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Members and supporters of nationalist organizations participate in Lukovmarch procession - a march in commemoration of general Hristo Lukov in Sofia, Bulgaria on February 16, 2019.

Mapping European Populism: Panel 5 — Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in the Balkan countries

Tusor, Anita & Fernández, Iván Escobar. (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 5 — Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in the Balkan countries.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 28, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0007


This report is based on the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on October 27, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four Balkan countries, namely Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Anita Tusor & Iván Escobar Fernández

This report is based on the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on October 27, 2022. ECPS organises a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. On October 27, the panel brought together expert populism scholars studying the evolution of political populism in the countries of Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, this report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Dr Emilia Zankina, Dean of Temple University, Rome, and included the following speakers; Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva, Associate Professor of political science at the New Bulgarian University; Dr Sorina Soare, Researcher at the University of Florence; Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, Professor and Researcher at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Science; Dr Avdi Smajljaj, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences and International Relations at Epoka University in Tirana.

Moderator Dr Emilia Zankina introduced the panel discussion by providing an overall framework in which she stressed the global nature of the populist phenomenon. Dr Zankina went on to highlight the current lack of conceptual clarity in delineating the exact boundaries of whether a political movement meets the criteria to be considered populist or not, which can be observed in the different approaches used in populism studies. In this overall framework, Dr Zankina laid out the three main ways of addressing populism.

The first and most utilized approach she referred to was Cas Mudde’s ideational approach (2004), where he coined the “thin ideology” concept. According to Mudde, populism is not necessarily a dominant ideology in itself but rather an ideology that encompasses different features from the left to the right in the political spectrum. According to Dr Zankina, the second major approach is to tackle populism as a discourse. This involves the analysis of the populist narrative and discourse employed by such parties in order to receive votes, as well as their relation with voters (see Poblete, 2015; Moffitt & Tormey, 2014). The third way is the strategic approach, which considers populism a political strategy adopted to gain power and votes, thus building parties’ political behaviour upon an electoral return that can be achieved through different ways, such as implementing policies or exerting influence on other parties’ policies (see Moffitt & Tormey, 2014). 

Although they have some differences, these three approaches share notions of the populist parties’ alleged proximity to the people and the common discourse of “us versus them.” In other words, according to Dr Zankina, these three approaches claim that populist parties share the ideas of the unnecessary role of political parties as intermediaries between the ruling power and the people, as well as a Manichean and anti-establishment narrative.

Moreover, several studies have also focused on the relationship between populism and democracy, leading to the conclusion that despite being authoritarian – following Mudde’s (2007: 15-23) framework – populist parties are not necessarily anti-democratic per se, since they actually benefit from democratic structures and institutions when pursuing and promoting anti-pluralist policies, which ultimately aim at denying rights to minorities and engaging in some sort of welfare chauvinism.

Her introduction concluded with reference to the case of the Balkan countries, where, in addition to the fact that Balkan populist parties somehow resemble Danish or Swedish populist parties, they have also integrated an ethnic component due to the multiethnic nature of most of the Balkan states. This has resulted in a type of ethnic nationalism more directed towards domestic minorities rather than external migrants. 


Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva: “Normalization and radicalisation: the paradoxes of populism in Bulgaria”

“It can be observed that there is a clear tendency towards the normalisation of national populism in Bulgarian political life. This normalisation has occurred due to the cooperation between different populist actors who used to be marginal in Bulgarian politics and has resulted in the transformation of populism into a dominant factor in Bulgaria.”

The first presentation was carried out by Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva, who aimed to conceptualise the dynamics among the different populist actors in Bulgaria. She began her presentation by distinguishing between Laclau’s (2005) definition of populism and Cas Mudde’s (2007) populist radical right framework. Dr Staikova-Mileva has chosen to use the term populism due to its broader scope, understanding it not as a political object per se but as a supporter of political practices. 

In the particular case of Bulgaria, populism emerged at a later stage when the Bulgarian democratic system could already be considered consolidated. According to Dr Staikova-Mileva, the Bulgarian democratic system currently hosts different types of populism. As such, her presentation strove to provide a nuanced categorisation of the different types of populism present in Bulgaria. She points to two main forms of populism in Bulgaria: first, those populist parties that, despite showing anti-elitist stances, support European political projects, and second, the minor national populist political parties, which are an important factor to consider regarding the 2005 emergence of the nationalist political party ‘Attack or Ataka.’ 

Nonetheless, in addition to the above-mentioned types of populism in Bulgaria, Dr Staikova-Mileva also distinguished between two other forms of populism, bearing in mind what is currently being researched by her academic colleagues. These two other forms of populism are soft populism and hard populismSoft populism, on the one hand, would involve those actors that generate general appeals to the people through demagogic discourses. On the other hand, hard populism refers to those nationalist and xenophobic parties that have put an emphasis on narratives that boost “othering” in society. 

Having categorised the different types of populism, Dr Staikova-Mileva continued her presentation with a brief explanation on the normalisation of populism in Bulgaria. According to her, populist and radical actors have, over the past decades, mobilised through electoral and protest channels, succeeding in the radicalisation of the population. This happens to be an international phenomenon, as we have already witnessed it around Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world; thus, it is not surprising that Bulgaria has undergone the same political phenomenon. 

Nonetheless, by looking closely at the Bulgarian case, it can be observed that there is a clear tendency towards the normalisation of national populism in Bulgarian political life. This normalisation has occurred due to the cooperation between different populist actors who used to be marginal in Bulgarian politics and has resulted in the transformation of populism into a dominant factor in Bulgaria. Besides boosting populism from the margins of society to the core of the Bulgarian political arena, this practice, according to Dr Staikova-Mileva, has also served to legitimise and propel smaller and more extreme populist parties, making them into an essential component in Bulgarian politics. This has been observed through their role as kingmakers in order to ensure the stability of different governments. This has forced mainstream parties to adopt some of their extreme nationalist narratives in order to stay in power. 

However, cooperation between populist parties alone does not fully explain this normalisation of populism in Bulgarian politics. This is why Dr Staikova-Mileva also stressed the role of the media in this normalisation process. It is known that the media has played a key role in spreading populist ideas to the population, serving as a platform for populist parties to gain greater visibility and popularity. 

The media, and television in particular, is responsible for producing a lot of populist leaders across European countries. As stated above, Bulgaria is not an exception in this case. As a matter of fact, Bulgarian media and journalism, instead of fighting populism, have served as a platform to spread their ideas, misinformation and fake claims across Bulgaria. 

Dr Staikova-Mileva concluded her presentation by overviewing the contemporary situation in Bulgaria. The ongoing Bulgarian political crisis has been exacerbated by the economic and health crisis that stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of the war in Ukraine. Populism can no longer be considered marginal in Bulgaria since it is represented not only by political figures but also by policies and practices that have already entered into force, thus shaping and exerting influence on Bulgarian politics, as well as affecting the lives of millions of Bulgarians (see Pirro, 2015: 197-200). 

To sum up, Dr Staikova-Mileva stressed that populism has already become both an adopted norm in Bulgarian politics and a suitable ground for the rise of even more radical movements, jeopardising the whole Bulgarian democratic system.


Dr Sorina Soare: “Speaking for the transnational people: the Alliance for the Union of Romanians” 

Dr Soare examined the three different layers that conform to the AUR’s definition of the Romanian people. The first layer refers to those Romanians who are within Romania. The second layer addresses the kin communities of Romanians. The third layer refers to the Romanian diaspora. Having seen this, Dr Soare stressed that the innovation that the AUR has brought along is its self-description as a transnational representative of the Romanian people within and beyond the Romanian state.

The second presentation was carried out by Dr Sorina Soare, who tackled a new populist party that emerged in Romania after the 2020 election: the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), founded in Romania in 2019. The researcher highlighted the fact that, although Romania seemed exempt from populism in their parliament in comparison to other European countries, populist sentiments had already infiltrated the mainstream discourse.

Carrying on with her presentation, Dr Soare pointed out that the turning point in Romanian politics occurred in 2020, when the AUR obtained 9.1 percent of the vote share, becoming the fourth-largest parliamentary party in Romania. It is worth noting that, before 2020, the AUR was a marginal and unknown political party, so their 2020 electoral success was somehow unexpected by both population and experts. According to Dr Soare, the AUR perfectly meets Cas Muddes’ (2004: 543) definition of populism, for whom populism is nothing but a thin-centred ideology that understands society as divided into two antagonistic and homogenous groups and that argues that politics should ultimately be an expression of the general will of the people. In Soare’s words, the AUR can be considered populist due to all the challenges the AUR constantly poses to liberal-constitutional democracy as well as due to its strong emphasis on nativism. 

Regarding the party’s name, it should be noted that AUR highlights the union of all Romanians, which is a direct reference to the unification project with the Republic of Moldova. Consequently, their nativist discourse refers to a multi-layered definition of their Romanian people, both within and outside Romania. AUR’s transnational definition of “demos” is one of their most innovative features as it contrasts with the traditional national view of this element. 

Looking closely at this multi-layered definition of the Romanian people, Dr Soare examined the three different layers that conform to the AUR’s definition of the Romanian people. The first layer refers to those Romanians who are within Romania and that are, in their view, at risk of not being properly represented by the cosmopolitan elites that have already lost the capacity to address the particular Romanian needs. The second layer addresses the kin communities of Romanians. In particular, these communities refer to co-ethnic communities in neighbouring countries, such as Serbia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the specific case of Moldova, where the Romanian communities constitute an ethnic majority within the Republic. Lastly, the third layer refers to the Romanian diaspora: those Romanians who have been somehow forced to leave the country due to economic reasons and that are perceived to be discriminated against in Western countries. Having seen this, Dr Soare stressed that the innovation that the AUR has brought along is its self-description as a transnational representative of the Romanian people within and beyond the Romanian state.

Nonetheless, instead of focusing on the reasons behind the AUR’s success, Dr Soare chose to tackle how the party’s redefinition of people impacted the electoral mobilisation of Romanians abroad. Consequently, she suggested that networks of Romanian migrants in Spain and Italy might have amplified the potential of the AUR at the national level. Moreover, the AUR had such an impact due to its institutional origins and its well-established and well-represented image abroad through the presence of around 22 branches of the party across different countries. This was considered to be one of the key factors that explained the electoral mobilization and support the political party achieved in the 2020 elections. 

Another key aspect of the AUR is its dual leadership. Thus, far from being a personal party like other populist parties across European countries, the AUR valorised, diversified, and routed a network of associations later brought into the party and diversified its leadership into different branches. 

Dr Sorina Soare concluded her presentation by pointing out that there is still some space in the literature to address populism from a transnational perspective, where differences are conceived between the ethnic people, the majority of Romanians within the state, and the co-ethnic Romanian communities in neighbouring countries. 

Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija: “The trends of the radical right in Bosnia and Herzegovina”

Dr Džananović Miraščija warns that the major danger of far-right parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina is their narrative, which should not be underestimated. Although they are marginalised and do not participate too directly in political life, it does not mean that they do not have a considerable influence on the ethno-nationalist parties that dominate the political stage. Moreover, unfortunately, these mainstream parties have normalized both hate speech and far-right rhetoric.

The third presentation was carried out by Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, who presented the trends of the radical right in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her lecture sought to provide an analytical framework to review radical right populism not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also to compare similar trends in the region and across Europe by addressing some of the repetitive and authentic narratives present among radical groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Populism did not skip Bosnia and Herzegovina, in fact, it is omnipresent and has been one of the major features of local political life in the last three decades. Yet, for decades, it was dealt with as nationalism or ethnic nationalism and was not necessarily labelled as populism or ethnic populism. Analyses of populist rhetorics show that it is a kind of populism which heavily leans on nationalistic ideology, yet, in the particular case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it best fits the model of ethnic populism as defined by Laclau (1977). 

The populist phenomenon in Bosnia and Herzegovina is also somewhat specific compared to more general regional trends, considering the recent turbulent history and the political, economic, and social context of its democratic tradition. Its populism strongly corresponds with the theoretical framework and contemporary interpretations of populism not only as ideology, but also as a discourse and strategy. As such, it is present in all these three shapes. The key definition of this specific ethnonationalist form of populism is given by Mujkič (2007: 22): 

“some kind of a melting pot for various bits and pieces of political doctrines and principles; socialism, liberal democracy, fascism, romantic nationalism, religious nationalism, but also a melting pot of various cultural pieces; historical narratives, mythologies, literature, religion, tradition, or other events that are considered of vital importance to the identity of one particular ethnic group […] Unlike most other political practices, ethnopolitics is a non-doctrine; it has no goal, vision, or hope other than remaining in power. Neither the well-being of any particular ethnic group nor ‘vital national-ethnic interests’ is the final goal of ethnopolitics. Its raison d’être is crisis, a constant appeal to the existential danger faced by the group. A permanent condition of threat is the only effective way for politicians to remain in power.”

Dr Džananović Miraščija added that fear-mongering is the backbone of political life and the main platform of the three ruling ethno-nationalist blocs. Thus, in a post-conflict country, this is beyond what can be described either as toxic or somehow attached to democratic development. In addition, policymaking exclusively depends on the agreement between the ethnonational political elites and representatives of the three constituent people. This is why it is crucial to understand the ethnic-nationalist nature of populism in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dr Džananović Miraščija continued with the explanation of the vertical division of populism between the ‘us,’ people, common men, and ‘them,’ the elite. However, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the political elites have skillfully transformed populism and placed it primarily into horizontal antagonism between the ‘us.’ In other words, they have united the people and their ethnic political elite against the ‘other people,’ referring to ethnically different people. Consequently, the populism of these right-wing parties in the opposition is very often propagandistic and nationalistic, with a strong claim for justice, a change of the regime, a fight against corruption, moral purity, and so on. Moreover, depending on the level of government in which a certain party holds power, it is not unusual to witness a fight between two different populist parties. If this division appears vertical, then it takes place within one ethnic political group.

Moving on to the trend of the radical right, Dr Džananović Miraščija pointed out that the distinction between the white nationalist mainstream and far-right is very thin and blurred among some of their actors. Far-right actors still mainly operate under the authority of the leading ethno-nationalist party with close coordination with the mainstream political right parties since they can provide financial support or even public funds. Those who are not related to the mainstream parties and seek to be authentic are the ones who often do not take part in the elections because they do not have enough funds to run campaigns or even register for campaigning in the first place. 

Another point where the far-right and the mainstream meet is the fact that for the last three decades, politicians and policymakers in Bosnia and Herzegovina have rather transparently manifested their nationalism in hate speech and bigotry, targeting the outgroups and reinforcing the victimization narrative of the ingroups. Some of what political and military actors have said in this vein has proven to be a later inspiration for international far-right terrorism.

The far-right extremism we see today in the region extends not just from the 90s and the war and atrocities that took place in that period. It also stems from the late 80s when the former Yugoslavia began a process of democratisation and liberalisation. The wars that followed in the 90s were, in actuality, the catalyst for these far-right ideologies. 

Further, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces another paradoxical situation where the official radical right-wing organisations are very small, marginal, and almost invisible. Yet, their radical right ideas feature prominently and have a strong presence in the discourse of the mainstream political parties. In other words, there are no right-wing or far-right parties in the Bosnian Parliament or the regional assemblies. However, the propaganda of the ruling political parties – its rhetoric, hate speech and their entire political agenda – are rooted in the far-right discourse. The ideology is also not only related to the Yugoslavian war but also the Second World War from a revisionist perspective. 

Dr Džananović Miraščija concluded her presentation by warning that the major danger of far-right parties is their narrative, which should not be underestimated. Although they are marginalised and do not participate too directly in political life, it does not mean that they do not have a considerable influence on the ethno-nationalist parties that dominate the political stage. Moreover, unfortunately, these mainstream parties have normalized both hate speech and far-right rhetoric. The conservative, patriarchal discourse prevailing in Bosnian society and politics underpins their ideologies and narratives, making the far-right agenda again part of the media and political discourse.

Dr Avdi Smajljaj: “Populists in government in young democracies, normalising the defects of the young establishment: the case of Kosovo” 

The main takeaway from the history of Vetëvendosje is that young, not yet established democracies like Kosovo create favourable conditions for the rise of ethno-populism. There has been some level of state capture during the previous administrations, however, the incumbent government is staffing the national institutions with party supporters at a much larger scale. Furthermore, there is no alternative provided by the elected government to the weak institutions, the rule of law and the constitutional structure of Kosovo.

Dr Avdi Smajljaj detailed the case of populism in Kosovo. By way of introduction, he reflected on the day of the 2021 Kosovan presidential election when the Kosovan diaspora flew home to ‘save Kosovo,’ which was part of a dominant discourse at the time. 

The elections were won by Vetëvendosje, led by Albin Kurti, whose party presents a clear case of hard populism. Nonetheless, soft populism is also found in many other Kosovan political parties, as many leaders of political parties do not follow democratic traditions. This trend may be explained by Kosovo, as a whole, having limited experience with democratic processes. In all political parties, we can find traces of populist narratives, but none of them can be easily considered an anti-establishment party. 

To showcase the rise of populism in Kosovo, Dr Smajljaj chronologically presented how Vetëvendosje came to power. It started as a civic activism movement in 2005, and to this day, the organisation refrains from labelling itself as a political party; rather, it considers itself a popular movement. The substance of their ideology is ethno-nationalism which becomes discernible when one reads the party’s manifesto, a clear reflection of the party’s Albanian nationalism. Among the party’s main objectives is the unification of Kosovo with Albania, which is passively promoted by the party’s leadership. This positions the party against the establishment of Kosovo, as they are against the symbols of Kosovan independence and its statehood aiming to create a Greater Albania.

Continuing with the history of the ruling party and how its populism has changed over time, Dr Smajljaj pointed out that initially, the party of Vetëvendosje did not participate in the elections as they considered them to be fraudulent. This changed, however, in 2010, when they started to participate in political competition with minimal success (12.66 percent). By expanding their cause and program, they eventually gained 13.59 percent of the votes in 2014, 27.49 percent in 2017, and finally 49.95 percent in 2021. 

Constructing Vetëvendosje’s anti-establishment narrative was a turning point for their success in the 2021 elections. The party had divided Kosovan society into two sections (1) the old regime, which consists of all previous parties that ruled until 2021; and (2) the new regime, Vetëvendosje. In the face of their rhetoric, an increasing segment of society regarded established political actors as corrupt and engaged in nepotism. As Vetëvendosje expanded its platform to include both ethnonationalism and anti-corruption rhetoric, they saw their support rise. 

The party depicted itself as a fighter against state capture by other parties, yet today they are capturing the state themselves. This kind of one-party rule in Kosovo was unexpected as voters and other political parties counted on a multi-party system backed by the proportional electoral system of the country. The defeat of traditional political parties came as a surprise. According to Dr Smajljaj, this shows how populism is a self-destroying machinery: populism rises within a democracy and then destroys it. “Genuine grievances and demands of the disillusioned people end up being represented by populist and anti-democratic forces, eventually becoming hostages of authoritarian institutional dynamics” (Stavrakakis, 2018). 

Dr Smajljaj attributed the party’s latest electoral victory to the successful mobilisation of two groups: (1) The mobilisation of the diaspora proved to be impactful, as the diaspora communities significantly contribute to the local economy. Since families still continue to be very strong institutions in Kosovo, family ties mobilized the migrated Kosovans to come home and ‘save the nation.’ (2) Another important group was the youth, who felt themselves more represented by the 47-year-old Kurti than by previous Prime Ministers, which demonstrates how the ruling party has managed to gather more than 50 percent of the votes.

According to Dr Smajljaj, Vetëvendosje presents what Müller’s (2016) book on populism describes; namely, how populism in power reproduces patterns of state capture, clientelism and attacks on civil society. The Kosovan government is replicating all three of these patterns. 

The main takeaway from the history of Vetëvendosje is that young, not yet established democracies like Kosovo create favourable conditions for the rise of ethno-populism. There has been some level of state capture during the previous administrations, however, the incumbent government is staffing the national institutions with party supporters at a much larger scale. Furthermore, there is no alternative provided by the elected government to the weak institutions, the rule of law and the constitutional structure of Kosovo. Weak governing performance is justified through comparison to the old regime, emphasizing that the former government’s failures are blocking the new regime from moving forward. This populist message has proved to be efficient in Kosovo. 

In his concluding notes, Dr Smajljaj stated that when looking at populism in power in Kosovo, we have to understand that “The leader means the party and the party means the leader”, and he attributes this to the electoral behaviour and Kosovo’s lack of experience with pluralism, a multi-party system and democracy. In a grim conclusion, it can be said that populist promises of good governance and democracy have failed in Kosovo. Although general dissatisfaction with Vetëvendosje is growing, its emphasis on the deficiencies of previous governments proves to substitute the weariness of its voting base.


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Poblete, Mario E. (2015). “How to assess populist discourse through three current approaches.” Journal of Political Ideologies 20 (2): 201-218

Stavrakakis, Yannis. (2018). “Three challenges in contemporary populism research.” Europp, May 14, 2018. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2018/05/14/three-challenges-in-contemporary-populism-research/ “accessed on November 1, 2022).

Taguieff, Pierre-André. (1995). “Political Science Confronts Populism: From a Conceptual Mirage to a Real Problem.” Telos 103: 9–43.

Health check at Polish border in Slubice, Poland on March 17, 2020. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Use of Medical Populism to Claim the Right to Rule in Poland during a Public Health Emergency

By Joanna Rak

The coronavirus pandemic has considerably impacted ongoing political conflicts, power struggles, and (in)stability of political regimes across the world. Election campaigns and elections are vital for the final results of this impact. It is due to the tremendous risk a public health emergency poses to the ability of state authorities to provide safe, universal, equal, genuine, and transparent elections. From this perspective, critical elements of the electoral cycle include cancellation, postponement, postal voting, electronic voting (Landman and Di Gennaro Splendore, 2020, pp. 1061–1062), and candidates’ access to the mass media while running campaigns (Francia, 2018).

In Poland, the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) was not eager to postpone the presidential election, which was to be held during a public health emergency even in the face of rising infections, deaths, and widespread criticism (Bill and Stanley, 2020). The incumbent president Andrzej Duda, and at the same time the PiS candidate, was the frontrunner to win a second five-year term. However, as the number of infections and deaths from coronavirus disease increased and the inefficiency and weaknesses of the Polish health care system were exposed, the level of public support for Duda began to decline (Pytlas, 2021). The independent media strengthened the image of Duda as an indecisive, passive president, following the president of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński’s orders. At the same time, the most influential politicians of the ruling party, including Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, were engaged in maintaining, increasing, and rebuilding support for the incumbent president (Rezmer-Płotka, 2021). Significant support also came from partisan institutions, especially state media subordinated to the ruling party since 2015, which engaged in the discursive legitimisation of Duda and the delegitimisation of his counter-candidates and opponents organising resistance (Rak, Bäcker, and Osiewicz, 2021). As the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights underlined, for the first time in democratic Poland, the public broadcaster TVP failed to meet its legal duty to provide fair and balanced coverage (ODIHR, 2020, p. 4).

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Specialist in hazmat suits cleaning disinfecting coronavirus cells. Photo: Shutterstock.

Crisis and Populism: The role of crisis management and exploitation

By Vasiliki Tsagkroni

Just within less than two decades, the world has been experiencing an era of constant crises; from the economic crisis that erupted in 2008  that led to the eurozone sovereign-dept crisis, to the EU crisis that followed the UK’s vote to Brexit, to the refugee crisis of 2015 emerging from the confluence of conflicts in the Middle East, to a more recent health crisis of Covid-19 pandemic, and a culmination of democratic back-sliding, raising a debate on a possible ongoing crisis of democracy. The latter has brought populism to the centre of the discussions at an academic level and in the broader societal audience due to the observation that crisis and the rise of populism are intertwined. The existing scholarship on populism has constantly been expanding, reflecting the steady growth of populist actors across the globe; from transforming democracies in Latin America since the early 1990s (Weyland, 2013; Levitsky & Roberts, 2011) to the populist far-right in the early 2000s in Europe (Betz & Immerfall, 1998; Mudde, 2007) and from the newer expressions of inclusionary populism that occurred after the economic crisis of 2008 (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2013), to Brexit and Trump and the menace of nationalist populism (Inglehart & Norris, 2016) and the populism in post-communist context (Pirro, 2013).

The emergence of populism has sparked a debate regarding its definition and raised the issue of the ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy. The latter pinpoints the need to identify populist breakthrough and persistence causal mechanisms in different environments. The multiple and variable explanations of the effect of populism spurred a level of confusion and disagreement among scholars when it comes to comprehending this phenomenon and its impact on democracy, with studies urging deluging effects and others calling for no concerns. However broad the debate is, though, including among other issues of definition, use of the term, strategies of measurement, causes and consequences, a shared thought underlines every discussion: populism has changed politics on a fundamental level.

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

In search of a healthy political space in Brazil after fervid presidential election 

Brazil’s last elections unmasked a polarized society who condemns former president Jair Bolsonaro for the major exploiting of the Amazonas and his insensitivity attitudes towards the pandemic and those who see Bolsonaro and the newly elected president Lula da Silva as a corrupt leader. It will require a healthy space to coexist both the far-right and the left in Brazil.  

By Teresa Calandri*

On the 2nd of October Brazil elected Lula da Silva as its president, defeating Jair Bolsonaro on the second-round election. The results were impressively close: Lula won with 50.9 percent of the votes, against Bolsonaro holding 49.1 percent of the votes. Nevertheless, the majority of the Congress remains of Bolsonaro’s party (Gual, 2022).  Brazil is the largest democracy and has one of the strongest economies in Latin America (Roy, 2022). So, what does this result mean for Brazil in the broader global context and in Latin America? 

Jair Bolsonaro who represents the right-wing party is a retired military officer. As a defender of the military regime of 1964-1985, Bolsonaro’s policies are inspired by his conservative ideology. For instance, he is against the same-sex marriage and abortion rights. His policies about the pandemic made Brazil one of the worst countries in the world in preventing the multitude of the pandemic related deaths (Filho & Feil, 2021). Resembling Trump’s anti-scientific rhetoric about Covid, Bolsonaro called the virus a ‘little flu’ and encouraged Brazilians to not get vaccinated, dismissing the validity of vaccinations to the people (Phillips, 2022). His denial in the magnitude and severity of the pandemic contributed to the death of 700,000 Brazilians. When he was questioned about the number of deaths, he simply replied ‘So what? What do you want me to do?’ Such a cold-blooded and harsh rhetoric is common amongst radical right populists that in their speech exclude groups such as immigrants, minorities etc (Farias et al., 2022). 

His opponent and successor, Lula da Silva, is a representative of the left-wing Worker’s Party who condemned the military regime in Brazil. He was President of Brazil twice, leading the country from 2003 till 2010. His main objective now is to protect the environment and develop new public policies to promote respecting Indigenous peoples, minorities, women’s and LGBT rights (de Almeida, 2005). In his early years in politics, his discourse was based on fighting against poverty and broader social inequalities that is endemic in Brazil and many other Latin American countries (de Almeida, 2005). During his mandate (2003-2011), he introduced several social policies to combat inequalities. For instance, his ‘Programa Bolsa Família’ (PBF) donated cash to families in need (Outlook, 2022). While progress was made in the social and economic fields, allegations of corruption began to arouse (Outlook, 2022).

The long-lasting tension between the two leaders was also evident in the debate held two days before the elections where the candidates pointed finger at each other. Bolsonaro said that his rival should be rather in prison and not in presidency competition. This was to remind the Brazilian people of the ‘Operation Car Wash’ where Lula da Silva was convicted for bribery in 2017. He started serving prison for the 12-year corruption sentence and while serving, he appealed (Phillips, 2019). Although the charges against da Silva for corruption and money laundering have since been annulled, the decision was based on the lack of jurisdiction of the Court that convicted him in the first place. The ruling was not based on the merits of the case. Therefore, the question of whether he is guilty of corruption or not has never been answered. Even today Lula is seen as a corrupt leader by those who oppose him (Watson, 2021).

In candidacy discussion, Lula described his rival’s mandate as the period in which the major exploitation of the Amazonas took place. This was a central argument in Lula’s campaign and in his victory speech, as he pronounced ‘Let’s fight for zero deforestation. The planet needs the Amazon alive.’ The Amazonas is not just any other forest in the world, but it is considered the ‘lungs of the planet,’ (BBC, 2013). Among many other world leaders, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulated da Silva and expressed that he was looking forward to working together ‘to advance shared priorities – like protecting the environment.’ The government of Norway expressed that they would resume financial aid – which was discontinued in 2019 – to help Brazil combat deforestation (Villegas & Kaplan, 2022). These reactions reflect how much international support Lula da Silva has gained, particularly due to this environmental crisis. Da Silva’s policies also encompass the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples who have been living there for centuries. 

Now going back to the results, the impact of the small difference in votes between such antagonistic candidates will be reflected in the next four years of mandate. Although a left-wing president will lead Brazil, the conservative right holds the majority in both the upper and lower houses in Congress. Furthermore, between these new legislators, many of the ministers that served during the Bolsonaro’s mandate were also re-elected – amongst them the former environment minister (Nugent, 2022). 

A fundamental pillar of Lula’s campaign, such as the protection of the Amazonas, could end up being just a promise while the environment continues being in danger. Although it will not be an easy task for Lula da Silva to govern with no majority in the legislative power, it may provide an interesting opportunity to demonstrate that both parties can reach an understanding and fight for what is best for the people and natural resources of Brazil. It would even revive the words that Lula da Silva gave in his winning speech as he called Brazilians to reunite again, by saying:‘There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation.’ It seems that to protect the ‘lungs of the earth’ it would require a better domestic and international control mechanisms preventing corruption and offering a healthy space for both the far-right and the left in Brazil.  

(*) Teresa Calandri is a lawyer and graduate of Public International Law from Utrecht University, specialized in International Human Rights Law. Her master thesis examined why media pluralism is fundamental for every democracy and how it is regulated in international law. Her research was based on a comparative study between European States. 


— (2013). “Amazon: Lungs of the planet.” BBC. February 26, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20130226-amazon-lungs-of-the-planet (accessed on November 9, 2022).

— (2022). “Brazil Election: Who Is Lula Da Silva, The Leftist Former President Who Defeated Jair Bolsonaro?” Outlook.October 31, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/international/brazil-election-who-is-lula-da-silva-the-leftist-former-president-who-defeated-jair-bolsonaro-news-233773 (accessed on November 23, 2022). The conditions for receiving the PBF were vaccination of children, pregnant women, education for children, avoiding child labour.

de Almeida, Maria Hermínia Tavares. (2005). ‘The social policies of Lula’s administration.” Novos estud- CEBRAP, vol 1, 1, 6.

Farias, Deborah Barros Leal; Casarões, Guilherme & Magalhães, David. (2022). “Radical Right Populism and the Politics of Cruelty: The Case of Covid-19 in Brazil Under President Bolsonaro.” Global Studies Quarterly, 1, 2. This type of speech in shared with Trump in the United States and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, both belonging to radical right populisms.

Filho, Alfredo Saad & Feil, Fernanda. (2021). “Covid-19 in Brazil: how Jair Bolsonaro created a calamity.” King’s College University. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/covid-19-in-brazil-how-jair-bolsonaro-created-a-calamity (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Gual, Joan Royo. (2022). “El bolsonarismo exhibe su fortaleza y el Congreso de Brasil seguirá con mayoría conservadora.” El Pais. October 3, 2022. https://elpais.com/internacional/2022-10-03/el-bolsonarismo-exhibe-su-fortaleza-y-el-congreso-de-brasil-seguira-con-mayoria-conservadora.html (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Nugent, Ciara. (2022). “How Lula Won the Most Crucial Election in Brazil for Decades.” Time Magazine. November 2, 2022. https://time.com/6226269/how-lula-won-brazil-election/ (accessed on November 9, 2022).

Phillips, Tom. (2019). “Brazil’s former president Lula walks free from prison after supreme court ruling.” The Guardian.November 8, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/08/lula-brazil-released-prison-supreme-court-ruling (accessed November 23, 2022). 

Phillips, Tom. (2022). “Police call for Bolsonaro to be charged for spreading Covid misinformation.” The Guardian. August 18, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/18/jair-bolsonaro-covid-misinformation-charge-brazil-police (accessed on November 23, 2022).

Roy, Diana. (2022). “Brazil’s Global Ambitions.” Council on Foreign Relations. September 19, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/brazils-global-ambitions (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Villegas, Paulina & Kaplan, Sarah. (2022). “Lula vowed to safeguard the Amazon. After Bolsonaro, it won’t be easy.” The Washington Post. October 31, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/31/lula-brazil-amazon/ (accessed on November 9, 2022).

Watson, Katy. (2021). “Lula: Brazil ex-president’s corruption convictions annulled.” BBC News. March 9, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56326389 (accessed on November 9, 2022). 

Iranian woman standing in middle of Iranian protests for equal rights for women. Burning headscarves in protest against the government. Illustration: Digital Asset Art.

Mahsa Amini: Women’s bodily autonomy in the context of Islamism and far-right populism

Both Islamism and far-right populism claim power and control over women’s bodies by imposing rules around the hijab. In Iran, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear a hijab despite personal preferences. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces. This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose.

By Hafza Girdap

Debates around women’s bodies, particularly those of Muslim women, have grown globally in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death under the custody of Iran’s morality police after being detained for ‘improper’ hijab-wearing. For a better understanding of control over women’s bodily autonomy, the concepts of political Islam and far-right populism need to be examined.

The term political Islam, otherwise known as Islamism, ontologically implies resistance against secular and Western systems of governing. Criticizing secular ideologies, political Islam aims to establish a political system based on Islamic doctrines in addition to creating a unified religious identity for the whole of society. In the Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, Shahram Akbarzadeh argues that “much like other -isms, Islamism imposes a normative framework on society in a blatant attempt to make society fit into its mould” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 1). Being a reactionary movement, which aims to shape society and the state through the agency of religion, political Islam manifests itself as challenging both previous governments and the West. Akbarzadeh cites Mohammad Ayyoob to explain the incentives behind this challenge: “Political Islam gained increasing support as ‘governing elites failed to deliver on their promises of economic progress, political participation, and personal dignity to expectant populations emerging from colonial bondage,” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 2).

Besides denouncing their regime, Islamists also stand up to the West through the medium of “anti-Americanism”. They claim that all their political opponents are failures because they “deviate” from the divine path. The concerning facet in this approach is the blurry definition of this so-called divine path. In other words, Islamism or political Islam acts as an empty signifier that can be filled with subjective interpretations of Islam. To be more precise, an Islamist leader who claims to be representing divine “sovereignty” can legitimize his practices through a religious discourse that cannot be denied by society since it may appear as resisting divinity.

Akbarzadeh touches on this hypocritical aspect of political Islam; On one hand, actors who hold an Islamist position reject others’ interpretation of religious doctrine on the basis that it is not divine, but on the other hand, these same actors interpret Islam according to their personal interests, like gaining more power. In this case, political Islam deliberately serves to oppress discourse on economy, morality, and authority. According to Akbarzadeh (2012), “the combination of the exclusive claim on divine truth and the capture of political power” gives the authorities a legitimate right which can be hazardous for the society since this power “can easily manifest as acts of violence.”

While Akbarzadeh’s definition of Islamism identifies it with resistance, Esposito adopts the concept of “resurgence” while discussing political Islam. In this lens, it is the combination of “resentment over political and social injustices” and “issues of identity” which merges faith and politics in order to establish an “Islamic revival” (Esposito, 1997). This resistance approach, which strengthens itself with exasperation and revolt against both domestic and Western ideologies, helps governments pave the way for “enhancing their legitimacy and to mobilize popular support for programs and policies” (Esposito, 1997).

However, the state is not the sole actor to reap benefits from Islamism. Social movements and companies that affiliate themselves with Islamic identities also generate opportunities to establish new businesses, such as hospitals, banks, and schools, and work to accommodate their associates in these organizations. The most pertinent point Esposito raises in his article questions “whose Islam” is this and “what Islam” is. The answer concerns the idea of power, which we can find in the hazardous mixture proposed by Akbarzadeh. As such, the compulsory hijab in Iran implemented by the country’s Islamist regime and its enforcement through the support of society can be understood by the aforementioned definitions and discussions of political Islam.

On the other hand, the hijab ban, or alternatively the adverseness against wearing hijab in public places in some European countries such as France, can be seen as representing another disregard of women’s bodily autonomy. In this context, far-right populism and Islamophobia have had a significant role in shaping public discourses against the hijab. As a result, it is necessary to shed light on the seemingly discordant approach in the far-right discourse on the subject. By “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11), the far-right, for this issue, appears to abandon its traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude and move towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy focuses on presenting a liberal attitude and liberal optics by a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality” (Girdap, 2022). The framing of the discussion surrounding the hijab in France and similar environments needs to be understood in the context outlined above. In addition to this, we must take into consideration the issues of racism and radicalization in Europe in terms of Islamophobia and gendered racism.

Crystal Fleming, in her book Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, describes France “not only as a racialized social system but also as a racist society for at least three reasons. First, racial bias is embedded within the nation’s institutions… Second, racial categories and stereotypes are prevalent in everyday life…. Finally, present-day inequalities are related to historical racial categories and openly racist practices rooted in colonialism and slavery” (2017: 8-9). Far-right populist discourses frame Muslims as inferior and second-class citizens through a colonialist ideology entrenched in the country’s system and society. This structural frame impacts Muslim women to a greater extent as their religious identities are more visible and claims over gender equality are more easily conducted through the hijab debate.

In conclusion, reflected in Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and discourse around women’s bodily autonomy, political Islam (Islamism) on the one hand, far-right populism on the other both claim power and control over women’s bodies using hijab as a proxy. In Iran, through compulsory hijab, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear hijab despite personal preferences, no matter what. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces.  This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose. 


Akbarzadeh, Shahram. (2012). Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Esposito, John L. (1997). “Claiming the Center: Political Islam in Transition.” Harvard International Review, vol. 19, no. 2.

Fleming, Crystal M. (2017). Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 24, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0007

Hirschkind, Charles. (1997). “What Is Political Islam?” Middle East Report, no. 205.

Thousands of people attended a peaceful protest march at Independence Square for constitutional change of power in Minsk, Belarus on August 23, 2020. Photo: Dmitry Kalinovsky.

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

Date/Time: Thursday, December 15, 2022 — 15:00-17:00 (CET)

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


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

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

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

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

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Brief Biographies

Dr Andres Kasekamp is Professor at Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Previously, he was Professor of Baltic Politics at the University of Tartu in Estonia and Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute. He is the authors of the books titled The Radical Right in Interwar Estonia (Palgrave 2000) and A History of the Baltic States (Palgrave 2010). His research interests include populist radical right parties, memory politics, European foreign and security policy, and cooperation and conflict in the Baltic Sea region. Dr Kasekamp has served as the editor of the Journal of Baltic Studies and President of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies.

Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University. Her research focuses on populism and its links to emotional narratives about the past. Dr. Ulinskaitė has also been part of a research team that carried out several projects on the collective memory of the communist and post-communist past in Lithuania. Her work at Yale University in Spring 2022 centered on reconstructing the emotional narratives of the post-communist transformation from oral history interviews about the Soviet and post-communist past in Lithuania.

Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson is an Associate Professor of Political Sociology at Tallinn University and like Jogile, she is also a former fellow of the Baltic Studies program at the Yale MacMillan Center. In 2012 she was the PI of the project “Populism in the Baltic States” commissioned by the Open Estonia Foundation. She has also worked as a researcher for the Estonian contact point of the European Migration Network and serves as a country expert for the Global Citizenship Observatory GLOBALCIT. Her recent research focuses on the transnationalization of populist parties, recently published in journals Contemporary Politics and European Political Science. She is also the lead editor of the book “The Anxieties of Migration and Integration in Turbulent Times” forthcoming under Springer.

Dr Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik is a Research Assistant at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin and the Head of Baltic Department of the Institute of Central Europe in Lublin, Poland. She is a doctor in political science, doctor in humanities in the field of archeology. She is a laureate of Polish research programs of the Mobility Plus (2016-2017) and Miniatura (2022-2023). Research interests: politics and security in East-Central Europe and post-Soviet space, the Baltic states, Russian minority, Soviet heritage.

Dr Tatsiana Kulakevich is an Assistant Professor of Instruction at the University of South Florida’s School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies. Dr Kulakevich, who was born and raised in Belarus is a research fellow and affiliated faculty at the USF Institute on Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies. Dr Kulakevich’s analyses on the affairs in Eastern Europe appeared in media and academic journals, including The Washington Post, The Conversation, The Globe Post, The New Eastern Europe, International Migration, SAIS Review, Journal of Belarusian Studies, Nationalities Papers, Canadian Slavonic Papers, and East European Politics and Societies: and Cultures.

A group of people carry a boat by hand for the disappearance of the port due to rising sea levels due to climate change in Kutubdia, Bangladesh in July 2009. Photo: Salva Campillo.

Will the climate crisis lead to Europe’s next refugee crisis? 

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations. One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources.

By Jake Moran*

As COP27 enters its second week in Egypt, stark warnings from world leaders have put climate refugees at the top of the agenda. Last week, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley issued her prediction that the number of people displaced by climate change internationally will swell to 1 billion by 2050 (Mottley, in Greenfield, et al., 2022). The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe saw a humanitarian catastrophe unfold across its borders and on its seas, as multiple conflicts in the Middle East forced millions to flee their homes. 

In this article, I consider whether a similar chain of events could unravel from the destruction caused by climate change in the region and recommend greater international governance of refugee populations if this occurs. This enquiry forms the prelude to the subsequent article, in which I assess how climate-induced migration could produce a new frontier of far-right populism in Europe.

Climate Change, Conflict and Migration: A Tenuous Link

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014a). One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources (also known as a Malthusian crisis) (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b).

Reports by the Pentagon in 2003 and Christian Aid in 2007 cited the case of water scarcity caused by drought in Darfur, Sudan, which caused an outbreak of conflict in 2003. The reports further predict that such conflicts will continue as climate change pushes temperatures higher in arid regions (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b). More recently, studies have pointed to the role of climate change in sparking the uprising in Syria in 2011, as prolonged droughts caused by rising temperatures devastated rural agriculture and forced populations to migrate into cities (Abel, et al., 2019; Gleick, 2014; Kelley et al., 2015). It was partly the lack of resources in urban areas to accommodate these rural populations that resulted in anti-government protests that sparked the war, and the case of Syria is often talked of as a blueprint which future climate-induced conflicts could spring from. 

However, these examples do not demonstrate a causal link between climate change and conflict (Abel, et al., 2019). Rather, climate change played a role in exacerbating existing socio-economic conditions which can lead to conflict (Hartmann, 2010). Readdressing the case study of Syria, while rising temperatures caused prolonged droughts, scarcity of water and agricultural destruction, climate change was not the only variable involved in this chain of events. The droughts took place against the backdrop of years of neglect by the Syrian government, which managed farming poorly and increased irrigation of agricultural lands, leaving these communities far more susceptible to droughts made worse by climate change (Abel, et al., 2019; Kelley, et al., 2015). 

Indeed, other authors highlight examples of resource scarcity caused by climate change that did not result in conflict but rather greater regional and community cooperation to manage these resources (Brown et al., 2007; Witsenburg and Roba, 2007 in Harmann, 2010). So, while climate change will result in greater resource scarcity for countries which are most vulnerable to its effects, it is the relationship these resources have with other socio-economic factors including government policies and demographic pressures (Abel, et al., 2019) which could provide the conditions necessary to induce conflict, as demonstrated in the case of the Syrian conflict.

With regards to the enquiry of this article, the literature establishes a pathway to understanding how climate change can spark conflict under certain pressures and that this will become more likely as the effects of climate change worsen. It is, thus, conceivable that in countries such as Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, etc. that climate change will pose a greater threat and increase the likelihood of conflict and forced migration.

While I am cautious to avoid establishing a causal link between climate change, conflict and forced migration, especially given the criticisms made of the ‘neo-Malthusian’ narrative around ‘failed states’ being uniquely susceptible to climate-induced conflict (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014b), the next section of this article will demonstrate how conflict in the regions most affected by climate change—Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries—are likely to produce a growing refugee population as the effects of climate change in this region worsen.

Destination: Europe. Will Climate-Afflicted Refugees Migrate to Europe?

11 years after the Syrian Civil War began (European Commission, 2021), refugees are entering Europe at an unprecedented rate. The growing number of small boat crossings to the UK from France, and the increased settling of Syrian as well as Afghan refugees, demonstrate that Europe remains a focal destination for refugees coming from the MENA region. So, if the next chapter of the climate crisis is indeed a story of conflict and migration in the most vulnerable regions of the world, will Europe become host to an even greater population of refugees? To answer this question, this section will examine how conflict and migration have already played out in Europe.

What became known as the Refugee Crisis in Europe, began in 2015, when around 868,000 refugees arrived in the year’s second half—almost six times the refugees who arrived in the first half of the year (UNHCR, 2018 in Torres, 2022). Indeed, conflicts in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere had already contributed to a rise in refugees from the MENA region, but the influx from the Syrian Civil War pushed that number to its peak, as Syrian refugees came to represent the largest group of asylees in Europe (Petillo, 2021). Most entered by either land or sea through EU border countries like Hungary, Greece, Italy and Macedonia. Many went onward to France, Sweden and Germany, the latter of which received more asylum claims in 2015 (BBC News, 2016).

Europe is a destination for refugees fleeing from MENA, not least because of its geographical proximity to the region and ease of access, but also because of its relative wealth, social services, stability and scale of economic opportunity. All these factors make Europe an appealing place to start a new life (Kings College London, 2015). Further still, language plays a crucial role in the decision of many refugees to migrate to Europe, especially in the context of former colonial countries, where speaking the language of their former colonists—mainly French or English—allows migrants to integrate and find employment quicker. Displaced people also often have family or relationships with other refugees that have already fled to Europe and seek to follow them for reasons of support or familiarity.

So, does the previous wave of refugees which escalated due to the Syrian war and Europe’s relative attractiveness, mean that this is bound to be repeated as the climate crisis increases conflict and migration in the MENA region? I argue that this is likely.

It is certainly true that not all migration attributed to climate change will be bound for Europe. Mobility within countries affected by climate change is already predicted to be the main route taken by populations displaced by climate change (USA for UNHCR, 2021). This means that the brunt of refugees may not enter Europe at all. Instead, they are more likely to move to towns and cities within their home countries where surviving economically without relying on climate-afflicted sectors like agriculture is possible (Chung, et al., 2022). Additionally, countries within the region received a greater number of refugees than Europe during the Syrian refugee crisis, in particular Turkey and Lebanon (Cockburn, 2015). Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the majority of refugees affected by climate change in this region will migrate to Europe.

However, the plight of refugees fleeing from conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, have all produced a sizeable upturn in the refugee population migrating to Europe. The story of Syria shows just how far refugees from the MENA region will travel in search of safety. Numbers of small boat crossings to the UK from France are at an all-time high with most refugees coming from Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria (Home Office, 2022). So, while refugees affected by climate change will migrate within their own countries and to neighbouring ones, the experience of the 2015 refugee crisis and persistence of refugees migrating from the MENA countries to Europe today, clearly indicates that any future conflict or devastating climate event will likely result in an upsurge of refugees migrating to Europe for safety. 

Since the entire MENA region will be affected by climate change—and many states (such as Yemen and Afghanistan) are already in a state of conflict, poverty or weak governance, impeding their ability to support vulnerable populations—this increase in refugee numbers will be substantial. 


This article described the tenuous link between climate change, conflict, and migration. While acknowledging that this is not a causal link, it remains to be seen if socio-economic pressures currently experienced by vulnerable countries and regions could be exacerbated by climate change, sparking conflict. As the Syrian experience demonstrates, such conflict is likely to result in a growth of the refugee population migrating to Europe, especially due to its multiple ‘pull’ factors for refugees originating in the climate-vulnerable MENA region.

Therefore, it will be incumbent on the international community to develop a rigid framework of governance to manage this new population of refugees displaced by climate-induced conflicts and share responsibility for the burden on each European country and region. Doing so will be crucial for humanitarian reasons, especially given the role that Europe has had historically in causing climate change and avoiding the chaos of 2015 which resulted in unnecessary suffering for refugees. I will discuss the establishment of this framework in future writing.

The findings of this article form the basis of my next piece: assessing whether the increase in refugees displaced by climate change will result in a surge of far-right populism. In this subsequent article, I will argue that failing to support regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change is likely to produce a new wave of populism in Europe.

(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specialising in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.


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— (2021). “How climate change impacts refugees and displaced communities.” USA for UNHCR. September 21, 2021. https://www.unrefugees.org/news/how-climate-change-impacts-refugees-and-displaced-communities/ (accessed on November 8, 2022). 

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Far-right supporters clash with riot police during a protest against Marrakesh Migration Pact in Brussels, Belgium on December 16, 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Mapping European Populism — Panel #6: Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in Benelux countries and Switzerland (Nov.24, 2022)

Date/Time: Thursday, November 24, 2022 — 15:00-17:00 (CET)

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


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

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

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

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

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