The Rise of Authoritarian Civilizational Populism in Turkey, India, Russia and China



Please cite as:
Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2024). “The Rise of Authoritarian Civilizational Populism in Turkey, India, Russia and China.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 14, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0033  



This paper comparatively analyses the phenomenon of civilizationalism within the discourse of authoritarian populism in four distinct political contexts: Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, India under Narendra Modi, China under Xi Jinping, and Russia under Vladimir Putin. We find that “authoritarian civilizational populism” has become a prominent feature in the discourses of leaders and ruling parties across China, Russia, India, and Turkey, serving as a multifunctional tool to construct national identity, delegitimize domestic opposition, and challenge Western hegemony. Across these nations, ‘the West’ is uniformly depicted as a civilizational ‘other’ that subaltern peoples must overcome to rejuvenate their respective civilizations. Also, civilizationalist discourses serve as a legitimizing tool for domestic authoritarianism and aggressive foreign policies. We also find while religion plays a central role in distinguishing ‘the people’ from ‘others’ in India and Turkey, and in grounding the cultural identity of ethnic Russians in Russia, China’s officially atheistic state utilizes a more syncretistic approach, emphasizing traditional beliefs while marginalizing ‘foreign’ religions perceived as threats to the Communist Party’s ideology. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson


The 21st century witnesses the rise of authoritarian regimes that claim to speak, not merely for citizens of their own nations, but for a broader transnational ‘people’ bound together through the common bonds of civilization. In Russia – where elections are held but opposition candidates regularly prevented from running and, in some cases, imprisoned and murdered – Vladimir Putin portrays his nation as a multi-cultural empire and a civilization deeply at odds with the liberal West. Putin himself claims to uniquely interpret the will of the Russian people, and to be their champion in a dangerous world dominated by the United States, a nation he claims that desires nothing more than the erasure of Russia’s traditional Christian values.

In China, since coming to power in 2013, Xi Jinping has portrayed himself as a simple man of the people fighting the corruption of Communist Party ‘princelings’ and ‘tigers,’ and moreover as a fatherly figure dedicated to protecting the Chinese people from both internal and external threats. Key to understanding China under Xi’s rule is his claim to be rejuvenating the great Chinese nation (or alternatively ‘race’), a nation that, according to Xi, incorporates so-called overseas Chinese and excludes some Chinese citizens, particularly Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province.  

In semi-democratic yet increasingly authoritarian Turkey and India, ruling populist leaders claim that their respective nations are contemporary manifestations of great religion-defined civilizations, and that the key to making their nations great is to return to the principles and values that made their respective civilizations powerful. At the same time, populist leaders portray certain religious and ethnic minorities as obstacles on the road to national and civilizational rejuvenation. 

There is thus an intrinsic link between populism and civilizationalism in the respective discourses of ruling populists in China, India, Russia, and Turkey, insofar as the leader claims to represent the will of the people and therefore be above petty checks and balances on their power and democratic norms such as observing term limits, and further claim that ‘the people’ are not merely contained within the nation, but incorporate all peoples who belong to Chinese, Hindu, Russian (Christian Orthodox), and Ottoman (Islamic) civilization respectively. 

In this article, then, we examine civilizationalism in authoritarian populism in four polities: Turkey and India, where authoritarian populism is emerging, and China and Russia, which have long been authoritarian but more recently turned toward populism under Xi and Putin respectively. 

Populism and Authoritarianism

We may not ordinarily think of populism as a phenomenon occurring in non-democratic societies, or itself a non-democratic or at least non-electoral democratic phenomenon. However, since scholars began to identify political parties, movements, and leaders as ‘populist,’ authoritarian leaders and regimes have been identified as ‘populist.’ For example, Isaiah Berlin (1967: 14), reflecting on what he heard from other scholars, at the famous 1967 LSE populism conference admits that there exists a form of populism that “believes in using elites for the purpose of a non-elitist society,” and a type of populist “who has a ferocious contempt for his clients, the kind of doctor who has profound contempt for the character of the patient whom he is going to cure by violent means which the patient will certainly resist, but which will have to be applied to him in some very coercive fashion,” and who is in this way “on the whole ideologically nearer to an elitist, Fascist, Communist etc. ideology than he is to what might be called the central core of populism.” 

Authoritarian populism was later discussed by Dix (1985), who found it in Latin American parties such as the National Popular Alliance in Columbia, and in Peronism in Argentina. Dix argued that it was possible to discern ‘democratic populism’ from ‘authoritarian populism.’ Authoritarian populism was led by military and/or the upper classes, drew support not from intellectuals or organized labour, but rather from the great mass of people. Moreover, it “mildly anti-imperialist” and was dependent on a single leader and the “leader’s myth.” Democratic populism was supported by intellectuals and organized labour, had less of a need for a single god-like leader, and possessed a strong ideology that was “well-articulated” (Dix, 1985: 47). 

The concept of authoritarian populism fell largely into disuse outside of Latin America in the 1990s and 2000s. However, the concept has re-emerged and is today used to refer to “political phenomena in hybrid regimes and emerging democracies that share the core tenets of populism (namely, the construction of “the people”) while describing idiosyncratic trajectories distinct from that of populism in fully realized Western democracies (Guan & Yang, 2021). Mamonova (2019: 562), for example, argues that authoritarian populism combines “a coercive, disciplinary state, a rhetoric of national interests, populist unity between ‘the people’ and an authoritarian leader, nostalgia for ‘past glories’ and confrontations with ‘others’ at home and/or abroad.”

Other scholars, although observing key differences between populisms argue that all populisms are “susceptible to authoritarian tendencies over time,” a problem that “becomes apparent and radical when a populist movement takes state power and must navigate groups of influence among classes and balance the two basic and often contradictory state functions of capital accumulation and political legitimacy (McKay & Colque, 2021). Be this as it may, it remains possible to differentiate between democratic populism and authoritarian populism, and the latter is now an increasingly important concept in political science. For example, Guan and Yang (2021) observe that both Mamonova (2019) and Oliker (2017) “utilized the core definitions of authoritarian populism to deconstruct the popular support of the current Putin regime; namely, a powerful state, authoritarian leadership, nostalgia for past glories, and a rhetoric of “us versus them.” The Communist Party of China, led by the increasingly powerfull Xi Jinping, has also been described as ‘authoritarian populist’ (Tang, 2016), and indeed populism has a long history in China, rooted in Maoism if not in earlier rebellions of ‘the people’ against elites.

Based on Mamonova’s (2019) definition of authoritarian populism, and bearing in mind the tendency of populists to turn authoritarian once in power, it is possible to surmise that once democratic India and Turkey are in the process of turning toward authoritarian populism – a process that might be reversed – and that China and Russia are led by authoritarian populist regimes. 

However, we argue that something else important unites these populisms in Turkey, India, China, and Russia: civilizationalism, or the belief that there are multiple world civilizations with incompatible values, and which often clash with one another (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023a; Yilmaz & Morieson 2023b). We have previously defined civilizational populism as a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022: 19; 2023a: 5), a definition we apply here.  

Civilizationalism is a component, though one not always recognized, of the authoritarian populisms of India, Turkey, Russia, and China. This is not merely because Russia and China, in particular, have sometimes been described as ‘civilization states,’ and at times wish to be perceived in this manner (Bajpai, 2024; Blackburn, 2021; Therborn, 2021; Acharya, 2020). Rather, it is because the type of authoritarian populism practised in each respective polity draws on nostalgia for a ‘golden age’ of ‘our’ civilization, and on claims that to become great again ‘our’ nation must return to the values of this golden age, to justify itself and because they each apply a civilizational categorization of peoples in order to determine ingroup from outgroup, and ‘the people’ from the ‘elite,’ or the betrayers of ‘our’ civilization. 


President Erdogan greeted the citizens who showed great interest after the Friday prayer in Istanbul, Turkey on April 14, 2019. Photo: Mehmet Ali Poyraz.

Perhaps the most studied example of civilizationalism in authoritarian populism is the President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey (Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023c; Uzer, 2020; Hazir, 2022). The AKP – under the guise of liberating ‘the people’ from elite misrule – set about dismantling Kemalist control over institutions such as the judiciary, bureaucracy and military, and following this installed their own supporters and allies within them. Çınar (2018) makes an interesting observation, noting that even in the first decade of its rule, the AKP possessed a civilizational perspective on international relations, and framed “Turkey’s integration with the EU in terms of a ‘reconciliation of civilizations’” (see also Bashirov & Yilmaz, 2020). In this way, the AKP “had from the very beginning identified Turkey with an unnamed non-Western civilization, but without explicitly rejecting the liberal political norms of European democracy” (Çınar, 2018).  

A turning point came in 2013 when Erdogan began to lose popular support and AKP rule was challenged by mass protests. “When young people began to protest against a development planned for Gezi Park in Istanbul,” Erdogan “crushed the protests with violent force and demonized the protestors as anti-Muslim” and working with Western interests to subjugate Turkey (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023a). And even greater turning point came in 2016 when a mysterious military coup attempt, plotted (according to the AKP and its allies) by the Gulen Movement – an ally (2002-2012) of Erdogan turned opponent – failed to remove Erdogan from power (Tas, 2018). In response, AKP officials claimed that the movement was not the sole mastermind behind the coup, but that the United States and broader Western world was ultimately responsible (Kotsev & Dyer, 2016). 

Then, the AKP has increasingly implemented a strategy described by Yilmaz and Bashirov (2018: 1812) as “electoral authoritarianism as the electoral system, neopatrimonialism as the economic system, populism as the political strategy, and Islamism as the political ideology” (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018: 1812). This strategy also portrayed Turkey as “the legitimate inheritor of Ottoman legacies and power, the leader of the Islamic world, and the protector of Palestine” (Hintz, 2018: 37, 113). As his government pivoted toward Islamism, Erdogan began to present himself as the leader of all Muslims globally in their fight against the West, and in this way transnationalized and externalized his populism, making ‘the West’ the ultimate ‘elite’ and all Sunni Muslims the downtrodden ‘people’ requiring a champion to defend their interests (Yilmaz & Demir, 2023). As part of this strategy, the AKP attempts to construct a new ‘desired citizen,’ termed “Homo Erdoganistus” by Yilmaz (2021: 165), and described by him as “a practicing Sunni Muslim, believes in absolute authority, sees the Ottoman rule as the greatest era, believes their social purpose is to spread Islam in the public sphere, to provide aid to and deepen ties with Muslim and former Ottoman peoples and to regain Ottoman glory” (Yilmaz, 2021: 165).

Erdogan’s civilizational restoration efforts resulted in the politicizing of Turkish foreign policy by constructing foreign threats (Taş, 2022a; 2022b). Turkey’s foreign policy efforts are justified on the basis that Turkey is heir to the Ottoman legacy and thus the leader of the ummah, and therefore ought to act to ‘defend’ Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa (Dogan, 2020; Özkan, 2015). 

The AKP’s foreign and domestic policies thus reflect its civilizational populism. Erdogan and his party justify growing authoritarianism through claims that their marginalization of rivals and religious minorities as necessary to ‘protect’ the ummah from Western threats to Turkey and Islam, and as part of a civilization restoration project that promises to rejuvenate Ottoman civilization. Equally, they legitimize their bellicosity and imperialism abroad through claims that Erdogan is the leader of the global ‘ummah’ and Turkey heir to the Ottoman Empire and thus responsible for protecting the global ummah from Western aggression.


India’s Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi visits Gurdwara Rakabganj Sahib to pay tribute to Guru Teg Bahadur in New Delhi on December 20, 2020. Photo: Shutterstuck.

Following their election victory in 2014, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has set about transforming India, de-secularizing and Hinduizing the nation, removing checks and balances on government power, replacing the old secular Congress Party-aligned ‘elite’ from the bureaucracy with BJP supporters and allies, and reaching out to Hindus globally to create closer ties between them and India’s government and people. The result is a less democratic, less plural, and more authoritarian and aggressively ‘Hindu’ India.

BJP’s ideology, Hindutva, proposes that India belongs to the Hindu people, who are defined in ethnic and cultural terms rather than as followers of a particular religious code. Hindutva defines “Indianness exclusively in religious terms: an Indian is someone who considers India as their holy land” (Ahmad, 2007). 

Leidig (2020) argues that “Hindutva was not truly ‘mainstreamed’ until the [2014] election victory of the BJP and current prime minister Narendra Modi. Modi’s populism and ability to create a mass movement are based on exploiting ressentiment and anger toward the Hindu people’s historical oppressors (Muslims, the British) and promising to revive and rejuvenate Hindu civilization (McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019). Modi styled himself as a man of the people, the son of a chai wallah, and a pious Hindu. Moreover, Modi won power by promising to end the allegedly corrupt role of the secular Congress Party, to fast-track India’s economic development, and to govern in the interest of ‘the people’ (Saleem, 2021; McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019). Modi’s conception of ‘the people’ did not include certain non-Hindu groups, including Muslims – 200 millions of whom live in India. Indeed, the party regards Muslims and secularists, in particular, as threats to their civilizational rejuvenation project (Saleem, 2021; McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019; Tepe & Chekirova, 2022).

Perceived as a threat to Hindu cultural hegemony on the basis that they belong to a foreign civilization that once dominated the Hindu majority, the BJP and their allies in the Hindutva movement encourage Hindus to fear and despise Muslims, demonizing them through accusations that they are waging “Jihad” against Hindus, including a ‘love Jihad’ in which Muslim men supposedly marry Hindu women to forcefully convert them to Islam, and for “spreading the coronavirus, for buying land, for selling vegetables (“Corona Jihad,” “Land Jihad,” “Vegetable Seller Jihad”) (Kaul, 2023). Secularists, too, have suffered under the BJP’s authoritarian populism, particularly perceived members of the old ‘elite’ (Ellis-Petersen, 2023).

The BJP conflates “westernized Indian elites and foreign others” (Hulu, 2022), who together pose a “collaborative threat to ‘the people’” and stand in the way of ‘the realization of a strong and monolithic Hindu identity” (Wojczewski, 2019; Plagemann & Destradi, 2019). The belief that Western ideas should be purged from India led the BJP to “saffronize” the foreign service, a process in which India’s political institutions are refashioned “to reflect [Hindu] majoritarian ideals” and civilizationalism, forcing ‘elite’ diplomats to either abandoned their attachments to ‘foreign’ ideas such as secularism and pluralism and conform to Hindutva ideals or leave the service (Huju, 2022: 423). 

Journalists who dare to criticize Modi’s government have also been attacked by the BJP. The party has increasingly sought to intimidate domestic and international media operating in India, including the BBC, which the BJP accused of having a “colonial mindset” (The Guardian, 2023). Thus, journalists are portrayed as a part of a cultural ‘elite,’ or in the case of Muslim journalists as a dangerous ‘other’ that is either opposed to Hindu nationalism or insufficiently supportive of Modi’s civilization restoration project and are therefore subjected to campaigns of abuse intended to silence them. These acts are legitimized – as in many other cases – by the BJP’s Hindu Nationalist ideology, and the party’s claims that Muslims and secularists are preventing the nation from restoring itself to its former glory. 

The BJP’s civilizational populism thus helps the party to frame its opponents as belonging to threatening foreign civilizations – whether Islam or the neo-colonial West, or even China – and to portray Modi as a protective and powerful leader who will stand up for the interests of Hindu ethnic Indians globally and within India. 


The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill and Russian President Vladimir Putin as they attended a ceremony celebrating the 1025 anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus in Kiev, Ukraine on July, 27, 2013. Photo: Shutterstock.

Since 2012, the Putin regime in Russia has increasingly sought to identify the nation as a civilization-state (Blackburn, 2021; Marten, 2014; Teper, 2015). Putin portrays Russia as a state that is also heir to two multi-ethnic, multi-religious empires (i.e. the Russian Empire and Soviet Union) that accommodated minorities. Moreover, he portrays Russia as a civilization distinct from the Western civilization, yet not wholly Eastern. Putin’s imagined Russia is multicultural, but not liberal, conservative in its values, respectful of all religions and cultures within its boundaries, but faces implacable hostility from the liberal West. The liberal West is Russia’s key enemy, especially insofar as it is bent on pushing liberal values onto Russia and invading its sphere of influence, for example by expanding NATO to incorporate former Soviet territories and previously neutral nations. 

Although there is debate over whether Putin ought to be called a populist, even critics of labelling Putin a populist admit that he at times performs as a populist. For example, March (2023), who considers it misleading to call Putin a populist, admits that the Russian President uses populist rhetoric when he wishes to present himself – most often disingenuously – as a ‘man of the people’ fighting corrupt elites, and in order to draw support from different elements within Russian society who share little but a common resentment towards the oligarchs (March, 2023). Putin also portrayed himself – like other populists – as the savior of the nation and its people, and as a powerful, masculine leader who would restore Russia’s prestige following the collapse of the Soviet Union (Eksi & Wood, 2019).

As Western liberal democracy became increasingly cited by Putin as the enemy of the Russian people and their traditional Orthodox Christian culture, so too did the notion that Russia was separate from the West – and perhaps its own particular civilization – become an important element in Putin’s populist discourse. Once Putin had established himself in power and destroyed the influence of his oligarchic enemies (he permitted, of course, the existence of tamed oligarchs who supported his rule), he leaned heavily on a new populist discourse: dividing society between authentic Russians and the pro-Western liberals who sought to undermine traditional culture and impose Western culture on the Russian people. In a related development, Blackburn (2021) observes a turn in Putin discourse in 2012, after which the Russian president became enamored with the notion of Russia as a ‘civilization state’ distinct from the West, and that possesses certain values that are inherently at odds with Western liberal values (Novitskaya, 2017; Edenborg, 2019). As a result, “Russian foreign policy was recalibrated” to portray Russia not as “a potential partner of the West,” as it had been previously, but as “an independent, revisionist Eurasian power” (Blackburn, 2021; Newton, 2010; Trenin, 2015). Moreover, “concepts of civilizations in competition and multipolarity were soon promoted to explain this new direction” (Blackburn, 2021; Verkhovsky & Pain 2012; Pain, 2016; Laruelle, 2017; Ponarin & Komin, 2018).

Putin’s ‘state-civilization’ thus encourages Russians to feel a kinship with one another “without forced Russification or reduction of ethnic and cultural diversity” (Blackburn, 2021) and loyalty toward the state and Putin, and to perceive this unity and loyalty as part of Russia’s traditional values and indeed part of its imperial and Soviet History (despite many examples to the contrary, and in which minorities were persecuted). The ’state-civilization’ discourse is useful for Putin and is easily incorporated into his wider populist discourse. Putin’s rhetoric on the Russia-Ukraine war provides a demonstration of Putin’s populist use of the state-civilization discourse. In 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Shortly before the war, Putin claimed that Ukraine was part of Russia, and that Ukrainians and Russians were “one people” with “spiritual” and “civilizational ties” (Putin, 2021).  Explaining this assertion, Putin (2021) looked back at the history of Slavic peoples and claimed that “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory – from Ladoga, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov – were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik Dynasty, and – after the baptism of Rus – the Orthodox faith. …The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, ‘Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.’”

In 2023, Putin gave a speech to the Valdai discussion club specifically on the concept of civilization and took questions from the audience on the topic. It is very revealing of Putin’s thoughts on the matter, and why he believes civilization-states will determine the political future of the globe (Putin, 2023). According to Putin, “relying on your civilization is a necessary condition for success in the modern world” insofar as “humanity is not moving towards fragmentation into rivalling segments, a new confrontation of blocs, whatever their motives, or a soulless universalism of a new globalization. On the contrary, the world is on its way to a synergy of civilization-states, large spaces, communities identifying as such” (Putin, 2023). Rejecting any notion of universal values, Putin claimed that “civilization is not a universal construct, one for all – there is no such thing. Each civilization is different, each is culturally self-sufficient, drawing on its own history and traditions for ideological principles and values” (Putin, 2023). 

Putin portrays himself as a defender of Russian civilization and the Russian people. At the same time, he portrays the West as the manipular of Ukrainian elites, and an increasingly godless and decadent society that not only turned its back on its traditional Christian values but refuses to respect other civilizations. Portraying ‘the people’ as ‘pure’ is a part of populism, and Putin’s populism is no different to other populisms in this respect, even as its focus on portraying Russia as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious civilization respectful of other civilizations and of the diverse peoples within its borders – with the ethnic Russian Orthodox Christian people as its core, defining group – and lack of anti-immigration rhetoric sets it apart from similar right-wing populisms in Europe and North America. 


President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China on May 9, 2016. Photo: Gil Corzo.

Scholars have observed how Chinese conceptions of democracy have often been essentially populist, insofar as if the government is perceived to serve the will or interests of the people it is classed as democratic, regardless of whether elections are held. Populist understandings of democracy are so ingrained in Chinese, some scholars argue, that even the pro-democracy campaigners of the 1980s conceived of democracy largely in a populist manner and were less interested in holding elections than in forcing the government to serve the authentic interests of the people. Scholars have also identified two key forms of populism operating in China. Both incorporate nationalism (Li, 2021; Miao, 2020; Guo, 2018, Eaton & Müller, 2024) and grievances related to China’s growing economic inequality (Eaton & Müller, 2024; Li, 2021; Miao, 2020; Guan & Yang, 2021). However, according to Guan and Yang (2021) a key difference between populisms in China lies in their relationship to the government. One type of populism, they argue (Guan & Yang, 2021) is essentially top-down and “pro-system” and presents the CCP as the people’s champion and defender against their enemies, while another is “anti-system,” largely online, and is the product of anger toward the CCP’s due to the party’s corruption and the economic inequality its permits to increase. 

Eaton and Müller (2024) point out that other scholars have also come to a similar conclusion that multiple populisms operate in China, including He & Broersma (2021: 3015) who argue that a form of ‘classical communist populism’ …coexists with an online “bottom-up populism” which ‘highlights antagonism between the people and corrupt elites’.” Undoubtedly, the most pervasive and important form of populism in China is the top-down, pro-system form associated with Xi Jinping, who presents himself as a man of the people fighting a corrupt elite within the party, but also as a loyal Communist Party member fighting on behalf of the entire Chinese people – globally – and against American hegemony.

Populism is not new to China. Indeed, some scholars refer to Communist China as a society dominated by “populist authoritarianism” (Tang, 2016). Under Mao’s long rule (1949-1976) populist conceptions of democracy were employed alongside a cult of personality centered on Mao, which presented him as the Great Helmsman (Chinese: 伟大的舵手; pinyin: Wěidà de duòshǒu) who had the unique ability to unite the Chinese people and govern them accordance with their interests. Mao’s political legitimacy was thus not conferred on him via elections, but rather through his ability to know the will of the people and fight for their interests against the Chinese ‘elite’ (e.g. landowners, businesspeople, Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) leaders and supporters, educated people in cities). Mao, of course, was following an authoritarian populist model set by Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union, who similarly argued that legitimacy was conferred upon their regimes not through elections but insofar as they represented the interests of ‘the people,’ (e.g. the proletariat, intellectuals who supported the revolution) and sought to eliminate or re-educate their ‘elite’ enemies (i.e. White Russians, landowners, the merchant class, Kulaks, business people). These authoritarian populists sought to discipline their societies and educate ‘the people’ to become good citizens in a workers’ state, often using violent coercion to achieve these goals. Mao’s acts of coercion during the Great Leap Forward and the chaotic violence he unleashed during the Cultural Revolution – a form of top-down populist mobilization – are extreme examples of the violence he encouraged in order to ‘complete’ his revolution.  

Mao described the ‘new’ form of democracy he was creating in China as a “people’s democratic dictatorship.” Mao’s concept is inherently populist, insofar as in his people’s democratic dictatorship the people live in a democracy (i.e. the government does the will of the people), but the ‘others’ live in a dictatorship in which they are subject to violence and extreme forms of discipline unless they accept the dictatorship of the people. Of course, the people in Mao’s China did not directly rule. Rather, as in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party substituted itself for ‘the people’ and then a single leader – Mao – substituted himself for the Communist Party, essentially ruling as a dictator although always in the name of the people.

Following Mao’s death and a brief leadership struggle, Deng Xiaoping emerged as paramount leader and – among his many economic and political reforms – sought to ensure that no future party leader could establish a personality cult and rule with arbitrary power, that the educated and merchant class ‘elites’ repressed by Mao would now be encouraged to become entrepreneurs in the new capitalist China, and that a kind of deliberate democracy might exist within the Communist Party in order to prevent leaders from making foolish decisions. Deng might be understood as attempting to turn China away from authoritarian populism and towards a kind of authoritarian, meritocratic, and development focused technocracy ruled by a ‘wise’ elite in which – to use his famous dictum – it didn’t matter whether a cat was black or white, only whether it could catch mice. However, Tang (2016) argues that the CCP has remained as a “populist authoritarian” party due to its Mao era concept of the “mass line” (群众路线), an organizational and ideological principle that insists that the CCP must listen to ‘the people,’ pool their wisdom, and formulate theories and then policies based on their demands (Lin, 2006: 142, 144, 147). The ‘mass line’ insists to the party leaders that the people, although inarticulate, have innate wisdom that must be listened to and to which the party must attend, an idea which Shils (1956: 101) identified in populist discourses when he observed that populism was “tinged” with the idea that in certain respects the people were superior to their rulers.

Although in the Deng era the ‘mass line’ ideology was de-emphasized, under Xi Jinping’s leadership the concept has returned to prominence, and the CCP has arguably returned to authoritarian populist rule. Indeed, while Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao conformed largely to the rules set in place by Deng and governed as authoritarian technocrats, Xi Jinping has in certain respects re-oriented China towards authoritarian populism while increasing emphasis on the civilizational identity of the Chinese ‘people’ and their opponents. Under Xi’s rule, according to Guan and Yang (2021: 463), the ‘mass line’ has grown in importance, and now serves a discourse that “glorifies the contribution of ordinary people to modern Chinese history in order to create a unified ‘great Chinese identity’.” 

The return of the mass line is part of a wider return to authoritarian populism under the rule of Xi Jinping since 2013. Following an internal election which saw him become CCP General Secretary and national leader in 2013, Xi declared the importance of the ‘mass line’ and his intention to listen to ‘the people’ and represent their interests. Xi presented himself as a man of the people from humble beginnings (despite his own father being a high-ranking CCP official, albeit one who fell afoul of the regime and was sent down to the countryside to live as a peasant) and who would fight against ‘elites’ within the CCP in order to protect the people.

For example, as national leader, Xi demanded the “purification” of the CCP, often interpreted as an attack on the extravagance of the hedonistic and corrupt party ‘elite.’ Xi himself called for party members to live more Spartan lifestyles, and punished thousands party officials who were seen to be wasting public money or acting corruptly and illegally. In this way, Xi appeared to be sincerely fighting against their avarice of the ‘elite’ that had gained power during the post-Mao period and attempting to return the nation to the authoritarian populist ‘democracy’ it had been under Mao. 

Xi increasingly gained power within the CCP by presenting himself as the people’s savior and his enemies within the party as ‘tigers’ such as Bo Xilai alleged to have illegitimately gained power and who did not serve the interests of ‘the people.’ Although it may appear that Xi was sincere in his attempts to end avarice and corruption, he appears to be corrupt himself, and he largely targeted opponents and rivals within the CCP, ignoring the corruption of his allies. Thus, populism was thus a useful means through which Xi could establish himself in power and destroy potential political rivals from within his own party. 

A key element of Xi’s populism is the increased emphasis he places on restoring Chinese civilization and the Chinese (Han) people to their rightful place at the center of world affairs. Indeed, as we shall see, Xi’s civilizational narrative has a populist element insofar as he portrays himself and the CCP as rejuvenating the Chinese people via an agenda that stresses the long civilizational history of the Chinese people, the superiority of this tradition to the far newer civilization of the West, and amid claims that the West is waging a civilizational war on China by refusing to permit China’s peaceful rise to hegemon in Asia. In this narrative the Chinese people are the Han people globally and tolerated minorities within China’s borders, and the enemy ‘elites’ are largely external, and consist of the United States, the broader West, and Japan – or the global powers that support American hegemony and try to keep China from displacing the United States as global hegemon. The civilization narrative not only defines the character of the Chinese people and their global enemies, but it legitimizes Xi’s authoritarianism at home and his bellicosity abroad, insofar as he portrays himself as the democratic instrument of the will of the Chinese people, and his repression of domestic minority groups and aggression toward foreign nations as necessary for China’s civilizational rejuvenation and to defend the Chinese people from the hostile West and Japan.

The CCP has a complex relationship with China’s cultural heritage, and with what we might call ‘Chinese civilization.’ As historian C. P. Fitzgerald (1977) observed, although Mao transformed China by destroying not merely the capitalist republican regime and its nationalist (Kuomintang) government, but also by attempted to destroy the element of Chinese culture which he thought most pernicious: Confucianism. Thus Mao, according to Fitzgerald (1971: 483), was not aiming to destroy Chinese civilization and culture (wen hua) – elements of which he admired. At the same time, Mao encouraged archaeological excavations which he used to glorify Chinese civilization and show that Communists were not indifferent to art and beauty (Fitzgerald, 1971: 489) and “shared the opinion of the mass of Chinese that the long duration and continuity of Chinese civilization, proved by its magnificent and unbroken historical records, was a clear proof of superiority” (Fitzgerald, 1971: 490-491). 

The revival and rehabilitation of Confucianism following Mao’s death and accelerating and transforming into a civilizational ethos under Xi, is perhaps a demonstration of the failure of Mao’s attacks on Confucianism, as is, perhaps, Samuel P. Huntington’s description of China belonging to “Confucian civilization” (Huntington, 1993). Deng Xiaoping and his successors, recognizing the failure of Maoism to develop China, turned the nation sharply away from Maoism and drew on Confucianism and its focus on social harmony, order and tradition in order to construct a new national ideology, which later became known as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Where Mao though that Chinese civilization had fallen low due to the backward-looking nature of Confucianism, Deng saw positive things in Confucianism. Indeed, Prosekov (2018) describes – arguably in a somewhat exaggerated manner – contemporary China as “a socialist state in which Marxism-Leninism as an ideology is harmoniously combined with the traditional philosophical doctrine – Confucianism.” The ‘new’ Confucianism became part of the identity of the Chinese people, binding them to China’s grand history and, to a degree, also provided them with a moral system – something lacking in Maoism. Instead of marking a radical break, Deng’s and his successors’ adding of Confucianism into Chinese state ideology meant the Communist revolution became another development of Chinese civilization, one which would ensure China would again be a powerful state. 

Under Xi, the term “has undergone both a promotion and a facelift” insofar as Xi stresses “the uniqueness of the Chinese civilization and the notion of proud nation framework-building” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018). The spiritual civilization Xi is building is uniquely Chinese. He dismisses Western values as non-universal and thus unsuitable for China (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018). Thus, Xi’s concept of ‘spiritual civilization’ represents an attempt to contribute an indigenous Chinese alternative to Western liberal democracy and capitalism and mixes traditional culture (especially ideas drawn from Confucianism) “with Socialist ethos-in-transition, known as the Socialist core value outlook (shehui hexin jiazhiguan)” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018).  

In a narrative that demonstrates Xi’s ability “to adopt traditional culture,” borrowing “the Confucian family-country parallel” and merging it into Chinese socialism, he claims that in order to construct this “spiritual civilization” the Chinese people, according to Xi, must have “faith” so that China may have “hope” and that this faith and hope will lead to the nation possessing great “power” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018). Global power can thus only “be achieved by constructing a spiritual civilization, spreading ‘excellent Chinese traditional culture’ (Zhongguo youxiu chuantong wenhua) and core Socialist values” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018).

This is just one example of a trend occurring under Xi’s leadership of the CCP, namely, the growing emphasis placed on the long history of Chinese civilization, the invocation of its “five thousand years of continuous civilization,” and the inherently civil and cultured (wenming) nature of its people in order to counter the notion that China is “backward and undeveloped” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018). The notion of five thousand unbroken years of history is useful for Xi insofar as it proves that Chinese civilization is superior to all others due to its longevity. It also legitimizes the CCP by portraying the party as leading Chinese people – and thus Chinese civilization – toward the zenith of its power and influence. Equally, by describing China as a civilization and not merely a nation-state, Xi is able to include all Han people globally within China. The Chinese diaspora has been very important post-Mao to China’s economic development. However, Xi also seeks to mobilize Han Chinese globally to intimidate China’s critics, to commit acts of espionage, and to influence foreign governments.

China’s development and increasing international influence – and at times bellicosity – is framed in civilizational terms by Xi, and as ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people’ (i.e. the Han people). However, Xi Jinping does not discuss at length, as in the manner of Putin, the nature of civilizations and the exact nature of Chinese civilization. Rather, he discusses the importance of “harmony” between civilizations and criticizes the West for not respecting civilizational differences and behaving in an antagonistic manner toward China (Xinhua, 2021). Moreover, Xi warns that conflict will ensue if the United States and its allies (i.e., the West and Japan) intervene should China invade Taiwan, and he encourages the Chinese people to resist “foreign, imperialist influence.” Xi, thus, tells the Chinese people that they are in a civilizational conflict with the West in which China is the rising power determined to break free of constraints and take back a central role of global affairs and reunite the two Chinas (i.e. the PRC and Taiwan) and the West – particularly the United States – is attempting to prevent China’s rise to regional if not global hegemon. 

Like Putin, Xi does not consider China only the property of a single ethnic group. China’s occupation of Tibet was justified on the basis that the region was part of historical Chinese civilization, and that therefore by invading the territory China was liberating Tibetans (Sen, 1951: 112). If Tibetans do not wish to be part of China, the CCP perceives their acts of rebellion as illegitimate insofar as their lands are an intrinsic part of China. Ethnic minorities that seek independence are punished by the CCP, which moves large numbers of Han Chinese into those regions in an attempt to make the inhabitants a minority and the Han the majority, and in the case of Xinjiang province, through large-scale so-called re-education campaigns sometimes involving concentration camps. 


The notion that the world can be divided into several distinct civilizations, and that these civilizations often clash with each other due to possessing opposing values, is present in the discourses of authoritarian populists in non-democratic China and Russia, as well as in competitive authoritarian India and Turkey. Civilizationalism is, therefore, a key element in state discourses in the two largest nations on earth (China and India), in major power Russia, and regional power Turkey, where it plays several important roles.

First, civilizationalism helps authoritarian populists to construct a ‘people’ and their ‘elite’ enemies, as well as ‘dangerous others.’ We find that religion plays an important but not always decisive role in civilizational populist identity making. In Turkey and India, religion plays the key role in distinguishing ‘the people’ from ‘others,’ but also from the domestic secular ‘elites’ who abandoned the authentic religion of their civilization and allied themselves with foreigners, and thus betrayed ‘the people.’ Although Putin claims that Russian is a multi-religious civilization, Russian Orthodoxy is a key element in the cultural identification of ‘the core people of Russian civilization,’ the ethnic Russians. In China, where the state is officially atheist, the typically syncretistic beliefs of the Chinese people are tolerated insofar as they are considered traditional and indigenous to China, Confucianism (not a religion per se, but an ideology that condones Daoist and Chinese folk religion, religious worship) is encouraged, and ‘foreign’ religions Islam and Christianity, along with religious movements perceived to be hostile toward the CCP and/or communism, marginalized and sometimes outlawed. 

In all cases ‘the West’ is considered a civilizational ‘other’ and it is only in India where the domestic Muslim population is the ultimate ‘other’ rather than the West. The West represents, in the international sphere, the ‘elite’ power that the subaltern peoples must overcome in order to return their respective civilizations to greatness. Thus, we witness the formation of a loose alliance among non-liberal, predominantly non-Western regimes. They assert that supposed ‘universal values’ are actually specific Western values, arguing that concepts such as liberalism and cosmopolitanism are ill-suited for non-Western societies. They contend that the adoption of these values by non-Western societies inhibits the revitalization of non-Western civilizations. Consequently, we observe Erdogan advocating for a ‘war of liberation’ against the dominant West, while China and Russia seek to challenge Western liberal hegemony wherever possible. Indeed, leaders such as Putin, Xi, Modi, and Erdogan aspire to liberate their societies from ‘universal values’ and to revive the values that historically empowered their respective civilizations.

Second, civilizational populist discourses are used by authoritarian leaders to legitimize authoritarianism at home and bellicosity abroad. In Modi’s India, the repression of Muslims is framed as necessary to protect Hindu cultural and political hegemony, and the removing of the old secular elite is framed as decolonization, and thus the liberating of Hindus from Western imperialism, an act that allegedly leaves Hindus free to restore the greatness of Hindu civilization. 

In Xi’s China, minorities and dissidents are ‘re-educated’ in brutal conditions, and neighboring countries are threatened with China’s military might, to defend Han-Chinese cultural hegemony and to rejuvenate Chinese civilization, including the recovery of territories supposedly possessed by China during its imperial period, and before the so-called century of humiliation. Non-Chinese religions are suppressed and depicted as foreign imperialist impositions on China or as non-indigenous and therefore inferior forms of state organization.

Putin’s repression of sexual minorities and his invasion of Ukraine are presented by the Russian leader as necessary acts to protect the Russian people from ‘the West’ and its corrosive liberal ideology. Erdogan portrays repression of dissidents, people associated with the Gulen Movement, and marginalization of non-Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims, and the old secular-nationalist (Kemalist) governing elite as necessary to protect Turkey from the foreign and domestic forces that wish to dismember the nation and to “liberate” the nation from Western ideologies and return it to the greatness of the Ottoman period by embracing Islamist nationalism.  

Finally, of the four leaders discussed in this article, only Putin explicitly challenges the nation-state paradigm, while the others merely conflate state and civilization and remain nationalist. Moreover, only Putin speaks at length about the concept of civilization states, which he alone claims will dominate the future of global politics. Be this as it may, the fact that regimes in India, Russia, Turkey, and China, use authoritarian civilizational populist discourses – discourses that are inherently anti-Western and anti-liberal – tell important things about the shape global politics is likely to take in the future. The rise of authoritarian regimes using civilizational populist discourses suggests that the concept of universal values is likely to come under further pressure, as non-Western civilization states or nation states that also identify as heirs to particular civilizations, increasingly challenge Western hegemony and liberal democratic norms both domestically and in the international sphere. The close relationship between China and Russia suggests a joint front of two authoritarian and civilizational populist regimes against a shared enemy: The liberal democratic West.


Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


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Locals walking in front of a big statue in Pyongyang, North Korea on August 15, 2016. Photo: L.M. Spencer.

Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Philip Christo & Valev, Radoslav. (2024). Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 5, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0054                               

This report offers a summary of the 11th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism, and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea, and Mongolia,” held online on March 30, 2024. Dr. John Nilsson-Wright moderated the panel, featuring insights from five distinguished scholars: Dr. Joseph Yi, Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw, Dr. Sang-Jin Han, Dr. Junhyoung Lee, and Dr. Mina Sumaadii.

By Philip Christo Pretorius and Radoslav Valev*

This report encapsulates the highlights of the eleventh event hosted by the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) as part of its monthly Mapping European Populism (MGP) panel series. Titled “Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism, and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea, and Mongolia,” this event unfolded online on March 30, 2024. The esteemed Dr. John Nilsson-Wright expertly moderated the panel, which boasted insights from five distinguished scholars in the field of populism.

The panelists featured in the event included experts such as Dr. Joseph Yi, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Hanyang University, Seoul, renowned for his work on “Discourse Regimes and Liberal Vehemence.” Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Social Science, The University of Tokyo, provided valuable insights into the regional context through her research on “Foreign Threat Perceptions in South Korean Campaign Discourse: Japan, North Korea, and China.” Dr. Sang-Jin Han, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University, shared his expertise on sociopolitical trends in South Korea, focusing on the “Transformation of Populist Emotion in Korean Politics from 2016 to 2024.” Dr. Junhyoung Lee, a Research Professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Ulsan, South Korea, contributed with his research on “Nationalism and Resilience of Authoritarian Rule in North Korea.” Lastly, Dr. Mina Sumaadii, a Senior Researcher at the Sant Maral Foundation, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, offered a unique perspective on “Populist Nationalism as a Challenge to Democratic Stability in Mongolia.”

The panel served as a platform for a rich exchange of ideas and analysis, shedding light on the complex interplay between populism, authoritarianism, and democracy within these East Asian nations.

Professor John Nilsson-Wright opened the panel by giving a few introductory remarks about North Korea and South Korea. Starting with the latter, he posed the question on whether or not thinking about populism in South Korea is relevant since it seems to be a successful and vibrant state with a healthy and vigorous political process that participates with the international community. 

Using the Candlelight Demonstrations as an example of the strength of the political culture in South Korea, Dr. Nilsson-Wright further states that the country’s institutional frameworks are an example of successful democratic governance. However, critics of the system argue that South Korea has not yet become an ‘advanced democracy,’ and that is in danger of democratic backsliding. Further to this, the country has a polarized society with a strong sense of anti-elitism, and have a poor record of press freedom. According to Dr. Nilsson-Wright, one of the features of populist politics in the country is the debate over who constitutes as ‘the people,’ and it is underscored by the debate between the narrative of economic exceptionalism, and those who celebrate the achievements of democratic transition. In contrast to the above-mentioned critics, Dr. Nilsson-Wright turns to scholars who praise South Korea’s democratic emergence, using examples of the 2004 impeachment attempt against President Roh Moo-hyun, and the historical evolution of South Korea’s democracy from its illiberal and authoritarian past, as evidence of the country’s democracy in action.

Dr. Nilsson-Wright highlighted some of the problems that currently undercut and threaten the integrity of South Korea’s Democratic institutions, indicating that there are legitimate questions about the maturity of South Korea’s political system. On a positive note, the last presidential election was strikingly close, with discourse grounded in economic efficiency rather than emotive political issues. The open question remains on whether or not South Korea’s institutions will continue to contain polarizing tendencies from both internal tensions and external threats. Expanding on the latter threat, Dr. Nilsson-Wright highlights that, because of the concerns commentators have over China, a new type of populism has emerged – nuclear populism – which a sign of how fear and distrust can fuel a political climate. 

Turning to North Korea, Dr. Nilsson-Wright presents scholarly work that’s been conducted on totalitarian control, and in particular focuses on the works that focus on social, rather than political, change. For him, this has opened new avenues of thinking about the links between populism in South Korea and the style of politics in North Korea. In explaining the persistence of North Korea’s system, Dr. Nilsson-Wright argues that the emotional dimension of politics has been important in the analysis of the two Koreas closer together. These emotions are mostly fear and resentment of opponents, weaponizing the past, and political nostalgia. 

Enquiring on whether or not the authority in North Korea will last, Dr. Nilsson-Wright concludes by giving examples of Kim Jong-Un has both continued on with traditional forms of totalitarian control, yet in some respects have broken others, and all that remains now is to watch closely the way the leadership of North Korea formulates national policy objectives.

Dr. Joseph Yi: “Discourse Regimes and Liberal Vehemence”

Dr. Joseph Yi posed two questions. Firstly, he questioned whether individuals with access to identical information and facts would exhibit a greater propensity to compromise and cooperate. Secondly, he explored the notion of diverging strains within liberal democracy. Dr. Yi expressed his belief that populist tendencies exist in South Korea across the political spectrum, with both the left and the right accusing each other of being illiberal and questioning the legitimacy of each other’s procedural rights.

Dr. Joseph Yi commenced his presentation by emphasizing that Populism frequently portrays its adversaries as enemies of both the people and authentic democracy. Additionally, Dr. Yi referenced International Relations literature, asserting that democracies tend to collaborate with one another, contrasting with the animosity often observed between democracies and illiberal regimes. However, there has been a noticeable rise in animosity among OECD democratic polities, evident at both the national and subnational levels. Dr. Yi illustrated this with concrete examples, including California’s state-funded travel ban against Florida and the European Union’s decision to suspend financial funds to Hungary.

Dr. Yi advanced a theoretical argument suggesting that the divergence among democratic polities fosters animosity, with each democratic entity perceiving others as either illiberal or false democracies. He then outlined two approaches: the positive sum approach, where procedural rights support substantive rights, and an emerging approach that sees procedural rights as incompatible with substantive rights. Both the Left and the Right contend that certain groups’ rights have been marginalized, leading to distinctions between “right-wing victim’s rights (RVR)” and “left-wing victim’s rights (LVR).” Dr. Yi introduced his second variable, the information markets, noting that even in “mature” democracies, discourse on victims’ rights limits the information market by restricting “harmful” speech.

Dr. Yi proceeded to make a number of propositions. First, he claimed that there is greater animosity between democracies with different discourse regimes. Proponents of the RVR and LVR views claim that the other regime tolerates hate-speech and censors the voices of victims. 

Dr. Yi’s second proposition was that there is especially high animosity when one democracy follows a “victim’s rights” model that restricts information nationwide and the other does not. For example, in South Korea between 1948-1980, the RVR regime repressed communist speech. Similarly, since the 2010s, LVR regimes have prioritized victims of colonialism over academic freedom of dissenting scholars. Dr. Yi provided a personal example where some student activists from his university in Seoul violated his procedural rights by distributing fliers with a quote which was taken out of context i.e. not providing the full set of facts which is an example of limiting the rights of dissenting scholars. 

However, in Japan there is more thorough discourse where the government does not criminalize either left-wing or right–wing scholarly perspectives. In South-Korea, the narrative that the Japanese Imperial Army abducted over 200,000 women is very prevalent, while in Japan, the media claims that there is no evidence that this happened. In this context, both Japan and South Korea frame each other of being illiberal. Countries such as the Philippines and Taiwan do not limit the information market and have FTAs with Japan, whereas South Korea cooperates more with countries that restrict the free flow of information. 

Dr. Yi concluded by stating two questions. The first one being whether people who have access to the same information and same facts would be more likely to compromise and cooperate with each other. The second question he posed is whether there are diverging strains of liberal democracy. Dr Yi finally stated that he believes that there are populist tendencies in South Korea of both the left and the right to accuse each other of being illiberal and that the other group does not deserve its procedural rights to be respected. 

Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw: “Foreign Threat Perceptions in South Korean Campaign Discourse: Japan, North Korea and China”

Dr. Meredith Shaw discusses some key elements she is monitoring for the “second image reversed problem,” particularly regarding the upcoming Korean elections. Two of these elements are Sadaejuui (flunkeyism) and sade oegyo (flunky diplomacy), both of which entail acting subservient or subordinate to a larger nation. While historically referring to Korea’s tributary status to the Qing Dynasty in China and collaboration with Imperial Japan, these terms have recently resurfaced in relation to China. Dr. Shaw notes that both the Left and the Right employ this rhetoric, accusing each other of flunkeyism, thus balancing each other out in terms of populist rhetoric and preventing one side from effectively utilizing this tactic to gain favor with the populace.

Starting her presentation, Dr. Meredith Shaw starts with a powerful statement that she believes South Korea should have already been taken over by right-wing populism as they face two communist threats in both China and North Korea, both of whom they fought a war against. Whenever North Korea launches a missile, support for progressive-left parties tends to diminish, as their opponents find it convenient to associate them with guilt by association. Using the ‘Second Image Reversed’ problem as her foundation, Dr. Shaw highlights that events in the international arena can have effects on domestic politics, of which she believes South Korea is particularly vulnerable to. She posits that the reason that South Korea has escaped this drift is a result of the recent memory of its right-wing dictatorship and the emotional counterweight of the anti-Japan sentiment. Right-wing politics in South Korea is usually more pro-Japan (Chinilpa), giving the left a counterweight to hit back with in reaction to allegations that the left has pro-North Korean (Chongbuk) policies. 

In Dr. Shaw’s own research, she found that both Chinipla and Chongbuk resemble populist narratives as both sides portray the opposition as ‘elitist,’ particularly in memes and political imagery. When the right feels attacked on pro-Japanese policies, they hit back with claims that the left is pro-North Korea and -China with similar imagery and memes used by the left, known as retaliatory mimicry. As a result of the rising anti-China sentiment, Dr. Shaw investigated the impact it would have on the Japan/North Korea dueling antagonisms. Politicians on both sides seem uncertain on how to respond to this new public sentiment, particularly because of the close trade ties between South Korea and China. Right-wing candidates are more willing, yet still apprehensive, to partake in anti-Chinese rhetoric, using the same language that the left uses towards Japan – a big power neighbor that steals Korean culture, encroaches on territory, and bullies neighbors with its economic power. This sets up China to overtake Japan as the ‘pushy neighbor.’

To conclude Dr. Shaw shares some of the elements that she’s tracking for the second image reversed problem, particularly in relation to the upcoming Korean elections. Two of these elements are Sadaejuui (flunkeyism) and sade oegyo (flunky diplomacy), which are both often translated as someone who acts subservient or subordinate to a bigger nation. In the past it referred to Korea’s tributary status to the Qing Dynasty in China and those who collaborated with Imperial Japan, but recently has been used in relation to China once again. Dr. Shaw provides examples of how both the Left and Right employ this rhetoric, accusing the opposing side of flunkeyism. This dynamic serves to balance each other out in terms of populist rhetoric, preventing one side from effectively utilizing this tactic to curry favor with the populace.

Dr. Sang-Jin Han: “Transformation of Populist Emotion in Korean Politics from 2016 to 2024”

Professor Sang-Jin Han explains that in anticipation of the upcoming April 2024 election, both the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party engage in demonization, utilizing emotions of hatred and resentment. The ruling party accuses the opposition of aligning with North Korea, thereby endangering liberal democracy in South Korea. Conversely, the opposition party accuses the ruling party of being subservient to Japan and thereby undermining the sovereignty of Korea. Dr. Han concludes that Korean parties have excessively politicized issues and rely on animosity towards their opponents rather than fostering constructive dialogue.

Professor Sang-Jin Han initiated his presentation by emphasizing that the ramifications of populism are intertwined with the definition of its criteria. He outlined two primary elements of populism: distrust towards the ruling class and the prioritization of the people in guiding politics. Subsequently, Dr. Han provided a historical overview of populist emotion in South Korea.

The first stage was the last quarter of the 19th century, when Korea faced a series of crisis. The second stage concerned the Imperial Japanese rule over Korea, which was marked by great hatred and animosity towards the Japanese elite as a catalyst for populism. The third stage is related to the Korean War and again this stage is defined by high levels of hatred and distrust but this time towards North Korea. The fourth stage is concerned with the democratization in the 1980s and in that time the movement mainly led by college students attempted to bring back the original cornerstone of populism, namely the primacy of the people in politics. The final fifth stage is related to digital populism. Because South Korea enjoyed a high-level of digitalization, the populist movement also began to utilize technologies to further their cause. 

Dr. Han introduced the two populist movements in South Korea, the so-called Candlelight movement and the National Flag movement. Both are characterized as highly distrustful towards politicians and want to bring power back to the people. Dr. Han in his research found out that whether populism is considered as a promoter of democracy or as a barrier to democracy really depends on the definition of the criteria of populism. Dr. Han found out through his empirical research that the Candlelight movement was very much constructive towards strengthening democracy. Meanwhile, the National Flag movement which was led by older and more conservative people appears to obstruct the security of democracy. 

The empirical research that Dr. Han conducted through a survey in 2018 found out that the Candlelight movement was more associated with the primacy of the people in politics, while the National Flag movement was associated with the distrust towards the elites. Furthermore, the Candlelight movement was not associated with support towards a strong authoritarian leader, whereas the National Flag movement was deeply associated with that idea. These findings ultimately mean that the question whether populism could strengthen democracy is not determined by populism itself. Rather, this depends on whether the populist movement focuses more on anger and antagonism than promoting the idea that the people should be the primary sovereign in politics. 

Therefore, the threat to democracy is South Korea actually comes from the National Flag movement and not from the Candlelight movement. Ultimately, the idea of distrust as the main definitional criteria for populism could endanger democracy, whereas the criteria of promoting the primacy of the people seems to promote democracy. 

Dr. Han concluded by having a look at the current situation in 2024. Ahead of the coming election in April 2024 both the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party demonize each other by using hatred and resentment emotions. The ruling party accuses the opposition of being an ally of North Korea and therefore jeopardizing liberal democracy in South Korea. The opposition party accuses the ruling party of being a comprador of the Japanese and therefore destroying the pride of the sovereign Korean nation. Dr. Han concluded that Korean parties have politicized issues too much and are relying on the hatred and animosity towards their opponents rather than being constructive. 

Dr. Junhyoung Lee: “Nationalism and Resilience of Authoritarian Rule in North Korea”

Referring to the main implications of his research, Dr. Junhyoung Lee highlights the use of nationalism as a primary means to bolster the regime’s resilience and cultivate loyalty among the population in North Korea. Additionally, he emphasizes the significance of performance legitimation as another essential tool for fortifying the regime’s resilience, showcasing the state’s responsiveness to critical issues. Lastly, Dr. Lee underscores the importance of implementing effective co-optation strategies for the regime to address generational shifts within North Korean society and ensure ongoing stability.

Dr. Junhyoung Lee structured his presentation as a historical overview of how the North Korean regime utilized nationalism, intertwining family lineage with the national narrative. The use of nationalist rhetoric has intensified since Kim Jong-un assumed power, primarily aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of his rule. While North Korea initially displayed similarities to the de-Stalinization period in the USSR, Kim Il-sung later embraced a distinct style of socialism and totalitarian ideology following the Sino-Soviet disputes. The subsequent North Korean rulers have relied on utilizing personalism and the socialist ideology to mobilize the collective memory. This underscores the significance of North Korean nationalism in shaping the regime’s resilience. Dr. Lee also researched the legitimation claims in the new year statements of the Kim family. He found that Kim Il-sung made frequent references to the revolutionary legacy of North Korea. In the Kim Jong-il era, there was a particular focus on the cult of personality and loyalty to the ruler. With the current ruler, Kim Jong-un, there is much less reference to the cult of personality than his predecessors. 

The Ch’ŏllima (“Flying Horse”) in North Korea could be used as an example of how nationalism could be used for bolstering the regime’s resilience, particularly during periods of crisis. The idea was the mass mobilization of the people, similarly to the Stakhanovite movement in the USSR. It later became the cornerstone of legitimation of the successive North Korean rulers. Rulers such as Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un invoked the Ch’ŏllima movement during times of crisis by utilizing the collective memory to bolster nationalism and loyalty to the regimes. 

Dr. Lee also analyzed articles from the Korean Central News Agency from 2005-2018 and found out that between 2005 and 2010 the references to the concept of the nation decreased significantly. However, there was a peak in the reference of the nation in 2011, namely when Kim Jong-un came into power. This suggests that he used the concept of the nation more to solidify his regime. 

Dr. Lee further analyzed the frequency of the visiting of high-ranking members of the North-Korean Politburo in the areas of economy, politics and military from 1994 until 2015. Following Kim Jong-il succession in 1994 there was increased engagement in the political and military spheres which suggests a move towards power consolidation. Economic engagement remained low during that time, which suggests it was a secondary priority for the regime. Following Kim Jong-un succession in 2011, there was a dramatic spike in the engagement in all areas but particularly in the economic area. This suggests an attempt to link the economic development to the legitimacy of the regime. 

There is seemingly a strategic shift in the North Korean state propaganda. This suggests a growing confidence of the stability of the regime to focus on other themes such as economic development and diplomacy. Furthermore, less amount of referencing to the nationalist concept could signal a response to the internal challenges, such as economic hardship. 

Dr. Lee concluded by presenting the main implications of his research. First, the employment of nationalism as a tool to bolster the regime’s resilience and the population’s loyalty. Second, performance legitimation also serves as an important tool to enhance the regime’s resilience, as it shows the concern of the state towards other key issues. Lastly, in order for the regime to cope with the generational shifts on the North Korean society, they must implement effective co-optation strategies in order to ensure the stability of the regime. 

Dr. Mina Sumaadii: “Populist Nationalism as a Challenge to Democratic Stability in Mongolia”

Dr. Mina Sumaadii elaborated on how the economic and legal landscape in Mongolia has led to adverse outcomes, with politicians resorting to populist nationalism to conceal inequality. During elections, there is a deliberate attempt to discredit rival candidates based on ethnicity, often accusing them of having connections to China, whether familial or business-related. Additionally, paternal populism plays a role, with politicians advocating for ‘strong’ leadership, and anti-democratic reforms being rationalized under the guise of ensuring stability.

In contextualizing the rise of populism in Mongolia, Dr. Mina Sumaadii traced back to the 1985 post-communist revolution, marking the inception of Mongolia’s democratic system. Unlike other post-communist nations, Mongolia stands out due to the former Communist Party’s transformation into the main ruling party during the democratic era. However, with the decline of its primary opposition, the Democratic Party, Mongolia has experienced an extended period of one-party dominance since 2016. Consequently, V-Dem has downgraded Mongolia’s status from an electoral democracy to a ‘grey area’ hovering between electoral democracy and electoral autocracy.

Expanding on her contextualization, Dr. Sumaadii emphasized the impact of the 1990s recession and the shift towards an East-Asian orientation, both of which were bolstered by a mining boom in the 2000s. This boom played a significant role in Mongolia’s successful democratization, as the mining industry was not sufficiently developed during the initial democratization period in the 1990s, resulting in a delayed ‘resource curse’ effect. However, subsequent to this, the mining boom led to increasing inequality, with profits from the industry unevenly distributed, contributing to extreme poverty persisting until the 2010s, as wealth became concentrated among select individuals.

Poverty still remains a key economic and political issue, especially as it has not been reduced significantly in recent years, with corruption becoming a major problem as a result. Dr. Sumaadii reported that Mongolia has now, unfortunately, fallen into the same resource curse pattern as other developing nations. An increase in public protests has been the response to the rising inequality, with public confidence in political institutions at an all-time low, resulting in a loss of legitimacy since the populace believes that they cannot solve the problems in the country. 

Although Mongolia is a multiparty system, two major parties have historically dominated politics, but both were/are weakly institutionalized, with poor communication and record keeping of candidate’s policies. Dr. Sumaadii presented that whilst presidential elections receive better coverage, parliamentary elections have little to no record keeping, and no modern study exists investigating if elected candidates fulfilled any of their campaign promises. Political parties themselves do not have a consistent political platform, with individuals promising different contradicting policies under the banner of their political party. As a result, analysis in the traditional terms of ‘left and ‘right’ becomes nearly impossible in this context.

According to Dr. Sumaadii, restrictions on media freedom aid problems, as the country consists mostly of private media broadcasters that are often linked to certain political candidates. Censorship laws fine both local and international reporters for liable defamation, resulting in journalistic self-censorship. Dr. Sumaadii indicates that she still found a means to conduct an analysis of populism by focusing on the strategies employed by politicians, especially in regard to economic populism since most candidates do not campaign on ideology. The center point of this economic populism is alienating rivals with corruption allegations and a narrative of Mongolian ownership of resources as opposed to foreign ownership. In the past, anti-establishment campaigning formed another facet of this economic populism. However, its prominence has waned due to the shift towards a one-party state and the imperative to project party unity to the population. Dr. Sumaadii underscores that the weak rule of law and economic pledges made without due consideration for the national budget have resulted in the failure of many proposed policies, particularly those aimed at combating corruption.

To conclude, Dr. Sumaadii discussed that the economic and legal situation has had a negative effect as politicians try to mask inequality with populist nationalism – where in elections there is an effort to discredit rival candidates based on ethnicity, and in particular accusing them of having a Chinese connection, whether familial or business related. Paternal populism is also a factor, as politicians discuss the need for ‘strong’ leaders, and anti-democratic reforms are justified by the need for stability. 

(*) Radoslav Valev is an ECPS intern.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel visits the Synagogue of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 28, 2018.

Is A New Anti-Western Civilizational Populism Emerging? The Turkish, Hungarian and Israeli Cases


Please cite as:

Morieson, Nicholas & Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2024). “Is A New Anti-Western Civilizational Populism Emerging? The Turkish, Hungarian and Israeli Cases.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 4, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0032  



While it’s typical to associate right-wing populism in Western Europe with the narrative of Islam versus the Judeo-Christian West, there’s a nuanced and emerging form of civilisationalism that we term “anti-Western civilizational populism.” This paper argues that anti-Western civilizational populism is present in the discourse of not only Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but also Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and may be emerging in Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The article finds two key features common to these three different expressions of anti-Western populism across three different religions: The blaming of ‘the West’ for domestic problems is often the result of poor domestic governance, and an accompanying authoritarian, anti-liberal turn justified by the necessity of protecting ‘the people’ from the ‘liberal’ Western powers and defending and/or rejuvenating ‘our’ civilization. As liberalism promotes global cosmopolitanism and religious diversity, non-liberal states perceive it as a threat to their sovereignty and traditional values. Consequently, they push back against Western cultural hegemony, potentially forming an anti-liberal, authoritarian discursive bloc.

By Nicholas Morieson & Ihsan Yilmaz


When we think of the role that civilization, and the idea of clashes between civilizations, plays in populist politics, we might first think of how right-wing populist parties in Western Europe claim that Islam and the Judeo-Christian West are implacable enemies, and draw support from fearful Europeans by claiming to be defenders of Judeo-Christian civilization from the menace of Islam. However, there is evidence of a different, and perhaps new, kind of civilizationism emerging among populists globally, what we call “anti-Western civilizational populism.” This phenomenon is not merely present, as one might imagine, in Russia, China, and in Muslim majority democracies such as Turkey. Rather, we argue that anti-Western civilizational populism is also present in the discourse of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and may be emerging in Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

In this article, we discuss three cases of anti-Western civilizational populism: in the discourse of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The article finds two key features common to different expressions of anti-Western populism: the blaming of ‘the west’ for domestic problems often the result of poor domestic governance, and an accompanying authoritarian, anti-liberal turn justified by the necessity of protecting ‘the people’ from the ‘liberal’ Western powers and defending and/or rejuvenating ‘our’ civilization. 

The definition of civilisational populism used here is as follows: it is “a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022: 19; 2023a: 5)

Anti-Western Civilizational Populism in Turkey

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Shutterstock.

Among the clearest examples of anti-Western civilizational populism is the one that emerged in Turkey under the AKP rule. AKP ideology “combines Turkish nationalism with Islamism and neo-Ottomanism” and argues that Muslim peoples “ought to come together, for mutual protection against an aggressive West, as a civilizational bloc led by Turkey and its President, Erdogan” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023b). In other words, Erdogan and his party possess a fundamentally civilizational ideology, which posits that Muslims – and not merely within Turkey but also globally (Yilmaz and Demir, 2023)– are oppressed by the West, and that Erdogan alone can stand up on their behalf. He “has recurrently proclaimed that he is the continuation, and the contemporary expression, of a major historical struggle, a common religious cause (dava), where the antagonists are the Westernizing secularizing Kemalist actors and their puppeteers – the West” (Yilmaz, 2021: 138).

The AKP did not come to power promising Islamism and authoritarian government. Rather, they first portrayed themselves as populist Muslim democrats who would return power to ‘the people’ by ending secular authoritarian rule, introducing greater religious pluralism, and seeking European Union membership for Turkey (Ozel, 2003; Nasr, 2005; Yilmaz, 2009; 2021). However, the AKP grew intolerant of dissent over time. Responding to growing opposition to their rule, the party increasingly centralized power and embraced authoritarian forms of governance, including by demonizing ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey, claiming Western powers were bent on dismembering Turkey – a claim that played on the painful memory of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire – and by encouraging Turkish nationalism and a kind of Islamist politics that portrays Turkey as the “continuation of the Ottoman Empire” and thus leader of Islamic civilization (Moudouros, 2022: 175; Hazir, 2022; Uzer, 2020; Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022).

The AKP engaged in an “imperial civilizational restoration” effort designed to restore the power of the Turkish people and protect Islam, and which necessitated the “centralization of executive power …as a natural result of the restoration of the Ottoman imperial legacy” Moudouros (2022: 157). As a result of this effort, the AKP increasingly “politicized Turkish foreign policy by constructing foreign threats” often involving US and “Zionist international conspiracies” to weaken Turkey and Muslim power globally (Destradi et al., 2022: 488). Erdogan portrays “Turkey as a victim of malign foreign forces” including George Soros, the “interest rate lobby,” Zionists, and the West, against whom, he says, the Turkish people must wage a “war of liberation” (Destradi et al., 2022). Thus, when in 2013 protestors took to the streets of Istanbul to protest the destruction of Gezi Park, Erdogan responded by claiming that Western powers were behind the protests (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023b). Equally, when a mysterious coup attempt – The Erdogan regime has alleged that it is the work of the Gulen movement– failed to expel Erdogan from office in 2016, the AKP sought to lay ultimate blame on the United States, claiming that the Gulenists were working with “crusader” powers (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023b). In both cases, Erdogan portrayed himself as a pious Muslim and champion of the Turkish Muslim people, whom he was defending from Western ‘crusaders’ who sought to dismember Turkey, just as Western powers had dismembered the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of the First World War. 

The AKP has also sought to deflect blame for its economic policy failures by blaming Turkey’s monetary problems on the West. The West proved to be a useful scapegoat when Erdogan’s decision to personally take control of monetary policy in Turkey backfired, resulting in low interest rates that devalued the Turkish lira. Rather than admit fault Erdogan portrayed himself as a populist champion defending his ‘people’ from external foes, telling supporters that the United States and other Western powers were trying to bring “Turkey and its people to their knees” (Dettmer, 2018), and later claimed that his decisions were designed to protect Turkey from “foreign financial tools that can disrupt the financial system” and that foreigners were behind “the swelling inflation” which was “not in line with the realities of our country” (Reid, 2018). Thus, for Erdogan and the AKP, claiming that ‘the West’ and ‘global elites’ are responsible for Turkey’s internal problems is not merely a way of deflecting blame for its failed policies. Rather, it is also a way of justifying Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism and his Ottoman imperial civilization rejuvenation project, which is predicated on the notion that to protect the Turkish people a powerful Muslim civilizational bloc must be formed, with Erdogan as its leader. 

Anti-Western Civilizational Populism in Hungary

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister arrives to attend in an informal meeting of Heads of State or Government in Prague, Czechia on October 7, 2022. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Contemporary Hungary presents an interesting case of anti-Western civilizational populism. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party has governed Hungary uninterrupted since 2010 – is a populist leader who won power on a conservative and anti-corruption platform. Since 2010 his party has steadily consolidated its rule, establishing hegemonic power over Hungary’s media, bureaucracy, and judiciary, and has used referenda to establish a new constitution that gave greater power to the executive branch. 

Orbán is known for his anti-Islam discourse and opposition to allowing Muslims to immigrate to Hungary. However, a closer look at Orbán’s discourse shows that he regards the liberal West – not Muslim immigrants – as a greater threat to the ‘Judeo-Christian’ people of Hungary. For example, Fidesz’ populist 2010 election campaign was centered on the claim that the people of Hungary were threatened – not by Muslims — but by a corrupt national elite, but also by external elites including “the European Union (‘Brussels’), multinational corporations, international financial institutions, the western ‘liberal’ press, the ‘international left’” and “the domestic opposition and several Hungarian watchdog non-governmental organizations (NGOs)” (Bocskor, 2018). Fidesz’s attacks on the European Union were not purposed towards dismantling or removing Hungary from the body but were “a form of anti-politics that challenges liberal and cosmopolitan understandings of European Union” (Scott 2020: 659), and which assisted the party in defining the boundaries between the nationalist Hungarian self and the liberal and cosmopolitan EU ‘other.’

Later, during the 2015-2016 migrant crisis Orbán refused to permit Muslim migrants to enter Hungary, claiming that they presented an existential threat to his nation’s – and Europe’s – Judeo-Christian culture, or rather the cultural hegemony of Judeo-Christianity. However, Orbán also presented himself as the protector of the Christian Hungarian people, who stood up to ‘elites’ in Brussels and elsewhere who care little if Islam were to overtake Christianity as the most widely followed religion across Europe (Éltetö et al., 2022; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023b; Mendelski, 2019; Balogh, 2022). Moreover, Orbán is a critic of the ideology to which ‘elites’ throughout the Western world are beholden: liberalism. 

Orbán is nothing if not honest about his intentions. He has promised to remove the liberal elite that held power within government, bureaucracy, and within other institutions of state, and replace it with a new elite that will support his party in their effort to transform Hungary into an illiberal ‘Christian democracy’ (Lamour, 2022). His chief problem with Western ‘elites’ is that they have abandoned the traditional Judeo-Christian values that made the West a powerful civilization, and instead embraced liberalism. Contemporary liberal democracy, according to Orbán, is no longer democratic but simply liberal, and thus the liberal ‘elite’ in the West no longer cares about the interests of the people, but rather seeks to advance liberal ways of thinking and living everywhere. This elite, personified by Orbán’s bête noir George Soros – a Hungarian American financier and philanthropist – is according to Orbán utterly intolerant of Christian values and uses Muslim immigrants as a tool to break the hegemonic power of Christian Europeans. 

George Soros is, within Orbán’s discourse, the personification of the liberal global elite and thus Orbán’s most prominent enemy (Langer, 2021). Indeed, Orbán portrays Soros as a mastermind behind who controls the EU, NGOs and multinational corporations, and is bent on forcing liberalism on the Hungarian people, de-Christianizing Europe, and replacing Europeans with Muslim from the Middle East and North Africa (Langer, 2021). On the other hand, Orbán portrays himself and his party as standing “in the way” of Soros’ “plan which seeks to eliminate nations and seeks to create a Europe with a mixed population” (Scheppele 2019). Fidesz, he claims, stands “in the way of a financial and political empire which seeks to implement this plan—at whatever cost” (Scheppele, 2019). Western liberal elite, according to Orbán, are invested in the Soros plan, and “across the whole of Europe …want to sweep away governments which represent national interests – including ours” (Scheppele, 2019).

Soros and the liberal Western ‘elite’ are useful to Orbán insofar as he uses them to deflect blame when his economic and foreign policies fail or become unpopular. For example, Orbán has deflected criticism of his ambivalent position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict by blaming Soros for starting the conflict in order to destroy Russia, and on the grounds that Russia is an anti-liberal, Christian power. Orbán falsely claimed that, in the 1990s, Soros wrote that “since the Western democracies resent having their citizens dying in a war in a remote place, it will be the Central Europeans who will have to be sent in, thrown in, persuaded, recruited, and Russia will have to be defeated with their blood and through their sacrifice” (Máté, 2023). 

He also blamed Soros for the war’s prolonging, claiming that Western businesses “with perhaps George Soros at the forefront …have always dreamed about gaining a foothold in Ukraine and gain[ing] access to the natural resources Russia has to offer (Bráder, 2023). Equally, Orbán claimed on Hír TV that Hungary was experiencing financial troubles because the European Commission was withholding “32 billion Euros,” and that this was occurring due to “George Soros” and his “people in the European Parliament” who instead wished to give this money to Ukraine (Miniszterelnok, 2023). 

Although it may be tempting to view Orbán’s anti-Soros rhetoric as motivated by anti-Semitism, Orbán is himself a friend and open admirer of Israel and condemns anti-Semitism. Orbán’s true enemies, he claims, are within Western civilization, not outside of it. For example, in August 2022 Orbán spoke at the Dallas Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). There Orbán “attacked the Democratic Party and President Obama, calling them globalists who sought to undermine” ‘Christian and [Hungarian] national values,’ and remarked “that he, Orbán, was fighting the same enemies as his Republican allies – Brussels and Washington – and further claimed that ‘these two locations will define the two fronts in the battle being fought for western civilization’” (Morieson, 2022: 176). 

Orbán thus argues that there is a battle taking place for Western civilization. On one side are the politically and culturally dominant liberal elites (represented by Washington and Brussels) who are happy to see their societies decline into childless economic zones populated by LGBTQ people, and which will eventually be transformed into mixed-race majority Muslim states. On the other side are Orbán and his allies – including post-liberal conservative American intellectuals (Morieson, 2022) – who perceive themselves to be protectors of the authentic culture of Western civilization. For example, in his July 2023 speech at the Bálványos Free Summer University and Student Camp in Tusnádfürdő, Orbán described the European Union as an “elite” “political class” that “has no democratic or Christian convictions,” and called upon Hungarians to help him “defend … at all costs” their “Hungarian culture” (Visegrad Post, 2023). The EU and the liberal elite that dominate the body, according to Orbán, was uninterested in preventing the extinction of European culture, but was rather “managing population replacement through migration, and …waging an LGBTQ offensive against family-friendly European nations” (Visegrad Post, 2023), an offensive that would ultimately end in the destruction of the distinct and Christian-based European cultures of Europe. 

According to Orbán, the EU and, particularly, the United States were so bent on forcing liberal culture on the world that they were inextricably moving all nations towards civilizational conflict: a conflict between the liberal West and “civilization states” that refused to liberalize such as China and Russia. (Visegrad Post, 2023). This conflict, Orbán argues, will decide the future of the world, and the US ought to permit illiberal states – such as Hungary – to determine their own futures rather than impose “universal values” upon them in an effort to prevent war (Visegrad Post, 2023). Orbán thus sees liberalism as a poisonous ideology that undermines traditional values and will ultimately weaken nations by dissolving the religious and cultural bonds that hold peoples together. Thus, his government has drawn itself closer to China and Russia, anti-liberal, anti-Western powers, and nations which Orbán believes will survive into the future – unlike Europe’s nations – because they reject the corrosive ideology of liberalism and instead remain true to their traditional, civilizational values. 

Anti-Western Civilizational Populism in Israel 

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.

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the ruling right-wing populist Likud party and the most electorally successful politician of his generation in Israel, has often invoked the concept of civilization is his public remarks. The notion that the world is divided into different and often clashing civilizations plays an important role in Netanyahu’s populist discourse, which divides people into three categories: ‘the people’ or all the Jewish people; ‘elites’ or the Israeli centrist and left-wing opposition parties and their supporters who Netanyahu charges with refusing to defend Israel from its enemies; and ‘others’ or the Muslim Arabs (especially Palestinians) who are fundamentally uncivilized and barbaric and seek Israel’s destruction. Indeed, according to Netanyahu, Israel is “the protective wall of Western civilization” – and at times as the protector of civilization itself – against ‘barbarism’ or in this case the alleged barbarism of the Arab-Muslims (EFE, 2016). Netanyahu draws on this notion regularly, and on the broader notion that the Jewish people – like Europeans – are civilized and brought civilization to a barbarous land, when he wishes to convince European and American leaders to take action against Israel’s enemies. 

For example, when a violent Islamist murdered four Jewish people in a French Kosher supermarket Netanyahu called on France to take action to protect “our common civilization” from Islamism (The New York Times, 2015). He also uses this discourse to draw Western support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, and to portray Israel as a civilized Western nation, and the Palestinian Arabs as a largely uncivilized people. At the same time, Netanyahu has also called for European Jews to move to Israel on the basis that most European governments are unwilling to protect Jews from Islamists, suggesting perhaps that Jews are, in the end, not of the West at all. Or as political economist and commentator Bernard Avishai puts it, Netanyahu calls for Jews to “self-segregate: affirm, in principle, the liberal values of the West, but deny that they ever worked well enough for diaspora Jews; insist that we fight for our freedoms from our own ground” (The New York Times, 2015). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Netanyahu has formed a good relationship with Viktor Orbán, who shares his antipathy toward both Muslims and the Western liberals who they believe permit the Islamization of the West. 

Netanyahu’s claim that Israel is a protective wall for Western civilization appears increasingly dubious following Israel’s indiscriminately violent response to Hamas’ murderous rampage against Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023. The Hamas attacks marked the most significant massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, claiming 1400 lives and resulting in the abduction of 240 Israelis. Exactly what Hamas expected to occur following their brutal acts is not known. Whatever their aims, their terrorism – as it so often does – backfired against the Palestinian people Hamas claim to represent. Whereas in the past Israel has responded to hostage taking by negotiating a return, often exchanging several imprisoned Palestinians for each Israeli hostage, perhaps as a result of the sheer scale of the October 7 attacks Netanyahu did not make serious attempts to negotiate the return of hostages. Instead, his government attempted to utterly destroy Hamas. In the process, an unknown number of Israeli hostages have died, and it appears increasingly remote that the majority of hostages will be returned alive to Israel. In other words, Netanyahu’s Likud government chose to attempt to annihilate Hamas rather than seek to save Jewish lives, a controversial act which – as we write – is becoming increasingly unpopular in Israel and causing mass protests calling for Netanyahu to resign. 

However, domestic unrest is not Netanyahu’s only problem. Rather, Israel’s indiscriminate attacks on Palestinians, causing the deaths of over 30,000 people – perhaps two thirds of them civilians and thousands of children – and indeed remote nature of a complete Israeli victory, has led to Western nations withdrawing support for Israel’s war in Gaza. The Biden Administration’s increasing anger towards Netanyahu – which now includes Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer calling for the Israeli Prime Minister to step down – is a particular problem for Israel, which relies heavily on American military and diplomatic support (The Wall Street Journal, 2024) 

Following the Hamas attacks, Western nations largely supported Israel and its right to retaliate against its attacker. However, the length and brutal nature of Israel’s war has made it increasingly difficult for Western states to continue to support Israel, and not merely because Western publics are disturbed by the amount of killing of civilians and destruction of entire neighborhoods occurring. Indeed, demographic, generational and cultural change within many Western nations has led to a drop-in support for Israel and an increasing about of sympathy for the Palestinians. The re-election of George Galloway to British parliament on a pro-Muslim, anti-Zionist platform in a recent election demonstrates the increasing importance of Muslim votes in the West, votes a party that supports Israel’s war in Gaza is unlikely to receive (The Conversation, 2024). 

Equally, the unpopularity of Israel’s war in the Middle East and North Africa has caused a rift between Western nations and Muslim majority nations, leading Western politicians to begin considering whether supporting Israel’s war is in their respective nations’ national interests. The Biden Administration appears to have concluded that the war in Gaza ought to end, and that prolonging the war is not in America’s national interest. The loss of American support leaves Israel alienated and in a difficult position in the United Nations where – without an American veto – it is exposed to sanctions placed on it by other nations. Netanyahu, however, has vowed to continue the war, which he claims is “a war between barbarism and civilization” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2023). This is the message Netanyahu has taken directly to European and American leaders, including telling French President Macron, whom he attempted to emotionally blackmail by claiming that “Hamas are the new Nazis” and that Hamas barbarism not only threatens the Jews, but it also threatens the Middle East, it threatens the region, it threatens Europe, it threatens the world. Hamas is the test case of civilization against barbarism” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2023). 

In order to maintain his position as Prime Minister amid growing domestic and international pressure for him to resign, Netanyahu has sought to deflect blame for his failure to return the hostages or defeat Hamas without mass Palestinian casualties, and moreover deflect blame for decades of failed Israeli policies on the Palestinian issue. To do this, Netanyahu has crafted a populist political narrative in which he and his government are protecting the ‘civilized’ people of Israel against the barbarism of Hamas, but also standing up to the West, which is allegedly attempting to prevent Israel from defending itself and instead wants to construct a state for Israel’s enemies. Or as former Israeli consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas (The Guardian, 2024), puts it, according to Netanyahu’s narrative “only a heroic Netanyahu can stand up to the US, defy an American president and prevent this travesty” (i.e. the forced ending of the Gaza War and construction of a Palestinian state) (The Guardian, 2024). Thus, Netanyahu is “setting up Biden as the scapegoat” for his “failure to achieve ‘total victory’” or ‘the eradication of Hamas’ (The Guardian, 2024). In this way, Netanyahu is no longer treating the United States as an ally but treating it and other Western nations that seek to create a Palestinian state following the Gaza war as enemies of ‘civilizations’ and implying that they are aiding the rise of barbarism. 

It is possible to perceive a change in tone and narrative in Netanyahu’s civilizational rhetoric post-October 7. Considered in the light of Netanyahu’s democratic backsliding, his anti-liberal populism that increasingly attacked the norms and checks and balances on executive power in Israel, his sympathy for Viktor Orbán’s anti-West civilizational populism, his attempts to deflect blame for his failed policies onto the United States, and his portrayal of Western nations as failing to defend ‘civilization’ by pushing for a Palestinian state, we find that the Israeli Prime minister is becoming increasingly anti-Western in his discourse. In his emerging civilizational narrative, Netanyahu is the leader of the ‘civilized world’ and the West is – at best – unwilling to confront the barbarism of the Muslim Arabs, and to see the Palestinians as a savage people that must be utterly defeated and prevented from establishing a state of their own. In this emerging narrative – parts of which were of course already present – Israel may no longer be a wall protecting the West from barbarism; rather, Western nations such as the United States are increasingly helping the barbarians threaten civilization in Israel, and only Netanyahu has the strength to stand up to the twin threats of Arab-Muslim barbarism and the West’s inability to stand up for civilization. 


In AKP-ruled Turkey, Fidesz-ruled Hungary, and in the Likud-dominated Israeli government, we find a similar pattern in which the notion of civilizational belonging is weaponized by a populist right-wing government. In each case, a populist leader claims to be standing up for ‘our’ civilization and against inferior people from other civilizations or in the case of Netanyahu, standing against entirely uncivilized people. Equally, this narrative is used in each case to deflect blame for regime policy failure, and to convince the voting public that external forces – not domestic policy failure – are preventing their flourishing or their ability to live in peace and safety. Most importantly, in each case, it is the West that is blamed for domestic policy failure and described as the enemy of ‘our civilization.’ This may seem bizarre, given that Hungary and Israel and most often considered – and in Israel’s case by both its supporters and detractors – Western nations. 

However, as Hungary and Israel – like Turkey – transform into illiberal nations, relations with the liberal West, which remains the dominant political force in the world, become more fraught, and claims that the West is attempting to erode traditional values rooted in ancient civilizations become ever more useful ways of justifying authoritarian and anti-liberal politics. Indeed, as Western liberals seek to increase religious diversity and encourage a cosmopolitan atmosphere globally, non-liberal states that view cosmopolitan liberalism as a threat to their sovereignty and traditional values are likely to increasing pushing back and may one day even form as loose bloc of anti-liberal, authoritarian nations that band together to resist liberal Western cultural hegemony. 

These cases show that civilizational populism is not merely something that occurs in Europe and is purposed toward excluding Muslims from Western society on the grounds that they are insufficiently secular and liberal. Instead, the liberal and secular West can itself become a target for civilizational populists, demonized and scapegoated by populist regimes as the source of domestic problems created by populist regimes. 


Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation and ARC [DP230100257] Civilisationist Mobilisation, Digital Technologies and Social Cohesion.



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Dr. Barrie Axford, Emeritus Professor of Politics at School of Law and Social Sciences, Oxford Brookes University.

­­­­­The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization



Please cite as:

Axford, Barrie. (2024). “The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 30, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0031



What is it about the current phase of globalization that feeds on and is fed by the populist zeitgeist? In what follows I will tie the discussion of populism to the changing character of globalization, sometimes called the “new” globalization, though that label does less than justice to the overlapping nature of historical globalizations. The “new” globalization is both a description of the de-centered and multi-polar constitution of globality today and a reflex to safeguard against the roils of an ever more connected and turbulent world. It is a reminder that globalization has always been a multidimensional and contradictory process, moving to no single constitutive logic, and historically variable. The new globalization is the context for the current populist surge and, in turn, that surge is testimony to its emergence as a serious political force, perhaps as an embedded global script. In this same context the much-trumpeted failures of multilateralism are set against a burgeoning multipolarity which is itself an expression of the changing face of political modernity.

By Barrie Axford

The end of multilateralism and the onset of a multipolar world is a compelling narrative today. Here is a flavor of that narrative as told by academics and players of different hue:

First, Gideon Rose in 2017: “Today the liberal international order is a bit dilapidated. The structure still stands, but paint is peeling, walls are cracking, and jerry-built additions jut out from odd angles. Even at its best the arrangements never fully lived up to their ideals, and benefits have not always been distributed equally or fairly. Slowing growth, increasing inequality, declining social mobility, excessive bureaucracy, self-dealing elites, poor responses to transnational problems such as terrorism and climate change—the litany of current problems is long and familiar.” 

Second, EU foreign affairs supremo, Josep Borrell, who in July 2023 opined “(w)e live indeed in a more and more multipolar world, but multilateralism is in retreat. It is a paradox. Why? Because when the number of participants in a game increases, the natural response should be to strengthen the rules governing the game. However, we are facing the opposite trend: the rules governing the world are running out of steam. We must find ways to overcome this paradox.”

The third intervention has it that regardless of what robust multilateralism might imply or even require, as Donald Trump repeated in early Spring 2024, collective security – among other things – can go hang if America is expected to go on bearing undue financial costs.

The penultimate reference is to Elizabeth Braw’s recent claim that “the uprising of Europe’s farmers is a final nail in the coffin of globalization.” She goes on, “globalization is rapidly retreating and the forces of populism it helped to unleash are on the march.” Which, of course, echoes similar predictions made over the 30 years since Silvio Berlusconi first promised Italians a videocracy shorn of usual politics and politicians. Some years later various factions of the British “Leave” campaign weaponized Brexit with the promise to “take back control.”

Finally, from the Politico App in October 2023 a swingeing judgement: “For years we debated whether multipolarity would strengthen or weaken multilateralism. Now we know it has killed it.

With the exception of the Politico quote none of these references is a full-blown jeremiad on the twilight of the liberal order. Is Trump really serious about NATO? Will his “Second Coming” deliver the brain-death of the liberal international order?  Does widespread agricultural protest actually signify a wider and deeper disenchantment with the globalized economy; or even suggest that globalization is crumbling? Well, perhaps, but we are right to question the credentials of such claims. At the least exercising social-scientific caution will alert us to the complexity and dangerous messiness of world geo-politics and economics today, and this almost irrespective of whether one stands on the rise or decline in American power.

In what follows I begin by addressing the key terms in use: first multilateralism and particularly its troubled confrere the liberal international order; then multipolarity, which, with something of an Orwellian cast, can be read in different ways and with quite different agendas in mind. And finally, the part played by populism in these scenarios; bearing in mind the need to couch all this in a rather wider canvass of what might be called “new” globalization with the attendant shift to what looks like a re-racinated modernity, and what that might entail for world order.

Multilateralism Today

The concept of liberal international order is far from precise, despite its routine usage by scholars, journalists, and politicians. It is often spoken about as an open and rule-based order, enshrined ‘in institutions such as the United Nations and norms such as multilateralism’ (Ikenberry, 2011: 56; 2010). States are core actors in this order, which nonetheless prescribes a cooperative demeanor on their part and, in some cases, a partial abrogation, or pooling, of state power (Ruggie, 1993: 562). So far – so uncontentious. But at this point some definitional, and thus operational, issues arise (Kundnani, 2017).  These include obvious qualifiers as to its actual openness – is it really no more than a Western club masquerading as a universal order? What is meant by ‘rules? – who makes them and what are the sources of their legitimacy? There is also the matter of what ‘liberal’ implies. Does it suggest a modal opposition to authoritarianism? (political liberalism) Is it just about open markets and opposition to economic nationalism? (economic liberalism). Or is it just an abstract and scholarly term, used to disparage realist and neo-realist theories of international relations? (liberalism as IR theory). Well in fact, the concept melds all these definitions of liberal, but in doing so highlights tensions between them. These tensions are evident in what, some years back, became known as the ‘Beijing Consensus,” whose precepts were succinctly put by Stefan Halper (2012) when he wrote that states outside the West have been ‘learning market economics with traditional autocratic or semi-autocratic politics in a process that signals an intellectual rejection of the Western economic model.’ Here economic and political liberalism are distinct and one does not predicate the other. 

The present international order fuses two distinct notions of order. The first dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, somewhat contentiously taken to have laid down the concept of state sovereignty (Teschke, 2003). The second draws on liberal thinking developed first in Britain and the US over the past two centuries. Here being ‘liberal’ means embracing ‘open markets, international institutions, cooperative security, democratic community, progressive change, collective problem-solving, shared sovereignty and the rule of law’ (Ikenberry, 2011: 2). So, what we currently depict as the international liberal order is in fact a hybrid based on more-or-less statist assumptions and, since 1945, a regard for multilateral cooperation in many policy areas and issues of common concern. 

In all but name this was a settlement made in the image of the Western powers that initiated it. Realist in its commitment to state autonomy, it also espoused liberal principles, and these found limited expression in the United Nations Charter. The great economic institutions of the postwar era – the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT – later to be replaced by the World Trade Organization or WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were resolutely liberal, but still dominated by Western powers and reflected Western economic interests.

In sum, the idea of a liberal international order comprises three basic elements. The first is a systemic configuration of power in the doctrine of sovereignty. Second is the architecture of fundamental rules and practices that designate sources of authority in that order and smooth its routine operation. Finally, there is the framework of social norms that sanction the other two elements. This third element provides the justification for what might otherwise appear as a system governed by contradictory imperatives – territorial particularism (sovereignty) and moral universalism (seen, for example in the United Nations doctrine of human rights). These elements have developed in different, and sometimes contradictory, ways and these are manifest in the tensions over what constitutes an international security order, an international economic order and an international human rights regime, all under the auspices of a self-styled benignAmerican hegemony. 

Current arguments between the West and authoritarian powers such as China and Russia are not so much about international order per se but about different versions of it and in particular about the way Western powers have sought to change it since the end of the Cold War. Russia – some startling appearances to the contrary – wants to go back to the order agreed at the Yalta Conference in 1945, in which states with different ideologies and political systems co-exist and in particular respect territorial sovereignty — a Westphalian world in other words. In contrast, the more ‘liberal’ order for which many in the West argued in the post-Cold War period, “demands that states be obedient to liberal principles in foreign policy” (Kundnani, 2017: 47)

What About Multipolarity?

At this point it is appropriate to add that opposition to the liberal world order is not confined to China, Russia, and their allies. During Donald Trump’s presidency and still a feature of his current bid for office, is the rhetorical dismissal of the postwar liberal order and America’s stewardship of it. Moreover, it is clear that states of different hues do not share the vision of a benign US hegemony or, if they share it, wonder if the United States is still suited or committed to playing that role. 

In 2016, Fu Ying, then Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress identified three features of what she called the ‘US-led world order.’ These are ‘the American value system,’ the ‘US military alignment system’ and ‘international institutions, including the UN system.’ Although she did not use the term hegemony, what she describes amounts to the same thing. Apparently willing to support the third element of the international order, she said that China would always temper its approval of a system based on Western, and especially American, values. This reaction is increasingly widespread and has led to demands to dismantle the postwar geopolitical order and inaugurate a more obviously multipolar world, much like the economic sector. Americans counter that their hegemony has been, and remains benevolent, but the fact is that many outside the geographic and ideological West (and some within it, including countries in Europe) see the Liberal International Order as an ideological project. China is still frequently mentioned as a possible or likely successor to America’s hegemony, and so attention rightly turns to the kind of world order it would support and pursue. 

Multipolarity is the defining feature of this order, and it elicits both approbation and opprobrium. Some commentators argue that it is a myth, and even those who discern its rise claim either that it is “unbalanced” and therefore dangerous, or that it reflects a growing demand for sovereignty (for which read recognition) and identity and recognizes that there are multiple routes to economic modernity, especially in the Global South. As Josep Borrell also wrote, this new multipolarity results from the combination of three dynamics. First, a wider distribution of wealth in the world, second, the willingness of (hitherto middle-ranking) states to assert themselves strategically and ideologically and third, the emergence of an increasingly transactional international system, seen in bilateral deals – strategic partnerships and the like, or in forms of minilateralism – rather than in global rules. All this is a good way from the uniform “end of history” envisaged by Fukuyama in the early 1990’s, or visions of the smooth, networked world of hyperglobalist fantasy, and is clearly threatening to liberalism and universalism as the paradigm expressions of a post-ideological world. Moreover, the multipolar cast of twenty-first-century globalization is significantly different from the twentieth-century version. Before coming to, that let me say, a preliminary word about populism. 

The current (and seemingly protracted) spate of populisms is also part of a post-triumphal, post-hegemonic phase of global rebalancing. It is an expression of the tension that arises between globalization as a process of interconnection and de-bordering on the one hand, and strains of consciousness, as well as pressing exigencies, that resist any such convergence. It is at once fractal and ubiquitous; national populism was clearly orthogonal to the ideological landscape of the neo-liberal narrative of late twentieth century globalization, with its borderless credo. Then, it was fashionable, and for a while prescient, to declaim the potentially borderless quality of every kind of network and flow. Now that bullishness is largely absent – in the global north as well as south. Populism in its current guise is a specific moment in the more encompassing dialectic of global convergence and heterogeneity; a dialectic that displays various types of accommodation between national and global imaginaries, while still proclaiming an ontological divide between the two. 

Globalization in Flux

The much-rehearsed crisis of (Western) liberal capitalism is, along with the travails of Western modernity, more generally construed a staple in accounts of global change, leading to intense arguments about the end or rebirth of modern history. Sometimes this is glossed as a hegemonic shift, the sequential, and even cyclical, passing of preponderant might. But more often today the emphasis is on systemic disruption, disjunction, and fragmentation, and on alternative futures, where nothing is certain, and insecurity is rife. In terms of scholarship’s attention to things global this is an important development. For one thing, it locates the much touted “backlash” against globalization and modernity in a global crisis of “existential security,” which is a matter of consciousness. 

In his book the “Silent Revolution,” published in 1977, Ronald Inglehart drew attention to extraordinarily high levels of existential security experienced in mature democracies in the decades following World War II. This condition brought an unprecedented shift from materialist values that emphasized economic and physical security alongside endemic fears over the liminal quality of many lifestyles; to post-materialist values privileging individual autonomy, self-expression, openness to change and embracing diversity. The value shift so described brought with it huge social and political changes, from the rise of anti-war movements, demands for stronger environmental protection and their partial fulfillment, higher levels of gender equality across the social spectrum and the mainstreaming of gay rights. Democracy as a global cultural script also flourished. It too was dependent upon unprecedented levels of economic prosperity and geo-political stability. Of course, none of this happened overnight. Change was often quite protracted, occurring at the speed of intergenerational population replacement and, while secular, always subject to short, and sometimes not so short, economic downturns. 

But, for the past forty years or so, citizens of even high-income countries have seen more volatility in fortunes, so that they no longer take material wellbeing, or even survival, for granted. As a result, the graph tracing feelings of security has dipped markedly. Ulrich Beck argued that this is part of the crisis of second modernity – the inevitable consequence of living in the risk society (1996). In risk society, hazards have become much less predictable than of yore and even when predictable, profoundly more unmanageable. As a result, the scope for contingency, doubt and relativism increases vastly, to the point where fears about survival are rife; all without the dampening effects of fatalism or the haven of insurance. In this scenario the list of contributory ailments is familiar – declining real incomes, erosion of job security, rising income inequality within, if not always between, nations, and fears for the lot of subsequent generations, not least in terms of actual or impending environmental and health disasters and perceived threats from uncontrolled immigration and the displacement of whole peoples. Inglehart argued that the “Silent Revolution” dynamic still musters, but that – to a marked extent – it has gone into reverse with acute consequences, both politically and socially.  The consequences include growing support for xenophobic, populist, and authoritarian movements, along with a morbid fear of globalization, at least in its paradigmatic Western and capitalist (neoliberal) shape (Brubaker, 2017). 

In systemic language all this suggests a faltering of the Western model of globalization and of Western modernity; modernity shaped by rational, cognitive reflexivity on the part of individuals and institutions, along with critical monitoring of the self and social institutions by all actors. And as a reaction to the perceived failure of reflexive modernization and the ability to manage the trials of everyday life, there has been a search for, or reversion to, seemingly more “authentic,” and decidedly more expressive components of self and collective identity. Anti-globalization and neo-statist rhetoric and activism is one such expression – distilled in the slogan “taking my country back” – and it appears in various shades of contentious politics; not all of them regressive. And where it is not seen as part of a cyclical process, but as a contingency born of circumstance – de-globalization is another; often taking the form of the “innovative fortification” of various enclaves and identities to protect against globalization’s relativizing and integrative dynamics (Betz, 2023; Benedikter et al, 2022). Populism is a key – though not the only – component in such politics. 

What are the implications for globalization’s 21st century profile? 

The politics range from exclusivist forms of collective identity, like ultra-nationalism, through a world in which the “other” – however conceived – is forever consigned as alien and untrustworthy; to adopting designer selves in line with fashion or circumstance, making identity construction a lifestyle choice (Foges, 2020). Crucially, for the temper of politics abroad in such a milieu, the latter often entails a rejection of meaning systems that are mediated by technical expertise, abstract systems and rationality; ironically at a time when life itself is ever more subject to the pervasive technologies of the Internet, AGI (artificial general intelligence), and soon, quantum computing. The first two are all too familiar as the tools of what Joshua Neves calls “under-globalization” with its panoply of fake news, deep fakes, conspiracy theories, disinformation and polarized worldviews (Neves, 2020). 

On the ground the search for security and for recognition has triggered new forms of contentious politics. As well as varieties of populism, new social movements – of indigenous peoples, climate change protestors, communitarians, feminists, and Trans activists – have invoked elements of the romantic-aesthetic tradition. But in its most robust, and least palatable, form the search to minimize exposure to risk tribalizes relations between groups. In this scenario the recently dominant trope of a hegemonic, benign and borderless global order – capitalist, liberal and embracing of (cultural) diversity – has less and less purchase. Other contenders, other globalizations, such as “justice globalism” or “jihadist globalism,” perhaps civilizationism, as well as evidence of multiple routes to modernity, point up the increasingly fissiparous, or at any rate plural qualities of the umbrella concept “globalization” (Steger, 2015).  The point is that all such changes in the real world demand an agile scholarship to address changing global complexity which is comprised – inter alia – of the emergence of non-western, post-western, post-capitalist, and post-socialist globalities and a myriad of glocal formations, including platforms in cyberspace. 

A sense of impending doom on many fronts lends a febrile quality to any discussion of current global change and its direction; though the actual set of the world after a veritable glut of deluges remains hard to fathom. Which will undo us first; nuclear Armageddon courtesy of a throwback to what – pre-Ukraine – most scholarship had consigned as an outdated twentieth century trope for world order? Or might demise lie in the kind of politics occasioned by excessive inequalities and growing precarities, in the spillover from wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the weakening of US hegemony on many fronts? Is climate change the obvious, or only, form horse in the apocalypse stakes? These are hardly frivolous questions, and for some, they betoken a world already far down the road to perdition. But here a word of caution is appropriate because while a focus on dislocation and crisis is seductive and the narrative of impending ruin compelling, they tell only part of the story, at least for how we construe and consign the global, both in the academy and in popular imagination.

So, Is There a New Globalization?

Neoliberal globalization is experiencing profound challenges, sometimes simplified as a “backlash,” and its opponents have markedly differing prescriptions for the global future, including a world disaggregated into national redoubts. In the climate engendered by the Coronavirus pandemic the latter scenario is less a strategic vision of multi-polar or decentered globalization than the reflex of insecure humanity looking for succor where it can. The responses to Covid-19 reflect a sense of collective (global) vulnerability while decanting to mainly local ways of dealing with it, and this is a paradigm for the present global condition. The same is true of the politics of climate change, where the cause of national exceptionalism, seen in what became known as “vaccine nationalism,” was reflected in health security measures and more draconian forms of immigration control.

Viral and ecological disasters, along with the possibility of nuclear Armageddon aside, there is widespread agreement that liberal globalization has been usurped by rising protectionism and by diverging growth paths in emerging markets. Taken together they describe a concatenation of crises for previous versions of globality (Gills, 2020). But talk of a backlash against this model does not imply an end to globalization, or even a systematic process of “deglobalization.” Rather it posits a rebalancing in, as well as a destabilization of, what Steger and James describe as once “taken-for-granted shibboleths,” most obviously the centrality of unfettered markets (Steger and James, 2019: 191; Benedikter and Kofler, 2019; Steger, 2019b; Steger, 2019a). Rebalancing tends to what I call a “new” globalization, though the attribution has to be used with care. New globalization is no hyperglobalist rebirth; but neither is it an unequivocal shift to more state-centric forms of national liberalism or, for that matter, national populism. 

So, what is it?

First, we should note a shift in the global balance of economic power, which is, or may be, of world-historical significance. We are in the midst of another long-term transition – from the Atlantic economy (Atlantic globalization?) to the Pacific economy (Pacific globalization?) (Nederveen Pieterse, 2018: 124) – a shift that further attests to globalization’s dynamism and its indeterminate nature. This re-balancing is often characterized as a process of “post-Westernization,” or “Easternization.” Using such labels is still simplifying but qualifies the urge to treat radical changes as just another increment in the cyclical transfer of hegemonic power. It is more accurately portrayed as a process of “multi-polar globalization,” no longer in thrall to Western neoliberalism (Nederveen Pieterse, 2018; Arrighi, 2007). Easternization is a complex process wherein “non-Western societies and civilizations acquire, institutionalize, and transform…. modern traits” (Casanova, 2011: 263), but crucially, also enact their own versions of modernity out of their own pasts. The Chinese case underlines the fact that the pattern of global economic integration is not a Western telos, and in key respects never has been (Axford, 2018). 

As Jan Nederveen-Pieterse says, twenty-first century globalization involves a “new geography of trade, weaker hegemony and growing multipolarity” (2018: 11). Increasing multipolarity has cast shadows on the relevance, legitimacy, and effectiveness of established multilateral organizations and processes seen, most obviously, in the UN, G-20, World Bank, IMF, EBRD, WTO, and WHO. Chronic weaknesses have been concurrent with the rise of initiatives such as BRICS – plus, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), driven by authoritarian and populist leaders, who have now staked a claim on the future demeanor of global governance. Meanwhile the Western architectures of post-war global governance are often perceived as “weak” or “disingenuous.” These developments have far-reaching implications, not least in the ability to address global challenges such as climate change, food security, conflict resolution, and humanitarian crises. And proxy conflicts, political oppression, terrorism, and ethnic and community displacement have triggered irregular and uncontrolled migration, contributing to the rise of far-right and other populist parties and movements in developed nations. 

What really sets the two strains of “old” and “new’ globalization apart is the rise of emerging economies in the current phase. Their growth has outstripped rivals in the developed world to the point where they are now the drivers of the world economy. Data for 2023 confirms this trend. A group of 24 emerging economies accounted for 50% of Global GDP in 2023, and 66% of global GDP growth in the past 10 years (2013-2023) (World Economics 2024). Although dramatic, this growth spurt might still be seen as tracking a pattern of global convergence already extant, whereby Asian and other emerging economies strive to achieve per capita GDP and living standards currently enjoyed by developed nations. But that understates the extent to which the rise of emerging economies upsets, and possibly overturns, the practices and mythologies of two centuries of North over South domination, with its “familiar expressions of colonialism, imperialism and American hegemony” (Nederveen-Pieterse, 2018: 10). 

Because of this shift, the new globalization has something of an epochal feel to it, although such a conclusion may be premature. Overall, the demeanor of twenty-first century globalization is not assured because the data lends itself to different interpretations. Thus, in 2019 geopolitical uncertainty in the guise of the US-Iran conflict and a slowing Chinese economy combined to trigger a global manufacturing downturn. A year later the novel coronavirus that began in China dampened Asia’s growth prospects still further, with the global consequences still being played out, most obviously through its effects on those developing nations with poor healthcare systems, pronounced national debt and generally fragile economies. The Coronavirus pandemic then reshaped trade by shortening supply chains. For many multinationals a move towards regional, rather than global, supply chains offers the prospects for resilience and, as the Economist Intelligence Unit reported in 2021 the flexibility to shift production of key components from one location to another. Global trade networks have also shrunk or been damaged in the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and from Israel’s response to Hamas’ massacre of its citizens in October 2023. 

Relations between old and new preponderant powers are also more volatile. In particular, US-China trade relations remain fragile. Geo-strategically the same is true, a consequence of China’s insistent and persistent claims on Taiwan. Calls to decouple Western economies from “strategic dependency” on China for a range of goods and infrastructural services increased markedly during the time of the Coronavirus, partly as a reflection of worsening relations with the USA, and partly out of fears that the CPR controlled too great a proportion of trade in goods critical for national security.   

So, important questions have to be asked about the significance of events and trends and about the rise of emergent economies and fragmented societies more generally. Are these secular changes, heralding an epoch-ending, terminal failure of the status quo, or another periodic adjustment in the dominance of global (read Western) capitalism? Do they advance or retard neoliberalism or is that question already redundant? Are they just another frisson in the changing (if not cyclical) fortunes of nations in general and preponderant nations in particular? Do they signify the advent of post-liberal globalization tout court, as an illiberal and authoritarian  state (China) and its cohorts, make the running in terms of global growth and stewardship? Most portentous, are the shifts epochal because they intimate the breakup of the capitalist world economy, of capitalist modernity and thus of capitalist history? The weight of these questions imparts a more nebulous quality to any judgment about apparently seminal indicators of change.

The likelihood is that multi-polar globalization has its own dynamics, including the lineages of Chinese and Indian economic development as alternatives to Western models of growth. But this is not another grand narrative of globalization – a new hegemony – in the making; more a major rebalancing in key areas such as trade, finance, international institutions, and soft power. It contributes to a crisis of dominant modes and the appearance of a globalization that is more complex, overlapping, disjunctive and (dis)ordered. 

Second: Digitalization. Of course, there are still robust signs of global convergence economically and culturally, but the drivers and character of that convergence are changing, and this has consequences for the character of world trade, for growth, as well as for wealth creation and distribution. Such drivers also impact profoundly on the ways we live our lives. Here I advert digitalization – the displacement of analogue technologies and cultures by digital means – as a new global formation that has become “continuous and ubiquitous” (Sandywell, 2011: 14). In this respect, though in many others too, the “emergent global” as Appadurai says, is (or has been) all about speed (2020). While the trade in goods seems to be slowing down, and may be stagnating, trade in global services and information – especially where they are digitally enabled – continues to boom. 

Of course, there are disabling pinch points in these developments. Digital technologies are not replacing mass and low-cost manufacturing altogether; or not yet. But the roboticization of production threatens an ever-wider constituency of workers, not only just low or unskilled operatives. The consequent political need to protect jobs in face of such pressures is growing stronger, especially in advanced economies, and this spawns a protectionist politics to match. But here there is a crucial prospect to consider. Across the board digital media are no longer just intermediaries between social agents, no longer just channels or conduits of information. Rather, they are generative social apparatuses that produce the social. Digital technologies are designed for a borderless world because, as Barry Sandywell argues, “the images of life, nature and relationships they promulgate tend to take a universal form” (2011: 15). Yet there are paradoxes, some of them apparent in the ruttedness of places and identities when set against the desire to live “in the moment,” to benefit from simultaneity and routine access and yet be free of the usual joys and trammels of human contact.

Arguably, these developments have few, if any, parallels in previous analogue cultures. The virtual inscriptions of cyberspace are creating new spaces and times of politics, governance and leisure, new business practices and new kinds of imagined community. The changes are perhaps most advanced and dramatic in visual worlds – especially in the seductiveness and growing availability of worlds through virtual and augmented reality technologies and AGI (artificial general intelligence). But in truth, they are everywhere, mainly because digital information is accessible at any point on the planet – if not always easily – and thus supplies resources for personal and institutional innovation and greater reflexivity, and also opportunities for more systematic and draconian surveillance. This process is never going to be a tale of bland homogenization. The globalization of digital culture is variable and contested in terms of its liberating potential, its repressive and dehumanizing possibilities, and its variation across localities. And the digitalization of personal worlds and cultures demonstrates the same features, arousing the same passions.

Third, Sovereigntism (neo-statism): In a recent foray Jonathan Friedman corrals populism’s basic precepts with the label “sovereigntism” (2018; see also Kallis, 2018 and Basile and Mazzoleni, 2019, Gerbaudo, 2021) an almost elemental regard for retaining or “taking back” control over one’s conditions of existence. In like vein Paolo Gerbaudo labels this phenomenon “neo-statism. This is a mantra that keeps on giving, witness ex-UK Prime Minister Elizabeth Truss’ reference to the Trumpian “deep state” at the CPAC conference in February 2024. Sovereigntism is a very portable concept and popular sovereigntism, the “will of the people,” is the evocation most favored by populists. Just where does all this sit in the narrative of the new globalization?  

Sovereignty resides center-stage, if uneasily, in all accounts of modern globalization, where debate and dispute focus on the capacity and future of the state and the international system of states, alongside the threat or promise of statelessness. Sovereigntism looks back longingly to a more untrammeled version of sovereign power based on “mutually exclusive territories and the retrenchment to the national dimension” (Kallis, 2018). If populism is the bully-boy opponent of globalization, then sovereigntism and neo-statism are its intellectual and ideological avatars. They instantiate the “innovative fortification” of the national I spoke of earlier, but they do not amount to de-globalization. 

Most observers now agree that states are not in demise, which was the hyper-globalist conceit not all that long ago. But are they routinely effective actors, not just in the mythology of realist and neo-realist theory, but in their actual ability to penetrate, extract and coordinate resources within a territorially defined space and act in concert with others? These resources include the size of the available pool of trust in governments, and the belief that, by and large, what they do will enhance the quality of life for citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic trialed the strength of that trust, challenging the state’s position as a bastion for nationals, while underlining its vulnerability to the indifferent globality of pathogens. But is this a limiting case, or was the pandemic a turning point in the capacity of individual states to manage their affairs, as well as in the shape of global geopolitics? 

Taking back control is an elemental, if often non-specific, ambition. The complexities of twenty-first century globalization confront all shades of populism as a battle for the future of the national imaginary in geo-political, geo-economic and geo-cultural guises. Taking note of the previous indicators of new globalization, it can be argued with some conviction that since the millennium the “rise of a multifaceted populist challenge to the liberal mainstream” (has) exposed the shallowness of liberalism’s supposed triumph in the world more generally, but critically in its heartlands in Europe and North America (Kallis, 2018). We might also claim that in the shape of a renewed sovereigntism, the national state, indeed the national imaginary altogether, have staged something of a comeback in recent years. Indeed, sovereigntism as a facet of the new globalization may have “emerged as one of the primary ideological-political fault lines of contemporary politics” (Kallis, 2018: 13). It is, as Aristotle Kallis notes, benefitting from lying at the “intersection between rival populist projects of re-defining and allegedly re-empowering the community of ‘the people’” (2018: 13) and frequently apocalyptic – though sometimes experiential – accounts of a world in chaos, or soon heading that way.

But Are There Reasons to Be Cheerful?

Populism – which traffics the relativization and even transcendence of modernity’s principles and forms – holds up a mirror to current politics and the current phase of globalization, and what that shows is both unedifying and palatable. But the fissiparous quality of politics around the world should temper any impulse to generalize. This is a world manifesting different kinds of conflict and revolt, and that variety is itself a reflection of growing – not to say systemic – multipolarity. The de-centeredness, or multi-centeredness of this world also qualifies any neat blanket labels such as “global capitalism,” “global neoliberalism” or liberal order, as unequivocal descriptions of a predominant or hegemonic variety of globalization or global system. Capitalism is differentiated, and neoliberalism increasingly fails to convince as an overarching and steadfast rubric because big players in emerging markets – China, India, and Northeast Asia – have developed, and continue to develop, outside it (Arrighi, 2007). And to underline further the variety of origin and temper, Modi’s populism in India is a mix of autocracy, ethno-religious nationalism, and neo-liberal economic dogma. Donald Trump – in his guise as the “come-back kid,” still beggars any model of ideological (or policy) consistency; touting a blend of Jacksonian conservatism and protectionism, alongside neo-liberal formulaics, and a now developed white version of nationalism. 

It also remains true that in advanced economies in the West and North populist movements and parties of both the (notional) left and the (notional) right have emerged in recent years to protest and counter the perceived and experienced ills of market capitalism. To a greater or lesser extent, and almost regardless of ideological hue, they offer cures or palliatives for perceived maladies that are inimical, or at least challenging, to democratic elitism as the dominant mode of governance and political culture (Inglehart, 2018). On this count, populism, in what I have elsewhere termed its “postmodern” guise, can be seen either as a distinct (though not singular) challenge to the remnants of embedded liberalism and the currency of its neoliberal spawn, or a remedy for their ills (Axford, 2021). As Dani Rodrik says, populism so conceived is part of an ideological and policy rebalancing of globalization (Rodrik, 2018). That said it may be no more than a cathartic response to periodic crises; a shock to the system, rather than its successor-in-waiting, and that syncs with its hit-and-run style of politics. Populism appears to demand transformation, albeit of a back-to-the-future variety but is perennially light on detail. In the aftermath of Covid such coltishness may continue to find favor with sections of disaffected electorates. But in the longer-term, perhaps not. The spate of elections – including to the European Parliament – around the world in June 2024 may provide some of the answers to that question. 

And to a great extent it depends on how deep and how widespread the politics of anger and of cultural insecurities run. How serious is the demand for change in the battle to rebuild the world and domestic economies after successive crises? We know the depth of anger and the degree of polarization, or so we now think; though many commentators dismiss such frustration as either whimsy, or as an unlikely basis on which to build a new politics, to fashion radical economic policies, and to mend broken cultures. Populism’s credentials in these respects remain open to question. How committed are various electorates to radical solutions as opposed to garish gestures – and what would a politics born of such radical commitment look like? The “cultural turn” of late has encouraged citizens to repose what were once seen as biddable political issues into matters of identity that are not so malleable, and these may be legion. 

So, in the broader warp of social change what signifies is a politics founded on insecurity as the dominant motif for turbulent times. Crucially, insecurities are manifest over the stability of borders and identities, as much as over jobs and wages. And, of course, Covid-19 added a new source of universal insecurity. Populism did not cause these insecurities but taken in the round it narrates a crisis of modernity that is unlikely to be resolved through mere refurbishment of usual politics. Because of that it has a course still to run. Nonetheless, can it be redeemed as a project that tempers globalist excesses; holds at bay the indifferent globalities of microbial infection, and heals cultural divisions? The answer is probably not, and certainly not entirely. But what I have argued here locates populism as a feature of a globalized world itself in the midst of change; and a quickener in the ontological shift away from political and quotidian modernity. This will look like a re-racinated version of twentieth century Western modernity, but notably without its universalist cast and, to say the least, such a designation adds a sting to routine talk of a multipolar world. Populism may not be an embedded feature of current geo-politics, but it is expressive of what is a now likely to be a modal force for change; perhaps for good, but more likely for ill.

Note: A version of this article was delivered by Professor Barrie Axford at the ECPS’ Third Annual International Symposium on “The Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power” with the same title on March 19, 2024.


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Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America

Please cite as:

Venga, Luca & Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 20, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0052             


This brief report offers a summary of the first event in ECPS’s Regional Panel series titled “Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America” which took place online on March 7, 2024. Professor Maria Isabel Puerta Riera moderated the panel, featuring insights from six distinguished populism scholars.

Report by Luca Venga* Andrea Guidotti

This report provides an overview of the first event in ECPS’s Regional Panel series titled “Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America” and held online on March 7, 2024. Moderated by Dr. Maria Puerta Riera, Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Valencia College, the panel featured speakers Dr. Ronaldo Munck , Professor of Sociology, Dublin City University, Dr. Julio F. Carrión, Professor of Comparative Politics, Delaware University, Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera, Assistant Professor of Political Science at The Citadel, The Military College of Charleston, Dr. Reinhard Heinisch and Dr. Andrés Laguna Tapia, respectively Professor of Comparative Austrian Politics at the University of Salzburg and director of the Center for Research in Communication and Humanities and head of Communication Studies at UPB in Cochabamba, and Dr. Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho, Professor of History at Universidade Federal do Maranhão.


Moderator Professor Maria Isabel Puerta Riera opened the panel by offering an overview of the state of the research on populism, commenting on its existing varieties and on its adaptability to different contexts. She identified an ideological view of populism – one that sees the setting up of a confrontation between two antagonistic, homogenous groups (the “pure people” and the “corrupted elites”) as the crucial element of this phenomenon – and a more pragmatic view, one that sees populism as a strategy for charismatic personalities to dominate national life and break their political exclusion. 

Dr. Puerta Riera thus highlighted the flexible nature of the concept, but also pointed at some common, shared trends – chief among them the idea of a radical democracy which dispenses with the formalities of liberal democracy in favour of a direct connection between the people and their leader. She then surveyed the existing varieties of populism in Latin America, distinguishing between populists who rely on ethno-nationalism, anti-imperialism, and on socio economic grievances as the foundations of their discourse. 

Dr. Puerta Riera sketched a temporal division of populism in Latin America: After a “first stage” characterized by populist support for a shift away from agriculture and towards industry (at the expense of the landowning elite) came a “second stage” with the advent of neoliberal economics and popular support of shock therapy in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Lastly, she pointed at a “third stage” characterized by the return of socialist populism, which first came to power through democratic elections before turning towards authoritarianism. 

In the authoritarian tendencies of many populist leaders, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum, Dr. Puerta Riera found further evidence of the adaptability of this political phenomenon, paving the way for a discussion of its facets by the various panelists. 

Dr. Ronaldo Munck: “Populism and Socio-Political Transformation in Latin America”

Professor Ronaldo Munck underscores that populism usually stems from crisis, as economic failures generate the conditions for populist leaders to emerge and capitalize on the anger of the masses – as evidenced by the waves of populism that followed each major economic downturn. He covered a number of historical examples ranging from Peron to Chavez before raising a number of questions for future reflection.

The first panelist, Professor Ronaldo Munck, opened the discussion by highlighting the negative normative connotations associated with populism in the “western” world, while acknowledging that Latin America is likely to see this phenomenon under a different light, given its peculiar history in this regard. Dr. Munck also distinguished between a kind of socio-economic dimension of populism, centered around the fight against the landed elites of colonial times, a pragmatic view that portrays populism as an opportunistic strategy, and a third perspective, of post-structuralist nature, which focuses on populist discourse and its narratives. He further described populism as an empty signifier, one that is filled with meaning depending on its context and circumstances, adapting to the cleavages that divide society and that depends on the conscious construction of two groups as antagonists. 

Dr. Munck added that populism usually stems from crisis, as economic failures generate the conditions for populist leaders to emerge and capitalize on the anger of the masses – as evidenced by the waves of populism that followed each major economic downturn. He covered a number of historical examples ranging from Peron to Chavez before raising a number of questions for future reflection: Firstly, he pondered over a “re-Gramscification” of populism, with an increased emphasis on hegemony and the role it plays in populist politics, and secondly he called for an increased focus on the role of emotions and desires in filling the “empty signifier” with powerful images, myths and ideas that capture popular imagination. 

Dr. Julio F. Carriòn: “Varieties of Populism and Democratic Erosion: The Case of Latin America”

Professor Julio F. Carriòn’s general argument is that there are two main varieties of populism, both the product of the political processes and the shape of populist mobilization. The first is ‘constrained populism,’ in which you may see democratic erosion but not generally regime change. The second is ‘unconstrained populism,’ close to forms of authoritarianism and leading most often to regime changes. The general argument is that every populist leader/movement encounters at a point a moment of confrontation vis-à-vis opposite forces that determines or not the creation of power asymmetry – that consequently paves the way for democratic backsliding or regime change.

Professor Julio F. Carriòn offered a speech based on his book ‘A Dynamic Theory of Populism in Power. The Andes in Comparative Perspective.’ The key question of the book is the relationship between populism and the likelihood of regime change, following the comparative strain in the political sciences literature. Populism is then mainly viewed as a strategy to seek and exercise power, with the exhibition of a personalistic style of leadership, an anti-pluralistic and confrontational mentality, and a general distrust of checks and balances. 

His general argument is that there are two main varieties of populism, both the product of the political processes and the shape of populist mobilization. The first is ‘constrained populism,’ in which you may see democratic erosion but not generally regime change. The second is ‘unconstrained populism,’ close to forms of authoritarianism and leading most often to regime changes. The general argument is that every populist leader/movement encounters at a point a moment of confrontation vis-à-vis opposite forces that determines or not the creation of power asymmetry – that consequently paves the way for democratic backsliding or regime change. The process can be generally divided in three key moments: A tsunami phase where populism take off, a Hobbesian moment where populists are confronting other forces that can lead either to a re-equilibrations phase or to the desired populist in power moment. The development of power asymmetries during the confrontation phase will also consequently determine whether populist forces will be of a constrained or of an unconstrained type: If asymmetries arise, the political system will favor constrained populism.

To conclude, the second panelist discussed the ways to potentially apply this framework beyond the Andes. There are a few cases of constrained populism accompanied by democratic erosion in the American continent taken more broadly: Alan Garcia in Perù, Collor de Mello in Brazil, Menem and the Kirchners in Argentina, Trump in the US. But we can also argue for cases of unconstrained populism in Latin America and beyond where we can observe major processes of democratic erosion: Ortega in Nicaragua, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Bukele in El Salvador.

Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera: “Global Power Dynamics and Authoritarian Populism in Venezuela”

Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera explained how Hugo Chavez used populism in Venezuela as a guiding ideology to build a cut of support around him, making use of old and new tools to channel participation and support, leading to feelings of empowerment while maintaining a rigid top-down control over their priorities and opportunities. Chavez portrayed himself as a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of imperialism, modulating his discourse to diverse settings, while controlling the elites around him and stymieing dissenting voices. Maduro kept using Chavismo as a guiding ideology whilst he increasingly lost public support and repressed dissent within party ranks, and economic conditions worsened. 

Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera provided a tightly focused presentation on Venezuela, comprehensively surveying the case of this country. She begun by distinguishing between populism and authoritarian populism, as the second is systematic in its rejection of pluralism and its concentration of power in the hands of a leader. The authoritarian populism is the more dangerous form, as it undermines democratic checks and balances and often includes extremist ideological elements – both from the left and the right. She then flagged how populism cannot be studies as a phenomenon bounded by national borders, since global events such as the rise of China or the retrenchment of the United States have important impacts on the trajectories of populist leaders and their ideas. 

This allowed her to introduce the case of Venezuela, as Dr. Boersner-Herrera underlined the transnational element of Hugo Chavez’s populist project, constructed in explicit opposition to the United States and in solidarity and cooperation with other allied regimes. A populist approach and discourse were used to capitalize on the divisions between the Global South and the Global North, and eventually to undermine democratic governance in Venezuela. 

She offered an overview of the main stages of “Chavismo,” beginning with the drafting of a new Constitution in 1999, moving to the creation of Bolivarian Circles in 2001 and the 2006 address to the United Nations. Dr. Boersner Herrera explained how Chavez used populism as a guiding ideology to build a cut of support around him, making use of old and new tools to channel participation and support, leading to feelings of empowerment while maintaining a rigid top-down control over their priorities and opportunities. He portrayed himself as a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of imperialism, modulating his discourse to diverse settings, while controlling the elites around him and stymieing dissenting voices. 

Dr. Boersner-Herrera concluded by remarking on the regime’s economic foundations, and on the transition that led to the inauguration of the new President, Nicholas Maduro. She gave evidence supporting the theory that Maduro kept using Chavismo as a guiding ideology whilst he increasingly lost public support and repressed dissent within party ranks, and economic conditions worsened. Attention was also paid to Venezuela’s global networks, developed by Maduro to shore up his position and reap the benefits of anti-western discourse. Thus, Dr. Boersner-Herrera linked this specific case back to her broader suggestion that populism’s international dimension needs to be better understood and studied. 

Dr. Reinhard Heinisch & Dr. Andrés Laguna Tapia: “Libertarian Populism? Making Sense of Javier Milei’s Discourse”

According to Professor Reinhard Heinisch and Professor Andrés Laguna Tapia, Peron is considered the quintessence of populism in Argentina, exemplifying personalistic leadership, anti-institutionalist ideas, and following a redistributive economic agenda. In this sense ‘Peronism vs anti-Peronism’ remains a defining feature of Argentine politics, continuing to shape the nation’s political discourse. Against this backdrop, Javier Milei stands as a divergent figure, especially in the economic agenda layered out during his electoral campaign. Milei can be seen as a sui generis populist, fitting just some populist features and precisely Moffit’s theoretical approach about populist as performers of crisis. 

Professor Reinhard Heinisch and Professor Andrés Laguna Tapia gave a speech about Javier Milei’s political discourse. The aim of their presentation was to analyze Milei’s character under the lens of theories of populism in order to better position his figure in the political (populist) spectrum. To them, this is important because the literature describes Milei as a ‘half populist’ leader, in addition to the fact that he considers himself as a liberal libertarian vis-à-vis other populists in Argentina. To do that, Dr. Heinisch and Dr. Laguna Tapia looked at his discourse from three different approaches: Ideational populism, populism as a discursive frame, populism as a strategy, populism as performing crisis. The strategy employed to analyze Milei’s discourse has been to track his position in speeches and postings on the medias collected from the beginning of his campaign to the elections, under a holistic deductive coding methodology.

Dr. Laguna Tapia gave an historical summary of the unique perspective of Argentine populism, recalling the three-phases division of a ‘classical’ phase in the 1940s and 1950s, the ‘neo-populist’ era in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the resurgence phase in the early 21st century. Particularly, Peron is considered the quintessence of populism in Argentina, exemplifying personalistic leadership, anti-institutionalist ideas, and following a redistributive economic agenda. In this sense ‘Peronism vs anti-Peronism’ remains a defining feature of Argentine politics, continuing to shape the nation’s political discourse. Against this backdrop, Milei stands as a divergent figure, especially in the economic agenda layered out during his electoral campaign.

Dr. Heinisch then presented the findings of the research from every angle outlined above. From the ideational approach, Milei doesn’t refer much to the concept of ‘the people’ as opposed to ‘corrupt elites,’ that he spends a lot of time in identifying as enemies. There is also not much Manichean opposition between these two forces, and his host ideology is clearly a libertarian one, with a quasi-religious nature. Therefore, Milei does not fit the ideational pattern. 

Moving to the discursive framing approach, ‘the people’ is again not fully defined as a concept, while he focuses a lot on the diagnosis of the problems, without leaning a lot on the prognosis and about what he wants specifically to change. As well as before, he is clearer mostly on the economic agenda. Also here, he thus fails to satisfy this theoretical approach. 

Considering the third theoretical pattern, populism as a strategy, Dr. Heinisch argued that is difficult to tell whether populism is in itself a strategy or not, given that every politician has a strategy by definition. Milei is strategic here in the sense that he distances himself mainly from fellow conservatives and the representatives of the government. Hence, this approach is just half satisfactory to tackle Milei’s populism. 

Following the last line of investigation based on the performance of crisis, there is more evidence pointing to Milei as a populist. He talks extensively, strongly, and morally about the crisis Argentina is facing, describing enemies and detractors in extremely negative terms, while positioning ‘the people’ as opposed to them. To conclude, Milei can be seen as a sui generis populist, fitting just some populist features and precisely Moffit’s theoretical approach about populist as performers of crisis. 

Professor Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho: “The Phenomenon of ‘Bolsonarism’ in Brazil: Specificities and Global Connections”

Professor Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho offered an overview of ‘Bolsonarism,’ a peculiarly Brazilian phenomenon with a global dimension that is closely connected with populism. He drew comparisons between Bolsonarism and other far-right populist movements, noting similarities such as the reliance on a supposedly ‘outsider’ leader and the use of polarizing language, while also shedding light on the international connections of the Bolsonaro family within the galaxy of right-wing movements, before offering some remarks around the idea of populism and Bolsonarism as a symptom of the crisis of the current liberal-capitalist model. 

The last panelist, Professor Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho, offered an overview of ‘Bolsonarism,’ a peculiarly Brazilian phenomenon with a global dimension that is closely connected with populism. 

Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho begun with a general definition of populism, highlighting which elements are necessary for a movement to be labelled as populist. He identified the presence of a strong, charismatic leader, a discursive emphasis on the “us versus them” mentality, and a tension between liberal democracy and the movement’s impulses as the crucial facets of populism, before delving into the intricacies of the ‘people versus elites’ discourse. He underlined how these narratives are not necessarily based on pre-existing societal divisions but are built around ‘empty signifiers’ which act as catalysts to unite the people and construct an enemy to target. 

Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho then discussed the ways in which the highly publicized Lava Jato scandal was instrumentalized by the far-right to craft an anti-corruption narrative centered around the ideas of a clean, minimal state; a beacon of entrepreneurial freedom juxtaposed with the wasteful, inefficient ‘big state’ promoted by the left. This vision was presented as an apolitical quest in the nation’s interest, but Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho pointed at its inherently political agenda and at its ideological undertones. 

He then proceeded to explain how former President Jair Bolsonaro took ownership of this anti-corruption discourse, mixing it with a strong anti-communist rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War and of the years of the military dictatorship. Further, he pointed out how a new moral dimension was added by Evangelical and Neo-Pentecostal supporters of the former president, as corruption became an all-encompassing target in the ‘culture wars.’ 

Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho thus dissected the supposedly apolitical nature of these campaigns, exposing their roots in far-right thinking and in the frustrated aspirations of millions of Brazilians. He explained how the absence of a true national project, the state’s reliance on agribusiness, and the model of ‘consumer citizenship’ all led to a crisis of expectations, as economic conditions worsened, and many Brazilians felt robbed of their future. He placed these trends in the larger, global milieu, linking them with the 2008 financial crisis and with the worldwide neoliberal project, which creates new forms of subjectivation and promotes the rollback of an already absent state. 

Finally, Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho drew more comparisons between Bolsonarism and other far-right populist movements, noting similarities such as the reliance on a supposedly ‘outsider’ leader and the use of polarizing language, while also shedding light on the international connections of the Bolsonaro family within the galaxy of right-wing movements, before offering some concluding remarks around the idea of populism and Bolsonarism as a symptom of the crisis of the current liberal-capitalist model.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto exhibited respect while meeting with his supporters in the city of Palembang, Indonesia, on January 12, 2024. Photo: Muhammad Shahab.

Fluctuating Populism: Prabowo’s Everchanging Populism Across the Indonesian Elections


Please cite as:

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Bachtiar, Hasnan; Smith, Chloe & Shakil, Kainat. (2024). “Fluctuating Populism: Prabowo’s Everchanging Populism Across the Indonesian Elections.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 15, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0030



This paper introduces an interesting aspect or variant of populism which we call ‘fluctuating populism’ through a case study of Prabowo Subianto Joyohadikusumo, the winner of the 2024 Indonesian presidential election, and a career politician for over three decades in the country. We define ‘fluctuating’ quality of populism as the strategic adjustments made by populist leaders to their rhetoric and ideological messaging across different political campaigns in pursuit of electoral victory. Based on the Indonesian presidential elections of 2009, 2014, 2019, and 2024, the paper demonstrates the dynamic nature of populism. It reveals that over just a decade, Prabowo has undergone shifts in ideological stances, rhetorical appeals, and electoral strategies in each election cycle. He has evolved from an ultra-nationalist, chauvinist, and Islamist populist to a technocratic figure with a much softer side. We also find that within these election periods, he never fully prescribed an ideology or rhetoric, but instead fluctuated according to the political landscape. Prabowo’s success in the 2024 election underscores the effectiveness of ‘fluctuating populism’ in navigating Indonesia’s political landscape. This case study shows that this concept offers a framework for understanding the strategic adjustments made by populist leaders and warrants further examination in comparative studies of political leadership.

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Hasnan Bachtiar, Chloe Smith & Kainat Shakil


Following Indonesia’s tumultuous transition to independence, the early years of the country’s history fell under two successive authoritarian regimes, called the years of “Guided Democracy” (Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). The oppression and silencing of various ethnic, religious, and social groups during these years, together with the 1997 Asian financial crisis, served to exacerbate existing grievances and societal cleavages. The backlash against these developments pushed the country into a new era as President Suharto was forced out of office, and the era of the “New Order” under him came to an end (Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). 

Indonesia became a politically important case study of successful democratization in a post-dictatorship country. Since the late 1990s, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country and one of the largest democracies in the world, has experienced a proliferation of political parties and a significant expansion of civil society-led organizations. It had enjoyed the status of being a “Free” democracy from 2005 to 2013 (Freedom House, 2005; Freedom House, 2013), losing this status in 2014 as “Partly Free” (Freedom House, 2014) since it has not been spared by the democratic backsliding which is being observed around the globe (Haggard & Kaufman, 2021). In 2023, Freedom House ranked the country at only 58 out of 100 points on a scale of freedom, classifying it as “Partly Free” (Freedom House, 2023). This marks a significant decline from 2009 when the country was declared entirely “Free” in a similar report (Freedom House, 2009: 332; Freedom House, 2010). It is important to study countries like Indonesia that are experiencing forms of democratic regression or democratic backsliding including in their governance and political leadership. 

This paper focuses on understanding populism in the rapidly changing political landscape of Indonesia, with a specific focus on the years between 2009 and 2024. The case study is based on the latest Indonesian presidential election’s winner Prabowo Subianto Joyohadikusumo. A former general of the special forces (Danjen Kopassus), Prabowo Subianto has become a critical figure in the contemporary context of elections in Indonesia. Known as simply Prabowo, he is a highly controversial former military officer, the son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, and a candidate who ran in the consecutive presidential elections of 2009, 2014, 2019 and 2024.  

Fluctuating Populism: A New Concept

Using the case study of Prabowo, this paper introduces the concept of “fluctuating populism.” We define this concept as, “the strategic adjustments made by populist leaders to their rhetoric and ideological messaging across different election cycles in pursuit of electoral victory.” Although there are numerous approaches to defining populism and analysing its phenomena, researchers identify a consensus in populism literature regarding the key features of populism. First, it must claim to speak on behalf of ordinary people (Bryant & Moffitt, 2019), and that the will of these people (‘the people’) is the “cornerstone of political action” (Jawad et al., 2021). Second, these ordinary people must be counterposed to ‘the elites’ (this could be establishments, organisations, governments, political actors etc.) who are preventing them from fulfilling their political preferences (Bryant & Moffitt, 2019; Kurylo, 2022: 129). It is common for minorities and ‘others’ in society to be aligned with ‘the elites’ in populism and are consequently often central to populism’s antagonisms (Kurylo, 2022). Fluctuating populism is closely aligned with Kurt Weyland’s ‘populism as a political strategy’ approach, which focuses on the ability of political actors to interpret the contextual and strategic political environment they inhabit and base their strategy on this assessment (Widian et al., 2023: 365; Weyland, 2017).  

Fluctuating populism builds on this understanding but applies it in a different way to explain how populist political actors modify this strategy throughout several electoral campaigns. It specifically highlights the dynamic nature of populism, in which leaders may modify their appeals to capitalize on changing political dynamics, public sentiment, and electoral demands. Fluctuating populism therefore underscores the tactical calculations and pragmatism employed by populist leaders, who may adjust their ideological content and messaging to maximize electoral support and maintain relevance over time. This is congruent with Weyland’s assessment that “the driving force behind populism is political, not ideological” (Weyland, 2017: 70).

Given the fluctuating populism, characterized by shifting ideas, discourses, and self-representation of leaders, as well as political representation of ‘the people,’ we contend that analyzing the discourses and performances of populist leaders is the most effective method for capturing the strategic adjustments made throughout their political careers (Moffitt, 2016; Moffitt, 2020). 

Indonesian Presidential Campaigns of Prabowo between 2009-2024

Former Minister of Defense and winner of the February 14, 2024, Presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, pictured at the 77th-anniversary celebration of the Indonesian Air Force in Jakarta on April 9, 2023. Photo: Donny Hery.


Prabowo has contested Indonesia’s consecutive Presidential Elections since 2009, securing his first victory in 2024. In 2009, he ran as vice presidential candidate with Megawati, but was defeated by a retired four-star general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Megawati-Prabowo received 26.79%, while Jusuf Kalla-Wiranto and SBY-Boediono received 12.41% and 60.08% of the total votes (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2009).

In the following elections, he was twice defeated by popular technocrat, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in the 2014 and 2019 Presidential elections. In 2014, Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla received 53.15%, while Prabowo-Hatta Rajasa received 46.85% of the total votes from the total electorate (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2014). Then, in 2019, when Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin received 55.32% of the votes, Prabowo-Sandiaga Uno lost the election with 44.68% of votes from the total electorate (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2019). 

The 2024 Indonesian Presidential Elections witnessed Prabowo refine and redefine his political messaging. He allied with his former political opposition leader for 2024 as he chose Jokowi’s son as his running mate – and finally secured an electoral victory. The Prabowo-Gibran team received 58.83% of the total provisional vote count percentage, while Anies-Muhaimin and Ganjar-Mahfud received 24.49% and 16.68% respectively (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2024).

The analysis that follows will outline the fluctuating populism Prabowo has demonstrated across these elections, considering the reasons behind – and implications of – his chameleon political persona and strategic alliance building.   

Prabowo’s Significant Political Transformation in the Recent Election

Past election campaigns witnessed Prabowo displaying ultra-nationalist, strongly chauvinist and Islamist populist characteristics (Yilmaz, et al., 2024). In the recent election however, Prabowo has re-emerged as a distinctly technocratic, gentler figure who continued to cultivate some populist tendencies – particularly his self-presentation as guardian of the people’s volonté générale, and a reliance on popular communication strategies that sought (and succeeded) in reaching out to Indonesia’s youth.  

This transformation is indicative of his fluctuating populism, in which significant strategic adjustments have been made to Prabowo’s political messaging, motivated by his quest for power. This article aims to explore the rationale behind the fluctuating populism of Prabowo and to identify and analyze the different ways Prabowo’s populist messaging and strategies have evolved and been influenced by the exigencies of contemporary political realities. 

Prabowo’s 2024 campaigning revealed a clear move away from the more antagonistic elements of populism. Most notably, he let go of chauvinistic messaging, which perpetuates religious-based tensions and hostilities, outrage against minorities, blaming foreign powers, and the scapegoating of elites to gain voters’ appeal (Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Prabowo diverted his attention from ideological issues that deepen social polarization (Yilmaz, 2023) and moved away from narratives and rhetoric against Western neo-liberalism and the perceived greed of Chinese corporations (Hadiz, 2017; Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Prabowo also distanced himself from religious right-wing groups, most notably the civilizational populist Defenders Front of Islam (the FPI), whom he had aligned himself with in varying manners in the 2019 election (Yilmaz, et al., 2022).  

While he shed the exclusionary political messaging of past campaigns, Prabowo has continued to rely on a performative populism that seeks to gain the support of an electoral base via the simplification of his political expressions, his self-representation as one of ‘the people,’ and the use of communicative devices to foster a sense of closeness with his audience (Moffitt, 2016; Moffitt, 2020; Ostiguy, 2017). 

For instance, Prabowo abandoned speaking in Sukarno’s (Indonesia’s founding father) rhetorical and commanding language (Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021), adopting instead a more conversational and relatable tone which portrayed a more intimate affinity with his audience. While both are flavors of populism, they seek a different type of connection with ‘the people.’ In the first instance, Prabowo was copying a style that speaks on behalf of the people (Mietzner, 2020) while in the second he focused more on cultivating a perception that he was in close proximity to ‘the people.’ It has also been noted that Indonesia’s new leader simplified complex political problems and their solutions, such as his focus on a program for free lunches and milk to tackle malnutrition and food scarcity – a program that has been criticized for being unrealistic and risks widening the country’s fiscal deficit (Tripathi, 2024; Susilo & Prana, 2024).

In an effort to appeal to youth and shake off his former aggressive persona, Prabowo and his campaign team employed various strategies including rebranding image to reflect a more modern and approachable vibe, engagement through social media, utilizing platforms popular among youth, and creating engaging content. In the most striking example of this rebranding exercise, Prabowo has been portrayed as an adorable, friendly grandpa (gemoy) with a strong presence on social media feeds, and whose online supporters and followers call him handsome (ganteng) or “gemes” which translates as “evocative of the sensation of squeezing the cheeks of a young child” or hugging a puppy (Cook, 2023). This strategy has particularly targeted online and youth communities, where Prabowo is represented in digital spaces with a cartoon photo generated by Artificial Intelligence (AI) (Lamb et al., 2024), and has become known for dancing the Korean Oppa style to disco music and the super hit song “Oke Gas” by the famous rapper, Richard Jersey (Jersey, 2024). It is estimated that millennial and generation Z voters made up nearly 60% of the votes, representing as many as 114 million voters (Cook, 2023). A campaign geared towards attracting youth voters and adapting to the current digital culture was therefore a strong strategic move by Prabowo. 

Weyland notes that social media is used by contemporary populist leaders to “create the impression of direct contact” with their followers, and “give the personalistic leader a daily presence in the lives of millions of followers” (Weyland, 2017: 74). He also points out the potency of this communication strategy if the leader “commands charisma” (Weyland, 2017). This charisma, Weyland argues, can help give form to the relationship between the leader and “the people” (Weyland, 2017: 66). Although Prabowo the dancing gemoy and his outspoken campaign rhetoric (which may appear to be unethically mocking his campaign opponents) might not be as immediately charismatic as other populist politicians such as the moralist style performed by Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo (CNN Indonesia, 2023; Tempodotco, 2023), he has succeeded in capturing the attentions and affections of many through performing a playful persona. 

In the following four tables, we aim to visualize these fluctuations as clearly as possible. Each table provides valuable insights into different dimensions of his fluctuating populism, shedding light on key shifts over time.

Table 1 – Political Performance

2009 Constructed a political persona that was pro-‘the people’ and antagonistic towards ‘the elites’ (Sutopo, 2009: 20).A masculine stateman image (e.g. presenting himself like Napoleon, Soekarno, or Barrack Obama) (Tomsa, 2009).
2014 A political outsider heroically trying to save Indonesia from its decaying democracy (Mietzner, 2015: 17-18).Campaigned as a “strongman” e.g. by riding his horse around stadiums and promising a return to the authoritarian model of the New Order (Lindsey, 2024).Maintained his iron-fist image which is rooted in his former military career. Continuing his reputation as a strongman that would defend the nation.
2019 Claimed he was the only leader capable of fixing Indonesia’s many problems (Lam, 2024).Continued to favor large public rallies and protests (Lam, 2024).Perpetuated an image of piety and conservatism (Widian et al., 2023: 15).Maintained his iron-first image but the strongman orientation was to defend the believers (Muslims). Given the Ahok protests foreshadowed the elections.
2024 Adopted a “cuddly” and “avuncular” persona – particularly online (Strangio, 2024).TikTok videos of him petting his cats, performing dance routines at political rallies (Strangio, 2024).Positioned himself as a “patriot ready to serve his people” (pengabdi)/technocratic institutionalist (Lam, 2024).An observable fluidity in his masculinity which is oscillating between the former strongman and the friendly older figure.

Table 2 – Political Communication

2009 Anti-Elite (blaming elites for failure to improve public welfare) (Sutopo, 2009: 14).Anti-foreign powers (e.g. attacked the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonoleadership and his support for foreign economic interests) (Mujani & Liddle, 2010: 40).A supporter of the indigenous people (Prasetyawan, 2012: 321).A defender of “the interests of small farmers, fishermen, and petty traders” (Mujani & Liddle, 2010: 40)
2014 Anti-‘the Elite’ (condemnation of political elites and environment of corruption and money politics) (Aspinall, 2015: 1-2).Nationalist (describing Indonesia’s poor economic conditions as product of country’s exploitation by foreign powers (Aspinall, 2015: 1-2).Favored large public rallies during which he would refer to his audience as brothers (saudara) (Lam, 2024).
2019 Enhancement of Islamist narratives (Widian et al., 2023: 364).Aligning himself with Islamic figures and movements (Widian et al., 2023: 364).Used religious populist identity politics and civilizational narratives to create ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinctions. Narratives against the ‘corrupt elite’ and dangerous ‘others’ (minority religio-ethnic groups) were common.
2024 “Keen student and follower” of Jokowi’s leadership, and promotes himself as continuing Jokowi’s legacy, policies, and economic progress (Lam, 2024).Aside from promising continuity, he simplified other political solutions and their solutions (such as the free lunch program).Communication became far more inclusive and open – e.g. by making ‘political courtesy visits’ to rivals that were highly publicized (Lam, 2024).

Table 3 – Target Audience

2009 Mobilizing the poor and marginalized people “because they are fed up with all the lies” of the elites (Sutopo, 2009: 16).Indigenous entrepreneurs, farmers, fishermen (Mujani & Liddle, 2010; Prasetyawan, 2012).
2014 Focus on appealing to the rural poor and low-income workers (Mietzner, 2015: 17-18).Initial integration of Islamic rhetoric to appeal to conservative portion of population (Widian et al., 2023: 361).
2019 Significant signaling to Islamist and conservative figures and organizations.Attempts to mobilize the ‘ummah’ and the pious Muslims who felt threatened by social change.
2024 Prabowo sought to win over Jokowi’s significant support base. Reached out to moderate and mainstream Muslim voters and leaders. Used digital platforms to disseminate content that appeals to Indonesia’s youth and online audiences (Lam, 2024).

Table 4 – Narrative and Rhetoric


Pro-‘the people’

“It is a great honor this afternoon to declare that I am ready to fight alongside Ibu Megawati. I am ready to fight for the people of Indonesia. I am ready to fight for justice and the greatness of the Indonesian nation. We are ready to bring great change for the people of Indonesia. We are ready to return the economy of Indonesia into the hands of the Indonesian people. We will fight for the people, with the people, for justice, for your greatness and welfare. … Do we want to continue the wrong system? Do we want to continue the economic system that has not succeeded in bringing prosperity to the people? Or do we change (the system), we return the Indonesian nation to the Indonesian people? … Let us together reclaim the sovereignty of the people (so that) it returns to the hands of the Indonesian people. … On the coming 8 July (2009), … let us unite, let us fight for the greatness of the nation and the justice of the people,” (Metro TV, 2023). 

Pro-the marginalized and the poor

“Are we willing for Indonesia to become a nation of lackeys? A nation of laborers? Always have to be poor, always have to be left behind. Farmers need credit for small capital, not given. I am not advocating hatred for the rich,” (Metro TV, 2009). 

Antagonism against the elites

“Our nation was colonized for hundreds of years. I think the influence on our culture is quite big. I see that this has resulted, especially in our elites, in a subconscious sense of inferiority complex. This has resulted in our elites often producing national policies that are detrimental to their own nation,” (Metro TV, 2023). 

Condemning the foreign powers

“I think the challenge for both of us is that we do not want to see our nation continue to be a weak nation, a nation that is always subject to foreign powers, a nation that can only ask for foreign assistance, a nation that is always a sweet child in front of world powers. I think this is a cultural challenge for us, can we rise as a sovereign nation, an independent nation?” (Metro TV, 2023). 

Anti-the foreign powers/external dangerous others

“We recognize that our culture is the result of influences from everywhere. We don’t need to be afraid; we don’t need to be inferior. We should enjoy that richness. But we should take the good from those foreign influences. … We are a very friendly nation, very open to these foreign influences. But in my opinion, in the competition between nations in this world, which is very hard and very cruel, sometimes that good nature can be abused by foreign powers. The essential nature of our tribes has always been to be hospitable to foreign influences. We always receive guests well. After a while, the guest is no longer a guest. First, he’s a guest, he wants to trade, then he wants to control everything. I think we must look in the mirror, that sometimes we must admit that we are also a naive nation, a nation that is too naive. We assume that other people’s intentions are always good intentions because we have good intentions. … To overcome these weaknesses, … through education. Education is the key to the revival of Indonesian culture and nation,” (Metro TV, 2023).


Nationalism & anti-foreign powers

“We come from a nation that has honor, a nation that has ideals, a nation that wants to live like other nations, we do not want to be a nation of errand boys, we do not want to be a nation of lackeys, we do not want to be a nation that is trampled by other nations,” (Gerindra TV, 2014). 


“After our fathers, our predecessors, we valiantly resisted being re-colonized,” (Gerindra TV, 2014). 


“Now the Indonesian nation remains under threat of being re-colonized, … they are smarter, they don’t send soldiers, they just buy and bribe our leaders … our money every year is lost 1000 trillion Rupiah,” (Gerindra TV, 2014). 

Populist promise: Change

“… do you want change, or do you want the situation we have now? … it can only come if we eradicate corruption to its roots,” (Gerindra TV, 2014).


Pro-the people

“Thousands of people depend on us, people we never knew… but what we do now will determine what happens to them… perhaps tens of millions of our people, connected to this room with communication technology, because for the next 92 nights will determine the future of Indonesia, this is an election for the entire nation of Indonesia,” (Gerindra TV, 2019). 

Pro-the marginalized and the poor & nationalism 

“… in Klaten, farmers are sad, because during the rice harvest, rice from foreign countries is flooded. In East Java, sugar farmers are sad, because during the harvest, sugar is flooded from foreign countries. … mothers complain, where prices are already unaffordable, … when salt farmers are also experiencing difficulties, a flood of salt from foreign countries… Is this the country we want? … this is an insult to the founders of our nation,” (Gerindra TV, 2019). 

Anti-the elites and foreign powers

“… what we will do is reorient development … from the wrong direction to the right one, which defends the interests of the Indonesian nation, … stop the leakage of money to foreign countries. … infrastructure projects should not be the preserve of certain elite groups,” (Gerindra TV, 2019). “You are the people’s army, you are the people’s police, you cannot defend a handful of people, let alone defend foreign stooges (while banging on the table),” (Gerindra TV, 2019). 

Nationalism, element of motherhood, populist promise

“I quote Bung Karno’s speech… the movement was born because of the unbearable suffering of the people… you are here because you understand, you understand because this country is not right, mothers know better this country is sick, there has been a very severe injustice in this republic. … a handful of people control the wealth of hundreds of millions of Indonesians. … the problem is that Indonesia’s wealth is being robbed, stolen, we need to elect a government that can stop this robbery. You vote for 02 to save your children and grandchildren,” (Gerindra TV, 2019).


Technocratic nationalism/technocratic institutionalism

“Prabowo-Gibran for an advanced Indonesia fights to eliminate poverty from the earth of Indonesia. We fight to bring prosperity to all Indonesians. We continue what the previous presidents have built. We are grateful for all the presidents who have worked for the people of Indonesia. We thank all the fighters, all the patriots, we thank Bung Karno, Bung Hatta, Bung Sjahrir… we thank Presidents Soeharto, BJ Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and we thank President Joko Widodo as well,” (Gerindra TV, 2024).

Pro-the people, populist promise, nationalism

“If Prabowo-Gibran receive the mandate from the people, we will lead the people of Indonesia… I have said many times, that our future is bright, we are now the 16th richest country in the world… we can even become the 5th in the world. The condition is that we must be harmonious, united, peaceful, we must not be pitted again, we must not be divided… Our children are important, isn’t it important to be able to eat and drink milk? Those who say it is not important are not sane people, not people who love the country. Prabowo-Gibran will not hesitate, we will feed the children of Indonesia,”  (Gerindra TV, 2024).

Contributing Factors to Prabowo’s Fluctuating Populism

Billboards depicting presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto and Gibran have gone viral on social media because the visuals made by artificial intelligence (AI) in Jakarta, Indonesia. on December 23, 2023. Photo: Toto Santiko Budi.

Several influences likely played a role in the fluctuations observed in campaigns. One significant aspect is Prabowo’s ability to learn from past experiences and adapt his strategies accordingly. Over the years, Prabowo has gained valuable insights into the political landscape and has honed his approach based on lessons learned from previous election cycles. Moreover, Prabowo has demonstrated a keen awareness of evolving societal norms and values, strategically aligning himself with prevailing sentiments and ideologies that resonate with the electorate. Furthermore, Prabowo has made strategic alliances with key political actors, groups, and movements that hold sway in different election cycles. By forging alliances with influential figures and tapping into networks of support, Prabowo has been able to garner broader political relevance and leverage the strength of collective mobilization.

Learning from his past defeats

First, he learned from his defeats in the 2009, 2014 and 2019 presidential elections. In all of his political battles, he operationalized a populist performance, presenting himself as a charismatic leader who was pro-indigenous, defending Islam in Indonesia, and standing up against the corrupt and Westernized elite, and foreign powers and influence (Mietzner, 2020). 

Furthermore, in both unsuccessful campaigns, Prabowo proved eager to win the support of various nativist, racist, and hardline groups. For instance, in 2017, hoping to gain Islamist support in the elections two years later, he eagerly supported Anies Baswedan in the quest to defeat Ahok (Basuki Tjahaya Purnama), the incumbent Chinese and Christian governor of Jakarta, in the gubernatorial election. In the process, he went as far as encouraging a severe and dramatic process of minority criminalization and discrimination (Bachtiar, 2023). However, despite receiving the support of civilizational populist leader Rizieq Shihab, the FPI, and other Islamist groups, and despite coming within “striking distance of the presidency” in both elections (Jaffrey & Warburton, 2024), Prabowo faced defeat. The strategic politician is likely to have taken stock and understood he needed a new political strategy to win the 2024 election.   

Stepping away from polarizing religious populism

Second, Prabowo did not instrumentalize religion in his recent campaign. In previous elections – particularly the 2019 election – Prabowo attempted to gain popularity by weighing in on the ideological division between Islamist and pluralist worldviews in Indonesian society (Mietzner, 2020). He did this by aligning himself with Islamist groups and movements, performing piety, and using religion to create distinctions between ‘the people’ and the ‘elites’ and ‘others’ (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Yabanci, 2020). Yet although Islamist identity politics and civilizational populism significantly intensified the people’s emotions and populist demands (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023), it also inspired a wave of resistance from the silent majority: pluralist Muslims. Identity politics succeeded in forming cross-class alliances – evident in the mass rallies against Ahok – but they also provoked resentment, including from leaders of the consequential mainstream Islamic organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. Both organizations maintain a sharp focus on diversity and national integration (Burhani, 2018; Bruinessen, 2021). By not appealing to – and actively repelling – the pluralist and mainstream Muslims, Prabowo learnt in hindsight that his chances of success had been considerably hindered.

Becoming a technocratic figure and ally of his former opposition

Third, Prabowo went through the important process of becoming a technocrat when he agreed to join the Jokowi cabinet and accepted the role of Indonesia’s Defense Minister. In this context, he built his image as a big-hearted knight with a more inclusive outlook, and this role helped him signal “to both domestic and international audiences that he was fit for high office” and could put aside his own ambition to care for Indonesia (Jaffrey & Warburton, 2024). In taking this role, and in refashioning his political branding, he betrayed his coalition with the previous alliances such as the civilizational populist group, the FPI, who were consequently banned by Jokowi, leading to their dissolution (Power, 2018). Abandoning previous right-wing and Islamist allies, Prabowo was able to focus attention on “aligning with status nationalists who wield control over the state bureaucracy,” (Gultasli, 2024).

Prabowo’s closer affinity with Jokowi also allowed him to enact another key strategy in his 2024 campaign: Winning Jokowi’s support and endorsement. In favorable circumstances for Prabowo, Jokowi had come to a head with Megawati, Soekarno’s daughter, in the camp of his party in power (the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle – PDIP). Megawati had insulted Jokowi when she suggested he should submit to party leadership (as a worker/petugas partai), despite his status as President of Indonesia. As a result, Jokowi withdrew his support for Ganjar Pranowo, the governor of Central Java, who had been endorsed by the PDIP as its presidential candidate (Bachtiar, 2023). Aware of Jokowi’s popularity, particularly because of his strong economic performance, Prabowo keenly promoted himself as the candidate who would carry on this legacy (Strangio, 2024).

No longer in coalition with Anies Baswedan – who used to support him but became his rival in the 2024 election, having distanced himself from Islamist civilizational populism and its proponents, and seeing an opportunity in the PDIP’s internal conflict, made joining forces with Gibran a strategic move. Additionally, by forsaking the chauvinistic and polarizing style of political campaigning, eschewing the politics of identity, rebranding himself as a competent technocrat, amping up the duo’s youth appeal, and securing the backing of the ruling elite, (in this case Jokowi et al.), Prabowo-Gibran succeeding in winning the election in the first round. 

Responding to changing perceptions of masculinity in society

Prabowo is still seen by many as an authoritarian strongman, which is linked to his background as Suharto’s son-in-law and most loyal elite soldier (Slater, 2023). Suharto himself was a military general who ruled Indonesia in an almost entirely autocratic manner for more than 30 years. Prabowo’s experience in military leadership continued to play a central role; some voters are still likely drawn to an assertive style of leadership and see him as a proficient leader who can effectively attend to the welfare of everyday Indonesians (Gilang & Almubaroq, 2022). Soon after the 2024 election, Prabowo was awarded the four-star general status by the outgoing President (Haizan, 2024). Prabowo likely continued to benefit from the strongman portrayal among segments of the Indonesian society. However, he also succeeded in gaining wider support by outwardly shedding the more hardened and aggressive parts of his image, particularly in communications that would reach younger generations of Indonesians. 

The performative public transformation of the former military man speaks volumes about the changing hues of masculinity in Indonesian society. Connell’s work on gender discusses the idea of hegemonic masculinities (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) and this can be applied to the fluctuating ideals of masculinity Prabowo has responded to in his political campaigning. For decades, the President-elect of Indonesia maintained a reputation as a classic ‘strongman’ image as an ex-military high-ranking official and also as the son-in-law of a former dictator. However, as discussed, the most recent elections witnessed him performing the role of the ‘cool uncle’ or ‘friendly grandpa’ who plays into more contemporary masculinity norms among Indonesia’s many youth voters (The Economist, 2024). 

While various definitions contest what is the ‘ideal’ or ‘the hegemon’ masculinity, there is a clear indication that amongst Indonesian millennials and Gen-Zs, the traditional ideal of a ‘strongman,’ as Prabowo was formerly and widely known as being, does not attract their support. Prabowo’s sensitivity to this change led him to modify his masculinity to become more acceptable in society. A friendlier, gemoy persona has gained him the acceptance of youth in a way that the highly composed military man or conservative religious figure of his past would have been unable to. 


Some continue to regard Prabowo as a right-wing populist with an authoritarian agenda detrimental to democracy (Susilo & Prana, 2024; Nurdiansyah, 2024; Testriono & Auliya, 2024; Wejak, 2024; Ramadhani, 2024). Prabowo’s past from the 1990s is tarnished by a legacy of violence against socially marginalized groups in society. Concerns about Prabowo often relate to his record as a special forces officer, a role in which he was accused of involvement in several cases of gross human rights violations, particularly during the democratic transition process (Tan, 2015; Suh, 2016).

There are trepidations about the authenticity of Prabowo’s shift in rhetorical and ideological messaging, and what lies underneath Prabowo’s successful attempt at gaining power and wielding control in Indonesia. How far removed is this softer and more inclusive gemoy character from the strong and masculine, ultra-nationalist and chauvinist described by scholars previously (Hadiz, 2017; Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). After all, it was only recently that American Indonesianist Slater argued Prabowo is “the sort of ethnonationalist, polarizing, strongman who would scapegoat minorities and ride roughshod to power, as other world leaders recently had,” (Slater, 2023: 103-104). These concerns were also highlighted by The Guardian writers, who claimed that Prabowo’s victory in 2024 was a sign that “winter is coming” for Indonesian democracy (Ratcliffe & Richaldo, 2024). Similarly, Kurlantzick argues that democracy is truly lost with Prabowo’s victory (Kurlantzick, 2024). 

Given all these, Prabowo is a crucial political figure to test the concept of fluctuating populism. His transformations across various presidential elections are notable: From 2014 to 2024 he has refashioned his public image from a classic populist ‘strongman’ with authoritarian tendencies and polarizing rhetoric to adopting a strongly conservative and pious Islamist persona and most recently, a soft, cuddly grandpa who attracts youth through TikTok dances and photos with his cats. Along the way he has renewed and shifted his policy promises, political allegiances, public image, and the support bases he appeals to. 

A valid question that remains is if the ‘happy grandpa’ now metamorphoses back into the iron-fisted strong man. His pattern of fluctuations suggests he could, although we need to keep in mind that Prabowo is a patient, tactful and pragmatic populist, who adapts in accordance with the expectations of voters and constantly changing socio-political trends. What fluctuating populism does tell us, is that Prabowo is likely be remain an ever-changing mosaic of performances, views, persons, and policies.     

Introducing the concept of fluctuating populism prompts further investigations into other case studies. Identifying and analyzing the political maneuvers of other populist actors provides an opportunity to develop and test this concept further in both country-level and comparative studies. Furthermore, this study firmly rooted populism in the recent socio-political history of Indonesia and allowed the authors to examine not only the fluctuating populism of a leader but the fluctuating demands of the electorate. 


Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.



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View of the A15 motorway near Paris, where the demonstration of farmers in tractors, are blocked by the police on January 29, 2024. Photo: Franck Legros.

Connection Between Populism and Identity Politics in the European Union Before the 2024 European Parliament Elections

The 2024 EU parliament election polls show the populist right and far right as the main winners. The fact that voters tend to choose populist parties could increase the populist agenda of the left to compete with the far right, as an attempt to transform xenophobic tendencies by the right into inclusionary populism, which describes the conservative elite as the other and creates further social conflicts. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how populism (both left and right) impacts EU legislation and what forecasts we can identify for the elections in 2024.

By Katharina Diebold

The upcoming elections of the EU Parliament and the next presidency of the Council of the EU, which will be Hungary, are contentious issues for the European Community (Henley, 2024). The polls for the 2024 EU elections and the Hungarian presidency indicate a rise of right-wing and anti-Europe populist parties. These tendencies fuel the transformation of the EU towards the right and conservativism (Wax & Goryashko, 2024). 

The 2024 EU parliament election polls show the populist right and far right as the main winners. The fact that voters tend to choose populist parties could increase the populist agenda of the left to compete with the far right, as an attempt to transform xenophobic tendencies by the right into inclusionary populism, which describes the conservative elite as the other and creates further social conflicts (Henley, 2024; Suiter, 2016; Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how populism (both left and right) impacts EU legislation and what forecasts we can identify for the elections in 2024.

In this essay, I propose that recently adopted EU legislation, the Green New Deal (including the Nature Restoration Regulation and Deforestation Regulation), and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, are influenced by populism and identity politics and harm the EU. In connection with this, populist candidates driven by identity politics threaten the future of the EU. 

Theoretical Framework 

Populism is defined as a thin ideology comprising three key elements: the people, the general will and the elite, (Zulianello & Larsen, 2021; Mudde, 2004). Additionally, it incorporates the dimension of the “dangerous others,” often represented by migrants, positioned in contrast to the people (Rooduijn & Akkerman, 2015).

Even though populism is in Western Europe closely associated with the right, the left has increasingly adopted populist strategies. The negligence of academic research about the populist left can be responsible for those recent findings. This seems even more relevant when we consider the outstanding electoral performance of populist left parties compared to populist right parties for the last elections of the European Parliament in 2019, such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Sinn Féin in Ireland (Bernhard & Kriesi, 2021; Statista, 2024).

For example, The Greek Syriza Party (founded in 2004) and the Irish Sinn Féin Party (founded in 1905) were only recognized as left-wing populist parties in 2014 (O’Malley & Fitzgibbon, 2014; Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). Nevertheless, Syriza’s populism has been questionable through its government term and recent opposition in 2021 (Markou, 2021). 

Identity is a set of labels describing persons distinguished by attributes (Noury & Roland, 2020). Identity politics is the belief that identity is a fundamental focus of political work, which can be connected to lifestyle and culture (Bernstein, 2005). Politicizing immigrants as the other is an example of that. In Europe, identity politics is referred to as the protection of the “silent majority” from harmful consequences of immigration, which is used by right-wing populists (Noury & Roland, 2020). 

The effect of rising populism within the EU on the right- and left-wing can already be recognized by looking at EU-party campaigns or populist candidates for the upcoming elections. Besides the right, the left populists also employ identity politics. The left populism can be seen in promoting marginalized identities, such as racial and ethnic identities and seeking to transform the shame previously associated with these identities into pride (Salmela & Von Scheve, 2018). Accordingly, these protests generate others, including people who abide by a different value system and also the privileged elite who overlook intersectional identities as a threat. While promoting human rights, advocacy for intersectional identities can also fall into the trap of populism among leftist groups and other advocates (Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). However, intersectionality may not be the only advocacy that can turn into a populist movement in the name of advocacy. Climate and human rights activists can also be politicized and positioned as polarized identities (Mackay et al., 2021). 

Inherent Populism in EU Legislation

Environmental politics presents contention for both the right- and left-wing populist parties.  Both the right and left-wing parties instrumentalize newly adopted legislation to increase the public appeal of voters (European Commission, 2023). This can be exemplified in the recent regulations. The newest adopted legislation, the European Green New Deal, including its Deforestation Regulation and its Regulation on Nature Restoration, and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, have elements of otherization and marginalization of identities. A closer examination of de jure analysis and how these laws, as portrayed in political language, unearths the need for more interest in realizing the general goals of protecting nature. It looks like nature is wiped of its identity within the hands of humans who instrumentalize nature as a theme broadly advocated by large swaths of society. Therefore, identity politics exploiting nature must be identified and widely discussed to protect nature and the shared values of humanity, not to sacrifice basic human dignity for politics, especially before the upcoming elections. 

The European Green New Deal

The European Green New Deal, including the Deforestation Regulation, entered into force on June 29, 2023, and the provisional agreement for the Regulation on Nature Restoration was accepted on November 9, 2023. These legislations gaining the support of the left can also be instrumentalized to boost the attention and sympathy of left-wing parties before the elections.

The populism surrounding the Nature Restoration Regulation can be approached as a case showcasing populist politics appealing to the left (The EU #NatureRestoration Law, 2023). The left uses advocacy of this legislation, especially the Greens/EFA, in the elections for greenwashing purposes and voter accumulation. However, this law focused more on economic benefits than actual environmental protection and lost its progressiveness throughout the legislative procedure. Therefore, it is based on the misconception that this regulation substantially improves nature restoration and indigenous rights protection (Pinto, 2023). Moreover, this law increases the financial burden for the forestry, fishery, and farming sectors, claims the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) (Weise & Guillot, 2023). However, these realities are dismissed in the political language of environmental advocacy. 

The Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) campaign clearly describes the people as the “citizens, farmers, fishers and business in the EU.” The elite is defined as “the conservatives, far right and some liberals” who “try to tear down a new EU law to restore nature.” The general will of the people focuses on tackling “biodiversity and the climate crisis (GreensEFA, 2023). The campaign by the Greens/EFA for this regulation plays into identity politics as the party uses a language claiming to advocate for the protection of marginalized indigenous and local communities. While this claim remains to be only a discourse, regardless, it boosts the popularity of the Greens. Zoomed closely, the ostensibly evergreen legislation advocating the protection of biodiversity promotes local cartels and exploitative companies that benefit and take advantage of the EU partnerships (Euronews, 2023). The hypocrisy and the tact in the use of language can be seen in the advocacy language of the party that left these cartels intentionally out.

Deforestation Regulation 

The Greens/EFA campaign for the Deforestation Regulation shows characteristics of populism (European Commission, 2023). Greens/EFA characterizes “the people” as the “people that must always come before profit.” Thus, this regulation favors European distributers instead of the exploited farmers in the developing countries. In this case, “the elite” is the group of companies that need to safeguard no deforestation or human rights violations along the production.” “The general will” is intended to “end EU-driven deforestation” (Greens/EFA, 2023). This is an example of how left parties connect political anti-elitism to economic anti-elitism and the argument that hardworking, ordinary citizens are betrayed by the political-economic power elite (Rooduijn & Akkerman, 2015). 

Additionally, the new regulation will only prevent EU customers from buying products derived from deforestation. However, the actual deforestation and sales of deforested products to other customers worldwide can continue (Greenpeace, 2021). The regulation also lost its progressive and ambitious character throughout the legislation procedure (Fairtraide.net., 2022).

New Pact on Migration and Asylum 

The left and the right use identity politics as a tool to increase sympathy for the upcoming elections through the usage of marginalized identities such as “migrants” and “asylum seekers” (Greens/EFA, n.d.). The recent pact on migration can be shown as an example of populist identity politics transcending the right and left binary, uniting the voters around the so-called threat posed by the influx of migrants and asylum seekers. 

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum reinforces the topic of illegal migration and thus supports the right-wing campaigning for the European Elections 2024. The political language on this regulation is laden with populist elements. Firstly, the right-wing European Peoples Party defines “the people” as “the hard-working EU citizens.” Secondly, “the elite” is defined as “smugglers and traffickers controlling illegal migration” (Press Statement von der Leyen, 2023). Thirdly, “the general will” is defined as stopping the suffering of the EU through migrants (Press Statement von der Leyen, December 20, 2023; Press Statement Schinas, 2023). 

The populist language forebears the identity politics around migration appealing to both the right and the left. The New Pact and statements by the EU Commission play into identity politics through the terminology of the “bad migrants,” positioning them as “dangerous others.” Unfortunately, the New Pact has been under debate in the EU since 2020 and is now used as a promotional tool for the upcoming elections to attract voters on the right and the left (Georgian, 2024). 

The New Pact can also be used by the Greens/EFA populist campaign for the European Elections 2024, reinforcing the idea of a unified peace union. “The people” are defined as “us and the migrants and asylum seekers, that we do not leave behind.” “The general will” is to “uphold human rights and international law” (GreensEFA, 2023). “The elite” is defined as the authoritarian national governments of developing countries, making it necessary for refugees to flee (Greens/EFA, n.d.).

Additionally, the Pact favors the reinforcement of border controls, returns and re-admissions over legal migration opportunities. Those stay symbolic, vague, and distant policy goals. Recent reviews of policy documents show that the EU prioritizes regulating irregular migration, and despite its rhetoric for “strengthening legal migration,” concrete action is missing (Sunderland, 2023). 

Identity Politics and Candidates 

Introducing inexperienced candidates tailored to resonate with particular social groups is a common strategy employed by both left and right populist parties to garner support. This practice serves as another instance of identity politics shaping the European political landscape. Following in the footsteps of their forerunners, like Marie Le Pen or Hugo Chávez from the past, these charismatic political figures engage in populist rhetoric, addressing a diverse range of social and legal issues in their political discourse—from environmental protection to EU identity and migration (Serra, 2017).

Examples for the upcoming European Parliament elections 2024 include Nicola Gehringer, promoted by the German right-wing party CSU (Christian Social Union), on place nine. Gehringer is a successful executive assistant of a big corporation “Neoloan AG” with potential to attract successful business owners. Another figure is the farmer and agriculture expert Stefan Köhler, who runs for the CSU on place six to attract farmers (Zeit Online, 2023). With the recent increasing farmer’s protests in Germany, France and the Netherlands, farmers have become increasingly crucial in the European discourse (Trompiz & Levaux, 2024). 

Legal and security experts are also running with public appeal to the voters across political divides. The German candidate for “Die Linke,” a leftist Party, is Carola Rackete. She is a human rights activist fighting for better refugee rights and asylum laws, running for the second position (MDR.DE., 2023). The human rights activist as a candidate can increase the amount of more radical voters from the left. The German Green Party is heading with a policeman on place eighteen towards the elections, trying to include more right-leaning social groups as well in the Green voter repertoiresince police officers can tend to vote for conservative and right-wing parties (Papanicolaou & Papageorgiou, 2016).

In Austria, the first candidate for the Greens party is Lena Schilling, a climate activist of “Fridays-for-future.” Schilling has a high chance of attracting young voters as she is the only young female top candidate among all running top party candidates in Austria (Völker, 2024). The second place will be Thomas Waitz, a sustainable and organic farmer who aims to attract sustainable farmers in Austria (Waitz, 2023; Schweighofer, 2024). The references to elite vs the people in their language blur the lines between the right and the left ideologies and connect these figures around a shared sentiment: fighting for the people against a designated elite. This populist sentiment fuels populism and social conflict, undermining liberal democracy and EU values. 


The increasing populism of left and right parties in the EU and the fanatism of those who want to increase their share of voters for the upcoming EU elections are tremendously responsible for the outcomes of recent EU legislation. The populist rhetoric before and after the adoption of new EU legislation clearly shows how parties instrumentalize the outcomes of EU legislation procedure instead of trying to find real compromises and long-term future-oriented solutions for the problems of unregulated migration and the climate crises. 

Regulated migration is still almost not touched upon in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which has been part of discussions in the EU since 2020. The Green New Deal, especially with the Nature Restoration and Deforestation Regulations, was a proper start to increase sustainability, environmental protection, and indigenous rights. However, both proposals lost their progressiveness and lacked ambition and actual help for developing countries outside of the profit-making fetishism of the EU. If the upward trend of populism persists on both the left and right, EU politics and legislation may increasingly adopt populist and voter-driven approaches, potentially jeopardizing the democratic and compromise-oriented decision-making process within the EU. This heightened polarization between parties could further contribute to a climate of bashing and hinder cooperative efforts.

Remarkably, identity politics not only permeates the populist rhetoric of EU party politics but also extends to the selection of candidates for upcoming elections. If identity politics continues to embed itself deeply within the strategic political framework of EU parties, the shift towards prioritizing short-term voter turnout and popularity contests over substantive and long-term democratic considerations seems inevitable. This trend risks undermining EU values by leveraging EU legislation for immediate political gains rather than establishing enduring goals for the European Community. It is imperative to educate voters about this form of political manipulation that compromises EU values for short-term advantages. No political gain should supersede long-term EU objectives, as such a scenario would entail the erosion of EU values and identity.



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

Please cite as:
Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 25, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0048       

This brief report offers a summary of the sixth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore” which took place online on October 26, 2023. Professor Garry Rodan moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished populism scholars.

Report by Andrea Guidotti

This report provides an overview of the sixth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore” held online on October 26, 2023. Moderated by Dr. Garry Rodan, Honorary Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland) the panel featured speakers Dr. Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Professor of Political Science, University Sains Malaysia, 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, Dr. Kenneth Paul TanProfessor of Politics, Film, and Cultural Studies, School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University and Dr. Shanon ShahVisiting Research Fellow at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London.

In his opening remarks, Professor Gary Rodan examined the interplay between authoritarianism and populism in the contexts of Malaysia and Singapore. Dr. Rodan argued that, generally, the origins of authoritarianism can be linked to colonization. He noted that, despite brief periods of vigorous contestation in the early stages of independence, these two countries diverged in their trajectories toward authoritarianism. In contrast, he highlighted the limited exploration of populism in these countries in the existing literature.

Professor Rodan underscores a significant observation that an examination of the literature on the correlation between authoritarianism and contemporary manifestations of populism in Malaysia and Singapore suggests distinct characteristics and rationales for the effectiveness of authoritarianism. In the early stages of independence in Malaysia, Professor Rodan notes that the political agenda of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which later emerged as the predominant ruling coalition, necessitated the development of a political project fostered by an ethnic Malay bourgeoisie and guided by ethnic Malay bureaucrats.

In contrast, as Professor Rodan points out, Singapore witnessed a scenario where a cadre of technocratic political bureaucrats had to contend more strenuously for power, relying on an ideology of elitism centered around meritocracy as the primary justification for the legitimacy of their ruling coalition. Nevertheless, despite these distinctions, both cases experienced challenges stemming from capitalist development over time. Notably, the state capitalist models in the two countries were accompanied by a surge in material and social inequalities.

Continuing with the Malaysian case again, Professor Rodan notes that pervasive corruption has frequently exacerbated cleavages, whether related to or separate from social class. The persistent challenges faced by the ruling coalition over several decades have led to the emergence of new coalitions attempting to contest the dominance of the UMNO within the formal political sphere. However, these challenges have arisen from groups advocating for either democratic reforms or from proponents of the authoritarian political regime rooted in the political supremacy of Malays, with Islamic religious nationalism as its foundation.

Professor Rodan emphasizes that in 2018, amidst escalating political polarization, Malaysia witnessed its first change in the ruling coalition since gaining independence in 1957. The newly formed coalition that assumed governance included the Pakatan Harapan Alliance of Hope and the United Malaysian Indigenous Party. However, this coalition proved short-lived and was subsequently replaced in 2022 by a collaboration between Pakatan Harapan and UMNO, with Anwar Ibrahim serving as prime minister. Despite the involvement of some democratic forces in coalitions, these entities were grappling elements, either striving to protect themselves from democratic forces or to shield themselves from those claiming to be champions of Islam. In essence, there is an intense power struggle over the boundaries of permissible political conflict, favoring a reassertion of authoritarianism in Malaysia’s political landscape.

In Singapore, Professor Rodan notes a recurring shift against the ideology of meritocracy promoted by the People’s Action Party (PAP), particularly by individuals who perceive themselves as having been excluded from the purported economic miracle. The political legitimacy of the PAP faces challenges stemming from conflicts that the party has not entirely addressed, despite some redistributive policies. This differs from the less sophisticated approach observed in Malaysia, highlighting the continuously evolving model in Singapore characterized as a new state-controlled form of participation known as consultative authoritarianism.

In summary, Professor Rodan contends that while Malaysia and Singapore represent different types of regimes, they are both encountering comparable pressures. The central inquiry of the panel revolves around whether, and to what extent, the contemporary nature and trajectory of authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore are influenced by populism. Drawing on insights from Anne Munro-Kua’s 1996 book, Authoritarian Populism in Malaysia, Professor Rodan suggests that the political economy of Malaysia since the 1970s has cultivated a communal foundation for political populism, intricately tied to the specific capitalist model.

Dr. Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid: “Political Islam and Islamist Populism in Malaysia: Implications for Nation-Building”

“Contrary to historical patterns, extremism in Malaysia has historically exhibited a high degree of acceptance for pluralism, and instances of violence are rare. Despite notable support for ISIS among Malay Muslims, the country demonstrates low cases of terrorism or violent extremism. Malaysia, being a multiethnic and multireligious nation, enjoys considerable political stability. The data suggests that extremism in Malaysia is primarily attitudinal, with non-violent extremism representing a vocal stance disavowing violence as a matter of principle.”

In his presentation as the first panelist, Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid shifted the focus towards NGO-based populism rather than party politics. Additionally, he sought to establish a close connection between populism and extremism, delving into the concepts of nativism and Islamism, both crucial factors in either jeopardizing or fostering populism in Malaysia.

The initial part of his presentation was dedicated to a conceptual analysis of certain terms. In the context of Islamist populism, Professor Abdul Hamid clarified that it involves a politically arbitrary interpretation of Islam rather than a direct reference to Islam itself. Populism, in this context, signifies the exploitation of the popular sentiments primarily among indigenous Muslims. As for the concept of Islamism, it can be defined as a political ideology advocating for the establishment of a juridical Islamic state governed by Shariah, aiming for practicing Muslims to realize the ideals of Islam as a comprehensive way of life.

In connection to this, extremism, as explained by Professor Abdul Hamid, views politics from a supremacist perspective, delineating boundaries between in-group and out-group categories, often based on race and religion but not exclusively so. Extremism is also considered as an anthropological concept, presupposing the existence of a silent enemy opposed to the dominant or hegemonic force.

In this context, according to Professor Abdul Hamid, Malaysia presents an anomaly due to its history of peaceful Islamic propagation influenced by Sufism. Contrary to historical patterns, extremism in Malaysia has historically exhibited a high degree of acceptance for pluralism, and instances of violence are rare. Despite notable support for ISIS among Malay Muslims, the country demonstrates low cases of terrorism or violent extremism. Malaysia, being a multiethnic and multireligious nation, enjoys considerable political stability. The data suggests that extremism in Malaysia is primarily attitudinal, with non-violent extremism representing a vocal stance disavowing violence as a matter of principle. However, it is crucial to recognize that non-violent extremism poses risks, as it may lead to violence and potentially encourage others to engage in violent forms of extremism.

Viewed from this perspective, there is little distinction between populism and non-violent extremism; the differentiating factor in the Malaysian context is nativism, which upholds the concept of Malay supremacy. Nativist responses in Malaysia have arisen to safeguard Malay identity against perceived threats stemming from globalization and collaboration with non-Malay populations.

Preceding independence, Malay nationalists considered their rights as derived from an implied social contract, recognizing Malays as the original inhabitants in exchange for extending citizenship to non-Malays. This notion is reinforced by constitutional provisions acknowledging Malay indigeneity, as evident in the designation of Islam as the religion of the federation in article 3.1. of the constitution.

The disentanglement of the UMNO as the guardian of Malay interests has challenged this conception. Consequently, Islamist conservative groups have gained prominence, offering populist interpretations of Islamist politics with right-wing extremist elements. This trend commenced in 2008 when UMNO weakened and lost its two-thirds majority. Another surge occurred in 2016 following the election of Donald Trump in the US and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, leading to the emergence of the Islamic group ISMA.

While ISMA explicitly disavows violence, its extremely assertive public discourse has the potential to incite violence among discontented elements of Malay-Muslim society. This risk arises for two reasons: it blurs the line between violent and non-violent extremism, and its asymmetrical stance on special privileges and non-Muslim citizenship rights is rooted in an extreme interpretation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the powerful penetration of ISMA’s discourse into general Muslim society, it has not translated into significant actions. Regarding the medium and methods of ISMA’s discourse, noteworthy is the production of the film “Mat Kilau,” the highest-grossing film of all time in Malaysia. The film was produced by Studio Kembara, whose director, Abdul Rahman Mat Dali, was a former Vice President of ISMA.

In conclusion, Professor Abdul Hamid suggests a disciplinary bias in asserting that extremism or populism is inherently nonviolent. When addressing the challenge of populism, Muslim countries should prioritize local indigenous resources, categories, themes, strategies, strengths, and narratives. The foundation must be indigenously developed, not globally imposed, human rights. The shortcoming lies in the inability to redefine the terms of this discourse in concepts that hold more significance for Muslims residing in the Islamic world.

Dr. Syaza Farhana Mohamad Shukri: “Islamist Civilizationism in Malaysia”

Professor Shukri highlighted several key points during her presentation: ethnonationalism surged after the race riots of 1969 in Malaysia; Mahathir Muhammed’s ambition to become a Muslim world leader set the stage for Islamist civilizational populism; domestic issues contributed to the rise of Islamist populist politicians in the country; in our globally connected world, these Islamist populist politicians utilize civilizational discourse to position Malaysia within the larger Ummah, all while targeting a primarily domestic audience.

The second panelist, Professor Syaza Shukri, centered his discussion on the Islamic civilization in Malaysia, specifically examining the evolution of Islamist civilizational populism. Theoretically, the country’s majority population is legally obligated to be Muslim, so discussions about (native) Malays implicitly involve Islam. Dr. Shukri’s key argument is that developments since the 1960s have paved the way for Malaysian political leaders to adopt a discourse on civilization as a populist strategy in the twenty-first century. In this context, the Malaysian discourse on civilization to the Malay people functions as part of a broader and sacred framework of Islamic civilization and ethno-nationalist populism.

To clarify her argument, Dr. Shukri provided a historical overview. In the past decade, this ethno-nationalist populism has evolved into Islamic civilization populism. This shift means that, rather than solely focusing on defining Malays by their majority, the emphasis is now on Malays as Muslims. The Islamist populists have situated the Islamic identity of Malays within the broader civilization narrative of the Islamic Ummah. This populist narrative designates Malaysia’s majority Malay population as the ‘true people,’ while the Chinese are labeled as the ‘others.’ Following the populist narrative, which pits elites against the people, the Chinese, due to their perceived economic and ethnic dominance, are viewed as the dominant elite against whom Muslim Malays are in opposition.

An important observation pertains to the deliberate use of emotions to evoke fear and resentment, particularly directed towards Chinese economic dominance, said Dr. Shukri. According to her, these populists employ religion to define Islam within the framework of their civilizational rhetoric. They have successfully united Malays against a perceived threat, leveraging the unifying appeal of Islamic civilization. In essence, Islam has been co-opted into a cultural identity.

It is crucial to remember, said Dr. Shukri, that the peninsula and even the Borneo region have been multicultural since at least 500 AD. However, due to their ancestors arriving on the peninsula around 3000 years ago, Malays are considered the original inhabitants of the region. During British colonization, the harmonious relationships among major ethnic groups eroded. When Chinese elites sought entry into the civil service, the British declined. Consequently, special rights were granted to the Malay indigenous population, ensuring, under Article 3 of the Constitution, Islam as the Federation’s religion.

Another pivotal development occurred during the 1969 racial riots, leading to subsequent policies such as the Economic Policy and the National Culture Policy. These policies mandated non-Malays, including Chinese individuals, to assimilate into Malay culture and adopt Malay customs.

The significant cultural and religious renaissance among Malays took place during Mahathir Mohamad’s administration in the 1980s. According to the presentation of Dr. Shukri, his objective was to cultivate employees and leaders across various industries who adhered to value-based duties in accordance with Islam. The institutionalization of Islam in the 1980s strengthened the Islamic identity, laying the groundwork for the subsequent flourishing of Islamic civilization populism in recent years. According to Dr. Shukri, without the rise of Islamization, there wouldn’t have been an audience for such populist grievances. Global challenges such as 9/11 and the war on (religious) terrorism have also played a role in shaping this civilization narrative. Social media, being a significant factor, amplifies beliefs that are at times perceived as persecuted by the actions of Westerners.

In addition to these major events, Dr. Shukri underscored that one of the most significant purported crises facing Malay-Muslims in Malaysia is the rise of Malay political opposition, specifically the Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS). Since 1999, when Anwar Ibrahim launched the reform movement, Malaysia’s opposition has steadily gained support and strength. In 2008, the ruling Barisan National Party failed to secure a two-thirds majority, and in 2013, it did not secure the popular vote, which was instead won by the PAS opposition.

An historic change occurred in 2018 when a segment of the government led by the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party raised the secular Malaysian narrative and ideology. Exploiting this development to its advantage, the Pakatan Harapan used it to assert that Malay Muslims were under attack, aligning with the Islamic civilization populist narrative.

Analyzing other prominent political figures, following Cas Mudde’s description, Abdul Hadi Awang (leader of PAS) can be characterized as a typical populist. He has proclaimed that it is forbidden to be aligned with enemies of the religion and the Ummah. Additionally, he has made robust statements against Ukraine’s actions in the Donbass region, drawing parallels to Israel’s ‘genocidal’ policy against Palestinians. Hadi Awang has also criticized Western nations for not aiding Turkey after the 2023 earthquake, accusing them of neglecting to offer assistance to a Muslim country in need.

Another noteworthy example is Muhyiddin Yassin, former president in 2020 and 2021, who asserted that Christians and Jews sought to convert Malaysia into a Christian nation for the purpose of gaining votes. He also accused some orientalist scholars of Islamophobia.

In conclusion, Professor Shukri highlighted several key points: ethnonationalism surged after the race riots of 1969 in Malaysia; Mahathir Muhammed’s ambition to become a Muslim world leader set the stage for Islamist civilizational populism; domestic issues contributed to the rise of Islamist populist politicians in the country; in our globally connected world, these Islamist populist politicians utilize civilizational discourse to position Malaysia within the larger Ummah, all while targeting a primarily domestic audience.

Dr. Kenneth Paul Tan: “Authoritarian Populism in Singapore”

Professor Tan argues that to build a mass support base, the PAP leaders might instigate moral panic, outrage, and become primary purveyors of conspiracy theories against the elite and minority communities. In an environment that has consistently lacked transparency and access to information, coupled with online falsehood laws, there is a risk of heightening the credibility of censored information. The authoritarian technocrats in power may be much less restrained in resorting to moral panic as a diversion from their weaknesses and mistakes. 

Professor Kenneth Paul Tan delivered a speech on the panel discussing authoritarianism and populist trends in Singapore. Dr. Tan highlighted that the Singapore state has garnered an international reputation for political stability, social cohesion, economic prosperity, and international correctness. It consistently ranks among the top nations globally and serves as a source of admiration and emulation by others. The success is often attributed to pro-business and globally oriented policies.

The People’s Action Party, which has been in power for an extended period, operates within a one-party-dominant state, securing an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats in regularly held general elections, providing the incumbent with significant systematic advantages. However, Dr. Tan emphasized that political legitimacy in Singapore is primarily contingent on the state’s ability to meet the citizens’ basic physiological and security needs at an exceptionally high level of satisfaction.

Since the 1990s, some of the most pointed liberal criticisms of Singapore’s approach to democracy, freedoms, and human rights have been gradually overshadowed by a neoliberal celebration of the Singapore governance model. The PAP government takes pride in its ability to pursue policies it deems necessary for Singapore’s long-term interests, even if they are unpopular. The term “populist” is used contemptuously by the PAP and its supporters to accuse critics and opponents of engaging in political posturing that irresponsibly caters to the demands of ordinary people, often characterized as selfish, ignorant, and shortsighted.

Dr. Tan argues that in Singapore, populism remains primarily a derisive term in party political rhetoric, routinely wielded against the ruling party’s opponents, regardless of the merits of their arguments. However, this characterization has become somewhat self-fulfilling. The highly uncompetitive nature of general elections and the growing perception among ordinary Singaporeans regarding the quality of life and personal prospects have created conditions conducive to the emergence and spread of authoritarian populism, with early signs already apparent.

Singapore has a population of about 5.9 million, with only 3.6 million being full citizens. As a postcolonial, multi-ethnic nation-state and a cosmopolitan global city, Singapore presents itself globally as a city of opportunity, but domestically, it portrays itself as a vulnerable nation with significant deficiencies that necessitate opening itself to the world for access to crucial resources and opportunities. This narrative of perpetual anxiety naturally contributes to propagandistic justifications for why the PAP must continue to lead and do so with substantial power.

Dr. Tan states that migration stands as a crucial issue in Singapore, with immigration policies and the presence of foreigners occupying a central place in the public imagination. In essence, an expanding pool of migrant workers exerts downward pressure on the wages of the poorest Singaporeans, while the increasing presence of foreign talent and the super-rich elevates the salaries of top earners. Consequently, this widens the income gap, resulting in Singapore’s Gini index being significantly higher than the OECD average. As the gap widens, there is a growing expectation that social mobility will be reduced in an increasingly dysfunctional meritocracy.

Dr. Tan said Singapore has evolved into one of the most expensive cities globally, with median wages experiencing sluggish growth over the past few decades. This has led ordinary Singaporeans to consistently express concerns about the rising cost of living. Despite being one of the wealthiest cities, visible signs of both relative and absolute poverty persist, yet there are no official poverty line calculations or a strong endorsement for a minimum wage policy.

While Singapore has transformed into a luxurious playground for the affluent, ordinary citizens often perceive a decline in their overall quality of life. Even foreigners have noted the stressful work environment in Singapore, with reports ranking Singaporeans among the top globally for the longest working hours and shortest hours of sleep. Struggling with high stress levels and constant exhaustion, many Singaporeans express deep concerns about their mental health. Presently, these are often cited as reasons by younger Singaporeans for hesitating to start families and have children, contributing to one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Consequently, Singapore turns to immigration as a swift solution to address and sustain a critical mass of labor and talent.

To Dr. Tan, two developments associated with authoritarian populism are evident. Firstly, xenophobic sentiments are triggering latent feelings of racism that have been suppressed by decades of multi-racial conditioning. Emotionally compelling nativist arguments, particularly those directed against the PAP’s immigration policies, can easily find fertile ground for germination. Secondly, even in a traditionally high-trust society like Singapore, there are clear signs of incredulity and resentment towards the elite, or more broadly, the establishment, who seem entitled, self-serving, heartless, and arrogant. In general, ordinary Singaporeans are confronted with a stark view of how the wealthy and powerful live. While Lee Kuan Yew and his leadership were careful to cultivate an image of austerity in the early decades of independence, today’s highly paid political elite find it challenging to conceal the opulence of their lifestyles. Their elitist attitudes are often exposed by numerous pro-PAP individuals that barely escape the scrutiny and publicity of social media.

To conclude his talk, Professor Tan presented some speculations. As today’s elite circles become increasingly closed and protected, one can anticipate institutional decay along with cultural and intellectual exhaustion. Public skepticism has been openly expressed about the competence and moral authority of the next generation of PAP leaders emerging from this decadent elite. The emergence of demagogues, fueled by growing intra-elite rivalries, can be expected. These figures may channel popular energies and frustrations against the traditional establishment and the plural society. To build a mass support base, they might instigate moral panic, outrage, and become primary purveyors of conspiracy theories against the elite and minority communities. In an environment that has consistently lacked transparency and access to information, coupled with online falsehood laws, there is a risk of heightening the credibility of censored information.

Finally, the authoritarian technocrats in power may be much less restrained in resorting to moral panic as a diversion from their weaknesses and mistakes. This not only is expected to increase in frequency but will also be much harder to conceal and deny.

Dr. Shanon Shah: “Populism, Religion, and Anti-LGBTQ+ Attitudes in Malaysia”

Dr. Shah also emphasized the utility of spatial metaphors in distinguishing populism from nationalism. These metaphors are helpful in identifying arguments that manifest in the constructions of opponents or enemies during Malaysia’s current political transition. According to populist conceptions, the construction of in-group out-group relationships is vertical (elite vs. underdog), while in nationalistic conceptions, the relationship is horizontal (pure vs. polluting). Both of these elements contribute to competing narratives of Malaysian nationhood.

The final panelist of the session, Dr. Shanon Shah, sought to apply insights from studies of populism to gain a better understanding of the process of Malaysian Islamization. He referred to the concept of populism as a moral politics, centered around controversies and issues of high significance from a religious or moral perspective, often closely tied to hotly contested elections. This concept was invoked in the context of Pakatan’s Malaysian electoral campaign in 2018, characterized as “savior politics,” framing the elections as a critical moment (elections were framed as a “do or die / now or never”) to save Malaysia from corruption and degeneration.

Dr. Shah also emphasized the utility of spatial metaphors in distinguishing populism from nationalism. These metaphors are helpful in identifying arguments that manifest in the constructions of opponents or enemies during Malaysia’s current political transition. According to populist conceptions, the construction of in-group out-group relationships is vertical (elite vs. underdog), while in nationalistic conceptions, the relationship is horizontal (pure vs. polluting). Both of these elements contribute to competing narratives of Malaysian nationhood.

In the political transition between the 2018 and 2022 elections, a significant number of previously suppressed contenders began articulating their goals based on democratic reforms, achieving success at the ballot box. Following the 2018 elections, the Harapan government faced criticism from nationalist opponents, particularly from AMNO, accusing it of being pro-LGBTQ. This criticism could be seen both as a vertical argument against nationalist adversaries and as a horizontal argument against other parties accused of exceeding their government boundaries.

The Pakatan Harapan government found itself on the defensive when attempting to assert its political administration of Islam, particularly using LGBTQ issues as a testing ground. In 2022, the dynamics shifted as the first shot fired was a personal attack against Anwar Ibrahim, alleging a sexual past. The intent was precisely to portray the prime minister as a proxy of foreign agents.

Dr. Shah extensively discussed the term “Islamization,” acknowledging its lack of clarity. However, when viewed through the lens of populism, it becomes a tool to reveal and highlight ongoing developments in Malaysian society. Zainah Anwar’s paper, co-founder and executive director of the Islamic feminist group Sister in Islam, questions the current state of affairs after years of Islamization. While assuming the existence of Islamization as an ongoing process for decades, her argument suggests that it has detrimentally impacted Malaysian politics, facilitated and endorsed by the political establishment. This perspective can be characterized as the ‘getting worse thesis,’ representing a vertical argument.

On the other hand, anthropologist Michael Peters presents a second narrative, examining long-term trends and noting significant improvements in the delivery of Muslim women’s rights, particularly under Islamic family law. Peters attributes these improvements to both vertical forces (the administration of Sharia courts) and horizontal forces, crediting the long-term activism of groups like ‘Sisters in Islam,’ which he believes has a positive impact on Muslim women. This perspective can be labeled as the ‘getting a bit better thesis.’

The third narrative remains an open question, labeled as the ‘Pandora’s box thesis.’ It explores the potential direction of far-right politics in Malaysian political life, especially with the influential role of social media. Given the familiarity with cyber troopers and trolls, the question arises about how new motifs from far-right hyper-nationalist movements will influence the country’s political landscape and social norms.

The recent political transition in Malaysia has resulted in the Malay population introducing public discourse on issues such as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, rhetoric portraying Chinese individuals as natural outsiders in the country and attempts within the Indian narrative to reinterpret certain aspects of Malaysian history. This phenomenon is genuinely horizontal in nature. The central question remains whether populist politics have influenced the public debate, considering that Islamization has traditionally been assumed to correlate with an anti-LGBTQ stance in the country. Dr. Shah concluded the presentation with a speculative and open question: Are LGBTQ controversies emerging as new rituals of confrontation in the ongoing Malaysian political transition? 

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

Competing Populisms, Digital Technologies and the 2024 Elections in Indonesia


Please cite as:

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



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

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


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

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

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

The Presidential Candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competing Populisms in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populism, Emotions and Digital Technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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


Please cite as:

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



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

By Hasnan Bachtiar


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Ganjar Pranowo?

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

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

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

Ganjar’s Chance in 2024 Presidential Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ganjar and Identity Politics 

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

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

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

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

Ganjar and Islamist Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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