A rally on the main square of Bishkek. Photo:  Omurali Toichiev.

Tracing the Pathways of Autocracy and Authoritarianism across Central Asia

Valev, Radoslav. (2024). “Tracing the Pathways of Autocracy and Authoritarianism across Central Asia.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 10, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0058

 

The fourteenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Tracing the Pathways of Autocracy and Authoritarianism Across Central Asia,” convened online on June 20, 2024. This event delved into the evolving autocratic political landscape of Central Asian countries. Moderated by Dr. David Lewis, a respected professor of Politics at the University of Exeter, the panel featured insightful presentations that dissected various aspects of autocracy and authoritarianism from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Report by Radoslav Valev

In a comprehensive examination of Central Asia’s political landscape, the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) hosted the fourteenth and final event of its academic year in the monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series. Titled “Tracing the Pathways of Autocracy and Authoritarianism Across Central Asia,” this online event convened on June 20, 2024, bringing together a distinguished panel of scholars to discuss the region’s evolving dynamics. Moderated by Dr. David Lewis, a respected professor of Politics at the University of Exeter, the panel featured insightful presentations that dissected various aspects of autocracy and authoritarianism from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Dr. Lewis set the stage by reflecting on the evolving discourse around authoritarianism and democracy in Central Asia. He noted the increasing complexity of political systems influenced by populism and regional dynamics, underscoring the shift in international engagement shaped by geopolitical factors rather than clear democratic promotion strategies. Dr. Lewis emphasized the importance of understanding the nuanced aspects of authoritarian regimes, including informal economics, clan politics, and power struggles, beyond mere repression.

The subsequent presentations offered deep dives into specific manifestations of autocracy in the region. Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova, a Postdoctoral Researcher at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, analyzed Sadyr Japarov’s rise to power in Kyrgyzstan, attributing his sustained popularity to his portrayal as a “man of the people” and his strategic adaptation to different cultural contexts despite authoritarian measures. Dr. Dinissa Duvanova, Associate Professor at Lehigh University, examined Kazakhstan’s shift towards populism under President Tokayev, arguing that it is a strategic adaptation to maintain autocratic rule by balancing elite interests with popular demands. Oguljamal Yazliyeva, a Ph.D. researcher at Charles University, explored how Turkmenistan’s autocratic system, influenced by Soviet legacy and tribal traditions, cultivates a personality cult around its leaders through controlled media and traditional respect for authority.

Although one of the speakers, Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergen(ova), could not join due to connectivity issues, the panel provided a rich exploration of Central Asian political systems. Dr. Lewis concluded by highlighting the value of this nuanced approach to understanding governance in the region, moving beyond simplistic binaries of democracy and autocracy, and expressed enthusiasm for the ongoing research in this complex field.

Moving Beyond Simplistic Binaries of Democracy and Autocracy 

Dr. David Lewis, the moderator of the panel, gave an overview of the context of the topic of the panel. He began by reflecting on the evolution of discourse surrounding authoritarianism, democracy, and liberal values in Central Asia over the past two decades. Initially, in the early 21st century, liberal democracy was seen as the dominant global paradigm, but this has been increasingly challenged. The rise of populism in Western democracies and a more nuanced understanding of political systems in regions like Central Asia have contributed to a more complex view of authoritarianism and democracy.

Dr. Lewis noted that populism, once associated with revolutionary movements, is now also prevalent in regime politics and authoritarian systems. He highlighted the shift in international engagement with Central Asia, often driven by geopolitical factors rather than a clear strategy for promoting democracy. Dr. Lewis emphasized the importance of understanding the complexities of authoritarian regimes beyond simple repression. This includes examining informal economics, clan politics, regional dynamics, and power struggles that persist even in non-democratic systems.

He remarked that the new generation of political scientists in Central Asia is providing more nuanced insights into these political systems, contributing to a more complex body of literature on the topic. Dr. Lewis concluded by expressing enthusiasm for the panel’s focus on this subject, seeing it as an opportunity to explore the latest research on Central Asian political systems. He emphasized the value of this more intricate approach to understanding governance in the region, moving beyond simplistic binaries of democracy and autocracy.

Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova: “Clean Politics: Kyrgyzstan between Informal Governance and Democracy”

Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova discussed Sadyr Japarov’s rise to power in Kyrgyzstan following the October 2020 revolution. She began by arguing that despite implementing authoritarian measures, Japarov has maintained popularity by portraying himself as a “man of the people” and leveraging his personal history of suffering and injustice. Japarov has demonstrated a talent for speaking the language of local people and using simple language that resonates with them. Dr. Ismailbekova argued that Japarov’s success lies in his ability to wear “several hats” simultaneously. He presents himself as a simple man, a Native Son, while proposing authoritarian power.

The presentation by Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova discussed Sadyr Japarov’s rise to power in Kyrgyzstan following the October 2020 revolution. She began by arguing that despite implementing authoritarian measures, Japarov has maintained popularity by portraying himself as a “man of the people” and leveraging his personal history of suffering and injustice. Kyrgyzstan has experienced three revolutions in recent history (2005, 2010, and 2020), driven by public dissatisfaction with government corruption, fraudulent elections, and mismanagement. The 2020 revolution, sparked by the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, led to the overthrow of President Jeenbekov and the rise of Japarov to power.

According to Dr. Ismailbekova, Japarov, who was released from prison during the 2020 protests, quickly seized the opportunity to become acting president and prime minister. He criticized previous leaders for corruption and mismanagement while promising justice. However, he soon began consolidating power by amending the constitution to increase presidential authority, restricting media freedom, and taking control of the judiciary and foreign policy. Dr. Ismailbekova attributed this to Japarov’s ability to mobilize mass support by playing on emotions and using strategies of kinship. His personal suffering and tragic life story have become key elements in his political narrative, allowing many Kyrgyz citizens to identify with him.

Japarov’s biography plays a crucial role in his political appeal. In 2013, he organized protests to nationalize a gold company, leading to criminal charges and forcing him into exile. He often refers to this experience, claiming to understand the hardships faced by millions of Kyrgyz migrants, primarily in Russia. Dr. Ismailbekova emphasized how Japarov has become an “embodiment of injustice” in Kyrgyzstan. His attempted suicide in prison, which he claimed was a protest against the corrupt court system, resonated with many citizens. Furthermore, Japarov’s personal tragedies, such as losing his son and parents while in prison, have garnered sympathy and support from the public.

Dr. Ismailbekova underscored that Japarov’s suffering has been translated into political capital. He is perceived as more relatable than other candidates, someone who has experienced the injustices of the system firsthand. This narrative of suffering has been cultivated as a necessary virtue for being a good president. Dr. Ismailbekova noted that Japarov has positioned himself as the “hope of the nation” in a failed democracy. This narrative has been well-received by many of his constituents.

Interestingly, since Japarov became president, historians have begun searching for his ancestors to legitimize his right to lead Kyrgyzstan. Some claim that Japarov is a direct descendant of the Khans (a title historically given to rulers and military leaders in Central Asia), suggesting that the search for justice is “in his blood.” Dr. Ismailbekova highlighted how Japarov adapts his image to different situations. For example, when visiting southern Kyrgyzstan, he wore the hat of Iskhak Razzakov, the first Secretary of the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan, appealing to villagers and relatives by claiming to continue Razzakov’s mission.

Japarov has demonstrated a talent for speaking the language of local people and using simple language that resonates with them. Dr. Ismailbekova argued that Japarov’s success lies in his ability to wear “several hats” simultaneously. He presents himself as a simple man, a Native Son, while proposing authoritarian power. 

The international media has taken notice of Japarov’s rise to power, with many articles focusing on his journey “from prison to presidency.” This narrative reinforces his image as someone who has overcome adversity. 

In conclusion, Dr. Ismailbekova suggested that the popularity of Japarov stems from citizens’ identification with his tragic life story and his ability to tap into the emotional experiences of the Kyrgyz people. Japarov’s political strategy involves constantly referring to his personal history, particularly during elections. Dr. Ismailbekova concluded that Japarov’s approach has maintained his popularity. His ability to understand cultural nuances and to present himself as one of the people have been key to his success. 

Dr. Dinissa Duvanova: “Autocracy’s Past and Present in Kazakhstan”

Dr. Dinissa Duvanova argued that the seeming populist pivot in Kazakhstan is better understood as a strategic adaptation within a stable autocratic framework. The balance between elite interests and popular demands, mediated through regulatory constraints and economic management, continues to define the country’s political landscape. The increase in state capacity and regulatory oversight, influenced by economic conditions, highlights the nuanced strategies employed by the regime to maintain its authority.

Dr. Dinissa Duvanova began her presentation by stating that in Kazakhstan, the link between the autocratic nature of its political regime and populism appears tenuous compared to other cases. After the January 2022 protests, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev addressed the joint session of the Senate and Mazhilis (The Lower House of the Parliament in Kazakhstan) via a Zoom call. In his speech on January 11, 2022, he criticized powerful elites and profitable companies in Kazakhstan, suggesting it was time they paid their dues to the people. Tokayev proposed establishing a National Fund to collect these debts and redistribute them to the population. Dr. Duvanova suggested that this can be seen as a potential shift towards a populist style of governance, though it may also reflect a continuation of established strategies to maintain autocratic stability.

Following the protests, Tokayev initiated a crackdown on elite leaders behind the unrest, leading to the imprisonment and asset seizure of key figures. However, the extent of asset seizures varied significantly; for instance, only a small fraction of the estimated wealth of members of former President Nazarbayev’s family was confiscated. This indicates that while there was a response to popular demands, it may not represent a deep-rooted commitment to populism but rather a tactical move within a broader autocratic framework.

Dr. Duvanova added that in her research, detailed in her book “Thieves, Opportunists, and Autocrats,” she argued that what appears as a populist pivot in Kazakhstan is actually another iteration of maintaining stable autocratic power perfected during Nazarbayev’s era. This involves strengthening and institutionalizing authoritarian state mechanisms, balancing elite interests with those of the masses. This balance is crucial for autocrats to sustain their rule, ensuring both elite support and popular acquiescence.

Moreover, Dr. Duvanova argued that one way to think about state-building by autocrats is the need to balance the particularistic demands of elites with the promotion of collective goods. Neglecting the latter can lead to economic decline, intensifying competition for rents and destabilizing the regime. Therefore, autocrats must invest in economic performance, benefiting the national economy and, by extension, the populace.

A notable quote from Tokayev’s January 11, 2024 speech highlights this balancing act: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.” This saying, originally attributed to Latin American politician Oscar Benavides, encapsulates the Kazakh autocracy’s approach to governance, rewarding loyal elites while maintaining a facade of legal accountability for others.

The concept of a regulatory authoritarian state, which Dr. Duvanova explored in her research, involves the systematic construction of formal regulatory constraints on state agencies. These constraints ensure more predictable and accountable bureaucratic behavior. Data from Kazakhstan show a significant increase in formal regulatory constraints since the mid-2000s, driven primarily by ministerial orders rather than legislative statutes. This regulatory expansion corresponds with fluctuations in oil revenues, with more stringent regulations emerging during times of declining oil rents and vice versa.

Popular protests, such as those in January 2022, often prompt autocrats to streamline state institutions to improve responsiveness and effectiveness. Additionally, declining resources necessitate a focus on enhancing economic performance to maintain regime stability. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, leading to rising oil prices, provided Kazakhstan with increased resources, potentially alleviating some pressures to pursue populist policies aggressively.

Dr. Duvanova’s quantitative research demonstrates that in times of economic difficulty, characterized by declining state resources, there is an increase in regulatory oversight to curb bureaucratic opportunism. Overall, Kazakhstan has emerged as a high-capacity autocracy, evidenced by its regulatory quality and state capacity ratings. This increase in state capacity has occurred alongside systemic corruption and favoritism towards regime associates. Despite the heavy-handed use of regulations to manage economic activity, these regulations are often biased towards private interests.

The signs of liberalization under Tokayev can also be seen as the rise of digital authoritarianism, with increased digitalization of state services improving efficiency and state capacity. However, there is little evidence of reliance on transparency, public accountability, and oversight, as restrictions on press freedom and an independent judiciary persist.

In conclusion, Dr. Duvanova argued that the seeming populist pivot in Kazakhstan is better understood as a strategic adaptation within a stable autocratic framework. The balance between elite interests and popular demands, mediated through regulatory constraints and economic management, continues to define the country’s political landscape. The increase in state capacity and regulatory oversight, influenced by economic conditions, highlights the nuanced strategies employed by the regime to maintain its authority.

Oguljamal Yazliyeva: “Autocracy in Turkmenistan and the Role of Media in Cultivating Personality Cult”

Oguljamal Yazliyeva argued that Turkmenistan’s autocratic system is deeply entrenched, supported by a tightly controlled media apparatus that perpetuates a strong personality cult. The government’s use of historical tribal traditions recycled Soviet methods, and modern media techniques has created a robust system of authoritarian control. While this system appears stable, the lack of alternative media and independent information sources poses significant challenges for potential democratic development in the country.

Oguljamal Yazliyeva began her presentation by stating that Turkmenistan’s autocratic system and the role of media in cultivating a personality cult is a complex topic that intertwines historical, political, and cultural elements. The country, one of the five Central Asian republics, gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, it has developed into one of the most isolated nations in the region, with a political system characterized by authoritarianism and a strong personality cult surrounding its leaders.

Yazliyeva argued that the foundations of Turkmenistan’s current political culture can be traced back to two main sources: the recycling of the Soviet system and the historical tribal traditions of the Turkmen people. The first president of independent Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, promised to develop the country towards democracy but emphasized that it would be a step-by-step process. In reality, this approach led to the state maintaining control over every aspect of life, including the media system.

The Turkmen government has utilized various strategies to legitimize its power and consolidate its authoritarian rule. One such method is the use of national symbols, such as the five patterns on the Turkmen flag representing the country’s five provinces. This symbolism serves to connect the current political system with the tribal history of the Turkmen people.

Yazliyeva also importantly noted that the media plays a crucial role in strengthening and consolidating the authoritarian regime in Turkmenistan. All media channels, including television, radio, print media, and the internet, are under strict state control. The constitution of Turkmenistan nominally guarantees freedom of speech and prohibits censorship, but in practice, the government exercises complete control over all media outlets.

Television remains a significant platform for the government to disseminate information about its policies. A survey conducted by Yazliyeva among Turkmen people revealed that more than 25% of media consumption is through television. Interestingly, over 50% of respondents prefer Russian-language media, which the government also uses to spread its message.

The Turkmen government employs the media to create a cult of personality around its leaders. This is particularly evident in the use of specific epithets and phrases to glorify the president, such as “Father of the Nation, be healthy.” In news broadcasts, these glorifying phrases are repeated multiple times, even in short reports about mundane events like sports.

According to Yazliyeva, the media landscape in Turkmenistan is characterized by repression, propaganda, and suppression. Academic literature on the subject is limited, but existing studies describe a system where all media channels are under state control. Even the single platform considered “private” was launched under government leadership and remains under strict official control.

Yazliyeva  added that the government uses media to consolidate its power through various means. One strategy involves broadcasting content that instills fear in the population. For example, television shows often depict the wrongdoings and subsequent imprisonment of individuals who deviate from government policy. Another tactic involves showcasing acts of extreme deference to the leader, such as hand-kissing or bowing, which are not traditional in Turkmen culture.

Yazliyeva underscored that the personality cult surrounding Turkmenistan’s leaders is a central feature of the country’s political culture. This phenomenon takes root in the historical tribal conditions, the legacy of Soviet communist control, and the idiosyncratic personality of the state leaders. The media consistently promotes the key role of the state leader in Turkmen society by glorifying them on various platforms.

Interestingly, Yazliyeva argued that the consolidation of this authoritarian regime is not solely the work of the political elite. Ordinary citizens also participate in and accept this system, partly due to traditional respect for patriarchal structures and tribal kinship. This acceptance makes it easier for the government to maintain its grip on power.

The development of Turkmenistan’s political system and media landscape since independence has resulted in a unique model of political culture. This model, based on authoritarianism and one-man rule, has played a significant role in building and maintaining the cult of personality around the country’s leaders, from the first president Saparmurat Niyazov to his son and current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.

In conclusion, Yazliyeva argued that Turkmenistan’s autocratic system is deeply entrenched, supported by a tightly controlled media apparatus that perpetuates a strong personality cult. The government’s use of historical tribal traditions recycled Soviet methods, and modern media techniques has created a robust system of authoritarian control. While this system appears stable, the lack of alternative media and independent information sources poses significant challenges for potential democratic development in the country. As such, the introduction of alternative media could be crucial in providing Turkmen citizens with diverse perspectives and information about their country and the world at large.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is showing victory sign with both hand to supporters at Bharatiya Janata Party office amid the results of the Indian General Elections 2024 in New Delhi, India on June 4 2024. Photo: PradeepGaurs.

The 2024 General Election and the Future of Authoritarian Populism in India 

The 2024 election was the least free and fair election in India’s history. Just days after India’s nationalist-populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed a government for the third time, Delhi’s BJP Lieutenant Governor, V.K. Saxena, proceeded to charge the writer Arundhati Roy, a fierce critic of Modi, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) 2019 for a speech she gave in 2010. The already draconian law was amended in 2019 to allow the government more extraordinary powers to designate individuals and organizations as terrorists without a formal judicial process. BJP leaders accused Roy of being a traitor backed by the Congress party. This strongly indicates that some version of authoritarian populism, with its attacks on dissent, undermining of institutions, and social polarization, will likely continue to shape governance under the new government.

By Priya Chacko* and Kanchan Panday** 

Introduction: India’s Unfree and Unfair 2024 Election 

India’s nationalist-populist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has formed government for the third time. The 2024 election was the least free and fair election in India’s history. For much of its history as an independent state, India has been an electoral democracy, defying the ‘Lipset hypothesis’ that democratic institutions and cultures usually only thrive in affluent societies. Barring a period of Emergency rule in the 1970s when elections were suspended, India has met the threshold for free and fair elections. Its voter turnout has typically been high at around 70%, and a complex electoral structure involving phased voting, a Model Code of Conduct (MCC), travelling electoral and security officials seek to reach all voters, and electronic voting has been put in place to prevent fraud. Since 2018, however, there has been a steep decline in the quality of India’s electoral democracy. The V-Dem Institute now regards India as an electoral autocracywithout sufficient freedoms and safeguards to ensure free and fair elections. 

The BJP went to the polls supported by a pro-government mainstream media and with vastly more resources than other parties. This was thanks to an opaque electoral financing system it introduced, which was belatedly declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in February. Opposition leaders allege the Modi government is misusing state agencies to target them on charges of money laundering and tax violations. Before the election, two prominent opposition Chief Ministers, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), were arrested on charges of corruption.

However, even though Modi is embarking upon a third term, and despite the lack of a level electoral playing field, his party has been denied a majority for the first time in a decade. To continue to govern, he must rely on two veteran regional leaders who are a part of the NDA, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) (JD) and Chandrababu Naidu of the Telegu Desam Party (TDP). 

In this article, we discuss India’s decade-long descent into authoritarian populism – following its praxis and its traces in the 2024 campaign discourse. We probe into the increasingly authoritarian character of India’s state under Modi, which includes the growing prevalence of Islamophobic rhetoric, the suffocation of dissent, the curbing of critical spaces, and the capture of institutions by the Sangh Parivar or Hindutva movement. We conclude with a discussion on the limits and the future of India’s authoritarian populism following the election results.

Decade of Authoritarian Populist Rule 

In the last decade, the Modi government has used nationalist-populist discourses and strategies to legitimise and facilitate increasingly authoritarian and exclusionary forms of governance. The government has promoted discourses and policies aimed at marginalising and stigmatising India’s Muslim population and propagating Hindu upper-caste social norms, exposing the most vulnerable groups, Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis, to vigilante violence. Its economic policies favoured the private sector and trickle-down economic growth, increasing economic inequality. It has enabled institutional disintermediation, concentrating power in the executive and eroding institutional independence and federalism. It grew increasingly intolerant of dissent, using laws against sedition, defamation and anti-terrorism as well as tax and corruption investigations to jail and intimidate journalists, activists and political opponents. India was always a flawed democracywith draconian laws applied particularly to restive regions with large numbers of minorities, inadequate public goods, overly centralised governance structures and a Hindu bias in its Constitution. However, the Modi government’s inherently authoritarian nationalist-populist politics of Hindutva has intensified these pre-existing illiberal and anti-democratic features of governance.

Hindutva is an organicist nationalism that draws on religious concepts from ancient texts from the Vedic era (1500-500 BCE) to construct India as a living organism. Hindutva ideologues like Deendayal Upadhyaya and M.S. Golwalkar conceptualised India as Virat Purusha (Cosmic Man) –  with a Hindu soul (chitti) and limbs that are analogous to the caste order of Brahmins (head), Kshatriyas (arms), Vaishyas (abdomen) and Shudras (legs). This organic national unity underpinned by the caste order is seen as threatened by religious, political, caste and class conflict. To create a unified Hindu nation and stigmatise dissent, Hindutva leaders have utilised populist political strategies to construct an aspirational Hindu people, privileging upper caste forms of Hinduism while encouraging caste pride to secure acceptance for an unequal status quo. These Hindu ‘people’ were pitted against ‘anti-national’ secular, liberal-left elite and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, who are characterised as dangerous and disloyal because they adhere to foreign religions and ideologies. In the past decade, so-called elites – opposition leaders, university students, activists, intellectuals, bureaucrats, independent journalists – were accused of being anti-national, corrupt and ‘appeasing’ Muslims who were posed as threats to the Hindu people in various ways. Modi fashioned himself as a representative of God with divine origins who embodied the common people and was sent to rescue the poor and restore India’s (Hindu) civilisational greatness.

Such discourses framed the government’s policies and its institutional capture. For instance, the government’s welfare policies, consisting of small cash transfers, small loans, food rations, and subsidies for private goods like toilets and insurance, have been communicated as superior to previous programs, which were constrained in their delivery by elite corruption and as  ‘guarantees’ of a better life from Modi. Yet their limited nature means the considerable onus is placed on personal duty to pursue ‘empowerment’ through market participation, which is consistent with Hindutva’s emphasis on swadharma (own duty) for the upholding of social order rather than transformation. Nationalist-populist discourses underpinned the introduction of policies targeting and stigmatising Muslims, such as curtailing interreligious marriage –  on the grounds they often involve religious conversion and the coercion or tricking of Hindu women by Muslim men – and the promotion of Hindu upper caste behavioural norms, for instance, banning beef production and consumption. Both religious conversion (termed ‘love jihad’) and beef production, the BJP claimed, permitted establishment elites to cultivate Muslim ‘vote banks.’ Liberal universities were targeted as full of ‘anti-national’ elites, and their administrations were filled with pro-government leaders. Courts increasingly favoured the executive, including by adopting its rhetoric. The mainstream media became increasingly uncritical of the government, while the independent media were subject to censorship, defamation charges and tax investigations to stifle their dissent.

Authoritarian Populism and the 2024 Election Campaign

People wait in queues to cast votes at a polling station during the 3rd phase of Lok Sabha polls, in Guwahati, India on May 7, 2024. Photo: Hafiz Ahmed.

Authoritarian populism also framed the 2024 election campaign. In the lead-up to the election, the largest party of INDIA block, the Congress, which the BJP alleges is led by corrupt elites, accused the government of instigating the income tax department to freeze its accounts for late tax filings, leaving it unable to effectively campaign.

Modi’s initial campaigning revolved around his welfare ‘guarantees’ for improving the lives of the poor and the building of a temple marking the birthplace of the god Rama on the site of a mosque demolished by Hindutva activists in 1992. This campaigning emphasised aspirational nationalist-populism, tinged with anti-Muslim resentment. Modi has sought to represent himself as an aspirational leader, leaving the espousal of anti-Muslim rhetoric to colleagues like Amit Shah, vigilante groups and his supporters. During the inauguration of the Ram Temple in January, for instance, while Modi declared the temple a symbol of religious unity, his supporters filled public spaces, both virtual and physical, with anti-Muslim rhetoric

As the campaign wore on, however – perhaps due to low voter turnout and negative internal polling – Modi resorted to explicitly Islamophobic and anti-elite rhetoric. Modi declared the Congress Party manifesto as having an “imprint of Muslim League” (The party often blamed for the partition of India in 1947). He also accused the Congress Party, which pledged to of wanting to snatch away affirmative action benefits of lower castes to satisfy the ‘Muslim vote bank.’ In the state of Bengal, ruled by prominent regional party and Congress ally Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee, the Prime Minister evoked the fears of infiltrators (implicitly Muslims) snatching away resources of the Hindu people of Bengal. He also alleged the Congress’s emphasis on redistribution meant that it wanted to snatch away the mangal sutras  (an ornament worn by married Hindu women) and buffalos of Hindus to give to Muslims. The Election Commission failed to adequately enforce the Model Code of Conduct with respect to these comments.

In several fawning interviews with pro-government legacy media channels, Modi sought to respond to charges that he is cultivating a dictatorship by invoking a victimised ‘common man’ persona. In one such interview, he said, “People used to slap me if they feel they have been given cold tea, so I am accustomed to accusations and harassments. As I am a common man, I know these people in higher echelons of society abuse the common man.” Though social media and especially YouTube emerged as a site of alternative and critical news coverage, it was also targeted with censorship

During the long seven phases of polling, numerous reports of voter suppression and intimidation emerged. In Uttar Pradesh’s Muslim-dominated constituency of Sambhal, Muslim voters were beaten up, their voter IDs snatched, effectively barred from voting. BJP officials were caught on camera bribing the polling officials to intimidate Muslim voters. The election commission stayed silent on most accounts of polling irregularities, and also delayed voter turnout data for first two phases of polling raising questions on the sanctity of voting process. 

The Limits of Authoritarian Populism

Modi had begun his election campaign proclaiming his intention to win more than 400 seats and media pollsters predicted him to win by a substantial margin. However, signs of discontent were visible. A pre-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) from mid-March to early April showed significant voter discontent about inflation and unemployment. While 44% of respondents want the government to return to power, a sizeable 39% did not want the government to be re-elected. Interviews by independent media organisations with voters during the campaign reflected this discontent. There is visible distress in India’s rural economy, where wages have been stagnant for the past ten years. Rural growth rates were on the decline even before Modi took office, but they have only worsened since then, contrary to his promises. The “Ache Din (Good days)” rhetoric has fallen deaf after ten years. Reports also indicated a lack of enthusiasm among BJP party workers, who have been important vote mobilisers in previous elections and strong campaigning by the opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). 

Taking advantage of repeated claims by BJP leaders about needing to change the Constitution, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s speeches highlighted a commitment to protecting the Constitution, addressing caste-based injustice by undertaking a caste census to reveal the extent of disadvantage and the concentration of wealth. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Lalu Prasad Yadav, an important ally of the INDIA block, warned the BJP intended to change the Constitution to end caste-based affirmative action. Though this was denied by Modi, the allegation was plausible given that BJP leadersoften spoke of the need to change the Constitution and seemed to strike a chord with voters. Caste presents a dilemma for Modi’s Hindutva politics, which is dominated by upper-caste leaders and valorises upper-caste Hindu practices and behaviour while relying on support from the lower-caste majority to win elections. The BJP has sought to ameliorate this tension by promoting welfare schemes. In the lead-up to the election, Modi, who often emphasises his lower caste background, claimed to have replaced traditional forms of caste stratification with four castes of welfare ‘beneficiaries’ – women, farmers, youth and the poor. However, the government’s welfare schemes only compensate for the stagnation of incomes and the lack of jobs. Its spending on health and education, which could have transformative effects on social mobility, has languished

Ultimately, the BJP was reduced to 240 seats, the NDA won 293 seats, and INDIA performed much better than pollsters had predicted, winning 232 seats. Modi’s victory margin in his seat of Varanasi dropped to about 150,000 votes from 500,000 in 2019, and a post-poll survey indicated stagnation in his popularity. The BJP lost one-third of its rural seats. The Congress Party almost doubled its tally, winning 99 seats and made gains in Rajasthan, Haryana and Maharashtra, taking advantage of discontent among rural voters and particular caste communities like Jats and Rajputs. The Samajwadi Party (SP), a regional party, won 37 seats and made a comeback in Uttar Pradesh. The SP previously dominated Uttar Pradesh politics by fashioning a voter base of lower caste ‘Other Backward Class’ (OBC) Yadavs and Muslims. This politics, however, generated resentment among non-Yadav and Dalit voters, which the BJP exploited to make gains in the state in the 2014 national election and win the state election in 2017. In this election, the SP fashioned a new broader caste coalition, including Dalit and non-Yadav OBC candidates. Other important parties in the INDIA bloc, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)  as well as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), also made sweeping regional gains in their respective states of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, respectively. 

The euphoria over the Ram temple did not result in votes, with the BJP even losing the seat of Faizabad, where the Ram temple is located, to a Dalit candidate, Awadhesh Prasad, of the SP, who may have benefitted from discontent over the construction process which displaced and dispossessed poor residents and the failure of promised jobs to materialise. 

The CSDS post-poll survey revealed that 69% of voters decided who to vote for during the campaign or shortly before voting. Hence, Modi’s anti-Muslim campaign statements may have backfired, encouraging a consolidation of Muslim voters (92%) for INDIA in Uttar Pradesh, where they constitute 20% of the population, and increasing concerns among voters about communal conflict. Modi lost in 20 of the 22 constituencies where he made anti-Muslim speeches. While in the CSDS pre-poll survey, 3% of voters listed communalism and religious conflict as the most disliked aspect of the government’s performance issues, in its post-poll survey, this rose to a total of 9% of voters.

The lessons from the 2024 election are that regional political parties and caste politics remain potent forces in Indian politics and that even when elections are unfree and unfair, opposition parties can dent the dominance of ruling parties by presenting a united front and sticking to a consistent message reflecting specific issues of voter discontent. 

Conclusion: The Future of Authoritarian Populism 

Mira Bortakhur Goswami congress party candidate of Guwahati constituency during door to door election campaign ahead of Lok Sabha Election 2024 in Guwahati, India on April 7, 2024. Photo: Dasarath Deka.

While the BJP now needs coalition partners to govern, it remains India’s dominant political party, losing only one per centof its vote share. Moreover, it has made inroads in new regions and retains its broad-based caste and class voter coalition. It swept the state of Odisha, taking advantage of high anti-incumbency against the 20-year-old state government of the regional Biju Janata Dal led by Naveen Patnaik. It consolidated its presence in Madya Pradesh and Gujarat, where no strong regional opposition exists. It increased its vote share in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and won its first seat in Kerala, where it won support from upper caste and OBC voters in particular. 

While there was a significant rise in the youth vote share for the Congress’s allies, and the BJP’s support has declined among the older voters, it has kept its lure among young voters (below 25 years), with 39% of young voters supporting it, despite high unemployment and irregularities in the selection process of public sector jobs. Modi’s ‘development man’ image, associated with a higher standard of living and its social media outreach, might be the reason for the voting pattern among youngsters. 

Among women voters, we see a marginal increase in the vote share of Congress and allies, with a 2% increase for Congress and a 5% increase for its allies. Both the INDIA bloc and NDA centred their campaign on wooing women voters through welfare schemes. Meanwhile, the women’s vote share has remained stagnant for NDA. While the BJP claimed that the Lakhpati Didi scheme has successfully curbed unemployment by creating 10 million Lakhpati Didi, grounds reports by independent media organisations showed a rather grim image of the implementation. Survey trends suggest that women vote for immediate improvement in household conditions, which has been showing stagnation in recent years. In states such as Odisha and Chhattisgarh, a reverse trend has also been observed, where women voters have pushed the BJP’s victory, though this may reflect broader factors like high anti-incumbency in the former and a lack of regional party alternatives in the latter.

Upper castes remain a reliable vote bank for the BJP. It has also made noticeable inroads among the Adivasi voters, broadening its caste network of voters with few deviations. It is the other backward castes (OBC) and Dalits who more significantly stand opposed to BJP’s financial and political governance. It also needs to be mentioned that though the Muslim vote has aggregated against the BJP, 10% of Muslims voted for BJP in 2024. 

Recent allotments of portfolios show that ministers and officials at the forefront of the authoritarian populist agenda, such as Amit Shah, whose Home Affairs ministry is responsible for discriminatory citizenship laws and drives the intimidation of civil society, continue to occupy positions of power. Only 26 Muslim legislators are part of the 18th Lok Sabha, the second lowest ever in the lower house. For the first time, the Indian cabinet does not have any Muslim representatives. 

Moreover, in the past ten years, many aspects of the Hindutva agenda have become mainstream. Opposition parties have been shying away from openly appealing to Muslims for fear of being labelled appeasers and anti-Hindu. Both pre-poll and post-poll surveys show that the building of the Ram temple, a core Hindutva issue, has been popular with voters and that Modi still remains India’s most popular leader. 

Much focus has been given to the coalition aspect of the new government, but it remains to be seen whether regional parties in the NDA will hinder the BJP’s governance. Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar consider Muslim voters partof their electoral coalition; both have previously criticised the BJP for its authoritarian governance. However, both also have their own agendas that require support from the BJP and the central government. Naidu intends to revive his Amravati capital city project for Andhra Pradesh, which has been a long-standing issue since the state’s bifurcation in 2014. The cost of building a smart city has been increasing, and it will need the central government’s financial support. Although the NDA won the most seats in the state of Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s party, the JD(U), lost its vote share to the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a regional caste-based party, which commanded the highest vote share as a single party. Nitish Kumar needs greater national government assistance to appeal to voters for the upcoming 2025 state legislative election and may downplay issues on which he diverges from the BJP. Additionally, both Naidu and Kumar want special category status for their respective states, which will perhaps make them more amenable to the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. 

Just days after the new government was sworn in, Delhi’s BJP Lieutenant Governor, V.K. Saxena, proceeded to charge the writer Arundhati Roy, Modi’s fierce critic, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) 2019 for a speech she gave in 2010. The already draconian law was amended in 2019 to allow the government more extraordinary powers to designate individuals/organisations as terrorists without a formal judicial process. BJP leaders accused Roy of being a traitor backed by the Congress party. This is a strong indication that some version of authoritarian populism, with its attacks on dissent, undermining institutions and social polarisation, will likely continue to shape governance under the new government.


 

(*) Dr. Priya Chacko is an Associate Professor of International Politics | Department of Politics and International Relations, School of Social Sciences at the Faculty of Arts, Business, Law and Economics at the University of Adelaide. She is also co-editor of South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies and Steering Committee Member of Open Society University Network Forum on Democracy and Development.

(**) Kanchan Panday is a PhD student at Deakin University.

Young activists participate in an opposition rally during the Ugandan presidential elections, organized by the FDC (Forum for Democratic Change), opposing the ruling party NRM in Mbale, Uganda on February 14, 2011. Photo: Shutterstock.

Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa

Please cite as:
Sithole, Neo; Nguijol, Gabriel Cyril & Micozzi, Martina. (2024). Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 2, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0056    

 

This report provides an overview of the second regional panel organized by the ECPS titled “Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa,” which took place online on May 9, 2024. Moderated skillfully by Dr. Chipo Dendere, the panel included experts from Southern Africa, Central Africa, and beyond. They offered a comprehensive examination of the largely overlooked phenomenon of populism in Africa. Through their insightful presentations, the panelists analyzed the various forms and behaviors of populism on the continent, tracing its historical role as a galvanizer during anti-colonial struggles for self-determination to its current impacts on social and political affairs. A common theme emerged: as both Africa and the globe witness a decline in democratic integrity despite the rise in populist movements, it is crucial to understand the complex roles populism plays—both beneficial and detrimental—in shaping local political landscapes.

Report by Neo SitholeGabriel Cyril Nguijol & Martina Micozzi

This report summarizes the second regional panel organized by the ECPS titled “Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa,” held online on May 9, 2024. Expertly moderated by Dr. Chipo Dendere, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who studies the factors that influence party survival and democratization in the developing world, the panel featured experts from Southern Africa, Central Africa, and beyond. Each provided a diverse look into the understudied phenomenon of populism on the African continent.

Dr. Dendere forwent an opening speech to dive straight into the presentations, allowing more time for discussions. The panelists examined various unique aspects of populism in Africa. In order of presentation, Dr. Henning Melber, Professor, Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala; Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria and the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, gave an introductory overview of populism’s historical place in Africa, focusing on the narratives used by populist actors, particularly in Southern Africa.  Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu, researcher and Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of European Studies, Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, explored the possibility of progressive populism in Africa. Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo, a political scientist specializing in international relations and strategic studies at the University of Yaoundé II, illuminated the relationship between populism and the challenges in African governance, emphasizing the tendency of populists to erode institutional stability.

Continuing the theme of governance from populism’s ‘supply side,’ Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh, an English law lecturer at the University of Bertoua, Faculty of Law and Political Science, discussed how government failures in services, welfare, and employment create fertile ground for populist support. Dr. Derick Fai Kinang, a Political Scientist, Jurist, Conflict Resolution Specialist, and Crime Expert with the Cameroon National Council of Crime Experts, reviewed how populist narratives further inflame hate speech and fuel societal divisions. Lastly, Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor, a senior lecturer at the University of Dschang, Cameroon, examined how African populist actors reinforce patriarchal norms, undermining women’s and girls’ rights and undoing decades of gender-based societal progress.

Through their insightful presentations, each panelist provided thorough analyses of the shape and behaviors of populism in Africa, from its historical role as a galvanizer and unifier during the continent’s anti-colonial struggles for self-determination to its contemporary impacts on societal and political affairs. A unifying thread emerged: as the continent, and indeed the globe, experiences growing democratic decline despite the rise in populist expression, it is vital to understand the multifaceted roles populism plays—both positive and negative—in shaping Africa’s local political realities.

Dr. Henning Melber: “Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian, and Nationalist Trends in Africa”

According to Dr. Henning Melber, the populist parties in Africa frequently rely on the continued heroic narrative of former liberation movements, seeking to connect the electorate with the country’s past to legitimize the present political realities. They appeal to a still-present struggle against foreign domination, marketing themselves as the only true alternative and promise of a better future—a concept Dr. Melber labeled ‘retrospectively applied populism.’ African liberation movements still retain a movement-like character while in government, often combining this with charismatic leaders and vivid individuals who make politics personal and immediate instead of remote and bureaucratic.

In the opening presentation, Dr. Henning Melber emphasized that populism in politics is far from a new phenomenon, despite the recent increase in scholarly attention likely driven by new communication technologies that enhance populism’s reach (such as ‘new media’ which are often effective tools for spreading populist messages). He pointed out that populism’s presence in the political sphere is not limited to African contexts. In reality, populist politics has manifested in various historical settings across numerous societies and ideological frameworks worldwide.

As is customary when discussing populism, Dr. Melber explained his understanding of the term. He stated that beyond its specific subjective content, which is typically context-dependent, populism operates through a distinctive kind of rhetoric that addresses the people simply and directly. According to Dr. Melber, populism gives people the impression that they matter, count, and are more important to the populist actors. He also noted that populist forms of mobilization are not necessarily despotic or authoritarian, as they are often perceived. Sometimes, populism can promote liberal democracy (either intentionally or deceptively) while remaining illiberal at its core.

Next, Dr. Melber shifted focus to populism in Africa, unpacking the behaviors and narratives of populist messages. In Africa, the transmission of populist messages often relies on personal appearances and face-to-face mobilization, highlighting a vital aspect of populism: the presence of leaders who personify populist policies and invite identification with individuals as much as with policy programs. Generally, there is a close affinity between forms of populism and strong nationalist-oriented forms of government and governance. Dr. Melber argued that this connection is rooted in the continent’s political history, where the fight for political self-determination cultivated strong nationalist tendencies that played a substantial role in nation-building. He further articulated that contemporary forms of populism on the continent are situated within established democracies, where populist figures mobilize against the establishment and appeal to the sentiments of those who are suspicious of the elites in the government.

To provide a mental picture of populist messaging and its relationship to Africa’s history of self-determination, Dr. Melber referred to former liberation movements in Southern Africa that now stand as the ruling parties in their respective governments, such as the African National Congress in South Africa and the South West Africa People’s Organization in Namibia. These parties frequently rely on the continued heroic narrative of former liberation movements, seeking to connect the electorate with the country’s past to legitimize the present political realities. They appeal to a still-present struggle against foreign domination, marketing themselves as the only true alternative and promise of a better future—a concept Dr. Melber labeled ‘retrospectively applied populism.’ Additionally, Dr. Melber articulated that outside of retrospectively applied populism, African liberation movements still retain a movement-like character while in government, often combining this with charismatic leaders and vivid individuals who make politics personal and immediate instead of remote and bureaucratic. 

 

Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu: “Taming the Lion: On the Conditions of Possibility of a Progressive Populism in Sub-Saharan Africa”

Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu shared results from research conducted in 23 sub-Saharan African states aimed at understanding the conditions necessary for the emergence of progressive populist movements. The findings revealed a generalized mistrust in existing leaders, perceived to be under Western influence, alongside support for movements focused on improving material conditions and removing current elites from power. Respondents emphasized the need for former colonial powers to fully acknowledge their historical responsibility and support development projects effectively and impartially.

Our second panelist, Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu, began by revisiting the centrality of nationalist-popular sovereignty for liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa. He noted that many of these movements included authoritarian or even totalitarian components, whether from extreme ideas of Marxist-Leninism or ultra-nationalism. In this context, Dr. Mișcoiu posed the question, “Is progressive populism possible in sub-Saharan Africa?” and if so, what would its articulatory form and discursive contents be, and where would its main proponents emerge from?

Before answering, Dr. Mișcoiu unpacked how populism is understood in the context of his presentation. He explained that his understanding is derived from populism ‘discourse theory,’ built on the works of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Jacques Ranciere. Dr. Mișcoiu emphasized that populism can be defined not as an ideology but rather as a discursive register with a hegemonic vocation. Aligning with the general consensus, it is based on an “us vs. them” narrative, where on one side there is “the people,” who should align with populist leaders, parties, intellectuals, and those expressing demands for justice, redistribution, and morality. On the other side are the “non-people,” comprising the elites, the rich, foreigners, and minorities who are perceived as preventing the people from being themselves.

Progressive populism, however, was described as the virtuous articulation of the popular identity that includes all groups and individuals who were previously oppressed or marginalized, or as Ranciere calls them, “the part of no part.” Progressive populism is not devoid of exclusion; those excluded are the forces that prevent unity and democratic consistency among the people. In this case, progressive populism can be emancipatory, aiming at the economic and political empowerment of the people, as well as being liberal democratic, establishing a tolerant and inclusive participatory system of collective decision-making.

In setting the scene, Dr. Mișcoiu reviewed the evolution of populism across the continent, beginning in the 1950s with the first emancipatory anti-colonial platforms. He highlighted the 1960s wave of independence, which initially sparked societal enthusiasm but soon waned as democracy was sacrificed on the altar of Cold War alignments. This period led to the rise of populist movements under Marxist-Leninist or ethno-nationalist ideologies, culminating in the 1980s with the growth of authoritarianism and widespread political repression.

Having established a conceptual foundation of progressive populism and contextualized the historical background of African populism, Dr. Mișcoiu addressed his earlier question by examining the case of Senegal’s recently elected president, Ousmane Sonko. Sonko has exhibited aspects of progressive populism by advocating for a political platform rooted in deliberative democracy, social and economic progressivism, and a stance against elitism, corruption, stagnation, and neo-colonial dependence. His foreign policy prioritizes state interests over broader African values. However, Sonko’s platform falls short of being fully progressive due to its ambiguity around cultural and societal emancipation and its moral and cultural conservatism, particularly concerning women’s rights.

In closing, Dr. Mișcoiu shared results from research conducted in 23 sub-Saharan African states aimed at understanding the conditions necessary for the emergence of progressive populist movements. The findings revealed a generalized mistrust in existing leaders, perceived to be under Western influence, alongside support for movements focused on improving material conditions and removing current elites from power. Respondents emphasized the need for former colonial powers to fully acknowledge their historical responsibility and support development projects effectively and impartially. However, they also noted that while reconciliation and tolerance are essential, they cannot come at the expense of radical reforms. 

Conversely, these results also highlight more harmful aspects, such as support for populist movements rooted in essentialist ethno-religious traditions and skepticism about the sustainability of democracy in Africa. Some respondents advocated for strong leadership, order, and discipline as necessary guarantees of freedom. 

 

Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo: “Populism and the Challenges of Democratic Governance in Africa”

According to Dr. Yogo, who examined the strategies contributing to the success of prominent populist leaders in Africa, these leaders often employ nationalist rhetoric that emphasizes national pride and sovereignty, tapping into sentiments of patriotism to gather support. They capitalize on anti-elite rhetoric, portraying themselves as champions of the people against corrupt or out-of-touch political elites. Furthermore, populist leaders in Africa frequently promise simple solutions to complex issues, offering quick fixes to deep-seated problems such as poverty, unemployment, and inadequate public services.

Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo’s contribution to the panel focused on the link between the rise of populism and the challenges of democratic governance in Africa. Dr. Yogo began by mapping the African political landscape, which he characterized by various challenges, including governance issues, socio-economic disparities, and post-colonial legacies. He noted a recent rise in populism in Africa, structured around charismatic leaders leveraging popular grievances to gain power. This trend has significant implications for democratic governance in Africa, shaping political discourse and influencing policy decisions.

Dr. Yogo noted that populism in Africa can be seen as a political movement emphasizing the interests and needs of the common people against those of established elites or perceived outsiders. Populism generally involves charismatic leaders employing discourses that appeal to emotions, identity, nationalist rhetoric, anti-elite sentiment, and promises of rapid changes or transformation, rather than rational policy solutions.

Dr. Yogo further explained that populism in Africa can be better understood through several factors, such as socio-economic and historical contexts. Persistent socio-economic inequalities foster the rise of populist discourses, as marginalized populations express their grievances. Corruption also plays a significant role, weakening trust in traditional political institutions and prompting people to seek alternative leaders who promise to eradicate corruption. Additionally, post-colonial legacies, including ethnic divisions and weak state institutions, exacerbate social tensions and provide opportunities for populist leaders to exploit identity politics.

Dr. Yogo also examined the strategies contributing to the success of prominent populist leaders in Africa. These leaders often employ nationalist rhetoric that emphasizes national pride and sovereignty, tapping into sentiments of patriotism to gather support. They capitalize on anti-elite rhetoric, portraying themselves as champions of the people against corrupt or out-of-touch political elites. Furthermore, populist leaders in Africa frequently promise simple solutions to complex issues, offering quick fixes to deep-seated problems such as poverty, unemployment, and inadequate public services.

Dr. Yogo further discussed the consequences of populism on democratic governance in Africa. According to him, populism weakens democratic institutions, such as the separation of powers, which is essential for maintaining checks and balances within a democratic system. Populist leaders may attempt to consolidate power by undermining the independence of the judiciary, sidelining legislative bodies, and concentrating authority in the executive branch. They also contribute to political polarization and social fragmentation by framing political discourse in terms of “us” versus “them.” Populist leaders often appeal to a narrow segment of the population, fostering divisions along ethnic, religious, or regional lines. Additionally, populism impacts the rule of law and human rights by resorting to repression, such as the arbitrary detention of political opponents, censorship of the media, and restrictions on freedom of expression. 

To address the dynamics of populism in Africa, Dr. Yogo elaborated on several perspectives. He emphasized that African states should:

1.         Strengthen democratic institutions and inclusive governance:

– Promote the separation of powers.

– Guarantee the independence of the judicial system.

– Protect civil liberties, including freedom of speech, assembly, and association.

2.         Promote transparency and accountability:

– Implement robust mechanisms such as oversight bodies and whistleblower protections.

– Rebuild citizens’ trust in the political system.

3.         Combat misinformation and political manipulation:

– Invest in promoting media liberty and critical thinking skills to empower citizens to discern fact from fiction and resist manipulation.

– Promote collaborative efforts between governments, civil society, and technological companies to combat misinformation and preserve the integrity of democratic elections and public discourse.

4.         Encourage citizen participation and political education:

– Facilitate access to information through transparent government communication channels and public forums.

– Foster dialogue and collaboration between government officials and citizens through public consultations and participation in decision-making processes.

In wrapping up, Dr. Yogo called for action to fight against populism in Africa. He emphasized that these actions should focus on preserving democracy and strengthening democratic institutions. He advocated for collaborative efforts between governments, civil society, and citizens to uphold democratic principles, protect human rights, and promote inclusive governance.

 

Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh: “Democratizing Africa: Navigating Populist Trends, Building Trust in Institutions, and Promoting Stability through Inclusive Governance”

Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh outlined, much like Dr. Yogo, that populist leaders are often charismatic figures who exploit public disappointment with the status quo and challenge established institutions. Dr. Nyitioseh described populism in Africa as a political approach that appeals to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. She explained that populism manifests in various forms and ideologies but often involves simplifying complex issues and using emotional rhetoric to gain support.

In her presentation, Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh introduced the triangulation between populist trends, the strengthening of institutions, and the promotion of stability through inclusive governance. According to her, this triangulation renders the democratization process in Africa very complex and fragile. She outlined, much like Dr. Yogo, that populist leaders are often charismatic figures who exploit public disappointment with the status quo and challenge established institutions. Dr. Nyitioseh described populism in Africa as a political approach that appeals to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. She explained that populism manifests in various forms and ideologies but often involves simplifying complex issues and using emotional rhetoric to gain support. Dr. Nyitioseh highlighted this form of populism during the Kenyan elections in 2017, where President Uhuru Kenyatta used populist rhetoric to consolidate his power base.

During the field trip, Dr. Nyitioseh navigated the delicate situation surrounding the causes and consequences of populism in Africa. According to her, populism is driven by socio-economic inequalities, characterized by a growing gap between the rich and the poor, and reinforced by resentment toward elites perceived as indifferent to the struggles of ordinary people. She illustrated this by referencing the Gini coefficient in South Africa, which has been used to indicate significant income inequality between the elites and the general population. The Gini coefficient was around 0.63 in 2009, remained the same in 2022, and continues to reflect substantial disparities in income distribution in the country.

Corruption is also a significant factor in the rise of populism in Africa, as it weakens institutions and destroys public trust. Dr. Nyitioseh cited examples such as Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe regime’s corruption and mismanagement led to economic collapse, driving public disappointment and paving the way for populist movements. In Nigeria, widespread corruption among political elites favored support for populist figures like Muhammadu Buhari, who promised to tackle corruption. In South Africa, the ANC’s corruption scandals under Jacob Zuma’s presidency contributed to the rise of populist opposition parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Youth unemployment also creates fertile ground for populism in Africa, as disillusioned young people may turn to charismatic leaders offering simple solutions. Populist leaders often exploit these frustrations by simplifying complex issues and identifying scapegoats. While they may initially appear responsive to citizen concerns, their rhetoric can exacerbate social divisions and undermine democratic institutions. Dr. Nyitioseh illustrated this with the example of Julius Malema in South Africa, who gained popularity among unemployed youth by advocating for radical economic policies and land redistribution. In Nigeria, the “Not Too Young to Run” movement emerged partly in response to high youth unemployment rates, reflecting a desire for political change among the younger generation. A similar trend was observed in Zimbabwe with the creation of the “This Flag” movement, led by Pastor Evan Mawarire, who highlighted youth frustrations with unemployment and government corruption, calling for united support for change.

Dr. Nyitioseh then outlined the best strategies to combat populism in Africa. She emphasized the importance of establishing and consolidating the rule of law through the fair and impartial application of laws, regardless of social status. For instance, South Africa has undertaken constitutional reforms to strengthen institutions and uphold the rule of law, while Liberia has made efforts to reform its judicial system after the civil war. Ensuring that the judiciary is free from political influence is crucial in this regard.

She said Rwanda and Ghana have implemented robust anti-corruption measures, essential for promoting transparency and accountability, key elements of the rule of law. In Kenya, vibrant civil society movements advocating for legal reforms and accountability have contributed to a stronger rule of law. Dr. Nyitioseh also highlighted the importance of promoting human rights and fighting corruption as vital components in eradicating populism in Africa. Countries like Rwanda, Botswana, and Mauritius have established anti-corruption commissions to address these issues effectively.

Dr. Nyitioseh reminded us that African countries must promote good governance by empowering civil society and encouraging effective decentralization, as seen in Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia. She stressed the need for investing in mass education, as democratization in Africa is an ongoing process. In conclusion, Dr. Nyitioseh asserted that if African countries address the root causes of populism, foster trust in institutions, and promote inclusive governance, they can build more stable and democratic societies free from populism.

 

Dr. Derick Fai Kinang: “Populism Discourse and the Proliferation of Hate during Elections in Central African Sub-region.”

Dr. Derick Fai Kinang pointed out that the use of ethno-tribal stereotypes and hateful clichés during the election periods in Africa undermines social cohesion, fuels tensions, and can lead to conflict. He emphasized the need for reforms to promote justice, democratic values, and socio-economic development to counteract the harmful effects of populism and hate speech. By implementing these measures, societies can become more resilient and capable of discerning between populist and democratic ideologies, ultimately fostering sustainable peace and development.

Dr. Derick Fai Kinang’s presentation focused on the relationship between populist discourse and the proliferation of hate speech during elections in the Central African sub-region. He began by noting that populism has existed in Africa in various waves, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to Dr. Kinang, one of the most dangerous waves emerged in the early 1990s with the advent of multi-party politics in Africa. During this period, the use of populist discourse became prevalent as rulers sought to conquer and exercise power.

Dr. Kinang referenced Danielle Resnick (2010) to highlight how the imposition of multi-party politics led to the adoption of populist strategies, often accompanied by hate speech, as a means to achieve and maintain power. This approach, he argued, has significantly impacted the political landscape in the Central African sub-region, contributing to increased tensions and undermining democratic processes.

Before delving into the intersection between populism and hate speech during elections, Dr. Kinang defined populism. Citing Jane Mansbridge and Stephen Macedo, he explained that populism involves the people in a moral battle against the elites. This dynamic, where political leaders using a populist approach encourage people to see their political engagement as part of this moral battle, can sometimes devolve into hate speech.

Dr. Kinang noted that there is no universally accepted definition of hate speech but often refers to the one provided by the United Nations. According to the UN, hate speech is “any form of communication in speech, writing, or behavior that attacks or uses pejorative and discriminatory language concerning someone’s religion, ethnicity, color, descent, nationality, gender, or identity factor.” In Dr. Kinang’s opinion, hate speech is any form of communication that attacks, discriminates against, or denigrates someone because of their background.

Furthermore, Dr. Kinang emphasized the significance of elections, highlighting their crucial role in understanding how populist discourse, particularly through the use of hate speech, manifests during election periods. Using Ewang’s (2008) definition, he stated, “elections can be considered as the mechanism by which power is given to certain individuals to govern the people.” Populist discourse, through the use of hate speech, has been a widely used political strategy to conquer and exercise power during elections in Africa, especially in the Central African sub-region. During the electoral calendar, political populism often reaches its peak during presidential elections.

Dr. Kinang highlighted the 2018 presidential elections in Cameroon as an example of deep national polarization. He pointed out that the use of ethno-tribal stereotypes and hateful clichés during these periods undermines social cohesion, fuels tensions, and can lead to conflict. He emphasized the need for reforms to promote justice, democratic values, and socio-economic development to counteract the harmful effects of populism and hate speech. By implementing these measures, societies can become more resilient and capable of discerning between populist and democratic ideologies, ultimately fostering sustainable peace and development.

 

Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor: “The Protection of Female Rights and the Rise of Populism in African Democracies: A Need for a Reformed Society”

Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor emphasized that the rule of law is essential for maintaining societal order and ensuring gender equality, highlighting its incorporation into many African constitutions. For example, Dr. Chefor mentioned the Maputo Protocol, which protects women’s rights and sets a minimum age for marriage to prevent early marriages. Despite these legal frameworks, cultural norms and biases in Africa continue to suppress women’s voices, affecting their rights and status.

Panel’s last presenter, Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor, focused her presentation on the challenging intersection between the protection of women’s rights and the rise of populism in African democracies. She divided the presentation into four parts, each highlighting populism’s implications on women’s rights, the rule of law, and democracy. Dr. Chefor began by defining populism, noting that while the concept can carry various meanings, she adopted a simpler approach, viewing populism as “the will of the people” and equating it with public opinion. By adopting this definition, Dr. Chefor aimed to illustrate how populism contrasts with traditional democratic representation. She described populism as a system where politicians or political leaders tend to depend on the will of the people, often against their representatives, whom they portray as corrupt.

Dr. Chefor raised the question of whether populism is legal or has legal backing. She noted that while populism appears to be legally supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly its provisions for freedom of expression and opinion, it raises doubts about its impact on society. Specifically, she pointed out that populism can either benefit or harm societal values, particularly by undermining the rule of law.

Subsequently, Dr. Chefor proceeded with the second part of her presentation, examining the rule of law and arguing that it is a system where law is supreme, and society should be governed by the statute of law. She emphasized that the rule of law is essential for maintaining societal order and ensuring gender equality, highlighting its incorporation into many African constitutions. For example, Dr. Chefor mentioned the Maputo Protocol, which protects women’s rights and sets a minimum age for marriage to prevent early marriages. Despite these legal frameworks, cultural norms and biases in Africa continue to suppress women’s voices, affecting their rights and status.

Dr. Chefor argued that these difficulties persist due to the advent of populism, which tends to reinforce traditional patriarchal beliefs that women should not have a voice or an opinion. This led to the third part of her presentation, where she addressed the implications of the failure of democracy. Dr. Chefor explained how populist tendencies can disrupt the rule of law, leading to failures in democratic processes. This disruption is evident in outdated or biased laws, such as those in Cameroon’s penal code before 2016, which reflected deep-seated societal biases that hinder gender equality and justice.

To counter these challenges, Dr. Chefor emphasized the need for accurate and necessary information for a successful society. An informed public can better navigate the challenges posed by populism and ensure the effective implementation of democracy and the rule of law.

ECPS-MGP12-China

Populist Authoritarianism in China: National and Global Perspectives

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Christo & Valev, Radoslav. (2024). “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 2, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0055      

 

This report provides a summary of the presentations delivered during the twelfth installment of ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives.” The event, held online on April 25, 2024, undertook a comprehensive examination of China’s dynamic political terrain. Dr. Rune Steenberg, an esteemed anthropologist and Principal Investigator at Palacký University Olomouc, adeptly moderated the panel, which featured a distinguished lineup of scholars. Each expert contributed unique insights into China’s populist authoritarianism, drawing from diverse disciplinary perspectives.

By Christo Pretorius Radoslav Valev

The twelfth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives,” convened online on April 25, 2024, delving into a multifaceted exploration of China’s evolving political landscape. Moderated by Dr. Rune Steenberg, an esteemed anthropologist and Principal Investigator at Palacký University Olomouc, the panel assembled a distinguished line-up of scholars, each offering unique insights into China’s populist authoritarianism from diverse disciplinary lenses.

Dr. Steenberg initiated the discussion by contextualizing the rise of populism within China, tracing its trajectory over the past decade under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Highlighting themes of nationalism, surveillance, and internal suppression, Dr. Steenberg elucidated the complex interplay between populist rhetoric, state power, and societal transformation, emphasizing China’s assertive global posture and its implications for domestic governance.

Subsequent presentations delved into specific dimensions of China’s populist authoritarianism. Dr. Kun He, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Computational Linguistics Group within the University of Groningen, scrutinized the intricate dynamics of populism within China’s socio-political landscape, delineating its manifestations and distinguishing features. Dr. Martin Lavička, Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University, illuminated the state’s regulation of religion under Xi Jinping, underscoring its implications for religious practitioners and broader societal dynamics. Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk, Professor of Economy and visiting fellow at the University of Duisburg-Essen, elucidated China’s global populist endeavors through the lens of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), unraveling its geopolitical implications and coercive strategies. Lastly, Dr. Yung-Yung Chang, Assistant Professor at Asia-Pacific Regional Studies at the National Dong Hwa University, explored the intersection of technology and populism, shedding light on China’s digital authoritarianism and its ramifications for global governance.

Through nuanced analyses and interdisciplinary perspectives, the panelists navigated the contours of China’s populist authoritarianism, unraveling its complexities and global reverberations. As geopolitical landscapes continue to evolve, understanding China’s populist authoritarian trajectory assumes paramount importance, offering critical insights into the unfolding dynamics of global politics and governance.

Dr. Rune Steenberg: “Rise of Populist Authoritarianism in China”

Although the global-oriented policies of Deng Xiaoping played a part, according to Dr. Rune Steenberg, the pivotal moment that has put China on its current path was the economic crash of 2008. Furthering this theory, he highlighted that the hardening of borders, refugee crises, the environmental crisis, rising global inequality, and the attack on personal freedoms and liberties globally, have all been the context for both other populist leaders to gain popularity and power across the world, and the breakdown of the liberal world order. This has allowed power to shift towards China and its interests and offers scholars a wealth of avenues from which they can investigate the minute details of how and why this shift is occurring.

The panel moderator, Dr. Rune Steenberg, started the session by stating that he has seen the rise of populist authoritarianism in China during his work as an anthropologist, which has allowed him to investigate the issue from a broader anthropological perspective. He indicated that populist authoritarianism in China has been on the rise for at least ten years, often connected to Xi Jinping’s rise to power and his ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,’ certain forms of nationalistic propaganda, competition to the United States, which all coincided with internal suppression of individual rights, freedom of expression, and the expansion of surveillance. Dr. Steenberg also noted that there is a popular support for ‘imperial ambitions’ on Hong Kong, Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang that is often hard for outside commentators to understand. 

Highlighting one strain of analysis, Dr. Steenberg notes that the use a Chinese historical perspective to explain China’s rise to power is often used – notably the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, which emphasized hiding one’s strength until become strong enough to assert oneself on the global scene. Commentators, such as Andre Gunder Frank, state that China is currently emerging from the shadows, a narrative often linked to the reversal of the ‘Century of Humiliation.’ In connection to this is China’s policies to go abroad, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its connection and cooperation with Latin American and African countries, and the framing of China as an anti-colonial power, all while furthering its own colonial policies in the process. 

Dr. Steenberg questioned how much of these policies come from grassroot elements compared to state elements. To frame this question, he indicated that there are certain reminders of the joint state and grassroot “Cultural Revolution” that can be found in the re-education camps in Xinjiang, which can be coupled with the breaking up of traditional society to the advantage of a modernization policy pursued by the Chinese government. Scapegoats, both internal and external, are a major part of populism, and in China modern scapegoats take on a different context than they did during the “Cultural Revolution,” especially as China becomes a major global power both economically and militarily. 

Although noting that the global-oriented policies of Deng Xiaoping played a part, according to Dr. Steenberg, the pivotal moment that has put China on its current path was the economic crash of 2008. Furthering this theory, he highlighted that the hardening of borders, refugee crises, the environmental crisis, rising global inequality, and the attack on personal freedoms and liberties globally, have all been the context for both other populist leaders to gain popularity and power across the world, and the breakdown of the liberal world order. This has allowed power to shift towards China and its interests and offers scholars a wealth of avenues from which they can investigate the minute details of how and why this shift is occurring.

Dr. Kun He: “Who Are the People, Populist Articulation of the People in Contemporary China”

According to Dr. Kun He, three categories exist in China to define the ‘people.’ First it is the group that fight against those are defined as ‘foreign others’ and the elites who betray Chinese identity, whilst the idea of a Chinese nation functions as an ideological glue to unite those of the Chinese nationality. These ideas tie into historical contexts of China as ‘victor’ and ‘victim’ to mobilize and protest against the external ‘others.’ The second category of mass resistance is an anti-intellectual emotional appeal, with people rejecting elite dominated cultural production and their institutions, as well as established norms and values. The third category of the people are the netizens who are impoverished, vulnerable, and marginalized in society.

To start his presentation, Dr. Kun He gave examples of successful populist campaigns across the world, stating that ‘populism’ itself is, however, a contested concept. He goes on to give examples used to define populism, including: the ‘pure people’ vs. the ‘elites,’ criticism of established power structures, and its rhetoric and left- and right-wing orientations. Because of the diverse understanding of what populism is, multiple approaches to its study can be found, including populism as an ideology, strategy, discourse, and social movement. Populism’s ability to adapt to changing political and socio-economic circumstances further makes it difficult to pin down an all-encompassing definition. 

Continuing, Dr. He demonstrates that in democratic countries populism often takes a top-down approach, with populist leaders acting as mediators in the name of the people against the elite. However, in China populism takes a more bottom-up approach, with grassroot movements often using collectivist languages – such as ‘we are the 99%.’ According to Dr. He, this difference of perspective is what was needed to pin down a more precise definition of populism, which, according to him, can indeed be understood as ‘the people’ vs. ‘the elite.’ Within China, populism has adapted to fit a Chinese context. By using the anonymity of the internet, Chinese netizens can collectively express their grievances towards the government, which they perceive as corrupt elite with established power. A key characteristic of this approach to populism is that it is decentralized, unlike what is found in democracies. Populism therefore relies on spontaneous and collaborative efforts for collective actions such as disseminating contested information.

By using a video example of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, which itself is steeped in populist rhetoric, Dr. He demonstrated how Trump managed to tap into a general feeling of discontent that many voters felt – the political system was broken, and the government was not serving the people. He goes on to discuss generalities in western populism: a vertical axis of power, and a horizontal axis of boundaries. Modern democratic theory proposes that legitimacy of political power rests on the ‘sovereign people,’ which is why populist leaders can argue that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people. The populist leader therefore represents this will against the corrupt elite who have leading positions in every aspect of society. The ‘people’ is also, therefore, an inclusive and exclusive concept, and contributes to the ambiguity of where the line can be drawn between elites and the people. Dr. He highlights that on larger scales of investigation ‘the people’ should therefore be seen as a united abstract construct. 

According to Dr. He, three categories exist in China to define the ‘people.’ First it is the group that fight against those are defined as ‘foreign others’ and the elites who betray Chinese identity, whilst the idea of a Chinese nation functions as an ideological glue to unite those of the Chinese nationality. These ideas tie into historical contexts of China as ‘victor’ and ‘victim’ to mobilize and protest the external ‘others.’ The second category of mass resistance is an anti-intellectual emotional appeal, with people rejecting elite dominated cultural production and their institutions, as well as established norms and values. The third category of the people are the netizens who are impoverished, vulnerable, and marginalized in society.

Dr. Martin Lavička: “Religion with Chinese Characteristics – Regulating Religions under Xi Jinping’’

Dr. Martin Lavička emphasized that the Chinese government regards religion with suspicion, fearing its potential exploitation by foreign entities to undermine central authority. Consequently, China pursues a strategy of “dereligionizing” religious practices and restructuring religious institutions to conform to the CCP’s centralized control. These regulatory efforts are geared toward preserving the dominance of communist ideology and preempting both internal and external challenges to the party’s power. Moreover, China not only seeks to exert control over religion but also aims to leverage it for its own strategic advantage.

Dr. Martin Lavička began his presentation by arguing that the steady rise of religious believers in China not only poses a significant challenge but also an opportunity for the central government’s leadership. Therefore, the purpose of the presentation was to uncover the Chinese regulatory policies aimed at religious practitioners in China.

Dr. Lavička stated that the Constitution of the Chinese People’s Republic (CPR) prohibits any discrimination based on nationality or religious affiliation. Furthermore, as part of the UN Security Council, China should have a leading role in promoting the UN Bill of Rights. Despite these legal obligations, independent observers such as UN bodies or NGOs have consistently found a more troubling reality regarding religious freedom in China. What is reported specifically is the mistreatment of Uyghurs (a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Xinjian Autonomous region). In 2022, the UN Human Rights Office concluded that China might be responsible for committing crimes against humanity. However, it seems that the strategy of blaming and shaming someone to make them comply with international obligations does not work, especially when it comes to global powers such as China. 

According to Dr. Lavička, even though the majority of the media attention goes to the Muslim Uyghurs, that does not mean that the other religious groups in China are free from oppression and control. The religious restrictions from the Chinese government have intensified since Xi Jinping took office. However, Chinese leaders have not really changed their attitude since the 1980s. Document 19 which was published in 1982 from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stated that religion is a tool for oppression by feudalists and capitalists and the eradication of religion in China would be a lengthy process. However, it appears that the Xi Jinping administration would like to accelerate that process of eradication. In 2016, in a conference relating to religious affairs, Xi Jinping stated that CCP members must consolidate their believes and remain unyielding Marxists and atheists which stands in contrast to the Chinese Constitution and religious freedom. 

Dr. Lavička further argued that the Chinese government views religion with suspicion and believes that foreign forces could use it to undermine the power of the central government. Therefore, the government believes that religion should obey and respect the CCP and adapt to the path of the so-called Socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is also signified by the decision to incorporate the State Administration of Religious Affairs to the United Front Work Department which shows that the CCP wants greater control over religious affairs. However, China not only wants to control religion but also use it for its own benefit. 

According to Dr. Lavička, China has been increasingly attempting to regulate the religious institutions. One of the most important objectives is to ensure that the religious teachings do not undermine the party’s ideology. This means that the religious personnel are carefully selected to convey the right ideas to the religious followers. However, the central government is not only concerned with the religious content and the religious personnel’s loyalty but also with the materialization of the foreign influence. For example, the ban of religious attire such as the head coverings of Muslim women or the removal of architectural features of religious venues such as the domes and minarets of mosques. The central government views those features as bearing foreign influence and undermining the Chinese characteristics. 

Dr. Lavička concluded his presentation by examining the future trajectory of religion in China. He underscored China’s ongoing efforts to “dereligionize” religious practices and reshape religious structures to align with the CCP’s centralized administration. The regulatory measures implemented aim to safeguard the primacy of communist ideology and preempt internal and external challenges to the party’s authority. Ultimately, these initiatives seek to ensure that China’s purported 200 million religious adherents do not place any authority above that of the CCP.

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk: “Unveiling China’s Global Populism – Sharp Power Politics Along the Belt and Road Initiative”

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk highlighted several outcomes of the BRI, including debt-trap diplomacy and the transfer of strategic national interests. To exert influence over countries along the BRI, China employs sharp-power politics, utilizing manipulation, coercion, infiltration, and misinformation to shape societies. Dr. Ozturk emphasized the imperative for democratic nations to reject China’s flawed transnational populist rhetoric. It’s crucial to raise awareness among the populace to counter disinformation and reduce economic reliance on China.

At the outset of his presentation, Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk began by arguing that populism is defined by the enhancement of people’s representation in politics. Therefore, when discussing populism, there is an electoral and competitive aspect wherein the balance of power can shift due to both fair and unfair elections. However, this paradigm does not apply in China, given its one-party system, ensuring the perpetual dominance of the CCP. Consequently, discussing populism in China poses challenges. To effectively analyze the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a shift in perspective is required, moving from national populism to transnational populism.

In the transnational populist approach, the national citizens are replaced with transnational citizens and the national elite with transnational elite. Furthermore, the unit of analysis is on a global scale rather than the national level. There has been one such political effort in Europe, namely the political movement of the former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He wanted to construct a transnational left-wing project with the objective to democratize Europe which would decouple Europeans from their national identities and towards a European one. This European society would vote in European elections and would have a European constitution that would represent them. 

However, Dr. Ozturk aimed to adopt the approach of transnational populism and apply it to China, particularly within the context of the BRI. In this scenario, the ‘elite’ would encompass the capitalist West, namely the US and Europe. China employs critical rhetoric against global corporations and designates them as scapegoats. Additionally, China selectively critiques Western multilateral organizations, highlighting the absence of Chinese representation within them rather than acknowledging their status as global institutions.

Dr. Ozturk argued that there was a principal-agent problem, claiming that China criticizes the global economy and its principal institutions, however China was benefitting from those to a large extent and saw great success because of them. Therefore, it is not clear who China is blaming in terms of global elites. In terms of defining the transnational people, the Chinese approach also fails to conceptualize this idea. China does not advocate globally for the interest of the masses and its diplomacy is based on a state-to-state approach. 

In general, said Dr. Ozturk, China advocates for sovereignty and independence in the international affairs of each state while also promoting collaborative globalization through the BRI. China endeavors to shape discourse around a “global community with a shared destiny and harmonious society,” advancing a win-win nation-state approach encapsulated by “One Belt, Many Recipes.” The BRI stands out for its cooperation model, lacking clear-cut rules and established institutions like Western multilateral organizations. Instead, it operates through Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), offering a flexible framework subject to continuous negotiations and adjustments.

The BRI primarily focuses on projects in extraction, construction, and transportation. However, the complexity and scale of these endeavors, coupled with government involvement and opacity, create opportunities for skimming, corruption, and money laundering. As authoritarian governments seek to benefit from the BRI, they often compromise their sovereignty, undermining their administration and ultimately harming global citizens.

In conclusion, Dr. Ozturk highlighted several outcomes of the BRI, including debt-trap diplomacy and the transfer of strategic national interests. To exert influence over countries along the BRI, China employs sharp-power politics, utilizing manipulation, coercion, infiltration, and misinformation to shape societies. Dr. Ozturk emphasized the imperative for democratic nations to reject China’s flawed transnational populist rhetoric. It’s crucial to raise awareness among the populace to counter disinformation and reduce economic reliance on China.

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang: “The Expanding Reach of China’s Authoritarian Influence: Shaping a New Illiberal Digital Order”

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang highlights China’s ambition to become a cyber superpower, noting its persistent efforts to regulate the digital space. China has promoted the “Digital Silk Road,” aimed at establishing digital infrastructure along the BRI participants and promoting Chinese tech giants. This initiative underscores China’s leadership in a novel form of digital governance, where digital technologies serve both economic advancement and the extension of political power. Consequently, the distinction between Chinese companies’ pursuit of commercial interests and the state’s pursuit of strategic objectives has become increasingly blurred. Some Chinese firms have received subsidies from the central government and collaborated on projects related to military and security.

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang’s presentation centered on delineating the intersection of technology and populism. Dr. Chang initiated by categorizing scholars’ perspectives on the crisis of the liberal world order into two camps. The first group perceives the crisis as temporary, advocating for the continued importance of US rule and influence to uphold the liberal order. Conversely, the second group contends that the crisis has persisted for an extended period and has undergone substantial transformation. According to this perspective, the liberal world order is irreversibly altered and unlikely to revert to its previous state. In this context, China’s influence emerges as pivotal, as a major power dissatisfied with the current global order and actively seeking to reshape it.

Dr. Chang specifically aimed to examine China’s impact on the digital order within the broader context of its emerging influence. The primary concern surrounding the new digital order revolves around whether it will bolster people’s freedom or amplify autocratic influence. Consequently, two main discourses emerge. On one hand, the liberal digital order posits that digital technologies can promote democratic values, freedom of expression, and individual autonomy. On the other hand, digital authoritarianism contends that digital technologies enable governments to exert control over their populace, manipulating and disseminating disinformation. In this narrative, state security and stability take precedence over internet freedom.

In China, according to Dr. Chang, we can already see upcoming ambitions that the country wants to become a cyber superpower. China has been attempting to continuously regulate the digital space. Furthermore, there has been the promotion of the so-called Digital Silk Road which establishes digital infrastructure along the participants of the BRI and promotes Chinese big digital companies. China has been the leader of a new form of digital governance where digital technologies not only advance the economy but also serve as a tool to extend political power. Therefore, the line between the pursuit of Chinese companies towards commercial interests and the state’s pursuit of achieving strategic objectives has been blurred. Some Chinese companies have been subsidized by the central government and have worked together on projects relating to military and security. Therefore, digital technologies can also be used for the advancement of military hardware and not only for economic advancement. 

Dr. Chang’s research delved into the case of Huawei’s “safe city” project, designed to enhance urban safety and reduce crime rates. Participating cities typically share similar characteristics: they are located in Asia or Africa, exhibit limited political liberalism, and fall within the lower-middle income bracket. This underscores China’s influence in establishing a digital authoritarian paradigm. The rationale behind Huawei’s safe city initiative is straightforward. Cities facing public order challenges and high crime rates demand solutions, prompting Chinese companies to offer digital technologies as a remedy. These companies are particularly attractive to states due to their ability to provide enhanced capacity and legibility.

A notable case study is Huawei’s sponsored safe city project in Nairobi, Kenya. In response to the city’s high crime rate, thousands of cameras were installed throughout the urban area to collect and transmit information to local law enforcement agencies. However, despite these efforts, there has been no significant reduction in the crime rate. Additionally, the absence of data protection laws in Kenya raises concerns about the relationship between the government and its citizens, potentially exacerbating tensions.

In conclusion, Dr. Chang asserted that the safe city project should be examined from both demand and supply perspectives, as China did not impose these technological assets on participating countries. Moreover, Dr. Chang contended that deploying surveillance technologies does not necessarily lead to the advancement of authoritarian leadership. Looking ahead, this digital order has the potential to facilitate not only authoritarianism but also democracy. However, it’s crucial to recognize that liberal and authoritarian digital ecosystems cannot coexist indefinitely within the same environment. Political leaders must make a decisive choice between the two paradigms. 

Symposium

The Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power 

Please cite as:

Sithole, Neo; Pretorius, Christo; Valev, Radoslav; Guidotti, Andrea & Duman, Hilal. (2024). The Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 28, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0055     

 

ECPS’ Third Annual International Symposium on the Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power, conducted online from March 19-20, 2024, raised the question of whether populist policies are contributing to a new wave of illiberal world order, marked by economic protectionism and political isolation. The symposium also aimed to explore the mechanisms that bolster the resilience of populist movements and the implications of their actions for the advancement of a necessary new-generation globalization.

BNeo SitholeChristo Pretorius, Radoslav ValevAndrea Guidotti Hilal Duman

Introduction 

The evolving dynamics of multipolarity and the shifts in global power dynamics have cast shadows on the relevance, legitimacy, and effectiveness of established international cooperation platforms, such as the UN, G-20, World Bank, IMF, EBRD, WTO, and WHO. Concurrently, the rise of initiatives such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), spearheaded by authoritarian and populist leaders, raises questions about their role in shaping the future of global governance. Thus, calls for reform of the post-war global governance architecture, often perceived as “weak” and “disingenuous,” have largely remained unanswered. These developments have far-reaching implications, impacting the ability to address global challenges such as climate change, food security, conflict resolution, and humanitarian crises. As a result, proxy conflicts, political oppression, terrorism, and displacement have triggered irregular and uncontrolled migration, contributing to the rise of far-right parties in developed nations. 

Meanwhile, populist leaders, often prioritizing arbitrariness and contingency over rule-based “multilateral” governance, have operated under the assumption that their actions bear no consequences. What’s concerning is that despite facing numerous economic challenges compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, several populist governments have managed to maintain their grip on power. In our increasingly fragmented world, characterized by diverse actors and factors, these leaders have devised alternative strategies to prolong their tenures, sometimes exacerbating systemic challenges. They have resonated with their constituents by attributing their failures to non-economic factors such as independence and sovereignty.

Hence, the objective of ECPS’ “Third Annual International Symposium on the Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power,” held online between March 19-20, 2024, was to question whether a new wave of illiberal world order, characterized by economic protectionism and political isolation, is perpetuated by populist policies. The symposium aimed to address the mechanisms reinforcing their resilience and the implications of their actions on the necessary new-generation globalization.

You can peruse the report, which comprises summaries of the presentations and speeches delivered throughout the ECPS’ two-day symposium.

Opening Session 

Irina VON WIESE, the Honorary President of the ECPS, delivered the opening speech, setting the stage for deliberations.  Dr. Barrie AXFORD (Professor Emeritus of Politics at Oxford Brookes University), delivered the first keynote speech of the symposium, exploring “The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization.”

Opening Speech by Irina von WIESE 

The honorary president of the ECPS, Irina von Weise, opened the symposium by drawing the audience’s attention first to the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s election in 2016, both of which were successful full-scale populist campaigns. Von Weise added that as a result of these successes, we can not only expect a potential second term for Trump but also a record number of attacks on people’s freedom coinciding with a record number of elections across the world in 2024. According to her, human rights, including the right of freedom of opinion, expression, and association, and the freedom of the press, are the foundations of democracy but have come increasingly under attack across the world. Quoting a German saying, von Weise issued a stark warning: ‘Beware of the beginnings,’ for while countries like the UK and Germany have not reached the point where they have become totalitarian dictatorships like Russia, there has been an erosion of people’s rights. 

Using the UK as a case study, von Wiese highlighted that, in her view, the populist agenda amounts to an attack on democracy and the rule of law in Britain. She notes that Boris Johnson’s attempt in 2019 to see if a hold could be put hold Brexit was a crude assault on the democratic process but ultimately prevented by the UK Supreme Court. In response, the populist media and rhetoric vilified the Supreme Court as members of the ‘ruling elite’ whilst championing Johnson as defending the people since he only wanted to ‘get Brexit done.’ The second attack on the rule of law also came from Johnson’s government when they ignored the treaty, they had just signed with the European Union regarding the post-Brexit trade terms in Northern Ireland, damaging the UK’s international credibility. As a final example, von Wiese indicated that the threat of withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights by Prime Minister Sunak, made in an attempt to appease the far-right wing, would also help enable a nationalist populist immigration policy. Underpinning all these attacks were populist tactics aimed at spreading disinformation, anti-elitist rhetoric, and fostering international polarization among the British people, pitting ethnicities, and religious communities against each other. However, von Wiese ended her speech on a hopeful note, expressing her belief that liberal democracy in the UK is resilient to such attacks. She emphasized that civic education would continue to immunize people against populist manipulation, and we should remain mindful of these beginnings, which often lead down a slippery slope.

Report by Christo Pretorius

Keynote Speech 1

Dr. Barrie AXFORD: “The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization”

Dr. Barrie Axford’s keynote speech elaborated on the complex interplay between rising multipolarity, authoritarian populist governance, multilateralism, and globalization’s evolving nature. His paper has since been published in ECPS’ digital journal Politics & Populismhttps://doi.org/10.55271/pp0031.

Acknowledging the vastness of the topic and its diverse perspectives, Dr. Axford highlighted the current challenges facing the liberal international order, such as the rise of multipolarity, the retreat of multilateralism, and the resurgence of populism. After giving an overarching panorama of the scholarship, and his take on the policy world, he set the stage for a deeper exploration of these themes.

Dr. Axford’s comprehensive speech delivered a critical analysis of multilateralism within the framework of the liberal international order, exploring the ambiguity surrounding the concept of the liberal international order and multipolarity. The emergence of multipolarity and its implications for the existing world order was critical to understanding the use and abuse of the liberal order. Besides relatively more obvious challenges to liberal order from authoritarian powers like China and Russia, “the Western world” poses a threat to liberal values, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s presidency. Yet, the growing calls for a more multipolar world order challenge the dominance of Western values and institutions as the existing liberal order relies on Western powers and institutions. 

According to Dr. Axford, tensions within the liberal international order include the coexistence of state sovereignty and liberal principles and the challenges of defining and implementing multilateral cooperation. Yet, the abuse of liberalism is complex. At this juncture, the rise of populism can be seen as a response to the globalized world’s interconnectivity and rejecting its borderless narrative. Populism represents a broader struggle between national and global imaginaries, signaling a shift away from neoliberal globalization narratives. 

Dr. Axford deepened his analysis of globalization and populism by discussing the evolving nature of security in the context of globalization. He referenced previous research on existential security and compared it with the current sense of volatility and insecurity, especially in wealthy countries. This shift in security perceptions contributes to the broader backlash against globalization. The digital world and technologies have contributed to globalizing crises and polarization. 

Observing a shift in individuals’ perceptions of security and existential certainty, Dr. Axford, classified this as part of the crisis of second modernity, which is characterized by increased awareness of risks and uncertainties in the contemporary world. Despite advancements in technology and knowledge, modern societies grapple with profound existential insecurities driven by factors such as declining real incomes, job insecurity, income inequality, environmental degradation, health crises, and perceived threats from immigration. These challenges fuel fears about survival and rights, leading to a resurgence of xenophobic, populist, and authoritarian movements.

This crisis of second modernity has led to a rejection of Western modernity and its associated neoliberal globalization narrative, manifesting in various forms such as anti-globalization, neo-statist rhetoric, and populist movements that seek to reclaim national identities and sovereignty. In this sense, populism is reactive to the perceived failure of reflexive modernization and the inability of institutions to address everyday challenges effectively.

Moving forward, Dr. Axford discussed the implications of globalization and digitalization for contemporary politics and society, commenting that the emergence of diverse forms of globalization challenges the hegemony of the West. Additionally, he emphasized the role of digitalization in reshaping global interactions, economies, and cultures, as it facilitates connectivity, and generates new social dynamics, power structures, and modes of governance. However, this coincides with concerns about surveillance, homogenization, and the erosion of human connections.

The concept of “multipolar globalization” was also discussed by Dr. Axford. This idea paves the way for alternative development and governance models globally, to him, especially as economic power shifts from the West to the East. Delving deeper into the interplay between populism, globalization, and the shifting dynamics of contemporary politics, Dr. Axford focused on the resurgence of “sovereignty” in contemporary politics, highlighting the idea of “sovereigntism,” which represents a longing for a more internalized version of sovereign power that emphasizes mutually exclusive territories and a retrenchment of the national dimension. However, Dr. Axford noted that sovereignty does not necessarily entail a complete withdrawal from globalization but rather seeks to fortify national identity and autonomy within the international system.

Dr. Axford next evaluated the effectiveness of the nation-state in addressing the challenges posed by globalization and populism. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a test of state capacity and resilience, challenging the perception of the state as a guarantor of security and well-being. Despite the vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic, Dr. Axford suggested that the nation-state remains a significant actor in global affairs, particularly in terms of resource management and governance.

Emphasizing the diversity and complexity of contemporary global politics, Dr. Axford argues against labels such as “global capitalism” or “neoliberal order” and emphasizes the need for critical descriptions that account for globalization’s diverse origins and temperaments.

Concluding, Dr. Axford stated that he views populism as a response to economic and cultural insecurities exacerbated by globalization and modernity and reflected on the implications of populism and insecurity for global politics. He acknowledged the deep-seated anger and polarization fueling populist movements but questioned the sustainability of radical solutions in the long term, suggesting that populism may be symptomatic of broader ontological, political shifts, reflecting a reconfiguration of identity and collective consciousness in response to global uncertainties.

Report by Hilal Duman

Panel 1: Interactions Between Multilateralism, Multi-Order World, and Populism

Moderated by Dr. Albena AZMANOVA (Professor, Chair in Political and Social Science, Department of Politics and International Relations and Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent), the first panel focused on: “The Interactions Between Multilateralism, The Multi-Order World, and Populism.” Dr. Stewart PATRICK (Senior Fellow and Director, Global Order and Institutions Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) opened the panel with a discussion titled “Reimagining Global Economic Governance and the State of Global Governance.” Following him, Dr. Viktor JAKUPEC (Honorary Professor of International Development, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Australia; Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, Potsdam University, Germany) presented on “Multipolarity and a Post-Ukraine War New World Order: The Rise of Populism.”

Dr. Stewart PATRICK: “Reimagining Global Economic Governance and the State of the Global Governance” 

Dr. Stewart Patrick gave a speech on the crisis of neoliberalism and on whether it is possible to imagine a new model of global economic governance that is resilient, sustainable, and able to deliver essential global public goods. The starting point was the assumption that the neoliberal ideology has often failed to provide economic prosperity and political stability because of the financialization of the world economy. Additionally, shocks such as the financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the resurgence of geopolitical conflicts, opened new avenues for major institutional change. In this sense, some governments started to renegotiate the terms of their integration within the global economy, particularly as they try to reassert their sovereignty. 

According to Dr. Patrick, different from the past, prominent critics are coming from former supporters of globalization, such as the United States, and the increasing conviction that the major institutions for global economic governance are not fit any more for their purposes, as they are unable to represent shifts in power relations around the world. While certifying these developments, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the Managing Director of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, referred to the need for a new ‘Bretton Woods moment’ to restore the social bargain among international actors. 

To fulfil the outlined purposes, the Dr. Patrick remarked that we need new rules and institutions, and a narrative that sustains and legitimizes them appropriately. Moreover, we must remember that we are also facing a crisis of multilateralism alongside neoliberalism, as multiple governments have lost faith in the ability of current international cooperation frameworks from a security, and accountability driven point of view. Within this context, Dr. Patrick posed the following question: Is it realistic to envision a more equitable and responsive globalization that can balance the realities of global pluralism and diverse preferences, given these dynamics? This would entail giving more voice and weight to the worldwide majority under the guidance of standard rules of international cooperation. The critical challenge lies in reconciling the domestic and international aspects of this balance while updating multilateral institutions to help mitigate the negative spillovers of national policy choices. 

Before answering this question, Dr. Patrick explained more specifically what the Global World Order currently stands for. At a minimum, it implies a degree of predictability or pattern regularity in interstate relations. In other words, it has to rely on a stable power distribution and, hence, the accompanying normative principles of conduct that help to drain the spontaneous anarchy of the system. The distinctiveness of the post-war global order is the proliferation of international organizations’ frameworks, regimes, and treaties across every global domain. This process accelerated after the end of the Cold War and has been complemented by transnational networks of non-governmental actors. The US and its allies have been the main drivers of integration within the order, following the goal of fostering capitalism, democracy and collective defense. 

One point Dr. Patrick stressed is that the crisis of the multilateral world order does not only concern competing and conflicting material interests of its members, but it increasingly involves fundamental divergences of different world order visions over the purposes that global governance should advance, and, therefore, the rules and principles to be followed to grant these interests. Some of the diverging ideas pertain to governing financial development and investments, managing the global commons, and addressing the Earth system concerning climate change and biodiversity, global health, as well as upholding democracy and human rights as essential values. We are witnessing both a resurgence of the East-West divide, particularly in relation to Russia and China, and a deterioration in North-South relations between wealthy and developing countries. Emerging powers like India and Brazil are increasingly assertive, seeking to transition from being mere rule-takers to becoming rule-makers themselves. To conclude, all of these new trends are suggesting the development of a new world order that is normatively thinner. Put another way, global governance will need to aspire less in the domain of global governance. 

Exploring some of the other major issues the global world order is currently facing, Dr. Patrick highlighted a second factor complicating the international world order. Backlash to globalization comes in the argument that it ultimately did not bind nations closer together due to increasing inequalities among and within them. The main losers in this trend have been the lower and middle classes in rich countries, while the big winners are the already wealthy. The third major shock, as a by-product of reducing people living in extreme poverty and increasing their living standards, has been climate change, which is shaping the Earth system. In the face of it, there is an increasing understanding that the cause is at least partially coming from the acquired benefits caused by increased living conditions. 

A fourth challenge is the demographic mismatch between young and old people: while some countries are well below replacement levels, others are booming in practically uncontrolled fertility rates. New risks posed by innovation and technological improvements are related to massive dislocation in knowledge-based sectors, and monopolistic developments. The sixth trend, and the most related to our symposium, is democratic backlash around the global and the parallel rising of populism. This has reinforced the retreat from a common civil and political culture and provided authoritarian governments with an unprecedented surveillance capability. Moreover, a vacuum of leadership, mainly coming from the US, favored skepticism and fueled uncertainty in the multilateral system, marking a qualitative departure from decades of internationalism. 

To conclude his speech, Dr. Patrick tried to offer five solutions to these problems: First, we should learn from history on how relevant policy-oriented ideas, including the empowerment of social movements and the mobilization of broad coalitions, gain political prominence. Dramatic institutional change often occurred during policy failure moments and where crises discredited established orthodoxies, opening a window of opportunity for new models and frameworks of thinking. 

Second, any reimagining and reforming of the system of global economic governance would require building a world economy that rewards labor as much as capital to ensure that the gains from globalization are fairly and equitably shared. Put differently, it is a kind of embedded liberalism along the lines of the post-war period. 

Third, we must invest equally in natural capital as human, physical, and financial capital. That is to say, we need to manage the collision between the Earth and the international systems, remembering that nature is a precondition for human well-being and rethinking environmental damage differently from an unavoidable externality of market activities. The battle against climate change has not to be seen as a costly distraction from the imperative of development but as one of its crucial components. 

Fourth, it’s crucial to expand the benefits of the digital revolution beyond its current winner-take-all dynamics. AI holds the potential to become as widespread and transformative as electricity, but we must ensure its development and accessibility are inclusive for all. This requires the establishment of secure, interoperable digital public infrastructures governed by trusted systems that citizens can access for public services.

Finally, we need to free up space at the top of the global governing system for rising powers within multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and UN Security Council. They will gain legitimacy if relevant adjustments, and not necessarily drastic changes, are implemented. 

Dr. Viktor JAKUPEC: “Multipolarity and a Post-Ukraine War New World Order: The Rise of Populism” 

Dr. Viktor Jakupec, who explored the shifts in power relations and ideological preferences, examined multipolarity in the aftermath of the post-Ukraine war and the new world order, with a specific focus on populism. His main thesis is that after the Russian-Ukrainian war, we will end up in a post-war setting composed of two different orders: a liberal rule-based order and a multipolar populist world order. The war between Russia and Ukraine has catalyzed significant political paradigm shifts, particularly regarding the shifts from liberalism to populism across various global contexts. The primary reason is that a growing portion of the population in the EU is experiencing economic hardship and growing disillusionment with the sanctions imposed on Russia and their consequences. From the point of view of the wider population, the liberal political leadership is focusing on Western liberal values and ideologies at the expense of national interests, while the populist political leadership is directing its attention towards national economic issues and alleviating the negative impacts of the sanctions. 

This divide in priorities sets the stage for significant political shifts, which become evident in the discourse surrounding the 2024 elections in both Europe and the US. The cumulative paradigm shift that is carried by EU elections consists of the weakening of the liberal rules-based world order and the strengthening of the rise of a multipolar populist world order. In this respect, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is causing multiple effects: it is catalyzing a further rise of populism, eroding neoliberalism globally, highlights weaknesses in liberal institutions, and shows the inability of liberal institutions to address complex international relations. Ultimately this causes widespread and general disillusion in liberal ideologies, increasing the appeal of populist movements, and a parallel turn to national interests and sovereignty. 

From the geopolitical point of view, the conflict has had a significant impact on liberal entities such as NATO, the EU, and the UN, especially as it forces nations to align themselves, exacerbating tensions, and prompting diplomatic recalibration. In addition, the Global South criticized the EU and the US’ involvement as a case of neo-colonialism, being in parallel, for many countries, non-compliant with Western sanctions. Taken more broadly, the Global South is moving away from the Washington consensus and is becoming closer to the Beijing one, thus creating new alliances in the global arena and reshaping the multipolar world order. The alliance that currently stands as prominent in criticizing the liberal world order is represented by the BRICS, that, with the addition of countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, is now almost counting for half the size of the global population. 

In conclusion, Dr. Jakupec first discussed the tendency for the populist multipolar order to counterbalance the liberal rules-based world order, highlighting that there is a coexistence between these two orders. He further stated that there is a possibility for the resurgence of an in-out bloc division along the lines of the Cold War divide. Dr. Jakupec also theorized that the complex interplay of geopolitical dynamics and domestic political forces will result in political and military power distribution among multiple actors, enhancing the sovereign capabilities of nation-states from a realist perspective, while also providing a greater diversity of geopolitical and geoeconomic perspectives. This will provide more resilience against the hegemony of a specific country, while also empowering grassroots movements and the protection of socio-cultural identities. 

Report by Andrea Guidotti  

Panel 2: The Future of Democracy Between Resilience & Decline

The second panel, moderated by Dr. Nora FISHER-ONAR (Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of San Francisco), delved into “The Future of Democracy Between Resilience and Decline.” She emphasized that this panel aimed to gather insights from experts across various global regions, focusing on the intersection of material concerns in International Political Economy and normative issues such as democratic resilience and human rights.

Dr. James BACCHUS (Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs; Director of the Center for Global Economic and Environmental Opportunity, School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs, University of Central Florida, Former Chairman of the WTO Appellate Body) was the panel’s first speaker, delivering a speech on “The Impact of Populist Authoritarian Politics on the Future Course of Globalization, Economics, the Rule of Law, and Human Rights.” Following him, Dr. Kurt WEYLAND (Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin) presented on “Resilience of Democracies Against Authoritarian Populism.” Concluding the panel, Dr. Marina NORD (Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg) delivered a speech entitled “Global Trends for Democracy and Autocracy: On the Third Wave of Autocratization and Cases of Democratic Reversals.”

Dr. James BACCHUS: “The Impact of Populist Authoritarian Politics on the Future Course of Globalization, Economics, the Rule of Law and Human Rights”

Dr. Bacchus began by stating that he is an optimist influenced by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper, who believes humans are inherently good. However, continuing, he said it’s hard to remain an optimist in the face of the current collective global issues, such as climate change and the need for sustainable development. According to him, the danger of being pessimistic about populism is that we might start to accept the premise that widespread involvement in politics is harmful and would legitimize the concerns of populists that people who hold those views are “elitists.” 

According to Dr. Bacchus, public participation can be positive as well as negative globally, and the need to look at political and geopolitical events in context is what’s needed. He found that in the United States, the consensus amongst historians, including himself, is that the populist movement in the 19th century had a positive influence on broadening and deepening American democracy and justice. Although the populists never won the presidency, their ideas were adopted by both the Democratic and, to a lesser extent, the Republican parties at the time – ideas such as the direct election of senators and personal income tax, which were all part of the Ocala Demands which originated from a convention of the Populist Party in Ocala, Florida, in 1890. This example highlights Dr. Bacchus’ previous statement that one of our challenges is galvanizing popular participation in a way that produces positive results, not negative ones.

Over the last decade, since the global recession, dangerous forms of populism have grown, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Bacchus focuses on Donald Trump as one of these individuals, remarking that his comments during a rally for Senate candidate Bernie Moreno in Ohio on March 16, 2024, where he predicted a bloodbath if he does not win the presidential election, are not traditionally found in American politics but have become increasingly common. This highlights the highly divisive nature of recent populist rhetoric that aim to polarize public opinion. Trump wants to showcase that with multilateralism America will lose its national industry which will negatively impact the American economy. By creating a climate of fear and attributing economic challenges to multilateralism, a potential victory for Trump in the upcoming elections could result significant shifts in open trade and economic cooperation between nations. 

With the high popularity of Trump in America, right-wing populism is undoubtedly the prevailing populist movement. However, Dr. Bacchus highlighted that there is also a potential for left-wing populism in the United States. So far, no political party has tried to engage with the legitimate concerns of the people – such as the proposed higher taxes on upper-income individuals to provide greater services to those in need. In Dr. Bacchus’ opinion, the US has not seen a president like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who he believes is currently the type of leadership the country needs. There is a positive outcome to this, however, as Dr. Bacchus believes that current events will strengthen democracy in the long term.

Dr. Bacchus looked to the global stage and highlights emerging democracies worldwide in Indonesia and Brazil. The need for a “strong democracy” is a proposed democracy by the philosopher Benjamin Barber, who called for a much more participatory system. These democracies are much more suitable for facing the current global crises. The need to promote affirmative kinds of citizenship and participation is needed. The form of this, which Dr Bacchus suggested, is that trust needs to either be restored or created towards the system, and the right kind of leadership is needed, as opposed to a ‘finger in the wind.’

Dr. Kurt WEYLAND: “Resilience of Democracies Against Authoritarian Populism” 

To start his talk, Dr. Kurt Weyland highlighted that the concern of populism arose around Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The fear is that if movements like this can occur in the United States, which is often seen as the paragon of liberal democracy, then it can certainly happen in other countries. The crux of his argument is that the focus on cases where populist leaders have strangled democracy can be misleading because the majority of populists do not actually end up destroying democracy.

His research started by defining populism – a movement that revolves around a personalistic plebiscitary leadership, a domineering figure that claims to fight for the people. Two key factors are present in this definition: First, these figures are a threat because they not only run up against the checks and balances that liberal democracy has in place to try and constrain people like them, and second, they base their power on mass support from the people, and thus try to establish a direct personal emotional connection to them. This kind of pandering means that a populist “supercharges” their appeals, rallying them around the flag that they are fighting against the elite. Supporting these populist leaders undermines civil electoral democratic competition, as it alienates democratic competitors not as legitimate alternatives but as enemies to be fought.

Because Dr. Weyland argued that populism’s threat to democracy is real and serious but not as severe as it is depicted. He believes that populism is an inherently dangerous movement, he investigated forty cases of populist leaders that won power in Latin America and Europe over the last four decades and found that only seven had destroyed their respective country’s democracies. This number is so low because when populist leaders come to power, they face a high risk of being overturned. Investigating the cases where populists managed to destroy democracies would, therefore, shed light on the conditions they needed to do so. Dr. Weyland found that when a country has weak institutions, populist leaders have more opportunities to concentrate power, which means that in countries with a tradition of strong institutions, such as Western Europe or the US, there is less chance for a populist to damage the democratic system. However, this doesn’t paint the full picture because there are cases where populists did not destroy a country’s democracy despite weak institutions – such as Pedro Castillo’s election in Peru. 

The second factor Weyland focuses on is popular support, which has proven difficult for many populists to gain. For example, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador reportedly had 80-90% support. This support can come in two types, according to Dr. Weyland. The first is a massive resource windfall, such as in the cases of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa, where the government has an enormous revenue source from which they can roll out generous social programs, buy off businesspeople and politicians through juicy contracts and corruption respectively. Economic windfalls are significant for left-wing populists who want to lift people out of poverty, but the conditions also allow them to destroy and strangle democracy. 

On the other hand, there are severe economic crises, such as hyperinflation. Populist leaders can use this as the catalyst to launch their campaign as the people’s savior by controlling the situation. Alberto Fujimori is one such populist who solved hyperinflation and gained major support. According to Dr. Weyland these economic crises are essential for the rise of right-wing populists, as their appeal is typically order and stability, with numerous examples of right-wing populist leaders being elected in the wake of the 2008 financial crash – such as in Hungry – and Erdogan in Turkey following a crisis in 2001. 

Dr. Weyland argued that his findings hold validity, especially when using South America as a case example, because right-wing populism is less likely on the continent, except in the cases of Alberto Fujimori and Nayib Bukele, who both utilized economic crises to come to power. Both also solved a serious public security threat by decapitating the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency and fighting serious gang crime, respectively. This focus on public security is another critical factor for right-wing populists and adds another crisis for the populist to solve, thus increasing his popularity. Dr. Weyland added that sometimes solving one crisis isn’t enough, as in the case of Álvaro Uribe Vélez in Columbia who tackled a public security challenge but was ultimately voted out after his second term, and Carlos Menem of Argentina who was voted out even though he had gained popularity by fighting hyperinflation. 

Dr. Weyland ended his presentation by recapping his talk – highlighting that institutional weakness and a unique conjunctive opportunity are the key ingredients needed for a populist to destroy a democracy, and thus in his opinion, Western European populist leaders such as Marine Le Pen, and US populist Donald Trump cannot be considered a serious threat to American democracy. Paradoxically, Weyland found that a report from Freedom House found that former Italian populist leader Silvio Berlusconi improved Italian democracy because his opposition mobilized more participation. In conclusion while populist leaders do present a threat, Dr. Weyland warns we should be too alarmed by them because democratic resilience is stronger than one thinks. 

Dr. Marina NORD: “Global Trends for Democracy and Autocracy: On the Third Wave of Autocratization and the Cases of Democratic Reversals”

Based on the latest report from the V-Dem Institute, Dr. Marina Nord’s presentation focused on the global changes in democracies and autocracies. According to the report, there are the same number of democracies worldwide as in 1985, with an overall trend of democracy regressing. Since 2009, for fifteen years in a row, the number of people living in autocracies has overshadowed those living in democracies. Political systems, as interpreted by V-Dem, are categorized in different ways – Closed Autocracy, Electoral Autocracy, Electoral Democracy, and Liberal Democracy – with a grey zone between the broadly defined autocratic systems and democratic systems, which encompass countries that are harder to classify due to confidence intervals overlapping. From these definitions, V-Dem has found that Closed Autocracies have increased since 2013, while the number of liberal democracies has decreased. Conversely, there are more electoral democracies currently than electoral autocracies. 

Based on population levels, more people, about 71%, live under autocratic regimes than democratic regimes, extensive in part due to India’s changing political situation. This statistic highlights the growth of authoritarianism globally, as in 2003, only 50% of the world’s population lived under an autocratic regime. V-Dem focuses on specific ‘democracy indices’ when compiling their reports, such as voting, regional elections, freedom of association, clean elections and freedom of expression, with a net positive increase in 2013 for all these indices globally. However, in 2023, nearly all these indices saw a net negative decrease, with clean elections and freedom of expression most affected by global political changes.

When looking at the top-20 declining indicators: government censorship, freedom of expression, harassment of journalists, and free and fair elections- they are all in decline this year. Dr Nord highlights that this is probably because they are the first aspects governments target as they were autocratic. 

Regarding regional changes, Dr. Nord showed that autocratizing countries are mainly in Eastern Europe, North Africa, India, and Central Asia, especially with larger populations. The trends in regime change highlight that in 1992, the number of democratizing countries reached its apex, which coincides with Francis Fukuyama’s book ‘The End of History,’ but since then, the trend has reversed with more countries autocratizing increasing during what has been called ‘the third wave of autocratization.’ Today, according to V-Dem, there are 42 autocratic countries, of which 28 were once democracies, and only 15 have chosen to remain democracies in 2023. 

A distinction is made between ‘stand-alone’ autocracies, in which countries continuously slide into autocratization, of which 8 out of 10 investigated countries, such as Greece and Poland, started as democracies and slowly autocratized. On the other hand, ‘Bell-turn’ autocratization represents failed democracies, where an attempt was made to democratize, but ultimately the country returned to being an autocracy. Examples of these include South Korea, Indonesia and Mali. Dr. Nord indicated that one of the reasons behind this is the decline of freedom of expression, which generally only survives in a later stage of democratization. 

Today, only 18 countries are democratizing, with Brazil being the country with the largest population represented. Once again, V-Dem differentiates between ‘stand-alone’ democratizers and ‘U-turn’ democratizers, with the latter being more important to study as autocratic policies and institutes were reversed. On average, 70% of autocratic countries have been found to have democratized once again in the last 30 years. Because the ‘U-turn’ examples were essential to investigate, Dr. Nord found that large-scale popular mobilization, judicial independence and action, a unified opposition, critical elections and events, and support and protection for democratic ideas were some of the main reasons for countries to democratize again. 

To conclude, Dr. Nord talked about this year’s election, showing that most countries have autocratized during elections. 

Report by Christo Pretorius

Keynote Speech 2

Dr. Robert KUTTNER: “How Globalization, under Neoliberal Auspices, Has Stimulated Right-wing Populism and What Might Be Done to Arrest That Tendency?”   

The second keynote speech of the symposium featured Dr. Robert KUTTNER, Meyer and Ida Kirstein Professor in Social Planning and Administration at Brandeis University’s Heller School, Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The American Prospect. It revolved around populism and its connection to globalization, with a focus on understanding its origins, manifestations, and implications for democracy. Dr. Kuttner, offered a comprehensive analysis of the subject matter, critiquing neoliberal policies and their role in stimulating right-wing populism while advocating for alternative approaches to economic governance.

Dr. Kuttner discussed the nexus between globalization, neoliberalism, and the rise of right-wing populism, drawing from historical contexts and contemporary political landscapes. The discussion aimed to unravel the intricate relationship between these phenomena and their implications for democratic governance in the 21st century. Through a meticulous examination of past movements, economic theories, and policy frameworks, Dr. Kuttner offers a nuanced perspective on the complex dynamics shaping modern democracies.

Dr. Kuttner traced populism’s roots to the late 19th century, emphasizing its dual nature encompassing both progressive and right-wing elements. He distinguished between left-wing and right-wing populism, highlighting their respective ideological underpinnings and socio-political dynamics. 

Analyzing historical precedents, Dr. Kuttner underscored the impact of economic crises, austerity measures, and nationalist sentiments in fostering right-wing movements, citing examples from Europe and the United States. He emphasized the significance of post-World War II recovery programs in curbing far-right extremism and promoting social democratic principles. By contextualizing contemporary developments within a historical framework, Dr. Kuttner illuminated the cyclical nature of populist mobilization and its resonance with periods of socio-economic upheaval.

Dr. Kuttner critiqued the neoliberal paradigm, citing its role in exacerbating economic inequality, weakening labor movements, and privileging corporate interests. He highlighted the adverse effects of globalization, particularly the erosion of national sovereignty and the exacerbation of socio-economic disparities. By interrogating the underlying assumptions of neoliberal economics, Dr. Kuttner challenged the prevailing orthodoxy and called for a reevaluation of economic priorities. In contrast, he praises post-World War II recovery programs for curbing far-right extremism and promoting social democratic principles.

Linking neoliberal policies to the rise of right-wing populism, Dr. Kuttner discussed how economic insecurity, coupled with cultural anxieties and immigration, fueled populist movements. He analyzed the electoral successes of far-right parties and leaders across Europe and the United States, attributing their appeal to disillusionment with mainstream politics and neoliberalism. 

Proposing alternatives to neoliberalism, Dr. Kuttner advocated for a return to managed capitalism, tighter regulations, and inclusive economic policies. He cited examples of progressive measures undertaken by the Biden administration, including industrial policies and support for trade unions, as potential remedies to address socio-economic grievances. By offering concrete policy recommendations, Dr. Kuttner sought to bridge the gap between theoretical analysis and practical policymaking, emphasizing the importance of political will and collective action in effecting meaningful change.

Throughout his presentation, Dr. Kuttner engaged with the ideas of various scholars to support his arguments. He references John Maynard Keynes’ warnings about the consequences of austerity economics and Karl Polanyi’s analysis of the pitfalls of unregulated capitalism. Additionally, Dr. Kuttner drew on the works of contemporary scholars such as Danny Rodrik to propose alternative frameworks for economic governance.

The seminar conducted by Dr. Robert Kutner provides a deep dive into the multifaceted relationship between populism and globalization, shedding light on its historical underpinnings, contemporary manifestations, and socio-political implications. Through a meticulous examination of past movements, economic theories, and policy frameworks, Dr. Kuttner offers a nuanced perspective on the complex dynamics shaping modern democracies. His critique of neoliberalism and advocacy for alternative policy approaches contribute to a richer understanding of the challenges posed by right-wing populism in an era of globalization. By engaging with scholarly literature and advancing novel perspectives, Dr. Kuttner enriches the discourse surrounding populism and globalization, laying the groundwork for informed policymaking and democratic renewal.

Report by Radoslav Valev

Panel 3: Globalization in Transition

Moderated by  Dr. Anna SHPAKOVSKAYA (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, China Research Analyst at Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University), the third panel of the symposium explored “Globalization in Transition.”  Dr. Steven R. DAVID (Professor of Political Science at The Johns Hopkins University) presented the first speech titled “China’s Appeal to Populist Leaders: A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed.” Dr. Jinghan ZENG (Professor of China and International Studies at Lancaster University) followed with a presentation titled “Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Vision for Globalization.” The third speech of this panel was presented by Humphrey HAWKSLEY (Author, Commentator and Broadcaster) on “Predicting the Nature of the Next Generation Globalization under China, Multipolarity, and Authoritarian Populism.” A special commentator alongside the speakers was Dr. Ho Tze Ern BENJAMIN (Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, Coordinator at the China Program, and International Relations Program).

In her brief introduction to the panel, Dr. Shpakovskaya highlighted that despite the topic of globalization’s age, its relevance should not be underemphasized, particularly given the volatility of the international arena in light of geopolitical events. This underscores the importance of conversations around globalization, which have become increasingly critical. Few actors in these conversations have become as vital and pivotal to the changing international dynamic as China.

Dr. Steven R. DAVID: “China’s Appeal to Populist Leaders: A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed” 

Dr. Steven R. David’s speech dealt with China’s appeal to populist leaders and why it matters in terms of the competition for influence between China and the United States, a competition that is estimated to involve close to 40% of the world’s leaders. Prefacing his talk, Dr. David stated that in this competition, China holds several key advantages and looks not only at what these advantages are but also at what can be done to respond to them. 

To understand why populist leaders may turn to China, it’s first necessary to understand what the interests of these leaders are- to do this utilize the theory of omni-balancing. Omni-balancing was developed as a correction to the traditional balance of power theory. In the traditional balance of power theory, states’ heads pursue the national interest, often protecting their countries from external threats like invasions, war, or conquest. Dr. David offers some of the ways omni-balancing differs from traditional balance of power approaches. These include the argument that it’s not so much the national interest that drives the way leaders behave but rather their interest. Here, what is central to the leaders, is maintaining power, and in trying to achieve this end, leaders are hyper-focused on finding countries that are best suited in terms of a willingness and the capacity to assist in helping the leader remain at the helm. Chief among these is the recognition that the most serious threats are not those posed to the state’s security, but rather those directed towards the leaders’ grip on power. While the traditional balance of power theory primarily concerns itself with external threats, omni-balancing theory shifts the focus to domestic challenges. This shift occurs because what concerns populist leaders most urgently are domestic issues such as mass protests, coups, insurgencies, and assassination attempts. According to the omni-balancing theory, populist leaders are inclined to seek assistance in deterring internal threats, much like China would be poised to do.

Having explored China’s appeal as an international partner for populist regimes seeking to maintain power, Dr. David posed a rhetorical question: “How does China achieve this?” The primary reason cited is the extensive export of digital technology, which Dr. David contended has been honed domestically, affording the Chinese government nearly complete surveillance capabilities over its citizens in various forms.

It is suggested that China has globally provided populist regimes with the necessary technology to replicate this surveillance infrastructure, including facial recognition, social media monitoring, data collection, and censorship. Dr. David argued that these tools empower populist regimes to monitor their citizens, suppress dissent, and control access to information. Statistical research indicates that leaders utilizing such digital technologies encounter fewer protests and challenges to their authority than those who do not.

Furthermore, these technologies enable leaders to monitor potential challenges from elites that could incite a coup, a fear shared by many of these leaders. This surveillance capacity is augmented by artificial intelligence, allowing a relatively small number of individuals within a country to monitor the entire population. This capability is particularly crucial during mass protests, which have emerged as the primary catalyst for forcible regime changes in the past decade. 

In this line of thought, Dr. David provided a brief overview of the issue of controlling political preferences and the role of digital technologies in shaping them. China emerged as the favored candidate for international partnership among populist leaders in this context. However, it’s worth noting that Dr. David appeared to show less enthusiasm for the United States, despite its own history of utilizing the internet to influence the political preferences, particularly among its right-wing population.

It is crucial to discuss China’s behavior on the international stage. Often, discussions surrounding China’s international actions assume it operates as a unilateral actor, particularly in the context of initiatives like the Chinese Belt and Road project. However, as Dr. David astutely points out, this is not the case. Like other global powers, China is influenced by various political forces within the country, each with its own interests, agendas, and interpretations of globalization and how to pursue it. Therefore, when analyzing China’s behavior on the global stage, it’s essential to recognize that it is not always driven by a clear, coherent strategy from the central government.

Dr. Jinghan ZENG: “Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Vision for Globalization?” 

Dr. Jinghan Zeng opened his speech by introducing a sentiment that, while not explicitly stated, underlies the discussion: In the collective perception of the West, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Chinese foreign policy are often seen through the lens of geopolitical competition among states. While this perspective holds some validity, Dr. Zeng suggests that the similarities between the Chinese authoritarian state and the US democratic system outweigh the differences.

The Belt and Road Initiative, since its inception and more since its launch, has been widely spoken of as China’s version of globalization, with historical roots in the ancient Silk Road trade routes. Dr. Zeng displayed, however, the existence of two contrasting BRI interpretations. The first sees the initiative as a top-down geopolitical strategy to reshape global order, and the second, which is the focus of Dr. Zeng’s presentation, views the BRI as a political slogan open to interpretation and subject to change. 

The first perspective on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is commonly adopted by the US and numerous other international observers. They perceive the BRI as a meticulously crafted grand strategy intended to bolster Chinese geopolitical dominance and challenge American power in the process. However, Dr. Zeng contends that this viewpoint requires a more balanced assessment of the initiative. There is a need to recognize the evolving nature of the BRI, marked by shifts in focus and alterations in its narrative. These changes have led to a lack of coherence and objective consensus regarding what the BRI truly entails.

This leads us to the second viewpoint. Dr. Zeng posits that the BRI is rooted in decentralization and competitiveness, emerging as a result of competition among various domestic actors, including state enterprises, provincial governments, and the private sector. Contrary to being a unified national endeavor, the BRI is shaped by diverse interests and is not a singular, centrally coordinated effort. For instance, different Chinese provinces vie to position themselves as the starting points or hubs of BRI projects, leading to internal competition and fragmented initiatives. This structural competition reflects China’s distinctive form of federalism and underscores the intricacies within Chinese domestic politics.

Furthermore, the trajectory of the BRI evolves over time as shifting contexts influence its geopolitical and domestic priorities. This notion aligns with Dr. David’s argument that Chinese engagement in the international arena is not solely dictated by central government planning. Instead, the BRI exemplifies a multifaceted initiative driven by various actors with differing interests and objectives. Thus, China’s participation in multilateral cooperation cannot always be attributed solely to its state-centric interests but also reflects the interests of other stakeholders within China.

The presentation culminates with a final point concerning the future trajectory of the BRI. As previously noted, the BRI has undergone evolution, and this evolution is expected to persist in the future. Chinese President Xi Jinping has explicitly expressed his vision for the BRI to become more focused, targeted, and sustainable moving forward.

Dr. Zeng concluded by emphasizing that the Belt and Road Initiative is not a monolithic, top-down strategy but rather a nuanced and dynamic phenomenon influenced by a multitude of domestic and international factors. Recognizing this complexity is essential for comprehending China’s global role and devising effective policies to engage with China on trade, investment, and infrastructure development. This understanding is pivotal for shaping the trajectory of multilateralism and fostering mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other global stakeholders.

Humphrey Hawksley: “Predicting the Nature of the Next Generation Globalization under China, Multipolarity, and Authoritarian Populism” 

Mr. Humphrey Hawksley gave us a refreshing approach not only by granting into the viewpoint of journalism but also because he stated towards the end of his talk that he does not believe China is an existential threat, a change in narrative from the previous two speakers. Mr. Hawksley explains that, unlike the political sciences, journalism encourages ‘getting the message out to the widest possible audience and in doing so requires a dumbing down and speeding up.’ It reminded us that regardless of what is central to the discussion is the ‘phraseology of the elite’ and when speaking of multi-syllable words like globalization, multipolarity, authoritarianism and populism that originate in academia and think tanks of Western democracies, the values and the glue of Europe and North America, we are forced to confront the difference in perception of them between these two regions, and the Global South. 

Hawksley provided a grounding to better grasp the message conveyed in his presentation. He illustrated the Indo-Pacific region, consisting of approximately 50 nations, where five developed democracies exist, depending on how one measures democracy. Among these, Australia and New Zealand are essentially viewed as European satellites, while Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are generally considered American proteges with East Asian work ethics, having emerged from or currently facing war-related circumstances.

The majority of states in the Indo-Pacific, however, represent a diverse tapestry of values and systems, ranging from military oligarchs to various forms of communism, sultanates, and authoritarian regimes. These entities coexist, sometimes uncomfortably, hoping to maintain stability without resorting to violent conflict. Given this intricate landscape, it was argued that many nations in the region cannot readily adopt lofty ideological phrases like “democracy,” “freedom,” and “human rights” to address their realities and meet their day-to-day needs.

To underscore this point, Hawksley recounted an experience from 2019 while in Indonesia during the peak of the Hong Kong protests. He queried a colleague about the lack of support for the Hong Kong Democracy protests in Southeast Asia, to which he was informed that it stemmed from contrasting living conditions between Hong Kong residents and those in the rest of Southeast Asia.

During his presentation, Mr. Hawksley introduced the concept of ‘Asian pragmatism,’ which appears to be a significant factor differentiating electoral and populist support in the Indo-Pacific from that in the West. According to Hawksley, ‘Asian pragmatists’ tend to gravitate towards solutions that offer the most benefit while minimizing risks. For instance, in Taiwan’s recent presidential election, voters supported the governing party’s policy stance against China’s interference and intimidation. However, they also opted for a compromise that signaled their reluctance to provoke Beijing into escalating hostility or inciting war. In essence, Asian voters exhibit what could be termed as electoral ‘common sense’—they eschew idealistic pursuits often associated with liberal ideals and instead seek pragmatic approaches that work within existing systems. They prioritize leaders with a proven track record of achieving tangible results.

As Hawksley highlights, this pragmatic approach starkly contrasts with the more rigid and uncompromising efforts backed by the West, such as the attempts made a decade ago to promote democracy in the Middle East and North Africa without adequate preparation.

When considering the future trajectory of China’s role, Mr. Hawksley suggests that by embracing Indo-Pacific pragmatism, China can reclaim the middle ground. This entails China entering into agreements that foster greater accountability to other Indo-Pacific nations.

Special Comments by Dr. Ho Tze Ern BENJAMIN

In delivering what could be considered the closing statements for this panel, Dr. Ho Tze Ern Benjamin offered a concise, yet comprehensive summary of the key points discussed by the speakers. He also shed light on the underlying threat revealed in the presentations regarding global perceptions of Chinese relations. Dr. Ern particularly emphasized how much of the discourse surrounding populism and its impact on global multipolarity is influenced by US attitudes towards China’s presence in the international arena.

In echoing the sentiments expressed in Dr. David’s presentation, Dr. Ern reflected on how American attitudes towards China are largely shaped by American self-perception. He emphasized that these relations are rooted in US values and how they appear in contrast to Chinese values. However, the fundamental disparity in the international perception of these values lies in how they are implemented at the level of domestic governance, as previously highlighted by Mr. Hawksley.

This becomes increasingly apparent as more players in the international arena scrutinize developments in American domestic politics, observing a perceived decline in local conditions. Global reporting highlights spikes in poverty, crime, homelessness, drug use, and a growing lack of gun regulation, particularly evident in the prevalence of public shootings. These factors have reshaped perceptions of the USA, both domestically and internationally, from its previous image as the “golden land of opportunity,” a transformation especially pronounced among Asian populations, as noted by Dr. Ern. For many Asian states, global prestige is no longer solely about perceived dominance and influence in the international order. Instead, it hinges on which country’s government reliably provides essential services and security at home, encompassing metrics such as safety, economic stability, social services, and housing.

Dr. Ern noted that while populism presents certain challenges, the broader issue concerning multipolarity revolves around how domestic values are upheld, as this determines their potential for emulation. Indeed, in the international arena, the primary means of expansion has been through the exportation and replication of values. Dr. Ern poses the question: “If America’s political values are so highly esteemed and worthy of emulation, why is this not reflected in domestic American governance?” Continuing, Dr. Ern stressed that the disconnect between international and domestic governments should not be overlooked. This discrepancy was the initial reason for Asian compliance with US international leadership, as they witnessed positive outcomes in US domestic political life.

Dr. Ern also weighed in on Dr. Zeng’s accurate description of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a collection of diverse plans and projects by various competing actors, rather than a monolithic program solely executed by the Chinese government, as it is often portrayed.

Reported by Neo Sithole

Closing Session: Economic Implications of Rising Populism and Multipolarity

The closing session of the symposium was moderated by Dr. Patrick HOLDEN (Associate Professor in International Relations at School of Society and Culture, University of Plymouth), and explored the “Economic Implications of Rising Populism and Multipolarity.” Dr. Giorgio SACERDOTI (Professor of Law, Bocconi University; Former Chairman of the WTO Appellate Body) presented his speech titled: “Demise of Multilateralism and Politicization of International Trade Relations and the Multilateral Trading System.” For the symposium’s closing remarks, Dr. Cengiz AKTAR (Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Athens and ECPS Advisory Board Member) reflected on the key insights and discussions from the previous two days, highlighting the challenges facing multilateralism, including external constraints and domestic populist movements. He emphasized the global trend of growing populism leading to a shift towards independence among mid-sized powers, amidst diminishing faith in neoliberal governance and the rise of authoritarian tendencies.

Dr. Giorgio SACERDOTI: “Demise of Multilateralism and Politicization of International Trade Relations and the Multilateral Trading System”

Professor Giorgio Sacerdotti began his presentation by providing background on the optimism towards increasing globalization and international cooperation in economic matters. He also discussed the shift towards protectionism, starting with the financial crisis and the Trump administration’s stance against multinationalism on economic issues, prioritizing ‘America First’ and bringing jobs back to the US. He highlights the perception of foreign economies, particularly China, as unfair competitors harming the American economy and workers despite the benefits of international trade and foreign investment for established and developing countries.

Professor Sacerdotti outlined the challenges faced by the WTO, the pillar of multilateralism, in governing international trade. These include the failure of the Doha Round, addressing non-trade issues like labour, environment, and human rights, and the difficulty of combining free trade with protecting non-trade values. He also mentioned the need for WTO instruments for new aspects of international trade, such as the digital economy.

Professor Sacerdotti emphasized the politicization of international trade relations as a significant issue, contrasting with the post-World War II philosophy of managing trade relations based on equal legal rules independent of political clashes. He discussed the principles of removing border barriers, reducing barriers through mutual exchange, equal treatment (with exceptions for developing countries), and the dispute settlement system. However, these principles were challenged by the Trump administration’s protectionist measures, such as the trade war with China and increased duties on steel and aluminium imports, disregarding WTO rules.

Economic security was also discussed as a measure that the WTO only allows in cases where countries face great financial crises. However, the definition of economic security has been extended, especially by the US. This has happened through subsidies to industries and quotas for exports. However, the EU has also had to justify specific measures such as CBAM or the deforestation regulation, saying that they are non-protectionists but rather protect the environment or human rights. This results in the increased politicization of trade. Even though the WTO has the instruments available to enforce specific rules, these have not been used effectively, and often, certain restrictions are wholly disregarded by more prominent countries like the US.

Concluding Remarks By Dr. Cengiz AKTAR

Dr. Cengiz Aktar made the conclusory remarks for the panel. He argued that multilateralism is externally trapped and is domestically challenged by populists. He also claimed that present-day multilateralism seems to polarise rather than synergise. Furthermore, he quoted other scholars saying that the Global North is losing faith in neoliberal governance and ideology, and Global North voters are turning to the national populist movements in the Global South. Meanwhile, the Global South perceives the global geopolitical and economic problems caused by the West. 

Only less than 30% of the global population is governed by democratic governments, and autocracy often continues after democratic breakdowns, taking countries further into more harsh dictatorships. Finally, Professor Aktar remarked that it seems that growing populism is pushing leaders of mid-size powers to become more independent instead of relying on the hegemons. 

Reported by Radoslav Valev

Conclusion

The conclusion shed light on external and domestic challenges to multilateralism. Externally, multilateralism is constrained by the Orwellian concept of multipolarity, while domestically, populist movements are gaining power. Present-day multilateralism seems to polarize rather than synergize, feeding into populist dynamics at home. We cannot ignore the alarming rise of populist, illiberal tendencies in Europe and beyond, as highlighted by ECPS’ Honorary President Irina von Wiese.

Dr. Axford observed that the current surge in populism is intertwined with the emergence of a new globalization paradigm, indicating its significance as a global political force. Dr. Patrick emphasized how the crisis of the rules-based order complicates international cooperation, particularly in global economic governance. Dr. Sacerdoti highlighted the trend towards “deglobalization” driven by the need for economic security and national control. At the same time, Dr. Kuttner provided a political reading of this trend, linking it to the erosion of prosperity and the rise of neo-fascist tendencies.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jakupec pointed out the dilemma of a world where populism reshapes domestic politics and multipolarity, potentially leading towards a shift away from liberal democratic governance. The research presented by Dr. Nord underscored the global trend of autocratization, highlighting the decline in democracy and the rise of harsh dictatorships in many countries.

On a more optimistic note, Dr. Weyland suggested that advanced industrialized countries may withstand the threat of populism due to their institutional strength. However, Dr. Azmanova cautioned against complacency, particularly in ailing democracies. Finally, Dr. Kuttner reminded us of the importance of distinguishing between neo-fascism and populism conceptually and semantically while also noting that growing populism is pushing leaders of mid-size powers towards greater independence in global governance.

In conclusion, the rise of populism presents significant challenges to multilateralism and global governance, requiring careful consideration and concerted efforts to address the underlying issues and promote inclusive and democratic solutions.

By Hilal Duman

The demonstration "Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM" in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on December 18, 2020, calls for the release of Rizieq Shihab and an investigation into the shooting incident involving the FPI members. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti.

Use of Informal Sharia Law for Civilizational Populist Mobilization in the 2024 Indonesian Elections 

Please cite as:

Bachtiar, Hasnan; Shakil, Kainat & Smith, Chloe. (2024). “Use of Informal Sharia Law for Civilizational Populist Mobilization in the 2024 Indonesian Elections.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 26, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0035   

 

Abstract

The Defenders Front of Islam or the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) is an Islamist civilizational populist movement in Indonesia. Its religious and political blueprints have been a challenge to the elites in power. In 2017 and 2019, it was involved in the contest of electoral politics to fight against the elites by implementing the populist politics that tends to undermine the democratic process. As a result, it was banned in 2020 but re-established a year later. In 2024 elections, it supports for Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar to compete against Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabuming and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD. The findings suggest that by applying the Islamist civilizational populism, the FPI instrumentalizes the informal religious law to support its political mobilization. It emphasizes the legal-centric perspective of “sharia,” which gives the FPI’s activists and its wider audience only one imperative option to solve the problem: join in the populism. We arguably state that the informal religious law can contribute to the process of Islamist civilizational populist mobilization. 

By Hasnan BachtiarKainat Shakil Chloe Smith

Introduction

The Defenders Front of Islam or the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) is an Islamist civilizational populist movement in Indonesia (Barton et al., 2021; Yilmaz et al., 2022). It was born on August 17, 1998, in Jakarta when the country was undergoing political reform and transition from authoritarian to democracy. The FPI emerged as an Islamist movement that upholds the mission of fighting against immorality such as thuggery, prostitution, alcohols, drugs, gambling, and other street evils, while other Muslim organizations did not spread the Islamic messages in this level (Facal, 2020). In addition, when immorality tended to increase crime during the Reformasi, the police were seen as unable to solve the social problem (Jahroni, 2004: 222-227). To carry out its religious mission, the FPI has frequently implemented violent and vigilante methods to ensure the safety of society.

The FPI wants to Islamize state and society. It desires Indonesia to be a modern state based on the Islamic sharia. It’s ideal, similar to that of the Islamist party Masyumi (1943-1960), is to install the Islamist phrases in the first principles of the state, Pancasila. The FPI wants to transform the principle of “Belief in one Almighty God” (Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa) to become “Belief in one Almighty God with the obligation to carry out the sharia Islam for its adherents.” In 2002, the FPI attempted to transform (Islamize) constitution, but failed (Wilson, 2015). However, it has maintained its ideal persistently by implementing the Islamization of society. In 2012, its top leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab published his book “Wawasan Kebangsaan Menuju NKRI Bersyariah” (The National State of Mind towards the Shariatized NKRI/Indonesia). This book presents the FPI’s thoughts on Islamist politics, suggesting that the Islamist struggle is crucial to establishing a religious society. Accordingly, some scholars identify the FPI as the Islamist populist movement (Hadiz, 2016; Hadiz and Robison, 2017; Hadiz, 2018; Mietzner, 2018; Mietzner & Muhtadi, 2018; Aspinall & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2020). 

The FPI’s Islamist da’wa blueprints have been a challenge to the government. In 2016, the FPI was involved in the cross-class alliances of the populist rally that brought together more than five hundred thousand masses to oust Ahok (a Hakka name for Basuki Tjahaya Purnama) a Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta. At the time, Rizieq was hailed by the populists as their “Grand Imam” (Imam Besar), leading the pure people in their fight against the corrupt elites. As a result, the FPI’s chosen leader, Anies Baswedan had won the chairmanship of the capital in the 2017 gubernatorial election (Bachtiar, 2023a). With Ahok having the backing of President Jokowi, the FPI was also forging a message that the central government is the next target to be overthrown. In the 2019 election, the FPI endorsed Jokowi’s rival, a retired Indonesia special forces general, Prabowo. 

The government banned the FPI in 2020 because of the issue of its relationship with the Islamist extremist groups and its radical campaign to Islamize the republic (Yilmaz et al., 2022; Yilmaz, 2023). In addition, its leader, Rizieq was imprisoned for violating the health quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic, although he was released on parole in July 2022. Since then, the police have continued to prohibit the FPI’s political actions both in the public sphere and the cyber space. In January 2021, however, the neo-FPI was reborn, changing its name to the Front of Islamic Brotherhood or Front Persaudaraan Islam (FPI) (Tsauro & Taufiq, 2023; Taufiq & Tsauro, 2024). In this new form, Rizieq handed over leadership to his son-in-law, a young and charismatic Muslim preacher, Muhammad Husein al-Attas. In the 2024 Indonesian elections, the FPI backed Anies to run as one of the presidential candidates. Even after its dissolution, the FPI still can play a crucial role in the country’s electoral politics. 

This paper aims to analyze the role of the FPI in the context of the 2024 elections in Indonesia. We argue that by implementing the Islamist civilizational populism, the FPI is instrumentalizing the informal religious law to support its populist political mobilization. It emphasizes the legal-centric perspective of sharia, which gives the FPI’s supporters and the public only one imperative option to solve the problem: join in the populism. It is in line with the populist promise that populism is the only solution to the crises. The subsequent section discusses the theory of Islamist civilizational populism and informal religious law. It is followed by the context of the 2024 elections in Indonesia, the FPI’s Islamist civilizational populism, and the FPI’s instrumentalization of the informal religious law in its Islamist civilizational populist mobilization. 

Islamist Civilizational Populism and Informal Religious Law

The mass demonstration “Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on December 18, 2020, demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and an investigation into the shooting incident involving FPI members. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti.

Populism, theoretically, is non-monolithic. There are many definitions of it. In this paper, however, we use the minimal definition of populism that is developed further by Yilmaz and Morieson (2023) which includes not only the vertical element of populism but also its horizontal element so-called civilizationism as a thicker ideology that contributes to the populist identification of ‘self’ and ‘the other.’ They define civilizational populism as a set of ideas that collectively hold that politics must serve the people’s general will, and that “society is 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 and who pose a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2023: 4). 

In civilizational populism, the role of religion is crucial. It is because civilizationism highly frequently includes religious aspects such as particularly informal religious law (Yilmaz, 2022). It is the law that the religious society has implemented in an informal way beyond the legal system of the state. Accordingly, we define this informal religious law “as a legal entity outside the formal legal system of a state, and the people of that state uphold and respect this law as it governs all aspects of their lives.” In the context of Muslim society, this informal religious law can be sharia and the other legal entities derived from it such as fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and fatwa (Islamic legal opinion), as the sharia is considered the most significant source of guidance for the lives of Muslims (Yilmaz, 2022: 20). Sharia also contributes significantly to shaping the legal centric perspective among Muslims (Said, 1994).  

The Context of the 2024 Elections in Indonesia

There are three pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the 2024 elections in Indonesia. The first is Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar (AMIN), while the second and the third are Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabuming Raka and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD respectively. 

In the 2019 elections, the FPI supported Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno to compete against Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin. At that time, Prabowo-Sandi was defeated. However, after the FPI experienced political difficulties – the dissolution of the organization, the imprisonment of its leader, the death of its six laskars – Prabowo accepted the Jokowi’s offer to join his cabinets. Prabowo was appointed Defense Minister. This led the FPI to perceive Prabowo as betraying the ummah including in the context of the 2024 elections. 

Prabowo’s running mate, Gibran, is the son of Jokowi. Ganjar Pranowo, a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), backed Jokowi in both the 2014 and 2019 elections. Mahfud MD, Jokowi’s Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal, and Security Affairs, has aligned with Ganjar’s candidacy. Despite their prior support for Jokowi’s administration, Ganjar and Mahfud oppose the Prabowo-Gibran ticket because they perceive Jokowi’s endorsement of his son’s candidacy as a bid to extend his political influence (Bachtiar, 2023b).

The FPI’s support for AMIN is strengthened by the political frauds allegedly committed by the Prabowo-Gibran camp, especially through Jokowi’s political power. These include the perpetuation of Jokowi’s political dynasty, legal manipulation by the Constitutional Court, abuse of authority and power as a state official, and vote counting fraud (Yilmaz et al., 2024a; Yilmaz et al., 2024b; Slater, 2024).

The FPI’s Islamist Civilizational Populism

The FPI is an Islamist civilizational populist movement that is considered still influential in shaping the political dynamics of the Indonesia’s 2024 election. This movement plays a crucial role in supporting one of the pairs of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar (AMIN), who are competing with Ganjar Pranowo and Mahfud MD, and mainly Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka. 

Although all the candidates tend to build their image as pro-diversity nationalists, the FPI helps promote AMIN as the pious leaders of the ummah. The FPI’s image-building of AMIN purposes at retaining the Islamist voters and attracting the public attention, as most of the country’s population is Muslim. 

By supporting AMIN, the FPI produces Islamist civilizational populist narratives and rhetoric that guarantee its populist identification of “the self” and “the other” to distinguish those who are on the side of the ummah from those who are not. Accordingly, the FPI defines certain boundaries between those who can be identified as Islamist civilizational populists and those who are their adversaries. 

The FPI perceives that AMIN’s opponents are its populist enemies. They are the other electoral candidates that have been supported by “corrupt elites.” The FPI directs its identification towards Ganjar-Mahfud, Prabowo-Gibran, and their backers. Ganjar-Mahfud has been proposed by the winning political party in the last election, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), which is also a political force that recommended the banning of the FPI. Meanwhile, Prabowo-Gibran has been supported by incumbent president Jokowi, who backed Ahok, the FPI’s most hated political figure in the 2017 gubernatorial election (Yilmaz et al., 2024a; Yilmaz et al., 2024b). 

The two enemies of the FPI, the PDIP politicians and Jokowi, had been working together in the context of the 2019 elections. The FPI perceives them as the corrupt elites who have invited foreign powers such as the West and China to participate in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources (Yilmaz et al., 2022). Those powers, as the FPI claimed, are categorized as the dangerous others. 

The FPI’s view of the corrupt elites and its civilizational enemies is reflected in a statement by one of its leaders, Munarman: “Currently, we are witnessing that those who are in power, are those who are anti-Islam, anti-Islamic teachings, anti-Muslims, and even accuse the teachings of Islam of being a lie. In terms of global geopolitics, we should not hope for anyone, because it is precisely the power of the White Wolf (the West) that has been a place of dependence for compradors, foreign accomplices. Indonesia has been in contact with the White Wolf. Now the compradors are also accomplices of the Red Dragon (China)” (Munarman, 2016). 

Since then, as well as in the context of the 2024 elections, according to the FPI, the elites have involved the Muslim ummah’s civilizational enemies (the dangerous others) in the social, cultural, political, and economic destructiveness, primarily in a way of undermining the ummah’s general will. The FPI claims that because of the civilizational threats of foreign forces, the ummah have remained marginalized with no access to economic resources or social welfare.

FPI’s Instrumentalization of the Informal Religious Law in Its Islamist Civilizational Populist Mobilization 

The Grand Imam of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Habib Rizieq Shihab, upon his arrival in Jakarta on November 10, 2020. Photo: Angga Budhiyanto.

In its mission to combat perceived threats against the ummah, the FPI actively urges its activists and the public to participate in its populist agenda. The FPI frames this mission as a religious obligation, asserting that it is incumbent (wajib) upon Muslims to engage in it. We contend that the FPI strategically utilizes informal religious laws such as sharia, fiqh, and fatwa to ensure the success of its Islamist populist mobilization efforts.

The FPI employs informal religious law through three primary methods: Firstly, it implements a legal-centric perspective in applying its Islamist doctrine of “commanding good and forbidding evil” (amar ma’ruf nahi munkar), particularly in its populist political struggle. Additionally, the FPI mobilizes the masses by advocating adherence to Sharia principles in electing leaders, often based on outcomes from deliberative consultations (musyawarah) among Ijtima’ Ulama. Lastly, the FPI rallies its supporters and the public to combat alleged political fraud perpetrated by its adversaries.

First, the FPI perceives politics as the arena for its religious struggle in which this Islamist civilizational populist movement must implement its Islamist doctrine of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar. This doctrine urges Muslims to command good and at the same time to forbid evil. It is rooted in the Islamic scripture, Surah Ali Imran verse 104, “And let there be among you a group of people who call to virtue, commanding the good and forbidding the evil; they are the fortunate ones.” Other verses such as Ali Imran 110 and 114, Al-Araf 157, Al-Taubah 71, Al-Haj 41, and Al-Luqman 17 substantively also emphasize this doctrine. According to the FPI’s top leader, Rizieq Shihab, the level of obligation to implement amar ma’ruf nahi munkar is fardu ‘ain (individual obligation) for those in authority, and fardu kifayah(communal obligation) for those who are not (Shihab, 2024). When the authority undermines his or her obligation, however, it becomes the duty of everyone in the Muslim community, including the FPI, to conduct the amar ma’ruf nahi munkar. Therefore, in order to implement it, it is imperative to emphasize the fight against the populist enemies in the context of the electoral politics. 

Second, the FPI trusts the informal religious institution that enables “Islamist” scholars (ulama) from across the country to engage in the collective Islamic legal reasoning (ijtihad) to find a solution to the political problem and select the best leaders from among the available candidates. On November 18, 2023, in the Adz Dzikro Mosque, Sentul, Bogor, West Java, the Ijtima’ Ulama concluded their ijtihad and decided that AMIN was the candidate to vote for (Faktakini, 2023). Rizieq Shihab claims that the result of the Ijtima’ Ulama is based on the Islamic practice of deliberative consultation (musyawarah) which is commanded by God. At length, he expresses his thought that: 

“In matters of struggle, including social and political matters, we have upheld musyawarah. First of all, musyawarah is a command from Allah in the Qur’an. Allah says, ‘wa shawirhum fi al-amri,’ inviting them to deliberate on important matters, especially for the benefit of many people. In another verse, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala makes deliberation the identity of the believers. Allah says, ‘wa amruhum shura’ bainahum,’ meaning that the affairs of the believers are discussed among themselves. …So, decisions made by musyawarah, that’s the advantage, Insha Allah, will be much better than personal decisions because many opinions are taken into account. And that’s not all. Decisions made through musyawarah become a shared responsibility. So, even if there are mistakes or shortcomings in the future, we won’t point fingers (not blame anyone). But if it’s a personal decision, it can be pointed at (personally blamed). That’s the advantage of reflection. And musyawarah is because of Allah’s command, if we carry it out, it will be blessed. Well, a blessed decision, God willing, is not wrong. That is why many people have asked me, what is our attitude towards the 2024 presidential elections? I have answered that I am waiting for the decision of the Ijtima’ Ulama,” (Shihab 2023). 

Based on this FPI’s informal religious law, one of its leaders, Hanif Alatas had mobilized the FPI supporters and the public in various religious assemblies across the country. He strongly promoted the Ijtima’ Ulama’s decision to vote for AMIN. He stated that: “Are you ready to follow the command of the ulama? Are you ready to follow the ulama who are highly consistent (istiqamah)? Are you ready to follow the direction of the Ijtima’ Ulama? We obey the Ijtima’ Ulama! 2024, Anies becomes the president. Takbir!!!” (Alatas, 2024). Ultimately, the FPI organized the massive religious gathering (Istighotsah Kubro) at Benyamin Suaeb Stadium, Kemayoran, Central Jakarta on February 8, 2024, to mobilize Islamist masses to vote for AMIN. 

Third, by using the informal religious law, the FPI mobilizes its supporters and the public to fight against its enemies that who are allegedly involved in political fraud. Rizieq Shihab calls on the masses to fight the political fraud that is taking place, while at the same time building mass confidence that the pure ummah can win against Ahok in the 2017 gubernatorial election, despite not being supported by a large political force. According to Rizieq Shihab, the FPI’s resistance to political fraud and confidence in implementing amar ma’ruf nahi munkar is part of an effort to uphold the sharia. He said:

“Well, because of that, if you want AMIN (Anies-Muhaimin) to win, that’s why I invite you, let’s fight fraud. …Don’t be afraid if there are other candidates supported by economic power, political power… We have experience in Jakarta. In Jakarta, when we fought Ahok, what did we have? …Ahok was supported by the President, supported by the Chief of Police, supported by the TNI Commander, supported by all mainstream TV media, supported by major parties, supported by Taipan conglomerates, supported by the Nine Dragons, supported by survey institutions, brothers. … Those who supported Anis at that time were only parties, brother, whose votes were actually not as big as the parties that supported Ahok. Ahok was backed by foreign powers, brother. On paper, Ahok won. But what happened after that? It turned out that God’s will was different. …Allah Subhanahu wa taala still forced Ahok to resign. The Muslims won, brother. Right? Takbir!!! If we obey Allah, we don’t have to worry. ‘Intansurullah, yansurkum.’ If you defend Allah, uphold His law, uphold His sharia, ‘yansurkum,’ surely Allah will win you all this. Allah’s promise is sure to be true, Allah’s promise is impossible to miss, ya Ikhwan!” (Shihab, 2024b). 

The FPI accused the Prabowo-Gibran political carriage of fraud because they are backed by Jokowi who has committed abuses of power as a state official. Gibran, Jokowi’s son, does not actually meet the requirements of the election law to run for vice-president, mainly because he is under 40. As a result, the Prabowo-Gibran political force filed a judicial review with the Constitutional Court to change the age for vice-presidential candidacy. They managed to change this requirement, especially as the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court is Anwar Usman, Jokowi’s brother-in-law. Their success is suspected to have been due to a collusive and nepotistic practice that manipulated the country’s highest judicial system. In addition, according to the FPI, Jokowi used his social, political, and economic resources to support his son. Jokowi ordered his ministers, police and military chiefs and other officials to mobilize the masses to ensure they voted for Prabowo-Gibran. In addition, they (state officials) were also mobilized to distribute social aid to society, which certainly contained certain political messages in favor of Prabowo-Gibran’s victory. 

Conclusion

Despite its disbandment in 2020, the FPI underwent a resurgence as a similar Islamist civilizational populist movement in early 2021, emerging as a significant extra-parliamentary force in Indonesia’s 2024 elections. Endorsing Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar (AMIN) as the presidential and vice-presidential candidates against Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabumin and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD, the FPI positioned itself prominently. Its support for AMIN stems from its perception of the other candidates and their supporters as populist political adversaries. Specifically, the FPI identifies the Prabowo-Gibran political alliance, endorsed by Jokowi, as representing corrupt elites who allegedly align with dangerous external influences, particularly Western powers and China, posing a threat to the ummah’s civilization.

We contend that in mobilizing its supporters during the 2024 elections, the FPI utilized informal religious law, encompassing sharia, fiqh, and fatwa. The FPI employed this legal framework in three keyways: Firstly, it adopted a law-centric approach in applying the principle of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar, particularly within its political activism. Secondly, the FPI mobilized the masses by advocating adherence to Sharia principles in selecting leaders, often guided by deliberative consultations (musyawarah) among Ulama during Ijtima’ gatherings. Thirdly, the FPI rallied its supporters and the public to combat alleged political fraud perpetrated by its adversaries.

We also arguably state that the FPI uses informal religious law as an ideological expression that helps its populist mobilization. This has to do with the legalistic nature of sharia law, which has nuances of halal (permissible) and haram(forbidden) or black and white. Furthermore, according to the FPI’s sharia-centric perspective, politics tends to be positioned as a field of da’wah (religious proselytization). Thus, for the FPI, politics must have a religious mission. If there is a concept of Islamic politics, then in this context it is sharia-based populist politics. 

So far, in the case of the FPI in Indonesia, we have seen this as part and parcel of Islamist civilizational populism. However, is this also the case for other civilizational populist movements elsewhere in the world?


 

Funding: We acknowledge that this research is supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) the Discovery Project – DP220100829, titled “Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation: Civilisationism in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan” (2022-2025). 


 

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residential candidate Prabowo Subianto delivers a speech at a campaign event in Jakarta, Indonesia on January 19, 2024. Photo: Shutterstock.

Appealing to a Religiously Defined ‘the People’: How Religion Was Performatively Operationalized in the 2019 and 2024 Election Campaigns of Indonesia’s President-Elect 

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Please cite as:
Smith, Chloe; Bachtiar, Hasnan; Shakil, Kainat; Morieson, Nicholas & de Groot Heupner, Susan. (2024). “Appealing to a Religiously Defined ‘the People’: How Religion Was Performatively Operationalized in the 2019 and 2024 Election Campaigns of Indonesia’s President-Elect.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 25, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0034   

 

Abstract

Observers widely acknowledged the lack of divisive Islamist populism in Indonesia’s 2024 Presidential Elections. This was in stark contrast to the 2019 elections in which Prabowo Subianto, the case study of this article and new leader of Indonesia, led a campaign that overtly supported Islamist interests and actors, and deepened religio-ethnic tensions in society. Despite this acknowledgement, it remains unclear if religion was still operationalized – albeit differently – in his most recent campaigning efforts. This article therefore seeks to examine if religion was politicized and performed by Prabowo in 2024 and contrast the findings with 2019 to address how and why his instrumentalization of religion varied significantly. Applying a discursive-performative lens, discourse analysis will be used to determine if and how religion featured in a sample of Prabowo Subianto’s speeches (six speeches in total, three from each election campaign). Specifically, this analysis will explore how references to religion and a religious community reflect a) his political goals and b) the political community he is attempting to engage. It will also discuss these findings in the context of contemporary populism studies. 

By Chloe Smith, Hasnan Bachtiar, Kainat Shakil, Nicholas Morieson & Susan de Groot Heupner

Introduction: Religion in Populist Campaigning

Although there has been significant progress in recent years, the study of religious populism in non-Western democratic campaigning remains underdeveloped (Sumiala et al., 2023; Zuquete, 2017; Beuter et al, 2023). This is an important gap to address, because understanding the role of religion in electoral politics is important when religion and religious majoritarianism are tightly entangled in national identity, culture, and society and resulting in an inherently more complex phenomenon (Yabanci, 2020: 93; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). 

Electoral campaigns in these countries may feature both exclusionary populist appeals in which the religiously defined in-group is often used as a juxtaposition with ‘evil’ elites and ‘others’ (DeHanas & Shterin, 2018). What has been examined less, particularly in empirical research, is the politicization of religion to link together and homogenize a range of interests and identities (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001), influence the perception of the leader, and create enthusiasm for their political mission.

Indonesia’s 2024 presidential election – and its winner – provides a fascinating account of the instrumentalization of religion in political campaigning. To better understand Indonesia’s new leader and how he may command over the county’s religio-political space, this article considers Prabowo Subianto’s populist orientation toward Islamism in 2019 and compares it with his use of religion in 2024’s campaign, when Islamist rhetoric was notably absent. This has not yet been addressed adequately, nor supported by empirical research, although the change has been widely observed in political commentaries of the recent election (Ismail & Koh, 2024; Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024; Rozy, 2024). 

A Brief Note on Indonesia’s Recent Religious-Political Context

In cases of Islamist populism, researchers have found that ‘the people’ are a collectivized identity group (‘pious Muslims’) consisting of a range of Muslim identities and interests that are grouped together and politicized (Susanto, 2019; Hadiz, 2018). In Indonesia, the literature indicates that in recent history, a range of actors have interacted with or influenced religious populism in Indonesia: from politicians and parties, social media influencers and online preachers, through to grassroots movements and organizations (Mietzner, 2020; Hadiz, 2018; Barton et al., 2021; Kayane, 2020; Widian et al., 2022). 

In 2019, Prabowo Subianto constructed his political image, narratives, and performances in response to the socio-political tensions that had been heightening for some time in Indonesia. Although beyond the limitations of this article to explain in detail, it is suffice to note here that polarization in recent years had been exacerbated by various populist and extreme actors who used religion to inflame tensions, push for social and political change, and destabilize conditions for religious minorities (Mietzner, 2020; Widian et al., 2022; Temby, 2019). 

The most notable period of intensification occurred during the ‘anti-Ahok’ mass protest movement, born in the lead up to the 2017 gubernational elections. The then Christian-Chinese governor of Jakarta, Busaki Tjahaja Purnama (‘Ahok’) was accused of blasphemy after citing a single verse from the Qur’an, and this shared grievance brought together a range of Islamist actors and many Indonesians in a significant period of populist mobilization (Mietzner, 2020; Hadiz, 2018; Mietzner & Muhtadi, 2018; Jaffrey, 2021: 224-225). Mietzner (2020) notes that Prabowo attached himself to this mobilization event, and incorporated Islamist populism and Islamist actors into his campaigning effort. Operationalizing religious populism in his election campaign, Prabowo became a highly influential player in one of the most divisive political contestations in Indonesia’s history (Ismail & Koh, 2024). 

This article contributes to the developing field of religious populism by studying its manifestation in the discourses and performances of Prabowo Subianto in the last two Indonesian elections (2019 and 2024). In both election cycles, Prabowo makes references to religion and conveys religious meaning to the audience he is seeking support from. Yet, scholars widely agree that in 2019, Prabowo used Islamist populism to further his political agenda, mobilize supporters and exploit religio-ethnic tensions in Indonesia (Mietzner, 2020; Hadiz, 2018; Barton et al., 2021). In 2024 however, observers noted that Prabowo refrained from religious populism’s polarizing and antagonistic accounts of people in society (Ismail & Koh, 2024; Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024; Rozy, 2024), although there is little written about his broader incorporation – or eradication – of religion in his most recent political performances. 

Equally, by using Indonesia as a case study, this article underlines how religious populism in the socio-political context of more religious societies usually presents quite differently from democracies of the secularized Western variety (Wawrzynski & Marszalek-Kawa, 2022: 2; Falki, 2022: 227).

Methodology

This research employs a deductive qualitative approach, in which the theoretical framework of this paper will guide the analysis of collected data (Widian et al., 2022: 354). Discourse analysis will be used to identify and compare the rhetorical religious elements of a sample of Prabowo’s communications. 

The article will ultimately explore how Prabowo’s political style has pivoted away from an exclusionary religious populist style – and what it can teach us about the under-studied role of religion in electoral campaigning. 

Sample Data Collection

This article will use a sample of Prabowo’s campaign speeches which were selected based on a number of considerations, including: Prabowo discussing his campaign and policies, the length of the speech – longer speeches were favored because they provided more data to analyze, and speeches that occurred shortly (in the three months maximum prior) before the election when a leader is likely to most powerfully perform their political persona. 

Sample 1: Prabowo’s official national speech, ‘Indonesia Menang’ at the Jakarta Convention Center, Jakarta, 2019. 

Sample 2: Opening campaign speech in Kotabaru, Gondokusuman – Yogyakarta, 2019.

Sample 3: Prabowo. CNN Indonesia. Pidato Berapi-Api GBK, 2019. 

Sample 4: Prabowo’s political speech in Stadion Gelora Bandung, Bandung, West Java, on February 8, 2024.

Sample 5:  The People Party for the Progress of Indonesia (Pesta Rakyat untuk Indonesia Maju) in Gelora Bung Karno (GBK) Stadium, Senayan, Jakarta, February 10, 2024. 

Sample 6: Prabowo Subianto’s speech at a volunteer consolidation event at the Pekanbaru Youth Center, Riau, 2024. 

Data Analysis

Each author contributing to this research is familiar with and currently undertaking scholarship into the context of Indonesia and Indonesian politics, and religious populism. Our analyses have been guided by our understanding of the socio-political context these speeches have been presented in. One contributor is a native Indonesian and has assisted in ensuring the integrity of the transcribed and translated speeches. 

The four speeches were read in full several times before selecting the passages that have been used for the following analyses. These passages were selected based on their relationship with key themes of religion, religious populism, and religious association. This process resulted in the identification of certain key narrative themes, which the passages have been categorized under below. 

References to God, Prophet Muhammad, and Religion

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.

In all sets of 2019 and 2024 speeches, Prabowo references Islam as a shared religion with the Indonesian people, and in each case, he opens with an Islamic greeting to the crowd. 

In the 2019 speeches, Prabowo drew attention to his personal affinity with God and religion.  In sample one (2019), he frames his concluding comments by declaring himself “a proud son of the nation and of Islam.” Similarly, in sample two (2019), he greets the crowd and immediately declares himself a Muslim: 

“I pray that Yogyakarta is in a state of health and well-being. As a Muslim, let us send prayers and peace to our beloved Prophet Muhammad, who has enlightened us all.”

Populism often involves the personalization of politics, where voters connect with a political actor and their representation rather than strictly the set of policies and party affiliation they have (Soare, 2017; Weyland, 2017). In the above examples, Prabowo is drawing attention to himself as a Muslim and son of Islam, which supports his attempts at presenting himself as a pious religious figure throughout the 2019 campaign, and as will be demonstrated below, the savior of Indonesia. 

In sample 3 (2019) Prabowo demonstrates this personalization again and links his happiness with serving the Indonesian people. He owes this to God for providing him with the opportunity to serve:

“And I invite all my friends to do the same. We are devoted, we serve the state and the nation and the people. And I am already 68 years old. The Almighty has given me too much. I am determined. The rest of my life is for the people of Indonesia. My happiness, my joy, if I can see the wealth of Indonesia returning to the people of Indonesia. I am happy.”

In one of the 2024 sample speeches (sample 4), Prabowo ends his speech with a prayer:

“I close my remarks with my prayer, I pray for the presence of Allah, subhanahu wa taala, God the Great, God the Almighty, who rules all the worlds. It is only to You that we pray, only to You that we ask for help. O Allah, O Lord, give us strength, amen, so that we are strong to receive the mandate from the people of Indonesia, so that we have the ability, wisdom, intelligence, courage, honesty, sincerity to protect the people of Indonesia … O Allah, give us the strength, give us the power to continue to be loyal to the nation and the people of Indonesia, amen. Thank you, O Allah, thank you for everything you have given, thank you for your favor, thank you for all the gifts you have given. Thank you. Wassalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.”

This prayer frames the Prabowo and the audience as collective Muslims who are seeking the right direction for Indonesia from God. While the sincerity of this prayer is not for our judgement, we can comment that religion is politicized to create unity and to frame Prabowo’s seeking of power as a holy and pious mission. 

In sample 6 (2024) Prabowo expresses moral absolutisms of right, wrong and evil to highlight the virtuous path he is on: 

“I got teachings from my ustaz-ustaz, from my kiai-kiai, from my teachers. If you are insulted, if you are mocked, if you are slandered, return it to the almighty. I believe that right is right, wrong is wrong, evil is evil, I continue on the right path, I have no doubt, O God, O Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.”

The Discursive Construction of Crisis, Breakdown, and Threat

The sample speeches show Prabowo constructing a rhetorical crisis to a much greater degree in 2019 than he did in 2024 campaigning. Although these passages are not always inherently related to religion, the analysis will demonstrate how these crises can be used to augment an image of saviorhood by the political actor from ‘evil’ elites, which tends to lean on religious ideals and association. 

A key narrative theme in the 2019 samples is that Indonesia is weak, threatened and at a crucial crossroads for its survival. This is most pronounced in the first sample, in which he shares a tragic story of a farm laborer and father who died by suicide because of the burden of his debts, and of the one in three Indonesian children who are malnourished, the ordinary people who can’t afford to live, and the debt Indonesia keeps accruing on a global scale. In the second sample, Prabowo evocatively claims that “our country is sick” and “Mother Earth is being raped” and “the rights of people are being trampled on.”

This state of crisis is attributed to the “handful of elites in Jakarta” that “do as they please.” Prabowo personalizes this state of crisis such as in sample 2 (2019) when he declares: 

“I speak what’s in my heart. I’m fed up, fed up with the antics of the evil elite in Jakarta. Fed up. Always lying, always lying, lying, lying. Lying to the people.”

Religious populism is often used, as it has been here, to create moral distinctions between the ‘good’ people and the ‘evil’ others (e.g. DeHanas and Shterin, 2018).

The perpetuation of crisis, threat and blame was almost absent in the most recent election. In a significant pivot in 2024, Prabowo became allies with and endorsed by his former opposition President Jokowi, despite Prabowo having spread unfounded rumors about Jokowi secretly being a Chinese Christian who was selling out Indonesia in the former election (Lam, 2023). This consequently saw a change in Prabowo’s rhetoric, in which he stopped performing a state of despair when discussing Indonesia and blaming the political elites and government. For example, in sample 3 (2024), Prabowo claimed that Indonesia will become great and prosperous:

“Brothers and sisters, on the 14th of February, all of us, brothers and sisters, will determine the future of your children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters. We are now at a crossroads. Do we want to improve, do we want to progress, do we want to become a prosperous country, or do we want to become a mediocre country? Ladies and gentlemen, Prabowo Gibran and Koalisi Indonesia Maju, we are determined to continue all the foundations that have been built.”

In sample 4 (2024) Prabowo again optimistically describes Indonesia and the state of the country left by President Jokowi:

“We are also grateful to President Joko Widodo, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, the Indonesian nation is a great nation, not just a great territory, not just a great population, but a great heart, a great soul, a great character, ladies and gentlemen.”

We can see a clear change in Prabowo’s strategy from the above passages, from claiming that Indonesia is facing imminent threats from internal and external factors and urgently needing a leader to save the country and its people, to portraying Indonesia as being on the right track but needing a leader to lead it to greatness.

Prabowo as the Savior of Indonesia

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.

Political actors using a populist style generally rely on constructing a state of crisis, and then portraying themselves as the one – perhaps the only one – that can lead the people through the crisis or breakdown (Moffitt, 2016; Moffitt, 2020). 

When religion is incorporated into this rhetoric, it can enhance and add credibility to these claims by sacralizing the leader (as the ‘savior’) and consequently, their politics take on a transcendent nature (Zuquete, 2017; Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021; Yabanci, 2020). Furthermore, when a leader references the majority religion, and appeals to the religious community, they are lending legitimacy and authenticity to their political agenda. We can see this in sample 1 (2019) when Prabowo ends his speech with:

“As a proud son of the nation and of Islam, allow me to proclaim the takbir, ‘Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Independence! Independence!’ ‘Good luck fighting, together for a victorious Indonesia’.”

In this passage, Prabowo is creating a connection between himself (a son of Islam), God and religion of ‘the people’ (Allahu Akbar! God is Greatest!) and Indonesia’s independence (exclaiming and repeating Independence! following the takbir). Prabowo concludes his address in sample 2 (2019) in similar terms:

“Then, after voting, guard the counting until it’s finished. God willing, the people will win, Indonesia will win. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Independence, Independence, Independence. Thank you.”

In sample 3 (2019) Prabowo once again portrays his political career as a sacred mission that has been granted by God. This example highlights his perceived role as fighting for justice and against those he opposes (the elite government):

“I am grateful. I am grateful. To God Almighty. God is great. Thank you, God. You gave me the opportunity. To defend the people. Danio. You gave me a chance. With these noble figures. You gave me a chance. To stand up for truth and justice. Thank you, Lord. You gave me the opportunity. To fight against the budget of wrath. To fight against injustice. To fight against leaders who deceive their own people.”

Interestingly, while Prabowo’s 2024 speeches did not construct a vision of Indonesia in crisis like they did in 2019, the most pronounced instance of Prabowo performing as the savior of Indonesia came from one of the 2024 campaign speeches (sample 3). In this example, Prabowo narrates to the crowd: 

“Ladies and gentlemen, from the young age of 18, I have pledged that I am ready to die for the nation and people of Indonesia. Ladies and gentlemen, my ustaz, my kiai, taught me, ‘Prabowo, as a Muslim, before you spend your last breath, you must say two sentences of shahada.’ And I have said it in my life, because I should have been called by God. It turns out that God still gives, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala still gives me breath, still gives me strength, still gives me health. That means I have to fulfil my duty to the nation and the people of Indonesia. And I, at this moment, after I have risked my life for decades for this republic, I am not willing to still see poor people in Indonesia.” 

In this passage, Prabowo describes his political career as a sacred mission. Claiming that he is ready to die for the nation to fulfil this religious duty from God, Prabowo is making a passionate appeal to the emotions of the audience.  

This is an interesting finding. It is quite evident that Prabowo was operationalizing exclusionary religious populism in 2019 to engage with the surging popularity of Islamist sentiment at the time. Yet in 2024, the above examples highlight Prabowo performatively and discursively communicating his religious identity and appealing to the religious identity of his audience. 

Support for Islamist Actors and Collectives

Across the two election cycles, Prabowo expressed his support for very different political and social actors. In 2019 Prabowo clearly signaled to and supported to Islamist influences in Indonesian society. In sample 2 (2019) for example, Prabowo directly endorses the National Movement to Guard Ulama’s Religious Edicts (GNPF Uluma) and the populist Islamist group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI):

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you GNPF, thank you 212, thank you FPI. They want to accuse you of being radical. I say you are not radical. Why, do they want to pit Islam against Nationalism? Why do they want to pit Islam against Pancasila? Islamic leaders who participated in the birth of Pancasila, ladies and gentlemen.”

This quote demonstrates how Prabowo aligned himself with Islamist groups and movements that were widely acknowledged as accelerating religio-ethnic tensions and hostilities in Indonesian society, particularly against ethnic Chinese Christians. However, in this passage, Prabowo is implying that ‘they’ (the ‘others’) are responsible for these tensions by pitting Islam (Islamists) against the state and its ideology. Later in the speech, he directly places himself in the Islamist camp, stating: 

“To say we are radical Islamists is an overstatement; we respect and protect all religions, all ethnic groups, and ethnicities.”

Although Prabowo is attempting to portray his mission as one of inclusivity, in this same statement he is also drawing attention to his association with the populist Islamist movement and the figures attached to it. As pointed out above, these figures are known to work against various types of pluralism in society. 

In sample 3 (2019), Prabowo once again casts a blurry shadow of his position towards Islamism, which likely reflects an attempt to appeal to a broader support base. We also note an attempt to minimize negative perceptions of the Islamist actors he has associated with:

“Ladies and gentlemen. I am with Sandiaga Uno. We have no intention. We have no intention. Apart from working, serving, and devoting to all the people of Indonesia. Some say Prabowo-Sandi, the Coalition of Indonesia Adil Makmur, will change the Pancasila state. Lies! We will establish a khilafah state. Lies! This I say is slander. Cruel slander. Cruel slander. Cruel slander. But it doesn’t sell. The Indonesian people will not be affected, brothers and sisters. That’s right. That’s right. Our Ustadz-ustadz, our kiai-kiai, always teach that Indonesian Islam is Islam rahmatan lil alamin. Our Islam, peaceful Islam.”

By the 2024 election, Prabowo had publicly cut all ties with Islamist figures and instead allied himself with more moderate religious figures and organizations, including the leadership of one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) (Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024; Lam, 2023). As demonstrated in earlier passages analyzed, he redirected his support to the mainstream and became a vocal supporter of his predecessor – and former opponent – President Jokowi. 

Calling for Unity and Inclusivity

Instead of the polarizing religious rhetoric Prabowo became known for in his 2019 campaigning, 2024 saw the leader operationalize religion to strengthen his new political agenda of unity and inclusion. For instance, in sample 3 (2024), he claimed:

“Prabowo, Prabowo, Prabowo, ladies and gentlemen, our ustadz-ustadz, our kiai-kiai, our religious leaders, teach us, religious people, pious people, you can’t demonize others, you can’t insult others, you can’t slander others, you can’t fight against each other, right, ladies and gentlemen…”

Prabowo is still displaying a people-centeredness here, and addressing those who follow and study Islam. Religion here becomes a driver for Prabowo’s new agenda for the de-polarization of Indonesian society (Arifianto & Budiatri, 2024). In sample 4 (2024), Prabowo expresses a similar desire and need for peace and the unification of the Indonesian people, although he steers away from using religious justifications:

“The condition is that we must get along, we must unite, we must be peaceful, we must not fight anymore, we must not divide, we must not suspect each other, demonize each other, ridicule each other, slander each other. No, we must unite so that we become a great country, our people prosper, we eliminate poverty from the land of Indonesia, ladies, and gentlemen.”

In sample 4 (2024) we also see Prabowo making a rhetorical effort to include the ethnic Chinese Christians he had vilified in the past. Although staying away from religious categorization, he stated:

“Firstly, I would like to congratulate all Muslims for celebrating the great day of Isra Mikraj, and also to wish our brothers and sisters of Chinese ethnicity who are celebrating the Lunar New Year. If I am not mistaken, today is exactly the Lunar New Year for the Chinese ethnic group, ladies, and gentlemen.”

These samples are a clear demonstration of Prabowo’s decision to move away from polarizing and antagonistic discourses and performances. There are several reasons why he has changed his strategy (Yilmaz et al., 2024 discuss these in their recent work) but this discourse analysis has also demonstrated that he continues to rely on the mobilizing and legitimizing power of religion in addressing and collectivizing ‘the people’ and connecting his political agenda with the beliefs and culture of the majority religion. 

Concluding Remarks and Future Research

Whether or not Prabowo will return to a religious populist style that antagonizes ‘elites’ and ‘others’ and aligns itself with Islamist actors and ideals cannot yet be determined. What we can identify is that his political style in the most recent election was distinctly flavored by a characteristically populist effort to appeal to ‘the people,’ achieved by communicative strategies that sought the approval of various segments of society (see Yilmaz et al., 2024). Most relevant to this article was Prabowo’s use of religious rhetoric which, as this discourse analysis highlighted, continues to play a central role in his campaign speeches and efforts and showed a distinct effort to appeal to a (shared) collective Muslim identity. With recent polling showing that religious affiliations and identities continue to inform how many Indonesians vote (Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024), this undoubtedly contributed to his electoral success. 

Ultimately, we note a shift from Islamist mobilization to a mobilization directed towards Indonesian Muslims. Like other politicized religions, Islamist ideals are often far removed from the religion it is associated with. Islamist movements and parties have developed their ideologies based on a range of factors such as the political, institutional, and historical legacies of colonialism and nation-building, Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism, and in response to authoritarian regimes (Cesari, 2021). 


 

Funding: We acknowledge that this research is supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) the Discovery Project – DP220100829, titled “Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation: Civilisationism in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan” (2022-2025).


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

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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  

 

Abstract

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

Introduction

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. 

Turkey

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

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. 

Russia

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. 

China

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. 

Conclusion

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

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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  

 

Abstract

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

Introduction

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. 

Conclusion

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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