Alevi community during a religious rituel in Antalya, Turkey on June 2, 2016. Photo: Yusuf Aslan.

The Others of Islamist Civilizational Populism in AKP’s Turkey

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Shukri, Syaza & Shakil, Kainat. (2023). “The Others of Islamist Civilizational Populism in AKP’s Turkey.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 4, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0018

 

Abstract

Turkey’s history and politics allow populism and Sunni Islamist civilizationalism to thrive. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) use of Islamist authoritarian populism in its second decade of power has widened its “otherization” of political opponents, non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, ethnic minorities, vulnerable groups, and all those who reject the AKP’s views and democratic transgressions. To comprehend how Erdogan and his deft colleagues leverage identities of Sunni Islam and Turkish ethnicity, alongside pre-existing collective fears to develop populist authoritarianism, in this article, each category of “the others” is investigated through the lens of civilizational populism. This article specifically delves into the “otherization” process towards the Kemalists, secularists and leftists/liberals, Kurds, Alevis, and practicing Sunni Muslim Gulen Movement. The different methods of AKP’s civilizational populist “otherization” continues to polarize an already divided Turkish nation, generating incalculable harm.

By Ihsan YilmazSyaza Shukri & Kainat Shakil   

Introduction

The last two decades have transformed Turkey. Previously, the conservative democratic AKP promoted democracy and human rights development in its first decade in power until it got rid of the Kemalist establishment (Yilmaz, 2021; 2021a). The second decade of AKP rule, however, has observed these objectives receding. Instead, the party and leadership have veered into authoritarian territory coinciding with increased rhetoric on Islam and religion (Shukri & Hossain, 2017). The country has suffered a severe reduction in freedom of expression, media restriction, and political persecution (Amnesty international, 2023; Human Rights Watch, 2022; Freedom House, 2022). Ankara’s constitutional and societal changes weakened government checks and balances and instead promoted religious conservatism (Stockholm Center for Freedom, 2022; Yilmaz, 2022; Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2022).

Populism has shaped politics in the third decade of AKP rule (Balta, Kaltwasser & Yagci, 2022; Taskin, 2022; Yilmaz, 2021; Sozen, 2020; Aytaç & Elçi, 2019). This study examines the AKP’s otherization and demonization of “others” through the Turkic Sunni Muslim identity that underpins AKP’s civilizational populism. This subset of populism has been used to appeal to nationalist and conservative sentiments and justify AKP’s authoritarianism. This article aims to show how Erdogan and his AKP’s populist authoritarianism skillfully blends both sentiments by manipulating historical fear of Kemalist suppression. We shall examine AKP’s use of civilizational populism by analyzing “the others” it has constructed over two decades. Before that, the following section briefly introduces civilizational populism. The next section then uses civilizational populism to demonstrate the AKP’s “otherization” of Turkish nationals who do not agree with the policies and worldview of the AKP. Finally, the conclusion discusses the case study and its implications.

What Is Civilizational Populism? 

Civilizational populism emphasizes a group’s religious, cultural, or historical identity (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023: 10; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). This theory has been used mostly to examine populism in Europe and North America, where anti-migration emotions are dominant (Ozzano & Bolzonar, 2020; Brubaker, 2017; Marzouki et al., 2016; Apahideanu, 2014). The Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy, Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, and National Front (FN) in France all claim Islam to be a threat to European culture as part of their strategy to get votes (Kaya & Tecmen, 2019).

On the other hand, understanding right- and left-wing politics are useful outside the West in India and Latin America (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). This paradigm analyzes left-wing populism through figures like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Chavez’s “Nuestra América (our America)” and its anti-imperialist rhetoric called North America and past imperial powers a civilizational threat to South Americans that entails Latin American unity (Wajner & Roniger, 2019). Since 2014, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has turned India into a center for religious and ethnic minority human rights atrocities (Amnesty International, 2021; Saleem, 2021; Jain and Lasseter, 2018). Civilizational populism—the hallmark of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populist politics—is responsible for this upsurge in undemocratic tactics (Saleem, 2021; Jain and Lasseter, 2018).

Civilizationalism helps explain populist leaders, movements, and parties in the current political climate. Geographical boundaries, cultural differences, and populist divisiveness are different, but horizontal and vertical populism are still comparable (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022; Taguieff, 1995). This paradigm creates the differences between “the people” and “the elite” and the layers of “moral/pure” people and “immoral” others. Civilizational populism also identifies with religion (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022) through a religious push or a symbolic use of faith for identarian politics (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021). Religion currently dominates civilizational populism worldwide (Yilmaz, Morieson, & Demir, 2021: 20).

Civilizational populism uses sacred identities like religion to manipulate emotions. Populists might create fear of the civilizational enemy or patriotism by asserting elites and others are threatening the country (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021: 19). Thus, whether it’s the “pink tide” in Latin America, the “Saffron tide” in Asia, or “Make America Great Again (MAGA)”, civilizational populism is a useful tool to understand these phenomena (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). In Turkey, President Erdogan instrumentalizes civilizational populism to create a supposed utopia called “New Turkey” that is based on a specific civilization of Sunni Islam and Turkish identity. This has several constitutive others that we will now analyze.

The Kemalists

Kemalists who support the principle of secularism in Turkey, staged peaceful mass rallies in Ankara on April 14, 2007. Photo: Aydın Güven.

 

Historically, schisms have existed between Islamist and Kemalist forces in politics (Yilmaz, 2021). The Kemalists were instrumental in reshaping the Ottoman Empire’s ruins into a republic. Their ideological foundations were based on modernization objectives of the Ottoman elite, which resulted in the development of the Young Turks (Zürcher, 2010; Hanioglu, 2001). Under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s guidance, the Young Turks evolved into Kemalists (Hanioglu, 2001). The President died in 1938, but his philosophy was carried on by the military-led Kemalist tutelage regime that allowed multi-party politics after 1946 but made sure that Islamists, Socialists and Kurds would not make inroads into mainstream body politics. This has changed with the AKP’s second decade in power.

AKP has been promoting itself as the voice and savior of “the people” by showing itself as a democratic force and increasingly the authentic voice of “the people” or “Black Turks.” The party has continuously portrayed itself as the face of “Black Turks” empowerment over “White Turks,” emphasizing its support for historically marginalized religiously conservative groups. This is due to the lack of democratic liberties during the eight decades of Kemalist government, which pushed for proscriptive secularization (Tunçay, 2019; Zürcher, 2004).

An early example of this may be found in the mid-2000s, when the AKP used the Kemalist-imposed strict attire regulation as a point of civilizational conflict. Since the founding of the republic, women have been prohibited from wearing headscarves in public places in an effort to modernize Muslims, while men have been required to dress in Western attire (Tutar, 2014; Demiralp, 2012). This top-down imposition of “secular” dress hampered women’s mobility in higher-level positions, access to education, and, most importantly, self-expression. Using this conflict, the AKP turned the 2007 election into a campaign of the “White Turks” victimizing the “Black Turks.” For example, the First Lady chose to wear her headscarf to all public meetings and functions. While the AKP has never advocated for women’s right to choose (Kocamaner, 2018), it has used the First Lady’s Islamic faith to accuse the Kemalists of launching a “digital coup” against “democracy” (Yalçin, 2022; Elver, 2016). The image of Kemalists and the liberal opposition as anti-democratic forces was intended to undermine their cause (Yilmaz, 2021a).

The notion of the Kemalist elite’s social and economic injustice toward the Turkish masses grew over time. It peaked around 2010, when the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials dominated national politics. The Ergenekon trials looked at high-ranking Kemalists suspected of trying to destabilize the AKP-led government as a way of “White Turks” overturning “the people’s” government. The Sledgehammer trials targeted military leaders accused of preparing a coup against the government. Despite being very contentious, with several defendants ultimately acquitted or sentenced to lesser terms, the trial turned Kemalists from cultural threats of “corrupt” and “uncaring” elites to a security concern (Yilmaz, 2021; Tahiroglu, 2020; Ozdemir, 2015; Tisdall, 2012).

The Turkish Referendum in 2010 took place against this backdrop which weakened the military and judiciary’s involvement in politics (Yilmaz, 2021; Şahin & Hayirali, 2010). While the vendetta against the Kemalists exploited civilizational populist feelings, the events of 2010 were a strategy to keep the AKP in power. As the Kemalists were demonized and politically pacified, their main party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), became “the other,” while the “Black Turks” were eventually represented by the AKP.

Despite setbacks, the CHP has remained active in politics, making it a frequent target of AKP civilizational populism. The CHP has been accused of coups and being a co-conspirator with “Western enemies” on multiple occasions. In 2021, President Erdogan commented about the party’s bad impact on national prosperity by referencing prior coup attempts: “They constantly vow to bring us down. They have threatened me with the same end as (Adnan) Menderes. All the initiatives to threaten us with coups are being done with the help of CHP… Coups and walking together with the enemies of the state have become part of CHP leaderships’ genes” (Birgun, 2021a).

Furthermore, the party members have been characterized as adversaries of Islam, with many accusing them as being puppets of the West and pawns employed to harm Islam. A statement made by Turkey’s Minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdag, targeting Huseyin Aygun, a CHP deputy, is an example of this characterization: “Recently, one of their deputies used a language that insults the Messenger of Allah, the Prophet. If you respect the spirituality, religion and values of this country and this nation, o Kılıçdaroğlu, then you have to put this presumptuous faithless to his place” (Merhaba Yozgat,2014).

On some occasions CHP or Kemalists are also depicted as a threat by aligning them with local “others.” This includes charges that CHP members support “terrorist groups” such as the Gulenists or the Kurdish community, two groups that will be discussed in more detail later. Fikri Isik, a cabinet minister, linked the CHP to the Gulen Movement by saying: “The parallel establishment [Gulenists] are a gang, and CHP is working with them. Until today we have not let any gang operate inside the state, and from now on we won’t let any of them operate either” (Pusula, 2014).

Erdogan has not shied away from making these claims. He accused CHP of being affiliated with a diverse group of “others” during a public appearance in 2019 close to the local election. He asked voters to consider their children’s “future,” as he put it: “We are not serving as a subcontractor to that charlatan in Pennsylvania and the terrorist network in Qandil [Mountains] just to get a few more votes as the CHP […] On March 31, you will vote for our independence and our future through the election of mayors” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2019).

In another case, Suleyman Soylu, the AKP’s Interior Minister at the time, prohibited CHP regional chairmen from attending the funeral of a Turkish soldier killed in a confrontation with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The minister claimed that the CHP were PKK supporters and that they should instead attend the funerals of PKK soldiers (Kucukgocmen, 2018).

To retain its two-decade-long authoritarian hold on politics, the AKP is capitalizing on century-old schisms and grudges. It has used Turkish history to instigate a crisis, instill collective trauma and mass fear, and, most significantly, to divide and redefine society (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2022a, 2022b; Yilmaz & Shipoli, 2022). It has created a new concept of “the people” and “the others” in the process. Despite its efforts to distance itself from Kemalist oppression, Erdogan’s AKP is motivated by Kemalist authoritarianism and uses the follies of the previous administration to justify its political crimes and social reengineering of Turkish citizens (Cook, 2016).

Secularists and Leftists 

Protests sparked by plans to build on the Gezi Park have broadened into nationwide anti government unrest on June 11, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Thomas Koch.

The concept of a “White Turk” extends beyond Kemalists to secularists and left-wing politicians. While Kemalists represent administrative elites such as the military and judiciary, secularists and leftists are individuals who do not subscribe to AKP’s political ideology. Since the early 2010s, these groups have been a regular target of populist civilizational otherization by the AKP. This sub-group, like the Kemalists, is accused of posing a security and cultural threat to Turkey. They are also accused of being Western agents and alleged co-conspirators with local otherized groups.

The Gezi protests in Istanbul are examples of the simultaneous beginning and continuation of the otherization process as a new approach to gain political traction (Shukri, 2019). Initially, the rally was a peaceful protest against AKP-led development projects encroaching on public places. It grew to symbolize the public’s rising discontent with the party. The escalating intensity of the protests resulted in the paralysis of major cities and clashes between unarmed people and state officials (Yilmaz, 2021, 2021a, 2021b). Through a victimization rhetoric, several groups were “otherized” in order to divert attention and highlight Erdogan’s legitimacy. Secularists and leftists were particularly targeted during these protests. They were depicted as rioters or, at times, Western operatives out to destabilize Turkey’s economic development and discredit its Islamic values.

Erdogan’s use of fear and retribution to create a civilizational crisis is visible in his statements: “Those who work against Turkey will tremble with fear,” and “What is happening in Taksim is not only about the Gezi Park. These are events that have links outside and inside of Turkey” (Yilmaz, 2021; The Guardian, 2013). As prime minister, he publicly accused leftist forces of being behind the protests. During an interview in Tunisia, he explained: “But as I told you earlier, some terrorist groups are involved.” He claimed this to implicate an illegal left-wing militant organization, which was accused of bombing the US Embassy in Ankara the same year, with the protests (Weaver, 2013).  

On the sixth anniversary of the protests, Erdogan has proceeded to marginalize members of the left. In 2019, he reiterated his point of view: “In the past, some have destroyed our cities claiming that they wanted to protect the environment. We are here planting trees. So, where are they who claimed that they care about trees? None of them is here” (aHaber, 2019).

Even in 2022, Erdogan stood by his 2013 statements about “Westernized” youth. The President accused them of vandalizing a mosque by torching it, violating the mosque’s spiritual precepts, and drinking there. All these claims have been refuted (Duvar English, 2022). Erdogan has also asserted that the culprits were foreign sponsored in order to destabilize the country. He said: “Everyone is now understanding who the powers behind the Gezi protesters were. They are together with the terrorist-lovers” (Independent Türkçe, 2022).

Beyond Gezi protests, similar civilizational threats and anxieties have been used in various uprisings. When university students and faculty members protested the appointment of a pro-AKP leader to a university in 2021, the issue swiftly deteriorated into a gender debate. The students and professors at Bogazici University were opposed to an AKP-appointed president, culminating in a large protest that was eventually “managed” by police forces in Istanbul’s center (Gall, 2021). Erdogan and his allies used a Gezi Park-style approach to deny the opposition’s legitimacy. After spotting a pride flag attached to a photograph of the holy Kaaba, police accused the students of being ‘delinquents’ and disrespectful to Turkish and Muslim culture during the campus raids (The Independent, 2021). Erdogan, as a populist, successfully side-lined the appointment and portrayed the students as a group of Western-inspired troublemakers by using homophobic undertones to appease a vote base favorable to Islamism.

While addressing the protests, Erdogan accused left-wing and secular groups of encouraging violence. He said: “These youngsters [Bogazici protestors] who are members of terrorist organizations, do not represent our national and moral values. Are you students or are you terrorists who wanted to occupy the office of the rector? We won’t let terrorists take over this country. Mr. Kemal [Kilicdaroglu] you can continue your journey with your terrorist friends, but we will never be together with terrorists. There is no such thing as LGBT. This country is moral, and it will go into the future with these values. This country won’t bow to terrorists and will never live another Gezi protest” (NTV, 2021).

He specially categorized them as “terrorist youth, communist youth” and promised to eradicate their presence by saying: “Universities would not educate terrorist youth, universities should educate the youth that will serve the motherland and the nation” (Cumhuriyet, 2018). He also singled out CHP Istanbul chair Canan Kaftancioglu, who was essential in the party’s 2019 electoral win in Istanbul. Erdogan accused her of being a terrorist because she supported the protests: “Unfortunately, we see the chair of Istanbul branch of CHP, who has no relations to the students, but anyway she is a militant of DHKP-C [Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, identified as a terrorist organization by Turkey]” (Erdogan, 2021).

Following this, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu blasted the Chair on Twitter: “Canan Kaftancioglu is the clown of terrorist organizations. The chair of CHP’s Istanbul branch is personnel of DHKP-C, PKK/KCK and MLKP terrorist organizations. She already has a sentence of 1 year and 8 months for propagating for PKK/KCK and DHKP-C, according to Istanbul’s 37th Criminal Court, file no 2019/171” (Soylu, 2021).

Furthermore, the AKP increasingly attacks the LGBTQ+ community. The government has used pre-existing homophobic prejudices among ultra-conservative groups to denounce the community. It is critical to note that identifying as LGBTQ+ is not illegal in Turkey; nonetheless, the AKP has bred “distrust” in the community by portraying them as a cultural threat to Islam. Various instances, such as the suspension of yearly pride celebrations, are presented as a way of protecting the Islamist ethos of a Sunni Muslim Turkey, and demonstrations have sometimes been trivialized by tying them to the topic of gender fluidity (Ahval, 2021). 

In addition to the university demonstrations described earlier, the AKP has used gender as a civilisational strategy. Erdogan stated to AKP youth branches: “You don’t represent the LGBT youth. You are not the broken youth, on the contrary, you are the youth that raises the broken hearts. I believe in you, I trust you” (Diken, 2021).

Other secular voices in Turkey have been repressed through the use of religion. Erdogan chastised Turkey’s most famous pop star Sezen Aksu for insulting Islam. Aksu is well-known for being candid about her feelings towards the regime. Following the release of her 2017 song Şahane Bir Şey Yaşamak, she was accused of demeaning Adam and Eve. She was mocked online by AKP supporters when the President said:“No one’s tongue can reach our Prophet Adam [Hz. Adem]. It is our duty to cut those stretching tongues when the place comes. No one’s tongue can reach our mother Eve. It is our duty to give them what they deserve” (DW, 2022).

When viewed under the prism of Islamist civilizational populism, it is clear that Erdogan and the AKP have systematically used secular and left-wing groups as scapegoats during times of political disapproval. These groups have consistently been regarded as suspicious, hostile, and dangerous. They are viewed as both a national security concern and a challenge to the faith. They are also suspected of collaborating with local “others” and foreign forces. 

Kurdish Opposition 

People walk by the bombed buildings after the curfew in Şırnak, Turkey on March 3, 2016.

Kurds have long been seen as “second-class citizens” in Turkey (Yegen, 2004; Yildiz, 2001). During Kemalist leadership, the implicit promotion of Turkish as the state’s ultimate ethnicity frequently marginalized the ethnically diverse Kurdish people (Yilmaz, 2021). Throughout Kemalists’ eighty-year rule, the state forced the Kurdish community to “assimilate” to Turkish culture. As a result, the Kurdish language was prohibited in parts of Eastern Turkey, as well as in government-owned institutions and organizations (Jongerden, 2007; Yildiz, 2001: 281). Informally, government officials stopped registering Kurdish names in order to force Kurdish citizens to “Turkify” their names (Yilmaz, 2021). Despite the cultural annihilation, Kemalists attempted to persuade Kurds that they are “brothers” to Turks due to shared beliefs (Yilmaz, 2021). Throughout the years, the state has been quite proactive in criminalizing the Kurdish population, with any criticism of the regime or opposition made by the Kurds being seen as terrorism or a criminal violation (Yilmaz, Demir & Shipoli, 2022).

The AKP sought for reconciliation with the Kurdish population in its early years (2002-2010). This was in sharp contrast to the position of the Kemalist state, which denied the existence of Kurds in modern-day Turkey. Erdogan and his colleagues were optimistic about talks between the government and the armed Kurdish movement in Eastern Turkey. A cease-fire was established after the PKK was summoned to Ankara for talks. Following decades of disputes, this cleared the way for negotiations. Reforms such as allowing the use of Kurdish language in official capacity and participation in educational institutions were debated and, to some extent, authorized during the AKP’s early “democratic” phase in office (Yilmaz, 2021; Karakoc, 2020; Martin, 2018; Geri, 2017; Ozpek, 2017). These reforms not only resulted in the democratization of formerly securitized Kurdish pockets in Eastern Turkey, but also paved the way for language programmes, cultural activities, and media backing for Kurdish-led projects (Yilmaz, Demir & Shipoli, 2022). It was a welcome addition to the AKP’s previous initiatives that de-securitized the Kurdish minority after decades of cultural extinction.

During the height of Ankara-PKK reconciliation talks, however, the Kurds were re-securitized. This occurred shortly after the AKP lost power in the June 2015 elections (Yilmaz et al., 2021; Karadeniz, 2015; Smith, 2005). The Kurdish peace process had come to a stop and was worsening rapidly. The AKP was experiencing economic difficulties, and the corruption scandal affected its public image. Turkey’s ambitions of entering the European Union, which had driven its democratization in the 2000s, were also diminishing (Yilmaz, 2021, 2021a, 2021b). Furthermore, a political party pushing for Kurdish rights and liberal ideas was pulling Kurdish votes away from the AKP by this time (Geri, 2017). The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) posed a strong threat to Erdogan and his colleagues. During this time, many state institutions demonized Kurds and portrayed them as “the others,” and the Kurdish peace movement came to a halt and was destroyed.

The HDP’s threat to the AKP became clear during the 2015 election campaign, when the opposition party criticized Erdogan’s proposed presidential reforms (Ozpek, 2019; Bianet, 2015). In the 2015 elections, the HDP won 80 seats, threatening Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions (Candar, 2019). During the early stages of the AKP’s authoritarianism, civilizational populism was utilized to turn Kurds from “brothers” to “security threats.” Erdogan called two general elections in five months in 2015, coinciding with the re-securitization of the Kurds, resulting in turmoil.

Unfortunately, a succession of violent attacks in several locations hampered the Kurdish peace effort. The state accused the PKK of the attacks and imposed a state of emergency in Eastern Kurdish districts, allowing security forces to search for Kurdish “terrorists” including the HDP. Despite simply being pro-Kurdish, the HDP was portrayed as a pro-terrorist party. The AKP was portrayed as a pro-people hero preventing the HDP, an alleged terrorist sympathizer, from capturing control of the parliament. Thus, the HDP was “otherized” for being ethnically unique and posing a threat to “the people.”

While the HDP was marginalized and the Kurdish community was labelled as a “problem,” the AKP sought a new political alliance with the ultra-right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020). Erdogan has called for a jihad-style response to “threats” posed by the HDP and Kurds in general, with the MHP on his side. Part of this strategy is accusing political opponents of collaborating with the PKK. For example, Erdogan’s coalition partner, Bahceli, accused Istanbul mayor of hiring PKK militants, claiming that “these terrorists employed by the Municipality are jeopardizing National Security” (T24, 2021). Another example of how the party and its allies consistently prove “the others” are co-conspirators is re-securitizing the PKK as a threat and aligning them with resistance. This allows them to threaten the groups with a shroud of civilizational menace.

The AKP attacked the HDP with the accusations of “Irreligious, Communist, Armenian, Uncircumcised” to reduce HDP’s votes below the threshold (Adalet Biz, 2015). In June 2018 speaking at a political rally in Diyarbakir, Erdogan addressed majority Kurdish audience as follows: ‘Are we ready to teach them [HDP] their lesson on June 24 [date for general elections]? … Do they have any connection to our values? Do they have any connection whatsoever to Islam? They are atheists, they are irreligious’ (Ahval, 2018).

In March 2019 he spoke about the HDP and claimed that: “They [HDP] shot [bombed] the Kurşunlu Mosque. Who? The irreligious, unbelieving, atheist team called HDP. They have such a structure. They ignored if it is a mosque and so on” (Arti Gercek 2019).

In November 2021 speaking in pre-dominantly Kurdish city of Batman, President Erdogan targeted at HDP with following accusations: “What am I saying, is there a Turkish, Kurdish, Laz or Circassian distinction in my religion? But this PKK, this HDP has no religious faith!’ (Birgun, 2021b).

The Kurdish example shows too how the AKP has successfully outcasted its political opponents by generating civilizational populist fear and anxiety in them through the use of religious rhetoric. It has taken advantage of the Kemalists’ pre-existing distrust of ethnic minorities and made it feasible in a new context.

Alevis 

Alevi people are seen in Semah ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey on June 27, 2013. Alevism is a mystical branch of Islam. Its adherents are followers of Ali and his descendant, Alevi saint Haji Bektash Veli.

Historically, Alevis were considered by Sunni majority as “suspicious” and untrustworthy (White, 2017). During the first eighty years of Turkish history, Alevis, who constituted around 10 percent of the population, were almost unknown. Alevism is founded on Shia-inspired theological teaching, yet it has been labelled a heretic cult. Because Alevism differs from the state-endorsed Sunni Islam, they are regular targets of the AKP (Dressler, 2015). Furthermore, during times of civil turmoil, the community is portrayed as an untrustworthy group and a security threat to the country. The community was not targeted throughout the first decade of the AKP’s administration. However, 2010 marked the start of the otherization process, which has only accelerated.

The first onslaught on Alevis was launched by the AKP administration in 2010, when Erdogan was leading the party into dictatorial ambitions. Erdogan expressed dissatisfaction with the country’s judicial system at a public speech to mobilize support for the constitutional referendum (Yilmaz & Shipoli, 2022). The next year, when CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was targeted by the AKP, sectarianism was reignited. Kilicdaroglu’s faith, Alevism, was brought up in the conversation in order to publicly humiliate him (Yilmaz & Shipoli, 2022).

By the time the Gezi demonstrations occurred, the blatant charges against protestors had grown, with the government and its leadership portraying them as Alevis despite the presence of other groups at the rallies (Karakaya-Stump, 2014). This prompted the state to target Alevi neighborhoods in order to quell protests, resulting in the community being subjected to state-sanctioned brutality (Karakaya-Stump, 2014). Karakaya-Stump (2018: 62) reported on community profiling during the crackdown as follows: “The release of a police report, according to which 78 percent of those detained during the protests were Alevi, was no doubt part of the same deliberate strategy to vilify the protests in the eyes of conservative Sunnis.”

Following the 2013 events, this targeting and harassment of Alevis not only continued, but expanded beyond the police to media outlets (Lord, 2018: 158). During the Gezi protests, a gas canister wounded a small boy. Erdogan called the 15-year-old Alevi child a “terrorist” in order to excuse the police assault (Hurriyet Daily News, 2013). Worse, Erdogan said of the death of an Alevi boy caused by police brutality: “There was a funeral in Istanbul recently. Unfortunately, there was a child from the terrorist organizations, with a baggy face, a slingshot in his hand, and iron balls in his pockets, and unfortunately, he was exposed to a tear gas. How will the police know how old that person is, with a puffy face and a slingshot in his hand, tossing iron balls? But Kılıcdaroglu is lying as usual, saying ‘the boy went out to buy bread.’ Be honest. What does it have to do with bread?” (Oda TV, 2014).

Unlike the Kurds, who were ethnically different, Alevis were eventually portrayed as “threats” or “suspect,” with roots in sectarianism. In July 2016 and ensuing years, the situation exacerbated and got more severe. The AKP accused Alevis of being pro-Gulenists and hence “untrustworthy” collaborators with “FETO” and its alleged Western masters (Yeni Safak, 2016). Erdogan creates “the enemy” through a discursive chain of equivalences in which Alevis are akin to Gulenists and Gulenists are analogous to the despised West. These claims are reflected in Erdogan’s statement: “Parties, marginal groups and terrorist organizations that did not even greet each other until yesterday, all of a sudden, lined up on the same side. The marginals who made fun of the values of this nation, the boils of the idea of Alevism without Ali, the enthusiasts of February 28 [coup], all came together. The main opposition party is at the top of the line. Behind them is the party that claims to be a nationalist [IYI Party], and next to them is the party under the control of the terrorist organization [HDP]. The parallel organization [Gulenists], the separatist organization [PKK], the terrorist organization that killed our prosecutor in Caglayan Courthouse [DHKP-C], and the Armenian lobby are right behind them” (Oda TV, 2015).

In addition to securitization, the AKP has attempted to portray Alevism as alien to Islam and, at times, as a threat. During a trip to Germany, he openly labelled them as atheists. He said: “In Germany, there is something like ‘Alevism without Ali.’ In other words, there is an atheist understanding, a structure that they [Germans] also support under the guise of Alevism. They try to project that onto us. We said that there is no such Alevis in Turkey. There’s a handful of them in Germany and the Germans support them, then they come and speak in their name here” (Cumhuriyet, 2014).

At other instances AKP has labelled them as distrustful and “fake” Muslims. In 2015 Erdogan said: “… there is something we are seeing where there are people who say they are Muslims, but because they are from different sects, they defend even those who are atheists in the fight against terrorism in our country. We see such an approach. But when it comes to words, they say, ‘We are Muslims.’ But on the other hand, we see those who defend terrorist and atheist organizations because of this sectarian difference. So, we must be vigilant against them” (Hurriyet, 2015)

The AKP’s portrayal of a largely misunderstood faith under the party’s developing Sunni overtone has incited the general public. Alevism’s status as a spiritual faith, affiliation with Shia-inspired ideology, and recent labelling as “untrustworthy” or “disloyal” have exposed the group to mob violence. In addition to being imprisoned and labelled a “suspect,” a number of people have committed horrible crimes against Alevis in recent years, including physical and psychological harm (Topuz, 2021; Bulut, 2020).

The Gulen Movement 

Thousands of people gather in solidarity outside Zaman newspaper in Istanbul on March 05, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Zaman Media Group, which was affiliated with the Gulen Movement, was seized by Erdogan regime on March 4, 2016.

The Gulen Movement is led by Fethullah Gulen. When the Kemalist state prosecuted Gulen on charges of planning to destabilize the system, he was pushed into self-imposed exile in the United States (Balci, 2014; Tol, 2014; Angey, 2018). In the 2000s, the Movement and the AKP became significant allies on a number of social and political fronts (Yilmaz, 2021). However, splits arose in the alliance in late 2013 which eventually led to the utter vilification of the leader and the group’s members as “terrorists” (Sanderson, 2018). Since 2016, the state has labelled the movement as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO), and it has employed every available tool to criminalize, punish, and harm its members (Yilmaz, 2021; 2021a, 2021b; Tol, 2014). This change from allies to security threats may be the AKP’s most direct attempt to create a new class of “others” through civilizational populism.

Erdogan chose to accuse the Movement’s president of being a “foreign” entity hostile to the republic and its people. This is typical of a populist leader who depicts “the enemy” as not belonging to “the people.” Civilizational populists regard “the others” within a country as morally “evil” because they come from a different civilization with presumably lower moral and religious standards (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2023: 38). Erdogan used the same language to resuscitate Gulen’s 1990s charge of regime upheaval and portray it as conspirators. Erdogan used people’s fear and suspicion of the West in order to depict Gulen as a Western ally out to impede Turkey’s ostensible progress (Day, 2016).

Erdogan and prominent party members were embroiled in a corruption scandal on December 17/25, 2013. Leaked phone tapes implicated Erdogan, various members of his family, and the AKP leadership in severe instances of corruption and nepotism (Day, 2016). Cunningly, the entire tapes leak mess shifted from an AKP corruption issue to one of national security. The audio leaks, according to Erdogan, are a “judicial coup” against his party. He accused the Gulen Movement, which at the time had members in the police and civil services, of “spying” on the government and leaking state secrets.

The AKP-led government used “the threat of Gulenists” being “foreign agents” to begin its first wave of purges against them. Hundreds of police officers were arrested, and members of public service office were terminated from their work for allegedly jeopardizing the country’s “security.” Throughout this pandemonium, word of a change on the prosecution bench in the AKP corruption case went unnoticed. The pro-AKP media was active in demonizing the movement and ignoring the corruption trial’s conclusion (Day, 2016; Butler, 2014; The Guardian, 2014). Erdogan described his actions as necessary to fight purported national security concerns. He went on to say: “At the moment, we are eliminating a new coup attempt that started on December 17, and we are deactivating a new attack, a new sabotage. We have demonstrated with all the evidence that this is not a corruption issue, but a sabotage attempt against democracy, a strengthening economy, active foreign policy, and especially the solution [Kurdish and Alevi opening] process” (AA, 2014).

Using conspiracy theories provided justification to the public about their fear of the “parallel system” and its Western rulers, rather than just a means of instilling fear. Erdogan portrayed himself as the “man who holds Turkey together,” which appeared to be an emotional play to appease the public (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020). In order to instill terror and consolidate the AKP’s grasp on power, the Gulen Movement was used as a scapegoat in a conventional “rally behind the flag” strategy. Erdogan’s allegations persisted throughout 2014. His next statement demonstrates his disdain for the erstwhile ally and its persistent presentation as a threat to the country: “These are blackmailers, they have data storages. They extract things from everywhere at any moment, and they are organized. They rent houses around [their targets] and listen and watch from there, they are such a treacherous organization. There is a treacherous terrorist organization right now. This is a terrorist organization. It is our duty to take the necessary measures against it. This Pennsylvania [referring to Gulen] took down the leader of the CHP by this type of tape” (Yeni Şafak, 2014)

Even before to the controversial coup attempt in July 2016, the Movement’s members and leadership were suspected of assisting foreign conspiracies. Erdogan openly addressed the group in 2015, saying: “Shame on them [the base of the GM supporters, not the decision makers] if they can’t see that the parallel structure still cooperates with MOSSAD. This structure is not just a structure that attacked me. First of all, it attacked Turkey’s national security and integrity. […] They are not national. Those who do business with them will soon experience embarrassment. Whoever does not take a stand against them has done injustice to their country, conscience, and religion” (BBC, 2015)

A year after the 2015 elections, in which the AKP was fighting for its political survival, the 2016 coup attempt proved decisive. The coup was utilized by Erdogan to instill fear, worry, uncertainty, and distrust of “the others.” He accused the Gulenists of staging the coup on Western directions. Following the events, Erdogan openly targeted Gulen, saying: “I have a message for Pennsylvania [referring to Gulen]… you have committed enough treason against this nation. Return to your homeland if you dare” (Arango & Yeginsu, 2016). Following the broadcast of this warning, the foundation’s activities both inside and outside of Turkey were seized, as was an extensive witch-hunting of its sympathizers. People were encouraged to believe, through official media manipulation and populist rhetoric, that Gulen and his followers are Western-backed conspirators out to destabilize the AKP. The narrative cast the AKP as “the people’s” last hope for stability, while the Movement was heavily criticized (Yilmaz, 2021, 2021a, 2021b; Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020).

Following the coup attempt, Gulen Movement-led schools were closed and transferred to AKP partners or simply placed under government control. Businesses owned by supporters of the movement were seized and distributed among AKP supporters. Academics, journalists, teachers, and families were unjustly imprisoned and punished behind closed doors. The authorities formally branded the Movement as a “terrorist” organization, renaming it FETO. As a result, thousands of “FETOists” have been imprisoned or expelled (Yilmaz, 2021a). The president justified his decision in the following way: “The name ‘Fethullahist Terrorist Organization’ is officially recorded, and we sent the recommendation to the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers also made its decision, and the decision came to us for approval. We approved it and now it is included in this National Security Policy Document. They tore this nation apart; we will not give an opportunity to those who tear this nation apart. They will pay for this. Some of them escaped, some are currently on trial in prisons. This process will continue like this” (DW, 2016)

AKP has been very successful in exploiting the Gulen Movement to create an enemy by characterizing it as an ally of the long-feared Western powers representing the civilizational “others” to Turkey’s Islamic “people.” Based on pre-existing trauma from the Ottoman Empire’s demise, Erdogan developed a clash of civilizations-styled narrative. Turkey has “internal opponents” who collaborate with “foreign powers” to hinder its progress. As a result, the Turkish government has accused the group of being a threat to Islam as well. In one such statement, the President articulated his point of view: “FETO is a very insidious terrorist organization that hides behind the religion of Islam and looks like a modern face, but is actually bloody, tyrannical and aims to take over the world. For this reason, the organization does not only concern [is a threat to] Turkey, but all countries in the world. The fact that FETO is organized in 160 countries helps us determine the goals of the organization” (TCCB, 2019)

To remain politically relevant and to mask the AKP’s escalating political crimes, Erdogan deploys Islamist populism laced with civilizationalism which has changed even a former Sunni Muslim Turkish ally into a prime example of “the other.”

Conclusion 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

Turkey is currently volatile and autocratic. Previously, the varied Turkish population had been under an authoritarian Kemalist regime that tried to alter its culture for nearly 80 years. The secular Kemalist ideal citizen was created out of the First World War’s pain and humiliation which shaped their views of other cultures and the West. The Young Turks and their successors ended the monarchy but failed to turn the republic into a democracy with social capital. Many left, rebelled, conformed, or hid from the state’s tyranny. But this wounded the suppressed communities. Pre-AKP Turkey experienced widespread mistrust, persecution, and injustice.

In the early 2000s, the AKP emerged as a democratic movement, raising hopes of tackling these social inequities and other concerns. Unfortunately, the AKP’s goal of reversing modern Turkish politics’ harsh legacy was thwarted by EU estrangement, economic problems, democratization failure, Erdogan’s corruption, and Islamist ideology. The AKP progressively established an electoral authoritarian regime coinciding with increased rhetoric on Islam and religion. Islamist civilizationalism and populism enabled this transformation. Despite its name, worldwide engagement, and vision, “New Turkey” is similar to Kemalist Turkey. It still pits identities and ideals. These contrasts have created deep divisions that the AKP has used to keep power.

Erdogan and his party have used populism to create “the people” from an oppressed Turkic Sunni Muslim majority and give the “majority” a voice and representation. This mainstreaming appears to help a religiously and socially marginalized population. The AKP, official institutions, and pro-regime entities have also reinforced this group’s fears, uncertainties, and misgivings. Islamist civilizationists’ concerns and hopes have helped Erdogan and his party succeed in Turkish politics. On the other hand, “the others”—both domestic and abroad—are growing. The AKP’s fear factory has criminalized and maligned millions, from Kemalists to human rights groups. Sadly, “otherization” violates human rights and democratic liberties (see figure 1 for AKP’s list of “the others”).

Figure 1: Use of Civilisational Populism by AKP to create “the others”

 
The “other” When it began Categorization of “the others” by AKP
Kemalists
  • * The Ergenekon trials were used to motivate the 2010 Turkish constitutional referendum.
  • * Intensifies and continues. 
  • * Disloyal to Islam and the nation. 
  • * Co-conspirators of Western enemies.
  • * Referred to as White Turks.
  • * Corrupt. 
  • * Selfish elite.
  • * Disconnected elite.
  • * A obstacle in reaching Ottoman glory. 
Kurds
  • * Ceasefire and peace with PKK stopped in 2015.
  • * Re-securitization of Kurdish population continues. 
  • * Viewed as outsiders in Turkish land and to Turkish culture. 
  • * Highly securitized.
  • * Seen as criminals or terrorists, making them a security threat for the nation. 
  • * Untrustworthy and co-conspirators of the West and other outside forces. 
  • * Often characterized as uncivilized or “mountain people.”
Seculars & Leftists
  • * Have been under attack since Gezi protests in 2013.
  • * Sporadic attacks at various events toward different subgroups such as feminists, seculars, leftists, and LGBTQ+ community members. 
  • * Misguided by Western influences.
  • * A threat to the Muslim “way of life.”
  • * Funded by alleged foreign forces.
  • * Values seen alien to Turkish culture and Islam.
  • * Viewed as a moral and cultural threat to the religion and nation.
  • * Often used as scapegoats e.g., rowdy youth leading to riots.
Alevis
  • * Talks about Alevis being in hold of judiciary around the 2010 referendum.
  • * Previous examples include demonizing Alevi youth during Gezi protests.
  • * Marked rise in AKP leadership targeting the group post-2016. As a consequence, rise in hate crime against Alevis in recent years. 
  • * Mistrusted based on their religious outlook such as being labelled as heretics and accused of corrupt faith.
  • * At times of riots the group is posed as a security threat but more so a cultural threat to Sunni Islam.  
The Gulen Movement (GM)
  • * Fractures appeared in 2013.
  • * Declared a terrorist outfit in 2016 following the attempted coup d’état.
  • * Otherization continues to take place. 
  • * Seen as Western “agents”.
  • * Classified as traitors to the nation.
  • * Accused of being cultists.  
  • * By extension classified as non-Muslims at time by the Directorate of Religious Affairs.
  • * Labelled as a terrorist organization, Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO).
  • * Members of the movements are also declared terrorists called “FETOists.”

Erdogan’s political ideology is to create many crises to frighten the Turkish people. It enables him to deflect attention from the party’s fundamental shortcomings and sell himself and the party as the savior while marginalizing or limiting political and civil society opposition voices. 

After two decades in power, Ankara’s power center has helped solidify the AKP’s narratives. Erdogan believes Islam is a singular entity, thus he teaches the people to fear and loathe anyone who practices their faith differently, portraying any deviation from his own interpretation of Islam as an attack on “real Islam” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023: 68). History of Kemalist Turkey enabled this. The party inherited these “traumas” from early years of Islamist politics. These trauma points formed “crises” that currently threatens Turkey and Islam in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

However, the AKP is vulnerable despite its Islamist civilizational populist victory. Political and societal unrest has always threatened the party’s power. AKP has created new conspiracy theories to cast its own citizens as “others” with each general election. Without a doubt, Erdogan will stir up fear to win the upcoming 2023 general and presidential elections. During this process, we will, most probably, see lots of anti-Western, anti-Kemalist, anti-secularist, anti-leftist, anti-Kurdish, anti-Alevi and anti-Gulenists hate speeches and demonizations from different AKP figures. 

Unfortunately, manipulation, unfairness, and violence harm citizens, social capital, and social cohesion. Even if the AKP loses power, its two decades in power have deepened divisions. After decades of “otherization” and fearmongering to subjugate a society, democracy must be fought for. For the time being, civilizational populism looks to be thriving in the country, pitting citizens against one other.


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

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

Tusor, Anita & Escobar Fernández, Iván. (2023). “Mapping European Populism – Panel 7: Populist parties/actors and far-right movements in the Baltic countries and Belarus.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 19, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0009

 

This report is based on the seventh panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism,” which was held online in Brussels on December 15, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from three Baltic countries, namely Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Belarus. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, the report consists of summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

By Anita Tusor & Iván Escobar Fernández

This report is based on the seventh panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism,” which was held online in Brussels on December 15, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from three Baltic countries, namely Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Belarus. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, the report consists of summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Professor Andres Kasekamp, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and included the following speakers: Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė, Researcher at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science; Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson, Associate Professor of Political Sociology at Tallinn University; Dr Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik, Head of the Baltic Department at the Institute of Central Europe/the Catholic University of Lublin; Dr Tatsiana Kulakevich, Assistant Professor at the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies, University of South Florida.

Prof Kasekamp started his introduction with a brief overview of the four countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus. He pointed out the collapse of the USSR in 1991 as crucial for the four countries: While Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania already existed independently during the inter-war period (1918-1939) and gained their independence back when the Soviet Union collapsed, Belarus, on the other hand, emerged as a new-born state from the USSR. In addition, whilst the three Baltic states moved decisively to an alignment with the Western world, Belarus, ruled by the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, became a dictatorship associated with Moscow. The strategic alliance between Moscow and Minsk has lasted for decades; however, we have witnessed an intensification during the War in Ukraine. 

However, the Baltic countries have followed a different path. In 2004, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO, and a few years later, they also joined the Eurozone, adopting the common currency. Nonetheless, their domestic politics have been conditioned by the fact that these states host ethnic Russian minorities, resulting in an ethnic cleavage for their home affairs. Prof Kasekamp highlighted that such ethnic composition is crucial in the current geopolitical situation since it reflects the popular opinion regarding the war in Ukraine. In other words, the Baltic states have regarded themselves as frontline states and have become the biggest supporters of Ukraine, measured according to the percentage of GDP per capita that they are currently spending on military and humanitarian assistance.

Prof Kasekamp followed his introduction by providing a brief overview of the current situation of populism in the aforementioned countries. He first stressed the importance of the well-known Cas Mudde’s (2007) framework, which identifies three main features of the populist radical right: nativism, populism, and authoritarianism. 

The moderator then provided the audience with a brief overview of each state. First, he addressed Latvia, a state characterized by new political parties doing well in elections. In fact, according to Kasekamp, in 2006, a political party that had not existed until that year won the elections, and ever since then, it has won each of the successive elections in Latvia. In this same line, the scholar also pointed out that new parties have performed well in recent elections. Thus, besides its volatility, the Latvian system has been opened for new populist challengers, namely the populist radical right. For instance, the National Alliance, the equivalent of the Latvian populist radical right party, has been in government for a long time as a junior member of the coalition that has been running the country since 2011. 

The case of Estonia is quite particular since there had not been any significant far-right or populist radical right party until 2015. In that year, a political party founded in 2012, known as EKRE, managed to cross the 5 percent threshold, thus entering the Parliament, and has grown since then. Nowadays, EKRE is the third most popular political party in Estonia. 

Prof Kasekamp also briefly tackled the case of Lithuania among the Baltic states highlighting that Lithuania has several populist parties from both the right and the left in the political spectrum. Moreover, he also quickly remembered that Lithuania already had a populist president that was impeached and removed from office in 2004. 

Lastly, Prof Kasekamp addressed the contemporary situation of populism in Belarus. He first indicated that, due to the authoritarian administration that is currently reigning in Belarus, there is not much political space that allows organized political activities and parties to emerge and thrive without being repressed. 

Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė: “The Legacy of the post-communist transformation in the agenda of Lithuanian populist parties”

Lithuania lacks the so-called cordon sanitaire against populist political parties and most populist political parties, when elected, have frequently joined the government in a coalition. Bearing this in mind, Dr Ulinskaitė identified two interesting elements: she claimed that such populist parties, after having been in the governing coalition, tend to lose their outsiders’ appeal; as a second point, she argued that a distinctive feature of Lithuanian politics that differentiates Lithuanian populism from other Central and Eastern European countries is that the impact on democracies usually stems from populist parties taking over mainstream political parties.

Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė started her presentation by highlighting that the findings and conclusions extracted from classic model countries where populism has succeeded, such as Hungary and Poland, should not be extrapolated entirely to other states simply because they share a post-communist background. By showing a time series obtained from the Liberal Democracy Index, she demonstrated that the effect of populism on Poland and Hungary has differed from the effects of populism undergone in both Estonia and Lithuania, for instance. 

Nonetheless, although the impact of populism has varied across different countries, the researcher argued that Lithuania started experiencing populism quite soon. More specifically, she referred to the case concerning Rolandas Paksas, former Lithuanian President, who was impeached in 2004. Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė then showed the evolution of populist parties’ success since the early 2000s, pointing out that, in 2004 and 2016, they won more seats in the Parliament than the other principal competing political parties. 

Having said this, the researcher then wondered why, despite their success, populist parties have not been able to control state institutions in Lithuania. She identified two main reasons: the ongoing domination of the two main political blocks -the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania and the Homeland Union- due to the historical cleavage set during the post-communist transformation. And second, the inability of populist parties to maintain their voters’ support resulting in an impressive initial success that progressively ends up fading away. Regarding the latter, Dr Ulinskaitė highlighted two possible explanations for the fact that populist parties cannot maintain voters’ support: this could be because such populist parties usually build their electoral campaigns upon a particular project or community, thus failing to develop a comprehensive political program. Another explanation could be the complexity of the Lithuanian parliamentary electoral system, which consists of two rounds; to win in both rounds of the election, a political party has to have a strong political organization and a high number of members. However, populist parties do not meet these requirements and face several challenges when trying to attract new members. Further in this line, the regulations passed and implemented on extensive private funding in electoral campaigns have also limited their campaigns’ potential since political parties now receive public funding for their electoral campaigns according to their share of the vote in previous elections, thus reducing the funds at their disposal.

Nevertheless, Dr Ulinskaitė reminded the audience that Lithuania lacks the so-called cordon sanitaire against populist political parties. The researcher pointed out that most populist political parties, when elected, have frequently joined the government in a coalition. Bearing this in mind, Dr Ulinskaitė identified two interesting elements: she claimed that such populist parties, after having been in the governing coalition, tend to lose their outsiders’ appeal; as a second point, she argued that a distinctive feature of Lithuanian politics that differentiates Lithuanian populism from other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries is that the impact on democracies usually stems from populist parties taking over mainstream political parties. 

The researcher then focused her presentation on the recent victory of the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union in 2016, which, through the combination of credibility and the reinvention of their project, became more similar to a social movement than to a traditional political party. The party’s campaign aimed to attract those who did not identify with either the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania or the Homeland Union. Furthermore, in terms of their ideology, the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union combined both right-wing and left-wing values, emphasizing, for instance, the role of traditional family and Christian values as the base of the society, the importance of public health, as well as the ongoing moral decay of contemporary societies. Dr Ulinskaitė then explained that although the party’s voters do not differ significantly in their ideological preferences from voters of other traditional parties, they can be described as citizens who are dissatisfied with the economic situation.

The researcher concluded her presentation by arguing that despite the decline in 2020 of the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, their legacy is still noticeable in Lithuanian society, as can be observed in their attempts to create a strong leadership, as well as represent the losers of contemporary times.  

Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson: “A Blossoming tree: The origins and present-day of the Estonian populist radical right”

Due to the economic and social progress experienced in Estonia, it was believed that there was no room for radical right parties and the far-right upon the electoral margin; however, this belief changed about a decade ago with the foundation of EKRE. Furthermore, it is also worth noting the existence of Blue Awakening, EKRE’s youth branch, which has a more radical and far-right ideology than EKRE itself.

The second presentation was carried out by Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson, Associate Professor at Tallinn University. She tackled the Estonian populist radical right, namely the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), founded in March 2012. After obtaining 19 seats in the Estonian Parliament in the 2019 national elections, EKRE became the third most important political party in Estonian politics, though as of early 2021, it has clearly become the second most popular party in Estonia. 

Due to the recent economic and social progress experienced in Estonia, it was believed that there was no room for radical parties and the far-right upon the electoral margin. However, this belief changed about a decade ago with the foundation of EKRE. Furthermore, it is also worth noting the existence of Blue Awakening, EKRE’s youth branch, which has a more radical and far-right ideology than EKRE itself. Moreover, the Associate Professor also pointed out as part of the contextualization of the Estonian case the discontinuation of the Estonian Independence Party, the creation of the Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition, and the transnational “import” of the Nordic right-wing extremist group “Soldiers of Odin”, which can be considered as an informal movement of people whose aim is to “protect” the streets from immigrants. This extremist group surfaced in 2016, during the peak of the migration crisis. 

Nonetheless, Dr Jakobson stressed the long ethno-nationalist and anti-establishment tradition in Estonian politics, which can be traced back to 1988. This ethno-nationalist and anti-establishment tradition could be observed in the Estonian National Independence Party, founded in 1988, which aimed at the so-called liberation of Estonia and the re-establishment of the Estonian situation in the 1940s. Moreover, she also underlined other political parties, such as the Pro Patria Union and all its successors, which were part of mainstream Estonian politics. The countermovement to the aforementioned parties was the Popular Front of Estonia, which proposed a non-nationalist non-ethnocentric alternative. More recently, the Associate Professor also mentioned the Estonian Centre Party, which was founded in 1991 and with clear populist sentiments as well. Finally, to conclude the background of Estonian politics, Dr Jakobson explained the overall dissatisfaction in Estonia in 2011, resulting in several protests and demonstrations against the political elites for a variety of reasons of different nature; something that was quite rare in Estonia. 

Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson resumed her lecture on the populist radical right. She emphasised that -in addition to all the key features of populist radical parties -namely opposition to multiculturalism, defence of cultural nationalism, anti-establishment rhetoric, defence of traditional family values, anti-immigration stances, Euroscepticism, opposition to the US Green Deal, among others-, what made EKRE succeed in Estonian politics was its ability to manage to be on the opposing side alone, which means that no more political parties were embracing the above-mentioned stances as they were. 

Furthermore, the Associate Professor also pointed out the bad manners of the Estonian Populist Radical Right, which, for instance, during their participation in the government, they underwent 33 different political crises that were somehow created by themselves. Half of the aforementioned crises were scandals, which were outrageous expressions quite contested that ended up occupying the public discussion. More specifically, they managed to verbally attack the president, the leaders of other countries, the intellectuals, the minorities, as well as domestic policies from third countries, such as the US. 

Following her lecture, Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson also highlighted the organisation of EKRE. She said that, although being inherited in parts from the People’s Union, EKRE built up a well-functioning mass organisation that is based on ideology and conviction. Further in this line, the Associate Professor also mentioned that EKRE has notably democratic internal procedures, in which, for instance, candidates are elected according to popular vote on the district and local level and even their slogans are created by the people. This is why EKRE resembles a social movement as well. 

Dr Jakobson concluded her presentation by showing some of the outcomes of the participation of EKRE in politics, such as the platform they created against the Gender-Neutral Civil Partnership Act, their meetings and events during the migration crisis, as well as their institutionalisation in the government. The Associate Professor remarked on the imminent elections Estonia is about to undergo, which will indeed pave the way for the future of EKRE. 

Dr Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik: “What attracts people to populism in Latvia?”

“Although populism is a very attractive ideology in Latvia as for a European Union member state, it is less effective than in other parts of Europe. The reason for this is partly the fragmented and unstable nature of the Latvian political system, as well as the fact that these parties have gained huge support relatively fast, but they have lost this support even faster.

The third presentation was carried out by Dr Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik, who showed Latvia as a more extraordinary case among the three Baltic states despite the many similarities between the mentioned countries. Her lecture asked the question, “What attracts people to populism in Latvia?” and outlined the statement that populism is indeed an ideology which attracts Latvians due to several features of the society which make this phenomenon work.

First of all, there have been high and quite unrealistic expectations about the new democratic regime following 1991. However, after a couple of years, economic problems, and issues with the implementation of democracy pushed society towards an apolitical state, where people were less and less involved in democracy itself. Economic development and gains were expected to be achieved quickly after the democratic transformation, but it proved to be inapproachable during such a short time span. This realization came at a time when social and economic inequalities became more visible. We can interpret this situation in alignment with the disenchantment theory, according to which relatively high social enthusiasm at the beginning of the 1990s became lower and lower because of the poor economic and political performance of state institutions. This “discrepancy between the expected advantages of the new system and the experience with real democracy” (Reykowski, 2020: 155) led to frustration and disillusion among people who experienced worsening economic difficulties, unemployment, political scandals, and corruption. People withdrew from political participation, became apathetic and had little confidence in democratic institutions. We can find several such elements in the political environment of Latvia throughout the 1990s. 

Furthermore, Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik highlighted that the country’s demographic situation is another notable feature of Latvian society, making it receptive to populism. The Baltic state is divided into two main ethnic groups: Latvians and Russians. The latter constitute more than 30 percent of the Latvian population, creating another major cleavage, division and form of inequality in the country. Due to this political environment and social inequality, a basis for the attractiveness of populist ideology was created. 

Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik then moved on to describe the current populist landscape in Latvia: One of the parties in the current government, National Alliance, established in 2010, is a party which can also be described as a right-wing populist party. It holds a far-right ideology, and it is a conservative, anti-immigrant, and Eurosceptic party. In 2018, the party won 13 seats, which it could also maintain during the 2022 Latvian parliamentary elections. The researcher mentioned two other populist parties, one of which, ‘Who owns the State?’, ran in the 2018 elections and quickly gained 7 percent of support, which was relatively promptly lost. This phenomenon, according to Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik, is significant and typical for Latvia: in a political environment described by an unstable government, a new party appears, which then disappears in a short time.

The other young populist party is Latvia First, which appeared on the scene only in August 2021 and shows similarities with another conservative newcomer party, For Stability! The latter was founded in February 2021 and gained support through its Eurosceptic and anti-vaccination rhetoric. The quick establishment of these parties happened just one year before the parliamentary elections, which is a requirement for running parties according to Latvian law to have the ability to participate in the elections. Both populist parties promote Christian and traditional values and include social integration into their programs. Together, the two smaller parties gained around 13 percent of the votes exemplifying the relatively big support for populist ideology in Latvian society. As a result, it is no surprise that populism is viewed as the biggest threat to democracy, according to the newly elected Latvian President, Egils Levits. Since 1993, 10 to 20 percent of voters have voted for populist parties in the parliamentary elections.

In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has made populists more and more vocal and visual as populist leaders have decided to organize and/or participate in mass demonstrations and rallies against the government, mandatory vaccination and restrictions. In fact, their activity has succeeded since society got frustrated with the pandemic situation in the country. Although Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik reminds us that among the Baltic states, Latvia had the highest rate of covid cases, and the vaccination rate was less effective than in Lithuania or Estonia. In this sense, Latvian populist anti-vaccination and anti-governmental narratives have worked.

Finally, Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik emphasized that although populism is a very attractive ideology in Latvia, as for a European Union member state, – in the long term -; it is less effective than in other parts of the continent. The reason for this is partly the fragmented and unstable nature of the Latvian political system, as well as the fact that these parties have gained huge support relatively fast, but they have lost this support even faster. In her lecture, the researcher mentioned several factors which are boosting the populist rhetoric in the country. For example, crisis situations like the pandemic have made people more and more vulnerable to such narratives, especially the elderly, the Russian-speaking minority, and people with low social status. Generally speaking, those dissatisfied with their economic situation, social status and politics in the country will present unfavorable attitudes towards the government. If we look at the social trust and support in the government in Latvia, we can realize that it is among the lowest in the EU – scoring around 20 percent (Kuczyńska-Zonik, 2021). This number steadily declines over time, coinciding with the growing support for populist parties. 

Dr Tatsiana Kulakevich: “Is populism in decline in Belarus?”

The first pillar of Lukashenko’s populism has been crumbling since 2020: the proximity to the people did not stand anymore as people could see the brutal repression and violence against the protesters. People started to question Lukashenko’s image. Moving on to the second pillar, the guarantor of peace, this image was shattered when the war in Ukraine began. Belarus appeared in the news as the other aggressor in Putin’s war. Finally, as a guarantor of stability, stability of the economy, Lukashenko’s image is also crumbling.

Dr Tatsiana Kulakevich presented the Belarusian case and started by emphasizing that, in the case of Belarusian populism, we do not talk about the far right or the left; we focus on Lukashenko himself. Secondly, to clarify the term, populism is not an ideology but a very ambiguous term, and it can be adopted by the left or the right. In Belarus, there are 15 officially registered political parties, and there are also officially not registered political parties in opposition. The key point here is that because the election process in Belarus is merely an administrative formality, political parties are largely irrelevant. 

Dr Kulakevich discussed populism as a strategy and a type of politics that claims to represent the opinions and wishes of ordinary people. This was Lukashenko’s strategy and worked for him for over two decades. He came to power after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1994 and has been in power ever since. His populism has three components: The first is creating a feeling of proximity between the people and the leader. This is exemplified by videos and images of Lukashenko doing agricultural work, meeting people in factories, speaking the informal language of the working people, and all the other actions to show he is a regular man like everybody else. Therefore, it is not surprising that he became known as ‘Batka’, the ‘father of the nation,’ which has only changed after 2020.

The second one was that he is a guarantor of peace. Plenty of books have been written about the strategy and the importance of the Great Patriotic War as a narrative in Belarusian politics which accentuates how much the people have suffered during the Second World War and why this should not be repeated because the Belarusian nation is a peaceful one. Even the national anthem starts with a phrase which asserts this peace-loving image of the nation. This line, “We, Belarusians, are peaceful people,” was adopted and accepted by Lukashenko himself in 2002. 

Finally, the third ingredient was stability, that Lukashenko is the guarantor of economic stability. Nonetheless, the Belarusian economy has never been transformed into a market economy, and it is surviving based on Russian subsidies and Lukashenko’s ability to balance the East and the West. So, as Dr Kulakevich stressed, when he did not like what Putin was saying, he released political prisoners in exchange for financial support from the European Union. This balancing policy saw a big challenge in 2019 when the Russian government decided to introduce a tax maneuver and gave an ultimatum during the price negotiations on the upcoming years’ natural gas and oil imports to the Belarusian leader, which resulted in Belarusians saying “that’s enough.” This dispute over oil and gas prices affected the Belarusian economy and pushed Lukashenko to diversify away from the reliance on Russian energy supplies (Kubiak, 2020). 

Expanding on her analysis of Belarusian populism, Dr Kulakevich pointed out that populism in Belarus worked because Lukashenko made people believe that the political elite was doing its best for them. However, his image of “not being a good guy” was exposed in 2020. This has not been sudden but gradual and is an ongoing process. What triggered this process? When Covid-19 struck, Lukashenko and his government had already been experiencing economic difficulties due to the Russian introduction of a tax maneuver. Ultimately, the Belarusian government could not handle the pandemic and left people alone. They had to find a way to take care of themselves since the government had abandoned them and did not deliver its promises.

People’s disappointment in their leadership has been reflected in the results of the 2020 presidential elections. Even after Lukashenko tried to suppress these figures, it became clear to everyone that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya emerged as the new leader partly because no one else was able to run. She could gather large support despite, for instance, the surprising choice of not embracing the historic white-red-white symbols. In her lecture, Dr Kulakevich explained that the Belarusian flag is red and green, but historical symbols are white-red-white. Tsikhanouskaya only embraced these historic colors later on. 

Demand for change has become visible; nonetheless, Lukashenko claimed to have won the elections with 80.1 percent of the votes (Belarusian Central Election Commission, 2020). He claimed a landslide victory for the 6th time in a row, and although there have been protests before, this time, it was different. People started to question the three pillars of his populism: guarantor of stability, the man of the people and guarantor of peace. The months-long protest broke out, but protesters met with brutality, suppression, physical violence, and torture, which were internationally documented. The researcher highlighted that Belarus currently has more than 1000 political prisoners (EEAS, 2022), which is unprecedentedly high.

The second half of Dr Kulakevich’s lecture described how the above-mentioned components of Lukashenko’s populism started to crack. The first pillar of Lukashenko’s populism has been crumbling since 2020: the proximity to the people did not stand anymore as people could see the brutal repression and violence against the protesters. People started to question Lukashenko’s image. Moving on to the second pillar, the guarantor of peace, this image was shattered when the war in Ukraine began. Belarus appeared in the news as the other aggressor in Putin’s war. So, Lukashenko lost the delicate balance between the East and the West.

Finally, as a guarantor of stability, stability of the economy, Lukashenko’s image is also crumbling. He has lost his ability to negotiate with the West, completely relies on Russia, the economy is still not transformed into a market-based economy, and he does not receive any external loans. In addition, along with Russia, Belarus is under a number of sanctions. Consequently, IT companies left the country, and no new businesses are coming to Belarus, leaving the economy in a troubled state.

Conclusively, Belarusian people are signaling a need for change. People were protesting the Belarusian regime before but not in this number. They embraced white-red-white symbols, different from the official red and green symbols observed as the ones covered in blood. Dr Kulakevich observed slow changes inside Lukashenko’s regime, which gave hope for change. These changes are also visible to the government, which is maintaining its repressive policies. Nonetheless, the three pillars of Lukashenko’s previously successful populism are crumbling. 


References

— (2020). “Lukashenko sworn in as Belarus president.” Belarusian Central Election Commission. September 23, 2020. https://www.belarus.by/en/press-center/news/lukashenko-sworn-in-as-belarus-president_i_119131.html (accessed on December 28, 2022).

— (2022). “Belarus: Statement by the Spokesperson on the political prisoners.”  EEAS. January 27, 2022. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/belarus-statement-spokesperson-political-prisoners_en (accessed on December 28, 2022).

Kubiak, Mateusz. (2020). “Belarus and Russian Oil: All Is Not as It Seems.” RUSI. July 7, 2020. https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/belarus-and-russian-oil-all-not-it-seems (accessed on December 27, 2022).

Kuczyńska-Zonik, Aleksandra. (2021). “Latvia: Social Discontent and a Decline in Trust in the Government.” Instytut Europy Środkowej. Oktober 2, 2021. https://ies.lublin.pl/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ies-commentaries-330-27-2021-1.pdf  (accessed on December 20, 2022).

Mudde, C. (2007). Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Reykowski, Janusz. (2020). ‘The Sources of Disenchantment with Democracy.’ In: Disenchantment with Democracy: A Psychological Perspective, Series in Political Psychology. New York; online edn, Oxford Academic, April 23, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190078584.003.0006

Members of the Reich Citizens' Movement organize a lift at the Lustgarten in the city of Berlin, Germany on November 9, 2019. They deny the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany. Photo: Juergen Nowak.

What does Patriotic Union’s coup plan in Germany tell us about threats posed by far-right?

As the investigations are ongoing, not much is known of the real threat to democracy that this group posed. Nevertheless, the German authorities did take it very seriously, which could be an indication of the seriousness of the situation. Assessing the group and its coup plan, Jan Philipp Thomeczek underlines the fact that some members of the group had a security background, such as military or police experience, moreover many of them owned weapons and ammunition.

By Kim van Os*                                                                                                                          

On the 7th of December 2022, German authorities arrested 25 people for plotting to overthrow the German government. The group, called the Patriotic Union, was divided into a ‘Rat’ (Council) and a military branch, ready to take over the various ministerial posts. Their plan was to storm the Reichstag parliament building and seize power, using violence if necessary. The group planned to instate Heinrich XIII, a descendant of German royalty, as the Emperor of Germany. In addition to the arrest of 25 people, the police also seized weapons acquired by the group and Iridium satellite telephones. The latter are special telephones which work even when the electricity network collapses, something the group was also planning to do (Connolly, 2022).

Little is known about the ideology of this Patriotic Union. According to Jan Philipp Thomeczek, an expert on populism and the far-right in Germany, the Patriotic Union is a very heterogeneous group, and it is therefore quite hard to pin it down to a specific ideology. Its members are quite diverse, ranging from former and current soldiers, current and former members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist political party in Germany, to the people with an extremist background. In addition, the group does not have a manifesto or program. What however is known, states Thomeczek, is that the Reichsbürger movement had a strong influence within this group. Many of the members of the Patriotic Union came from the Reichsbürger movement, including the previously mentioned Heinrich XIII. 

The Reichsbürger (which translates to ‘Citizens of the Reich’), deny the existence of Germany’s post World War II Federal Republic, and do not accept the legality of Germany’s government. According to them, Germany is still controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. In one of their most influential publications, ‘21 Punkte zur tatsächlichen Situation in Deutschland – Analyse & Aufklärung’ (Translation: ‘21 points on the real situation in Germany – analysis & enlightenment’), they state the following: ‘Germany has not been a sovereign state since the end of the Second World War, but rather militarily occupied territory by the Allied forces, above all, as the main victorious power, that of the United States of America’ (21 Punkte…, 2022)

Although all Reichsbürger members share the same belief in that they do not accept the legality of Germany’s government, they do not all have the same ideology. According to the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, of the 23.000 Reichsbürger in Germany, 5 percent can be classified as far-right extremists. Among them are those with special military training, police agents and members of the military.  Although they might not all be classified as far-right, the origins of the group can be traced back to far-right ideology. For instance, the Reichsbürger passport is based on the Reich Citizenship Law of 1935. Under this law, only people of German or related blood were approved for Reich citizenship (Schlegel, 2019). Although this law specifically mentioned Jews as people not eligible for Reich citizenship, the law also excluded Black people and Roma and Sinti for Reich Citizenship (Facing History, 2022).

The use of violence by Reichsbürger is not unknown, in 2016 a member of the group killed a police officer and injured three others (Oltermann, 2016).  In 2020, members of the group took part in an attempt to storm the Reichstag during a protest against Covid measurements (The Guardian, 2020). In 2021, the BvF attributed around 1011 extremist crimes to them (Connolly, 2022). In recent years the Reichsbürger movement has grown, in 2016 the BfV estimated the group at 10.000, in 2022 the group was estimated at 23.000 members (DW, 2018; Goldenberg, 2022). 

According to Thomeczek, in addition to being influenced by the Reichsbürger movement, the Patriotic Union was also influenced by the QAnon conspiracy theory. The QAnon conspiracy theory dates back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Stanton, 2020). This fabricated antisemitic text was published in 1903 and discusses a Jewish plan of world domination. Although this conspiracy theory has been used throughout the centuries, most famously by Hitler, it resurfaced in the far-right sphere in the US in October 2017 on the internet platform 4chan under the name ‘QAnon’ (Wendling, 2021). QAnon adherents believe the world is controlled by satanic cannibalistic pedophiles and that the former US president Donald Trump was fighting against these people. Violence is not unknown to QAnon believers, many of the people who stormed the Capitol in the US were QAnon adherents (Wendling, 2021). At the same time, Thomeczek explains that the connection to QAnon should be regarded as a secondary feature of the Patriotic Union, as it is a very heterogeneous group. 

Thomeczek mentions that both the QAnon conspiracy theory as well as the Reichsbürger movement gained more attention during the Covid-19 pandemic because of their anti-lockdown standpoint. This is not surprising, explains Thomeczek, because if you believe in conspiracy theory about the German state or QAnon, something like a global pandemic really plays into the cards of conspiracy theories. Thomeczek argues that a connecting element between the QAnon conspiracy theory and the anti-covid protests is the so-called ‘protection of the children.’ According to Thomeczek, the rule that made it mandatory for children to wear masks ‘sparked a lot of protests among parents, because they thought it was dangerous for the children.’

Germany’s right-wing populist party AfD also had a strong anti-lockdown standpoint during the pandemic. Moreover, some of the members of the group planning the coup had connections to the AfD. According to Thomeczek, one of the most important AfD related figure in this group is Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, who served as a member of the AfD in the lower house of parliament between 2017 and 2021. Since June 2022 she has been a member of the AfD’s Court of Arbitration. At the same time, however, no official links between the group planning the coup and AfD have been found. On the website, the AfD, published the following sentence with regards to the planned coup: “Like most citizens, we only found out about the case today from the media. We condemn and strongly oppose such efforts. Now we have to wait for the investigation. We have complete trust in the authorities involved and demand a quick and complete clarification.”

The fact that they issued such a short statement is very interesting, according to Thomeczek, they did not even mention the Reichsbürger movement for instance. They are doing the bare minimum to distance themselves from the movement, because if they are somehow connected to the movement it could lead to a prohibition of the party, Thomeczek mentions. However, Thomeczek continues, the short statement shows that the extremism from this group is not a real issue for them, while they do strongly focus on Islamic extremism in their agenda. Thomeczek concludes by saying that, besides the former AfD members being included in the plot, there are no real connections between the AfD and the group organizing the coup. 

The AfD, which currently holds 78 seats in the Bundestag, has similar ideology as other right-wing populist parties in Europe such as Euroscepticism and anti-immigration standpoint. They differ in the sense that the AfD came into parliament relatively late in comparison with other right wing populist parties in Europe. Although some right-wing populist parties, such as the DVU and the Republicans, had some regional successes in the 1990s, as soon as they were linked to the national socialist past in some way, the potential to reach national successes died according to Thomeczek. This was the case until the AfD entered the scene. 

Thomeczek mentions that the AfD established themselves as a more moderate party but became more radical over the years. In 2013 they almost made it into parliament, back then the party was not extremely right-wing nor extremely populist. In the 2015 and 2016 state elections, the AfD managed to win seats in multiple states. According to Thomeczek, after 2015, the party became much more populist and radical, the party was ‘already somehow established and then radicalized and then it became even more successful, especially in East Germany.’ The presence of the AfD in East Germany seemed to have sucked up the potential for right-wing extremism. Which is interesting according to Thomeczek, because in East Germany there were some ‘right-wing extremist parties such as the National Democratic Party (NPD) in the 1990s and 2000s, and now that the AfD is there. A much more radical AfD, compared to some west German states, completely sucked up this potential for right wing extremism.’ Thomeczek argues that perhaps in the coming years, analysis will show whether AfD is still a populist party or if it has become extremist too and has become closer to parties such as the NPD. 

The real threat to democracy that the group organizing the coup posed is hard to tell. As the investigations are ongoing, not much is known of the real threat to democracy that this group posed. Nevertheless, the authorities did take it very seriously, which could be an indication of the seriousness of the situation. Thomeczek says that some members of the group had a security background, such as military or police experience, moreover many of them owned weapons and ammunition. In addition, the group was actively trying to recruit people from the military. Moreover, according to Thomeczek, ‘a quite important detail is that many of those people have the legal right to own a weapon, normally you don’t have that but if you are security force or hunter for example, you have that legal right,’ which indicates that they did not only owned weapons, but they also knew how to use them. Therefore, Thomeczek adds, ‘the potential for violence was definitely very high and if so, much violence is possible, is on the table, then it is definitely a big threat.’ At the same time, according to Thomeczek, it is difficult to tell how advanced the planned coup was, as the group was still working on their plan when it was uncovered. 

Although there may not be any clear link between the group planning the coup and the right-wing populist party, populist leaders can influence these types of groups because they often engage with conspiracy theories leading to the undermining of the legitimacy of democracy. Which is what happened in the US when Trump called the election results fraudulent, eventually leading to people storming the capitol and a more recent example of the storming of political buildings in Brasília in Brazil (Sullivan, 2023).

Moreover, the threat of far-right terrorism has been growing in recent years across the globe. According to US Homeland Security ‘white supremacists and other far-right-wing extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing the United States.’ In that sense, the plotted coup in Germany should be seen as a warning to pay close attention to extremist right-wing movements and the role that right-wing populists might play in this. 


(*) Kim van Os is an intern at European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) with a master’s degree in International Relations. Her main research interests are the relation between populism and far-right radicalization, gender, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia.  


References

— (2018). “Germany’s far-right Reichsbürger count rises.” DW. April 29, 2018. https://www.dw.com/en/germanys-far-right-reichsbürger-movement-larger-than-earlier-estimated/a-43580603 (accessed on January 11, 2023).

— (2020). “Anti-corona’ extremists try to storm German parliament.” The Guardian. August 29, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/29/berlin-braces-for-anti-coronavirus-protest-against-covid-19-restrictions (accessed on January 11, 2023).

— (2022). “21 Punkte zur tatsächlichen Situation in Deutschland.” https://docplayer.org/44630396-21-punkte-zur-tatsaechlichen-situation-in-deutschland.html (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

— (2022). “The Nuremberg Laws.” Facing History & Ourselves. April 28, 2022. https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/nuremberg-laws (accessed on January 11, 2023).

— (2022). “Bundesschiedsgericht.” https://web.archive.org/web/20221207081927/https://www.afd.de/partei/bundesschiedsgericht/ (accessed on January 11, 2023) 

Connolly, Kate. (2022). “Reichsbürger: the German conspiracy theorists at heart of alleged coup plot.” The Guardian.December 7, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/07/reichsburger-the-german-conspiracy-theorists-at-heart-of-alleged-coup-plot (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

Goldenberg, Rina. (2022).  “What is Germany’s ‘Reichsbürger’ movement?” DW. December 7, 2022. https://www.dw.com/en/what-is-germanys-reichsbürger-movement/a-36094740 (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

Oltermann, Philip. (2016). “Germany fears radicalisation of Reichsbürger movement after police attacks.” The Guardian.October 21, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/21/germany-fears-radicalisation-of-reichsburger-group-after-attacks-on-police (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

Schlegel, Linda. (2019). “’Germany does not exist!’: Analyzing the Reichsbürger Movement.”  European Eye on Radicalization. May 17, 2019. https://eeradicalization.com/germany-does-not-exist-analyzing-the-reichsburger-movement/ (accessed on January 11, 2023).

Stanton, Gregory. (2020). “QAnon is a Nazi Cult, Rebranded.” Just Security. September 9, 2020. https://www.justsecurity.org/72339/qanon-is-a-nazi-cult-rebranded/ (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

Sullivan, Helen. (2023). “Brazil congress attack: what we know so far.” The Guardian. 

January 9, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/09/brazil-congress-attack-stormed-invasion-jair-bolsonaro-supporters-what-we-know-so-far (accessed on January 11, 2023).

Wendling, Mike. (2021). “QAnon: What is it and where did it come from?” BBC News. January 6, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/53498434 (accessed on January 11, 2023).

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

Mapping European Populism: Panel 6 — Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in Benelux countries and Switzerland

Devreese, Margaux & Galland, Martin. (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 6 -Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in Benelux countries and Switzerland” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 23, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0008

 

This report is based on the sixth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on November 24, 2022. The panel brought together expert populism scholars from three Benelux countries and Switzerland. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Margaux Devreese & Martin Galland

This report is based on the sixth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism,” which was held online in Brussels on November 24, 2022. ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. On November 24, the panel brought together expert populism scholars studying the evolution of political populism in the Benelux countries and Switzerland. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, this report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Professor Hans-Georg Betz, Professor of Political Science, University of Zurich and included the following speakers: Dr Paul Carls, Researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research; Dr Benjamin Biard, Researcher at the Center for Socio-Political Research & Information (CRISP) and guest lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain; Dr Carola Schoor, Programme Leader for Public Affairs at the Centre for Professional Learning (CPL), Leiden University; Dr Alina Dolea, Associate Professor in Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy, Bournemouth University.

Dr Paul Carls: “Right-wing populism in Luxembourg: An exception to the rule?”

Dr Carls highlighted the Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR) as the only party which fits the profile of right-wing populism in the case of Luxembourg, as there is no other party which corresponds. However, even the party’s designation as ‘populist’ could be seen as potentially problematic or, at the very least, as needing some level of nuance.

The first presentation was carried out by Dr Paul Carls, who sought to elaborate on the particularities of right-wing populism in Luxembourg and its curious context-dependent characteristics. Recognizing that Luxembourg is a comparatively small country, there has been relatively little scholarly attention regarding its right-wing populism. Dr Carls cites some of the more notable existing literature, including Lucien Blau’s Histoire de l’extrême droite au Grand-Duché du Luxembourg au XXe siècle (2005), Philippe Poirier’s L’ADR: de la recherche de l’équité à la construction inachevée d’un mouvement conservateur et souverainiste (2012), and more recently Leonie de Jonge’s The success and failure of right-wing populist parties in the Benelux countries (2021), as well as Dr Carls’ own work in an article titled Approaching right-wing populism in the context of transnational economic integration: lessons from Luxembourg,published in 2021.

Dr Carls highlighted the Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR) as the only party which fits the profile of right-wing populism in the case of Luxembourg, as there is no other party which corresponds. However, even the party’s designation as ‘populist’ could be seen as potentially problematic or, at the very least, as needing some level of nuance. The ADR, Dr Carls explains, was founded in 1987 as a single-issue pension-reform party. It gained traction in the 1990s, helping in getting its proposed reforms passed, and transitioned into a fully-fledged party by 2006 by incorporating other talking points and core issues. Electorally, the ADR has always been present, though never in great numbers. In 2018, they acquired 8.3 percent of the vote, translating into four seats out of 60 in the Luxembourgish parliament.

Following this brief history of the ADR, Dr Carls addresses the perspective he adopts when looking at this party within the scope of the existing definitions of right-wing populism. In his view, there are two meanings of right-wing populism: right-wing populism as ‘proto-fascistic,’ which is the definition which applies to parties and phenomena in most countries, as well as the way that the secondary literature and the mainstream media perceive right-wing populism to be. Right-wing populism, in its ‘literal’ definition, is a political group and/or party that distinguishes between the people and the elite, adopting a discourse that unequivocally separates these two groups. 

Dr Carls places the ADR firmly in the second camp, stating that the party has undeniably conservative positions but without the extremisms and xenophobic tendencies of traditional right-wing populist parties. While it maintains a certain distance from far-right parties in neighboring countries, like the Rassemblement National (RN) in France and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, the ADR still has the basic features of a right-wing populist party; namely, that, at its core, has both horizontal (Luxembourg as a nation against outgroups like Muslims, feminists, and multiculturalists) and vertical societal exclusions (people versus the elite). As such, in terms of its discourse, the ADR presents itself as a right-wing populist party in a literal sense and not in a proto-fascistic way and does not actively seek to undermine Luxembourgish democracy.

Exploring the specificities of the ADR’s discourse, Dr Carls takes up two cases as examples. The first was the constitutional reform debate in 2015, which included three amendment measures to the Luxembourgish constitution. One of these measures included incorporating the right for foreigners to vote in Luxembourgish elections if they followed a number of conditions. In a speech at the parliament, Gaston Giberyen of the ADR accused the present government of going against the wishes of the Luxembourgish people and no longer having their trust, using the term ‘Vollek’ (similar to the German ‘Volk’) to reinforce his argument further. In the ensuing referendum, over 78 percent of voters voted against the measure to grant foreigners the right to vote. For Dr Carls, this is a fairly clear example of the vertical exclusion espoused by the ADR, of a power-hungry elite which makes decisions against the will of the people.

The second example used was the burqa debate which occurred in Luxembourg over the course of four years (2014-2018), and the comments made by Fernand Kartheiser, member of parliament for the ADR, in response to a proposed burqa law which would outlaw the wearing of the burqa in the public sphere, which ended up passing. In the right-wing populist’s speech, there is a clear appeal to certain Judeo-Christian values of a humanistic heritage held by the Luxembourgish and other civilizational elements held by most right-wing parties around Europe. Nevertheless, in the same speech, Fernand Kartheiser mentions the need for immigrants to integrate “into a society that is multicultural, in the sense that many different cultures are found here.” Here, for Dr Carls, we see the unique aspect of the ADR’s discourse which sets it apart from other right-wing populist parties. The ADR appears to embrace immigration and multiculturalism, or at least a certain version of multiculturalism which corresponds to their conservative values. As a party, while the ADR does not exhibit strong xenophobic tendencies, it still contains the horizontal exclusions typical with right-wing populist parties around Europe.

For Dr Carls, this can be potentially explained through Luxembourg’s socio-economic structures. Luxembourgers have a privileged position in government, with many being able to work in government and the civil service, where the wages are very high. These jobs are generally reserved for people that are able to speak Luxembourgish, with much of the foreign and commuter labor doing most of the manual work (in construction, the service industry, etc.). With half of the country’s workforce being from commuters and recognizing that Luxembourg as a country profits a lot from immigration, it is difficult for a party to be strongly positioned against immigration. 

Additionally, it is generally accepted that the Luxembourgish language holds a preeminent role at a national level. In this instance, Dr Carls remarks, it is interesting that the ADR mobilizes itself quite strongly to defend the status of Luxembourgish, with the people that speak it (including regular people) as an elite, against a non-elite of foreigners and commuters. In sum, this multifaceted view of Luxembourg highlights why the ADR appears the way it does.

Dr Benjamin Biard: “The state of the far right in Belgium: A contrasted situation”

Despite its electoral success, Vlaams Belang, the right-wing party has never been in government due to the strict cordon sanitaire upheld by other political parties in Belgian politics. Without the cooperation of other parties, Vlaams Belang is not able to enact its policies, yet the party still holds a significant impact on the political process. Vlaams Belang’s popular discourse has an effect on the agenda-setting phase of the policymaking process, and their party member’s presence on the board of public structures affects the political norms of institutions.

Our second speaker, Dr Benjamin Biard, presented his insights on the manifestation of the far-right parties in Belgium, institutional mechanisms like the cordon sanitaire, and why far-right party support appears to be limited to the confines of Belgium’s federal divisions. Far-right parties have not had universal success across the country; in Flanders, we find that far-right parties, such as Vlaams Belang, have captured electoral support, while in Wallonia, Brussels, or the German-speaking region, similar parties fail to gain mainstream appeal. Dr Biard points out, however, that despite the varied success of the far-right in Belgium, none of these parties has been successful in joining the government, presenting us with a paradoxical situation. 

Before he continued, Dr Biard clarified his use of the term ‘far-right’ throughout the presentation. He utilizes a definition stating that the far-right is an umbrella concept that captures both the populist radical right and extremist variants of right-wing politics. The main difference between these two variants is their stance toward democracy; while the populist radical right parties challenge the foundations of liberal democracy, the extreme right rejects the constitutional order outright and aims at subverting the existing democratic norms. In using the term ‘far-right’, Dr Biard aimed at encompassing both of these political phenomena. 

The far-right movement in Flanders has been championed by mainly one party, a separatist right-wing party founded in 1979 under the name of Vlaams Blok. The party first experienced electoral success in the 1991 election when the party passed the symbolic threshold of 10 percent. Dr Biard noted that up until today, this day of Vlaams Blok’s electoral success is known as Black Sunday. Yet, the party’s success only grew in the following years in federal, provincial, and regional elections. The party reached its electoral peak in 2004 when it received 24 percent of the vote but was convicted of racial hate speech in a court of law soon after and forced to change its name. The party was renamed Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) but maintained many of the same positions as its predecessors. 

Under the leadership of Filip de Winter, the far-right party expanded its political profile beyond Flemish separatism and started promoting anti-immigration and Islamophobic positions. Their slogan, “Eigen Volk Eerst” (our own people first), incorporates this policy evolution and mirrors the positions of the French far-right party Front National. This anti-immigration position remained a central theme in the party even after it was rebranded as Vlaams Belang. The party’s position on Flemish identity, neoliberalism, and immigration has secured support in current Flemish society. This became evident in the 2019 election when the party received an 18.7 percent vote, second only to the right-wing party NVA. Since that election, polls have posited Vlaams Belang as the leading party in Flemish politics. 

Despite this electoral success, the right-wing party has never been in government due to the strict cordon sanitaire upheld by other political parties in Belgian politics. Without the cooperation of other parties, Vlaams Belang is not able to enact its policies, yet according to Dr Biard’s research, the party still holds a significant impact on the political process. Vlaams Belang’s popular discourse has an effect on the agenda-setting phase of the policymaking process, and their party member’s presence on the board of public structures affects the political norms of institutions. 

In Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, far-right parties do not enjoy the same success. While in Flanders, Vlaams Belang is expected to accumulate over 20 percent of the vote in the following election, Wallonian far-right parties have historically not even reached 10 percent, and this is not due to a lack of trying. The Belgian Front National had achieved some success in Wallonia, consequently gaining a number of seats at the local, regional, and even European levels. However, the party later disappeared after losing a court case against the French Front National over the use of their shared name and imagery. Today, Wallonia is still home to far-right parties such as Nation and Chez Nous, but these parties remain marginal. The former conducts militant far-right, and Islamophobic activism that does not attract widespread electoral support, while the latter is a new party that is politically and socially isolated from the Wallonian citizens. 

The Belgian case holds a paradox where on one side of the country, far-right parties are finding widespread popular support, whereas on the other side, far-right parties are struggling to maintain their relevance and popularity. How can we explain this?

Dr Biard answered this question by arguing that it is not a difference in demands amongst Flemish and Wallonian citizens but a difference in supply. He presents that Belgian citizens hold similar demands for anti-immigration politics; According to surveys, a similar number of Flemish and Wallonian citizens believe that increased immigration leads to more criminality and employment issues. Dr Biard suggests we turn to look at the supply-side factors instead. 

Far-right parties face certain obstacles in Wallonia that limit their ability to cater to citizens’ far-right sentiments. First, extreme right parties in Wallonia compete with one another for electoral support, thus impairing their ability to grow relevant. Second, these parties have lacked strong charismatic leaders that pull voters towards them and mobilize crowds. While this is not a requirement for successful far-right parties, it is a noticeable difference to Vlaams Belang, which features Filip de Winter and Tom van Grieken as well-known party figureheads. Next, the civil society organization in the two regions operate in different capacities. According to Dr Biard, there are more civil society organizations in Wallonia focused on unmasking and physically protesting these far-right activities. Fourth, Wallonia maintains a formalized media cordon sanitaire, effectively barring far-right speakers and politicians’ access to media outlets like TV and radio. Finally, Dr Biard posits that Wallonian politicians lack the ideology and regional lore to stir up the Wallonian nationalism necessary for their parties. 

Dr Carola Schoor: “The mainstreaming of populism in the Netherlands”

“The development of populism in the Dutch parliament has grown in proportion in the last decade (from 21 percent to 30 percent), with recent polling showing an even greater rise (up to 45 percent), which highlights a particularly volatile political landscape with populist voices on both the left and the right.”

The following topic was presented by Dr Carola Schoor, who spoke on the ‘Mainstreaming of populism in the Netherlands.’ Dr Schoor first addressed her presentation’s definition of populism, pointing out that there exists considerable discussion on what populism is and the confusion about the relationship between populism and the far-right. Dr Schoor takes populism as a discourse style, as per the definition by Ernesto Laclau (2005), and she expands on it by following the notion of Teun van Dijk, whose theory on discourse and ideology identifies three discourse dimensions: discourse structures (ideas); discourse use (presentation); and the social dimension of discourse (social relations). Populism, as such, is in close connection to elitism and pluralism and is, therefore, a relative definition, meaning that it is context-dependent. For Dr Schoor, nothing is populist in itself, though one could assert that a given statement or politician is “more populist than elitist or pluralist.”

Before exploring the state of populism in the Netherlands, Dr Schoor first explains her method of analysis in her study. To fully explore the relationship between populism, elitism, and pluralism, Dr Schoor analysed the language structure beneath political language, in brief, all the way the word populism is used in political discourse. In her research, principally examining politicians from the United States and the United Kingdom as well as others, Dr Schoor highlights the existence of six political styles and how politicians relate to these styles. These styles include elitism, pluralism, and populism, as well as anti-elitism, anti-pluralism, and anti-populism, with the relationship between the styles bound together by the discourse structures of ideas, presentation, and social relations. The ideational dimension is whether politicians see the people as diverse or as one; the presentational dimension is whether they present themselves as ordinary voters or politicians; and finally, the social dimension highlights whether the politicians are part of the elite or the people. Through these connections, one can assess the performance of global leaders and their relationship to populism, and Dr Schoor’s research generally found that right-wing populists mostly combine populism with elitism, whereas left-wing populists combine populism with pluralism. Finally, centrist politics exists as a combination of elitism and pluralism.

Before addressing populism in the Netherlands, Dr Schoor stressed that radical left/right politics does not immediately equate to populism and that every political style has democratic and undemocratic expressions. Populism appears as a reaction to undemocratic expressions of pluralism and elitism, and as such, it is important to study variants of populism, elitism, and pluralism to see where democratic boundaries are crossed.

The state of populism in Dutch politics is addressed in a ten-year frame between 2012 and 2022. The Netherlands exists as a multi-party system, almost always with coalition governments as a ‘polderen’ tradition which enshrines the notion of (political) cooperation. However, today’s politics appears increasingly fragmented and polarized. Historically speaking, populism, as it is understood, was never truly in the tradition of Dutch politics. In the 1970s, there was a small populist and pluralist wave, which was followed by the appearance of two small populist parties, on the left (the Socialist Party) and on the right (Centrum Party) in the 1980s and 1990s, though these two were not very influential and kept marginal on the political landscape. 

The second and far more substantial populist wave came in the 2000s, with figures like Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders of the PVV on the right, as well as Thierry Baudet, more recently for the FvD. The latest parliamentary elections also saw the rise of smaller-scale populist figures, most notably Caroline van der Plas (BoerBurgerBeweging) standing as a form of farmers populism, and Sylvana Simons (Bij1), an example of left-wing populism in the tradition of Black Lives Matter. The development of populism in the Dutch parliament has grown in proportion in the last decade (from 21 percent to 30 percent), with recent polling showing an even greater rise (up to 45 percent), which highlights a particularly volatile political landscape with populist voices on both the left and the right.   

Expanding on her analysis of the politics of style of these leaders, Dr Schoor points out five populist leaders in the current political landscape of the Netherlands. Geerts Wilders of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) is the mainstay figure of Dutch radical politics, whom Dr Schoor qualifies Wilders as a true populist in terms of discourse, taking on characteristics from the left and right in terms of policy, but being thoroughly anti-elitist and anti-pluralist. A figure of the radical right in the Netherlands was Thierry Baudet of the Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy), who rose to prominence during the referendum in the Netherlands over Ukraine in 2015 as being ardently anti-EU. The more recent addition to right-wing populism in the Netherlands is Caroline van der Plas of the BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer-Citizen Movement), who now stands as the voice of the people in the regions against those in the cities and appears to be dominating the political debate as things stand. To the left, a strong and emerging populist voice is Sylvana Simons of Bij1, taking an important pluralist and anti-elitist stand. Dr Schoor also points out the politician Pieter Omtzigt, formerly of the Christian Democratic Party, who has now become an independent following a fracture in his former party and is interesting for appearing to be driven into a populist discourse to demarcate himself in the fractured political landscape. 

Dr Schoor concludes her presentation by going over the reaction of ‘mainstream’ politics towards populism, stating that centrist politics appears to be reacting in two ways. The first is the anti-populism stance taken by politicians like Sigrid Kaag of D66, and the second is the discourse that there is ‘good’ populism as opposed to ‘bad’ populism, taken by the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD. Generally speaking, mainstream politics appears to be taking in the criticisms of the populism opposition, with the general climate being one of uncertainty and confusion.

Dr Alina Dolea: “Populist discourses in Switzerland”

Switzerland boasts direct democracy through initiatives and referenda as one of the special features of its political system. Dr Dolea notes that this direct democracy is said to provide an ideal opportunity structure for the emergence of populist political communication because it allows political actors to push issues that resonate well with ‘the people’ to the top of the political agenda. As a consequence, Switzerland encountered a large number of referenda centered around the divisive topic of migration.

Our fourth and final panel speaker was Dr Alina Dolea, who presented her findings on ‘Populist discourses in Switzerland’ from a media and communication perspective. In her presentation, she presented the increased instrumentalization of country images and identities in debates beyond strategic promotional practices, such as debates on elections, referenda, or migration. More specifically, she analyzed how Swiss media constructed Switzerland’s image and identity in the debate following a 2014 referendum on migration quotas. 

Dr Dolea contextualized the Swiss case by briefly presenting the background and beliefs of the Swiss People’s Party. While the Swiss People’s Party (SPP) is not the only populist party in Switzerland, it is the most significant. The SPP originated through a merger of small farmer parties in 1971 that has grown into the largest party in Switzerland since the 1990s. Dr Dolea even says that the SPP can be considered one of the strongest right-wing populist parties in Europe. They have gained electoral success running on an anti-immigration, anti-EU, and anti-political elites’ platform, even maintaining these positions when in government. 

Scholars have noted that the Swiss People’s Party pulls from a specific type of Alpine populism. The ideology centers around the idealization of small-scale agriculture and the pure nature of the countryside, which contrasts with the impure urban and industrial environments. This idealization is also reflected in the people; the party promotes the idea that these communities champion values like being hardworking, honest, civic-minded, clean, and orderly, which allows them to successfully run a voluntary system of unpaid self-administration that does not require interference from Bern. This Alpine populism promotes a narrative of Swiss independence, neutrality, and exceptionalism which ought to be protected from cultural and identity shifts within the country.

Dr Dolea highlights that this branch of populism leverages the real fear of Swiss citizens of ‘losing their homes’ to incoming migrants. Migration to Switzerland can be traced to the time of industrialization in the 19th century when German and Italian migrants travelled searching for work. As Switzerland was in the process of conducting large railway projects that required a high level of workforce, many of these migrants ended up staying for a period. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, the number of Italian and German migrants nearly doubled, causing alarm for Swiss nationals who dubbed this the ‘over-foreignization’ of Switzerland. Dr Dolea aimed to show that this distaste for immigration has a long history within Switzerland, which can explain the country’s heated debates and referenda around the topic today. 

Switzerland boasts direct democracy through initiatives and referenda as one of the special features of its political system. Dr Dolea notes that this direct democracy is said to provide an ideal opportunity structure for the emergence of populist political communication because it allows political actors to push issues that resonate well with ‘the people’ to the top of the political agenda. As a consequence, Switzerland encountered a large number of referenda centered around the divisive topic of migration. Dr Dolea provided an overview of these referenda that ranged from 1970 to 2020, their background, and whether they were adopted. While policies like the deportation of migrant criminals, the banning of minarets, and migration quotas were adopted, a number were still rejected. For each of these referenda, SPP played a role in promoting anti-immigration policies through inflammatory poster designs.

To illustrate the role Swiss media played in constructing a country identity through facilitating these referenda debates, Dr Dolea mentioned the 2014 initiative ‘against mass immigration.’ The initiative was launched by the SPP and received support from just over half of the Swiss referendum voters. Dr Dolea found that media actors were able to leverage their powerful and visible position to (re)produce populist discourse around immigration as well as the Swiss national image and identity. 

Over the course of the month following the referendum’s passing, Dr Dolea studied the output of two journals, NZZ and Le Temps. The researchers studied the content from two angles. First, they analyzed the explicit content of the media discourse, namely the topics being mentioned, and how this operationalized the country’s image. They noted the frequency of references made to different dimensions of the country’s image and how it contributed to dominant descriptors attributed to Switzerland. Second, the researchers studied the implicit content of media discourse. More specifically, they looked at strategies and topoi the media outlets applied to construct, re-construct, and mobilize these representations of Switzerland. This angle aims to uncover the dynamics, interactions, and interplay between the different facets of Switzerland’s country image. 

The results discovered that media coverage focused extensively on the consequences of the vote and how it held normative implications for the country’s image and identity. In limiting migration to Switzerland through quotas, the referendum helped define who the Swiss people are, what defines them, and what Swiss values, principles, and norms are. Furthermore, the researchers identified three different types of discourses: (1) an institutional type of discourse, (2) an expert type of discourse, and (3) a political populist type of discourse. The researchers also discovered the strategic use of storytelling by the media to give voice to ordinary citizens who represent and symbolize a multicultural and diverse Switzerland. However, as a whole, the debate around the referendum perpetuated the idea of a threatened national Swiss image and identity using terms like the end of Switzerland and migrant malaise. 

Populist discourse through the Swiss media following the 2014 migrant referendum exhibited itself on two levels. On the international level, it reflected how others see Switzerland in an advantageous or inferior position, while on the national level, it reflected internal divides within the country. While before these internal divides were understood as “Us versus Them,” the media has shifted to discuss the difference between Us versus Us. The media discourse further delineates divisions in Swiss society, for example, the economic, cultural, and linguistic divide between the German, Italian, and French parts, the division between French Swiss and the rest of the Swiss, the class divide in Switzerland, and the factions of Swiss who seek unity while others seek independence.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi being welcomed at the exhibition of 'Digital India week 2022', in Gandhinagar, Gujarat on July 04, 2022. Photo: Shuttersttock.

Hindutva civilizational populist BJP’s enforcement of digital authoritarianism in India

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja M. Ali. (2022). “Hindutva civilizational populist BJP’s enforcement of digital authoritarianism in India.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 8, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0017

 

Abstract

The largest democracy in the world is now moving towards authoritarianism under the Hindutva civilizational populist prime minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rule. This article focuses on digital rights in India that have seen a sharp decline in recent years. It explores the transformation of the internet and social media, from a relatively open and liberal space to a restricted one. This survey of India’s digital landscape finds that the rise of civilizational populist Modi and his eight years long rule have led to an upsurge in digital surveillance and control and has fostered an environment of online harassment and bullying for those who are critical of the BJP’s views and politics. The article uses a four-level framework (Full Network, Sub-Network, Proxies, and Network Nodes) to explore digital authoritarianism by the BJP government. At each of these levels, the Hindutva populist government has closed avenues of open discussion and exchange of views by enforcing new rules and regulations.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja Ali M. Saleem

Introduction

The rise of populism has slowly hijacked the digital space as a medium for forming a strong relationship with public opinion. This practice is not particular to authoritarian states or democratic ones as these boundaries are increasingly being blurred by attempts to control and influence the digital space by all governments, irrespective of their ideology or types. Over the decade, the relationship between digital space and politics has evolved from a one-dimensional relation where one endangers or compliments the other to an interplay of different social, political, and economic forces determining the outcome. This essay aims to understand this interplay by focusing on the case study of India analyzing the nature of right-wing populist digital authoritarianism. The inquiry is also useful in understanding how formal and informal changes to cyberspace enable a system where authoritarianism is maintained by the creation of an ecosystem that supports its political survival. Narendra Modi’s eight years rule provides an opportunity to study not only the formal tools of cyber authoritarianism but its justification – a toxic nexus of populism and religion. 

Human civilization entered the twenty-first century with a promise of a democratic, liberal global space where digital technologies were seen as tools that would ensure people-centric governance, improve access via e-governance, and foster connections with the citizens (Shirky, 2011). After two decades, the hopes and optimism regarding democratic development, based on the availability and easy access of digital technologies to all, have been dashed to the ground. The increase in the use of digital technologies has been accompanied by concerns regarding the misuse and manipulation of digital tools in the political space, specifically after incidents such as the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. In 2019, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey among 979 technology experts asking them about the impact of the use of technology on citizens, civil society groups, democracy, and democratic representation. Nearly half of the respondents (49 percent) said that the use of technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy as the misuse of digital technology to manipulate and weaponize facts will affect people’s trust in institutions and each other, impacting their views about integrity and value of democratic processes and institutions (Anderson & Rainie, 2020). 

According to Freedom House’s The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism Report, during 2017-18, 26 of the 65 countries assessed experienced a deterioration in internet freedom. Reductions in half of these countries were related to a rise in disinformation, censorship, technical attacks, and arrests of government critics in the lead-up to elections. Governments in 18 countries have increased state surveillance since June 2017. They have often avoided independent oversight and weakened encryption to gain unrestricted access to data. Thirteen countries have also blocked at least one social media or communication platform due to political and security reasons. There has also been a rise in governments manipulating social media content with pro-government commentators, bots, or trolls manipulating online discussions and content in 32 out of 65 countries. 

These alarming figures from cyberspace are in line with political realities. With growing social and economic pressures democracies around the world are struggling to remain true to their fundamental principles. Populism in its various forms is on the rise and authoritarian and illiberal practices are no longer limited to ‘fragile’ and weak democracies. Western Europe, Europe in general, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) are facing a multitude of challenges on these fronts. India, the world’s largest democracy was a symbol of progression and promise when its founding fathers, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar, framed the construction in a secular and democratic spirit. However, India, like many other countries, is on a dangerous trajectory with its leading party, the BJP, exhibiting clear hallmarks of authoritarianism. This reality is replicated in cyberspace as well. 

In this study, digital authoritarianism in India is explored using a four-level framework: Full Network, Sub-Network, Proxies, and Network Nodes. This framework is based on the research done by (Howard et al., 2011). 

India’s Political Landscape

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrates for partys victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, in Guwahati, Assam, India on May 23, 2019. Photo: Talukdar David.

Cyberspace usually mirrors the realities of the physical world. Those who are powerful in the physical world tend to dominate the virtual world too. The once celebrated status of India’s democracy is now tarnished as its large, diverse population is under constant psychological and physical threat. In Freedom House’s 2021 Democracy Under Siege report, the country has dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free” status for the first time primarily due to legal and vigilante violence against people’s right to freedom of speech and expression, escalating violence and prejudiced policies against Indian Muslims. India’s score on the Freedom of the World index, measuring civil and political liberties, dropped from 71 to 67 (Freedom House, 2021). In 2022, India’s score dropped further and declined for the fourth consecutive year to 66 (Freedom House, 2022a). While the Indian government decried the report and termed it biased, the Freedom House was not the only organization to document the decline in democratic rights in India (Scroll, 2021). According to the 5th Annual Democracy Report by the V-Dem Institute, India has been downgraded to the status of electoral autocracy (2021). This deterioration has primarily been enabled by the popularity of the right-wing Hindutva. 

While it seemingly looks attached to Hinduism, it is more of a political derivative which is roughly equivalent to Islamism. Hindutva, as mobilized by populists, is quite different from the actual faith of Hinduism itself. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world and its followers term their devotion as Sanatana Dharma (translated as eternal order, way, or duty) rather than classifying to a strict Hindu identity. Even traditions, behaviors, and identities that are linked with a Hindu identity such as karma (causality of good actions/ideas leading to good and bad leading to bad consequences), samsara (cycle of life, death, and rebirth usually referring to the seven cycles until the final stage of release), veganism, cow-worship, idol worship, etc are not the key features of what it means to be a Hindu. There are no parameters set by the faith itself or even by the government of India that make a person Hindu on the bases of customs and traditions being practiced, rather the definition of a Hindu citizen by the government of India is one who is born of Hindu parents or who does not identify with other local religions such as Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrian, etc. This makes Hinduism both a pluralist and fluid religion, more so in comparison to the Abrahamic faiths since it is not exclusive and has a centuries-old history of inclusively embracing the edicts and principles of other religions from a higher, holistic perspective (Saleem, 2021). Hindutva, on the other hand, is an exclusive and closed ideology.

The advent of Hindutva comes from V.D Savarkar who wrote a book in the early 1920s, titled Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? which defines a Hindu as someone “who considers India to be his motherland (matrbhumi), the land of his ancestors (pitrbhumi), and his holy land (punya bhumi)” (Tharoor, 2018). Savarkar claimed that Hindus as the rightful and hereditary owners of the land, thus excluding Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. and degrading them to the status of outsiders and enemies. This transition occurred over time under the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hundred years old religio-militant organization and its various affiliated bodies called the Sangh Parivar which was focused on the revival of the old “Hindu” traditions and encouraging people to adopt the Hindutva way of life. The RSS also builds a successful cultural identity of the group making its members long for a lost glorified Hindu age which came to an end due to “tyrant invaders” such as the Muslims and British. 

The Hindutva Civilizational Populism

Volunteers of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on Vijyadashmi festival, a large gathering or annual meeting during Ramanavami a Hindu festival in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh on October 19, 2018. Photo: Pradeep Gaurs.

Harnessing the multi-layered insecurities, the Modi-led BJP has rooted its politics in Hindutva-driven populism. BJP’s populism is based on Hindutva and embraces not only the Hindus of India but also those living in other countries. It also draws its symbols, heroes, villains, culture, holy books, etc. from ancient Hindu civilization. Therefore, one can argue that BJP’s populism is not national but civilizational. ‘Civilizational populism’ 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 & Morieson, 2022a; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022b).

Under Modi’s rule, India is becoming highly discriminatory and at times violent towards “the others.” This hostility is manifested in formal authoritarianism enabled by the instrumentalization of state institutions. In this part of the article, the civilizational Hindutva populism propagated by the BJP is explained. 

Narendra Modi’s success in India has a lot with his Hindutva populist leadership and BJP’s expertise in digital media. Modi is a classic populist as he divides the nation into two groups of pure and impure people and claims that the pure people have been victims for centuries as impure people have used their innocence, purity, and good nature to subjugate them. He presents himself as someone that will make the pure people “Vishwaguru” (teacher, guru, or mentor of the world). The distinguishing feature of the pure group of people is Hinduism; impure people are non-Hindus, primarily Muslims (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). This deadly nexus of religion and populism is peculiar to Modi. Hindutva leadership, under various parties (Hindu Mahasabha, Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party, etc.) had been gradually gaining ground since the 1950s but populism was not part of its repertoire until Modi emerged on the political scene (Saleem, 2021). 

Modi won his first election in his home state Gujarat in 2002 after an anti-Muslim pogrom. Although the Indian Supreme Court acquitted Modi of all charges, there is widespread evidence of Modi’s acts of omission, if not commission, in allowing the pogrom to continue (Jaffrelot, 2003; Ghassem-Fachandi, 2012; Nussbaum, 2009). In November 2022, Amit Shah, the current Home Minister of India, Modi’s right hand man for more than two decades and co-accused in the Gujarat pogrom, gave further evidence of a planned massacre by saying in a public rally, “They tried to create a problem for Narendra Bhai [Modi] but he taught them such a lesson that they have not dared to do anything till 2022” and “But after they were taught a lesson in 2002, these elements left that path (of violence). They refrained from indulging in violence from 2002 till 2022. The BJP has established permanent peace in Gujarat by taking strict action against those who used to indulge in communal violence.” Since Muslims were the primary victims of the 2002 pogrom, it was obvious Amit Shah was referring to Muslims (Hindu Bureau, 2022). The old anti-Muslim message was given a populist twist by Modi in 2010-11 when he started concerted efforts to become the Prime Minister of India. Fortunately, for him, India had already experienced a digital revolution and was ready for a new kind of campaign.

Other political parties were no match to BJP’s successful digital campaign in 2014. Since then, during elections and at other points of political significance, the BJP has used digital alternatives along with the mainstream media (Schroeder, 2018). With extensive outreach, large funding, and little to stop them from airing controversial views, the party has gained significant clout on social media. This clout allows Modi to cultivate Hindutva populism which legitimizes the authoritarian actions of the state and creates a loyal supporter base that is not bothered about the rapidly deteriorating state of democracy and human rights. Gaining a favorable supporter base in cyberspace is important for the BJP as, according to data by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the total number of internet subscribers in India has risen to 825.30 million while broadband subscribers are 778 million at the end of March 2021 (TRAI, 2021). 

The BJP leadership has a long history of hate speeches and propaganda against religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians. This is now practiced on social media too. Social media contributes 87.4 percent of the fake news spread in India, with mainstream media only contributing 12.6 percent, producing around seven times more fake news compared to mainstream media (Al Zaman, 2021). The BJP constantly portrays minorities as enemies of the Hindu nation and casts doubts about their loyalty. When such narratives are mainstreamed, they become “truths” and legitimize the government’s questionable actions such as the passage of laws restricting inter-faith marriage or citizenship that target Muslims and poor Indians with threats of deportation. 

Similarly, News Laundry reported on the telegram network of Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader, and his ‘Hindu Ecosystem’ network that creates propaganda material and manufactures trends across social media platforms to whip up communal hatred and bigotry, and support for Hindutva (2021). The network began with Mishra tweeting the link to a membership form to join the team. The group was joined mostly by upper-caste Hindu men, growing to around 20,000 members. Mishra asked the members to subscribe to Organizer and Panchjanya, house journals of the RSS boosting the reach of the supremacist group. The Hindu Ecosystem picks up a theme to trend on Twitter each week, ready with mass propaganda and a bunch of fake news with bad aesthetics, to put the Hindutva ideology, along with a bunch of tweets that only had to be copy-pasted by the members to start a campaign. The group has been growing exponentially since then, with over 30,000 members working in a coordinated way to incite communal hatred, complete with readily shareable images, videos, and forwards to tap into the hate-network effect (Thakur & Meghnad, 2021). 

The Hindutva populist message of hatred, oppression, and discrimination embraced and mainstreamed by the BJP has also found its way into the hearts of millions of people. Exposed to these ideas many segments of the public mirror the state’s overt aggression towards “the others” within the cyber realm. There are many instances where things go beyond cyberbullying leading to actual physical attacks taking place due to the spread of news on social networking sites. In India, hate speech, false news, and misinformation shared on social media have been linked to increased violence and hatred towards non-Hindu religious groups. Specifically, WhatsApp users among a section of rural and urban upper- and middle-class Hindu men are predisposed both to believe populist disinformation and to share misinformation about “othered” and “impure” groups in face-to-face and WhatsApp networks. This discrimination culminates in the form of widespread, simmering distrust, hatred, contempt, and suspicion towards Muslims, Dalits, and non-Dalit Hindu dissenting citizens (Banaji & Bhat, 2020). 

An example of such social media-led violence can be found in incidents of lynching of Muslims and Dalits that are fueled by rumors spread on social media. Since 2015, there have been more than a hundred instances of lynching, targeting individuals from the discriminated groups (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis) based on allegations of cow slaughter, cow trafficking, and cattle theft leading to further instances of extreme mob violence and lynching that have resulted in death and trauma. Although these victims are targeted for different reasons, these incidents have in common mobs of vigilantes who use peer-to-peer messaging applications such as WhatsApp to spread lies about the victims and use misinformation to mobilize, defend, and in some cases to document and circulate images of their violence (Banaji & Bhat, 2020). 

There is a “thematic alignment” between those who propagate and believe in conspiracy theories and populists. Both do not believe in mainstream media or the government and are paranoid – afraid of minorities, refugees, and other groups plotting against them. Their basic assumption is that the government and media are in cahoots to deceive the majority group, who are the victims (Krasodomski-Jones, 2019). Unsurprisingly, one sees conspiracy theories promoted by the Hindutva against Muslims. During the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories became viral on social media blaming Muslims for the spread of the novel Coronavirus in India. As reported by The Guardian, Mehboob Ali from Harewali was beaten mercilessly by a Hindu mob after a conspiracy theory became viral nationwide that linked the spread of the COVID-19 virus in India to a Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi. Hundreds of Tablighi Jamaat members were arrested all over India and remained in jail for months before being declared innocent by courts. There was also a concentration of attacks on Muslims in Karnataka state after an audio clip began to be shared widely over WhatsApp, urging people not to allow Muslim fruit and vegetable sellers into their areas, claiming they were spreading the virus through their produce. The hatred reached such a level that some hospitals denied treatment to Muslim Covid-19 patients (Pisharody, 2020). 

Similarly, there have been incidents of lynchings and beatings of Muslims after allegations of ‘love jihad’, whereby Muslims are accused of luring/grooming Hindu women to deceitfully convert them to Islam, spread on social media. This conspiracy has been referenced in more than 2000 tweets on social media prompted by Hindu nationalists, fueling violence and unrest since 2013, resulting in the killing of 62 people and forced displacement of over 50,000 Muslims in the northern Indian town of Muzaffarnagar (Dotto & Swinnen, 2021). 

The scope and themes of discussion in this Indian, anti-Muslim network hijack global conversations as well. As the conflict in Israel and Palestine broke out, thousands of anti-Islam and pro-Israel messages flooded Indian social media, using the conflict as a vehicle to promote Islamophobia. On May 12, 2021, an open call was launched on social media to get the anti-Muslim #UnitedAgainstJehad trending, accompanied by graphics with detailed instructions to retweet at least 40 times, alleging that radical Islamic Jihadis were much more dangerous than any pandemic. In a few hours, the likes and shares poured in and by May 13, the hashtag had already appeared over 11,000 times, producing nearly 70,000 interactions on Twitter (Dotto & Swinnen, 2021). 

This core support base for Modi and the party aids in creating an environment where authoritarianism inspires vigilantism and supports the extreme formal measures of the state. Cyberspace populated by pro-Hindutva advocates and shaped by the BJP narratives is a highly oppressive place for “the others.” Actual incidents are animated and inspired by Twitter trends and viral videos (Mirchandani, 2018)  

Digital Authoritarianism in India 

An old Indian villager login into Twitter account in smart phone at district Katni Madhya Pradesh, India on August 2019. Photo: Neeraz Chaturvedi.

Despite widespread internet access, internet freedom in India, however, remains compromised. According to Democracy Watchdog by Freedom House, internet freedom in India declined for four consecutive years until 2021. The internet freedom score improved slightly from 49 to 51 in 2022 but India is still designated as ‘Partly-Free’ (Freedom House, 2022b). During the last five years, the Indian government regularly shut down the internet to suppress protests the Citizenship Amendment Act, scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir state, Farm laws, and targeted critical voices with spyware. It also pressured international social media platforms to remove content that was critical of the government’s Hindu nationalist/populist agenda (Freedom House, 2021). This signals an increasing effort on part of the government to regulate the digital space and limit, block, and penalize those who question or oppose the party.  

Sahana Udupa (2018) argues that the Hindu nationalist BJP was the first major political party to have a social media campaign strategy. During the 2014 national election campaign, the BJP used numerous new mobilization tactics on social media that were not seen before. The branding on social and print media projected Modi as a “populist messiah of New India.” His complicity in the 2002 Gujarat massacre was downplayed. After winning the elections, the BJP established an IT cell that is the envy of other parties. Amit Shah, the then BJP President, claimed in 2018, that “it is through social media that we have to form governments at the state and national levels, by making messages going viral” (Basu, 2019). 

Swati Chaturvedi (2016), in her book “I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army” gives useful insights into the workings of the social media cell of the BJP led by Arvind Gupta, the same BJP official who was responsible for leading BJP’s 2014 election campaign. The cell runs from BJP’s headquarters located at 11 Ashoka Road in New Delhi and comprises members who ensure that certain hashtags, decided by the head, are made to trend on social media on a particular day. Each day has a different tweet agenda that is sent out to a large network of social media workers across India, mostly standard PR containing tweeting routine addresses by PM Modi, Amit Shah, and BJP Chief Ministers or creating the BJP or Modi-related trend topics. Over the years, the BJP has built a reservoir of thousands of dormant Twitter accounts to be used when needed for synchronized tweeting, along with bots controlled by the party’s central IT cell which tweet out identical messages simultaneously.

The following section explores India’s digital authoritarianism using the four-level framework.

Full Network Level Governance

Full network governance refers to a complete internet shutdown or substantial degrading of the internet (e.g. from 4G to 2G or 3G) in a region. Between 2014 and November 2022, there were 680 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet blocks in the world. In 2021, there were 101 forced internet shutdowns in India. This is a significant increase from only six and 14 shutdowns in 2014 and 2015 respectively (Internet Shutdowns, 2022). The worst example of an internet shutdown in India was the internet shutdown in Kashmir, for almost a year, after the stripping of its special status on August 5, 2019. This was done ostensibly to end violence, militancy, and online extremism in the region, however, according to most observers, it was clearly done to stifle criticism and dissent against the highly unpopular decision. Internet shutdown was imposed despite objections from human rights organizations, civil society, political parties, and even retired security officials (Shah, 2020). The shutdown continued despite concerns raised by many residents on the additional challenges it posed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sub-Network or Website Level Governance 

When it comes to Sub-network level governance, the government has introduced a panoply of digital surveillance measures, normalizing the shift from targeted surveillance to mass surveillance (Mahapatra, 2021). This has been justified on the account of rising terrorism in India, especially after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. The most recent development in this realm has been the induction of a Central Monitoring System (CMS). The CMS is a surveillance system that monitors most of electronic and other communications, including phone calls on landlines and cell phones, text messages, and social media engagement. It was primarily introduced post the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, after which a need was felt for a greater coordinator between law enforcement and security agencies. This system puts the privacy of the public at risk as a person will not know if and when their data has been intercepted and when turned into a mass surveillance practice. Large groups of people will have their data intercepted without a valid reason (Internet Freedom Foundation, 2020). 

Other than CMS, in the past few years, police have routinized the use of fingerprint and facial recognition technology (FRT) to stop and screen people on grounds of suspicion, without any evidence. Such digital surveillance enables dragnet surveillance, which makes everyone a suspect. Secondly, it also leads to datafication of individuals, turning the identity and activity of human beings into quantifiable data for governance and business purposes (Mahapatra, 2021). 

The next level of analysis is the sub-network level where websites and webpages are banned by governments. In India, websites are blocked by the central government, under Section 69A of the IT Act and the 2009 Blocking Rules, which allows the reasons for the ban to be kept confidential too. There has also been an upsurge in the number of websites blocked. A total of 6096 websites were blocked in 2021. This is low as compared to the 9849 websites banned in 2020 but considerably higher than to 633 websites banned in 2016. (Qureshi, 2022). It is worth noting that censorship and digital surveillance in India are not only limited to blaming and censoring Muslims. During the Farmer Protests, hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts that voiced support for the farmers were suspended as India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology directed the company to take down accounts that had used “incendiary” hashtags during the January 26 violence, raising questions about the neutrality of Twitter when it comes to free speech in India (Rej, 2021).

Proxy or Corporation Level Governance 

The next level of analysis is proxies and corporations, especially social media websites or intermediaries, all while keeping in mind India’s powerful position as having the third-largest Twitter users in the world (behind the US and Japan), the largest number of Facebook users in the world, and largest WhatsApp market in the world (Buchholz, 2021). Such a big consumer base puts India in a dominant position in the international market, forcing intermediaries to accept its advice even if it goes against their rules and individual privacy.

Under the recent restrictive Information Technology Rules 2021, social media platforms’ freedom to operate and immunity from prosecution (because of what someone has written or posted on their websites) have been greatly reduced. Social media intermediaries are now required to remove content identified as illegal by the government within three days. They are also required to provide user information to law enforcement officials. For this, they need to increase their data retention period to 180 days, increasing the costs of noncompliance for these global firms, thereby putting end-to-end encryption at risk. 

Pal (2021) elaborates that the intermediaries are required to appoint three officers: a) a Chief Compliance Officer who shall be responsible for compliance with the Information Technology Act and the rules framed there under, b) a Nodal Contact Person who shall be responsible for communication with law enforcement agencies, and c) a Resident Grievance Officer who shall be responsible for the grievance redressal mechanism. All these officers are required to be residents of India. Another obligation cast upon these intermediaries is to enable the identification of the ‘first originator’ of any information on their platform. Simply put, this means that an intermediary, like Facebook or Twitter, would be open for liability if a third-party user posts unlawful content on their platforms (The Wire, 2021; Pal, 2021). 

Apart from endangering the privacy of users, these rules directly put the users’ freedom of expression at risk. These rules also restrict companies’ discretion in moderating their own platforms and create new possibilities for government surveillance of citizens, threatening the idea of free and open internet (Rodriguez & Schmon, 2021). The 2021 Rules also require all intermediaries to remove restricted content within 36 hours of knowing of its existence by a court order or notification from a government agency, with noncompliance resulting in penal consequences (Rodriguez & Schmon, 2021).

The manifestation of this law can be seen in the following examples. During the COVID-19 crisis in 2021, the Indian government made an emergency order to censor tweets criticizing the government for its negligence and inefficiency in combating the virus. This specifically referred to a tweet from a politician in West Bengal holding Prime Minister Modi directly responsible for Coronavirus deaths, and from an actor criticizing PM Modi for holding political rallies while the virus raged, raising concerns about the government`s obsession with political supremacy and censorship during a public health crisis (BBC, 2021). Such requests by the government to block content on Twitter peaked in the aftermath of the revoking of Articles 35A and 370, related to Kashmir, as already discussed, with Modi’s government issuing its highest-ever number of monthly blocking orders to Twitter, with all of the censorship requests aimed at Kashmir-related content. On August 11 and August 12, 2020, Twitter was asked to take down eight accounts, including some Pakistani and Kashmir-based accounts claiming that they were “circulating fake news” and that the language used was a “clear indication” that they were either being run by the ISI or the Pakistan Army” (Srivas, 2020). The tensions also escalated due to the recent mass protest movement by farmers against three farm laws that renewed criticism of Modi’s regime, to which the government responded with hundreds of takedown orders to Twitter. The platform initially resisted, but later complied with many of the requests and blocked some 500 accounts permanently (Christopher & Ahmad, 2021).

Twitter and other intermediaries have faced increasing pressure, many call it intimidation, from the Indian government to comply. In a November 2022 article, Time magazine called it “Twitter’s India problem.” There have been raids, court cases, and the threat of arrests. Twitter has tried to walk a thin line in India. It has increased its compliance but has also tried not to become too servile. Since the implementation of new rules, it has deferred to Indian government “requests” for the removal of posts, blocking of accounts, revealing user information, etc. According to Twitter’s transparency report, it complied with only 9.1 percent of requests to remove the content in the six months before the new rules came into force. Since then, Twitter has compiled with 19.5 percent of requests, more than double the previous percentage. During the same period, Twitter became much more amenable to revealing user data. It complied with almost ten times as many government requests for private information. However, Twitter has also tried to remain independent by filing a lawsuit in July 2022 against the demand of the government to remove 39 tweets and accounts (Perrigo, 2022). In 2022, the Indian government has also come up with a new Digital Personal Data Protection Bill that further increased the government’s power on the transfer of data and virtual communications (Saran, 2022).

Network-Node or Individual Level Governance 

India is the world’s third largest Twitter market. Photo: Koshiro K.

Coming to individual-level internet governance in India, the primary targets are journalists and social media activists resulting in arrests under terror or treason charges. India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index has decreased from the 133rd position in 2016 to the 142nd position in 2021 and the 150th position in 2022 (The Quint, 2022). India is among the countries categorized as “bad” for journalism and is considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists (Kaushik, 2021). In July 2021, India was engulfed in the Pegasus spyware scandal. Pegasus is a spyware, made by an Israeli company, that was used to spy on journalists, political opponents, foreign leaders, military officials, etc. It was sold only to governments to supposedly control terrorism and other illegal activities. However, Modi’s government, like many other governments, bought this spyware to spy on anyone it considered a threat (Basak, 2022). 

Journalists, particularly Muslim journalists, are under consistent threat of arrest and courts have provided constitutional protection in a few cases. National and state governments regularly file cases against Journalist Rana Ayyub for disturbing communal harmony when she exposes BJP’s Hindutva cadres’ excesses. In June 2022, Delhi state police arrested Zubair, owner of Alt News, a prominent fact-checking website, over a four-years old post. Siddique Kappan was arrested in October 2020 when he was trying to cover a murder and rape case. After struggling through lower courts for two years, he was granted bail by the Supreme Court of India but before this verdict, the state filed another lawsuit, and he is still in jail (Freedom on the Net, 2022; Mamta, 2022). In March 2022, three Kashmiri students remained in jail for five months under sedition charges for allegedly sending anti-India WhatsApp messages after Pakistan’s victory in a cricket match. They have been granted bail, but their future remains precarious as the case is still to be decided (Jaiswal, 2022).

Conclusion

The article analyzed and examined the law, rules, and regulations which the BJP government uses to control cyberspace. This was carried out by using the four levels of network analysis. In India surveillance, blockage, censorship, and legal actions for cyber activities are all regulated under legal frameworks that have been tailored to support the BJP’s undemocratic transgressions. The article focused on analyzing the multifaceted and layered populist usage of cyberspace by the BJP in India and its impact on their Hindu base as well as on “the others.” We find that civilizational authoritarian populism in India has spread like wildfire which makes it quite a volatile society both offline as well as online. Both these spaces intersect and influence each other. The once democratic and plural country has transformed into a breeding ground for extremism, repression, and violence. 

Targeting religious minorities has now become the most dominant theme on Indian social media. As discussed, the virtual hate, propagated by the BJP, eventually transcends into real life in instances of violence targeting these groups. The state-led cyber oppression emboldens many to not only embrace these narratives online but also to be violent against “the others.” This violence or vigilantism is not limited to online harassment but frequently results in the death of the intended targeted communities. 

Overall, our analysis has shown that civilizational populist digital authoritarianism in India has recently become more prominent. Since Modi’s ascend, India has experienced a decline in internet freedom and has also lost its status as a vibrant democracy. Modi has built a strong digital presence around the country in four main ways:

  • The BJP has established a top-down, organized social media presence model, controlled by the BJP IT Cell in New Delhi. The IT Cell commands thousands of paid and unpaid volunteers and bots who share posts and tweets. These posts/tweets follow specific themes that are decided by the party leaders and involve targeting political opponents, harassing religious minorities, and spreading propaganda and fake news. 
  • The BJP government has introduced a set of rules and regulations to increase its digital oversight which augments its control over social media networks and coerces the latter into complying with the government’s narrative if they are to thrive in India. Some recent developments in this regard include the introduction of the Central Monitoring System (CMS) and the new rules Information Technology Rules, 2021. 
  • As India has one the largest number of social media users in the world, the BJP government enjoys preferential treatment from social media platforms that have a history of giving in to BJP’s concerns and removing content that is undesirable to the BJP.
  • As a spillover of the BJP authoritarianism, the Hindutva voter base has also accepted and enacted the state’s populist authoritarianism in both online and physical space.

Emerging from these factors, the digital landscape in India has become increasingly intolerant.


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The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja Ali M. (2022). “The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 2, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0016

 

Abstract

Pakistan’s democracy has a turbulent political history. In the seven decades since its creation, the country has faced four military-led dictatorships and another two decades under indirect military rule. Given this political trend, authoritarianism is not a novel phenomenon in the country. Digital authoritarianism, however, is a relatively new domain of oppression. This paper looks at how a political party in power and the “establishment” (military elite and its civilian collaborators) have been increasingly controlling digital mediums as well as weaponizing cyberspace. This dual control and usage allow for growing digital authoritarianism.

Using the case study of Islamist civilizational populist Imran Khan’s government (2018-2022) and its collaboration with the military establishment in enforcing digital authoritarianism, this article provides a four levels of assessment of internet governance in Pakistan: 1. whole network level, 2. sub-network level, 3. proxy level, and 4. user level. In addition, the role of Khan’s political party’s Islamist civilizational populist outlook in contributing to authoritarianism is also discussed. A lot of censorship happens around the ideas of protecting Islam and Pakistan’s Muslim identity. Thus, Pakistan’s digital space is oppressive where ideas of religion, ontological insecurity, and nationalism are weaponized to legitimize the state’s growing authoritarianism.  

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja Ali M. Saleem

Introduction

Digital technologies have had a constant and rapid influence on the way the world operates in the 21st century. These technologies have changed the way individuals connect socially, participate in public debates and political discourse, and organize and mobilize for social change (Brown, Guskin, & Mitchell, 2012). Many of the upheavals from this century have shown the potential of digital tools to create social change in oppressive regimes, economic crises, occupation, conflict, and displacement. For example, social media has been stressed as a tool for citizen journalism in the contemporary era. Moreover, digital space has allowed new sorts of personal and public connections to emerge during the COVID-19 situation, especially regarding physical distance.

Despite the interest and optimism in the digital domain providing chances to construct better futures and just societies, the hazards and constraints remain immense (Al-Ali, 2020). Autocratic governments have used cyberspace to increase their influence. In addition, social media have become breeding grounds for the growing distrust between citizens and state institutions. Even in advanced consolidated democracies, cyberspace has been used to polarize, promoting radical solutions, thus undermining democracy. For instance, in the United States (US) the ascent of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016, the US presidential election campaign was a ‘rebellion’ against the mainstream politics of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The erosion of trust in the established party power structures paved the way for these two “outsiders” to almost take control of the two parties. Social media played a pivotal role in garnering support for these leaders. Social media has been central to the advance of populist right-wing and neo-fascism. Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and many others could not have won elections without the skillful use of social media in their campaigns. Paradoxically, however, social media is critical to mainstreaming the populist and radical left such as Alexis Tsipras in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the US, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. All these leaders are sustained by an active cyberspace where radical ideas were floated and popularized to eventually trickle down to generate real life political outcomes.

Pakistan is no exception to this global trend of increased politicization of cyberspace. While it remains a country where internet access is unevenly distributed, it is also one of the countries where the internet is comparatively cheap (Baluch and Musyani, 2020). Its huge population means that despite a small user base, the sheer number of users with access results in millions of users of the internet and allied services. It is speculated that between 2021 and 2022 alone some 22 million new users of the internet emerged in the country and at present only 36.5 percent of its population has access to the facility (Digital, 2022). While the internet was politically a largely irrelevant place, in recent years it has gained new significance in the country’s politics. The post-pandemic trends given in the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Report 2021 indicate that coronavirus has resulted in an expansion of internet availability and usage where household ownership of mobile connections as well as internet subscriptions has seen unprecedented growth (PTA, 2021).

Imran Khan’s party, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – Pakistan’s Justice Movement), has used an active online presence to sway young voters, more than half of the country’s population, to secure electoral victory (Jahangir, 2020). The military establishment has also increased its presence on the internet and has been constantly engaged in monitoring and harassment of individuals of susceptible loyalty in its eyes (Rehman, 2020). Both these entities combined also use cyberspace to promote their narratives. Between 2018 and early 2022, the PTI led by Imran Khan (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021), in a close relationship with the establishment, used authoritarian tactics, jailed critics on fake cases, pressurized judiciary, passed laws to curtail usage, and increased monitoring of social media (PTA, 2021: 13). It also used social media to promote majoritarian civilizational populist narratives on issues of critical importance. So, while PTI’s stance today appears democratic and against the military’s role in politics, it still wants the military to interfere and support it as the military did from 2017 to 2021 (Zehra, 2022).

Our paper focuses on this politically symbiotic relationship between a political party and the military elite in Pakistan to examine its use and abuse of online space. We try to navigate the landscape by exploring the means through which cyberspace has been reclaimed by these actors and weaponized against political opposition and civil society. The paper also examines how pre-existing socio-political issues such as a weak democratic setup, an interventionist military, civilizational populism, and majoritarianism have aided the growing cyber authoritarianism. To carry out our analysis we use a layered approach to explore the levels of authoritarianism. These are rooted in the framework used by (Howard, et al., 2011) which looks at four levels: full network, sub-network, proxies, and network nodes.

Political Context

Imran Khan, addresses a press briefing on April 20, 2016 in Islamabad. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

The Civilizational Populist Party – Imran Khan’s PTI 

‘Civilizational populism’ 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 & Morieson, 2022a; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022b). Established in 1996 by Pakistan’s leading and beloved sportsman, Imran Khan (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a), the PTI (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b) is an Islamist civilizational populist party.

Initially there was no clear ideology of the party as both left-wing and right-wing elements found a home in the PTI. Anti-corruption was the sole slogan but there was no solid plan on how to achieve this objective. The PTI was a party that was formed by a person, who belonged to the elite, spending all his adult life outside Pakistan, and marrying a very wealthy British aristocrat, who thought people should vote for him because he was a brilliant cricketer and philanthropist (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). During the 1990s, Pakistan’s economy nosedived as the two leading parties, the PPP and the PMLN, fought with each other. The military, although formally out of politics, played the moderator and kingmaker. In 1999, the military formally took over for the fourth time in Pakistan’s history. General Musharraf was leading an economy moving towards default in the early 2000s when the 9/11 attacks saved his military regime. In response to his prompt support for the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, billions of dollars of aid came to Pakistan. Pakistan became a significant partner of the United States, but it also resulted in a colossal cost to the Pakistani economy and society as terrorism increased. The country became a breeding ground for violence and mixed with corrupt leadership, the cause of human development was long forgotten.

Imran Khan initially supported Musharraf and his coup. He even supported Musharraf’s farcical referendum and tried to negotiate a deal with him to be installed as a Prime Minister. In the early years of the party, Khan’s advocacy for social welfare and his philanthropic activities earned him a modest following. But Musharraf knew Khan was not that popular, so he rejected the deal. Khan was already a critic of Musharraf’s policies, so this became the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Khan, from then onwards, became the most vociferous critic of Musharraf’s support for the war on terror, even supporting the Taliban against Musharraf and the US (Findlay, 2021). Khan’s support for the Taliban resonated with the masses who resented the US’s historical role in Pakistan, Palestine, and the Arab world. The Iraq War further destroyed the sympathy that the US had after 9/11 in some sections of Pakistan’s population. Khan and other PTI leaders used these issues to showcase the inability of the current military and political figures to feel the “pain” of the common citizens.

In the 2000s and early parts of 2010s, Khan used the growing cable television networks to increase his visibility. A lone man discussing the moral and national implications of American drone attacks on Pakistani soil, a sympathizer of the Taliban (framing them as decolonizers), calling out on corruption and promising social and political change garnered him considerable attention but he still could not become a popular leader (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). His party was just a small bunch of admirers. Despite his controversial positions on issues and untarnished political background, the PTI never became a significant player in politics until 2011 when the military decided to collaborate with him, and he dropped his anti-army stance (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b; Yilmaz & Saleem, 2022). Two years of strong support from the military resulted in PTI’s first win in the 2013 general elections. The party won its first majority in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) by allying with right-wing political parties in 2013. Other political parties noticed and declared that PTI’s rise was not entirely organic as it gained favorable support from the establishment. Despite its mediocre performance in KP, PTI’s Islamist populism (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b) combined with religious rhetoric and the strong support of the military and the judiciary, which removed and disqualified PM Nawaz Sharif for life, led it to become the party with the most seats in the National Assembly (NA) in 2018 general elections.

During its three-and-a-half years in power at the federal level, the party enjoyed a close relationship with the military until the relations went bitter in late 2021. During this small period of close collaboration of the civil government and the military, digital authoritarianism increased at all levels. While violence on the streets, rooted in political, ethnic, and religious differences, was nothing new, there was uncommon aggression towards those who opposed the highhandedness of the government or the military or voiced concern in online space. The issue of hundreds of Balochs and Pashtuns, who were abducted and incarcerated by the intelligence agencies without any legal authority and declared “missing persons” remained unaddressed by the government and judiciary. Self-censorship and legal laws to curtail cyber freedoms were ensnared at an unprecedented level (discussed below). PTI justified these measures as means of preserving the national security and morality of the youth. Ironically, the same laws that the PTI government framed during its tenure are now being used by the military to harass pro-PTI voices since Khan’s exit from office in April 2022 (Naseer, 2022).

Khan’s civilizational populism, which instrumentalizes religion, was a big factor in promoting digital authoritarianism during his premiership. Like other populist leaders and their parties, Khan and the PTI believed that no one could legitimately criticize them. All criticism of Khan and the PTI was illegal, biased, and against the nation and so should be stopped and punished by any means possible. This was, of course, the classic justification of authoritarian populism. Second, PTI’s vision and campaign slogan was the recreation of the state of Madinah (Riyasat-e-Madina that Prophet Muhammad established in Central Arabia in the seventh century) in Pakistan. This not only attracted people to the PTI but also made PTI and Khan holy figures on a divine mission. Unsurprisingly, in a society like Pakistan where religion is important, those opposed to this divine mission were condemned, subjected to all kinds of hatred, and their rights to speech, expression, and movement were deniable. Hence, both populism and religious-oriented politics, allowed the PTI to execute and justify digital and non-digital authoritarianism.

An important part of the PTI civilizational populist toolkit is misogyny. Misogyny is common to numerous populist parties and leaders as well as religious conservatives. Whether it is Trump and the Republican Party or Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), misogyny is regularly employed and is popular among the party activists. Khan has promoted numerous misogynistic ideas during his premiership, including linking violence against women to their conduct and dress, and the PTI has vigorously defended his reprehensible statement. He has also made sexist remarks against female politicians of other parties and used sexual innuendos against male opposition figures (The Express Tribune, 2022). In an interview when he was asked, “You were also quoted as saying that the practice of women wearing veils ‘is to stop temptation, not every man has willpower’ (Daily Pakistan, 2021). You said on increasing vulgarity, will have consequences, and you were accused of rape victim blaming. How do you respond to that?” Imran Khan replied, “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men unless they’re robots. I mean it is common sense.” Khan has also spoken regularly against pornography using religious edicts which, unsurprisingly, helps in justifying digital censorship (Daily Pakistan, 2021).

The deadly nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism is not limited to Pakistan (now see in detail Yilmaz et al., 2022). In India, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia, one can see similar dynamics. It does not matter whether the country is Muslim-majority or Hindu-majority, rich or poor, long-established democracy or a recent fragile democracy, the nexus between religious populism and digital authoritarianism is popular and successful (Yilmaz et al., 2022).

Guard of Honor Battalion of the Pakistan Army, during the official ceremony at the Aiwan-e-Sadr Presidential Palace of the President of Pakistan in Islamabad on November 3, 2015. Photo: Mirko Kuzmanovic.

The Authoritarian Institution: Establishment

The “establishment” is a name that has been given to the top brass of the Pakistani military which has a long history of interference, controlling, and shaping Pakistani politics. Out of 75 years of Pakistan’s history, the military has directly ruled the country for 33 years. Even when the military is not ruling directly, it shapes the political landscape informally. The “kingmakers” have misused and abused their position by turning the military from a security force to not only a political entity but also the biggest business conglomerate in Pakistan that sells dairy products, meat, textiles, fertilizers, cement, land, houses, natural gas, oil, etc. The military also has universities, medical and engineering colleges, a sugar mill, and a bank.

The Pakistani military has not simply imposed repeated periods of dictatorships but with each successive phase of military dictatorships, the social and political fabric of the country has been redefined under authoritarianism. For instance, the early dictators such as Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan were instrumental in stifling the political growth of various forms in Pakistan. Ayub Khan’s policies side-lined the unifying and democratic figure of Fatima Jinnah and normalized the suppression of political forces and election rigging. Combined both Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan’s hijacking of politics and hostility towards the Bengali population led to a civil war which turned into a Bengali massacre by the Pakistan military resulting in the country losing East Pakistan and its transition into the independent state of Bangladesh.

Later, General Zia-ul-Haq also abused his power by not only dissolving assemblies and imposing martial law, but he also hanged former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after a dubious trial. The decade that followed led to the unprecedented integration of military officials into politics and civil bureaucracy. Politically, Zia-ul-Haq experimented with the Islamization of society, mainstreamed religious right-wing into politics, and groomed a new generation of right-wing political parties to counter existing political opposition in society. After Zia-ul-Haq’s death, democracy returned but the military never left politics. It continued to manage politics until, as mentioned earlier, General Pervez Musharraf imposed the fourth martial law in 1999. Much like his predecessors, he disregarded the political, civil, and human rights of the Pakistanis for nearly another decade.

The establishment’s position as the ‘apex’ institution, with no accountability, has culminated in a culture of oppression and violence. The military’s spying agency the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) has unchecked power to surveil citizens and its power has led to countless cases of disappearances and deaths of political activists. Described as working for the ‘national’ interest, over the years, ISI and the military have expanded their ‘security-driven’ narrative to cyberspace. They have been directly involved in shaping policy to support their intrusive and unlawful oppression of citizens. The agency is also responsible for using online space to popularize fear of ‘Jewish’ and ‘Indian’ fake news and threats which it calls “fifth generation warfare”. Overall, the military’s authoritarian attributes and legacy have found themselves replicating in cyberspace.

While most people know that ISI conducts electronic surveillance and even Prime Minister Imran Khan has acknowledged that his phone may also be compromised, the ISI has no legal authority to establish an extensive, broad range surveillance system and monitor thousands of people. The role of the military can be gauged from the fact that often a retired military general is appointed as Chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). The current PTA Chairman is retired Major General Amir Azeem Bajwa. Previously, in the mid-2000s Major General Shahzada Alam Malik was the Chairman of PTA (PTA 2021). Furthermore, the military also oversees a major portion of telecom/mobile operations in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan through the Special Communications Organization (SCO), a public sector company under Pakistani military supervision (PTA, 2019: 21).

When an authoritarian force is combined with an Islamist civilizational populist it becomes a breeding ground for gross violations of human rights. This union while short-lived was quite a dark period for democracy in Pakistan. While the PTI is out of power, the legacy of digital authoritarianism and cyber oppression it left behind is now being weaponized against it by the very the establishment the PTI worked with while in power.

Context of Cyber Space in Pakistan

Photo: Aleksandar Malivuk.

 

Under such circumstances to no one’s surprise, Freedom House rates the country as “partly free,” giving it a score of 37 out of 100 (Freedom House, 2021). Pakistan not only has a low score, but it is also losing ground, particularly after 2018, when it had a score of 43. Since then, it had an election and a government that was generally perceived to have been greatly influenced by the military. The situation is considerably worse with respect to internet freedoms, which are even more restricted. The Freedom House gives it a score of only 26 out of a possible 100 points, and it is classified as “not free.” (Freedom House, 2021). The score is based on three factors of internet freedom. Pakistan received only 6 points out of a possible 25 points for “obstacles to access,” 13 points out of a possible 35 points for “content limitations,” and 7 points out of a possible 40 points for “violation of user rights.” Once again, one can see the declining trend in action (Freedom House, 2021). The figures provided by Freedom House mirror the reality of online and off space in Pakistan.

The future of internet freedoms, and freedom overall is bleak in Pakistan as new regulations and allied bills have further increased the control of the government on the internet and social media. The military chief, General Qamar Bajwa warned the “internal enemies” and declared, “we will have to deal strictly with some internal elements spreading chaos.” General Bajwa further said:  “It is a moment of reflection for all of us that some people are being used by anti-state elements. This is called hybrid or fifth-generation war. Its purpose is to make Pakistan’s roots hollow and damage the country’s unity. InshAllah, we will never let these negative objectives succeed.” (Dawn, 2021).

On the other hand, while still in power, Khan warned the nation, particularly the youth of the ‘vices’ of the internet and promised to ‘protect them.’ In one of his meetings, he urged for ‘character building’ of the youth and warned against the vices of the cyber world “Character building is very crucial in the modern tech-savvy era. The proliferation of tech gadgets and 3G/4G internet technology has made all sorts of content available to everyone […] We need to protect our youth, especially kids, from being exposed to immoral and unethical content available online.” (Jamal, 2021).

While Imran Khan constantly portrayed the internet as a den of vice and as a national security issue (Geo News, 2022) his party has used the space in the most effective way. PTI’s media cell is one of the most organized on the internet and has used the platform to propagate its narratives, troll opposition and critics as well as shaped social media trends (Khalid, 2022; see details in the four levels of analysis section below).

The PTI government and the establishment supported each other in the violation of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression granted by the 1973 Pakistani Constitution. The key internet governance institution in Pakistan is the PTA and it draws most of its powers from the PTA (Re-organization) (Amendment) Act, 2006. The legal framework is designed in such a way that PTA can itself or allow others to monitor, record, and survey all kinds of electronic communications. All kinds of electronic communications come under its purview as it is the regulatory body of the telecommunication sector in Pakistan. There is little transparency or accountability in the process. Thus, PTA has become a means of surveilling and shaping cyberspace. Pressures to curb ‘terrorism’ has led the military to push elected governments to pass laws such as The Fair Trial Act, 2013 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016. While on the surface this legislation is to prevent cybercrime, in reality, it enables further documentation and enhances the state’s capability to legally surveil. However, despite its reach, legalized surveillance is only a small part of state surveillance. Civilian and intelligence agencies, working outside the legal sphere, use surveillance of the citizenry for what they call “national interest.”

The last few years have seen a spike in cyber authoritarianism in Pakistan as both the PTI government and the military have used formal laws as well as illegal powers. Civil and political rights have taken a backseat as increased censorship and authoritarianism have prevailed. People have been abducted with no due process or legal authority because of their online activism or other ‘crimes.’

Four Levels of Analysis of Digital Authoritarianism in Pakistan

The following four level of analysis of digital authoritarianism was first developed and used by (Howard, et al., 2011).

Full Network Level Governance

Internet shutdowns in cities, regions, or in the whole country are not uncommon in Pakistan but, despite PTA being the enforcer of these bans, its annual reports give no information about these shutdowns.

There are three types of full network shutdowns in Pakistan. Most common internet shutdowns are on prominent days in Pakistan’s official calendar. Internet is not available on religious and national holidays as security agencies and the government believes there is a likelihood of terrorism on these occasions. So, almost every year, there is an internet shutdown in specific cities on significant holidays. Second, there are long-term regional shutdowns in areas mired in an insurgency. Areas in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces suffer internet blackouts for weeks or more. The final type of internet shutdown is less related to political protests. These happen for a few hours or a day when the government tries to stifle a political protest. The reason given for the internet shutdown is again a terrorist threat, but the actual reason is more likely political. These short terms shutdowns are mostly done to stop mobilization as opposed to long term shutdowns in Balochistan and KP which are usually disciplinary mechanisms.

Full network internet shutdowns in Pakistan first began in 2005-2006 but became common in Pakistan after 2011. Most often, it is the military intelligence agencies that ask for internet shutdowns as no evidence is asked from them. The actual process is that the ISI, Military Intelligence, or the civilian Intelligence Bureau asks the Ministry of Interior for an internet shutdown due to a viable threat. The National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) in the Ministry then deliberates and usually, it requests the PTA to enforce the shutdown. The PTA then orders the internet service providers and telecom operators to shut down their internet operations. Unfortunately, the decision to shut down the internet is totally bureaucratic and there is no judicial or parliamentary input in it. Even post-facto accountability of the intelligence agencies or the NCMC is absent.

Pakistan is a poor developing country with a huge young population of more than a hundred million. There is a dire need to provide employment to this young population and internet and communication technologies (ICTs) can help. The Pakistani state has launched “Digital Pakistan” to tap young talent. Regular internet shutdowns, however, stifle ICT employment and disrupt communications, resulting in huge losses. The national exchequer lost an estimated 507 million Pakistani rupees ($49 million) in 2012 due to internet shutdowns in Pakistan during Eid, and another 500 million rupees in 2012 due to outages during Ashura (Wagner, 2018).

Sub-Network or Website Level Governance

Censorship at the website level is widespread in Pakistan. The censorship is done using section 37(2) of the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA), 2016. The federal government notified new “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards), Rules 2021” in October 2021. In the 2021 annual report of PTA, following the information given about banned or blocked websites:

Category

Websites blocked

Decency and Morality

903,074

Glory of Islam

77,692

Sectarian & Hate Speech

40,365

Defense of Pakistan

36,820

Proxy

10,219

Contempt of Court

8,673

Defamation/ Impersonation

7,690

Miscellaneous

6,562

Total

1,091,095

Source: PTA 2021

According to PTA 2019 Report, more than 824,000 websites were banned since the PTA’s establishment. If we compare it with 2021 figures, it shows a more than 30 percent increase in the last two years, showing a great expansion in surveillance and punitive action (PTA 2019). Religion plays a major role in digital authoritarianism in Pakistan. Islam is used to justify a large number of internet curbs by the government. In the PTA 2021 Report, the highest number of websites banned (903,074 – 82 percent) was because of “Decency and Morality” which is linked to Islam. The second highest number of websites banned (77,692 – 7 percent) was for “Glory of Islam.” The third highest number of websites banned (40,365 – 3.6 percent) were banned for Sectarian/Hate Speech, which is again related to Islam. Hence, around 93 percent of the websites banned are because of religious reasons one way or the other.

Proxy or Corporation Level Governance

Social media companies and other communication firms, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc. are major sources of information. They are called intermediaries as they host the content of individuals, businesses, groups, etc. Individuals and groups upload content to intermediaries and intermediaries allow it to be viewed by the world without prior screening. These intermediaries can only survive if they have legal immunity, and most countries give legal immunity to these firms.

The young generation does not get their news and information about what’s happenings in the world or in their particular sector from newspapers or cable news, they rely on social media. Therefore, anyone who is concerned about controlling access to information or manipulating information must manage and rein in intermediaries. Hence, the PTI and the military also made sure to strengthen the PTA to threaten, penalize, and ban the operations of intermediaries.

In October 2020, the PTI government came up with new restrictive rules, called the Rules for Removal of Unlawful Online Content, 2020, for intermediaries. The justification for these restrictive rules was the proliferation of fake news and the threat to the privacy of ordinary Pakistanis but the reality was quite different. Under these new rules, the government did not remove the legal immunity of the intermediaries, but it tried to force them to accept orders regarding restricting their content based on local laws/culture and providing user data to the government whenever the government deems the content illegal. If these requests are denied, then the operations of these companies are threatened with closure. Pakistan has a long history of banning intermediaries. For instance, YouTube was banned in Pakistan from September 2012 to early 2016 after it refused to take down a crude anti-Islam inflammatory movie “Innocence of Muslims.” More recently, in April 2021, all major social media companies were banned for a few hours because of the protests of Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan, a religious militant political party. The PTA also banned and then lifted the ban on TikTok several times in 2021.

The new rules were so restrictive that Dawn, the most respected English newspaper in Pakistan, published a scathing editorial: “That the government is diligently laying the foundation for the large-scale digital surveillance of citizens is deeply unsettling. What is more disturbing is the secrecy with which all of this is being done, with even the tech companies complaining that they have been left in the dark. The clandestine nature of these rules and the key demands of the government to these tech companies suggest that something sinister is at play. That the authorities want citizen data to be stored in Pakistan so that they can access it without going through a legal process speaks volumes for the state’s desperation to monitor citizens’ movements online.” (Dawn, 2020).

But the PTI government was not deterred by any national or international criticism. In February 2022, just before its removal, the PTI government came up with another draconian law to restrict digital freedom. It promulgated an ordinance that amended the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) to make online criticism of government authorities, including the military and judiciary, a criminal offense. The offense was made non-bailable, with harsh punishment, increasing the fines and imprisonment up to five years. The courts were also ordered to decide the cases within six months and send monthly reports on proceedings.

Later, this amendment was declared unconstitutional by Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court. The irony is that since its removal from office, it’s the PTI that is protesting and criticizing the military online, resulting in its repression by authorities. Imran Khan and his party leadership should be thanking the Islamabad High Court as they would have been facing even more repression, if the PECA amendment, initiated and defended by them in courts, was still law of the land.

Photo: Shutterstock.

 

Network-Node or Individual Level Governance

Years of true civilian rule in Pakistan have been rare. Authoritarian states need surveillance to survive so surveillance has been part and parcel of a Pakistanis’ life. As internet and communication technologies became available and popular in Pakistan, the state also increased its capabilities of electronic surveillance. After 9/11, during the “War on Terror,” US assistance augmented and modernized Pakistan’s surveillance architecture. This was a disastrous development for the people of Pakistan as the authoritarian state traced critical citizens using this new surveillance system and abducted, incarcerated, and tortured them. Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights activists, feminists, etc. all suffer at the hands of the authoritarian state.

Mehvish Ahmad and Rabia Mehmood have detailed the effects of surveillance: “Social media surveillance of critics of state policies has resulted in targeting of groups through infiltration, content monitoring, and interception, and has resulted in enforced disappearances, torture, arrests, interrogations, and confiscation of digital devices of those summoned by authorities. More indirect methods to censor dissent have also been taken into use: Pakistan has banned YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and websites run by religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities in part using surveillance technologies that allow them to uncover the details of administrators and moderators. Through this regulation of online spaces, it has allowed some groups— for instance, pro-army propagandists or far-right Islamist extremists active on social media—to enjoy more space than others, effectively allowing the former to violently challenge journalists, political workers, dissidents, and others from rivalling factions.” (Ahmad & Mehmood, 2017).

The PTI populist government, with the encouragement and support of the military, has arrested, jailed, and beaten people for speaking against Imran Khan, the military, or Islam. People have been charged and even sentenced to death for speaking against Islam. In January 2021, an antiterrorism court sentenced three men to death in the first case of cyber blasphemy (Asad, 2021). The case is under appeal but even an acquittal by superior courts will not save the victims as anyone accused of blasphemy is always under threat in Pakistan. Political criticism was repressed. In June 2019, Waleed Butt, a young leader of the PMLN party, was arrested for posting derogatory content against the judiciary, Imran Khan, and the military.

Journalists are particularly under threat if they criticize the military or Imran Khan. In September 2020, journalist Asad Ali Toor was arrested for using “derogatory language” against the military. After he was released in November, he was attacked at his home by suspected military intelligence agencies in 2021. In September 2020, journalist Bilal Farooqi was arrested (later released) for his social media posts against the military, and a sedition case was filed against journalist Absar Alam for Twitter posts. In April 2021, Absar was shot near his home and the police investigation of the murder attempt led to no arrests. Later, in an official meeting, PTI information minister Fawad Chaudhry denied Absar Alam and Asad Toor are journalists, thereby denying attacks on them are linked to their online writing and YouTube videos. Also in April, Sarmad Sultan, a social media activist went missing and his Twitter account was also taken down temporarily. He was released after outrage and a campaign on social media.

Women journalists critical of the PTI party and government suffered extreme online harassment. Gharidah Farooqi, Benazir Shah, and Asma Shirazi were victims of a targeted campaign led by PTI ministers and officeholders. As explained above, Imran Khan himself appears to be a misogynist and this helps in making the PTI particularly offensive towards women.

Conclusion

While the PTI is no longer in power, its cyberspace legislation has further enhanced the dominance of the military. In a karmic manner, the digital authoritarian laws legitimized by Islamist civilizational populism and created & used by the Imran Khan’s PTI government are today being used against pro-PTI voices as arrests based on social media posts are being carried out.

Military dominance and authoritarianism have been part of Pakistan’s history since the late 1950s. The establishment has a strong tradition of undemocratic, illegal, and unconstitutional behavior. While political parties change, the establishment has remained a constant and has grown in its authoritarian activities. It co-opts civil government to create an environment where fears of immorality and national security justify the introduction of draconian cyber laws, their heavy-handed enforcement. However, over the recent years, the military has gathered unparalleled power. Using religion and a security-driven national narrative, it has maintained its grasp on Pakistani society and politics. These conditions are now being replicated in cyberspace as well. The level of surveillance, blackouts, and control that are exerted by this institution is troubling for not only the future of cyberspace in Pakistan but also the country’s chances of moving towards true democratic ideals.

Under a new series of laws between 2018 and 2022, the old frameworks have been revised to make room for more control over cyberspace which has resultantly turned into a highly surveilled and shrinking space for dissenting voices. When faith and national security narratives are used in combination, it convinces the masses of the necessity of authoritarianism. In addition, in a country like Pakistan, the establishment has no checks and balances on it which allows it for extrajudicial measures and activities in cyberspace. In such an environment, many critics have been forced into voluntary self-censorship and self-exile, while those still in Pakistan face grave consequences.

The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism is not unique to Pakistan. As mentioned above, the same dynamics can be seen elsewhere such as India, Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia. While the military is an essential and crucial element in the rise of the PTI-led civilizational populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan, its role is non-existent in India and Malaysia, and in the case of Turkey, the military was initially working against the rise of religious populism. Therefore, one can conclude that civilizational populism is not dependent on military support.


Acknowledgements: This research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant, DP220100829, Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


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Populism2

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

By Aurelien Mondon

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

***

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

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

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Populism

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

By Franz X. Barrios Suvelza

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Anita Tusor & Iván Escobar Fernández

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

Laclau, Ernest. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso. 

Laclau, Ernest. (1977). Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: Verso.

Moffitt, Benjamin & Tormey, Simon. (2014). “Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style.” Political Studies. 62 (2): 381–397

Mudde, Cas. (2007). Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Mudde, Cas. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition 39 (4): 541-563.

Mujkic, Asim. (2007). “We, the Citizens of Ethnopolis.” Constellations 14 (1):112-128.

Müller, Jan-Werner. (2016). What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812293784

Pirro, Andrea L.P. (2015). The populist radical right in Central and Eastern Europe: ideology, impact, and electoral performance. London & New York: Routledge. 

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

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

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

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

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

By Joanna Rak

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

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

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