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

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

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Please cite as:

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

 

Abstract

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Fluctuating Populism: A New Concept

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

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

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

Indonesian Presidential Campaigns of Prabowo between 2009-2024

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

 

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

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

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

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

Prabowo’s Significant Political Transformation in the Recent Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1 – Political Performance

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

Table 2 – Political Communication

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

Table 3 – Target Audience

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

Table 4 – Narrative and Rhetoric

2009

Pro-‘the people’

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

Pro-the marginalized and the poor

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

Antagonism against the elites

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

Condemning the foreign powers

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

Anti-the foreign powers/external dangerous others

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

2014

Nationalism & anti-foreign powers

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

Masculinity

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

Anti-elites

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

Populist promise: Change

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

2019

Pro-the people

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

Pro-the marginalized and the poor & nationalism 

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

Anti-the elites and foreign powers

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

Nationalism, element of motherhood, populist promise

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

2024

Technocratic nationalism/technocratic institutionalism

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

Pro-the people, populist promise, nationalism

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

Contributing Factors to Prabowo’s Fluctuating Populism

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

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

Learning from his past defeats

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

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

Stepping away from polarizing religious populism

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

Becoming a technocratic figure and ally of his former opposition

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

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

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

Responding to changing perceptions of masculinity in society

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


 

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


 

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

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

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

By Katharina Diebold

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

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

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

Theoretical Framework 

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

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

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

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

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

Inherent Populism in EU Legislation

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

The European Green New Deal

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

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

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

Deforestation Regulation 

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

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

New Pact on Migration and Asylum 

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

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

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

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

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

Identity Politics and Candidates 

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

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

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

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

Conclusion 

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

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

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


 

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ECPS-MGP-Panel6-Video

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

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



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

Report by Andrea Guidotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competing Populisms, Digital Technologies and the 2024 Elections in Indonesia

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Please cite as:

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

 

Abstract

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

The Presidential Candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competing Populisms in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populism, Emotions and Digital Technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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


 

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

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

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

 

Abstract

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

By Hasnan Bachtiar

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Ganjar Pranowo?

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

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

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

Ganjar’s Chance in 2024 Presidential Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ganjar and Identity Politics 

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

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

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

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

Ganjar and Islamist Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


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ECPS-SZABIST University-OrtakPanel

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

Please cite as:
Zaman, Zahra & Shahid, Syeda Abeeha. (2023). Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) and SZABIST University. December 13, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0046     

 

This report offers an overview of the panel on “Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World,” jointly organized by the European Center for Populism Studies and SZABIST University, Karachi, on 17th November 2023. The panel featured distinguished speakers addressing various dynamics of populism influencing electoral politics. This report comprises summaries of the presentations delivered by the esteemed panelists.

Report by Zahra Zaman* & Syeda Abeeha Shahid**

This report offers an overview of the panel on “Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World,” jointly organized by the European Center for Populism Studies and SZABIST University, Karachi, on 17th November 2023. The panel featured distinguished speakers addressing various dynamics of populism influencing electoral politics. This report comprises summaries of the presentations delivered by the esteemed panelists. 

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Fizza Batool, Assistant Professor at SZABIST University, Karachi. Panelists comprised Dr. Andrej Zaslove (Associate Professor of Empirical Political Science at Radboud University, Netherlands), Dr. Bert N. Bakker (Associate Professor at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research), Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington (Associate Professor at the London School of Economics), Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui (Associate Professor at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad), and Dr. Salim Cevik (Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies, SWP in Germany).

 

Dr. Andrej Zaslove: “The Radical Right and the Radical Left in Anno 2023: What Does Populism Got to Do with It?”

Dr. Zaslove underscored the electoral success of populist parties, attributing it to their gradual dominance and integration into the political landscape, evolving into mainstream and stable features with shifting electoral cycles. He highlighted a recent substantial shift in left-wing politics, originating from the transformation of traditional left-wing parties into populist radical left entities. Additionally, he noted the expansion of populist parties across the political spectrum, surpassing national boundaries.

Dr. Andrej Zaslove discussed the diverse and constitutive elements of populism, emphasizing its implications in the electoral achievements of both left- and right-wing populist parties. Advocating for systematic measurement approaches, he introduced an instrument designed by him and colleagues to assess populism within political parties. Dr. Zaslove underscored the electoral success of populist parties, attributing it to their gradual dominance and integration into the political landscape, evolving into mainstream and stable features with shifting electoral cycles. He highlighted a recent substantial shift in left-wing politics, originating from the transformation of traditional left-wing parties into populist radical left entities. Additionally, he noted the expansion of populist parties across the political spectrum, surpassing national boundaries.

The presentation emphasized the necessity for empirical measures on both the supply and demand sides of populism. Dr. Zaslove shared insights from a recent study in which he utilized two instruments for measuring the supply of populism: PopuList, employing a dichotomous measure, and POPPA, which used a continuous approach with five items based on a thin-centered ideology. To gauge the demand side, the Akkerman scale was employed to assess populist attitudes in the public. The study revealed that mainstream populist parties scored lower on POPPA compared to radical right populist parties. The results indicated variations in the degrees and dimensions of populism, shedding light on the identity of populist parties and voter choices. While populism had limited impact on political praxis, it broadened its application to multiple actors, showcasing its ability to align parties along the left and right axes and garner support for diverse political entities.

In conclusion, Dr. Zaslove underscored the importance of employing a mechanism in a systematic and streamlined manner. Populism, as a political mechanism, plays a crucial role in shaping the interaction of political actors and institutions, as exemplified in Italy. Drawing a contrast between Georgie Meloni and Matteo Salvini, the presentation highlighted the impact of insider-outsider dynamics on popularity and emphasized the paramount role of populism in defining political representation for individual voters. It was noted that parties can modify or relinquish their populist identities depending on their governmental status, and populist voters may become less populist based on the varying motives and actions of political parties. Importantly, this does not imply a diminishing significance of ideology as a political mechanism. The evolving stances and political statuses of figures like Meloni and Wilders illustrate that populism will continue to dominate the political landscape, rooted in party establishment within institutional structures.

Dr. Bert N. Bakker: “Psychological Roots of Populist Voting”

Dr. Bakker shared research findings indicating that individuals with low agreeableness tend to resonate with anti-establishment and populist rhetoric, characterized by cynicism, distrust, and a tough-minded attitude. This sentiment aligns with the populist narrative, which criticizes the elite for self-centeredness and a disregard for the interests of ordinary people.

Dr. Bert N. Bakker delved into the psychological underpinnings of populism, highlighting the central role of anti-establishment rhetoric and people-centric themes in populist political discourse. He explored the implications of psychological dispositions, noting a positive correlation between openness and conscientiousness. Specifically, he associated dogmatic adherence to conservative policies, especially in cultural domains, with narrow-mindedness and conscientiousness.

Dr. Bakker shared research findings indicating that individuals with low agreeableness tend to resonate with anti-establishment and populist rhetoric, characterized by cynicism, distrust, and a tough-minded attitude. This sentiment aligns with the populist narrative, which criticizes the elite for self-centeredness and a disregard for the interests of ordinary people. Statistical and correlational evidence suggests that those with lower agreeableness are more inclined to vote for populist parties, a pattern observed in the USA, the Netherlands, Germany, UK, Denmark, Spain, and Switzerland. Additionally, the lower agreeableness trait is linked to anti-establishment rhetoric. It’s crucial to note that authoritarianism moderates the effect of ideology measures, distinguishing ideology as the factor between authoritarianism and populism.

Dr. Bakker highlighted physiological responses to political rhetoric, explaining how individuals physically react to speeches by populist radical right politicians. He suggested that those with lower education levels might be more susceptible to political manipulation, swayed by a leader’s charisma rather than the substance of the argument. Dr. Bakker emphasized the need for additional research to examine the role of emotions in politics, exploring how political ideology and populist discourse shape people’s perceptions and the mechanisms of politics.

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington: “The Psychological Appeal of Populism”

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington argues that collective emotions in left populist parties were predominantly negative and linked to dissatisfaction with social conditions. In contrast, collective emotions in right populist parties were mainly positive, centered on bringing change through challenging doubters from the opposing side. Regarding temporality, mainstream right parties focused on the future, mainstream left on the present, and populists on both sides emphasized the past.

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington presented on the political psychology of populism, examining the impact of groups, hierarchies, and emotions. Her research delved into populism as a mobilizing discourse, emphasizing its psychological appeal in terms of intergroup relations, hierarchies, status concerns, and collective emotions. Dr. Sheehy-Skeffington elucidated the significance of groups and identity formation in her theoretical framework, drawing from social dominance theory to explore the role of hierarchy within groups and its connection to status concerns as a potential explanation for populism. She argued that populist leaders act as identity entrepreneurs, constructing narratives that align with populist rhetoric.

The research shared by Dr. Sheehy-Skeffington involved a combination of thematic analysis, content analysis, and rhetorical analysis of 163 speeches from election campaigns, including UK General Elections (2017, 2019), the Brexit referendum, and US presidential Elections (2016, 2020). These speeches were delivered by leaders of radical right populist, radical left populist, right-wing mainstream, and left-wing mainstream parties. The analysis revealed that mainstream parties emphasized national unity, while concerns about hierarchy manifested differently based on political orientation and populist status. Left-wing parties were more focused on social justice, with no significant difference based on populist status. Both left- and right-wing parties expressed concerns about system rigging, and emotional mobilization was more pronounced in the rhetoric of populist leaders compared to mainstream leaders. 

In both populist and mainstream parties, politicians discussed ingroup and outgroup dynamics in their speeches. However, collective emotions in left populist parties were predominantly negative and linked to dissatisfaction with social conditions. In contrast, collective emotions in right populist parties were mainly positive, centered on bringing change through challenging doubters from the opposing side. Regarding temporality, mainstream right parties focused on the future, mainstream left on the present, and populists on both sides emphasized the past.

Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui: “Electoral Populism in Pakistan and India”

Dr. Siddiqui addressed the negative impacts of populism and the incorporation of populist elements by mainstream parties, emphasizing the adverse effects on social cohesion, diversity, acceptance, peaceful coexistence, and the instrumentalization of hatred, which pose challenges to harmony.

Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui explored electoral populism in India and Pakistan, focusing on populist trends and nuances evident in the election manifestos of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in Pakistan. The discussion delved into the nature of populism, its societal impacts, and various aspects observed in the political landscapes of both countries.

Dr. Siddiqui commenced his presentation by emphasizing the unique characteristics of populism and nationalism, underscoring the analytical distinctions between these two ideologies. Populism, he explained, establishes a vertical division within society, separating elites from the general population, while nationalism creates a horizontal differentiation between people within and outside the nation’s borders. Addressing a potential critique, he acknowledged the argument that far-right parties in Europe, which are anti-immigration and anti-immigrant, may intertwine populist and nationalist discourses, challenging the clear-cut analytical differentiation between the two.

He elucidated the characteristics of populism, emphasizing its reliance on the instrumentalization of hate and differentiation within political populist discourse. Dr. Siddiqui focused on the simplification of complex socio-political issues, the appeal to emotional sentiments, and the manipulation of electoral sensitivities as key elements of populism in shaping public opinion. His presentation underscored the role of populist leaders in effectively navigating the political landscape, often at the expense of social cohesion. Furthermore, he delved into the contributing factors to the rise of populism in India and Pakistan, highlighting the institutional weaknesses of political parties as a significant factor.

Examining the developmental populism in India through an analysis of the BJP election manifesto, Dr. Siddiqui highlighted its combination of class and caste systems, with a particular focus on the middle class and consumerist neoliberal capitalism. He emphasized Narendna Modi’s vision of a “New India” as a sustaining narrative for populism in the country. The presentation also delved into the rise of religious populism in Pakistan, exemplified by the manifestos of PTI and TLP. The implementation of blasphemy laws targeting the Ahmadi community was discussed as a singular focus of TLP to preserve the sanctity of the Prophet. Finally, Dr. Siddiqui addressed the negative impacts of populism and the incorporation of populist elements by mainstream parties, emphasizing the adverse effects on social cohesion, diversity, acceptance, peaceful coexistence, and the instrumentalization of hatred, which pose challenges to harmony.

Dr. Salim Cevik: “Populist Strategies of Erdogan in 2022 Election”

Dr. Cevik highlighted Erdogan’s “techno-nationalism” strategy and mega projects, such as national Turkish drones and new fighter jets, symbolizing Turkey’s technological progress. This techno-nationalism shifted the discourse from economic issues to national security, positioning Erdogan as a defender of Turkey against external threats.

Dr. Salim Cevik’s presentation covered three aspects: Erdogan’s employment of mixed populist strategies, the concept of Erdogan remaining a populist leader for 20 years in power, and his techno-nationalism as a political strategy. 

First, he analyzed Erdogan’s election strategies as a populist leader and his electoral victory in 2023. Dr. Cevik portrayed how Erdogan remained in power for 20 years with reference to the inherent ambiguity in the definition of populism. His talk highlighted the controversial usage of populist methods in Turkey. Accordingly, Erdogan’s policies appealed to emotional sentiments rather than material well-being. Second, he discussed how Erdogan sustained his populist appeal by redefining the establishment narrative, shifting it from a national to a global level, portraying himself as a leader fighting against a global elite opposing the rise of Turkey.

Dr. Cevik highlighted Erdogan’s “techno-nationalism” strategy and mega projects, such as national Turkish drones and new fighter jets, symbolizing Turkey’s technological progress. This techno-nationalism shifted the discourse from economic issues to national security, positioning Erdogan as a defender of Turkey against external threats. From his successful election strategies to implementing policies in Turkey, Erdogan adopted and adjusted populist language over decades by addressing the emotional and sentimental needs of the voters.


(*) Zahra Zaman is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations at the Department of Social Sciences, SZABIST University, Karachi. She has demonstrated active engagement in both academic and co-curricular activities, previously serving as a Prefect, Proctor, President of the Literary Society, and Head Girl during high school. At SZABIST, Zahra has held various leadership roles, including Program Representative of the Social Sciences Department, General Secretary, Treasurer, and President of the SZABIST Student Council. With a strong interest in International Relations, she aspires to pursue research in areas such as security studies, foreign policy, and diplomacy, employing both comparative and case study approaches to comprehend global politics.

(**) Syeda Abeeha Shahid is an undergraduate Social Sciences student majoring in International Relations at SZABIST University, Pakistan. Her graduate research project focuses on examining the use of cultural diplomacy and soft power tools by populist leaders, employing a comparative analysis of two Asian populist leaders in power – Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Her primary areas of interest encompass diplomacy, foreign policy, and intergovernmental organizations. Fueled by an unwavering passion for understanding the complexities of global relations, shaped by political choices and culture, she actively engages in social work initiatives through volunteer activities aimed at supporting socially deprived segments of society.

Photo: Shutterstock.

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

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



Abstract

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Bulent Kenes

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls in Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technical Instruments and Surveillance Methods to Monitor and Control Cyberspace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AKtrolls 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AKbots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hackers

Photo: Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

What surrounds the 2024 European elections?

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

By Konstantina Kastoriadou

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

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

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

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

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

Populism in Member States

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

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

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

Psychology of Populism

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on the Upcoming Elections

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

Baczynska, G. (2023). “EU takes step towards overhauling migration system.” Reuters. October 4, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/eu-states-try-seal-migration-deal-2023-10-04/ (accessed on October 10, 2023).

Bergmann, E. (2020). “Introduction: The Rise of Nativist Populism.” In: Neo-Nationalism, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp.1–28. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-41773-4_1. 

Burchard, H. von der & Angelos, J. (2023). “Far-right surge upends German state elections.” POLITICO. October 8, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/far-right-surge-upends-german-state-elections/ (accessed on October 9, 2023).

Caulcutt, C., Aarup, S. A., & Vinocur, N. (2023). “Poland, Hungary force EU leaders to drop migration from Granada Declaration.” POLITICO. October 6, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/poland-hungary-force-eu-leaders-drop-migration-granada-summit-declaration/ (accessed on October 11, 2023).

Henley. J. (2023). “Rural populist party emerges as big winner in Dutch elections.” The Guardian. March 16, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/16/rural-populist-party-farmer-citizen-movement-big-winner-dutch-elections (accessed on October 11, 2023).

Lynch, S. (2023). “Europe swings right and reshapes the EU.” POLITICO. June 30, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/far-right-giorgia-meloni-europe-swings-right-and-reshapes-the-eu/ (accessed on October 9, 2023).

Müller, J. W. (2022). “The Politics of Fear Revisited.” In: Schapkow, C., and Jacob, F. (eds), “Introduction.” In: Nationalism and Populism: Expressions of Fear or Political Strategies. pp. 11 – 21. De Gruyter Oldenbourg. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110729740

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

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

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

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

Interview: 

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

An army of Hindu Sanyasis is geared up for battle to protect their dharma at any cost. Illustration: Young Moves Media (Shutterstock).

Mapping Global Populism — Panel 4: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India

Please cite as:

Sithole, Neo & Nguijol, Gabriel Cyrille. (2023). “Report on Mapping Global Populism — Panel 4: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 10, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0043  

 

This report is based on the fourth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India,” which took place online on August 31, 2023. The panel featured renowned scholars on populism from India. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Neo Sithole* and Gabriel Cyrille Nguijol

This report summarizes the fourth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism”: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India, which took place online on August 31, 2023. The panel was jointly organised by the ECPS, The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Adelaide. The panel, which featured renowned scholars on populism from India, was moderated by Dr Priya Chacko, Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and the speakers are by Dr Ajay Gudavarthy (Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), Maggie Paul (PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia),  Dr Anuj Bhuwania (Professor at the Jindal Global Law School in India & currently Senior Visiting Fellow at the SCRIPTS ‘Cluster of Excellence’ at Freie University Berlin), Dr Monika Barthwal-Datta (Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of New South Wales, Sydney) and Dr Shweta Singh (Associate Professor of International Relations at the South Asian University, New Delhi, India). 

During the introductory remarks, Dr. Priya Chacko provides a much-needed overview of the profound impacts that authoritarian populism has had on Indian political life. These effects range from stifling organizational work, where NGOs and research centers have had their licenses revoked, to constraining critical thought and free speech. Scholars, journalists, and students have faced charges of sedition and languished in jails, while the few remaining independent media houses have been threatened with tax investigations or defamation lawsuits. Additionally, laws related to religious freedoms are under threat, taking the form of laws that restrict interreligious marriages or the consumption of beef, with one of the more troubling developments being the revocation of the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir. Furthermore, the introduction of religious-aligned citizenship laws, along with anti-Muslim actions, has raised concerns. Opposition parties have often been portrayed as opposition elites backed by Western authorities, depicting them as enemies of Hindu and thus Indian advancement. All of these are just a few developments that have taken place over the last decade; the following report provides a brief outline and description of the presentations and arguments shared by the presenters during the panel.

 

Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy: “Politics, Ethics, and Emotions in ‘New India’”

Dr. Gudavarthy posits that nationalism emulates faith-based religions through symbols like the national anthem, flag, and other national symbols, and as such, stands itself as a contemporary civic-based religion. The Hindu narrative offers a porous concept that ties into this civic religion, based on inclusive narratives that unite Indians with Hindu identities, generating a form of hyper-nationalism for Hindu identities. This, in turn, fosters a sense of belonging but also translates into toxic majoritarianism, which undermines institutions.

In this opening presentation, Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy draws inspiration from his new book entitled: “Politics, Ethics, and Emotions in ‘New India.’” The book delves into the hypothesis of whether populism can achieve this through appeals to everyday ethics and latent emotions, exploring how Hindu populism manages to accomplish both objectives simultaneously.

Dr. Gudavarthy sets the tone of the panel well, kicking off by briefly going over Laclau’s conceptual approach to populism, recounting the equivalence drawn between fragmented social demands used to create an authentic people’s group and the inherent antagonism between them and the elites, in a thorough political manner before globally emphasizing the relationship between traditional authoritarianism and social solidarity in India. To better develop his thoughts, he started by asking a main question: “Does Indian politics continue to remain authoritarian, or does it have elements that continue to reinforce social hierarchy?” The answer to this question was divided into two main narratives that Hindutva is adopting: the intercultural nation between caste and religion that tries to re-inscribe the traditional hierarchy and the adoption of nationalism as a new or civic religion.

The presentation emphasizes the Indian context where Hindu-aligned politics is emerging as a new form of civil solidarity that transcends caste divisions and has extended its appeal across religious and linguistic groups, even making appeals to Pasanda Muslims. Given the vibrancy of Indian society, it’s no small feat for populism to generate such majoritarian consciousness. However, the study highlights the contradictions within populist manifestations as they often maintain and operate along conservative lines, preserving social hierarchies and serving the interests of the established social powers and elites. Nonetheless, they have successfully appropriated the normative universality of cultural registers.

Dr. Gudavarthy articulates the growing sharpening of conflicts between subclasses and linguistic conflicts, or a resurgence of social conflicts triggered by these populist ideologies. Hindu populism challenges earlier notions that suggested the impossibility of a confessional majority in the Indian context, based on the enduring fragmentation of latent caste differences. What is happening today can be precisely characterized by the emergence of such a confessional majority made possible through the reinterpretation of caste and religion, not in terms of traditional religious identities, but rather as a way of life. Part of this stems from the heterogeneous interpretations based on Gandhi’s approach which emphasizes the preservation of collective living and cultural life aimed at dismantling the caste system from within, rather than relying solely on external liberal state measures and economic changes.

The ease of narrative restructure in the Indian case is made possible using populism’s lack of explicit critique, which allows for the reinterpretation of hierarchies and divisions as a unified collective supporting authoritarian constructions. By ‘re-signifying’ caste and religion as a way of life instead of rigid cultural identities, lower segments of society, such as Dalits, identify with these narratives and show little drive to change the oppressive societal structure. It also sheds light on the rejection of leftist liberal secular scholars who view it as an authoritarian top-down project.

When speaking on the adoption, or rather reformation of nationalism as a new civic religion, Dr. Gudavarthy posits that nationalism emulates faith-based religions through symbols like the national anthem, flag, and other national symbols, and as such, stands itself as a kind of contemporary civic-based religion. The Hindu narrative offers a porous concept that ties into this civic religion, based on inclusive narratives that unite Indians with Hindu identities, generating a form of hyper-nationalism for Hindu identities. This, in turn, fosters a sense of belonging but also translates into toxic majoritarianism, which undermines institutions.

In conclusion, we are exposed to thought-provoking findings from the results of a survey conducted by Pew Research 2021 on religious tolerance and segregation, reportedly the largest post-independence survey in India that includes a cross-section of castes, religions, and regions. Dr. Gudavarthy’s breakdown mentions how it highlights that 70 percent of respondents believe diversity is vital for democracy and value secularism. However, when asked about concrete living arrangements, 65 percent of respondents expressed a belief in segregated living, symbolizing the concept of living separately, which vindicates their position of how the narratives of Hindu majoritarian populism have successfully reinforced ethnic and caste divides.

Maggie Paul: “Ram Rajya 2.0: How Nostalgia Aids the Populist Politics of Neo-colonial Hindutva Futurism”

In the review of populist nostalgia, Maggie Paul introduces us to the concept of “futurist nostalgia,” describing how, based on Indian populism, futurist nostalgia is centered on drawing inspiration from past glory to paint a picture of an equally glorious future. This is exemplified by the reverence for figures like Lord Ram and the concept of Ram Rajya. Indian populism operates within an affective economy of optimism, confidence, duty, freedom, pride, and self-confidence. Its purpose is to generate a cross-religious and cross-class identity that transcends the segregated diversity of identity.

This presentation is informed by a paper that is still in development, which articulates the role of nostalgia in populist discourses through the retrieval, valorization, and recovery of ‘golden age symbols,’ both historical and mythological, which have been central in contemporary Indian populist politics.

The aim of the paper and presentation, according to Maggie Paul, was to identify the frequent and growing force of nostalgia in Indian populism used as a mobilization force for electoral means and then to draw out the links between nostalgia, affect, and populism, thereby better theorizing the affective politics of authoritarian populism in India and contributing to the burgeoning literature on nostalgia and populism. Pivotal to this conversation is the idea that in populist studies, ideational approaches are prevalent, and in these approaches, the importance of emotions is stated as crucial but is not given much in terms of theorization. Also, the study outlines the scope as being limited to Europe and Turkey; the work on Turkey, in particular, focuses on religious sentiment.

Opening the presentation is a quote from Prime Minister Narendra Modi given at the inauguration of the new parliament in May 2023, where Modi evokes an image of a glorious past when India was heralded as the most prosperous and splendid nation of the world, and how after centuries of slavery and colonization, India is turning that glorious stream of ancient times towards itself, filling the Indian people with pride. Following this, the presentation goes over how nostalgia is associated with the ‘recent past,’ like times when political correctness was not present or rife, a time when society was more homogeneous, or a time of the welfare state, especially amongst right-wing ideologies. Different types of nostalgia, like restorative or reflective, are more dominant in right-wing populism, taking a more ideational approach.

Her framework is based on the idea that populism is analyzed as a logic of political articulation according to Ernesto Laclau, and emotions, according to Sarah Ahmed, are considered as cultural practices. However, Maggie Paul highlights the limitations of Laclau in adequately addressing the emotional aspects of populism, with an emphasis on collective grievances and antagonism in generating collective identities; this is weak, but collective identities require strong collective emotions. In addition to things like fear and hate, love and happiness are also needed within identity. In doing so, we are made alert to the importance of understanding how emotions work to create groups and form collective identities.

In the review of populist nostalgia, Maggie Paul introduces us to the concept of “futurist nostalgia,” describing how, based on Indian populism, futurist nostalgia is centered on drawing inspiration from past glory to paint a picture of an equally glorious future. This is exemplified by the reverence for figures like Lord Ram and the concept of Ram Rajya. Indian populism operates within an affective economy of optimism, confidence, duty, freedom, pride, and self-confidence. Its purpose is to generate a cross-religious and cross-class identity that transcends the segregated diversity of identity. Ram Rajya is articulated as a pinnacle of morality, ethics, and good governance, in line with the principles of the Constitution. However, it also encompasses aspects that may involve restricting religious minorities like Islam, such as introducing Ramayana into school syllabi, declaring Thursday as the official weekly day off, and observing a national Hindu day. Additionally, it mentions efforts against religious conversions, the banning of Madrassas, and the removal of reservations for minorities.

Building on the presentation given by Dr. Gudavarthy, Maggie Paul discusses how the populist co-opting of Ram Rajya aims to unite different groups and create a vision of a glorious future. However, it’s worth noting that this sometimes involves the reinterpretation of religious mythology as actual history, despite pushback from the scientific community.

Continuing the presentation elaborates on how cultural infrastructure plays a significant role in invoking cultural and religious unity and futurism and the antagonistic frontiers that emerged at certain moments in Indian history when discussing figures like Lord Ram was avoided, which in turn led to infrastructural decay tied to religious places and cities—a decay that Indian populists argue can only be rectified through a politics and political state infused with the character and lessons of Lord Ram. It also emphasized how the willpower and determination associated with Lord Ram can lead the country to new heights, promoting values based on unity, development, and faith.

Before ending, the cultural dimensions of Indian populism and cultural renaissance were expanded upon and shown to involve monumental infrastructural projects aimed at promoting the coexistence of past and present India. This includes the restoration of temples, the creation of mega corridors with modern amenities, and the incorporation of local deities, gurus, and indigenous warriors to foster a unified cultural resurgence. This cultural revival serves to create a sense of heritage and identity while simultaneously fostering a sense of hatred for past invasions and destruction of cultural sites by Muslim invaders, with the dual aim of creating an enduring Hindu identity that dismisses the existing diversity and pluralism within Hinduism.

Dr. Anuj Bhuwania: “Constitutional Roots of Judicial Populism in India”

According to Dr. Bhuwania, the Indian constitution was drafted with a disregard for entrenchment, which is unusual because a constitution typically entrenches provisions that cannot be changed by the electoral majority. Through the highlighting of various articles found in the Indian constitution, it’s evident that these articles are being weaponized by the current government, which points to the problem of centralization of power within the political majority. Therefore, the Indian constitution can be seen as part of the problem. The procedure in Indian constitutional making has also enabled Modi to do what he does now.

This presentation shifts the panel’s focus from the religious aspects and behaviors of populism in India towards the implications of populist endeavors on the judiciary, taking an interesting spin on normative discussions around the institutional erosion caused by populists, particularly in relation to the courts and legal autonomy. 

Seminally, Dr. Bhuwania suggests that in India, the reverse is true: Courts act as populist actors themselves. Central to this argument is the notion that constitutionalism has been less of a stumbling block on the path to Hinduism in the past decades than what populist scholars might have thought. Currently, global populist discourse often turns to countries like Poland or Hungary when analyzing what populism means for democratic backsliding, often noting that these regimes paired their populist discourses with constitutional changes, which then enabled populist leaders to chip away at the liberal foundations in those countries. What stands out from this ‘norm’ is that India, in comparison to other populist regimes, has experienced relatively minor changes to its constitution, a phenomenon that indicates that Prime Minister Modi has been able to advance his political agenda without introducing major alterations to India’s fundamental legal document. The study highlights the surprisingly high level of compatibility between the Hindu majoritarian agenda and the Indian constitution.

Dr. Bhuwania articulates the ability of the Indian constitution to be used as a populist tool, attributing it to the constitution’s inherent malleability, which allows India’s religious populism to make use of it with arguable ease. In some ways, this malleability also substantiates political claims made by Indian populist actors of wanting to uphold and seek to advance the Constitution, embracing the political legitimacy that comes with India’s constitutional pliability.

In displaying how the Indian constitution lends itself to the populist forces, Dr. Bhuwania refers the audience and panel to the ongoing matter related to the constitutional status of Kashmir, currently being heard before the Indian Supreme Court. This matter revolves around the changes brought about in August 2019 when the Government of India revoked the special autonomous status granted to Jammu and Kashmir by Article 370 of the Indian constitution, essentially facilitating their conversion into territories of India. This was done through the vote of a simple majority, a fact that is central to this part of the presentation. Dr. Bhuwania begins to unravel the dangers of the current state of the Indian constitution by reviewing how the constitution allows for unilateral changes to the very structure of states through a simple majority. Adding that it’s important to note that India has already become a Hindu majoritarian state, electorally speaking, meaning there is little standing in the way of allowing the Indian government currently to alter territorial lines without the need for constitutional changes.

Dr. Bhuwania also discusses India’s peculiar federalist nature, calling it a quasi-federalist state, considering the looseness of the federal characteristics. In addition, it is argued that India, through its federalist constitution, became a model for federalism for most multiethnic countries, with this idea peaking in the concept of the state-nation that became prevalent in 2012. The Indian Union’s ability to accommodate the demands of various ethnic communities displayed the flexibility and strength of the federal system by forging new states in the North-East of India. This underscores the importance of design choices when it comes to federalism.

The Indian constitution was drafted with a disregard for entrenchment, which is unusual because a constitution typically entrenches provisions that cannot be changed by the electoral majority. Through the highlighting of various articles found in the Indian constitution, it’s evident that these articles are being weaponized by the current government, which points to the problem of centralization of power within the political majority. The presentation also attempts to provide an understanding of why key provisions in the Constitution were not entrenched. One explanation is that the constitution, at least at the time of drafting, was a wartime constitution, likely referring to the height period of conflict in India, from independence movements to the Indo-Pakistani war.

Before closing, Dr. Bhuwania unpacked how being a single-party majority/dominant constitution breeds a threat to constitutional growth through change, noting the fact that in most single-party dominant systems, a single party dominant constitution sees no possible future of having any other party dominating the constitution, which means they have little cause to change the constitution. This also interestingly gives stability to the Indian constitution as well, as the usefulness means there is little reason to further align themselves with the global populist right and generate unwanted attention by attempting to introduce massive changes to the constitution. The constitution can be seen as part of the problem. The procedure in Indian constitutional making has enabled Modi to do what he does now.

Dr. Shweta Singh and Dr. Monika Barthwal-Datta: “India’s Refugee Policy Towards Rohingya Refugees: An Intersectional Approach to Populism”

The presentation outlines and analyzes shifts that have taken place since 2014 regarding refugee policy under the Modi Government in India. Firstly, there has been an institutional legislative shift involving amendments to domestic legislation used to govern refugees and foreigners in India. Secondly, it addresses the absence of an actual legal framework dedicated to governing refugees and foreigners in India, with states resorting to three different acts to monitor and control the movement of refugees, encompassing aspects like housing, detention, and deportation.

In this joint presentation, Dr. Shweta Singh and Dr. Monika Barthwal-Datta showcase their interest in the interconnection between populism and foreign policy, specifically concerning the issue of refugees. They are working on a draft paper on the subject that is still in the process of completion. Central to their contribution is their focus on the relationship between populism and domestic refugee policies, which have international implications. Their research centers on how populism affects the foreign policy preferences and outcomes of governments in power.

To begin the final presentation, Dr. Singh outlines the novelty of their work, emphasizing its contribution to the international dimension of populism studies related to refugee policy. Central to the argument presented by Dr. Singh is that in the context of populist studies, the issue of refugee politics/policies stands out as a marginalized discourse globally, referring to how we look at refugee policy and foreign policy and how we see this policy about populism internationally. The presentation recounted how few studies investigate the link between population and foreign policy shedding light to review three gaps found in current foreign policy-aligned populist literature while asking how these gaps relate to the issue of refugees seen as foreign policy, and how is it connected with the case of India? She mentions that while populism literature has covered the international ramifications of populism, the issue of refugee politics and policies remains a marginalized discourse in global populist studies. The presentation identifies three gaps in current foreign policy-aligned populist literature and explores how these gaps relate to the issue of refugees in India.

The first gap is related to the conceptualization of populism, particularly its application in non-Western contexts like India. It’s important to note that many studies that view populism as a thin-centered ideology face limitations when applied outside Western contexts. Additionally, a continuation of this initial gap pertains to the process of signification by referring to Laclau’s approach, which defines populism as a political logic centered on empty signifiers, most studies acknowledge the antagonistic relationship between the people and the elite. However, where they often fall short is in defining the category of “the people.”

Expanding upon Laclau’s work, Dr. Singh delves into the concept of populism as a political logic based on discursive identity assemblages. These assemblages are characterized by various constellations, which in this context refer to societal groupings. The presentation briefly touches on what makes Modi’s populism effective—namely, the existence of overlap in the discursive language used to bridge gaps across race, ethnicity, religious divisions, as well as class and caste. This overlap provides valuable insights into the complex formation and categorization of “the people,” taking into account the diversity of sub-groups within this broad and multifaceted term.

The second gap concerns the narrow conceptualization of foreign policy, which has primarily focused on bilateralism and multilateralism, largely neglecting issues related to refugees. Dr. Singh and Dr. Dr. Monika Barthwal-Datta aim to review how refugee policy affects both conflict outcomes and cooperative relations among states in South Asia, such as India-Bangladesh, India-Pakistan, and India-Afghanistan. For these researchers, refugee policy is a foreign policy. 

The third gap discussed pertains to the lack of contextualization of populism and foreign policy. Dr. Singh explained that when examining the conceptualization of foreign policy, it’s essential to consider how contextual specificities related to various global variants of populism are taken into account. This approach offers the potential for an intersectional analysis. The focus on refugees arises from the argument that migration is a core function of a state’s foreign policies and is implicated in international agreements that recognize the rights of refugees through international treaties. In the context of South Asia, where many states, including Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, have led South Asian countries to adopt different positions on global refugee protection instruments, our understanding of refugees becomes influenced by the extent of populist narratives present in government.

In her concluding remarks, Dr. Barthwal-Datta discusses how the paper outlines and analyzes shifts that have taken place since 2014 regarding refugee policy under the BJP Modi Government. Firstly, there has been an institutional legislative shift involving amendments to domestic legislation used to govern refugees and foreigners in India. Secondly, it addresses the absence of an actual legal framework dedicated to governing refugees and foreigners in India, with states resorting to three different acts to monitor and control the movement of refugees, encompassing aspects like housing, detention, and deportation. These legislative changes have been accompanied by shifts in discourse, with BJP leaders and other senior officials framing refugees, particularly Rohingya refugees, as threats. In conclusion, Dr. Barthwal-Datta emphasizes the significance of considering the various identity constellations at play, such as race, ethnicity, and religion, which influence the creation and approach to refugees. This aspect is crucial when attempting to adopt an intersectional approach to international populism and refugee-related issues.


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


Anies Baswedan seen talking to students of an Islamic boarding school in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 30, 2023. Photo: Marcelino Stefanus.

Indonesian Islamist populism and Anies Baswedan

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Bachtiar, Hasnan. (2023). “Indonesian Islamist populism and Anies Baswedan.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 9, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0025



Abstract

Anies Baswedan emerges as a pivotal figure in Indonesian Islamist populism, notably for his role in defeating Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (Ahok) in the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election and his involvement in the criminalization of Ahok’s blasphemy case. His influence has fueled the rise of Islamist populism in the post-reform democratization era. Anies’s recent announcement as the National Democratic Party’s (Nasdem) presidential candidate for the 2024 election positions him against Ganjar Pranowo and Prabowo Subianto. This article scrutinizes Anies’s prospects in the 2024 presidential election, exploring whether he continues to employ identity politics and Islamist ideologies to attack political opponents and what his overall stance is regarding Islamist populism. It raises pertinent questions about the impact of these developments on Indonesian democracy, pondering whether the looming challenges will culminate in storms or pave the way for clearer skies in the nation’s democratic landscape.

By Hasnan Bachtiar*

Scholarly discourse on the future of democracy in Indonesia frequently paints a grim picture, characterized by regression (Hadiz, 2017; Warburton & Aspinall, 2019; Aspinall & Mietzner, 2019). Thomas P. Power (2018) even confidently highlights the emergence of authoritarian tendencies within the Joko Widodo (Jokowi) administration in response to a conservative shift and the concurrent rise of Islamist populism that threatens his authority. Jokowi’s argument revolves around the notion that economic development necessitates social and political stability, akin to the approach adopted during the Suharto regime. In the name of stability, that era witnessed the emergence of the ‘Reformasi 1998’ political style and people power, ultimately leading to the downfall of authoritarianism. However, the contemporary global context presents additional challenges, as countries worldwide grapple with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A year later, as economic recovery seemed promising, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict further exacerbated the global economic crisis. Consequently, the government shifted its focus from economic development to crisis management. To safeguard the success of Jokowi’s development initiatives, diverse strategies have been employed to secure investment programs, including the contentious Omnibus Act, designed to offer added protection to investors (Mahy, 2022). These laws, which are imperfect and often detrimental to the populace, have faced critical opposition, particularly from people involved in populist movements. This unfolding situation occurs within a complex political landscape marked by the influence of oligarchic actors and persistent corruption. Consequently, the government has engaged in various negotiations, formed coalitions, and employed repression tactics tailored to the specific context, resulting in limited access to freedom for individuals and interest groups.

This intricate process also implicates various political actors and Islamist populism. Notably, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have swallowed bitter pills and faced government bans due to their perceived threat to state ideology and security. Both Islamist populist movements espouse anti-diversity and anti-minority religious ideologies. The FPI is further entangled in acts of intolerance, religious-based persecution, intimidation, often accompanied by violence and vigilantism. Its existence poses a challenge to democracy, albeit its dissolution raises concerns of repressive measures.

Anies Baswedan emerges as a key figure in Indonesian Islamist populism, propelled by his role in defeating Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (a.k.a. Ahok) in the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election and his involvement in Ahok’s blasphemy case (Mietzner and Muhtadi, 2018). He is a catalyst for the rise of Islamist populism, which has found particular expression in the post-reform democratization. Anies has been announced as the National Democratic Party’s (Nasdem) presidential candidate, poised to challenge Ganjar Pranowo and Prabowo Subianto in the 2024 presidential election (Shafira, 2022). This article delves into Anies’s prospects in the 2024 election, examining whether he still employs identity politics exploiting emotions and Islamist ideology to attack his political opponents, while also assessing his overall attitude towards Islamist populism. Ultimately, this article contemplates whether the looming clouds over Indonesian democracy will lead to rainstorms or yield clear skies.

Who is Anies Baswedan?

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan spoke about data on people infected with the Corona virus in City Hall on March 23, 2020 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Wulandari Wulandari.

Anies Baswedan, born on May 7, 1969, in Kuningan, West Java, is the son of Rasyid Baswedan (father) and Aliyah Rasyid (mother). Notably, he is the grandson of Abdurrahman Baswedan, a national hero, Masyumi figure, populist, and leader of a political movement that harnessed the power of Arab descendants to fight for Indonesian independence (Siallagan, 2022).

He commenced his undergraduate studies in economics at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, in 1995. Two years later, he completed his master’s degree in International Economic and Security Policy at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, US. In 2005, he obtained his PhD in the field of politics from Northern Illinois University, with a thesis entitled “Regional Autonomy and Patterns of Democracy in Indonesia.”

Armed with this impressive academic background, Anies embarked on a teaching career at Paramadina University. This institution, guided by Indonesia’s esteemed figure of pluralism and tolerance, Nurcholish Madjid, instilled the values of virtue in higher education. Anies excelled in his role, ultimately becoming the most influential figure on campus. He served as the university’s rector and initiated the ‘Indonesia Mengajar’ program, renowned for inviting top volunteers from across the nation and deploying them to the farthest and most remote areas to serve as teachers in foundational schools.

Subsequently, Anies was appointed as the Minister of Education and Culture in Jokowi’s cabinet, although his tenure was interrupted by a reshuffle. Nevertheless, his career continued to flourish. He contested the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election, securing victory over the incumbent Governor Ahok and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (AHY), the son of former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). Leveraging his experience as the head of the capital, Anies emerged as a presidential candidate for the 2024 election under the Nasdem party ticket.

Anies and the 2024 Presidential Election 

Poster in Yogyakarta, Indonesia supporting Anies Baswedan to become president on September 1, 2023. Photo: Mbah Purwo.

Anies could be portrayed as one of the intellectual actors who mobilized Islamist populism in the lead-up to the 2016 gubernatorial election and the 2019 presidential elections. He is often characterized as a figure involved in the intricate realm of politics, where space is provided for intolerant and discriminatory political actions. By employing the identity politics of Islamism, he advocated for the general will of the Muslim majority to stand against an unjust ruling regime. His political maneuvers were shaped by invoking the religious primordialism of the Islamist masses in their struggle against corrupt elites.

However, people tend to overlook his role as a political spokesperson for Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election (Akuntono 2014). He stood by Jokowi’s side and eventually assumed a prominent position in the cabinet, serving as Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture. In this context, Anies was aligned with the same political group that presents itself as the defender of diversity. Nevertheless, his political shift in 2016 led to a significant victory as the Governor of Jakarta, alongside his deputy, Sandiaga Uno. In 2019, he threw his support behind Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno, who were challenging Jokowi’s presidency. Despite their eventual defeat, both eventually found a place in Jokowi’s cabinet, as Minister of Defense and Minister of Tourism respectively.

As we approach the 2024 election, Anies’s electability has surged. According to Drone Emprit data, which analyzes the frequency of certain political figures’ names on Twitter using the keyword “Anies Baswedan,” he is the most discussed figure among the public (Rahman, 2022). However, it’s essential to assess what proportion of voters and Twitter users actively engage in campaign-related discussions, debates, and political discourse. Similarly, in polls conducted by various institutions, Anies consistently secures a place in the top three positions, competing with Prabowo and Ganjar Pranowo. With strong electability, Anies has been nominated as a presidential candidate by the Nasdem party.

Naturally, announcing his candidacy early, before other candidates are officially revealed, carries risks, particularly concerning the formation of coalitions with other parties. Currently, Nasdem is in a coalition with the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Awakening Party (PKB). However, their former partner, the Democratic Party (Demokrat), withdrew from the coalition, feeling betrayed when Anies was instead paired with PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskandar as the vice-presidential candidate. The Democratic Party advocates for Anies to be paired with AHY.

Without the Democratic Party in the Anies-Muhaimin coalition, it appears to have surpassed the parliamentary threshold of 25 percent based on previous votes in the House of Representatives (DPR). Nasdem holds 10.26 percent of the seats in the DPR, PKS holds 8.7 percent, and PKB holds 10.09 percent (Huda, 2023). Their combined coalition share reaches 29.05 percent. In contrast, their rival Ganjar, under the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) umbrella, commands 22.26 percent support and is backed by the United Development Party (PPP), which holds 3.30 percent (totaling 25.56 percent). Meanwhile, Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) has 13.57 percent support, with backing from Golongan Karya (Golkar) at 14.78 percent, the National Mandate Party (PAN) at 7.65 percent, and the Democratic Party at 9.39 percent (totaling 45.39 percent).

Currently, Anies’s political coalition holds a higher percentage of DPR seats than Ganjar’s coalition but still falls significantly short of Prabowo’s alliance. If Anies is able to win the vote in the first phase of the election, the political map may change. Anies faces a challenging path forward, as does his political coalition. The Anies-Muhaimin coalition is expected to secure substantial votes from followers of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization. PKB, a political party founded by prominent NU figure Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), plays a pivotal role in this regard. Interestingly, during the NU’s centenary celebrations in Sidoarjo on February 7, 2023, numerous state officials associated with the PDIP were prominently featured. Concurrently, Muhaimin Iskandar, with a ‘Nahdliyyin’ (NU follower) background, appeared to be absent. However, there was a so-called PKB-ization of the NU, a party with a large mass that he wrested from its founder Gus Dur.

With all these complexities, Anies still has a chance to win the battle against Ganjar and Prabowo, provided he secures the votes in Jakarta, West Java, and a substantial number of votes in East Java. To secure the major voting pockets, he needs to convince the parties that have endorsed him. On September 27, he met with the FPI’s Grand Imam, Rizieq Shihab, in an attempt to secure the support of the Islamist populist group. Concurrently, the leader of the NU, KH Yahya Cholil Staquf, declared that he would never support a political coalition that included religious groups threatening the nation’s unity.

Anies is making efforts to convince his Islamist populist followers that he won’t betray them, emphasizing pluralism, kindness to minorities, and opening doors to Chinese conglomerates and oligarchs—a formidable and almost impossible task. This is what was discussed during Anies’s interview with ABC News (2023). He asserted that his work in Jakarta demonstrates his leadership for all, characterized by non-discrimination, non-intolerance, and service to people regardless of their backgrounds.

It will be a gamble for him, unless he adopts a pragmatic approach to secure his political position first, recognizing that in the political arena in a political battle, betrayal can be both normal and tolerable. His experience with Jokowi has enabled him to counteract Islamist populism and mitigate the trend toward religious conservatism.

Anies’ Political Maneuver and Islamist Populism

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

The greatest fear of a nation whose motto is unity in diversity is disintegration. The possibility of disintegration can result from fragmentation. Social fragmentation within society encourages the sharpening of differences, ultimately leading to various social and political frictions. Frictions that escape government control can escalate into conflicts. This becomes a serious problem when not adequately and properly managed. The problem is that Indonesia has faced significant polarization in electoral politics, particularly exacerbated when religious symbols, especially Islam as the majority religion, become embroiled.

In 2016, a year seen as preparatory for the 2019 realpolitik contest, religious symbols indisputably became a catalyst for intense social and political polarization. During the Jakarta gubernatorial election, incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, known as Ahok, faced off against Anies Baswedan. This contest sadly involved the influence of identity politics (Islamism) and a substantial mobilization of supporters for Anies. Ahok faced accusations of blasphemy and was ultimately sentenced to prison. His supposed blasphemy occurred when he criticized political figures who invoked Surat al-Maidah in their election campaigns, aiming to expose the use of religion for political gain. In response, Anies, as part of a broader strategy, mobilized Islamist populism to protest against his political opponent, orchestrating a large-scale mass action known as Islamist populism.

In this context, populism assumes the form of resistance to Ahok, who is perceived as a political symbol aligning with corrupt ruling elites. These elites are viewed as corrupt because populists argue they often disregard or violate the general will of the people. Ahok, a political figure belonging to both religious and racial minorities (Christian and Chinese), is seen as a powerful minority who has not favored the Muslim majority. He stands accused of undermining justice and the welfare of the people from the perspective of Anies’ group.

Therefore, the populism unfolding is primarily characterized by criticism, resistance, the struggle of the majority (Muslims and the oppressed) against an elite minority (Ahok) seen as oppressors, foreign lackeys, servitors of the West and China, and a perceived threat to the development of the ummah’s civilization (Yilmaz, Morieson & Bachtiar, 2022). In this narrative, realpolitik actors like Anies are portrayed as champions of Muslim civilization, with Anies even being likened to Abu Bakar al-Shiddiq (a friend of the Prophet Muhammad), a figure described as patient, wise, and possessing good leadership qualities (Kumparan, 2017). This form of populism typically exploits rhetoric centered on civilization, which starkly contrasts ‘us’ with ‘them,’ emphasizing cultural and religious differences (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023).

Following Ahok’s defeat, Anies assumed the influential position of ‘Jakarta 1,’ symbolizing the capital’s most prominent figure. However, Rizieq Shihab, the founder of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), faced a different fate. He became a target of the government, accused of being an intellectual actor of Islamist populism posing a threat to national security. In 2016, he managed to mobilize masses from cross-class alliances to enter the political arena against the corrupt elites and others. He then fled to Saudi Arabia. Upon his return to Indonesia, he was arrested for organizing a mass rally during the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in the shooting of his six supporters by the police and the banning of the FPI.

Upon his release on parole, Rizieq Shihab reconnected with Anies. In a baptism-like ceremony, in the presence of Rizieq Shihab’s recitation congregation, Anies was hailed as a leader who had fulfilled his promise as a governor favoring Muslims (Kumparan, 2022). He was contrasted with typical political figures who often renege on their commitments once in power. Rizieq asserted that Anies was different and deemed him a potential candidate for the presidency in Indonesia’s 2024 election, indicating that Anies had become the preferred choice of Islamist populists. However, as of October 2023, the Islamist populist movement has shown no signs of emerging as a large-scale political maneuver involving mass mobilizations.

Anies was respectfully dismissed by President Joko Widodo on October 16, 2022, based on Presidential Decree No. 100/P of 2022. Since then, Anies has begun mobilizing political forces to secure victory in the forthcoming 2024 presidential election. On October 3, 2022, Anies was officially declared a presidential candidate by Nasdem’s leader, Surya Paloh. When asked why Anies Baswedan was chosen, Surya Paloh responded, “Why not? He is the best,” during a press conference at the Nasdem Tower in Jakarta (Savitri, 2022). Additionally, before party officials, Surya Paloh emphasized, “There is no time for us to think and give intolerant thoughts, tolerance is for those who give tolerance. True nationalism, true national thoughts are associated with attitudes that are full of tolerance and that is what Nasdem is fighting for,” (Savitri, 2022).

Subsequently, other parties, including PKS, PKB, and Demokrat, initially voiced their support for Anies, although Demokrat later withdrew. It’s worth noting that Nasdem had previously aligned itself with the victorious PDIP. This means that Nasdem’s stance opposes the Islamist populist movement. In contrast, PKS favors populism and had disassociated from the coalition with Gerindra, the party of another presidential candidate, Prabowo. This shift toward emphasizing tolerance and nationalism, as opposed to Islamist populism’s rhetoric, is indicative of Anies’ evolving political maneuvering style. Nasdem’s expectation is for Anies to win the battle by winning the sympathy of voters outside the Islamist populist group. This does not mean that voters from Islamist populist circles or those who sympathize with identity politics of Islam should be ignored. The goal is for these voters to rally behind Anies rather than Prabowo.

Previously, both Anies and Prabowo had employed Islamist populism as a tool to challenge the ruling government, whether it was Ahok or Jokowi. However, shortly after Prabowo’s defeat in the 2019 presidential election, he accepted Jokowi’s offer to join his cabinet, assuming the pivotal role of Minister of Defense. While this move may have appeared rational, it somewhat eroded the trust of Islamist populist groups in Prabowo. Consequently, these groups shifted their support from Prabowo to Anies. With the additional votes from a diverse electorate less concerned with identity politics, Anies has a chance to outperform Ganjar. The Islamic populist movement may continue to play a role in Anies’ political strategy, albeit with a reduced emphasis on Islamist identity politics, if not its complete elimination.

The change in Anies’ political maneuvering style is evident in an interview with Solo Pos. When asked, “Can Pak Anies ensure that he will be a leader for all Indonesian people when he becomes president?” Anies responded, “I have worked in Jakarta for five years. Can you show me Anies’ policies that are intolerant, discriminatory, not inclusive, that reflect partisan views? So don’t ask about the future, because anyone can boast in front of you. Ask about the track record. …I can show you that in Jakarta we have the best democracy index, the best tolerance… even in cohesiveness (also the best). This is based on a study by Nanyang Technological University. In Jakarta there is no polarization, there is cohesiveness. Where is the polarization? On social media. There is no polarization in the community,” (Baswedan 2023).

Clearly, Anies’ real identity still remains uncertain. He may indeed be a pluralist, but it is also possible that he is ideologically aligned with staunch defenders of Islamism. As an academic and the rector of Paramadina University, a campus influenced by the progressive Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid, Anies understands the importance of fostering Indonesian pluralism. However, in politics, ideologies can change and adapt to serve one’s political interests. What the public can comprehend in this context is an adherence to an ideology that advances personal political ambitions. Anies’ moderation of Islamism, his role as a defender of diversity, and his efforts toward a more pro-equality, anti-discrimination, and tolerant form of Islamism may be driven by pragmatic political considerations rather than a fundamental shift to democratic post-Islamism, as proposed by Asef Bayat (2013). What is certain is that his ultimate goal appears to be securing practical political victories.

Conclusion

The public views Anies Baswedan not only as a potential presidential candidate but also as a prominent figure who played a crucial role in the Islamist populist movement during his bid for the governor’s seat in the Jakarta gubernatorial election. He was a central figure in the process that led to Ahok’s imprisonment, a symbol of political elites from religious and ethnic minority backgrounds. However, as the 2024 election draws near, Anies’ style of political maneuvering has undergone a transformation. Acting upon the advice of Nasdem, the party that endorsed him as a presidential candidate, Anies now presents himself as a figure committed to upholding the values of equality, tolerance, and nationalism.

In his recent article titled “Meluruskan Jalan, Menghadirkan Keadilan (Straightening the Path, Presenting Justice)” in Kompas (February 17, 2023), Anies expressed, “The essence of democracy is to provide equal space for all. Presenting legal certainty and security by guaranteeing the rights of citizens, especially safe spaces for women, children, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples and marginalized groups. … healthy democracy and legal equality that will drive equitable economic progress. Economic progress without the prospect of social justice will feel false.”

This change allows us to consider the post-Islamist thesis with an optimistic tone. Through Anies, the political style of Islamist populism appears to be evolving into a more democratic form. Anies presents himself as a democratic Muslim. Nevertheless, the post-Islamism thesis has faced significant criticism, particularly because Islamist figures, parties, and social and political movements have rarely advocated for substantive democratization. In this context, post-Islamism often seems more like a political expression that embraces democracy while engaging in Machiavellian political pragmatism that may disregard religious morality. In essence, it can employ various means, including instrumentalizing religion, to attain and maintain the status quo.

However, political reality unfolds dynamically. It is this dynamism that offers an opportunity for the development of a vibrant democracy, as argued by Dan Slater (2023). His thesis is, of course, far more optimistic than Thomas P. Power’s (2018) diagnosis and similar views, emphasizing that Islamist populism and state authoritarianism can lead to a regression of democracy in the country. We shall see—will Anies emerge victorious? And if he does and has to lead all ethnic groups, will he continue to present himself as a Pancasilaist or will he adopt a more populist approach, catering primarily to the majority?

The extent of these political shifts remains uncertain. Will it be as Kartini (2014) suggested, “Habis gelap terbitlah terang (Out of darkness comes light),” or will the darkness, as Power (2018) and his associates fear, usher in a continued regression of democracy? Nevertheless, Anies (2023) expressed in his article that “State administrators need to be humble, avoiding monopolization of the truth, and instead, providing comfortable spaces for citizens to come together and participate.” If he assumes the role of a state administrator, will he monopolize the truth as he did when aligning with Rizieq Shihab, the FPI, and other Islamist populist figures against Ahok? The future trajectory of Indonesian politics will provide answers to these questions.


 

(*) Hasnan Bachtiar is a lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, University of Muhammadiyah Malang (UMM), Indonesia. Additionally, he is pursuing his Ph.D. in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University, Burwood, Australia.


 

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