Illustration: Shutterstock / Skorzewiak.

Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs)

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Please cite as:

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Akbarzadeh, Shahram & Bashirov, Galib. (2023). “Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs).” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). September 10, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0024a

 

Abstract

In this paper, we introduce the concept of “Strategic Digital Information Operations” (SDIOs), discuss the tactics and practices of the SDIOs, explain the main political goals of state and non-state actors in engaging with SDIOs at home and abroad, and suggest avenues for new research. We argue that the concept of the SDIOs presents a useful framework to discuss all forms of digital manipulation at both domestic and international levels organized by either state or non-state actors. While the literature has examined the military-political impacts of the SDIOs, we still don’t know much about societal issues that the SDIOs influence such as emotive political mobilization, intergroup relations, social cohesion, trust, and emotional resonance among target audiences. 

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Shahram Akbarzadeh* and Galib Bashirov**

Introduction

In recent years, the convergence of the digital realm and political sphere has created a dynamic environment where a wide range of state and non-state actors try to leverage digital platforms to pursue their political goals. This trend includes diverse cases, spanning from the continual targeting of autonomous media establishments in nations like Egypt and Turkey to the deliberate manipulation of electoral processes in democratic countries such as the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), while also extending its reach to include extremist groups such as ISIS who use digital platforms for their propaganda endeavours (see Ingram, 2015; Theohary, 2011). These “Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs),” as we call them here, refer to efforts by state and non-state actors to manipulate public opinion as well as individual and collective emotions by using digital technologies to change how people relate and respond to events in the world. As such, SDIOs involve deliberate alteration of the information environment by social and political actors to serve their interests.

We use this term – SDIOs – because it combines several facets of digital manipulation at both national and international levels. “Information Operations” is a term social media companies like Facebook have adopted to describe organized communicative activities that attempt to circulate problematically inaccurate or deceptive information on their platforms. These activities are strategic because rather than being purely communicative, they are driven by the political objectives of state and non-state actors (see Starbird et al., 2019; Hatch, 2019). We add the concept ‘digital’ to emphasize the distinction between the old ways of information operations and the new ones that operate almost specifically in the digital realm and use much more sophisticated tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and algorithmic models to disseminate information. Of course, some aspects of digital information operations have been carried over from the non-digital environments that have been mastered over the past century. Nonetheless, the affordances of the digital environment have provided not only radically new and sophisticated tools but also an opportunity for much wider dissemination and reach for strategic information operations. 

The SDIOs involve various tactics used by political groups who try to shape the online environment in their favour. Their goal is to control the flow of information, where politics and social actions meet. We note that these tactics can cross borders between countries: these operations don’t just target people within a country; they also aim to reach people in other nations. In this article, we briefly discuss the tactics and practices of the SDIOs, explain the main political goals of state and non-state actors in engaging with SDIOs at home and abroad, and present venues for new research.  

Tactics and Practices of SDIOs

As researchers started to examine the many ways in which state actors have tried to manipulate domestic and foreign public opinion in their favour, disinformation has become the main focus of their analysis with an emphasis on spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. Various forms of disinformation have been used in order to create doubt and confusion among the consumers of malign content. Spreading conspiracy theories makes people doubt the truth, which weakens trust in social and political institutions. Moreover, sharing fake news or other fabricated stories weaves a web of lies that shapes what people think. While the latter has certainly been effective in manipulating public opinion, observers have noted recently a shift in emphasis from disinformation to more sophisticated and less discernable means of manipulation. 

The aforementioned shift has taken place due to the growing awareness of the fake news and lies in digital environments on the part of both users and digital platforms. As platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have increased their clampdown on such content and as users have become more capable in spotting them, state and non-state actors have moved to more sophisticated means of digital manipulation where content is carefully designed to change how people see things. For example, instead of outright lies or fake news, strategic actors have started to spread half-truths that create a specific version of events by conveying only part of the truth (Iwuoha, 2021). Moreover, these actors have made massive investments on smart public relations messages and clever advertisements to prop up their messages. An important tactical goal has become not simply to deceive the audience but more so to ‘flood’ the information space with not just false, but also distracting, irrelevant, and even worthless pieces of information with the help of trolls and bots, hired social media consultants and influencers, as well as genuine followers and believers (Mir et al., 2022). 

For example, observers noted how a prominent strategy of the Chinese domestic propaganda is to ‘drown out’ dissident voices through incessant propagation of the government messaging, a campaign called ‘positive energy’ (Chen et al., 2021). The Orwellian campaign involved not only the use of a massive influencer and troll army to promote government messaging but also the forceful testimony of the Uyghur people. In one instance for example, seven people of Uighur descent were brought to a press conference to share their stories of “positive energy” and made-up hype against China to disprove allegations of mistreatment by the Chinese government (Mason, 2022). As such, SDIOs encompass all these tactics and practices rather than merely focusing on means of disinformation that have so far dominated the research into digital manipulation. It also shows the ability of SDIOs to adapt and change over time based on the operational context. While disinformation through direct messages remains a consistent approach, actors increasingly move towards using subtler tactics to create distractions and cause confusion among their audience, which weakens the basis of well-informed political discussions. For example, the Egyptian government has flooded the information space with the news of the ‘electricity surplus’ and the future of Egypt as ‘an electricity carrier for Europe’ amidst an ongoing economic crisis in the country that has left millions of Egyptians without access to reliable electricity (Dawoud, 2023). 

At the heart of discussions about strategic digital information operations lies the creation of narratives carefully designed to connect with their intended audiences. These narratives aren’t random; instead, they’re tailored to match how the recipients think. The interaction between these narratives and their audiences involves psychology, culture, and emotions. How the audience reacts depends not only on how convincing the content is, but also on their existing beliefs, biases, and cultural contexts (Bakir and McStay, 2018). While some people might approach these narratives with doubt, others could be drawn into self-reinforcing cycles, giving in to confirmation bias and manipulation. This back-and-forth underlines the close link between creators and consumers of strategic narratives in the digital era.

Among the many narrative tropes that SDIOs use, we want to note the increasing role ascribed to historical and religious notions to influence public opinion and political discussions. SDIOs mix past grievances and religious beliefs to make their stories more impactful and believable. Bringing up old injustices can stir up strong patriotic feelings or strengthen shared memories. At the same time, using religious stories can tap into deeply held beliefs, making people think there is divine approval or a connection to common values. This blend of history and religion makes their stories powerful and emotional, making them more effective. In Turkey, for example, the state authorities have disseminated victimhood narratives that largely rested on conspiracy theories and half-truths in order to legitimize their rule and quash dissent (Yilmaz and Shipoli, 2022). Research has noted that Islamic religious ideas and the reconstructed history of the Ottoman collapse have been strategically inserted into such narratives to elevate their influence among the Turkish masses (Yilmaz and Albayrak, 2021; Yilmaz and Demir, 2023).

Finally, it’s important to stress that these information operations aren’t always coordinated by automated bots or pre-planned campaigns. Sometimes, they happen naturally through implicit coordination among various participants, which makes the situation even more complex. Starbird et al.’s (2020) research demonstrates that online information operations involve active participation by human actors. The messages these operations spread are disseminated by utilizing online communities and various sources of information. As such SDIOs can be ‘cooperative’ endeavours in that they do not always rely on mere “bots” and “trolls,” but also encompass the contribution of online crowds (both knowingly and unknowingly) in the propagation of false information and political propaganda. For example, during the Russian information operations in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential elections, agents of the Internet Research Agency (RU-IRA) based in St. Petersburg worked together through the operation of more than 3.000 accounts that presented themselves as people and organizations belonging to the American political spectrum (such as the Black Lives Matter and the Patriotic Journalist Network). While undertaking such ‘orchestrated’ activity, the RU-IRA also managed to integrate organic communities by impersonating activists within those online communities, building networks within those communities, and even directly contacting ‘real’ activists. In some cases, RU-IRA agents directly collaborated with activists to organize physical protests in the US (see Walker, 2017).      

Goals of SDIOs

Illustration: Shutterstock.

 

SDIOs span both national and international contexts, targeting domestic and foreign audiences through an array of tactics to achieve the political goals of their organizers. Looking at the domestic realm, SDIOs have influenced the functioning of the government and social and political institutions. In many instances, authoritarian governments use digital platforms to influence individuals’ opinions through stories, emotions, and viewpoints that are carefully designed to resonate with specific groups of the population. Their toolkit includes a range of elements, such as conspiracy theories that legitimize a government policy or deflect attention from a government failure, or that create doubt on the arguments of the opposition parties and social actors. Governments may also present narratives where they portray themselves as victims, manipulate facts, and spread distorted statements. For example, in Egypt, the government’s digital narratives have portrayed independent media outlets as agents of Western conspiracies designed to infiltrate and destroy the Egyptian social and political fabric. Similarly, the civilian presidential candidates against President Sisi have been labelled Western puppets created to destabilize Egypt (Michaelson, 2018). In China, the CCP government has used media management platforms such as iiMedia to control public opinion, including providing early warnings for ‘negative’ public opinions and helping guide the promotion of ‘positive energy’ online (Laskai, 2019). 

It must also be noted that these narratives, particularly those that employ victimhood tropes, are strategically employed to trigger various emotions among the masses. In Turkey, for example, the Erdogan regime has consistently abused a victimhood claim that rested mainly on the already-existing emotions of the masses such as envy, disgust, humiliation, hatred, anxiety, and anger (Yilmaz, 2021). These emotions are triggered and aroused by government elites as well as government-controlled media in order to legitimize the Erdogan regime’s authoritarian rule and deflect attention from its failures (see Yilmaz, 2021; Tokdogan, 2019). 

While both sets of actors pursue political goals through digital manipulation, there are certain differences between state and non-state actors when it comes to utilizing the SDIOs. On the one hand, the state actors tend to be well-resourced and possess good infrastructure of human and technological capital. They tend to have access to a range of digital tools to be used in domestic and foreign contexts, whether to silence the critics and legitimize their rule at home or destabilize their adversaries and extend their geopolitical influence abroad. They tend to carefully plan campaigns to infiltrate foreign information systems, reshape stories, and generate social conflicts, all of which take long-term thinking and strategic foresight. On the other hand, non-state actors, including hacktivist groups and extremist organizations, may lack resources but they tend to be more adaptable to new environments. They use digital platforms to promote their causes, attract supporters, and amplify their voices. These players manoeuvre through the digital world with agility, reflecting the changing nature of the medium.

Research has noted the implications of information operations for democratization as authoritarian and populist governments have leveraged digital media’s features to advance their political objectives. The calculated manipulation of digital platforms by these actors serves as a conduit for amplifying narratives that bolster their policies, worldviews, and perspectives. Authoritarian governments utilize digital censorship and surveillance to suppress dissenting voices and exert control over digital narratives. Populist leaders, in turn, harness the immediacy and interactive nature of social media to establish direct, emotional connections with their constituents, bypassing traditional gatekeepers (Perloff, 2021). By capitalizing on the resonance of online platforms, these actors perpetuate narratives that exploit societal grievances, positioning themselves as advocates for the marginalized while vilifying opposing viewpoints (Postill, 2018).

A Specific, International SDIO: Sharp Power

SDIOs undergo a transformation into tools of geopolitical orchestration and influence projection. In this context, digital strategies manifest as instruments designed to strike a chord with international audiences. They sow seeds of social and political division in target countries that perpetrators try to destabilize. These efforts generate support for both domestic and foreign policy objectives of the perpetrators, often exceeding the boundaries of the conventional notion of soft power and giving rise to what is termed “sharp power” (Walker, 2018). This variant of influence extends beyond the benign strategies commonly associated with “soft power,” taking on a more coercive character where “it seeks to pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environment” (Walker, 2018: 12; Fisher, 2020; Elshaw and Alimardani, 2021). 

The emergence of “sharp power” has denoted a significant shift in the dynamics of external influence, as digital platforms are being used to coercively reshape geopolitical interactions between major powers such as the US, China, and Russia, as well as middle powers such as Australia, Turkey, and Egypt. For example, over the last decade, Australia, its public authorities, media entities, and civil society organizations have been systematically targeted by Chinese sharp power operations that included lavish donations to campaigns of useful political candidates, harassment of journalists, and spying on Chinese students in university campuses (The Economist, 2017). 

Social Impacts of SDIOs

The study of strategic information operations is not new as scholars noted the US and Soviet attempts at influencing each other’s information environment since the start of the Cold War (see Martin, 1982). Nonetheless, we note that the strategic information operations have been used mostly in two fields of study: military influence and social media analysis, with the political science literature mostly discussing the elements of the concept without fully operationalizing it. 

On the one hand, scholars working within military studies have rightly pointed out the strategic reasoning of information operations for international politics (see Rattray, 2001; Kania and Costello, 2018). For example, Kania and Costello (2018: 105) showed how the creation of the Strategic Support Force within the Chinese army structure was aimed at “dominance in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic domain,” thus generating synergy among these three domains, and building capacity for strategic information operations. States have also been manipulating the information environment to influence the internal affairs of their adversaries for decades. This has led to discussion of information operations as a potential threat to national security and stability (Hatch, 2019). 

On the other hand, those working on social media analysis have tried to explain how these information operations have been carried out in social media environments. Researchers have identified technical means through which sophisticated tools of manipulation have been put in place in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that led to the spread of dis/misinformation (see Starbird et al., 2019). Among other things, this literature has also helped us to understand why certain pieces of information resonate with users and generate a response (such as those that are more surreal, exaggerated, impressive, emotional, persuasive, clickbait, and shocking images tend to generate better results).

The political science literature has noted various ways in which specific forms of mis/disinformation have affected political discussions in mostly democratic countries without utilizing the SDIOs as an umbrella term. In democratic contexts, the rapid dissemination of misinformation and divisive narratives poses a substantial threat, corroding informed decision-making and hindering the robust exchange of ideas. Trust, a cornerstone of functional democracies, becomes fragile as manipulation proliferates, eroding institutional credibility and undermining the fundamental tenets of democratic governance. For example, in the US, the Russian information operations around the 2016 Presidential Elections targeted key political institutions such as the political parties, the Congress, and the Constitutional Court through hacking, manipulative messaging, and social media campaigns, leading to erosion of trust among American citizens on these institutions (see Benkler et al., 2018).

While the literature covered such issues, we note that social aspects have not received as much discussion so far. We have seen that the SDIOs create significant social impact in terms of social cohesion, polarization, intergroup relations, and radicalization just to name a few. However, the literature’s discussion of these concepts has been limited to technical or political aspects. For example, when the literature examines polarization, they either try to demonstrate how these operations polarize the discourse on the internet, or they focus on political polarization (e.g. between the left and the right, or the majority and the minorities) (e.g., Howard et al., 2018; Neyazi, 2020) while overlooking the wider societal polarization and corruption. Moreover, we need further investigations into how social media platforms amplify the impact of information operations on group dynamics, specifically, whether the content on social media exacerbates polarization and reinforces group identities. This is premised on the fact that the impact of SDIOs extends beyond individual psychology, permeating the collective fabric of societies and democratic institutions. By exploiting digital platforms, these operations can foster polarization, exacerbate existing divisions, and undermine the foundations of social cohesion.

Impacts of SDIOs on Individual and Collective Emotions

Illustration: Shutterstock / Vchal.

 

In the context of social issues, an important underexplored aspect is the emotional dimension. The SDIOs aim to provoke a wide range of emotions among their targets, including negative, positive, and ambivalent feelings. They aim to generate these emotional responses to achieve various political goals such as gaining support for their political causes, undermining opposing groups, eroding trust in society, marginalizing minority groups, and making people question the credibility of independent media outlets. These operations are usually planned to trigger specific emotional reactions that align with the intentions of the perpetrators. For example, Ghanem et al. (2020) found that the propagation of fake news in social media aims to manipulate the feelings of readers “by using extreme positive and negative emotions, triggering a sense of ‘calmness’ to confuse the readers and enforce a feeling of confidence.” However, we need further research to understand how such emotional responses generate social impacts such as intergroup resentment, xenophobic fear, and anger, potentially leading to societal dissent and upheaval. Conversely, positive emotions like empathy and camaraderie can foster social unity and rally support around social causes. Therefore, the strategic coordination of emotional experiences stands as an important dimension of SDIOs that needs further research.

The final underexplored area we want to emphasize pertains to the content of strategic narratives, including the social and political reasons behind their resonance within target societies. For example, in addition to the content of conspiracy narratives, new research needs to identify why and how certain narratives work in specific social contexts and not in others. Research needs to investigate how historical events, cultural norms, and collective memories shape the reception and resonance of strategic narratives. For instance, narratives that invoke historical grievances might gain traction in societies with unresolved historical conflicts. Further research can explore how strategic narratives tap into individuals’ sense of identity and belonging. Narratives that align with or reinforce a group’s identity can gain more resonance, as they validate existing beliefs and foster a sense of unity. 

Conclusion

In this paper, we introduced the concept of the Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs), discussed the tactics and practices of the SDIOs, explained the main political goals of state and non-state actors in engaging with SDIOs at home and abroad, and presented avenues for new research. We highlighted that the concept of the SDIOs present a useful framework to discuss all forms of digital manipulation at both domestic and international levels organized by either state or non-state actors. We noted that while the literature has examined military-political impacts of the SDIOs, we still don’t know much about societal issues that the SDIOs influence such as intergroup relations, social cohesion, trust, and emotional resonance among target audiences. 

Understanding how audiences perceive and react forms the foundation for generating effective countermeasures against the harmful impacts of SDIOs. Initiatives aimed at promoting digital literacy, critical thinking, and the ability to discern media authenticity will empower individuals to navigate the potentially deceptive terrain of manipulated information. Additionally, creating transparency and accountability in algorithms that digital platforms use and rely on, along with dedicated fact-checking initiatives, will enhance the tools necessary to distinguish between truth and deceit. Furthermore, collaborative efforts involving governments, technology companies, and civil society entities can serve as a strong defense against the corrosive effects of manipulation, safeguarding the integrity of democratic discourse and the informed participation of citizens.

Finally, we note that the examination of SDIOs demands a comprehensive range of methodologies that arise from various disciplines including, quantitative and qualitative analysis that aims at revealing patterns of engagement and shifts in emotions, tracing the pathways of information dissemination, and mapping the networks of influence. Ethnographic investigations that delve into the personal experiences of participants can provide a human-centred perspective, showing the psychological, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of manipulation. Effective collaboration among technology experts, academic scholars, and policymakers can foster a deeper understanding of digital operations work and generate influence. 


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.


(*) Dr. Shahram Akbarzadeh is Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum (MESF) and Deputy Director (International) of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University (Australia). He held a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship (2013-2016) on the Role of Islam in Iran’s Foreign Policy-making and recently completed a Qatar Foundation project on Sectarianism in the Middle East. Professor Akbarzadeh has an extensive publication record and has contributed to the public debate on the political processes in the Middle East, regional rivalry and Islamic militancy. In 2022 he joined Middle East Council on Global Affairs as a Non-resident Senior Fellow. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?hl=en&user=8p1PrpUAAAAJ&view_op=list_works Twitter: @S_Akbarzadeh  Email: shahram.akbarzadeh@deakin.edu.au

(**) Dr Galib Bashirov is an associate research fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. His research examines state-society relations in the Muslim world and US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. His previous works have been published in Review of International Political Economy, Democratization, and Third World Quarterly. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=qOt3Zm4AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao  Email: galib.bashirov@deakin.edu.au


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Populism’s Building Complex; or: Is There Such A Thing As Populist Architecture?

Abstract

This article argues that there is a distinctive populist approach to the built environment.  Populists claim that they alone represent what they often call “the real people.”  Hence, there is a need for them to specify who “the real people” are.  If they have sufficient power (and time) while in government, they will reshape the built environment – architecture, no less than urban and rural environments more broadly — in line with their understanding of “the real people.”  In particular, they will create spaces (some obviously political, some not so obvious, such as football stadiums) that can serve as sites for the collective affirmation of a particular understanding of peoplehood.  The article also asks how post-populist governments should relate to a built environment reshaped by populists.


By Jan-Werner Müller*

In the run-up to the momentous parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey in spring 2023, one part of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s record received special scrutiny: the building boom over which his AK Party had presided for the past two decades.  The earthquake on February 6 – in which more than 50,000 people perished – made many Turks painfully aware of the dark side of that boom: not just shoddy buildings, but also wide-spread corruption and the creation of construction industry oligarchs ready to cement the power of the ruler (Bechev 2022).

 However, Erdoğan is not the only right-wing populist leader who has relied crucially on the building business: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi are others.  One little-noticed side-effect is that such long-ruling figures have systematically transformed the built environment – especially city centers, but also small towns and villages – in line with their understanding of who the “real people” are.[1]  If such populists lose power – a big if! – new governments will face many urgent tasks.  But on their agenda must also be the question whether they should dismantle the symbolic landscapes populist leaders have constructed.

This article investigates what I shall describe as an elective affinity between populism and a particular approach to the built environment (I take the latter to include architecture and urban as well as rural planning). My approach differs from previous attempts to think about architecture in conjunction with populism; such accounts rely on an understanding of populism as “giving people what they want,” or as egalitarian housing policies, or as somehow relating to popular culture (Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s attempts to “learn from Las Vegas,” and postmodern architecture more broadly, have often been described as “populist”) (Venturi, Brown and Izenour 1972; Lefaivre and Tzonis, 2006; Frausto and Szacka, 2021).[2]

Instead, I shall first offer an approach to populism that identifies the phenomenon with a particular claim by leaders and parties uniquely to represent what populists often call “the real people” or also “the silent majority” (Müller 2017). Clearly, every populist has to say something about “the people” – the people needs to be demarcated somehow (which also shows why those who call a particular policy “populist” – for instance economists criticizing an economic approach for supposedly being inflationary or protectionist – are really making a value judgment; they are not describing anything specifically related to a claim about the people).[3] In a second step, I shall argue that populists with sufficient power (and time) in government will try to reshape the built environment in line with their conception of “the real people.” Put differently, they will seek to establish cultural hegemony (an effort not unique to them, of course) in a distinctly anti-pluralist manner.[4] Needless to say, building is not the only way of doing so; there are also films, soap operas, museums, textbooks in schools, etc.[5]

I shall suggest further, drawing on a number of contemporary examples, that spaces created by populists often serve as sites for affirming a particular understanding of peoplehood.  While populism, as I conceptualize it, has an inbuilt authoritarian tendency qua being anti-pluralist, the approach to generate consent through culture by populists in the twenty-first century is notably “softer” than what we know from the experience of twentieth-century dictatorships. Hence this article also confirms recent theories in comparative politics about the peculiarities of today’s authoritarianism. These theories highlight systematic differences between twentieth-century “fear dictatorships” and twenty-first century “spin dictatorships,” with the latter being demonstrably less violent and primarily focused on manipulating public opinion (Guriev and Treisman, 2022): particular artists and architects (and styles and symbols) might be shunned; monuments and buildings might be dismantled — but nobody is sent to prisons or camps. Finally, I want to suggest some ways in which governments that come to power after populist regimes have transformed the built environment might address the question how to relate to that particular populist legacy. Here I shall claim that much depends on the specifics of transitions back to democracy (which is not to suggest that all democracies before populists came to power were perfect!). But it can be said that, in general, post-populist governments should resist the temptation of iconoclasm, which is to say: simply erasing edifices built by populists. There are some important exceptions to this suggestion, though.

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Digital Authoritarianism and Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan

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Ahmed, Zahid Shahab; Yilmaz, Ihsan; Akbarzadeh, Shahram & Bashirov, Galib. (2023). “Digital Authoritarianism and Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 20, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0042

 

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed the emergence of digital authoritarianism as a governing strategy. This involves using digital technologies and surveillance mechanisms to control and monitor online activities. The government has implemented legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to regulate cyberspace. However, the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the broad surveillance powers granted to agencies such as the FIA and ISI raise apprehensions about potential abuses of power.

 

By Zahid Shahab Ahmed*,  Ihsan Yilmaz, Shahram Akbarzadeh** and Galib Bashirov***

Executive Summary

With the Pakistani government implementing rules and regulations to control the online sphere, particularly through the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), digital authoritarianism has emerged as a significant governance tool in the country. Concerns have been raised regarding potential abuses stemming from the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the extensive monitoring authority granted to intelligence services. However, despite the rise of digital authoritarianism, a countervailing force exists. Pakistan’s judiciary has displayed resistance, and the nation boasts a robust civil society that includes human rights organizations focusing on digital rights. These groups express concerns regarding data security, privacy regulations, and the internet access of marginalized communities. This study aims to examine the dynamics of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan and evaluate the role of civil society organizations in promoting and protecting digital rights.

Initially, communications in Pakistan were governed by colonial-era legislation, such as the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act of 1996 and the Telegraph Act of 1885. The Fair Trial Act of 2013 enabled the extensive collection of evidence through monitoring. These regulations, coupled with the absence of a comprehensive digital governance bill, have facilitated continuous online surveillance. Pakistan has witnessed remarkable growth in internet penetration, with approximately one-third of the population now having internet access.

In 2016, Pakistan introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to address internet governance. The act imposes severe penalties for various offences, including hacking, cyberstalking, and cyberterrorism. However, concerns have been raised regarding issues such as misuse, limitations on expressive rights, and privacy violations. PECA grants increased authority to institutions like the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for digital surveillance and prosecution. The PTA possesses extensive powers to block and remove content, often justifying these actions based on the grounds of promoting vulgarity or corrupting the youth. Social media companies are also required to comply with specific regulations.

Pakistan benefits from a strong network of civil society organizations that actively collaborate with international counterparts to raise awareness about digital rights. Within Pakistan, several prominent organizations are dedicated to advocating for digital rights, internet freedom, privacy, and digital literacy.

The Digital Rights Foundation is a notable non-profit organization that focuses on promoting digital rights and addressing issues such as online harassment, data security, freedom of speech, and women’s digital rights. They conduct research, provide legal support, and deliver training and awareness programs on digital security.

Bolo Bhi is another civil society organization committed to internet freedom, digital security, and open access to information. Alongside policy advocacy, research, and digital literacy initiatives, they raise public awareness about internet censorship, surveillance, and privacy concerns.

Media Matters for Democracy is a group that works on freedom of expression, digital rights, and media development in Pakistan. Through research, policy advocacy, and capacity-building initiatives, they strive to enhance online civic spaces, promote digital literacy, and safeguard digital rights.

The Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan, a research project, offers policy recommendations on issues such as data privacy, monitoring, and censorship. They track and analyse internet governance challenges in Pakistan.

Privacy International, a global organization, advocates for privacy rights and opposes intrusive monitoring practices, including in Pakistan.

These civil society organizations play crucial roles in promoting and safeguarding digital rights in Pakistan, both through local advocacy efforts and international collaborations. These organizations actively engage in research, lobbying, and capacity-building initiatives to interact with politicians, raise public awareness, and protect digital rights in Pakistan. They also address the issue of inadequate internet access, particularly in rural and underserved areas. Their initiatives serve as a reminder of the significance of inclusive policies, digital literacy programs, bridging the digital divide, and ensuring that technological advancements are guided by human rights principles.

By conducting research, these organizations generate valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities related to digital rights in Pakistan. They utilize this research to advocate for policies that protect individuals’ online freedoms and privacy. Through lobbying efforts, they aim to influence policymakers and lawmakers, urging them to enact laws and regulations that promote digital rights and address concerns regarding internet access, privacy, and surveillance. Capacity-building initiatives undertaken by these organizations involve educating individuals and communities about digital rights, empowering them to understand their rights and navigate the online world safely. These efforts are particularly vital in rural and underserved areas, where access to information and digital literacy may be limited. The organizations’ commitment to addressing the digital divide highlights the importance of ensuring equal and affordable internet access for all citizens, regardless of their geographical location or socioeconomic status. Furthermore, these organizations emphasize the need for human rights principles to underpin technological advancements. They advocate for a responsible and ethical approach to digital development, wherein individual privacy, freedom of expression, and other fundamental rights are respected and protected.

Policy Implications

– The ambiguous definitions of cybercrime within the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) give rise to concerns regarding potential abuses and violations of privacy. To address these issues and ensure the protection of individual rights, it is imperative for the government to undertake a thorough review and modification of the Act. This review should involve establishing precise definitions for cybercrimes and implementing stringent regulations governing the collection, storage, and utilization of personal data. Additionally, robust data protection laws need to be put in place to safeguard the privacy of individuals.

– Given the wide-ranging monitoring authority granted to intelligence services under PECA, there is a pressing need for stronger supervision and accountability mechanisms. To prevent the potential abuse of surveillance powers and protect individual rights, it is crucial to establish independent authorities tasked with overseeing and regulating the operations of intelligence services. Transparency and accountability should be prioritized through regular audits and reporting procedures, ensuring that the actions of these services align with legal and ethical standards. By implementing robust oversight measures, we can safeguard against potential abuses and maintain the balance between security concerns and individual privacy rights.

– The resilience displayed by the judiciary in Pakistan against digital authoritarianism is commendable. However, there is still room for improvement in terms of enhancing judicial independence and equipping courts with the necessary tools to effectively address matters related to digital rights. To enhance the judiciary’s understanding of the complexities involved, it is crucial to implement judicial training programs focused on technology and digital issues. These training initiatives can provide judges with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the intricacies of digital matters and make informed decisions. By bolstering judicial comprehension in this field, the judiciary’s ability to uphold and protect digital rights in Pakistan can be strengthened.

– The government should prioritize initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide and improving internet access, especially in rural and underserved areas. This requires making substantial investments in infrastructure development, expanding broadband availability, and reducing internet service costs. Additionally, implementing digital literacy programs is crucial to equip individuals with the necessary skills to navigate the digital realm securely and effectively. By addressing these issues, the government can empower marginalized communities, bridge the digital gap, and create equal opportunities for all citizens to participate in the digital age.

– Civil society groups in Pakistan are at the forefront of promoting digital rights. Recognizing their expertise and advocacy efforts, the government should actively engage with these organizations and seek their advice and insights in formulating rules and regulations. Collaborating with civil society groups allows for a comprehensive and inclusive approach to addressing the diverse issues and viewpoints related to digital rights. By fostering meaningful dialogue and incorporating the perspectives of various stakeholders, the government can develop more effective policies that uphold and protect digital rights in Pakistan.

– Extensive public awareness campaigns are essential to educate the public about their digital rights, emphasizing the importance of online privacy and security. These awareness efforts should be inclusive, targeting various social groups, with a particular focus on marginalized communities. The aim is to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to protect their personal information online, recognize potential risks, and take appropriate legal action if their rights are violated. By empowering people with this information, we can foster a safer and more informed digital environment, ensuring that individuals are aware of their rights and can actively safeguard their online privacy and security.

– Pakistan should actively engage in international forums and collaborate with other nations to establish best practices and standards in addressing digital rights issues, recognizing the global nature of these challenges. By participating in these forums, Pakistan can benefit from shared knowledge and experiences, leading to more effective approaches in protecting digital rights. Collaborating with organizations like Privacy International can be instrumental in leveraging their expertise and assistance to strengthen privacy rights and oppose intrusive surveillance practices. By working together on an international scale, Pakistan can contribute to the development of robust frameworks for digital rights protection and ensure that privacy and individual freedoms are upheld in the digital realm.


 

Introduction

Policemen stand guard to avoid any untoward incident at Kati Pahari road as security has been tightened in city due to violence on July 06, 2011 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Pakistan’s political landscape has been profoundly shaped by its historical trajectory, which has been marred by violence, religious divisions, and an intricate struggle for identity. The country has faced challenges in establishing a stable democracy, with periods of military dictatorship undermining democratic processes. Governance issues, such as limited freedom of the press, restricted right to protest, and interference from the military establishment, have cast a shadow on Pakistan’s democratic credentials. Furthermore, the rise of digital authoritarianism has added a new dimension to the country’s political landscape.

To govern the digital sphere, the government has implemented laws and regulations, with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) serving as foundational legislation. However, concerns arise from the ambiguous definitions of cybercrime in PECA, and the extensive surveillance powers granted to civil and military intelligence agencies, raising the potential for abuse of power. The state has invested in technological capabilities for online monitoring, including web monitoring systems and social media monitoring cells. This digital surveillance infrastructure, combined with the expanded role of state institutions, reinforces the government’s control over cyberspace and its citizens’ privacy.

While digital authoritarianism is on the rise, characterized by increased surveillance, internet shutdowns, and restrictions on dissent, there exists a counterbalancing force. Pakistan’s judiciary has demonstrated resistance to encroachments on digital rights, and a robust civil society, including human rights organizations focusing on digital rights, actively advocates for the protection of digital rights in the country. These organizations voice concerns regarding data protection and privacy laws, as well as advocating for equitable access to the internet, especially for marginalized populations in regions like ex-FATA and Balochistan.

This report aims to delve into the various dynamics of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan and examine the role of civil society organizations in promoting and safeguarding digital rights within the country.

Pakistan is a country that has seen violence and brutality since its formation in 1947. Following World War II, the British Raj withdrew from the Indian Subcontinent, creating independent states of India and Pakistan. Pakistan was created as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent, leading to millions of people migrating across the newly created borders between India and Pakistan. The Great Partition became the largest mass migration event of the twentieth century, but it was also marred by violent hate crimes based on faith, resulting in mass murder, mob lynching, looting, and rape of citizens on both sides of the borders (Talbot, 2009; Menon, 2012; Khan, 2017).

In addition to its traumatic inception, Pakistan has constantly struggled with its identity as a young nation-state. Despite being a ‘Muslim’ state, Pakistan at the time of its creation hosted a 23 percent population of non-Muslims, which has dwindled to 4 percent at present, and newly independent India did and still houses millions of Muslims (Mehfooz, 2021). Adding to this, the 1971 civil war led to the separation of East Pakistan from the union resulting in the creation of Bangladesh (Hossain, 2021, 2018). This breakdown of the idea of ‘a land for Muslims’ since its formation has been in jeopardy. Another interesting part is that while Pakistan was championed as a homeland for Muslims, legally it remains a highly colonial-inspired state in terms of its laws and constitution (Yilmaz, 2016). While it does use Sharia’s guiding principles to form laws, it remains democratic and not purely ‘Islamic’ in its legal and governance aspects (Yilmaz, 2016). This for many hard-line clerics and right-wing groups has added to the identity crises. The exclusive emphasis during its creation on the idea of a ‘land for Muslims’ and the later paradoxes has taken the shape of an ontological crisis for the country. Its foundation of a ‘Muslim land for Muslims’ over the year has been jolted. This existentialist crisis has led to various forms of political and social turmoil in the country for the last seven decades.  

While Pakistan remains a democracy, its track record is tarnished by several military authoritarian regimes. The country has spent decades under four different military dictatorships, one of which took place during 1969-1971, under General Yahya Khan, when Pakistan was facing a civil war in East Pakistan (Sheikh and Ahmed, 2020). The latest military rule was that of General Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2008. While the 2008 general elections have paved the wave for a successive period of democracy the country’s ranking on democratic measures and indexes has remained murky (see Table 1). Various issues such as the lack of freedom of the press, barring the right to protest, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and gag order on media are a few of the issues apart from poor governance. The military referred to as “the establishment” regularly interferes with democratic processes in the country (Shafqat, 2019). Due to its closeness to the military establishment, Imran Khan’s government during 2018-2022 was called a hybrid regime and similar is the case now under the government-led Pakistan Democratic Movement.  

Table 1 Overview of Democracy in Pakistan
The Freedom House (2023)  Overall score 37/100 Political Rights 15/40
Civil Liberties 22/60
Democracy Index (2022) Overall score 4.13/10 Electoral process and pluralism 5.67/10
Functioning of government 5/10
Political participation 2.78/10
Political culture 2.5/10
Civil liberties 4.71/10
Human Freedom Index (2022) Overall rank 146 out of 165 countries  Personal freedom 5.2/10
Human freedom 5.44/10
Economic freedom 6.03/10
Reporters Without Borders
World Press Freedom Index (2023)
Rank 150 out of 180 countriesScore is 39.95 Political indicator rank 139/180
Economic indicator 136/180
Legislative indicator 130/180
Social indicator 140/180
Security indicator 176/180

Data sources: (FH 2023; RWB 2023; FI 2022; Economist 2022)

In addition to these troubles, the country has been facing waves of home-grown terrorism and mushroom growth in far-right vigilantism from right-wing Islamist groups since the early 2000s. Despite successive military operations and some ‘peace building’ efforts the year 2023 marks the return of radical Islamists (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other armed groups) in various areas of the country which results in numerous violent incidents such as conflicts with security forces or targeting civilians by suicide bombing (Jadoon, 2021). Similarly, radical Islamic groups, in both urban and rural areas have spread a culture of vigilantism or ‘mob justice’ where vandalism, physical attacks on people and at times mob lynching have become common practice to show discontent over blasphemous comments by international leaders, local politicians and many times average citizens accused of blasphemy (Yilmaz and Shakil, 2022). In addition, targeting non-Muslims and sectarian minorities in the name of ‘protection of Islam’ these violent mobs has resulted in deaths, vandalism of worship places and loss of property of the victim’s (Yilmaz and Shakil, 2022).     

The overview of the country’s current political situation is quite grim. During this chaos surrounding poor governance, a tradition of authoritarianism, military interference, radicalization and disregard of human rights, the country has become a fertile ground for digital authoritarianism as well. Since the late 2000s and through the 2010s the state has replicated its oppressive tactics on the online realm as well. The last section of this report presents the history and current situation of digital authoritarianism.  

Digital Authoritarianism in Pakistan

Finger Print Biometric Scanning Identification System. Photo: Natanael Ginting.

The way modern humans interact with information has been fundamentally transformed by the Internet. Nowadays, anyone with a secure connection to the World Wide Web has access to a wealth of information that is freely and readily available. However, this easy access to information has led to an increasing demand for internet governance (Kurbalija, 2016), which refers to the creation and management of rules, policies, and practices in the digital realm. How internet governance is carried out varies from country to country. For example, in India, internet blackouts are commonly employed to suppress protests against the government, thereby violating citizens’ right to protest (Momen and Das, 2021). Yang and Muller’s research on China’s internet censorship demonstrates how authoritarian governments can shape public opinion and quell potential resistance through cyberspace governance. Even in Western democracies, internet governance has sparked significant debates, particularly concerning the state’s surveillance of citizens (Zajko, 2016). Despite concerns about overreaching internet governance, its implementation is justifiable as it helps combat hate speech online, restricts access to child pornography, and flags other potential criminal activities (Kurbalija, 2016). There are also various institutions involved in shaping the internet governance framework, including state institutions, telecommunication companies, international organizations, digital businesses such as social media giants, and civil society.

Pakistan is governed under the 1973 Constitution. Under this legal document, Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the right to privacy to its citizens (GOP, 2012).  The concept of “privacy of the home” in the article is extended and interpreted to digital communications. However, in the article, the freedom or right to privacy is subject to law under various circumstances, which means this freedom is not absolute. In addition, before the advent of the internet, the colonial law Telegraph Act from 1885 and the colonial-inspired Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, of 1996 governed the communication (PTA, 2023). Both Acts under clauses allowed for mass surveillance over the telephone and other forms of communication. Even before 2016, when the first law to govern digital space came into being, the Fair Trial Act, 2013 allows for the mass gathering of surveillance evidence of the accused which has enabled a culture of mass surveillance in the country. The country’s roots in colonial laws, which was itself authoritarian and its continued use of surveillance through successive laws ensured that even without a digital governance bill, their plenty of room for constantly monitoring online activities. 

It is also important to understand who uses the internet in Pakistan, so it is clear who are the ones most impacted by a host of new laws and programs designed for the internet governance in Pakistan. In 2005, the internet penetration rate was 6.3 percent but it almost tripled to 15.51 percent in 2017 and was  36.7 percent at the start of 2023 (Kemp, 2023). While this rate might be lower than the global South it is a significant number as over 87.35 million Pakistanis use the internet and, nearly 4.4 million people started using the internet just between 2022 and 2023 (Kemp, 2023). This exponential growth can be explained by not only the increase in the presence of the facility but also by the fact that during the last census, conducted in 2017, nearly 40 percent of Pakistani citizens are under the age of 14 years (UNDP, 2019). This census also indicates a youth dividend in the country saying that “64 percent of the nation is younger than 30 and 29 percent of Pakistanis are between 15 and 29” (UNDP, 2019). This youth bulge can be responsible for an increased appetite for intent consumption. Despite the rapid increase in internet unsafe, it is important to remember that two-thirds of the population does not have access to the internet (Kemp, 2023). Despite this gap, over the last decade, the government has focused its energy on extending its governance to the digital realm. 

It is also important to note that Islamist elements enshrined by political parties in power along with the “establishment” (military involved in the politics of the country) also reflect in digital governance. While it is common to use cyber tools to curb freedom of speech of civilian protests and political opposition, it has also become common practice to justify closing websites such as Wikipedia and platforms such as Facebook and YouTube out of respect for “Islamic values and sentiments” (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022; Yilmaz, 2023). For instance, former Prime Minster Imran Khan has openly advocated for banning content he deems “dangerous” for Muslim youth’s consumption. He said, “Character building is very crucial in the modern tech-savvy era. The proliferation of tech gadgets and 3G/4G internet technology has made all sorts of content available to everyone […] We need to protect our youth, especially kids, from being exposed to immoral and unethical content available online” (Jamal, 2021). Khan is not alone as various other political parties have a history of banning social media platforms because of accusation of publishing “blasphemous” content. This practice of banning websites or issuing them ultimatums to remove blasphemous content has been set in motion since the first ban of Wikipedia in 2010 (Zaccaro, 2023). At the same time, the establishment has been using its public relations agency, Inter-Services Public Relations Pakistan (ISPR), to let citizens know of the bangers of “foreign” content in online space. They term this a “fifth generation warfare” which is propagated by the alleged “Jewish lobby,” “India” and other “foreign powers” to hurt and misguide Pakistani citizens (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022). To curb this “fifth generation warfare” the ISPR has mixed jingoism with Islamist jihadist ideals to ensure that the public remains “safe” from these influences on online platforms. In such an eco-system, the state actively targets political opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders, through its vast web of cyber governance which makes the state activities digital authoritarian. 

Digital Governance 

In 2014, the government of Pakistan addressed internet governance by developing a legal framework. This resulted in the creation of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which aimed to combat the misuse of electronic media and technology. The Act was passed by the Pakistani parliament in August 2016 and became effective in November of the same year. Pakistan, like many other countries, experienced a significant increase in the use of electronic media and technology. While these developments brought numerous benefits, they also posed challenges such as cybercrime, extremist propaganda, and hate speech on the internet. The PECA was formulated to tackle these challenges and establish a legal structure for addressing cybercrime while safeguarding the rights of citizens in the digital realm.

The Act encompasses a wide range of offences, including hacking, identity theft, cyberstalking, and cyberterrorism. It imposes strict penalties for those found guilty of committing such crimes. It is important to note that at the time, Pakistan was dealing with severe terrorism issues, and the PECA was presented as a vital measure for counterterrorism efforts. This context played a significant role in its swift approval within approximately a year and a half of the draft bill being presented in the National Parliament. However, critics have expressed concerns about the potential for abuse, the impact on freedom of expression, and the privacy implications of the Act. Some argue that it could be used to suppress dissenting voices and restrict access to information (Aziz, 2022). Criticisms also focus on the Act’s vague definitions of offences, lack of oversight, and accountability in its implementation.

PECA includes several key components of internet governance. It grants increased authority to public institutions such as the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for digital surveillance, data collection, and prosecution. The PTA has broad powers under Section 37 of PECA to block and remove content based on ambiguous criteria, often justifying these actions by claiming certain platforms promote “vulgarity” or “corruption of youth.” Additionally, the Act requires social media companies operating in Pakistan to comply with the law and remove any unlawful content within 24 hours of being notified by authorities. Failure to do so can result in significant fines. The government has also mandated these companies to establish local offices in Pakistan and appoint designated representatives to collaborate with law enforcement agencies.

Pakistan has invested resources to strengthen its control over the use of digital technologies in the country. PECA established a comprehensive legal framework for identifying and addressing electronic crimes, including methods for investigation, prosecution, and adjudication. Some articles of the Act specifically focus on terrorism-related online material, including hate speech. While the implementation of PECA is viewed by the state as a crucial step in counterterrorism efforts, its controversial aspects and potential impact on freedom of expression have raised concerns. Nonetheless, the Act received unanimous approval in both the Senate and the National Assembly, as all political stakeholders recognized the significance of counterterrorism measures.

Since 2016, Pakistan has created a host of laws and amendments to existing laws to specifically govern cyberspace. The foundational law which governs cyberspace is called the Prevention Electronic Crimes Act (PECA). According to Section 21 (d) of this legislation, “Whoever intentionally and publicly exhibits or displays or transmits any information which cultivates, entices or induces a natural person to engage in a sexually explicit act, through an information system to harm a natural person or his reputation, or to take revenge, or to create hatred or to blackmail, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to five million rupees or with both” (GOP, 2016, 11). While on the surface the law seems a needed measure to curb cybercrime has cyberbullying, hacking and a tool to curb child pornography rings as well as a means to combat terrorism, it is quite ambiguous in its definition of a “cybercrime” which makes it rampart available for abuse in the hands of the oppressive state apparatus (Shad, 2022). 

In addition to being vague, the laws grant the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) unrested powers when it comes to surveillance on social media as well as grant the permission to retain data and seize digital tools (GOP, 2016). This law has paved the way for the state to heavily invest in technology to govern cyberspace. For instance, in 2018 the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) purchase a “web monitoring system” from Sandvine which uses DPI technology (Ali & Jahangir, 2019). Again, the hands of FIA and the military-operated Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have been used to carry out mass surveillance of anyone deemed a threat via well-established social media monitoring cells as a means to counter “threats” and “terrorists” (Pasha, 2017). 

In addition to legal measures, the state has redefined the role of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). The agency is a national database, but its role has been expanded. In a shocking revelation in a WikiLeaks document, biometric data of Pakistani citizens from NADRA was provided to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and National Security Agency (NSA) to investigate “terrorists” (Digital Rights Foundation, 2022). In 2016 and 2018, various ‘safe city projects’ were launched in Islamabad and Lahore, respectively. These projects were part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC) which ushered in a new wave of collaboration between the two countries. The safe city projects were built on a loan from the Export–Import Bank of China and featured a collaboration between Huawei, National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) and Arup which installed mass surveillance devices to track criminal activities but also record citizens’ movements via cameras, vehicle number plate tracking, tracing telecommunication communication, drone footage, facial recognition software, etc. (Ahmed, 2021). 

Again, while these efforts are showcased as means to curb crime, there has been little proof of this. For instance, in Islamabad, the crime rate rose by 33 percent in 2016, a year after the system was implemented and the country’s national crime rate rose by 11 percent by 2018 (Hillman and McCalpin, 2019). The surveillance system aids the state in mass monitoring citizen activities which often targets political and social opposition from both political and non-political resistance groups.

In addition to laws and technologies to aid cyber governance, the state has showcased a history of blocking internet access to maintain “law and order” since the early 2010s. The PTA has been the manager of this domain where it often restricts internet access at certain times and in specific regions. One of the most frequent justifications for this action is curbing terrorism. For instance, during religious gatherings (e.g., Ashura for the Shi’as) and political demonstrations, internet shutdowns have become a norm in the main law and order  (Kamran, 2017). These shutdowns are quite often targeted to remove the spread of information regarding political opposition. While in power, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) used the same mechanism to curb online coverage rallies by its political opposition the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PLM-N), now out of power, PTI gatherings in Lahore are victim to internet blackouts in the same manner (Raza, 2023).

Examples of Digital Authoritarianism 

Photo: Aleksandar Malivuk.

One of the most prominent examples of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan is showcased via its banning and blocking of content on the internet. As discussed, the most prominent reason for this gaging is the need to protect people from blasphemous or false information. YouTube was banned between 2012-2016 in the country when a video surfaced mocking Prophet Muhammad (Wilkers, 2016). Similarly, TikTok was also banned on two separate occasions, in 2020 and 2021, for “immorality and obscenity in the country” for a few days each time (Masood, 2020). PTA has also banned Twitter several times over the last ten years for various periods in years 2012 and 2021 and all times it was banned because of the spread of sacrilegious content (Verma, 2021; Reuters, 2012).  

In addition to gaging websites, internet blackouts are a routine procedure. Historically internet shutdowns were usually put in place to stop terrorist activities on days of religious significance when people gathered in mass such as the processions at Ashura, rallies of Eid Milad-un-Nabi, (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) or events where people gathered for mass payers such as Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha. However, these have now expanded to the government using these bans to target the opposition. For instance, in 2021 former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited to give a talk at an event called Asma Jahangir Conference. Due to a self-imposed exile, Sharif took part in the event via an online address which was blacked out via a targeted internet shutdown since the politician voiced his discontent with the establishment and the then-ruling PTI-led government (The News, 2021a). Conversely, in 2023, with PTI out of power, the former opposition formed an alliance government and in May 2023 Imran Khan was arrested for not appearing in several court cases. After this arrest mass protests by PTI supporters sprang across major cities in the provinces of Punjab and KP (Mao, 2023). This led to a blanket internet shutdown to curb protests for over four days (Mao, 2023). In addition, internet blockage is quite a routine matter in Western Pakistan in regions of Swat, FATA, adjoining areas, and parts of Baluchistan where military security forces regularly clash with terrorist groups ranging from separatist groups to jihadist factions (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022). 

Internet surveillance has also peaked in Pakistan and the Pakistan military has been the major stakeholder involved in this process. In 2021, a bill was passed ensuring anyone who abused the military could face jail time and hefty fines (Abbasi, 2021). This bill has been instrumental in expanding surveillance on “anti-state” activities and punishing the accused. In May 2023, PTI protesters led to the rioting of public property, which resulted in the Prime Minster promising that “all technology available” would be used to punish vandals or some Ministers have been calling them “terrorists” (Sharif, 2023). Similarly, after the unrest calmed down, various videos have surfaced showcasing security forces and agencies using surveillance data to target peaceful protestors as well (Haq, 2022). 

Furthermore, the use of technology for national security purposes has also been employed to suppress dissent, creating another dimension to the issue. The state’s overwhelming focus on national security, particularly in countering terrorism, has resulted in neglecting its responsibilities under domestic laws, as well as international agreements like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. Despite frequent incidents of data breaches and scandals involving the unauthorized release of audio and video recordings of influential political figures, judges, and journalists, there are no laws in place to safeguard against the collection of personal data and protect privacy. Civil society organizations in Pakistan have expressed concerns regarding the increasing surveillance of both the public and specific individuals such as journalists, politicians, and human rights activists (PI, 2015). They view these measures as infringements on the right to privacy. Intelligence agencies like the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), along with other authorities overseeing safe city projects, have enhanced their surveillance capabilities by establishing social media monitoring cells (Ahmed, 2021; Azeem, 2019; Yousafzai, 2023). While legal provisions permit digital surveillance for counterterrorism purposes such as blocking hate speech content, it appears that the state is utilizing its expanded surveillance capacity to suppress dissent (Aziz, 2022; Rehman, 2020).

Safe cities employ video cameras and other digital technologies to monitor and identify suspicious activities. Although safe cities encompass various ICT capabilities used in urban areas, the concept of ‘Smart Cities’ goes beyond that of ‘Safe Cities.’ The notion of Smart Cities involves providing internet connectivity and may progress to include electronic payment options for essential services and AI-controlled monitoring devices. Smart cities utilize technologies like high-speed communication networks, sensors, and mobile apps to enhance service delivery, improve mobility and connectivity, stimulate the digital economy, and overall enhance the well-being of citizens (Muggah, 2021; Goulding, 2019). To achieve this, vast amounts of data are leveraged to optimize various city functions, such as utilities, services, traffic management, and pollution control. The rapid expansion of smart city infrastructures globally has sparked controversy due to concerns over the widespread collection, retention, and manipulation of personal data by entities ranging from law enforcement agencies to private enterprises.

In Pakistan, successive administrations have collaborated closely with China to develop secure city infrastructure across urban areas. The Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA), headquartered in Lahore, is a well-known initiative in this regard. With over 6,000 cameras and sensors installed at more than 1,500 locations in Lahore, the Punjab Police, with assistance from the PSCA, can manage traffic, combat crime, and respond to emergencies (Malik, 2022). Notably, Huawei from China has been responsible for constructing all secure city systems in Pakistan. The first safe city system in Islamabad was completed in 2016 through collaboration between the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) of Pakistan and Huawei, with funding from China’s EX-IM Bank (Hong, 2022). Another safe city system was established in Lahore in 2018, with Huawei leading the construction and National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) and UK-based multinational firm Arup providing consultancy and technical support (Ahmed, 2021).

The safe city infrastructure gathers information across several categories, including personal data, vehicle and traffic data, criminal profiles, crime statistics, and parking information. Given the past instances of data breaches within the NADRA database, experts have raised concerns about data security risks. In 2019, several CCTV camera images from Lahore were posted online, featuring inappropriate sexual content (Azeem, 2019). Pakistan’s safe city surveillance systems incorporate facial recognition, artificial intelligence, vehicle number plate tracking, dedicated telecommunication networks, data centers, drones, mobile applications, and intelligent transportation systems.

The effectiveness of Huawei’s safe city infrastructure in reducing urban crime has been subject to debate. Huawei has claimed in a questionable presentation that its safe city solutions significantly reduce crime, increase case clearance rates, shorten emergency response times, and enhance citizen satisfaction. However, investigations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have indicated that these claims have been greatly exaggerated, if not entirely fabricated (Hillman and McCalpin, 2019). In Islamabad, the crime rate continues to grow and there was an increase of 141.2 percent recorded from 2021 to 2022 (Azeem, 2022). Participants in research studies have expressed skepticism, stating that they have not witnessed any positive outcomes or reduction in crime rates because of the safe city projects. A local journalist shared the following views: “For example, in Islamabad, we see that more than 2,200 cameras are installed in only one city. But if we talk about Lahore city there are more than 6,000 cameras installed. They enable the government to monitor the movement of people. They claim that they have installed them to control the law and security situation in cities and to control the crime rate in Pakistan, but we have not seen any positive outcome in that regard through a reduction in the crime rate”  (Baloch, 2022).

Despite the state’s justification that safe city projects primarily serve counterterrorism efforts, it is evident that surveillance technology is being selectively employed. While it is used to counter terrorism and publicly release videos of terrorists involved in major attacks, such as the one in Peshawar in 2023, it is also increasingly utilized to target individuals critical of the government, its officials, and state institutions like the army (Gul, 2022). Examples have emerged of facial recognition technology being used to track down and apprehend individuals who verbally attacked government figures (Nadeem, 2022). Numerous cases have been documented where people have been detained by authorities for posting critical comments on social media. In these instances, individuals are subjected to torture and coerced into making public apologies, with videos of their apologies subsequently released on social media platforms (Dawn, 2022a).

The level of surveillance implemented in Pakistan is linked to an authoritarian approach. Surveillance capabilities are being employed for political purposes rather than solely for the defense of the country or public good. Recorded videos obtained through surveillance serve as leverage for those working behind the scenes, allowing them to exert control by capturing and disseminating compromising material (Khan, 2023; Dawn, 2022b). The timing of the video releases is crucial. Detailed records are maintained on important politicians, indicating a potentially illegal and unconstitutional practice that is incompatible with a democratic society. The impact of these authoritarian measures is evident, as journalists increasingly practice self-censorship and exercise caution in their smartphone usage. Awareness of traceability and concerns over the hacking of email and social media accounts have led to heightened vigilance among social media activists, journalists, and political leaders. However, despite the challenges, Pakistanis continue to find ways to express their opinions, often resorting to satire as a means of circumventing restrictions. Notable media personalities, such as Anwar Maqsood, have managed to avoid trouble by indirectly criticizing state institutions.

The judiciary in Pakistan has been a significant source of resistance against the growing digital authoritarianism and digital control measures implemented by the state. This ongoing process involves various legal cases under the PECA, the authority of institutions like the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and concerns related to data protection and privacy. The PECA Amendment of 2022, which primarily aims to criminalize defamation and make it a non-bailable offence, has faced critical scrutiny from local courts. Human Rights Watch has pointed out that expanding PECA’s already extensive provisions on criminal defamation to online statements about government institutions violates Pakistan’s international obligations. Media organizations in Pakistan challenged the PECA Amendment in the Islamabad High Court, where Justice Athar Minallah declared the new legal provisions a violation of freedom of speech as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan (Naseer, 2022). The court also instructed the interior ministry to investigate the conduct of the FIA’s Cyber Crime Wing due to concerns of power abuse and infringement of individuals’ fundamental rights. Justice Minallah emphasized that no one should fear criticism, particularly in relation to defamation and concerns raised by public officeholders regarding social media attacks. As a result, the FIA closed nearly 7,000 cases, primarily related to defamation.

Civil Society Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan 

In many ways, there are still not enough laws in Pakistan to deal with digital rights, but the pressure is growing on policymakers to pay attention to the issues of privacy and data protection. This is mainly because Pakistan is home to a strong network of civil society organizations that also work closely with relevant international organizations to raise awareness on issues relevant issues, i.e., digital rights. There are several organizations in Pakistan that work for digital rights and strive to protect internet freedom, and privacy, and promote digital literacy. Let us look at some of the prominent organizations in this space in Pakistan. Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) is a non-profit organization that focuses on the advocacy of digital rights in Pakistan. They work on various issues, including online harassment, data protection, freedom of expression, and women’s digital rights. DRF conducts research, provides legal assistance, and offers digital security training and awareness programs. 

Bolo Bhi is a civil society organization that advocates for open access to information, digital security, and internet freedom in Pakistan. They engage in policy advocacy, conduct research, and provide digital literacy training. Bolo Bhi also works to raise awareness about online censorship, surveillance, and privacy issues. 

Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) is a non-profit organization that focuses on media development, digital rights, and freedom of expression in Pakistan. They work towards promoting online civic spaces, digital literacy, and defending digital rights through research, policy advocacy, and capacity-building programs. 

Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP) is a research-based initiative that aims to monitor and analyze internet governance issues in Pakistan. They conduct policy research, produce reports, and provide recommendations on topics such as data protection, surveillance, and censorship. iPOP also engages in advocacy efforts to promote a free and open internet. 

Although not based in Pakistan, Privacy International is a global organization that advocates for privacy rights and challenges surveillance practices worldwide. They work with local partners and provide support in the context of Pakistan to raise awareness, carry out research, and advocate for stronger privacy protections. These organizations actively engage with policymakers, raise public awareness, and work towards protecting digital rights in Pakistan through research, advocacy, and capacity-building activities.

Internet Access

Internet connection in Pakistan. llustration Contributor: AlexLMX

With the proliferation of the internet worldwide, several civil society organizations have dedicated their efforts to shed light on the significant issue of inadequate internet access within Pakistan. These organizations aim to amplify the voice of society, urging the government to invest in improving internet access. In this vein, Bytes for All, Pakistan (B4A), is a well-known digital rights organization, that seeks to secure digital rights and freedom of expression for civil liberties. In the end, they organize seminars, workshop training and produce various publications. For example, B4A has published annual reports on internet access in Pakistan (Haque, 2023). The 2022 report shows that there has been some progress in terms of internet access in Pakistan, but the country is still behind many Asian countries. One key finding of the report reveals that despite increased internet penetration, around 15 percent of the population remains without any access, while others face challenges such as slow speeds and inconsistent service, hindering meaningful internet access (Haque, 2023: 5). Pakistan ranks 118th in mobile broadband and 150th in fixed broadband, as per the B4A report (Haque, 2023: 9). The organization also raises concerns about the government’s attempts to restrict the internet and control cyberspace, including filing cases against journalists, activists, and political opponents for expressing unfavorable views on social media and proposing stricter defamation laws to counter dissent. To enhance internet access in Pakistan, B4A provides several important recommendations. These include recognizing fixed broadband as critical infrastructure and developing a national broadband strategy with a fiber plan. Additionally, improving the investment climate and financing options within the digital ecosystem and streamlining government administration are identified as essential actions for expediting implementation.

Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) is another Pakistani organization focused on media literacy, digital democracy, progressive media, and internet regulation. They also work on integrating digital media and journalism technologies and creating sustainable initiatives in the media-tech sector. They provide several online free courses in different subjects. For example, their course “understanding citizen journalism” includes 54 lessons and “Digital Disinformation and Journalistic Responsibilities” encompasses 82 lessons (Arsalan, 2023; Khan, Mindeel and Shaukat, 2023). Also, this organization publish research investigations and policy papers. In one of their comprehensive reports, titled “Connecting the disconnected: mapping in digital access in Pakistan,” MMfD highlights that approximately 52.79 percent of Pakistan’s population, equivalent to 116 million people, has access to some form of internet (Kamra et al., 2022: 7). However, the report suggests that despite high tele density indicating cellular service connectivity for nearly 88 percent of the population, there remains a significant gap in internet access, particularly in mobile and broadband services across most parts of the country (Kamra et al., 2022: 16). Accordingly, the number of broadband subscribers stands at 116 million, 3G/4G mobile internet subscriptions at 113 million, and basic telephon subscribers at 2 million, representing only 1.14 percent of the total population (Kamra et al., 2022: 17). This reveals that over 47 percent of the population remains disconnected from the internet (Kamra et al., 2022: 25). 

The report stresses that various factors contribute to this gap, with disparities evident between urban and rural areas. The available data does not offer a breakdown based on rural/urban or gender demographics, which are significant barriers to internet connectivity. They also argue that the COVID-19 lockdown further exacerbated these disparities, with individuals in peripheral and rural areas facing challenges due to limited infrastructure, while low-income communities struggled to afford smartphones and internet connections. The organization advocates for ensuring that human and social justice values drive technical development and use in Pakistan by providing some key recommendations. They emphasize the need for policies and regulations related to internet access to follow a rights-respecting model. Also, it is underlined that a core focus should be bridging the digital divide across class, gender, age, and geography as well as increasing digital literacy. In addition, they urge the government to make the Internet economy inclusive, address the need for online social norms, and empower individuals to shape their futures. Finally, the report emphasizes that building robust, secure, and resilient networks is crucial (Kamra et al., 2022).

Moreover, the efforts of civil society organizations to advocate for internet access are evident in various initiatives. One significant area of concern raised by these organizations is the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, issued in 2020. In terms of the obstacles of this law to internet access, a report published by DRF argued that these rules violate fundamental and constitutional rights, particularly Articles 14 and 19. The analysis emphasizes that these regulations impede the free movement of data, creating artificial barriers to information sharing and hindering global communication. Additionally, they exacerbate the lack of accessibility and affordability of internet connectivity for individuals and businesses. This issue is particularly detrimental as reducing connectivity costs is vital for expanding economic opportunities, promoting the digital economy, and generating wealth in Pakistan (DRF, 2020b).

Bolo Bhi, another digital rights organization, has also expressed concerns about the Citizen Protection laws, highlighting their attempt to gain jurisdiction over social networking platforms and access data. Their objective extends beyond content restriction to encompass accessing communication content and filtering technology. Bolo Bhi points out aspirations to establish local offices and data servers for unrestricted data access, which has been a recurring theme in previous attempts (Bolo Bhi, 2020).

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the country’s leading independent human rights body, advocates for internet access and freedom of expression as fundamental human rights in their reports. In a collaborative study titled ‘Freedom of Peaceful Assembly in Pakistan: A Legislative Review,’ released in partnership with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in March 2022, the HRCP called for a reassessment of the existing legislative framework, which still reflects policing strategies from the colonial era. Regarding internet access, the report proposes granting unrestricted media and digital access during assemblies, promoting freedom of speech and movement, rather than imposing content-based restrictions or blocking routes (HRCP, 2020).

It should also be noted that addressing the significant digital divide in Pakistani society is one of the key challenges in internet access. While limited access to technology is commonly associated with the digital divide, factors such as poverty, illiteracy, lack of computer literacy, and language barriers contribute to this issue in Pakistan. In response, the Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP) takes concrete actions beyond workshops and reports. According to their website, they provide computers, communication equipment, software, and training to tackle the digital divide. The organization reports that most low-income households in the country find themselves on the disadvantaged side of the digital and knowledge divide. Consequently, their ability to participate effectively in the knowledge society remains significantly underdeveloped and underutilized. This situation puts these households at risk of further marginalization in a knowledge-driven society, where access to and utilization of information technology are just a fraction of the broader challenges they face (IPOP, 2023).

By and large, civil society organizations play a crucial role in advocating for improved internet access and reducing the digital divide in Pakistan. These organizations act as catalysts for change by advocating for policies and initiatives that promote equitable access to technology and bridge the gap between different segments of society. As discussed above, civil society organizations raise awareness about the importance of internet access as a fundamental right and a driver of socio-economic development. They highlight the disparities in access and the barriers faced by marginalized communities, such as low-income households, women, and rural populations. By bringing these issues to the forefront, civil society organizations can create a sense of urgency among policymakers and stakeholders to address the digital divide and make internet access more inclusive. 

Moreover, civil society organizations actively engage in research, advocacy, and capacity-building activities to promote digital literacy and skills development. They organize workshops, training programs, and awareness campaigns to empower individuals with the necessary knowledge and tools to navigate the digital landscape. By enhancing digital literacy, these organizations enable individuals to fully participate in the digital age, access online opportunities, and leverage technology for personal and professional growth. 

Eventually, civil society organizations play a critical role in monitoring and influencing policy development and implementation. They provide expert analysis, recommendations, and feedback on laws, regulations, and initiatives related to internet access and digital rights. Through their engagement with government agencies, regulatory bodies, and other stakeholders, these organizations attempt to ensure that policies are inclusive, rights-based, and responsive to the needs of diverse communities.

Privacy

Privacy is an essential aspect of individuals’ rights, encompassing their ability to maintain control over personal information, safeguard it from unauthorized access, and prevent unwanted intrusions. In Pakistan, the right to privacy is constitutionally protected under Article 14, which upholds individuals’ dignity and personal autonomy. However, despite this recognition, several challenges hinder people in Pakistan from effectively protecting their privacy, particularly in cyberspace.

One key challenge is the limited digital literacy among most of the population. In response, civil society organizations play a crucial role in educating the public through campaigns, seminars, research publications, policy reports, workshops, and awareness programs. For example, DRF has published a report, titled “Young People and Privacy in Online Space”, which aims to raise concern about the privacy of youth in cyberspace (DRF, 2021b). The report acknowledges that despite the ongoing increase in the number of young people users on the internet, and particularly social media, they face insufficient protection and have limited awareness of their privacy rights. The organization suggests that young generations recognize the gendered nature of online harm, particularly impacting women. Therefore, the report emphasizes that it is crucial to foster collaboration to enhance legal frameworks and establish effective mechanisms to safeguard young people’s rights. DRF has also published privacy-related reports that provide up-to-date information regarding digital privacy. They include ‘How to keep your social media secure and anonymous,’ ‘Understand cyber-harassment,’ ‘What to do when there is a privacy breach?’, ‘Protect against viruses and malware’ and ‘Two-factor authentication’ (DRF, 2020a). 

Another privacy concern in Pakistan stems from the government surveillance system, which has advanced in recent years. In this vein, civil society organizations and activists in Pakistan have been advocating for stronger digital privacy protections. They have called for greater transparency in government surveillance activities, improvements in data protection practices, and the need for comprehensive privacy legislation aligned with international standards. In 2019, Bolo Bhi raised concerns about the Web Monitoring System (WMS) deployed by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). The WMS aims to monitor and control internet traffic for commercial and security purposes. However, the organization underlined that the lack of safeguards and judicial oversight raises concerns about the potential misuse of surveillance capabilities (BoloBhi, 2019). Bolo Bhi urged the government to take concrete steps to demonstrate the veracity and reliability of its claims that the WMS will not restrict internet freedom. Moreover, the director of this civil society organization suggested that transparency regarding the technology provider, Sandvine Inc, and its security audit is crucial. Public accountability and corporate responsibility should be upheld to align with international principles of human rights, freedom of expression, and privacy (BoloBhi 2019). 

Digital Rights Monitor, a project under MMfD, has attempted to contribute to improving digital privacy in Pakistan. They have produced a series of videos, titled ‘Privacy-in-Law: Legal Framework of Digital Privacy Laws in Pakistan’ (Kamran, 2019). These videos provide information about the enacted laws that protect citizens’ privacy and assess their implementation in Pakistan. The videos cover important legislation such as the ‘NADRA Ordinance, 2000,’ ‘The Investigation for Fair Trial Act, 2013,’ ‘The Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act, 1996,’ and the ‘Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA).’ They seek to uncover the details of the laws that are aimed at framing data security regulations, regulating law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ power to investigate criminal cases, and countering increasing crime originating from cyberspace.

Bytes for All (B4A) has also been active in highlighting the importance of privacy in the virtual world. In 2020, the organization published a report titled, ‘The Scope of Privacy Commission in Pakistan,’ which strongly advocated for the establishment of an independent and autonomous Privacy Commission free from political or executive influence (Raza and Baloch, 2020). This commission is deemed essential for protecting citizens’ digital data and providing redressal for privacy-related violations. B4A has also conducted personal training sessions on digital privacy and raised public awareness by addressing topics such as the ‘Dangers of Digital Surveillance’ (Raza and Baloch, 2020). To enhance online privacy in Pakistan, digital rights advocates in this organization, have put forth several recommendations for the government to consider. These recommendations can be summarized as follows (Baloch and Qammar, 2020):

– Revise laws to limit intelligence agencies’ powers in intercepting digital communications and private data of journalists and human rights defenders.

– Define clear criteria for digital surveillance in the context of national security and counterterrorism.

– Cease mass digital surveillance on citizens.

– Promote encrypted communications for the safety of vulnerable groups.

– Include secure communications training in public sector education, especially in journalism and law.

– Respect citizens’ right to privacy, especially journalists and human rights defenders, to strengthen democracy, freedom of speech, and information access.

Civil society organizations actively participate in policy discussions and provide valuable input during the development of privacy-related laws and regulations. They bring the perspectives and concerns of the public to the attention of policymakers, advocating for privacy-focused policies that strike a balance between security and individual rights. Their involvement aims to assess to what extent the government measures align with the principles of transparency, accountability, and respect for privacy. In Pakistan, with the new wave of internet penetration, particularly among young generations, the effort of civil society organizations is essential for fostering a privacy-conscious society and holding governments accountable for protecting individuals’ digital privacy rights. Through their persistent advocacy, these organizations can contribute to a more informed and balanced policy-making process. They provide expertise and recommendations based on research and analysis, offering practical solutions that protect privacy rights while addressing security challenges. Their efforts underscore the importance of privacy as a fundamental right, even in the face of increasing surveillance measures.

Data Protection

Illustration Contributor:
PX Media.

Data protection entails safeguarding personal information against unauthorized access, use, or disclosure. It encompasses obtaining consent, employing data for specific purposes, minimizing data collection, ensuring accuracy, implementing security measures, respecting individual rights, and safeguarding data during transfers. Upholding privacy and cultivating trust with individuals is both a legal and ethical obligation. While data protection and privacy are closely related, they carry distinct meanings. Data protection focuses on safeguarding personal information, whereas privacy centers on maintaining control over one’s personal life and information. Data protection ensures the secure handling of data, while privacy encompasses broader aspects of personal autonomy and limiting unwarranted intrusion.

Currently, Pakistan lacks comprehensive legislation specifically governing the processing of personal data. However, like the privacy domain, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) serves as a legal framework to address electronic crimes and unauthorized access to personal data. Under PECA, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MOITT) has established the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2021, granting the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) the authority to remove or block access to information systems (Rehman, 2022). The Personal Data Protection Bill 2021, which is awaiting enactment, will become the primary legislation regulating the processing of personal data in Pakistan. It will apply to individuals and entities that control, process, or authorize the processing of personal data within the country.

Digital rights organizations have actively campaigned for data protection in Pakistan. The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), for instance, has been proactive in providing feedback on the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB). They have submitted various reports to the government to enhance the bill to align with international standards. The organization, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), has identified several persistent issues in the bill since 2018 that must be addressed to align with global data protection standards and privacy rights. According to DRF, concerns have been raised regarding the broad powers granted to the Federal Government, which could lead to self-interested interpretation and evasion of regulation. They have also expressed concerns about the lack of independence of the National Commission for Personal Data Protection (NCPDP), as it remains under the administrative control of the Federal Government, compromising its autonomy and failing to meet international standards (DRF, 2021a).

DRF has stressed that the requirement for ‘critical personal data’ to be processed within Pakistani servers is impractical and akin to data localization, which could hinder business operations and investment. Ambiguities exist in terms like ‘national interest’ and ‘national security’ without clear definitions, granting the government wide discretion in implementing the law. DRF highlights that the bill also lacks provisions addressing emerging technologies such as automated decision-making and artificial intelligence, necessitating further elaboration and the inclusion of non-discrimination safeguards. DRF emphasizes the need for specific language, defined terms, and adequate safeguards to ensure that the law aligns with legislative intent and effectively protects digital rights.

In addition, B4A Pakistan has published at least 13 comprehensive reports on data protection in Pakistan. These reports encompass various aspects, including submissions to the government for consultation and the creation of training materials. One of their reports, titled ‘Electronic Data Protection in Pakistan,’  provides a thorough analysis of the country’s data protection status and offers key recommendations (Gilani et al., 2017). B4A highlights the concerning absence of data protection legislation in Pakistan, particularly given the increasing volume of citizens’ data being processed daily. Urgent action is required to establish clear and effective data protection laws that meet the demands of the digital era. Failure to do so may lead foreign companies to perceive Pakistan as an unsafe business environment, deterring them from outsourcing their services to the country. B4A provides several recommendations to address these concerns, including (Gilani et al., 2017):

– Amendment to PTA is necessary. The Protection of Privacy Act (PTA) of Pakistan is incompatible with Article 17 of the ICCPR.

– There is an urgent need for an independent authority to oversee data protection compliance.

– A system of accountability for data breaches should be established.

– The Electronic Data Protection Bill of 2005 is not fit for purpose.

– Pakistan should investigate adopting data protection legislation similar to the GDPR.

– Education of citizens about personal data and its value is urgently needed.

– The principle of individual consent for processing data should be included in any new legislation.

– The use of data anonymization mechanisms should be strongly encouraged.

Furthermore, Bolo Bhi has allocated a dedicated section on its website to address issues concerning data protection. The organization actively publishes research-based reports to advocate for the implementation of enhanced legislation in the field of data protection. In one of their reports, they conducted a comparative analysis between the draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2020 in Pakistan and similar laws such as the GDPR, the Malaysian Personal Data Protection Act 2010, the UK’s Data Protection Act (DPA) 2018, and India’s Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 (Shahani, 2020). The comparison revealed several shortcomings in the draft Bill proposed in Pakistan, including:

– The Authority set up under the draft Bill lacks independence and autonomy.

– The exemptions to the prohibition of processing of ‘personal data’ including ‘sensitive personal data’ are too broad.

– The Bill does not cover intelligence agencies’ collection, storage, and use of data. 

Overall, despite Pakistan’s increasing participation in the digital sphere, the government must move quickly to prioritize data protection due to the country’s rapidly expanding online population. In fact, as Bolo Bhi urged, Pakistan should take note of what other developed nations have to say. The government can take the required actions to strengthen data protection safeguards and ensure the privacy and security of its citizens’ personal information by taking note of successful practices already in place abroad. By enacting effective policies and regulations that adhere to international standards, Pakistan must give priority to the rights and well-being of its citizens in the digital sphere.

As a final point regarding the role of civil society organizations in Pakistan in promoting digital rights, internet access, privacy, and data protection, it should be emphasized that they tirelessly raise awareness about these important issues, attempt to facilitate fruitful dialogue between citizens and policymakers, and actively work towards holding those responsible accountable. Through their diligent work, they hope to greatly contribute to the creation of efficient laws and procedures that uphold the rights of people and promote a safe and welcoming online environment for everyone. To influence decision-makers to meet the requirements of the populace, these organizations offer insightful research-based studies, policy suggestions, workshops, seminars, online and offline training sessions, and periodical audits of internet legislation and privacy rules. Or to put it another way, they try to help.

Conclusion

Pakistan’s historical trajectory has been marked by a series of challenges, including violence, religious divisions, and an ongoing struggle to define its national identity. These factors have significantly shaped the current political landscape of the country. Despite its aspirations to establish a stable democracy, Pakistan has faced recurring periods of military rule, which have undermined democratic processes and institutions.

The governance challenges in Pakistan include limitations on press freedom, restrictions on the right to protest, and interference from the military establishment. These issues have raised concerns about the strength and integrity of Pakistan’s democratic system. Furthermore, the military’s influence has often overshadowed civilian governance, leading to complex power dynamics within the country.

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed the emergence of digital authoritarianism as a governing strategy. This involves using digital technologies and surveillance mechanisms to control and monitor online activities. The government has implemented legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to regulate cyberspace. However, the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the broad surveillance powers granted to agencies such as the FIA and ISI raise apprehensions about potential abuses of power.

To enforce digital authoritarianism, the state has invested in advanced technological capabilities for monitoring online communications. This includes the acquisition of web monitoring systems and the establishment of social media monitoring cells. These measures aim to consolidate the state’s control over cyberspace and curtail citizens’ digital privacy.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s democratic fabric is not entirely eroded. In addition to push back from the judiciary, Pakistan has a strong civil society and there are various human rights organizations, including the ones that exclusively focus on digital rights. Human rights organizations, including those specifically focused on digital rights, play a crucial role in advocating for the protection of digital freedoms in Pakistan. These organizations voice concerns about the need for stronger legislation on data protection and privacy and advocate for equitable access to the internet, especially for marginalized communities in remote regions like ex-FATA and Balochistan.

By highlighting these concerns and advocating for digital rights, civil society organizations and the judiciary serve as important checks and balances against the encroachment of digital authoritarianism. Their efforts contribute to promoting transparency, accountability, and respect for individual rights in the digital sphere, despite the challenges posed by the current political landscape in Pakistan.


 

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.


 

(*) Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a Senior Research Fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. He is also a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. During 2017-19, Dr Ahmed was a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. During 2013-16, he was an Assistant Professor at the Centre for International Peace and Stability, National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan. His work focuses on political developments (e.g., democratization, authoritarianism and political Islam), foreign affairs, peace and security in South Asia and the Middle East. He has published extensively in leading journals, such as Politics and Religion, Democratization, Asian Studies Review, and Territory, Politics, Governance. He is the author of Regionalism and Regional Security in South Asia: The Role of SAARC (Routledge, 2013). He is a co-author of Iran’s Soft Power in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Edinburgh University Press, 2023). Email: zahid.ahmed@deakin.edu.au

(**) Shahram Akbarzadeh is Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum (MESF) and Deputy Director (International) of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University (Australia). He held a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship (2013-2016) on the Role of Islam in Iran’s Foreign Policy-making and recently completed a Qatar Foundation project on Sectarianism in the Middle East. Prof Akbarzadeh has an extensive publication record and has contributed to the public debate on the political processes in the Middle East, regional rivalry and Islamic militancy. In 2022 he joined Middle East Council on Global Affairs as a Non-resident Senior Fellow. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?hl=en&user=8p1PrpUAAAAJ&view_op=list_works Twitter: @S_Akbarzadeh  Email: shahram.akbarzadeh@deakin.edu.au

(***) Dr Galib Bashirov is an associate research fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. His research examines state-society relations in the Muslim world and US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. His previous works have been published in Review of International Political Economy, Democratization, and Third World Quarterly. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=qOt3Zm4AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao  Email: galib.bashirov@deakin.edu.au


 

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People flooded the streets of Manila to demand justice for all the victims of extrajudicial killings that happened during the time of President Duterte on June 30, 2021. Photo: Santino Quintero.

Mapping Global Populism — Panel 2: Populism, Macho-Fascism and Varieties of Illiberalism in The Philippines

Tusor, Anita. (2023). “Mapping Global Populism — Panel 2: Populism, Macho-Fascism and Varieties of Illiberalism in The Philippines.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 14, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0041

 

This report is based on the second event of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping Global Populism” which was held online on April 27, 2023. The panel brought together expert populism scholars from Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Anita Tusor*

This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping Global Populism” which was held online in Brussels on April 27, 2023. After concluding our “Mapping European Populism” Panel Series, ECPS is moving beyond the borders of Europe and expanding its project to include cases of populism around the world by organizing a new panel series to map global populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of the world. The second panel hosted 4 prominent scholars from Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Dr Paul Kenny, Professor in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University and included the following speakers: Dr Adele Webb, Research Fellow in Democracy and Citizen Engagement at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra; Dr Mark Richard Thompson, Professor of Politics at Department of Asian and International Studies and director of Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong; Dr Jean S. Encinas-Franco, Professor in the Department of Political Science at the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines at Diliman; and Dr. Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio, Assistant Professor at the Department of Science Communication at the College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines at Los Baños.

 

“Populist Are Rather Want to Provide a Mirror to the People”

In addition to leading the public, Duterte has also very much followed the public. This tells us something about populism in general too where we are often conditioned to think about populist demagogues who lead the people and drag them along to their own sort of Machiavellian purposes. Very often what we see is that populists are rather want to provide a mirror to the people and actually reflect popular views. So, in the Philippines case, this obviously raises some disturbing implications, which is that we have essentially popular illiberal democracy or popularly illiberal views.

Dr Kenny started his introduction with a brief overview of the populist administration in the Philippines. Although Rodrigo Duterte left his office in 2022, he has left a unique legacy in the study of populism and democracy which forces us to question our preconceptions. By any measure and source, Duterte’s six years of presidency was extremely violent. Official figures put the death toll of extrajudicial killings somewhere around 6.000 (FDEA, 2022), while NGOs and human rights organizations, journalists and other civil society monitors put the figure over 20.000 or even closer to 30.000 (Roudabeh and Buenaventura, 2021, ICC, 2023, UN OHCHR, 2022). Among those deaths were a number of journalists whose death coincided with the general erosion of press freedom (Amnesty International, 2022). There was also repression of judicial autonomy with frequent interferences and intimidation of the judiciary, including the deaths of some judges and lawyers. 

Despite this, what you might call a certainly discomforting record, Duterte remained -throughout his term in office- extraordinarily popular. This phenomenon is similar to his predecessors whose popularity didn’t dip after an initial honeymoon period, whether that lasted a few months or a few years, they remained popular. As Dr Kenny pointed out, we could see the same with the chairperson of PDP-Laban: right through to the end of his administration, Duterte’s support remained widespread across different demographics. According to analysis of public opinion data, the former president’s support was generally higher among younger and better educated Filipinos (Kenny and Holmes, 2020). Dr Kenny also noted that, although Duterte was initially more popular among men, this gender gap actually disappeared after the first few months of his administration. 

The Philippine President, famous for his penal populism, was especially popular because of his signature war on drugs and illegal drugs campaigns. This campaign in particular of all the policies of the Duterte government met with extremely high approval; usually up around 90 percent (Ibid.). Nonetheless, his administration was not only popular because of the war on drugs. For instance, despite his public buffoonery on occasions, he attended very carefully to economic matters, especially inflation. Data shows very clearly that his popularity tracks inflation (Reuters, 2018). Whenever it went up, his popularity suffered modest declines and he was very careful to address inflation both on a national and subnational level. Economic issues in general were never far from the mind of Duterte, his pollsters and administrative (Capuno, 2020). 

Professor Kenny has briefly tackled the issue of succession as well, highlighting that Duterte has sought to influence the succession to his chief ally, Senator Bongo, with his daughter Sarah Duterte proposed as vice president. The internal machinations among the elite eventually scuppered these plans with Sarah essentially rejecting this idea. In the end, Duterte was unable to secure his preferred succession. This, in many ways, is the very definition of democracy: an election removed him from office and prevented him from determining who would follow him. So, we had this kind of paradoxical situation, explained Dr Kenny: Duterte was quite illiberal on many key issues, especially around (1) judicial checks on the executive, (2) legislative checks on the executive power, (3) on press freedom and (4) public checks on executive power. Nevertheless, he remained extraordinarily popular, and the regime remained essentially democratic (Kreuzer, 2019). This is a real puzzle. To solve it, Dr Kenny’s own intuition and publications point us towards populism which can perhaps help fill the gap and provide an explanation.

To flag some of the issues that our moderator thought the concept of populism and theories of populism can help us resolve, the first is the fact that Duterte was very much a charismatic leader and individual leader who portrayed his administration as an essentially personalist rule which was sanctified by democratic elections and by popularity. This meant that Duterte had a very limited political organization behind him since he relied extraordinarily on popular support, on direct relationships with the people. Ultimately, in contrast to regular political parties in the West, he couldn’t rely on any guarantees from parties. Consequently, he paid a great deal of attention to public opinion polls, and he was quite sensitive to them.

In addition to leading the public, Duterte has also very much followed the public. This tells us something about populism in general too where we are often conditioned to think about populist demagogues who lead the people and drag them along to their own sort of Machiavellian purposes. Very often what we see is that populist are rather want to provide a mirror to the people (Panizza, 2005) and actually reflect popular views. So, in the Philippines case, this obviously raises some disturbing implications, which is that we have essentially popular illiberal democracy or popularly illiberal views. Lastly, closing his provocative framing of our second panel on global populism, Dr Kenny has mentioned that although in their lectures, some of our panelists may mention a lot of the negative things that Duterte has done, nevertheless, we have to think about what this means in a democracy, if those negative things including something as disruptive as the war on drugs are actually popular. 

Dr Adele Webb: “Populism, Illiberalism and Authoritarianism in the Philippines: From Past to Present”

The late Marcos and Duterte in their authoritarian populist style have also spoken of good model citizens who are deserving of rights versus those who weren’t. Yet arguably their populace is based more on the idea of unity than it did on division. And of course, the closing of democratic spaces by calling for unity should remind us of the most recent election. The platform that Bongbong Marcos and Sarah Duterte joined was unity. Unifying north and south, unifying two powerful political families, and unifying the country against ‘disruptive opposition voices’ who want to raise questions about the sins of both fathers.

The first presentation was carried out by Dr Adele Webb from Brisbane who noted that this is an important year for Australians as they vote for a referendum to alter the constitution in recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to represent Indigenous Australians to the parliament and federal government on matters of Indigenous affairs. Moving on to the subject of the panel, which is a different contested landscape, Dr Webb first presented the structure of her lecture on populism in the Philippines. Her speech was organized around three ideas or three findings that are pertinent to our deeper understanding of the populist phenomenon as it manifests in the Philippine context, but which also contributes some closing reflections on how the Philippine case and its dynamics might sharpen our use of the term populism more generally.

According to the first panelist, in thinking about the existence of populism in the Philippines, there are three broad themes that are significant to note. The first is the fact that like many other postcolonial democracies, there are permanent features of the political arena, both in terms of institutions and in terms of voter attitudes that match descriptive representations of populism and the characteristics of the political landscape that provide a favorable political opportunity structure for populist politics. The electoral arena is dominated by moralistic rather than programmatic appeals. In the context of weak parties and the almost total absence of ideologically and ethically driven parties and identities, democratic competitions founded on social cleavages or competing ideas are very rare. Instead, political actors vying for power, foster a sense of symbolic performative vertical accountability between the people and themselves by portraying themselves as the main custodian of public interests and citizen demands. Citizens, for their part, tend to be more tolerant with strong executive power, with limited legislative intervention, desiring quick fixes and decisive actions. And all of this, of course, relates to what scholars have pointed out already that the Philippines is a quintessential case of O’Donnell’s (1994) delegative democracy categorization. Pluralism is weak and the political actors not only use this but reinforce it by talking of a unified people, as if the country needs to have one heart, one soul, one mind and only then can overcome the challenges that it faces. Together these factors provide a fertile ground for populist appeals. 

Nonetheless, Dr Webb reminds us that -while actors that we might describe as populist-, come and go, the resonance and potency of popular sentiment remains. We have witnessed this in the striking consistency in political rhetoric of key presidential figures. The way Corazón Aquino talked about the path to transformation when she was elected following the spectacular deposing of the late Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, was at times almost indistinguishable from the way Manuel L. Quezon talked about transformation in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Moreover, even the way Marcos himself talked about it. She made herself custodian of the nation and its prosperity, perpetuating the motif of “people’s power” that she spoke not in conservative but in revolutionary terms. “Now the country is back in our hands. Another revolution is about to begin,” she told an audience of workers on Labor Day in 1986. If Marcos had become demonized as the epitome of Philippine moral corruption, Aquino was the opposite, symbolizing everything that was morally good. Despite this division between “good” and “bad,” she stated that “Only the power of a unified people could make it succeed.” 

The late Marcos and Duterte in their authoritarian populist style have also spoken of good model citizens who are deserving of rights versus those who weren’t. Yet arguably their populace is based more on the idea of unity than it did on division. And of course, the closing of democratic spaces by calling for unity should remind us of the most recent election. The platform that Bongbong Marcos and Sarah Duterte joined was unity. Unifying north and south, unifying two powerful political families, and unifying the country against ‘disruptive opposition voices’ who want to raise questions about the sins of both fathers.

Moving on to her second theme that is noteworthy when considering populism in the Philippine context, Dr Webb discussed the missing factors of populism in the Southeast Asian country, as despite the permanent presence of popular speeches on the political landscape, some things considered integral to the rise of populism elsewhere are largely missing in the Philippines. In European liberal democracies, the rise of populism has gone hand in hand with increasing political polarization. The radicalization of publics and discourse, hyper partisan media that fosters antagonism, together these two phenomena, populism and polarization, are deemed the great threat to the liberal democratic order. In contrast to this, the Philippines stands out as a country with low political polarization. 

Duterte’s popularity took on an almost unique polar nature. It’s not to say that there were no opponents inside and outside Congress, but instead of developing into a coherent anti-populist block, as has been observed elsewhere, Duterte enjoyed an unprecedented cross-class approval that endured his six-year term. There is an important exception to this according to Dr Webb. Before Duterte, whenever the Philippines was invoked in discussions of populism, it was Joseph Estrada who was named. Although he represented a different brand of populism, and he defied all the old, typical Presidents. “The us” and “them” of his highly persuasive, populist performance was based on material grievances, on the deep social inequalities that marks society. He had chains of vertical loyalty but not with the morally pure, unified people but predominantly with the poor. For the first time, populism produced polarization. Both the grand coalition of anti-populist, anti-Estrada movement and those who mobilized in Estrada’s defense, each saw the other as enemy of democracy and themselves as democracies’ true agents. Therefore, if in the long history of politics in the Philippines, this is the exception then how do we understand the grievances and anxieties that have driven populist politics, particularly the authoritarian or illiberal kind of Duterte and Marcos, which uses popular sentiment to legitimize state repression?

The third point made by Dr Adele Webb stated that to understand the resonance of populist appeals, and the logic of populist voters in accepting them, we need to consider their deep historical roots. So, there are novel features of Duterte’s regime that deserves attention, of course, not to mention the victims of his vile war on drugs. Yet, at the same time, if we’re using populism as an analytical concept, we should place his politics in a long view, and we should seek to understand the logics that drive his appeal in historical context. If we don’t historicize our analyses, at least two things are at stake according to the warning of the panelist. The first is if we continue to give too much power to populist actors as if they have made people do things that are simply cruel, that make no sense and have no relationship to the democratic desires. And second, if we don’t historicize, we fail to acknowledge that political attitudes and political institutions are produced by and producers of the conditions of possibility.

Considering Duterte’s platform, Dr Webb points out that it was based around igniting two sources of popular anxiety. The first was related to law and order. The Philippines had become a narco-state, and economic and political stability were impossible if this problem wasn’t eradicated. “It’s going to be a dictatorship,” he warned in a 2015 TV interview. The police and the military were the backbone and his electoral campaign translated into a state sanctioned killing spree. This wasn’t the only anxiety Duterte has inflamed. He was also a populist nationalist, who preyed upon the fragile sovereignty of the post-colonial Philippines. He claimed to embody the Philippines defiance of an unresolved history of colonial subjugation and indignity. The resonance of this was vividly captured when he infamously cursed US President Obama during the press conference in Davao: “I am the president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master, but the Filipino people.” The antagonism here was not between moral citizens versus criminal scum, but the unified and sovereign Filipino people against a malignant foreigner.

This later anxiety, Dr Webb argued, has been mostly ignored. Perhaps because it implicates non-Filipinos. The formal, law and order pitch has gained the most attention. The grotesqueness of the war on drug has proved both hard to watch and hard to look away from. “Many people at the moment are abusing that freedom and doing things which are not good. But we have this one politician, Duterte, whose type of leadership is like Marcos. And many people like that. And if you see Davao right now, it is one of the safest places in the Philippines. For me, if that type of leadership is implemented again, I think it’s much better,” said one of the interviewees of Dr Webb in 2015 showcasing the popularity of penal populism.

Dr Webb tried to make sense of such sentiments by explaining how some have explained it as evidence of lingering authoritarian nostalgia from the Marcos period, while others argued that it is a case of penal populism, in which modest economic growth empowers an expanding middle class, who express their anxiety about criminality and government corruption. While both these explanations bear some truth, both need to be further historicized. As this sentiment predates the post-1986 era. Dr Webb’s research demonstrates that as far as back as the 1940s, a perceived need for discipline was shaping middle class perceptions of what was a legitimate exercise of democratic power. In particular, the type of leadership that was deemed necessary. Moreover, in the late 1950s, Carl Landon noted that the general increase in crime and disorder since the end of the war had led people to say that there’s too much democracy, and that a little less democracy would be better for the country. By the early 1970s, when Marcos declared the resuscitation of Philippine democracy it was only made possible through his strong, autocratic leadership. Newspaper columnists at the time summed up the prevailing mood as the lack of discipline plunged the nation into the depths. It was exactly what the president did. He put a stop to a total lack of discipline. 

The argument that our lecturer has made in her book was that these sentiments reflect a sustained ambivalence towards democracy (Webb, 2022). And that ambivalence in turn has its roots in the paradox of democratic empire that was unleashed on the Philippines by the United States from the turn of the last century. If we want to talk about the electorate’s propensity for patronage politics, then we must talk about Philippine democracy’s founding patron. There is a striking resemblance between the logic of the electorate, the way they look at the way of democratic progress is imagined and the way the US colonial project of benign authoritarianism operated in the Philippines. It was a logic of pursuing national dignity and democratic ideals through the denial of liberty. Acceptance of their rights for the greater good was deemed to be appropriate behavior of the good student of American democratic tutelage. Unlike in other post-colonial contexts, these imperial logics of governance have penetrated the psyche and the imaginings of how democracy works, and they are very difficult to shake. 

Dr Webb has concluded her presentation by making some final remarks about what the complex case of the Philippines means for our understanding of populism more generally. If the logics that drive populism in the Philippines are deeply rooted in colonial history: What if anything, does it have to do with populism elsewhere? Can the term traverse such diverse contexts? It can, according to the research fellow of the University of Canberra, but only if we see populism not as the problem with our political systems, but as a manifestation of grievances with existing institutions of representative democracy. A signal of the failure of regimes to adequately express the political aspirations of people and to give a fact to notions that are supposedly central to our democratic normative ideal: popular sovereignty and constituent power. This is not to defend populism as a model of political change, but to say that if we blame the unsustainability of our democracies on populism, we sideline and ignore the causes of the feelings of alienation that propel it. 

In the Philippines, this is an old story, the institutions of representative democracy were compromised at their conception under a US colonial administration. At its core, the rise of populism is about the failure of institutions of democracy to ever accommodate the constituency, beyond the populist performative realm. In Europe, it’s a more recent phenomenon accelerated by cultural shifts brought about by neoliberalism and the digital transformation of our social lives. But in both places, populist voters conclude that the only way to make the principle of popular sovereignty effective is to delegate power to a strong, usually male and blustering figurehead, whose transgressions of liberal representative institutions, they mostly forgive, due to the lack of alternative means for addressing deep seated structural inequalities. 

Dr Mark Richard Thompson: “Duterte’s ‘Violent Populism’ in Comparative and Historical Perspective”

Duterte did not undertake major socio-economic reforms and his anti-oligarch rhetoric only served and benefitted his cronies. Duterte was claiming drugs were the source of poverty and if they can just eradicate it, it will fix the economy. This obviously deflects attention from the “death of development” which entails high poverty rates despite decades of high growth. Duterte’s strategy of securitization and “brute force government” has also been employed during the pandemic undermining accountability in a weak state with a poor record of human development.

Professor Mark Richard Thompson presented Duterte’s violent populism in a comparative and historical perspective. To begin, he noted that one problem with populism studies is that it is or has often been very Eurocentric. Although the US gets an honorable mention recently and Latin America sneaks in, we must highlight the fact that Latin American populism has been studied for quite a long time. This is an interesting aspect that in recent studies, particularly political science, a lot of the material is drawn from the European cases, therefore paying more attention to the Philippine case is a great initiative.

Dr Thompson started out his presentation by picking up on some of the comments made by Dr Kenny in his introduction, particularly his point about the paradox of democratic illiberalism, and some comments made by Dr Webb about democratic ambivalence and the nationalist component of Duterte’s appeal. The historical components weren’t really emphasized in the second presentation, but that is not to say it has no vital importance. The professor of the City University of Hong Kong first reflected on Dr Webb’s ideas about late colonialism in the Philippines, then gave a brief overview of his presentation, which touched on discussions of Duterte’s misogyny and also about the role of social media, how important it was for the rise of Duterte and his successor, Marcos Jr. 

Dr Thompson emphasized the comparative aspect of Duterte’s populism as it was mentioned in the lecture title. Duterte does seem to reflect the global trends during his presidency, yet the important distinction is that he was the only illiberal populist to instigate mass murder of tens of thousands. By taking a close look at the figures published not just by NGOs, but by the Commission on Human Rights as well. A government agency, which Duterte has tried to defund but his allies in Congress ultimately backed away from this. Furthermore, we can find numbers by an initiative at the University of Philippines and some international groups that have been coming up with databases as well. Ultimately, we can safely talk about up to tens of thousands of murders confirmed by the Philippine government under Duterte, when they went through their declamatory phase when they were proud of the killings, and they propagated it in the media about what they were doing to stop drug criminality – often incriminating debt pushers and small-time drug users. They have only changed this approach after incredible pushback internationally and domestically. Although that didn’t stop the drug war but did lead them to change the counting and obscure the numbers of victims. 

The lecture was continued by highlighting that Duterte is distinctive because he was engaging in mass murder against his own citizens. We can talk about other illiberal populists such as Putin invading Ukraine, but this is different, it was war on the Filipino people. It was a particularly virulent form of illiberalism as it took the aggressive intent of the idea of us versus them. The populist polarity of two deadly extremes. Furthermore, the ‘othering’ was not based on religion, ethnicity, or migration, but it was othering outsiders. It was against the poor because overwhelmingly – with the important exception of the journalists, judges, and the local mayors -, over half of those identified by Duterte’s drug war were actually murdered, most of them had a poor socio-economic background. There were a few high-profile cases of celebrities and even celebrities were killed, but it was overwhelmingly a war against the poor. 

It was urban, poor, young males, they were the main victims. Nonetheless, Duterte won popular support, including among the poor (Kusaka, 2017). Interesting ethnological studies on this phenomenon, as well as, of course, the opinion polls, show us why Duterte is distinctive from the so-called “base populists” like Bolsonaro and Trump. They had highly polarized societies with a very affectionate base that did not care what these characters were up to. Duterte had effectively a vast portion of the population supporting him. Although it is worth pointing out that there’s an increasing discussion about whether Duterte’s support was due to fear. Dr Thompson believes that overwhelmingly it was genuine support even though there was a bit of a fear factor. People, particularly poor people, for obvious reasons were concerned that the drug war might actually affect them.

One framework for understanding Duterte’s policies has been penal populism (Pratt, 2007, Curato, 2016, Kenny and Holmes, 2020). But Dr Thompson warns that crime concerns were limited until Duterte securitized drugs in his 2016 campaign (Quimpo, 2019). Crime, which was the lowest concern, jumps up briefly during Duterte’s campaign from December 2015 to his election, then it goes back down. Inflation, as it was mentioned by Dr Kenny, remains the most important consideration of Filipino people until today. Moreover, according to the lecturer, penal populism has generally been involved with people being arrested and put in jail for a long time and although that did happen in the Philippines, mass arrests, but there were also mass killings, extra judicial killings. These killings were going on and the drug war continued despite growing domestic and international criticism.

In terms of the origins and nature of Duterte’s violent populism, one has to understand how he nationalized it after having it first developed locally in Davao as mayor for a number of terms. Eventually, he became a popular mayor, dealing with the communist insurgency and dealing with high crime rates. Then he came up with a new idea of what can be called “neo-bossism” where instead of intimidating voters, he wooed them by promising to protect the ‘good people’ against ‘drug induced evil.’ So again, populist polarity worked in Duterte’s favor without upsetting voters and attracting them. His messages resonated well, particularly given the failures of what could be called the liberal reformist regime of Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, her successor. The Estrada administration was a bit of an exception, the liberal reformers didn’t like that, and they overthrew Estrada extra-constitutionally. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was Estrada’s successor. She was supposed to be a liberal but turned out to be a very problematic administration. Finally, the son of Benigno Aquino becomes president, and we seem to have this idea of a good reformist fighting against the problems of the corrupt Marcos dictatorship and continuing to undertake reforms for decades. 

This ultimately is seen as an institutional failure, because although the economy was restored after Marcos left behind an economic disaster despite the recent nostalgia for his presidency, growth was restored but it was not widely distributed, and poverty remains very high in the Philippines. Depending on different methods, more than half the Filipinos will tell pollsters that they are poor. Estrada’s populism, which could be called as proletarian populism, was undermined. There were a number of other political figures who ran against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and a movie star Fernando Poe Jr. was disqualified. Furthermore, another major candidate was undermined through what can be called a selective Senate investigation. So, according to Professor Thompson’s explanation, there was an alternative rhetoric, which was certainly less deadly than Duterte’s populism. Duterte has used a similarly repressive repertoire in his failed pandemic response, which can be called “brute force governance” shielding him from responsibility and accountability, as well as deflecting from his obvious governance failures and demonstrating how effective it is as a legitimation strategy. 

Another interesting point our second speaker has made is Duterte’s claim to be a socialist despite harming the poor through his war on drugs and not changing the Philippine economic model that did little good to the poor. He has stated that he would be the country’s first socialist president and started negotiations with the Communist Party when he took office. He also had friendly relations with communist politicians, yet later declared them terrorists and resumed extrajudicial killings against the left. Continuing with his remarks on Duterte’s socialism and economics, Thompson mentioned that Duterte did not undertake major socio-economic reforms and his anti-oligarch rhetoric only served and benefitted his cronies. What we can see is that Duterte was claiming drugs were the source of poverty and if they can just eradicate it, it will fix the economy. This obviously deflects attention from the “death of development” which entails high poverty rates despite decades of high growth. The strategy of securitization and “brute force government” has also been employed during the pandemic undermining accountability in a weak state with a poor record of human development.

Following this, Thompson provided a brief overview of Duterte’s macho populism. He was a misogynist with a hyper masculine display that was seen to demonstrate its authenticity, particularly against the hypocrisy of the old liberal reformers (Encinas-Franco, 2022; Parmanand, 2020; Curato and Ong, 2018). It is important to point out that four of the leading opposition figures Duterte has targeted were women and he went after them very harshly. For daring to challenge the drug war, Senator De Lima was shamed, accused of committing a ‘dual class and gender sin’ and she remains in jail until today on trumped up drug charges. Duterte has also fired his vice president Leni Robredo, who was separately elected in the Philippines, from the cabinet after she criticized the drug war. Maria Ressa, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, still faces a number of legal issues and cyber libel cases that were clearly initiated by Duterte’s administration to intimidate the media. Finally Chief Justice Maria Serena was removed after defending judges tagged for drugs. 

In his last point, Professor Thompson focused on the issue of illiberalism. There has been a lot of discussion in the literature about how widespread anti-pluralist views are in the Philippines and support for a strong leader who gets things done unhindered by constraints (Pernia, 2021). Kenny and Holmes (2020) have pointed out that this shows support for illiberal policies not illiberalism generally or the popularity of the drug war. According to Thompson, these studies demonstrate how Duterte could enjoy high popularity and electoral legitimacy despite massive violation of human rights. It also seems to fit the theory of a famous Philippine political scientist Agpalo’s (pangulo theory, 1981) who talks about the preference of Filipinos for strong terms, and would also help explain this nostalgia for the Marcos dictatorship. The latter helped his son, Marcos Jr. to win the 2022 elections and explains why Cory Aquino is now seen as a weak president. Consequently, Dr Thompson states that there is a strong liberal tradition reminding us that Cory Aquino has once unseated Marcos suggesting that the current illiberalism is situational. We also do see that, even if it’s not a coherent opposition movement, there are strong anti-drug and then later anti-terrorism protests in the Philippines. 

To conclude, the lecturer highlighted that Duterte was ahead of the recent illiberal populist curve elected a few months before Trump and a year before Bolsonaro. Albeit there are similar social media ills to be looked at such as Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. A Facebook executive spoke about one reason why the Philippines has been identified as patient zero is Facebook disinformation. Illiberalism seems to be persisting under Duterte’s successor, Marcos Jr. Although Duterte’s illiberal realignment toward China is now being re-evaluated by the new president under pressure from the US, also by the military and public opinion as well. This marks an interesting shift, yet the main takeaway here is that the Philippines is being an extreme example of the populist dichotomy of ‘the good people’ and ‘criminal others’ used to legitimate mass killings. It was a highly militarized brute force governance by Duterte’s – a democratically legitimated but highly illiberal leader-, who blames ne’er-do-wells for complex social problems facing the country. This strategy has also deflected attention from mass poverty by what Bello (2019) has called “a fascist original.” Finally, the current dominance of illiberalism in Philippine politics has been met by considerable, if not entirely, coherent, liberal pushback, which goes back to a century-old tradition of resolve and the independence movement more generally.

Dr Jean S. Encinas-Franco: “Gendered Populism of Dutertismo and Hypermasculinity in the Philippine’s politics”

Looking at migration and Duterte’s gendered rhetoric Dr Encinas-Franco uses Moffitt’s definition of populism as a political style and asks the question: Why is Duterte very popular with Filipinos overseas? Duterte garnered 70 percent of the votes in 2016 among Filipinos overseas. Since 2004, the government has allowed overseas migrants to vote if they are still Filipino citizens. The former president’s candidacy has increased overseas votes by more than 30 percent. These votes generally have not been a significant contribution to the overall voter turnout until 2016. Moreover, a lot of overseas Filipinos campaigned for Duterte.

Dr Jean Encinas-Franco talked about gendered populism and hypermasculinity in the Philippine’s politics. In the lecture’s outline, Dr Encinas-Franco broke down her presentation into four main points: (1) populism, gender and international migration; (2) Duterte as a populist and a brief historical background of Philippine out migration; (3) Duterte’s gendered rhetoric towards migrants; and (4) some concluding remarks. To start with the first point, the third speaker reviewed the literature on gender and populism: There has been a lot of studies linking the two together and, in fact, it has been expanding. Drawing from Saresma (2018: 177), who coined the term ‘gendered populism,’ she refers to the concept, “a simplifying understanding of gender as a ‘natural,’ essentially dichotomous order based on positioning both women and men in hierarchical locations in terms of power.” 

Moving on to introduce international migration to the equation as well, the Professor points out that the literature on gendered populism and migration has a Eurocentric bias, which Dr Thompson referred to a while ago about populist studies in general. If these studies talk about international migration, they usually refer to host states and the usual strategy would be for populists to engage in racism and ‘othering’ of immigrants, coupled with criticism of feminism and privileging the traditional family to protect them from the ‘othered immigrants.’ Some argue in defense of why gender and migration has become very prominent in Europe is that immigration has been a crisis in most countries in Europe. Yet in the Global South, particularly in the Philippines, Philippine labor out migration actually also has a lot of history of crisis situations in which the government had to break its relations with the Coalition of the Willing. 

Looking at migration and Duterte’s gendered rhetoric Dr Encinas-Franco uses Moffitt’s (2016) definition of populism as a political style and asks the question: Why is Duterte very popular with Filipinos overseas? Duterte garnered 70 percent of the votes in 2016 among Filipinos overseas. Since 2004, the government has allowed overseas migrants to vote if they are still Filipino citizens. The former president’s candidacy has increased overseas votes by more than 30 percent. These votes generally have not been a significant contribution to the overall voter turnout until 2016. Moreover, a lot of overseas Filipinos campaigned for Duterte. In her study, Professor Encinas-Franco traces their support and their fanaticism to Duterte in 2015. 

The context of Philippine labor out migration is such that since 1974, the government has been involved in labor export through the labor code, which institutionalized overseas employment. Today, there are more than 12 million Filipinos abroad in more than 200 countries and territories. Although this data, warns Dr Encinas-Franco, is severely underreported. It has also consistently been the fourth largest remittance recipient country in the world. In 2020 alone, the Filipinos abroad remitted $35 billion dollars to their country of origin. A key characteristic of overseas migration is the feminization of migration in which not only 60 percent of Filipino migrants are women, but a lot of Filipino migrants are also working as so-called feminized domestic workers and caregivers. Moreover, migration scholars also refer to the government as paternalistic. In terms of how they view Filipino migrant women, there are stricter regulations for women migrants’ mobility compared to men, and deployment bans on domestic workers. Nine out of 10 migrant domestic workers are women. On the other hand, there is also a huge bureaucracy to cater to Filipino migrants’ needs. 

Looking at a case study of Duterte’s presidential visit to South Korea in 2018, where he had delivered a three-hour speech. Duterte’s speech has received particularly strong attention from migrant Filipinos in Seoul. Furthermore, this speech has made international headlines because he gave a migrant Filipino woman a kiss. Professor Encinas-Franco has analyzed the speech and its transcript to identify what are the themes that comprise this speech. One central trope was “the protective and angry father.” In his speech, he said that he will protect anyone from destroying his country (referring to drug addicts). Duterte framed his message in a way that makes sense to Filipinos abroad by emphasizing that their children’s welfare is his priority. This resonated very well to migrant Filipinos abroad and, in a sense, it justified violence against fellow Filipinos as extremely necessary. This is just one sample of his rhetoric as a migrant, as a protective and angry father. 

The second trope mentioned by our third speaker was “the Filipino every man.” Duterte has usually dressed in ordinary clothes, not in formal attire. The populist ex-president would also use humor and curses. Remaining relatable but projecting the image of a very powerful man. Dr Encinas-Franco has also noted that in the speech in South Korea, Duterte admitted to having two wives. Although he has to make this moral transgression excusable by saying that there is no such thing as a first family. “We are all first family, we are all workers of the government, working for the Filipino people.” A very symbolic message which certainly resonated very well with Filipino migrants because in this rhetoric, they would feel that they are really part of the nation, that their president really cares for them, and that they don’t mind whether he has two wives. They also don’t mind whether this is some form of a double standard given that he has accused late legislators Senator Lila De Lima of committing adultery.

The third trope explored by our lecturer is that Duterte was a “Ladies’ Man.” Of course, to justify his actions, he has asked for permission to kiss the migrant woman, in fact, he also asked whether the migrant woman had a husband, explained Professor Encinas-Franco. Nevertheless, he presented it as something that’s ordinary and that these people also said that it was just for enjoyment and a part of Filipino culture. Drawing from Mendonca and Caetano (2021: 227) who studied Bolsonaro and said that this is common, Dr Encinas-Franco made parallels between the two populist leaders. The ladies’ man approach is a formula that the voting base of populists do not mind mainly because “it gives new meaning to the authority of the office and the denial of its standard forms.” It means that Duterte is really one with the people. 

The reaction from the Duterte-camp further amplifies and forgives Duterte’s messages. The reason behind this is that they see it as a joke or part of Filipino culture which does not need to be excused or apologized for. This erases and closes any form of resistance because it’s merely a joke. The fact that women were also laughing as seen on the video of the South Korean speech meant compliance to the patriarchy (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005: 848). There were also women, Cabinet Secretaries and Undersecretary from the camp of Duterte who didn’t mind what the party leader did. But what does this make of Duterte’s behavior? It forgives the perpetrator. Moreover, even legislators noted that the president’s behavior was an assault and abuse of power. Notwithstanding, when they look at the Philippines’ good record in terms of gender equality laws, they actually individualize Duterte’s actions and rhetoric. They tend to frame Duterte’s misogynistic actions, rhetoric, and practice as an individual issue, rather than a societal and systemic issue. So, in effect that tells us that it closes resistance.  

In her concluding remarks, Professor Encinas-Franco emphasized that the reason why Duterte’s speech and his rhetoric is so powerful among migrants is that it’s quite different from the usual bureaucratic language that the state employs. The state is very much involved in catering to every migrant’s needs from pre-employment to repatriation, but when in doing so, the state uses bureaucratic or legalized rhetoric, while Duterte’s case is very much personalized. His behavior has also embodied masculine entitlement that is not inherently different from the entitlement inherent in deployment bans and stricter regulations for migrant Filipino women. Finally, Duterte’s populist style was very popular, resonated very well with people from all walks of life and ultimately stifled resistance.

Dr Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio: “Media Populism and Anti-Free Speech in Duterte’s Philippines”

While the country prides itself as once a bastion of free speech in the region, the Philippines under the Duterte administration reported major push backs against such areas as rule of law, civil liberties, free expression, and press freedom. Since 2018, the Philippines has been classified as an electoral autocracy, meaning that while the country observes multiparty elections, there are insufficient levels of rights in areas like right to suffrage and free expression according to the V-Dem Institute. The classification of electoral autocracy is a downgrade from what the country used to be prior to the Duterte era, which is electoral democracy where there are relatively free and fair multi-party elections and satisfactory degrees of rights.

In the last contribution, Dr Jefferson Lyndon Ragragio spoke about media populism and anti-free speech on Facebook in the Philippines between 2016 and 2022. Using a more modest approach to his presentation, Dr Ragragio focused on the so-called anti free speech. He argued that part of the political legacy of Duterte’s administration is anti-free speech that characterizes a complicated hybrid of hateful, banal, and light rhetoric that bridges the putative relational ties of the leader and his idealized public. Dr Ragragio has aimed to show how Duterte’s anti free speech thrived within the climate of a network of disinformation, and to some extent affective and emotional politics that collectively spoil the civil consensus on political participation.

Dr Ragragio used the case of the Philippines, a Southeast Asian nation of over 75 million Facebook users regarded as the social media capital of the world to demonstrate his arguments. While the country prides itself as once a bastion of free speech and democratic movement in the region, the Philippines under the Duterte administration reported major push backs against such areas as rule of law, civil liberties, free expression, and press freedom. Since 2018, the Philippines has been classified as an electoral autocracy, meaning that while the country observes multiparty elections, there are insufficient levels of rights in areas like right to suffrage and free expression according to the 2023 report of the V-Dem Institute. The classification of electoral autocracy is a downgrade from what the country used to be prior to the Duterte era, which is electoral democracy where there are relatively free and fair multi-party elections and satisfactory degrees of rights. The country’s state of press freedom, once regarded as the freest in Southeast Asia, recorded yearly decline from 2017 to 2022, placing the country from 127 to 147 spots (Reporters Without Borders, 2023). So, there are certainly manufacturers or systemic – emerging and even hybridized – factors that contributed to this democratic backsliding. This type of crisis is transnational and global in character, which forces us to reevaluate some of the ways we approach the features of contemporary and digital politics. 

The concept of populism is elusive and understood in many ways, yet the key characteristics of populism, especially the notion of the people are evident in many societies across geographical lines. Some scholars of populism explain that the core element of the term is to speak and act in the name of the people broadly defined, and that this act of representing the people by the leader can be manipulated to construct political identities and political conflicts. Although sharing this observation, Dr Ragragio limited his work in his presentation to using an understanding of populism as a political communication style that uses certain rhetoric, identity, and media to connect with the people: for instance, the disenchanted or the agreed groups, while it also aggravates ‘the other’ centered around elite or the establishment.

This understanding has allowed our speaker to highlight the centrality of rhetoric and style in the communicative expression of mediated populism. In terms of its relationship with disinformation, populism is central if not intrinsic to the evolving practices of networked disinformation or what some call digital propaganda. The multifaceted practices associated with disinformation come in different forms like political trolling and digital black box in the Philippines. 

A cursory look at recent studies on free speech under contemporary populism would show a variety of speeches or brands of speeches used by populist actors. In Duterte’s Philippines, the prominent kind is that of hate speech, which aptly describes the leader’s hostility against the political opposition, including human rights activists, church leaders, and politicians opposing the brutal war on drugs. Duterte’s open hostility against the dominant centuries old Catholic Church and its teachings, something past Philippine presidents didn’t bother to do, is a clear expression of hate speech that dehumanizes and incites discrimination against the perceived ‘other.’ So, some scholars call it extreme speech that broadens the hostile character of hate speech to include culture specific practices and sentiments that resonate with expressions of the digital public. This includes such expressions as remorse and rumors that connect with the imaginations of some segments of the politics. Anti-free speech in Duterte’s Philippines is represented by hateful, banal, and light rhetoric that targets and appeals to different segments of the politics. 

In his presentation, associate professor Ragragio focused on three ways, or three narratives employed under the Duterte administration. (1) The first is the marginalization of the political opposition. (2) Second is the appeal to the notion of family. (3) Third is the appeal to the notion of religion. So, amplifying the label of terrorism in the first narrative, the diehard supporters of Duterte, popularly known as the DDS, orchestrated the supposed anti-elite and nationalist rhetoric of Duterte. DDS is a mobilized yet highly unstructured coalition of individuals and networks that maintain an active presence online, especially on Facebook and YouTube. On YouTube, for instance, it’s no less than the national government’s channel, people’s television network that reports on how DDS members worldwide are gathering to express their continued support for Duterte whose life according to his supporters is endangered by the elite. DDS uses the referee of below one or the color yellow. So, the yellow is a political color associated with another political family, another political clan to target the perceived other. Duterte and his incendiary social media armies were able to signify yellow with political opposition marked with elitism, incompetence and a bogus sense of nationalism.

The second narrative is about the populist notion of family which shows how the strongman yet compassionate brand of the leadership of Duterte is capable of securing the welfare of families, children and future generations. On Facebook, the leader was dramatically referred to as “Father of the Nation,” showing how he managed to spend quality time with family and children, despite his political career. For his online supporters, Duterte epitomizes a strong brand of leadership that can bring back the long-gone discipline expected of every Filipino. A leadership brand that is humane enough to protect the law-abiding populace. In one Facebook photo on Duterte’s page, he is promoting the caring image of the leader, notwithstanding the leaders’ press remarks against women, the clergy, local politicians, and journalists.

The third notion is about the populist notion of religion, which highlights the devout identity of the leader through practices and identification with recognized symbols of fate such as kneeling and praying, showing images of processions, being prayed over by leaders of different churches, -although these leaders come predominantly from the prominent Catholic faith-, and expressions of prayers and aspirations. The religion related posts, conflate facts and fictitious accounts to magnify the pious image of Duterte. Dr Ragragio showcased an edited photo of Duterte kneeling and praying with a comment asking for God’s protection of Duterte to provide an example of his case. Further, posts by other pro-Duterte Facebook pages would also claim that the leader was indeed a gift from God to the Philippines. 

In his speech, the fourth panelist has demonstrated the complicated mix of hateful, banal and light sentiments that target the aspirations of the digital public. The Philippine case showed how we can expand the belligerence and strict binarism typical of political populism. Features that while central to contemporary populism may not fully account for the sophisticated terms of populism and contemporary digital politics at large. Under the new administration of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr and Sara Duterte, the anti-free speech honed by the previous administration, presents real world dangers to this day. 

Duterte continues to exhibit closer ties with the church leader, Apollo Quiboloy who is in the wanted list of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for crimes including sex trafficking of children, and fraud and coercion. The church leaders’ media, called Sunshine Media Network International, serves as one of the primary media platforms of Duterte and his supporters to attack the ‘others’ including independent media outlets and legitimate foreign bodies like the International Criminal Court. 

In the area of legislation, some of Duterte’s close allies in both houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, relentlessly advocate pro-Duterte policies like shielding the leader from investigations into his bloody drug war. Just recently, some lawmakers proposed to upgrade the financial benefits of former presidents, citing solely the case of Duterte. In sum, what we are seeing then is the changing terms of mediated populism that can reform or disable consensus on free speech, one that can disrupt and even redefine our sense of political participation in the digital sphere. Finally, Dr Radragio reminded us to be more attentive to the innovative terms of mediated populism so we can better address the rhetorical, digital and real-world challenges of anti-free speech.


(*) Anita Tusor is a recent graduate of the Double Master’s Program of King’s College London and Renmin University of China in Asian and European Affairs. She also holds a M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a B.A. in Hungarian and Chinese Studies. Previously, she has worked with different think tanks and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the ECPS and the International Institute of Prague. Anita’s research interests include the processes of democratisation and de-democratisation, populist constitutionalism, political parties and their systems, and foreign malign influence operations.


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Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holds a Galil sniper rifle with outgoing Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Ronald dela Rosa (L) at Camp Crame in Manila on April 19, 2018. Photo: Salma Bashir Motiwala.

The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding

Kenes, Bulent. (2023). “The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies. June 14, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0014

 

In his recently released book, scholar Mark R. Thompson underscores how the “people power” narrative gradually lost credibility in the Philippines, as evidenced by the opposition’s resounding defeat in the 2022 elections. This outcome demonstrated the diminishing appeal of this discourse among the majority of Filipinos. Given Thompson’s assessment of Duterte’s election and his populist legacy as the latest iteration of a cyclical pattern in Philippine politics, his book represents a valuable contribution to the literature on populism.

Reviewed by Bulent Kenes

On May 9, 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte was elected as the 16th President of the Philippines by the Filipino people. Despite his controversial reputation, which he had acquired during his long political career as the mayor of Davao City, Duterte emerged victorious. He pledged to establish a regime similar to the one he had implemented in Davao City, with the goal of restoring “law and order” throughout the entire country. Following his inauguration, public trust in him soared to an astonishing 91 percent. What factors contributed to Duterte’s remarkable success as an illiberal and penal populist leader? How did the socio-economic environment and troubled political history of the Philippines play a role in the frequent rise of populist strongmen like Duterte? In his recently published book, “The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding,” Mark R. Thompson explores the socio-political, economic, and structural factors behind the convergence of democratic backsliding and the rise of strongman leaders within the Filipino context.

Thompson’s book utilizes a structuration approach to analyze the country’s recent shift towards strongman rule within the historical backdrop of nearly a century of Philippine presidential politics. The Philippines stands as one of the few global cases of “hyper-presidentialism.” The book highlights the fact that Philippine presidents possess significantly more formal power than their counterparts in the United States, particularly when it comes to their wide discretion over budgetary matters, which is essential in a patronage-driven democracy, making them the “patrons-in-chief.” They can subordinate the legislature, the courts, and independent bodies, despite theoretically being coequal branches of government or constitutionally mandated agencies, thus establishing the President’s authority as nearly omnipresent throughout the state apparatus.

Thompson’s book traces this “tyrannical potential” of Philippine presidents back to the American colonial era. One section of the book explores how a patronage-driven democracy facilitated executive aggrandizement by three transgressive presidents – Quezon, Marcos, and Duterte – who employed strongman messaging as they disregarded weak formal democratic checks. It also examines the stronger but uncertain informal constraints imposed on presidential power by elite strategic groups that employed a liberal reformist discourse. This dynamic first emerged after the manipulated 1949 presidential elections and resulted in Magsaysay’s victory four years later. However, a similar effort two decades later failed to prevent Ferdinand E. Marcos from imposing martial law. Yet, Marcos was later ousted by a people powermovement with a similar elite “hegemonic bloc” at the forefront. Following Marcos’ downfall, corruption scandals, which seemed inevitable in a patronage-dominated system, undermined the promise to restore “good governance” and also discredited the elite strategic groups promoting it. With the weakening of reformism and elite guardianship, a political opportunity arose for Duterte’s highly illiberal messaging. Duterte swiftly regressed Philippine democracy after winning the presidency in 2016. As a pioneer in political violence, Duterte fundamentally transformed Philippine politics by making violent populism appealing to the majority of Filipinos.

The first authoritarian leader in the Philippines was Commonwealth President Quezon, and three decades later, Marcos followed in Quezon’s footsteps. Even before declaring martial law in 1972, Marcos had already become the most powerful president since the country gained independence in 1946. He crafted an elaborate justification for martial law, citing not only threats from the far-left (communists) and far-right (oligarchs), but also utilizing strongman messaging that promised to address poverty, injustice, and bring about political change. Marcos argued that authoritarian rule was necessary to restore order and accelerate development. He imposed strict restrictions on the previously free press, which was factionalized and oligarchical, suppressing opposition criticism of nepotism and favoritism. The Marcos regime quickly transformed into a highly “sultanistic” system, blurring the boundaries between the public treasury and the private wealth of the ruler. Marcos and his wife Imelda became the wealthiest couple in the Philippines and among the richest in the world.

Meanwhile, Thompson emphasizes the presence of four influential non-governmental strategic groups (the Catholic Church hierarchy, big business leaders, civil society activists, and top military brass) that have played pivotal roles in constraining presidential power since independence in 1946, particularly during the later stages of the Marcos dictatorship and in the post-people power era. While not directly part of the government, these groups maintain close ties to the state, with representatives from big business and civil society often holding high-ranking positions in presidential cabinets. They possess extensive organizations that enable them to mobilize supporters in favor of or against a president, either through nonviolent means such as demonstrations or, in the case of the military, through a show of force via military intervention.

The book also integrates three key themes from existing literature – patronage democracy, political violence, and widespread impoverishment – to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Philippines’ recurring democratic crises. From a structuralist perspective, according to Thompson, the democratic transition that commenced after Marcos’ downfall in 1986 was only temporary. The “people power” uprising in Metro Manila in February 1986 captured global media attention and received praise from world leaders. This peaceful overthrow of an authoritarian ruler by civilian protesters demanding democratic restoration demonstrated the potential for change. However, Thompson argues that the perception of people power has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis in the Philippines, particularly since the time of Corazon C. Aquino, the widow of the assassinated opposition politician Benigno “Ninoy” S. Aquino, Jr., who assumed the presidency after the heavily manipulated snap presidential elections in early February 1986 that triggered the uprising. 

Author recalls that two additional crises unfolded in the subsequent three decades. Another “people power” style uprising took place, but this time it was directed against the freely and fairly elected President Joseph E. Estrada in 2001. His successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, faced immediate and long-term legitimacy issues throughout her scandal-ridden tenure. In 2016, Duterte was elected, pledging a brutal “war on drugs.” Duterte’s popularity during his term created a strong political demand for a presidential candidate with a similar strongman image. Surveys indicated that 85 percent of Filipinos preferred “partial” or “full continuity” of his rule. Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos, Jr., the son of the Marcos dictatorship’s ruling couple, positioned himself as the rightful heir to Duterte’s legacy and won the May 2022 presidential elections with ease. Running alongside Duterte’s daughter as his vice-presidential candidate, the Marcos-Duterte tandem successfully positioned themselves as the successors to Duterte. Despite hopes from opponents that “Dutertismo” would fade away in 2022, there is little indication that Marcos intends to deviate from Duterte’s illiberal path. 

According to Thompson, this democratic backsliding occurred against the backdrop of historically rooted structural conditions in which neoliberal economic strategies revived economic growth but failed to significantly alleviate poverty, thereby enabling Duterte to secure power. The author highlights the fact that while post-dictatorship presidents in the Philippines restored financial stability and stimulated economic growth, they were unsuccessful in eradicating mass poverty. “Proletarian populists” who promised to help the majority of Filipinos who identified themselves as poor were either overthrown or subject to electoral fraud. This created an opportunity, according to Thompson, for Duterte to present himself as the last hope for Filipinos. By convincing many that they had been betrayed by the “irresponsible ‘yellow’ elites,” Duterte, as president, initiated a “war on drugs” that resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings by the police and vigilantes linked to law enforcement. He justified these murders by dismissing liberalism and human rights as “Western” concepts. By late 2018, the Chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights estimated that up to 27,000 suspected drug users and dealers had been killed in the drug war. Duterte even targeted mayors and local officials accused of having drug links – by June 2021 more than half of the forty-four mayors, vice mayors, and other local officials identified by the Philippine president as being “narco politicians” had been killed.

Despite his obvious illiberalism, Duterte claimed democratic legitimacy, aligning with larger global trends. Unlike Trump and right-wing populists in developed countries who targeted immigrants, Duterte identified drug users and dealers as “enemies of the people.” His violent populism went beyond the typical “penal populism” seen in the West, representing an extreme form of illiberal rule that embraced an aggressive “us versus them” mentality. Thompson reminds that through his “war on drugs,” Duterte garnered massive popular support, surpassing the levels achieved by other illiberal populists globally. However, according to him, Duterte was not the first Philippine president to extensively employ political violence to consolidate power. Quirino relied on local warlords to intimidate the opposition during his presidential election campaign in 1949. As a young man Marcos, Sr., was convicted of killing his father’s chief political rival. In his controversial reelection campaign in 1969, Marcos employed not just local paramilitaries but also national military force, which he had increasingly brought under his personal control in the run-up to declaring martial law in 1972.

Thompson highlights that while many contemporary illiberal populist leaders have marginalized, imprisoned, or even assassinated those targeted and othered by their rhetoric, Duterte stands out for instigating state-led mass murder against his own country’s civilian population through his war on drugs. While Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey intensified attacks against Kurdish rebels and Vladimir Putin in Russia waged the brutal Second Chechen War and later invaded Ukraine, these are military campaigns rather than “peacetime” massacres, as clarified by Thompson, although Erdogan’s campaigns against Kurds have also involved attacks during peacetime. These strongman presidents effectively crafted messaging to justify their concentration of power, often resorting to political violence and exploiting persistent poverty as a pretext for their power grabs. As poverty rates and unemployment remained high during the post-Marcos era, the liberal reformist discourse appeared uncaring and morally self-righteous.

Furthermore, Duterte eroded democracy through less violent means as well, eroding judicial independence, marginalizing independent institutions, and bullying local leaders, according to the book. His patronage politics undermined institution-building. The country’s bureaucracy has a history tainted by political interference and corrupt practices, with widespread perception of corruption in the courts. Duterte capitalized on a “legally cynical public” that lacked trust in a flawed judicial system, where drug offenders often had their cases dismissed on technicalities and bribery and manipulation were common accusations. Duterte, a former prosecutor, presented his drug crackdown as a silver bullet, appealing to the belief that the corrupt legal system needed cleansing before meaningful reforms could be introduced.

The rise of Duterte’s violent populism was also facilitated by the weakening of key elite strategic groups mentioned earlier in the book. For example, Duterte effectively outmaneuvered the church by threatening to expose its sex scandals, claiming personal childhood abuse by a priest. Institutional barriers were swiftly sidelined, resulting in the emergence of an illiberal democracy. As a political innovator, Duterte drew from and transformed traditions of local political violence in the Philippines, which he continued during his presidency. He also employed the strategy of securitizing problems and scapegoating the urban poor in other policy areas, notably in his highly militarized but ineffective response to the pandemic.

The book argues that the Philippines’ recent democratic backsliding is a result of Duterte’s violation of democratic norms in a patronage-driven democracy with weak institutionalization, following the patterns of Quezon and Marcos before him. The book also closely examines pseudo-reform programs used to divert attention from the persistence of mass poverty. Recently, Duterte’s drug war has primarily targeted the poor, with urban residents who are petty drug users and dealers becoming the focus, while mass poverty continues to endure. However, this approach proved effective in legitimizing his highly illiberal rule.

Like previous presidents, according to the author, Duterte did not harbor a general hostility towards the oligarchy; rather, he used such rhetoric as a means to attack his political enemies and favor his own allies. However, the broken promises of his predecessors to combat corruption and alleviate poverty had paved the way for simplistic solutions to the country’s complex social problems, exemplified by Duterte’s “dystopian narrative” of the drug war. The drug war’s popularity across class lines indicated that Duterte had successfully redirected the grievances of the poor away from the failures of social reform. In line with Marcos and Quezon before him, Duterte exploited the persistence of poverty to justify the erosion of democratic values. Employing pseudo-social reforms, Duterte portrayed his drug war as a panacea for the nation’s social issues, garnering support across different social strata, despite the fact that it harmed and disproportionately targeted the poor.

As a strategy of legitimation, Duterte relied on extravagant but largely hollow promises of implementing social reform, eradicating corruption, and eliminating illegal drugs, which proved remarkably effective as political tools. His “brute force governance,” characterized by personalized strongman rule, blame-shifting, and securitization, undermined the mechanisms of accountability. This enabled him to maintain public approval, despite the drug war’s failure to effectively address substance abuse and the ineffectiveness of widespread lockdowns in curbing the spread of the pandemic. Despite the highly illiberal nature of Duterte’s rule, he continued to claim democratic legitimacy based on competitive elections and high approval ratings, while adhering to constitutional norms. This undermined electoral opposition and weakened resistance from critical figures such as Catholic bishops, influential business groups, and civil society activists. According to Thompson, among the major strategic groups in the Philippines, only the military remained a significant check on Duterte’s power.

In conclusion, Thompson underscores how the “people power” narrative gradually lost credibility, as evidenced by the opposition’s resounding defeat in the 2022 elections, particularly with Marcos, Jr.’s victory. This outcome demonstrated the diminishing appeal of this discourse among the majority of Filipinos. The recent democratic backsliding in the Philippines serves as a cautionary tale about the failure of a liberal reformist project to improve the lives of ordinary people and fundamentally reshape the political system to reduce reliance on patronage, strengthen institutions, and mitigate political violence. Given Thompson’s assessment of Duterte’s election and his populist legacy as the latest iteration of a cyclical pattern in Philippine politics, this book represents a valuable contribution to the literature on populism.


 

Mark R. Thompson. The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding. As part of “Elements in Politics and Society in Southeast Asia.” (Cambridge University Press).  May 25, 2023. 86 pp. 21,24  ISBN: ‎ 1009398482. DOI: 10.1017/9781009398466  

Supporters of Syriza left wing party with flags outside Athens University in Greece on January 25, 2015. The baner says:"This is really good night Mrs Merkel." Syriza, won general elections. Photo: Kostas Koutsaftikis.

Government participation and populist discourse transformation of radical left SYRIZA and radical right ANEL

Abstract

This study examines how the government participation within an EU country can affect the discourse of the left-wing and right-wing populist parties. We analyzed this question by tracing two Greek populist parties’ discourse, the left-wing Syriza and the right-wing Independent Greeks (Anel), during the 2012-2019 period. We have split the examined period into two subperiods (2012 to July 2015, and August 2015 to 2019). The turning point was the Syriza-Anel government’s signature of the third EU bailout program in August 2015. The first hypothesis was that the government accession within the EU context would slightly decrease the populist logic of the two parties. The next two hypotheses referred that the EU leverage emerged by the signing of the bailout agreement will decrease the populist rhetoric of the two parties towards the external elites (mainly the EU). However, the right-wing populists (Anel)- even after this decrease- will target the external elites to a larger extent than the left-wing populists. To examine the hypotheses in-depth, we applied a combination of quantitative content analysis with qualitative discourse analysis. The findings have corroborated our three initial hypotheses. Simultaneously, the qualitative discourse analysis offered us some additional findings concerning the two parties’ use of topos of “History” to increase their populist appeal within the electorate.

By Alexandros Ntaflos

In the last years an increase in the appeal of populist parties has been occurred all around Europe (Inglehart & Norris, 2016; Ibsen, 2019). In some countries, the populist parties have participated in the national governments (Mair, 2013). According to the literature, populism’s main feature is that it divides society along two sides: the people (general will) vs. the elites (Laclau, 2005; Mudde, 2004). However, many analysts have mentioned that significant differences between the left-wing and right-wing populism exist (Otjes & Louwerse, 2015; Katsambekis, 2017). The gradual decrease in mainstream parties’ appeal had allowed right-wing populist parties to increase their electoral share participating in government cabinets in countries such as Austria, Italy, Norway, Finland, etc. (Mair 2013, p. 46). Furthermore, in Southern Europe, populist parties with left leanings have gained significant power after the 2008 Great Recession in Greece, Spain, and Portugal (Agustin, 2018; Bosco & Verney, 2012; Polavieja, 2013).

Given that populist parties have increased their power in many EU countries, often participating in governmental cabinets, it is -both academically and socially relevant- to investigate how these parties act when they assume governmental positions, and whether they adapt their discursive strategies (Kriesi 2014, p. 368; Albertazzi & Mueller, 2013). Following the Mair’s (2009) thesis, in contemporary democracies, it is tough for a government to be both representative and responsible, thus leading to a division of labor between the mainstream parties (responsible government) and the populists (representative role in the opposition). In this rationale, it is critical to explore how the populist parties of the EU democracies change their discursive articulation from the opposition to the government.

Greece constitutes a distinct case of populism. Following the country’s bankruptcy in 2010 the mainstream political parties faced an unprecedented electoral deterioration. Left-wing populist, Syriza (Coalition of Radical Left) and right-wing populist Anel (Independent Greeks) were the main newcomers that arose from the huge crisis of representation existed. The significant increase of their electoral power allowed them to form a government coalition in January 2015. However, the huge EU economic dependence that Greece had forced the two parties to sign a new bail-out agreement in August 2015 continuing the austerity policies implemented by the previous governments. Given that the two parties have articulated populist narratives targeting both domestic (mainstream parties, oligarchy, banking system, media) and external (EU bureaucracy, financial markets, globalization’s system) elites it is significant to examine how their accession to government within a period that Greece was under a strict EU financial surveillance affected their discursive strategies. A combination of quantitative content analysis with a qualitative discourse analysis on the party leaders’ pre-electoral public speeches -within the period 2012-2019- will take place to examine this question.

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Activists protest against the rise of fascism in Portugal in Coimbra in September 2020. Photo: Joao Ferreira Simoes.

CHEGA! A sceptre of the mainstream Portuguese parties’ disaggregation or a spectre of fascism?

Abstract

Over the past four decades, Portuguese voters have imprinted a solid resistance to the emergence of far-right parties in the political setting. However, this time ended in the 2019 legislative elections when the CHEGA, a self-located party on the far-right spectrum, with a posture assumed as anti-system and unconcerned with the accusations of racism and hate exhilaration, elected André Ventura to the national parliament. Moreover, in the 2021 presidential elections, he got 497,746 votes, a scant point to be the second most-voted candidate. The 2022 legislative elections placed CHEGA as the third most-voted party, and the number of members in parliament has climbed to twelve. This article critically examines the political constraints and opportunities for the rise of the CHEGA party in the Portuguese political setting. It argues that CHEGA emerges from the disintegration of centre-moderate right parties and the interruption of the emancipatory function of the leftist parties coupled with a ubiquitous traditional media landscape, which has proved favourable to the CHEGA propensity towards the Portuguese electorate and without scrutinise its narratives opposing the dominant ruling system. Beyond news media and cumulatively, social networks have also increased party exposure by recruiting affiliates and strengthening support bases.

By Carlos Morgado Braz

Throughout history, economic and social distress have stimulated antagonisms and political discontent with ordinary party politics. This thick reading explains why numerous radical far-right (RFR)[1] parties became well-established following the Cold War period. For Wodak and Krzyżanowski (2017), the return of these parties is one of the main threats to democracy. On the other hand, few others suggested it might positively affect contemporary democracy (Fraser, 2017). Nevertheless, whatever different argument these scholars use, they all agree that the RFR party’s success has been appropriating “claims” about the negative impact of social-cultural globalisation (e.g. ethnicity, religion) or the migration influx (e.g. class) involving a Manichean worldview, which divides social space into two opposing camps: the “true people” and the “corrupt establishment” (Urbinati, 2019).

To a great extent, as Goldberg (2020) found, this blurry puzzle has affected electoral behaviour, increasing the number of de-aligned and disillusioned voters who either do not participate or become open to new and more radical alternatives. However, in the existing literature, little attention has been paid to opportunities left open in the political setting by the dislocation of mainstream parties when they smooth over their foundational ideological matrixes to increase their chances of securing a winning majority. Instead, mainstream literature has mainly focused on voter turnout based on socio-economic variables or the dynamics behind RFR parties’ attitudes towards electoral campaigns. This article addresses this gap using the Portuguese CHEGA party’s emergence as a case selection.

One attempt to explain the RFR party’s electoral success could be Rydgren’s demand-side and supply-side conceptual approach[2]. According to Rydgren (2007), the demand-side approach reflects changes affecting citizens’ economic status and social-cultural identity – the base for RFR parties to go with criticism against those in power. In addition, the supply-side approach is twofold: the first focuses on the constraints and opportunities given by the political-institutional context that extend the prospect for their emergence; the second concentrates on parties themselves, e.g. the role of ideology and their organisational structures, including leadership. This article rests on the supply-side Rydgren’s approach. So, naturally, I question: Is Portugal dangerously returning to the fascist path, or is CHEGA a sceptre of the mainstream Portuguese political parties’ disaggregation?

To begin with is essential to remember that whatever ideological positioning a particular party uses, its manifestations will be contextual and dependent, among other things, on the country’s political, social and religious culture. The CHEGA is not an extremist party and is not, using a Wittgensteinian metaphor, an incarnation of our recent past. Instead, I argue it is a populist radical far-right party that emerged from the disintegration of centre-moderate right parties and the interruption of the emancipatory function of the leftist parties. Regarding its rise, the Portuguese traditional and social media platforms have facilitated André Ventura wide-reaching communication and intensified levels of connection with “the people” daily. However, given the spatial constraints of this article, this line of research is an obvious challenge that I will not address.

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Group of demonstrators on road, young people from different culture and race fight for climate change. Photo: Disobey Art.

What’s under green? Eco-populism and eco-fascism in the climate crisis

Abstract

The ongoing environmental crisis has prompted various groups, organizations, and political parties to develop new strategies for addressing this global challenge. In this context, eco-populist actors, organizations, and parties are playing a key role in challenging the current exploitative capitalist system. However, it is important to note that eco-populist movements can differ significantly from one another. This article aims to distinguish between two contemporary but distinct movements: eco-populism and eco-fascism. To accomplish this, the terms “populism” and “eco-populism” will be conceptualized and analyzed, and the ideological deviations that eco-populism has undergone will be explained. The article will then provide brief case studies that showcase both eco-populist and eco-fascist events. By examining these examples, we will strive to identify the main similarities and differences between these two movements. Our conclusion will be that, despite sharing some features, eco-fascist movements tend to be more violent and nativist than eco-populist movements.

By Iván Escobar Fernández & Heidi Hart

Although some extremist Populist Radical Right Parties are still reluctant to acknowledge the evident effects of climate change and the urgent need to take necessary actions (see Spanish Populist Radical Right Party VOX), there is quite a consensus among climate researchers, environmental scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists on the causes that have driven us to this climate crisis. Among the main reasons that can explain climate change, there is no doubt that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and massive extraction and exploitation of natural resources have contributed the most to the ongoing crisis (see IPCC, 2022). However, the impacts of climate change differ from region to region, thus making individuals more vulnerable according to their nationality, social class, proximity and dependency on natural areas (see Thornton et al., 2014). Considering these factors, it can be concluded that Indigenous communities are among the most endangered groups due to climate change. This vulnerability has led to the emergence of popular movements that oppose extractive industries and their consequent exploitation of the resources found in natural areas, thus fueling violence and concern all over the globe (see Torres-Wong, 2019).

In the beginning, these movements were somehow marginal and unknown by the rest of the world and their demands were far from being considered by policymakers; however, as climate change impacts have become more tangible, these groups and movements have enjoyed more recognition, and their demands are currently being heard and considered, for example during the Alternative COP 26 in Glasgow and COP 27 in Egypt. Today, though the approaches and strategies may differ, it is difficult to find a political party that has not included climate change mitigation and adaptation in its agenda. However, although “green policies” have become an integral area of most political parties and social movements, different approaches and schools of eco-political thought have emerged in response to the current situation. These include Eco-Rousseauians, who believe that GHGs emissions must be curbed by the purchase of carbon credits from the underdeveloped world and call for the immediate and voluntary halt to the exploitation of natural resources and the protection of ecosystems of the world; Eco-Hobbesians, who defend that climate change can only be overcome by the imposition of global sanctions and mutual coercion mechanisms; Eco-Smithians, think that climate change will be solved by human inventiveness and see it as an opportunity for designing, producing, and selling new products that will boost private gain Eco-Calvinists, who opt for using resource-efficiency techniques to solve the climate crisis; Eco-Christians, who firmly believe that only a coalition with evangelicals would ensure God’s creation; and Eco-Populism, which is worth a more thorough explanation due to its complexity (Yanarella, 2015).

This article aims to analyze the rise of eco-populism across the world and to identify its main features, motivations and goals. Furthermore, this article will also aim to make a distinction between eco-populism and an appearance similar movement that has been coined under the name of eco-fascism. To do so, we will first conceptualize what we understand as populism and eco-populism and will point out some deviations the latter has undergone in recent years. The following section will showcase four different case studies that will aim at helping us identify some common and distinctive features between eco-populists and eco-fascists. Lastly, our findings will be discussed and contrasted with the existing literature.

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Photo: Blue Planet Studio.

The economics of pandemics and the future course of populism

Abstract

The relevant literature shows that populists come to power through various rhetorics by exploiting the incumbent orders and the problems they have caused. However, failures and disappointments in fulfilling their promises push them to employ increasingly authoritarian measures to silence society to stay in power by gradually changing the system, manipulating citizens through controlling media, and undermining fundamental institutions. By emphasizing the overall performance of populist governments during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, this article explores the future course of populist politics and governments after the pandemic. The paper concludes that although the pandemic has clearly shown the limits and capacity of many populist governments, the political and economic conjuncture in the post-pandemic era, coupled with the high tension of power transition, might bring new “opportunities” for the use of populists. With several defects and structural weaknesses of the existing liberal multilateral order, populism is here to stay with different implications for the multilateral liberal order and globalization.

By Ibrahim Ozturk

Introduction

As a dangerous external shock to the global economic and political system, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a stage when the negative repercussions of the Global Recession (GR) had not fully subsided, exacerbating existing problems, such as unemployment, loss of income, and inequality, with further political and social repercussions. With the advent of other “horses of the apocalypse” – such as climate change, famine, migration, terrorism, and state failure – the current pandemic could emerge as an endemic part of life worldwide through new mutations.

This article strives to explore the effect of the pandemic on the performance of populists either in government or opposition in the post-pandemic era. Taken together, widespread uncertainties, confusions, fears, and stresses are the main push factors behind populism. Nevertheless, populist rhetoric offers untested (and sometimes) romantic promises to counter the actual social, political, and economic traumas and shocks, referring to an unknown, not yet born “alternative” system. Therefore, even if it is rather more straightforward for populists to come to power with the help of such political-economic conjunctures, they are more likely to experience difficulty fulfilling the expectations their populist rhetoric has caused. The real danger is that, despite failing to fulfil their promises, they tend to employ increasingly authoritarian measures to silence society so as to stay in power by gradually changing the system, manipulating citizens through controlling media, and undermining fundamental institutions.

This article strives to predict whether the global populist environment created by the GR will turn against populist governments during and after the Global Lockdown (GL) of the pandemic. However, the analysis of the performance of mainstream and populist parties during the COVID-19 pandemic is quite a challenging task as it is complicated by several other factors such as the ongoing global power shift and the accompanying national, regional and global geopolitical conflicts. In addition, countries’ overall political and economic situations just before the pandemic crisis have also been immensely influential on their performance. All these parameters have brought additional evaluation criteria other than their actual economic performance during the pandemic and ended up prolonging their lifespan.

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Turkish women took action on May 8, 2020 in Istanbul not to repeal the Istanbul Convention, which provides protection against domestic and male violence. Photo: Emre Orman.

Gender Populism: Civilizational Populist Construction of Gender Identities as Existential Cultural Threats

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Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2023). “Gender Populism: Civilizational Populist Construction of Gender Identities as Existential Cultural Threats.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 24, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0023

 

Abstract

In the Islamist version of civilizational populism, the emotional backlash against the rise of secularism, multiculturalism, progressive ideas, and ‘wokeness,’ has been skillfully employed. While for the populists, populist far right and civilizational populists in the West, usually the Muslims are the civilizational other, we argue in this article, in the Islamist civilizational populism, the list of civilizational enemies of the Muslim way of life also includes feminists and LGBTQ+ rights advocates. Gender populism is a relatively new concept that refers to the use of gender symbolism, language, policy measures, and contestation of gender issues by populist actors. It involves the manipulation of gender roles, stereotypes, and traditional values to appeal to the masses and create divisions between “the people” and “the others.” This paper looks at the case study of gender populism in Turkey, where the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for over two decades. The AKP has used gender populism to redefine Turkish identity, promote conservative Islamism, and marginalize women and the LGBTQ+ community. The paper also discusses how gender populism has been used by the AKP to marginalize political opponents.

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Introduction

In minimal terms, populism is conceived as a unique set of ideas, one that understands politics as a Manichean struggle between a reified will and sovereignty of the morally pure people and a conspiring elite (Hawkins et al., 2018: 15). In addition to this vertical dimension, populism’s horizontal dimension posits the Manichean binary opposition betweeninsiders and outsiders,  whereby the outsiders, who may even be citizens, are regarded as foreigners,  if not internal enemies, based on their identities. In some cases, these demonized individuals and groups are seen as internal extensions, agents, puppets and pawns of foreign conspiring forces and institutions such as the European Union (EU), “the Jewish lobby,” and extremist Islam. All these are seen as threatening the people’s security, identity, and way of life. In these manifestations of populism, the binary is based on not just national differences but an imagined civilizational enmity (Brubaker, 2017). This type of populism has been dubbed as ‘civilizational populism’ (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; 2022b).

Populism is involved in interpretative processes that lead to intense emotions  (Salmela & von Scheve, 2017; 2018). It paints the events, in-groups, and out-groups in certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitate sharp emotions in the audience (Brady et al., 2017; Graham et al., 2011). Emanating from structural (national and international) as well as affective foundations, populism has been effective in speaking to the deep emotions of the masses. It mobilizes people against other groups and/or the state by generating feelings of belonging, love, passion, fear, anger and hate (Morieson, 2017; DeHanas & Shterin, 2018; Yilmaz, 2018; 2021).

In the Islamist version of civilizational populism, the emotional backlash against the rise of secularism, multiculturalism, progressive ideas, and ‘wokeness,’ has been skillfully employed. While for the populists, populist far right and civilizational populists in the West, usually the Muslims are the civilizational other, we argue in this article, in the Islamist civilizational populism, the list of civilizational enemies of the Muslim way of life also includes feminists and LGBTQ+ rights advocates.

What Is Gender Populism?

Much like the highly contested definitional parameters of populism, there is no singular definition of the term ‘gender populism.’ It is a rather new combination that has peaked the interests of academics since the mid-2010s. Gender populism is essentially the use of gender symbolism, language, policy measures and contestation of gender issues by populist actors. For instance, both left- and right-wing populist groups in many Western communities have expressed a need to “protect” their countries, specifically women, from the “illiberal” or “conservative” influences of migrant groups. They profile migrant men as a security threat or as “groomers” and some countries have taken issue with women’s choice to wear a headscarf (Hadj-Abdou, 2018). 

At the same time, it is not uncommon to see a huge wave of resistance from right-wing groups reading gender roles. These groups aim to “restore” traditional gender roles which leads them to marginalize feminist directives and disapprove of the LGBTQI+ movements (Agius et al., 2020; Roose, 2020; Gokariksel et al., 2019). 

This first stream of literature shows how gender populism helps in the creation of an ideal people or “the people” as opposed to “the others” based on what they consider deviance from their relative gender norms. This also intertwines with the idea of civilizational populism because it gives an image of a utopian dream society or urges people to revert to “the golden era” e.g., the promotion of traditional roles for women (Sledzinska-Simon, 2020). 

Gender populism also helps in creating the image of populist leaders in many cases (Ashwin & Utrata, 2020; Löffler et al., 2020; Eksi & Wood, 2019; Roose, 2018). The leader is not only pure from the corruption of conventional “elite” politicians, but he is also a strongman. The populist demagogue is constructed as a ‘strongman’ who can keep threats a bay and take ‘tough decisions’ (Roose, 2022; 2018). Zia (2022) notes that in Pakistan and India, Imran Khan and Narendra Modi present their ‘strongman’ images and vitality as part of their gender populism. Similarly, Eksi and Wood (2019) discuss how both Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan through symbolic (language and body language) present themselves as a mixture of strongmen but at the same time fatherly figures to guide “the people.” 

Studies of female populist leaders show that gender plays a critical role in shaping the image of the leader in the eyes of “the people.” In France, Marine Le Pen’s gender populism constructs her as a mother saving the country from the cultural threats posed by ‘the others’ and her comparison to Jonah of Arc makes her the ‘brave hero’ who needs to act against threats such as migration (Geva, 2019; Sayan-Cengiz & Tekin, 2019).

Effeminization of the Elites and Dangerous Others by Populists 

The literature on gender populism also points out that gender populism is used to marginalize “the others” or “the elite.” One of the most common manifestations is the effeminization of ‘the elites’ and ‘the others’ by populist leaders (Agius et al., 2020; Ashwin & Utrata, 2020; Löffler et al., 2020; Eksi & Wood, 2019; Roose, 2018). 

By contrasting “feminine” political opposition, populist leaders contrast them with their “strong” image to gain credibility in the eyes of voters. For example, in the Philippines, the former President Rodrigo Duterte, is known for this ‘tough man’ acts and imagery while he uses terms such as “bitches,” “son of a bitch,” “chicken-hearted,” “sissy” and “idiots” to address all those who oppose him (UCA News, 2019; Bonnet, 2018; McKirdy, 2016). 

In short, gender populism manifests in various forms and is highly determined by contextual factors. It helps in the creation of “the people,” the populist leader/party, and “the others.” Simultaneously, it adds layers to the idea of an “ideal” society and is frequently used to marginalize both civilian and political opposition to populist forces. In a nutshell, it adds a layer to the divisiveness of populism using gender as the focus. 

Turkey’s AKP: A Case Study of Gender Populism         

Turkish women rallied in Istanbul to protest proposed anti-abortion laws by then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 18, 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Sadık Güleç.

In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for over two decades. These two decades have been marked by political as well as major social transitions. This has been a phase of reengineering Turkish citizens from a Kemalist identity to an Erdoganist one: an Islamist, militarist, civilizational populist, neo-Ottomanist citizen and a staunch follower of Erdogan’s personality cult (Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). 

At the heart of this recreation of Turkish identity, people and homeland gender has taken center stage. This makes the case of Turkey quite important to understand gender populism.  Given the heated debates around the 2023 general elections, various hues of gender populism have emerged which this article will discuss along with the party’s past recorded use of the phenomenon.  

The first signs of AKP’s populism were via the means of gender populism in 2007 when the party was contesting to secure its second term. To maintain its support, AKP positioned itself directly in a clash with the Kemalist principles of modernization which had previously barred women from wearing headscarves in public offices and educational institutions (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). At that time, AKP predominantly represented Muslims and the future (possible) first lady wore a headscarf which was unprecedented in the republic’s history. AKP presented itself as a defender of women’s rights as it sought to reverse the headscarf ban. This led to a mass protest by the Kemalist elite especially on social media which was dubbed “a digital coup” and in-person rallies “Republican Rallies.”  

To counter this Kemalist resistance, AKP did not simply make this a matter of right of choice for women, but it constructed the issue as a Manichean binary between Islam and the West, Western ideals being imposed by the Kemalists (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). This overtly ‘human rights issue’ was, at its core, the beginning of the populist Islamist ideology of AKP. Erdogan in 2013 led the country to abolish this ban as he announced in the parliament, “We have now abolished an archaic provision which was against the spirit of the republic. It’s a step toward normalization.” 

But this “normalization” is towards Islamist ideas of gender roles. For instance, during the 2010s on several occasions, the then Prime Minster and now President Erdogan expressed gender conservatism. In 2014 during an international summit,he said, “You cannot make men and women equal,” […] That is against creation. Their natures are different. Their dispositions are different.” He also accused feminists of not understanding the idea of “motherhood.” He also openly said Muslim families should not use birth control, “I will say it clearly … We need to increase the number of our descendants.” He added, “People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that. As God and as the great Prophet said, we will go this way. Over the years he has glorified the role of mothers and demonized the idea of a non-traditional women, for example, he said, “A woman above all else is a mother.” He has also called women “half workers” and labelled childfree women “deficient.” His exact quote for this instance reads, “A woman who rejects motherhood, who refrains from being around the house, however successful her working life is deficient, is incomplete.” 

In 2021, during a meeting with various officials from the EU, Erdogan ignored the head of the Union, Ursula von der Leyen, and left her standing while all the other men were seated on chairs. In a later comment, von der Leyen noted, “I am the first woman to be President of the European Commission. I am the President of the European Commission, and this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey two weeks ago, like a commission president, but I was not […] Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie? In the pictures of previous meetings, I did not see any shortage of chairs, but then again, I did not see any women in these pictures either.” 

These are not just simple comments by an elected official, they have real-life consequences for women in the country. Since AKP’s ascend to power, the rights of women have greatly suffered in the country compared to its European counterparts e.g., an increase in violence against women. Due to the growing discontent in 2015, following the murder of a woman, a social media and in-person campaign featured men wearing skirts to show solidarity with women who were being brutally attacked for wearing “Western attire” or were increasingly being subjected to violence without any state efforts to curb them. 

A direct policy consequence of this growing disregard for women’s safety is the historical pull out of the country from the Istanbul Convention in 2021. The Convention was designed to ensure pathways of seeking safety in case of domestic abuse by providing not only legal support but ensured victims safe places to reside when feeling from violent partners. AKP and its ultra-conservative alliance argued that this convention was hurting family values or was a hurdle in traditional ways of family law even though the murder rate of Turkish women rose from 66 women being killed in 2002 to 953 in 2009 which is an increase of 1400 percent. Erdogan and his party scraped this crucial form of protection by simply saying, “We will not leave room for a handful of deviants who try to turn the debate into a tool of hostility to our values.”

In addition to Erdogan, over the years various AKP officials and allies have issued highly contested remarks about women and their rights. For instance, in 2014 former Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc publicly on national television advised women not to “laugh in public.” Arınç has also told Nursel Aydoğan, a member of the Turkish Parliament from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to be quiet because she is a woman. He said, “Madam be quiet. You, as a woman, be quiet.” On a state-sponsored television program, Omer Tugrul Inancer an Islamist religious leader, said that it is a shame for pregnant women to be out in public. Turkey’s Finance and Treasury Minister, Nureddin Nebati, while discussing economic factors clearly stated that women should not or are not “suited” for “heavy work.” He defended his stance by saying, “Women are the crown of our heads, the medicine for our hearts. We do not care about some extremist and ideological discourses. Our values, this civilization and beliefs already order us to be sensitive about women. We just need to understand it. The enrolment rate in school for girls increased to 97 percent. The number of female MPs increased from 4.4 percent to 17.5 percent [under the AKP government]. The participation rate of women in the workforce has increased.” 

After over a decade of gender populism, women from within the party and from other opposition parties are open to sexist attacks within the parliament and also by citizens on online social media platforms. Arrest patterns since the 2016 mysterious coup attempt show that women along with dependent children and babies in thousands have been arbitrarily arrested because of their alleged involvement with what the government terms “terrorist” organizations. Women face a greater brunt of state-sponsored violence because they are harassed during “strip searches,” separated from their dependent children and infants, and at times are arrested because of the alleged crime of their husbands. 

Religious Turks was marching in an anti-LGBT demonstration in Şanlıurfa, Turkey in October 2022. Hundreds of people attended the protest with signs that read “Protect your family and your generation.” Photo: Hakan Yalçın.

Another gender dimension of AKP’s populism has been directed at the LGBTQI+ community. As early as 2013 the group has been repeatedly targeted by the party. In the country, there are no laws that criminalize or legalize the community but in recent years with the growth of Islamist views, state-led persecution and hate crime towards the community has escalated.

One of the most prominent waves of opposition to AKP took place in 2013 in the form of the Gezi Park protests. The protests began as a peaceful denunciation of AKP’s gentrification of public spaces in Istanbul and soon turned into a violent spectacle due to police brutality. After the death and injury of several peaceful protests and mass rioting, the Gezi Park protest fiasco was framed by the AKP as a ‘foreign’ attempt to curtail Turkey’s progress (Yilmaz, 2021).  

It was after the mass protests and their violent aftermath that AKP directly targeted the LGBTQI+ community by barring the Pride Parade under the guise of security. Since 2015, the state has actively tried to stop the parade but rather than security concerns the parade is framed as a ‘threat’ to Turkish culture and society as well as a foreign agenda to ‘mislead the youth.’ Nearly a decade after Erdogan has blamed ‘deviant’ youth for causing unrest and rioting over the years. In 2021 during a mass protest at a higher educational institute, the President Erdogan again blamed the group and said, “You are not the LGBT youth [to his followers], not the youth who commit acts of vandalism. On the contrary, you are the ones who repair broken hearts.” In 2022 he hinted at introducing legislation to criminalize LGBTQI+ communities in Turkey and he justified these actions by saying, “Can a strong family have anything to do with LGBT? No, it cannot. … We need a strong family. … Let’s protect our nation together against the onslaughts of deviant and perverted currents.” 

Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu called the LGBTQI+ community a “propaganda of a terrorist organization” in 2022. He also added, “There is cultural terrorism. The propaganda of a terrorist organization tries to make people forget their values, their religion, unity, parental love, and family loyalty. It is exactly Europe’s policy, exactly America’s policy of divide and rule.” He added, “What will happen? They will bring LGBT to Turkey. Forgive me, men will marry men, women will marry women. It just suits (the main opposition CHP leader Kemal) Kilicdaroglu. What a shame. It lacks all values. They are trying to create a policy based on an understanding that will alter almost all our values so that they can win the hearts of the Europeans and the West.”

The 2023 elections have sadly become a showcase of homophobia by AKP. Various AKP electoral candidates along with Erdogan have weaponized gender populism. They have attacked and accused the opposition coalition as supporters of ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘Western agendas’ because they supported the LGBTQI+ community and at times AKP has attacked the opposition by labelling them as ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT’ to construct them as weak, alien and loyal to the West. 

In 2023, during a re-election campaign Erdogan said, “In this nation, the foundations of the family are stable. LGBT will not emerge in this country.” He went on to say, “Stand up straight, like a man: that is how our families are.” He contrasted this by publicly accusing Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the alliance opposition leader, of being gay, as Erdogan at a rally said, “We know that Mr Kemal is an LGBT person.” 

During the period the LGBTQI+ community has been demonized as a threat to “family” and a ploy of the West, which according to AKP, represents “deviant structures” and stands as a symbol of a “virus of heresy.” At the same time, political opposition is not only targeted for its support for the community, but they are emasculated by being labelled as part of the community. 

Conclusion

While the 2023 presidential and general elections hold political significance for all those in Turkey, for women and the LGBTQI+ community these elections directly impact their future existence. This wave of Islamist reengineering of society, under the AKP regime, has changed the country’s social fabric. Women are increasingly left without state support when at their most vulnerable while top ministers and officials are openly issuing sexist comments and remarks. The Turkish idea of womanhood has undergone extensive change. Motherhood, virtue, and modesty are new parameters where those who oppose these traditional confines are constantly demonized, marginalized, or demonized. Similarly, the LGBTQI+ community, which enjoyed a relatively obscure existence, has become the front of a cultural battle. Their existence is seen as a direct existential threat positioned by the West to the Turkish ‘traditional’ values. 

These are not merely instances of the state being simply sexist or sexism being displayed by elected parliamentarians. It is rather a marriage between populism and gender conservatism which has fed AKP’s civilizational populism. It is a layer of populism that helps in the creation of “the others” and “the people” while remaining a useful tool to discredit the political opposition also called “the elite.” It also gives a threatening face to the ‘crises’ under the guise of being a threat to family and the way of life, making it quite simple and relatable for many. In essence, gender populism also feeds off the sentiments of the masses, it is not purely created by populists. 

The election results do matter, but what is worrying is the toll gender populism has taken on the Turkish social fabric. Its attempts to redefine gender roles have been met with opposition but at the same time have found a home in various quarters of society. This means a possible clash of narratives and further polarization in society which emanates gender-based hatred towards women and LBGTQI+ individuals might continue. 


 

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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