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

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

 

Abstract

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Populism and Authoritarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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


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

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

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

 

Abstract

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

By Nicholas Morieson & Ihsan Yilmaz

Introduction

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

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

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

Anti-Western Civilizational Populism in Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Western Civilizational Populism in Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Western Civilizational Populism in Israel 

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv, Israel on July 18, 2023, against Netanyahu’s anti-democratic coup as a bill to erase judicial ‘reasonableness clause’ is expected to pass despite 27,676 reservations. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


 

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


 

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

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

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Please cite as:

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

 

Abstract

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

By Barrie Axford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Multilateralism Today

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

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

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

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

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

What About Multipolarity?

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

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

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

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

Globalization in Flux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Is There a New Globalization?

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

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

So, what is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Are There Reasons to Be Cheerful?

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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Please cite as:

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

 

Abstract

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Fluctuating Populism: A New Concept

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

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

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

Indonesian Presidential Campaigns of Prabowo between 2009-2024

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

 

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

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

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

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

Prabowo’s Significant Political Transformation in the Recent Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1 – Political Performance

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

Table 2 – Political Communication

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

Table 3 – Target Audience

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

Table 4 – Narrative and Rhetoric

2009

Pro-‘the people’

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

Pro-the marginalized and the poor

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

Antagonism against the elites

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

Condemning the foreign powers

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

Anti-the foreign powers/external dangerous others

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

2014

Nationalism & anti-foreign powers

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

Masculinity

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

Anti-elites

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

Populist promise: Change

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

2019

Pro-the people

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

Pro-the marginalized and the poor & nationalism 

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

Anti-the elites and foreign powers

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

Nationalism, element of motherhood, populist promise

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

2024

Technocratic nationalism/technocratic institutionalism

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

Pro-the people, populist promise, nationalism

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

Contributing Factors to Prabowo’s Fluctuating Populism

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

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

Learning from his past defeats

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

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

Stepping away from polarizing religious populism

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

Becoming a technocratic figure and ally of his former opposition

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

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

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

Responding to changing perceptions of masculinity in society

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


 

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


 

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Photo: Dmitry Demidovich.

The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order 

Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). “The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies. January 17, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0013

 

In his book, “The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order,” Vittorio Emanuele Parsi argues that the neoliberal distortion of democracy has led to its erosion, giving rise to populism. This phenomenon has permeated both public discourse and the political culture of mainstream parties. Faced with this challenge, these parties find themselves at a crossroads, having to decide between a defensive response to the surge of populist movements or adapting and converging with their political platforms to prevent substantial losses in electoral support.

Reviewed by Andrea Guidotti

Some major shifts are shaping international politics in recent decades. Firstly, there is a noticeable decline in American leadership as the primary global force, accompanied by the simultaneous ascent of authoritarian powers such as China and Russia, altering the power dynamics among major nations. Secondly, terrorism, particularly its religiously charged variants, has gained increasing relevance and urgency, raising concerns in some regions, with the Mediterranean standing out prominently. Thirdly, during Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States veered away from the multilateral system, exhibiting unprecedented revisionist stances. Lastly, the ascent of nationalist and, more significantly, populist movements has tainted political discourse, disengaging citizens from liberal and, particularly, democratic principles in distinct yet interconnected ways.

In his book “The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order” Vittorio Emanuele Parsi, Professor of International Relations at the Catholic University of Milan, Italy, delves into the current state of the international political and liberal system. With a keen focus on the ongoing changes within the system, potentially jeopardizing its stability, Parsi’s central argument posits that since the 1980s, the Liberal World Order has gradually given way to the Neoliberal World Order, fundamentally altering its intrinsic nature.

The book contends that the foundational pillars of the system face challenges from various political and ideological movements: (i) Neoliberalism, which highlights the shortcomings of ‘big governments’ in terms of resource mismanagement and hindrance to the efficiency of market mechanisms; (ii) Neoconservatism, countering the ‘progressive’ agenda by emphasizing traditional values and principles of law and order; and (iii) Ordo-liberalism, utilized to justify state policies favoring capital at the detriment of labor.

The Liberal World Order is grounded in two fundamental objectives: firstly, the establishment of a system that is both open and institutionalized, ensuring the potential for democracies to flourish and prosper; and secondly, the reinforcement of the domestic political and socioeconomic systems upon which the overarching system is constructed. These goals were envisioned to materialize through the establishment of the United Nations, a universal and comprehensive institution replacing the ineffective League of Nations. It acknowledged the privileged status of the great powers that emerged victorious in World War II – the United States, the Soviet Union, China, the United Kingdom, and France.

The fundamental distinction between Liberalism and Neoliberalism lies in the nuanced relationship they establish between democracy and the market economy. Democracy, built on the premise of equality despite inherent individual differences, contrasts with the free market economy’s tendency to thrive on inequality, rewarding the most efficient entities and individuals based on their abilities/capabilities, productivity, and merits. The Neoliberal project, therefore, deviated by downplaying concerns related to inequality and fostering a system where increased productivity, driven by technological advancements, exclusively rewarded capital investments. This shift was not isolated; it emerged as a response to the widespread perception among politicians of stagnant wages and growing job insecurities.

The underlying logic was as follows: ‘income does not matter; consumption does.’ In simpler terms, as long as the middle class could maintain its consumption levels due to the newly implemented policies, it might not be overly concerned about the growing levels of inequality. What tends to be overlooked in these arguments is the reality that, even if there is no deliberate attempt to eliminate economic inequality with the aim of preventing political inequality, people do not need convincing that their unequal economic power translates into political disparities. Consequently, public policies geared towards creating more favorable conditions to attract international capital began to progressively fuel unemployment among the middle class, heighten job insecurities, erode the Welfare State, and bring an end to redistributive policies. In essence, an ideological clash between economic freedom and political sovereignty (the efficacy of democracy) emerged within and from the framework of the Liberal World Order.

According to Parsi’s book, the first problematic dimension of the current Liberal World Order is its altered distribution of power, coinciding with the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar system, where the US no longer stands as the sole global great power. On one hand, China is growing more assertive in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, implementing a ‘String of Pearls Strategy’ that involves cultivating privileged diplomatic, commercial, and military relations with certain countries, aiming to control vital sea lines of communication and strategic logistical supplies. Specifically, China seeks to assure its neighbors that it is a reliable actor, refraining from unnecessary threats as long as its perceived interests remain intact. On the other hand, Russia, exemplified by the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine, is endeavoring to expand its sphere of influence, willing to employ military means if deemed necessary. Additionally, both China and Russia are strategically involved in the Middle East, where the American presence has become increasingly problematic. While not explicitly sharing a strategy against the US, it is evident that Russia and China have been striving to establish a common platform against American hegemony.

The second problematic dimension involves the ‘molecularization and privatization of the threat,’ a consequence of the proliferation of terrorist groups that particularly destabilizes Western public opinions and political elites. In particular, Islamist terrorism has demonstrated a significant capacity for deconstruction within the Liberal World Order. Two noteworthy aspects emerge here. Firstly, the Mediterranean region has regained significant importance, serving as a focal point for indirect strategic actions against European countries to undermine their political stability. Secondly, Russia has reopened the front of contention in the Baltic Sea with respect to NATO.

The third problematic dimension is the American shift concerning the system during Trump’s presidency. Trump built his political credibility by addressing concerns about the emergence of ‘jobless growth,’ where economic expansion fails to translate into an expansion of job opportunities. In another light, argues Parsi, there’s the phenomenon of the ‘rentierization of the capitalistic system,’ which significantly favors financial investments over productive ones. Moreover, Trump pledged to deconstruct the Liberal World Order from within to rectify these distortions. Within Trump’s framework, the US revealed itself as a revisionist power within the system. By rejecting multilateral practices as a means to express its vision of a ‘constraint-free’ America, the US administration undermined the foundations of its own credibility in the eyes of both partners and allies, as well as adversaries.

The fourth problematic dimension revolves around democratic contamination caused by sovereigntist populism and technocratic oligarchies. The emergence of populist movements has led to a democratic deformation wherein opinions are simplistically and systematically transformed into decisions. The neoliberal distortion of democracy and its erosion have fostered populism, intoxicating both public discourse and the political culture of mainstream parties. These parties are then confronted with the choice of either defensively responding to the rise of these populist movements or adapting and converging with their political platforms to avoid significant loss in electoral support. According to the book, two strands of populism are crucial to this analysis: one targeting economic and financial elites, advocating for policies perceived as betraying the interests of American workers, and the other embodied in Trump’s politics, characterized by racial and ethnic-based nationalism and the notion of a ‘true America’ with distinct political inclinations. In a broader sense, populism can be viewed as a signal of discontent but also as a call to restore the balance between elites and the common people. Crucially, even when acknowledging that economic and social inequality naturally arises from individual differences in abilities and resources, this acceptance should not be used as a justification for the perpetuation of existing political inequality.

Professor Parsi concludes the book with a chapter on the pandemic and its relationship with the current (Neo)Liberal World Order, exploring potential solutions to the issues discussed throughout the book. Covid-19 showed that we were not all equally vulnerable to the virus, as its impact is asymmetric both for natural and especially economic reasons. This asymmetry mirrors the asymmetries, imbalances and inequalities inherent in the (Neo)Liberal World Order, where a few dictate its political and economic structure, disregarding the interests of the many and violating the foundational principles established post-WWII. Consequently, three key takeaways are proposed as potential remedies or paths worth pursuing: (i) rebuilding an up-to-date Liberal World Order by way of revitalizing democratic regimes in such a way that they can gain back control of market dynamics; (ii) the premise of the project should be a privileged relationship between the two sides of the Atlantic, i.e. democratic powers; (iii) We must not forsake values in favor of interests only, ensuring that those with underrepresented political strength are not overlooked or allowed those to wield power solely based on their economic and status position, influencing and shaping the rules of the game regarding the functioning of the system.


The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order by Vittorio Emanuele Parsi (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). 325 pp. €139,09 (Hardback), ISBN: 3030720454, 9783030720452

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

Competing Populisms, Digital Technologies and the 2024 Elections in Indonesia

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Please cite as:

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

 

Abstract

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

The Presidential Candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competing Populisms in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populism, Emotions and Digital Technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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


 

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

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

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

 

Abstract

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

By Hasnan Bachtiar

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Ganjar Pranowo?

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

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

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

Ganjar’s Chance in 2024 Presidential Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ganjar and Identity Politics 

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

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

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

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

Ganjar and Islamist Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


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Brazilia’s Luiz Inácio Lula is seen during the 2022 election campaign in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on October 20, 2022. Photo: Aline Alcantara.

Confronting Populist Authoritarians: The Dynamics of Lula’s Success in Brazil and Erdogan’s Survival in Turkey

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Please cite as:

Ozturk, Ibrahim. (2023). “Confronting Populist Authoritarians: The Dynamics of Lula’s Success in Brazil and Erdogan’s Survival in Turkey.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 6, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0027

 

Abstract

This article delves into the political trajectories of anti-establishment leaders Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) in Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, both of whom ascended to power in the early 2000s amid politically fragmented environments. The analysis explores the dynamics of their rise, governance styles, and the factors influencing the retention or loss of power. Lula’s success in the 2022 elections against right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro is attributed to his adept coalition-building and pragmatic policies. In contrast, Erdogan, facing economic crises and deep political unrest, managed to secure his position in the May 2023 elections, showcasing the complexities of populism. The article examines the leadership qualities, coalition-building strategies, and responses to challenges encountered by Lula and Erdogan. Despite initial similarities, Erdogan’s transformative approach to institutions and the establishment of a self-sustaining clientelist regime contributed to his longevity, in contrast to Bolsonaro’s defeat. The role of clientelism, rent-seeking, and corruption in both countries’ politics is discussed, emphasizing their impact on public perception. Lula’s effective positioning as an alternative to Bolsonaro is contrasted with Turkey’s lack of a convincing opposition. Despite bringing Turkey to the brink, Erdogan’s retention of power is attributed to maintaining a “man of the people” persona amid societal concerns for security and stability. In conclusion, the article underscores the nuanced dynamics of populist leadership, emphasizing the significance of historical context, governance strategies, and external factors in shaping the trajectories of leaders such as Lula and Erdogan.

By Ibrahim Ozturk

Introduction

In Brazil and Turkey, nations marked by histories shaped by military coups and dictatorships, establishment forces found themselves unable to thwart the ascent of anti-systemic actors to power. In the early 2000s, the leftist Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) and the rightist Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Erdogan) rose to prominence in a highly fragmented political environment, garnering support from individuals who had long been marginalized.

Contrary to apprehensions, the transition of power from so-called establishment elites to the “real people” occurred primarily within the existing rules, devoid of bloodshed or violence. Two pivotal factors played a decisive role in shaping this outcome. Firstly, the global landscape witnessed the winds of democracy and market economy reforms, coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the decisions of China and India to embrace globalization, and the zenith of the appeal of the European Union and the United States. Secondly, public anger and discontent intensified due to the escalating number and depth of economic and political crises in developing countries, such as Brazil and Turkey, which struggled to keep pace with globalization and increasingly found themselves on the periphery.

Furthermore, Turkey’s fragmented political environment, in addition to addressing country-specific challenges like corruption, terrorism, and natural disasters, contributed to the impetus for change. Despite Erdogan’s party receiving limited support with only 34.28 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) disproportionately secured 363 deputies in the 500-seat parliament due to an unfair electoral system, while many other parties were excluded. In Brazil, the Lula-led alliance triumphed in the presidential race with 61.27 percent support, compared to 38.73 percent for its opponents. Recognizing the significance of coalition-building in such a delicate political climate, Lula moderated his left-wing working-class discourse in Brazil, and Erdogan adjusted his religious and anti-secular rhetoric in Turkey. Both leaders shifted towards the political center, aligning themselves with democratic and market-oriented principles. This suggests that citizens in both countries anticipated a measured and predictable change in central policies rather than a complete overhaul of the system.

Lula and Erdogan assumed power amid the implementation of painful austerity programs in response to economic crises, yielding impressive initial results in both countries. Consequently, they fostered a “responsible” image regarding market economy principles and demonstrated a “sensible” approach toward those experiencing poverty. In Brazil, where macroeconomic stability improved and capital inflows surged, significant commodity exports fueled growth, generating foreign currency. Meanwhile, Turkey garnered attention for its EU membership-oriented reforms, heightened institutional quality, predictability, and productivity. Positive developments in Turkey were primarily driven by structural reforms, leading to productivity and efficiency-driven growth, while in Brazil, the advantage of being a “commodity exporter” was leveraged through the rapid increase in global commodity prices.

Protesters protest for the freedom of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Avenida Paulista in São Paulo, Brazil on April 7, 2019. Photo: Cris Faga.

After Lula was barred from politics for a third term amid corruption allegations, unaddressed judicially, issues such as corrupt scandals, weakened economic growth, deteriorated income distribution, and political chaos paved the way for the rise of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, with a military background, to power at the end of 2018. In contrast, Erdogan did not lose power. After securing control for the third consecutive time in the 2011 elections, Erdogan’s response to the economic crisis and systemic corruption scandals took on an authoritarian tone. He implemented “counter-coup” processes to legitimize his ultimate aim of marginalizing democracy in the country. This led to subsequent practices of a state of emergency, the enforcement of radical public security measures, and a rhetorical emphasis on national independence and sovereignty, defining the characteristics of his governance. That is, he maintained power by leveraging security concerns and intimidating voters.

Bolsonaro and Erdogan, facing the pandemic crisis, were expected to leave power due to the severe economic crisis triggered by their incompetent and arbitrary one-person regime practices. While this expectation came true when Lula returned to power for the third time in the March 2022 elections, Erdogan, who had been in power for 20 years, retained his position in the May 2023 elections. This article explores why Erdogan held onto his seat against a coalition led by a center-left-wing leader in 2023, while in 2022, a left-wing coalition led by Lula emerged victorious against the right-wing authoritarian populist Bolsonaro.

The paper unfolds as follows: after establishing a framework outlining the globalization-populism transmission mechanism in the next section, the third section focuses on a brief comparative perspective of the economies of Brazil and Turkey. The fourth section utilizes social welfare policies to elucidate Lula’s rise and Erdogan’s endurance in the aftermath. The fifth section delves into the nature of the “coalitions” subject to contestation between the populist incumbent regime and the mainstream opposition. The final section summarizes the main findings and derives some policy implications.

Populist Waves in the Post-Cold War Global Conjuncture

Over time, the Western-centered liberal multilateral order (LMLO), established in the post-Second World War (WW-II) era, and the unparalleled globalization it ushered have given rise to some pathological contradictions due to the economic, political, and social fault lines they activated. The traditional values and norms of the LMLO prioritized rapid growth, full employment, the pursuit of equality, and democracy, imposing a certain level of control and discipline on excessive capitalist tendencies. In other words, while economies became more integrated through trade, governments could maintain firm control of corporate activities and regulate labor markets, trade unions wielded strength, and, above all, finance was restrained (Kuttner, 2018).

Three global imbalances in different regions and countries triggered uncharted globalization, but self-serving market mechanisms failed to “correct” or neutralize them. First, with the opening up of China and India and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, billions of cheap surplus labors changed the nexus of the world economy, not through direct labor movements but through free trade. Second, radical technological shifts fundamentally transformed the existing global economic paradigm in trade, production, and finance, highlighting excessive connectivity and dependency. Third, the emergence of a substantial structural saving glut in northern Europe, centered on Germany, and in East Asia, centered on China and Japan, triggered enormous global financial flows (Cheung et al., 2020). Despite the surge in production, trade volume, and financial flows that created employment, generated income, and helped lift many people from absolute poverty, it also set parallel and more destructive trajectories in motion.

Taken together, these factors operated in diverse geographies in a complex manner, yielding asymmetric outcomes such as the ascent of a powerful and wealthy business elite, the decline of trade unionism, escalating worker insecurity, financial instability, and surging income and wealth inequality. This process triggered significant migrations and dislocations, perceived as threats to established endogenous lifestyles, national identity, and security in developed countries. Consequently, these outcomes inevitably and dangerously contributed to the rise of populist, xenophobic, and authoritarian attitudes among a growing proportion of the population (Cingano, 2014).

Simultaneously, the “voice of the great masses” emerged against elites who economically oppressed the people, humiliated them as a way of life, and excluded them politically. Given that globalization diminished national sovereignty and independence in both developed and developing countries from various perspectives, opposition to existing multilateral governance institutions (i.e., the United Nations, NATO, IMF, WTO, and World Bank) and multinational companies externally, along with criticism of the status quo internally, has become a prevalent trend. The possibility of pursuing multiple balanced politics, created by the emerging multipolar world, also provided a fertile ground for alternative combinations of populist rhetoric. As the global economic crisis (GER 2008-2009) and the COVID-19 pandemic (2019-2021) have shown, excessive connectivity undermines the resilience of national economies. Therefore, sustained economic growth and the protection of social peace in semi-peripheral countries like Turkey and Brazil rely on their capacity to manage their adaptation to the instabilities of the global economic system. The similar crises opened the avenue for further populism.

Experts highlight the crisis of trust in democracy over the last three decades, a period dominated by neoliberal globalization as the primary alternative. This crisis is primarily attributed to corruption and the failure of governments to provide essential public goods, particularly in health and education, ultimately impeding the transition of developing countries into higher-income status.

Therefore, populist leaders, who initially adhered to global market norms and upheld the rule of law amid the remarkable global economic growth from 2002, shifted their stance with the onset of the global economic recession (GER 2008-2009) associated with the neoliberal paradigm and its political and economic challenges. Taking advantage of the increasingly multipolar world order, they began gravitating towards their “hardcore” ideologies, legitimizing them with populist rhetoric. This era marked the golden age of global populism until the COVID-19 pandemic (Posner, 2017).

Recent studies (DEMO Finland, 2023; International IDEA, 2022; V-Dem Institute, 2023) measuring the global state of democracy underline that the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism is more than double that of those moving towards democracy, placing 37 percent of the world’s population under authoritarian rule (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2023). A recent report from Freedom House (2022) finds that only 43 percent of countries can be classified as free and considered democracies.

On the other hand, as discussed by Öztürk (2022a), the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deepening economic crisis did not yield definitive results regarding populist trends. Viktor Orbán in Hungary defeated the opposition coalition and remained in power, while Donald Trump, who lost the elections but increased his votes in the USA, contested the results, refusing to concede peacefully and leaving behind “Trumpism.” In Brazil, Bolsonaro lost the election by a narrow margin and, like Trump, attempted to deny the results. In Turkey’s most recent case, the ruling populist Erdogan remained in power in largely unfair elections. While the defeat of populist leader Kaczyński in the elections in Poland (October 15, 2023) created some early signals for optimism, the victories of libertarian outsider populist Milei in Argentina and far-right Wilders in the Netherlands suggest that the populist backlash has resurged amid the economic crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the paradoxes or fragilities of incumbent regimes is that, despite their shortcomings, they enable populist leaders to come to power through relatively free and fair elections. However, once in power, the populist leaders often deny the rules of the game, refraining from adhering to or improving upon the same rules, norms, and values, thereby turning elections into mere spectacles. Unsurprisingly, the “defeating of authoritarian populist leaders” has become a hot topic worldwide. Two such cases are Lula’s victory over the incumbent populist leader Bolsonaro and his subsequent rise to power. The other is Erdogan’s survival in office in the May 2023 elections despite multiple political and economic crises, pandemics, and a devastating earthquake.

Brazil and Turkey in Perspective

Introducing Main Political Figures

Although the international interconnectedness and geographic proximity (the so-called geostrategy), democratic experiences, population dynamics, economic structures, and cultural codes of these two countries are significantly different, the strategies and policies of said political leaders in mobilizing these different parameters can still provide a reasonable basis for a comparative study with an opportunity to draw far-fetched lessons in the fight against democratic backsliding. Lula and Erdogan ascended to power during a profound governance crisis in 2002. After decades of military dictatorship, Brazil emerged as a prominent and the youngest democracy in Latin America and the world since 1985, undergoing a relatively peaceful power transition. Subject to the separation of powers among the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches, Brazil also possesses a civil oversight mechanism comprising an independent media and an autonomous central bank. Its current constitution provides robust protections for civil liberties.

On the other hand, while Turkey’s democratization efforts date back to the second half of the 19th century, genuine multi-party free elections only took place after World War II. Despite numerous interruptions, the multi-party parliamentary system, based on checks and balances, persisted until the implementation of the Presidential Government System (PGS) in 2018. Theoretically, Turkey’s PGS can be characterized as a representative democracy and a constitutional republic within a pluriform multi-party system, where the president (serving as the head of state and head of government), parliament, and judiciary share powers reserved for the national government. In practice, since the consolidation of power in 2018, the political regime in Turkey has lost its democratic and rule-of-law-bound characteristics. The parliament has effectively become a rubber-stamping body, providing legitimacy cover for Erdogan’s arbitrary and erratic one-person rule. Numerous elected representatives have been expelled from the parliament and imprisoned. Elected mayors, particularly in the Kurdish region of the country, were ousted, imprisoned, and replaced by appointed public servants as “substitutes.” The judiciary underwent a thorough purge by the Erdogan regime, with positions filled by professionally unqualified individuals demonstrating a cult-like adherence to the regime.

Given the overarching characteristics of political regimes and the pragmatic, opportunistic, and contingent attitudes of populist leaders reflecting their personalities, comparing populists and deriving reliable, generalizable conclusions proves challenging. Nevertheless, despite differences in rhetoric, their discourse ultimately aligns with mainstream ideology when in power. In this context, Lula is a left-wing populist, Bolsonaro is right-wing, and Erdogan represents a hybrid form, oscillating between left and right-wing rhetoric. 

Of working-class origin, Lula embarked on his career as a metalworker, evolving into a trade unionist during the 1970s. Amidst the Brazilian military dictatorship, he led significant workers’ strikes from 1978 to 1980. He played a pivotal role in founding the Workers’ Party in 1980, contributing to Brazil’s political opening and the end of the military regime. Although Lula has maintained ideological consistency, his two terms in power from 2003 saw him adopting a more market-friendly approach to gain confidence while concurrently upholding a “pro-citizen” stance through extensive social welfare policies. 

In contrast, as a right-wing populist, Bolsonaro utilized anti-elitist sentiments, challenging the establishment and positioning himself as a spokesperson for the “common people” while championing family values. Bolsonaro, who entered politics in the late 1980s as a retired representative of a “democratically defeated military class,” is the complete opposite of Lula, who fought against the military class. His national populism relied on themes of neo-nationalism, social conservatism, and economic and fiscal conservatism. It should be an incredible coincidence that after successfully confronting Bolsonaro’s military forces in the late 1980s as a left-wing trade unionist, actively contributing to the revival of democracy in Brazil, Lula found himself in a new role as Bolsonaro’s rival in civilian politics in the 2020s. While Bolsonaro aimed to undermine Brazil’s democratic gains through civilian means, Lula declared his intention to advance democracy even further. As a seasoned trade unionist and politician, Lula again emerged victorious in the battle against Bolsonaro, this time in civil politics.

On the other hand, Erdogan, with a “hybrid” political personality, defies easy comparison with center-left-wing figures like Lula, right-wing figures like Bolsonaro, and others. This uniqueness led Cagatay (2017) to label him the “inventor of 21st-century populism” in the post-Cold War multipolar world. Beyond his personality and ideological affiliation, the geopolitics of Turkey has significantly shaped Erdogan’s approach, compelling him to adopt a pragmatic stance to balance competing interests at the intersection of the East and West, and the global North and the South. Additionally, the varied impacts of Brazil’s abundant natural and energy resources, along with Turkey’s dependence on them, have contributed to the formulation of distinct policies and strategies by these leaders.

Despite the mentioned differences between Lula, Erdogan, and Bolsonaro, and regardless of their tenures in power, they all fell short of exhibiting transformative leadership. Instead, they pragmatically engaged in transactional give-and-take relationships, mainly when circumstances were favorable. Ultimately, they could not steer the economy onto a sustainable growth path. As de Colvalho (2017) puts it, the combination of low-quality intellectual rather than political leadership, poor strategic thinking, and weaknesses in the face of financial markets made the adoption of ‘a liberal capitalism with a human look’ a done deal. In both countries, it was not a step in any direction but the result itself.

Campaign posters of opposition Republican People’s Party, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 3, 2023. Photo: Tolga Ildun.

The final political actor to be considered in this analysis is Kemal Kilicdaroglu (referred to as Kilicdaroglu), the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the opposition coalition’s presidential candidate in the May 2023 parliamentary elections. A retired bureaucrat with left-wing leanings, Kilicdaroglu observed a significant shift in political rhetoric toward right-wing ideologies during Erdogan’s rule. Recognizing the need to resonate with the conservative silent majority, he endeavored to align his discourse and the CHP’s rhetoric more closely with them. At the same time, Kilicdaroglu anticipated that the traditional elites would remain loyal voters to the CHP. However, neither he nor his party managed to establish a consistent, convincing, and trustworthy line within this evolving discourse. That is mainly because CHP is known to be the status quo party whose supporters include the elites, military and civilian bureaucrats, and a privileged, wealthy class. Aware of the ongoing negative political legacy or image of the CHP’s top-down societal engineering, repression, negation, and insult of the lifestyle of the so-called silent majority, Kilicdaroglu built his entire election campaign in 2023 on a kind of defense, apology, self-criticism, and the need for a new “social contract.” However, with his weaker and indeterminate leadership quality, these “last-minute efforts” were seen as a tactical maneuver and remained unconvincing. Although his established electorate continued to support him, in the end, he was not entirely successful in recruiting a significant number of “borrowed votes” from the alternative circles.

By leveraging his shared ethnicity as an advantage, he also managed to prevent the Kurds from fielding a separate presidential candidate and thereby secure their support. Although the nationalist tone of his discourse unsettled the Kurds and the conservative aspect troubled the secular Kemalists, the prevailing distrust towards Erdogan garnered him significant support. However, despite leading in the early phase of the first round of the May 2023 elections, he ultimately failed to secure victory after Erdogan’s alleged voting fraud which was left unchallenged and uninvestigated because every single apparatus of the state and the media is controlled by him and his cronies. Unfortunately, his passive response to political interference, silence, non-compliance with voter laws, cowardice, indecision, and the highly volatile nationalist stance he adopted in the second round resulted in a decline in his supporters’ numbers. As a consequence, Erdogan emerged victorious in the elections once again. However, rather than relying heavily on populist rhetoric, he should have shown that his party was more competent for power with his coalition partners than Erdogan. By triggering a populist race regarding distributive policies, he opened Eden’s doors by legitimizing Erdogan’s destructive policies. At a more fundamental level, as compared to Lula’s stance against Bolsonaro, Kilicdaroglu has no past combative stance or leadership capacity for such a Herculean race. 

It can be stated that Kilicdaroglu failed to garner the support of (i) the white pro-status quo Kemalist Turks due to his ethnic Kurdish origins, (ii) a large Sunni Muslim population due to his minority religious affiliation (Alevism), (iii) Kurds and Leftists because of his Kemalist-nationalist ideology, and, last but not least, (iv) liberals and the big capitalists because of his distance from the market economy, inconsistent statements against the capital owners. Furthermore, given his late age, relatively weak leadership, the fact that he had lost every election he had contested, and opaque “negotiations” with various lobbying forces, it was unlikely that a coalition led by Kilicdaroglu would defeat Erdogan. In conclusion, while Lula competed in a more anti-establishment and anti-elite position than Bolsonaro in Brazil, Kilicdaroglu failed to settle in the same position against Erdogan’s competitive authoritarian regime. 

Economic Challenges

When Lula and Erdogan took over the power in the early 2000s, they faced three main challenges with crucial implications for their success: i) Overly politized and excessively divided political culture hinders stability, social capital, and coalition building. ii) A decade of stagnated economy with chronic high inflation. iii) High level of uncertainty caused by a lack of trust in Lula’s hardcore left and Erdogan’s conservative Islamist ideology.

To address these serious concerns, starting from the election campaign at the latest, they emphasized trust building and maintaining social coalitions by promoting a pragmatic, flexible approach to economic management in their first years in power. They also promised to continue ongoing reforms, respect for the rule of law, and adherence to market economy principles. The external world was also quite supportive to their advantage, as the 2000s witnessed one of the golden ages of global capitalism in terms of production, trade, and financial flows. The ongoing austerity programs in the economies of both countries began to show positive results, and the reforms enabled them to take advantage of the new opportunities emerging in the expanding global economy. Turkey’s comprehensive reform program for the EU membership provided additional anchors.

To succinctly summarize the stylized facts of macroeconomic progress during the initial two terms of Lula and Erdogan, average growth generally aligned with Brazil’s and Turkey’s long-term averages of 4 and 5 percent, respectively. From a comparative standpoint, Brazil exhibited significant volatility compared to similar emerging market economies, while Turkey’s growth saw a consistent decline post-2014. In Erdogan’s initial years, the surge in productivity resulting from EU and IMF reforms took center stage in driving growth, whereas Brazil relied on commodity exports as the primary engine of economic expansion. Both countries achieved the upper-middle-income (UMI) country status regarding their per-capita GDP, which hit 13,000 dollars in Brazil in 2012 and 12,500 in Turkey in 2013. Both countries’ monetary and fiscal discipline, implemented in response to the persistent threat of inflation during the 1990s, played a pivotal role in achieving reasonably high growth and a successful disinflation process. Inflation remained in single digits for both nations. Alongside the disinflation process and the expansion of employment opportunities, capital inflows, surpassing historical benchmarks for the two nations, facilitated the financing of a substantial fight against poverty, leading to a notable improvement in income distribution. 

However, the global financial crisis laid bare the vulnerable and fragile nature of both countries’ growth trajectories. The growth episodes in both nations, highly susceptible to external conditions, were significantly interrupted by the global crisis in late 2008, contributing to a deterioration in the political climate. Although the growth performance surpassed the OECD (2 percent) and world average (3 percent), it remained well below the growth achieved by the reference group of upper-middle-income countries (UMI) at 7.3 percent. This disparity can be attributed to both countries experiencing unstable and long-term declines in growth, indicating structural issues, an overemphasis on fiscal austerity, and a lack of well-designed and implemented industrial policies.

Over the subsequent decade, the situation further deviated. Average growth between 2011 and 2018 was 0.7 percent in Brazil during the unstable post-Lula years and 6.2 percent in Turkey until the full institutionalization of the one-person regime. In contrast to their 2012 achievements, Brazil and Turkey fell behind the world GDP per capita and the UMI group. Several negative factors, including the post-2014 recession bringing renewed unemployment and poverty, political instability, and associated uncertainty, paved the way for Bolsonaro’s rise to power in 2018. Turkey faced persistent reform backlogs, loss of EU membership perspective, and Erdogan’s increasing authoritarian tendencies after the 2011 election, resulting in significant regression. Widespread and systemic corruption scandals from December 17-25, 2013, Erdogan’s self-orchestrated coup attempts on July 15, 2016, and the system reform in 2018 triggered a period of deconstruction (Öztürk, 2022b; Guriev & Papaioannou, 2020).

During the Bolsonaro era (2019-2022) and Erdogan’s single-man regime, average growth remained at 0.7 percent and dropped to 4.7 percent in Turkey. Professional and autonomous institutions in both countries were undermined and occupied by Erdogan’s incompetent but ambitious loyalists, becoming highly politicized and discredited. Consequently, these figures are deemed unreliable, exaggerated, and manipulated. Unlike Brazil, the excessive use of unsustainable expansionary monetary and fiscal policies made inflated growth costly and short-lived. Growth was significantly lower during Bolsonaro’s era and insufficient in Turkey after the presidential change in 2018. 

In the 2019-2022 period, the most concerning socioeconomic indicators in Brazil include a surge in poverty due to low growth and a deteriorating fiscal balance resulting from the escalating public debt burden. Conversely, in Turkey, alongside these issues, the alarming increase in external deficits and inflation reaching triple digits are significant factors contributing to the economic challenges. It is crucial to note that these factors have led to an extreme depreciation of the Turkish lira.

From a comparative perspective, the rise of right-wing populist Bolsonaro to power in Brazil and the complete transformation of the Turkish parliamentary system towards one-person presidential rule in 2018 played a crucial role in the subsequent years of both countries. The argument that unsustainable growth dynamics and populist policies would lead to a deterioration in the macroeconomic environment and those populist leaders, contrary to their promises, would cause more significant damage to society was proven. Like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdogan worked to curb the country’s institutional capacity by attacking the judiciary’s power and electoral institutions. Their aggressive manner and attacks on women and journalists served as apparent methods of implementing a “divide and rule” strategy (Phillips, 2022). Their far-right rhetoric also exhibited hatred for minorities.

The pandemic also highlighted how populists deny science, scientists, and expertise. They both dismissed and denied COVID-19 and promoted unproven remedies (Burni & Tamaki, 2021). Even went beyond that, Erdogan mobilized people for political campaigns during the pandemic and expressed skepticism about vaccines. Both countries have recorded some of the worst COVID-19 responses, with death tolls presumed to be significantly undercounted (Béland et al., 2021; Phillips, 2022).

Neglecting the green economy deal and environmental sustainability has been another significant aspect of their populist approach. Deforestation in the Amazon region returned in Brazil, turning the country into a pariah in the global fight against climate change. In Turkey, the construction sector took center stage in Erdogan’s economic policy, leading to shrinking agricultural areas (Adiguzel, 2023; Le Monde, 10.08.2023).

Bolsonaro’s actions after the elections raised concerns about how authoritarian populist leaders (do not) leave power. Far-right supporters stormed the presidential palace, Supreme Court, and Congress in Brasilia on January 8, 2023, echoing the attack on the US Capitol in 2021. Erdogan’s use of state resources for the campaign and his slander against opposition candidates during the 2023 elections further highlighted populist tendencies. Both leaders have shown a pattern of opposing what they promised in opposition, resorting to unsustainable policies, and not leaving power quickly when unsuccessful.

With Bolsonaro’s election at the end of 2018 and Erdogan’s significant regime change in Turkey in the same year, the political environment in both countries took on an increasingly repressive character. Indicators of democracy, separation of powers, human rights, and quality of governance began to decline. The Freedom House Report (2023) classified Turkey as a “not free” country, contrasting Brazil’s status as a “free country.” According to the World Justice Project’s (WJP) Rule of Law Index (RLI) (Table.1), Turkey ranked 117th out of 140 countries in 2023, with an overall score of 0.42 (the higher the score, the better the rule of law). Turkey, which had a “rules-governed, albeit weak, country” status with a score of 0.52 in 2012 and 2013 when the WJP began, has steadily declined and has been mainly out of the “rule of law” realm since 2015. However, Turkey’s most worrying scores focus on limitations on government powers at 0.28, fundamental rights at 0.30, and criminal justice at 0.34.

These data clearly show that, besides the economy, fundamental rights have also been sacrificed under the arbitrary one-person regime introduced in Turkey in 2018. In Brazil, the RLI was 0.58 in 2012-2013, right after Lula. However, it fell steadily to 0.49 until 2022, when Bolsonaro lost the election. 

Table 1 WJP Rule of Law Index
  Argentina Brazil China India Kazakhstan Mexico Poland Romania Turkey
Income Group Upper middle  Upper middle  Upper middle  Lower middle  Upper middle  Upper middle  High  Upper middle  Upper middle 
Overall Score 0,55 0,49 0,47 0,50 0,53 0,42 0,64 0,63 0,42
Constraints on Government Powers 0,56 0,51 0,32 0,58 0,43 0,44 0,54 0,62 0,28
Absence of Corruption 0,46 0,43 0,53 0,40 0,48 0,26 0,72 0,55 0,45
Open Government  0,61 0,60 0,40 0,59 0,46 0,59 0,60 0,63 0,40
Fundamental Rights 0,68 0,48 0,26 0,47 0,46 0,49 0,61 0,67 0,30
Order and Security 0,61 0,64 0,81 0,64 0,80 0,52 0,85 0,83 0,73
Regulatory Enforcement 0,50 0,48 0,48 0,47 0,52 0,44 0,63 0,58 0,40
Civil Justice 0,55 0,50 0,51 0,43 0,61 0,37 0,61 0,65 0,43
Criminal Justice 0,41 0,33 0,45 0,39 0,47 0,28 0,58 0,53 0,34
Source: https://worldjusticeproject.org/rule-of-law-index/country/2022/Turkey/

So, if Bolsonaro had stayed in power as long as Erdogan and managed to reshape the system, the results in Brazil might have mirrored those in Turkey. This sheds light on why the authoritarian right-wing populist leader Erdogan, unlike Bolsonaro, successfully secured his 21-year seat and retained power in Turkey’s May 2023 elections.

Answering the question, “How and why was Bolsonaro defeated and had to accept the results so that Lula could return for a third term in 2022, while Erdogan retained power in Turkey’s 2023 elections?” leads to the first conclusion: Changing populist-authoritarian governments in power is a daunting task, especially if they persist and fundamentally change the regime, as Erdogan effectively did in 2018. As discussed by Yilmaz and Morieson (2022) from different perspectives, Erdogan’s ability to impose his point of view on society depends on taking control of the press, manipulating the justice system, and effectively using national culture. Society’s ability to adapt is influenced by time, and over the past two decades, Erdogan has found or artfully created such an opportunity in Turkey. While the elections in Brazil took place within a functioning democratic constitutional state, such an order was almost abolished in Turkey, turning elections into a mechanism for legitimizing an authoritarian leader.

The following section focuses on the extraordinary relationships that Lula and Erdogan have built through social welfare policies and the two leaders’ coalition-building ability with society to ensure that all of these factors produce results in the complex web of relationships with each other.

The Use of ‘Social Policy’ 

Family Stipend (Bolsa Família) During and After Lula

During their first two terms, economic growth in two countries with the above-discussed fragile aspects until the global economic crisis in 2008-2009 and the significant rise in national income allowed both Lula and Erdogan to implement social policies toward the most fragile targeted groups. To start with Brazil, the growing export surplus and rising tax revenues allowed the Lula government to fight widespread poverty by investing in social programs. During Lula’s era, social spending accounted for 16 percent of GDP through direct/indirect social assistance. Direct transfers included conditional cash transfer programs, non-contributory pensions, food transfers, unemployment benefits, exceptional circumstances pensions, etc. In-kind transfers are benefits of universal free public education and health systems. According to OECD (2023), with the addition of contributory pension payments, social spending topped 25 percent of GDP.

Among others, Bolsa Família (the Family Stipend), the core of Lula’s social policies, was implemented in 2003 as the world’s most extensive direct conditional cash-transfer program directly to the poor. It supported families with children with a per capita income of fewer than 70 dollars a month, granted a small sum of money per child (up to three children) as long as they were vaccinated, stayed in school, and did not engage in illegal child labor. The benefits are mainly paid to women via a chip card. As a result, as of 2010, 12.4 million households had enrolled in the program, and, in sum, 20 to 30 million Brazilians were rescued from poverty. According to Neri (2010), one-sixth of Brazil’s strides in poverty reduction can be attributed to this program, which only cost 0.5 percent of the Brazilian GDP. 

Through Bolsa Família, nearly 13 million new jobs were created, and the increase in the minimum wage from $100 to $205 during Lula’s presidency was crucial in addressing Brazil’s traditionally skewed income distribution. Recent studies indicate that targeted cash transfer programs associated with Bolsa Família and minimum wage hikes accounted for more than half (55 percent) of the decline in earnings inequality among formal sector employees and thus contributed to Lula’s re-election for a second term in 2007 (Ferrari & Bittes, 2023).

According to World Bank (2022) indicators, the Gini coefficient, an inequality measure, stood above 0.60 in 1995 and was at 0.58 when Lula assumed office in 2003. It then declined to 0.53 after his two terms in 2010, signifying a noteworthy improvement, although still ranking as the highest among major countries and democracies. This is attributed to the constraints on the state’s social spending caused by financial needs, emphasizing the necessity for increased employment generation and targeted cash transfers to address the significant inequalities. Despite their significant success, Neto & Vernengo (2007) argue that Lula’s social policies failed to break the longstanding pattern of income inequalities and escalating social injustice.

After Lula, things rapidly changed. Dilma Rousseff, who ruled Brazil after Lula but was impeached in 2016, was subject to the nexus of problems like massive corruption scandals, economic recession, and fiscal crisis and had to limit social spending, especially after 2014. When Brazil’s worst-ever recession began in 2014, and GDP per Brazilian dropped by 10 percent from 2014 to 2016, progress stopped and, in some areas, reversed. Michel Temer, who led the country until the end of 2018, opted for a complete austerity program in which social spending would be cut entirely. Instead of turning to capital and the rich, he assumed that poverty would be combated under market conditions only after economic growth returned (Ferrari & Bittes, 2023). However, growth and the market mechanism alone are unlikely to eradicate poverty or improve income distribution.

An unusual aspect of social welfare spending in Brazil is that, although total social transfers reached an enormous 25 percent of Brazil’s GDP, even higher than in most prosperous countries, they have been “hardly redistributive” in Brazil. Interestingly, while 2015 taxes and transfers reduced the average Gini coefficient in OECD countries from 0.47 to 0.31, Brazil cut inequality by only half as much on average. The Gini coefficient stood at 0.53 in 2017 (Higgins & Pereira, 2013). One reason for this is the biased tax structure against the poor (OECD-IDB, 2020). At the end of 2018, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day reached 8.2 million, the highest since 2007.

Besides other factors, that process finally allowed the right-wing party leader Bolsonaro to come to power. However, unlike his rhetoric favoring the poor, he did the opposite with the policies favoring the rich; like his predecessor Temer, he thought that economic growth and employment increases would contribute more to the fight against poverty than that kind of direct cash support. In that line of thinking, he underestimated hunger and malnutrition; thus, tens of millions were impoverished. Morevoer, Bolsonaro, who wanted to get out of Lula’s shadow, instead of developing and popularizing theBolsa Família, wanted to go around and erase it from the public’s memory with other names, measures, mechanisms, and policies. Among others, restricting applications, extending the waiting period, expelling the current beneficiaries, and reducing the real effect of aid amounts by not updating according to inflation were the central approach (Higgins & Pereira 2013). 

According to experts, while many areas must be intervened to save a resource close to 10 percent of the national income, the Bolsa Família aid category, whose share of national income is meager but whose marginal contribution is unmatched, caused the most significant deterioration in income distribution. As a result, Brazil reappeared on the World Food Program’s “Hunger Map” of the United Nations (UN) in 2021, with 28.9 percent of the population living in food insecurity. Thirty-three million Brazilians faced acute hunger, and 100 million lived in poverty, the highest number in years. It was a significant setback for a country removed from the map in 2014 (France 24, 2022). As the 10th largest economy in the world, the largest one in Latin America, and one of the world’s largest food producers and exporters, Brazil’s return to the UN’s hunger map is not easier to bring any convincing explanation other than an overall wrong management system.

As compared to his rivals, during his first two terms, Lula remained in the past as a model and mechanism in the fight against poverty and income inequalities. Adapting a patriarchal approach, he regarded social expenditures as his blessing rather than handling them from a modern constitutional perspective. Thanks to favorable global economic conjuncture, he increased social aid significantly compared to the past. The society focused on aid, and the model, mechanism, and philosophy behind it remained of secondary importance. Most importantly, with time after 2010, the Lula period stood out as a success story due to the cutting of social aid that started with Temer and continued with Bolsonaro in the aftermath of the global crisis and an environment of instability and economic stagnation.

Erdogan’s ‘Green Card’ and Transactional Approach

The banner ‘Potato, onion, goodbye Erdogan’ was carried in the 1 May rally, which coincided with the critical 14 May elections in Turkey on May 1, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Since 2003, Erdogan has employed social transfer and protection spending as practical fiscal policy tools to address poverty (Sarısoy and Koç, 2010). His social policies blend market-friendly economic strategies with substantial redistribution effects, incorporating health education elements and active labor market policies like training programs and public works (Sagdic, 2021; Baylan, 2019).

Besides the central government benefits, after the ruling AKP changed the Metropolitan Municipalities Law to expand municipalities’ social assistance capacities in 2004, benefits were exponentially expanded to poor families, encompassing various types of in-kind and cash assistance programs. For instance, by 2014, regular central government benefits in kind and cash for low-income families had risen to $260 monthly, while the official minimum wage stood at $370. Initially, a free healthcare card program for the poor (the Green Card program) was implemented and covered 6.9 million individuals, 4.2 percent of the population in 2003 and 12.7 percent in 2009. Finally, a universal healthcare system was established, and Green Card holders were included in the new system in 2022 (Yörük, 2023).

The number of beneficiaries and the share of government budgets allocated to these programs have dramatically increased. As a result, public social spending increased from 3.4 percent of GDP in 1995 to 12.5 percent as of 2016. Adjusted for inflation, spending increased by 176 percent between 2006 and 2017 (Yentürk, 2018; Üçkardeşler, 2015). Social programs are funded by the state’s general budget, municipalities, the European Union, and other funds for encouraging social assistance and solidarity. 

The AKP’s wage policy also targeted society’s most fragile or vulnerable segments, composed of its potential conservative voters (Karataşlı, 2015). Intentionally or not, the minimum wages have been used as an income distribution policy in the form of “low-wage equalization.” With all these caveats, the minimum wage, $100-150 band in 2001, rose sharply to $450 by 2008. After 2018, marking the consolidation of the “contingency management” came with a one-man rule, the sharp rise in exchange rates from 2,20 per US dollar in January 2014 to 27 in July 2023, a 12-fold increase over a decade resulted in a steady decline of minimum wage, falling to an all-time low $220-250 range during 2021-2022.

A notable weakness in Erdogan’s approach, intentionally overlooked for reasons to be elucidated later, was the curtailment of the “protective welfare state.” This reduction specifically targeted passive labor market policies, including unemployment insurance, workplace regulation, and the tolerance of trade union activities, as well as agricultural support and housing subsidies. Considering all these facets, some economists characterize Erdogan’s social policies as “social neoliberalism” (Öniş, 2012).

What has a crucial implication from the viewpoint of the current discussion in this article is that despite Erdogan’s social spending policies failing to bring a lasting impact on poverty and income inequalities amidst a sharp increase in living costs, Erdogan has successfully maintained the adherence of even the most vulnerable segments of society to his political career, necessitating an explanation. In addition to Erdogan’s widely recognized populist strategies involving media manipulation, scapegoating the opposition as inept and colluding traitors, and employing fear-based politics by portraying the outside world as an enemy and a threat to national independence and sovereignty, a pivotal factor in his success is his transactional approach, linking aid and voting through sustained dependency.

The modern welfare state, aiming to “liberate the individual and protect his dignity,” as advocated by Amartya Sen (1999), necessitates transformational leadership with a focus on a clear vision, collective benefits, and long-term value. On the contrary, as Kuhnert and Lewis (1987) stated, transactional leaders prefer to operate within the existing organizational structure and culture, adhering to precedent rather than instigating change. In other words, instead of addressing poverty and permanently liberating individuals from its grasp, this approach perpetuates and manages poverty by creating a system that fosters people’s dependence on aid in exchange for votes, forming a parasitic symbiosis of “give-and-take.”

In this context, Erdogan’s leadership is characterized by a transactional approach centered on negotiations for short-term goals, seeking voter loyalty through clientelism—a pyramid structure wherein selective benefits are distributed, with the assistance of brokers, to individuals or groups in exchange for political support (Gherghina & Volintiru, 2017). The crucial aspect here is to furnish this structure with the essential political, cultural, and psychological elements that sustain loyalty and affiliation with politics based on this aid rather than prompting questioning the enduring poverty among those in need. This characteristic positions Erdogan as a contender for the title of the “populist of the 21st century,” as mentioned earlier.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attended the rally in Izmir as part of the 14 May General Elections campaign in Izmir, Turkey on March 29, 2023. Photo: Idil Toffolo.

 

By taking the historical legacy of the patrimonial state, Erdogan has successfully positioned himself on the side of the people against the elites and the system and, more importantly, articulated social aid with this discourse. In the particular case of Turkey, transactional leadership involves: i) Honoring the so-called homogeneous, virtuous, silent majority by claiming to represent their voice and interests. ii) Legitimizing their visibility and vertical mobility as their right to effectively participate in governance has been severely blocked. iii) Improving income distribution by transferring a larger share of social assistance to the selected social groups. 

This approach has long-term implications regarding the rule of law, economic development, democracy, and human rights. Erdogan comes from a political tradition claiming that the elites and institutions of the political establishment, such as the Constitutional Court and the High Judiciary, are allied to prevent people from achieving power. In that regard, as Aytaç and Öniş (2014) stated, like his predecessor Necmettin Erbakan, he continued employing the famous motto “Milli İrade” (The Will of the Nation), the term refers primarily to the Muslim lower classes as opposed to the establishment elites. The persistent and polarizing insistence of populists that the interests of “establishment elites” and the large silent majority, representing the “national will,” are mutually exclusive implies that, in power, those who subject to positive discrimination in controlling public resources will change hands.

Soon after coming to power, the AKP, garnering broad support from the urban poor and conservative masses affected by recurring economic crises, and who had lost trust in mainstream political parties, aimed to forge relevant coalitions and implement swift, albeit progressively more heterodox policies, to introduce new forms of targeted social policy. The essence of the matter is that, considering the volatile voting behavior among the average electorate, assisting the poor primarily through “modern state mechanisms” may not foster perpetual dependency and “loyalty.” For this reason, alongside conventional social state approaches outlined in the previous section, aid was also “privatized” through pro-business wealth transfer policies, individualized to the voters, closely monitored by party branches, and coordinated with governorates and municipalities.

All the way down to the neighborhood committees, local party organizations identify the loyalists and channel aid and employment opportunities. In doing so, the ruling party established mutual interdependence between the party, the urban poor, and the business or economic elites through highly partisan methods of targeted resource distribution. Over time, this symbiosis evolved into their shared destiny. In other words, with the flow of resources, privileges, and dependence on the AKP’s continued control of the state apparatus, the two constituents of this trio became increasingly partisan and apprehensive of redistribution and reprisal should the AKP lose power (Esen & Gumuscu, 2021). Through the social networks where Erdogan holds influence, mainly via various foundations and associations managed by his family members, close relatives, and other conservative structures, he cultivates self-fulfilling prophecies, portraying Erdogan as a patrimonial figure, a big brother, a modern-day Robin Hood who “takes from the rich and gives to the poor.” By that, he aims to implant in people’s consciousness the idea that “corruption is inevitable for the good of the people.” To reinforce this image, some religious authorities have even attempted to produce religious credentials (fatwas), discussing “what is corruption and what is a legitimate commission of the Sultan” in Islam (Yilmaz, 2020).

In essence, the efficacy of the “divide and rule” strategy lies in scapegoating others. In alignment with this approach, Erdogan, at the expense of the ongoing comprehensive reform and the EU membership agenda, subjugated the entire establishment. Instead of dismantling exclusive interest groups, he adopted a confiscation strategy in Olson’s (1982) terminology, institutionalizing corruption, political pressure, and exclusion, thus introducing a fundamentally new approach to social spending.

Erdogan’s transactional approach revolves around a well-established and highly sophisticated form of clientelism, emphasizing dyadic relationships, contingency, hierarchy, and iteration (Hicken, 2011). It is more accurate to characterize these developments as a product of a learning-by-doing or trial-and-error process during his tenure as the mayor of Istanbul, which he assumed in 1994 amidst a highly divided opposition landscape, securing the lowest vote rate at the time. This incubation period allowed him to evolve his system from its rudimentary stages to a state of sophistication (Compiegne, 2022).

For Erdogan’s “give-and-take” or “win-win” game to operate successfully, the following conditions must be met:

i) Utilizing the state apparatus as a platform for executing the “distributional game” involves creating rent arrears in various regions and sectors as leverage for distributional purposes.

ii) Developing an anti-systemic religious-nationalist language for the “divide and rule” strategy (Tahiroglu, 2022).

iii) Gaining control of financially dependent media to collaborate in manipulating the public by disseminating fake yet appealing stories (Yanatma, 2021; Coşkun, 2020; Kizilkaya, E. 2023; Tahiroglu, 2022b).

iv) Distancing from external actors and anchors, such as the EU and the IMF, which advocate transparency, discipline, and compliance with the rule of law. Notably, Erdogan halted EU accession negotiations at the transparency and tender chapters, citing political, religious, and national reasons. Subsequently, Erdogan projected the image of a country failing to implement European Court of Human Rights decisions (Eurobarometer, 2022).

v) Enlisting “militant bureaucrats,” particularly within the judiciary, to cooperate in undermining systems like public procurement, facilitating favoritism and money laundering. The corruption files of December 17-25, 2013, revealed lenient treatment of government contract favoritism by law enforcement, ensuring a steady revenue stream in exchange for support in Erdogan’s re-election (Emek & Acar, 2015; Arslantas & Arslantas, 2020; Özgür, 2020; Akça & Özden, 2021; Özel & Yıldırım, 2019).

vi) Establishing dependent capitalists or an economic elite through extensive patronage networks of corruption and favoritism to serve as intermediaries in the rent distribution process (Esen & Gumuscu, 2021).

vii) Establishing effective intermediaries, such as local party branches, municipalities, foundations, associations, and religious sects, to facilitate the delivery of privatized aid to the targeted social segments.

As convincingly demonstrated by Esen and Gümüşçü (2021), Erdogan’s transactional approach and corruption are closely related and mutually supportive. First, in the abovementioned process, Erdogan established an alternative, dependent capitalist class. This class contributes a portion of the rents it acquires from the government, involving practices such as construction permits, land allocation, municipal companies, and large infrastructure projects without tenders but with customer guarantees (Emek, 2015). Second, the enormous corrupt economy allowed him to create massive sources of rent arrears and distribute it partly to people experiencing poverty in the form of “cash and kind or subsistence allowances in exchange for loyalty and votes.” (Buğra, 2020; Özel & Yıldırım, 2019). The explained pay-off matrix has brought critical political repercussions, namely, the AKP’s weakened reluctance to resign through democratic means and the increased tolerance of its coalition partners for democratic backsliding. Therefore, with the personalization of power and rising authoritarianism under Erdogan’s rule, especially after the 2018 regime change, the need to attract voters and dependence on the economy for private resources decreased, underlining a further alert on the collapse of democracy.

The same happened in Brazil but with different dimensions. Although clientelism, rent-seeking, and kleptocracy – altogether corruption- are the dominant features of politics in Brazil, they are not subject to profound public awareness or concern as long as economic growth delivers positive results. Rather than eradicating the sources of corruption, the regime’s grand barons use the existing “culture of ignorance” as an integral part of their reckoning in the struggle for power against one another. As an expression of social culture or helpless devotion, society tends to justify that mechanism by relying on the understanding of “he who keeps honey licks his finger” or “it does not matter if politicians steal from what they produce.” 

Lula’s dismissal in 2010 at the height of his popularity, conviction in 2018, and return to power in March 2022 are case in point. Lula, who was argued to have been involved in “Operation Car Wash-2014,” the most extensive corruption investigation involving politicians, public institutions, and major construction companies, was found guilty and imprisoned in 2018. However, according to the UN resolution and many other observers, Lula’s trial process was unfair because of insufficient evidence and human rights abuses. Indeed, the appointment of the case judge as minister of justice by Bolsonaro, who won the 2018 elections while Lula was in prison, shows the nature of the above-mentioned intra-elite power struggle. To continue with the same logic, the fact that Lula’s case was dropped, and his political career was reopened due to the aforementioned systemic shortcomings does not show Lula’s absolute innocence either. 

It is emphasized here that in many countries such as Brazil and Turkey, where institutions are weak, social culture is accommodative, and voters’ awareness of citizenship is insufficient, overt conflicts between elites through the judiciary and the media only prepare the ground for further negotiations between the status quo powers rather than radically reforming and improving the system to achieve better democracy, human rights, and economic development. 

Establishing ‘Coalitions Against the Populist Incumbent Regime

Establishing a coalition within the voter base to attain and retain power is crucial, but equally essential is forging a robust alliance in parliament after the removal of authoritarian populists. As observed in the 2022 elections in Brazil and the 2023 elections in Turkey, the electoral process witnessed significant economic, political, and social upheaval orchestrated by the reluctant incumbent populist government. Recent evidence also highlights that even in defeat, populists leave behind a resilient structure and a trail of destruction, particularly challenging when they narrowly lose elections. Overcoming these challenges necessitates efficient administration through sustained coalition building.

As Lemos (2022) discusses, the overarching goal is establishing a government committed to implementing essential reforms and mending the nation’s economic, political, and social fault lines. However, overcoming this legacy poses a significant hurdle for the new government, requiring efficient administration. It necessitates concerted efforts to gather diverse interests and navigate challenges posed by the remnants of the populist regime. The focus should be on acquiring and leveraging power to build a resilient government. This government must confront the enduring legacy of populism, enact necessary reforms, and prevent a recurrence of populist influences in future elections. Despite facing considerable resistance and witnessing the destructive impact of the right-wing authoritarian-populist leader in Brazil, Lula’s rallying cry to “let’s leave everything else aside other than taking back democracy and institutions” proved effective. Reflecting on his past success, society reconsidered its preferences, particularly evident in the second round of the election. In contrast, Turkish voters did not afford the opposition coalition a similar opportunity. The opposition encountered additional reluctance in garnering support, especially following apparent missteps in the second round of the election. Voters, skeptical of the leadership’s capacity to either counter Erdogan’s destructive actions or propel the system forward, chose to withhold their endorsement.

Highlighting Lula’s advantage, absent in the Turkish opposition coalition, it is crucial to note a shortcoming in Bolsonaro compared to Erdogan. Bolsonaro’s limited time in power prevented him from establishing an Erdogan-like kleptocracy, as described earlier. Unlike Erdogan, he couldn’t consolidate control over institutions and failed to institute a robust “transactional model” that resonated with voters. Consequently, Bolsonaro couldn’t position himself as an anti-establishment and anti-elite or embody the image of a “paternal figure” redistributing wealth from the affluent to the less privileged. 

An important observation regarding Erdogan’s situation is that, unlike Bolsonaro in Brazil, he has gained control over the state apparatus, the judiciary, the press, and economic resources. That allowed him to manipulate the opposition to determine whom to cooperate with and compete against within the opposition. As a reminder, when Erdogan was President and his party lost power in 2015, neither CHP (Kilicdaroglu) nor MHP (led by Devlet Bahçeli) formed a coalition with Erdogan’s party. In the next elections that year, Turkey entered a turbulent phase marked by fear that came with political bloodshed, heightened public security concerns, and Erdogan’s party regaining power independently. As a reaction to Bahçeli’s resistance to establishing a “coalition government” following the June 7, 2015, events that caused Erdogan’s bloody victory, opposition within MHP intensified. Although Bahceli lost his post in the party congress in June 2016, the pro-Erdogan court came to his aid, declaring the party congress invalid and allowing him to maintain his leadership. However, that episode rendered Erdogan’s former rival politically beholden to him, resulting in a notable shift in his political discourse towards becoming Erdogan’s long-term coalition partner. Erdogan has also been proactive in disseminating compromising materials of a prominent opposition leader and orchestrating his replacement through various media manipulations.

The success of keeping his political rival, whom he had consistently defeated in previous elections, in his seat by portraying him as oppressed and victimized, with unfair attacks reminiscent of those directed against Erdogan in the past, serves as evidence of Erdogan’s strategy to divide and rule Turkey along deep fault lines. Indeed, taking it a step further, Erdogan, with his charismatic leadership, effectively dismantled the concept of “center politics” in the past. By steering the language of politics towards the right and conservative spectrum, he eradicated space for left-wing political discourse. Consequently, he compelled his opponents to navigate unfamiliar terrain, leaving them as guests, novices, or the away team, ultimately defeating them. (Korkmaz, 2022a-b). 

To further consolidate the above perspective, it is interesting to briefly compare the Great Marmara Earthquake of 1999, which played a significant role in his rise to power amid ongoing significant political pressure, enduring economic crisis, and heightened political instability, with the recent earthquake in Southeast Anatolia in 2023. This time, it reflects Erdogan’s heavy toll of political-populist mistakes, economic crisis, and instability. Despite these challenges, he managed to stay in power. Besides the factors mentioned in the former earthquake, his performance in the mayorship of Istanbul, plus his unfair discrimination by the establishment forces in the media, judiciary, bureaucracy, and the military, brought him to power. 

Unlike the 1999 Marmara Earthquake, conditions in the earthquake of 2023 were remarkably against the Erdogan government in power. In deep shock, his response to the earthquake was incomplete, incorrect, and significantly delayed. Similar to the previous natural disasters, the main reason was the government’s unpreparedness, the incompetence of civil servants, and the fragile institutions. In addition, the government prevented nongovernmental organizations outside the government’s direction and control from engaging because it feared this would be to its detriment. Despite the earthquake’s devastations, the loss of more than 50,000 lives, the economic destruction it brought, the heavy systemic corruption that caused it, and the ongoing economic crisis, aside from Turkey in general, Erdogan’s high vote in this specific earthquake-hit disaster region in the last election needs explanation. 

Despite the recent economic hardships and the devastating earthquake that caused an unknown number of lives, exposing Erdogan’s corrupt regime, other things being equal, the outcome changed due to manipulations by Erdogan-controlled media and the belated yet highly organized efforts of agents in relief organizations closely aligned with Erdogan’s rent-seeking coalitions, like large private companies, religious civil society organizations, and public institutions. In other words, Erdogan’s well-functioning “transactional approach,” successfully implemented in the earthquake environment, came together with cultural codes, creating an invincible armada in his favor. This is not the first time the government bought political loyalty in return for short-term material rewards combined with religious-nationalist language. The same tactics have been successfully employed in many natural disasters and industrial or occupational accidents.

In the context of Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, (i) his low-profile leadership that lacks conviction, (ii) his perceived ethnic and religious affiliation, and (iii) CHP’s elitist, oligarchic, and pro-capitalist identity, rooted in the tradition of top-down social engineering, hinder him from gaining resonance in society. Conversely, Erdogan’s portrayal of him as “a coupist and junta supporter, collaborator with foreigners, and enemy of national will” has proven effective in triggering concerns related to national security, independence, and sovereignty. In an environment of shifted political cleavages and conservative-right-wing rhetoric, his efforts were perceived as a “last-minute tactical maneuver.”  

Conclusion

In conclusion, the economic, social, and political crisis caused by unrestrained neo-liberal globalization and overconnectivity, highlighted during the contagious global financial crisis in 2008-2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in significant disappointments and a growing public inclination toward populist rhetoric.

Populists, capitalizing on fractures in existing governance structures, rise to power and attempt to retain it by transforming the main characteristics of the regime. This creates a “populist vicious cycle,” where their central ideology and personality lead to contingency management and arbitrariness in governance, inadvertently inviting failure by disabling institutions, rules, merit, independent-autonomous bodies, science, and check-and-balance mechanisms. As populists lose the capacity to fulfill extreme promises made while in opposition and exhibit effective governance, they tend to become even more oppressive, leaning towards a one-person regime.

This process ultimately gives rise to clientelism, rent-seeking, and kleptocracy, constituting corruption as a dominant feature of politics in countries like Brazil, especially under Bolsonaro since 2018, and in Turkey, starting with Erdogan’s third term in 2011.

The challenges of how populists come to power and leave it are markedly different. While it is possible to replace incumbent conventional politicians bound by the game’s rules, replacing a populist who stays in power for an extended period and shifts the regime from its central axis requires entirely different skills. Authoritarian populists leverage the state’s power during election campaigns, often pushing legal and ethical limits.

The personal leadership capacity of populists also plays a decisive role. For example, Erdogan’s crony capitalism, rooted in transactional rather than transformative leadership, is closely tied to his ability to blend cultural, economic, and political elements, combining hope with fear and security with short-term self-interest. This entails intertwining his political destiny with the fate of a large segment of voters.

In such a scenario, an opposition leader aiming to remove a populist from power must possess leadership capacity, the ability to form a coalition, and the capability to present voters with a more adaptable and transformative vision for the future, persuading them of its merits.

In contrast to Lula, who effectively positioned himself as a viable alternative to Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2022, the opposition in Turkey failed to do the same. Bolsonaro lost power not only because of his failures but also because of Lula’s past performance and high leadership quality in forming inclusive coalitions. Despite bringing Turkey to the verge of destruction during the 2023 election, Erdogan, by successfully using pro-citizen and anti-establishment rhetoric, presented himself as “the man of the people” persona. No leader emerged in Turkey to convincingly replace him amidst an environment of fear and societal concerns for security, stability, and sovereign independence.


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P&P

Workshop – The Interplay Between Migration and Populist Politics Across Europe Ahead of European Parliament Elections

Key Dates

Paper abstract submission: December 22, 2023. 

Decision about abstract acceptance: January 15, 2024.

Submission of draft papers due: April 19, 2024.

Workshop: First Day In Person: May 22, 2024 at Oxford University / Second Day Virtual: May 23, 2024.

Populism & Politics (P&P) is a digital journal dedicated to advancing the study and understanding of populism-related phenomena and populist challenges in historical and contemporary contexts. 

Migration, with its multifaceted socio-economic and political implications on voting behavior, stands at the nexus of the factors that have fueled the demand for populism in Europe and beyond. As the 2024 European Parliamentary elections approach, comprehending the trends in voting behavior and the role of immigration-related populism necessitates an interdisciplinary approach. To this end, P&P invites scholars, researchers, policymakers, and civil rights advocates to engage in a workshop looking into the interplay between populism and migration.

The central theme of the workshop revolves around elections and anti-immigration populism in the European context. Suggested topics include but are not limited to:

Impact of Migration on Voter Behavior: Examine the influence of refugee flows and migrant populations in the EU member countries on voting patterns, party preferences, and electoral results. Case studies from both individual EU countries and groups of countries are encouraged.

Integration Policies and Political Effects: Investigate the relationship between different approaches to immigrant integration (e.g., multiculturalism vs. assimilation) and their political consequences, including support for populist radical right (PRR) parties.

The Role of (Social) Media in Shaping Migration Politics: Examine how media coverage and political/populist discourse on migration issues influence public opinion and political decision-making, particularly in the context of populism.

Migrant Political Participation: Explore the political engagement and participation of migrants, including their involvement in local politics, voter turnout, and the emergence of migrant-led political movements, and investigate those movements’ stances vis-à-vis populist politics. 

Nationalism and Anti-Migrant Sentiment: Investigate the impact of nationalist ideologies and anti-migrant sentiment on electoral politics in different European countries and regions.

Immigrant Political Mobilization: Study the strategies and effectiveness of immigrant-led advocacy groups and political movements in counteracting anti-immigrant policies, both at national and EU levels.

Migration and Welfare State Politics: Analyze how immigration affects the design and sustainability of welfare state policies, including debates about social benefits, welfare chauvinism, and access to healthcare for migrants, and in this context, explore the impact of populist discourses on welfare state policies.

Asylum Policies and Populist Discourse: Examine the relationship between asylum policies, populist rhetoric, and public opinion, particularly regarding the acceptance or rejection of refugees.

Border Security and Political Agendas: Investigate how populist narratives and debates over border security, border controls, and border crises shape the political agendas of European governments and parties.

Election Campaign Strategies on Migration: Analyze how political parties use migration issues in their election campaigns, including framing policies and campaign rhetoric.

The European Union and Migration Governance: Examine the EU’s role in shaping migration policies across member states and the impact of EU decisions on national politics with regard to populist anti-migrant policies in member states. 

Local Politics and Migration: Investigate the role of local governments and municipal policies in addressing populist anti-immigrant discourse.

Populist Discourse and Gendered Othering: Analyze how populist discourse constructs and reinforces gendered “othering” of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers and its implications for policy and public opinion.

Migrant Women’s Political Mobilization: Study the role of migrant women in political movements and advocacy efforts, addressing gender-specific issues and advocating for gender equality within migration policies in a populist era.

Gender and Populist Party Support: Examine what kind of role gender plays in support of anti-immigrant populist parties, including populist appeals to different gender groups.

Selected papers will undergo expert review and receive constructive feedback before and during the workshop. After the workshop, authors will be asked to revise their papers for publication in Populism and Politics (P&P).

The deadline for submitting the paper abstract (400-600 words) and a bio (max. 400 words) is Friday, December 22, 2023. Draft papers are expected to be submitted by Friday, April 19, 2024. The workshop will be a one-day event in Brussels on 16 May 2024. 

For submissions, please contact: ecps@populismstudies.org

For guidelines and additional information, please visit: https://www.populismstudies.org/journals/pp-periodicals/about/

Photo: Shutterstock.

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

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



Abstract

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Bulent Kenes

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls in Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technical Instruments and Surveillance Methods to Monitor and Control Cyberspace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AKtrolls 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AKbots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hackers

Photo: Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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