Decision about abstract acceptance: January 15, 2024.
Submission of draft papers: April 19, 2024
Workshop: May 16, 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.
Please cite as: Yilmaz, Ihsan & Kenes, Bulent. (2023). “Digital Authoritarianism in Turkish Cyberspace: A Study of Deception and Disinformation by the AKP Regime’s AKtrolls and Akbots.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 13, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0026
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.
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
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.
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).
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).
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).
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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Anies Baswedan emerges as a pivotal figure in Indonesian Islamist populism, notably for his role in defeating Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (Ahok) in the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election and his involvement in the criminalization of Ahok’s blasphemy case. His influence has fueled the rise of Islamist populism in the post-reform democratization era. Anies’s recent announcement as the National Democratic Party’s (Nasdem) presidential candidate for the 2024 election positions him against Ganjar Pranowo and Prabowo Subianto. This article scrutinizes Anies’s prospects in the 2024 presidential election, exploring whether he continues to employ identity politics and Islamist ideologies to attack political opponents and what his overall stance is regarding Islamist populism. It raises pertinent questions about the impact of these developments on Indonesian democracy, pondering whether the looming challenges will culminate in storms or pave the way for clearer skies in the nation’s democratic landscape.
By Hasnan Bachtiar*
Scholarly discourse on the future of democracy in Indonesia frequently paints a grim picture, characterized by regression (Hadiz, 2017; Warburton & Aspinall, 2019; Aspinall & Mietzner, 2019). Thomas P. Power (2018) even confidently highlights the emergence of authoritarian tendencies within the Joko Widodo (Jokowi) administration in response to a conservative shift and the concurrent rise of Islamist populism that threatens his authority. Jokowi’s argument revolves around the notion that economic development necessitates social and political stability, akin to the approach adopted during the Suharto regime. In the name of stability, that era witnessed the emergence of the ‘Reformasi 1998’ political style and people power, ultimately leading to the downfall of authoritarianism. However, the contemporary global context presents additional challenges, as countries worldwide grapple with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A year later, as economic recovery seemed promising, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict further exacerbated the global economic crisis. Consequently, the government shifted its focus from economic development to crisis management. To safeguard the success of Jokowi’s development initiatives, diverse strategies have been employed to secure investment programs, including the contentious Omnibus Act, designed to offer added protection to investors (Mahy, 2022). These laws, which are imperfect and often detrimental to the populace, have faced critical opposition, particularly from people involved in populist movements. This unfolding situation occurs within a complex political landscape marked by the influence of oligarchic actors and persistent corruption. Consequently, the government has engaged in various negotiations, formed coalitions, and employed repression tactics tailored to the specific context, resulting in limited access to freedom for individuals and interest groups.
This intricate process also implicates various political actors and Islamist populism. Notably, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have swallowed bitter pills and faced government bans due to their perceived threat to state ideology and security. Both Islamist populist movements espouse anti-diversity and anti-minority religious ideologies. The FPI is further entangled in acts of intolerance, religious-based persecution, intimidation, often accompanied by violence and vigilantism. Its existence poses a challenge to democracy, albeit its dissolution raises concerns of repressive measures.
Anies Baswedan emerges as a key figure in Indonesian Islamist populism, propelled by his role in defeating Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (a.k.a. Ahok) in the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election and his involvement in Ahok’s blasphemy case (Mietzner and Muhtadi, 2018). He is a catalyst for the rise of Islamist populism, which has found particular expression in the post-reform democratization. Anies has been announced as the National Democratic Party’s (Nasdem) presidential candidate, poised to challenge Ganjar Pranowo and Prabowo Subianto in the 2024 presidential election (Shafira, 2022). This article delves into Anies’s prospects in the 2024 election, examining whether he still employs identity politics exploiting emotions and Islamist ideology to attack his political opponents, while also assessing his overall attitude towards Islamist populism. Ultimately, this article contemplates whether the looming clouds over Indonesian democracy will lead to rainstorms or yield clear skies.
Who is Anies Baswedan?
Anies Baswedan, born on May 7, 1969, in Kuningan, West Java, is the son of Rasyid Baswedan (father) and Aliyah Rasyid (mother). Notably, he is the grandson of Abdurrahman Baswedan, a national hero, Masyumi figure, populist, and leader of a political movement that harnessed the power of Arab descendants to fight for Indonesian independence (Siallagan, 2022).
He commenced his undergraduate studies in economics at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, in 1995. Two years later, he completed his master’s degree in International Economic and Security Policy at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, US. In 2005, he obtained his PhD in the field of politics from Northern Illinois University, with a thesis entitled “Regional Autonomy and Patterns of Democracy in Indonesia.”
Armed with this impressive academic background, Anies embarked on a teaching career at Paramadina University. This institution, guided by Indonesia’s esteemed figure of pluralism and tolerance, Nurcholish Madjid, instilled the values of virtue in higher education. Anies excelled in his role, ultimately becoming the most influential figure on campus. He served as the university’s rector and initiated the ‘Indonesia Mengajar’ program, renowned for inviting top volunteers from across the nation and deploying them to the farthest and most remote areas to serve as teachers in foundational schools.
Subsequently, Anies was appointed as the Minister of Education and Culture in Jokowi’s cabinet, although his tenure was interrupted by a reshuffle. Nevertheless, his career continued to flourish. He contested the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election, securing victory over the incumbent Governor Ahok and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (AHY), the son of former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). Leveraging his experience as the head of the capital, Anies emerged as a presidential candidate for the 2024 election under the Nasdem party ticket.
Anies and the 2024 Presidential Election
Anies could be portrayed as one of the intellectual actors who mobilized Islamist populism in the lead-up to the 2016 gubernatorial election and the 2019 presidential elections. He is often characterized as a figure involved in the intricate realm of politics, where space is provided for intolerant and discriminatory political actions. By employing the identity politics of Islamism, he advocated for the general will of the Muslim majority to stand against an unjust ruling regime. His political maneuvers were shaped by invoking the religious primordialism of the Islamist masses in their struggle against corrupt elites.
However, people tend to overlook his role as a political spokesperson for Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election (Akuntono 2014). He stood by Jokowi’s side and eventually assumed a prominent position in the cabinet, serving as Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture. In this context, Anies was aligned with the same political group that presents itself as the defender of diversity. Nevertheless, his political shift in 2016 led to a significant victory as the Governor of Jakarta, alongside his deputy, Sandiaga Uno. In 2019, he threw his support behind Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno, who were challenging Jokowi’s presidency. Despite their eventual defeat, both eventually found a place in Jokowi’s cabinet, as Minister of Defense and Minister of Tourism respectively.
As we approach the 2024 election, Anies’s electability has surged. According to Drone Emprit data, which analyzes the frequency of certain political figures’ names on Twitter using the keyword “Anies Baswedan,” he is the most discussed figure among the public (Rahman, 2022). However, it’s essential to assess what proportion of voters and Twitter users actively engage in campaign-related discussions, debates, and political discourse. Similarly, in polls conducted by various institutions, Anies consistently secures a place in the top three positions, competing with Prabowo and Ganjar Pranowo. With strong electability, Anies has been nominated as a presidential candidate by the Nasdem party.
Naturally, announcing his candidacy early, before other candidates are officially revealed, carries risks, particularly concerning the formation of coalitions with other parties. Currently, Nasdem is in a coalition with the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Awakening Party (PKB). However, their former partner, the Democratic Party (Demokrat), withdrew from the coalition, feeling betrayed when Anies was instead paired with PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskandar as the vice-presidential candidate. The Democratic Party advocates for Anies to be paired with AHY.
Without the Democratic Party in the Anies-Muhaimin coalition, it appears to have surpassed the parliamentary threshold of 25 percent based on previous votes in the House of Representatives (DPR). Nasdem holds 10.26 percent of the seats in the DPR, PKS holds 8.7 percent, and PKB holds 10.09 percent (Huda, 2023). Their combined coalition share reaches 29.05 percent. In contrast, their rival Ganjar, under the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) umbrella, commands 22.26 percent support and is backed by the United Development Party (PPP), which holds 3.30 percent (totaling 25.56 percent). Meanwhile, Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) has 13.57 percent support, with backing from Golongan Karya (Golkar) at 14.78 percent, the National Mandate Party (PAN) at 7.65 percent, and the Democratic Party at 9.39 percent (totaling 45.39 percent).
Currently, Anies’s political coalition holds a higher percentage of DPR seats than Ganjar’s coalition but still falls significantly short of Prabowo’s alliance. If Anies is able to win the vote in the first phase of the election, the political map may change. Anies faces a challenging path forward, as does his political coalition. The Anies-Muhaimin coalition is expected to secure substantial votes from followers of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization. PKB, a political party founded by prominent NU figure Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), plays a pivotal role in this regard. Interestingly, during the NU’s centenary celebrations in Sidoarjo on February 7, 2023, numerous state officials associated with the PDIP were prominently featured. Concurrently, Muhaimin Iskandar, with a ‘Nahdliyyin’ (NU follower) background, appeared to be absent. However, there was a so-called PKB-ization of the NU, a party with a large mass that he wrested from its founder Gus Dur.
With all these complexities, Anies still has a chance to win the battle against Ganjar and Prabowo, provided he secures the votes in Jakarta, West Java, and a substantial number of votes in East Java. To secure the major voting pockets, he needs to convince the parties that have endorsed him. On September 27, he met with the FPI’s Grand Imam, Rizieq Shihab, in an attempt to secure the support of the Islamist populist group. Concurrently, the leader of the NU, KH Yahya Cholil Staquf, declared that he would never support a political coalition that included religious groups threatening the nation’s unity.
Anies is making efforts to convince his Islamist populist followers that he won’t betray them, emphasizing pluralism, kindness to minorities, and opening doors to Chinese conglomerates and oligarchs—a formidable and almost impossible task. This is what was discussed during Anies’s interview with ABC News (2023). He asserted that his work in Jakarta demonstrates his leadership for all, characterized by non-discrimination, non-intolerance, and service to people regardless of their backgrounds.
It will be a gamble for him, unless he adopts a pragmatic approach to secure his political position first, recognizing that in the political arena in a political battle, betrayal can be both normal and tolerable. His experience with Jokowi has enabled him to counteract Islamist populism and mitigate the trend toward religious conservatism.
Anies’ Political Maneuver and Islamist Populism
The greatest fear of a nation whose motto is unity in diversity is disintegration. The possibility of disintegration can result from fragmentation. Social fragmentation within society encourages the sharpening of differences, ultimately leading to various social and political frictions. Frictions that escape government control can escalate into conflicts. This becomes a serious problem when not adequately and properly managed. The problem is that Indonesia has faced significant polarization in electoral politics, particularly exacerbated when religious symbols, especially Islam as the majority religion, become embroiled.
In 2016, a year seen as preparatory for the 2019 realpolitik contest, religious symbols indisputably became a catalyst for intense social and political polarization. During the Jakarta gubernatorial election, incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, known as Ahok, faced off against Anies Baswedan. This contest sadly involved the influence of identity politics (Islamism) and a substantial mobilization of supporters for Anies. Ahok faced accusations of blasphemy and was ultimately sentenced to prison. His supposed blasphemy occurred when he criticized political figures who invoked Surat al-Maidah in their election campaigns, aiming to expose the use of religion for political gain. In response, Anies, as part of a broader strategy, mobilized Islamist populism to protest against his political opponent, orchestrating a large-scale mass action known as Islamist populism.
In this context, populism assumes the form of resistance to Ahok, who is perceived as a political symbol aligning with corrupt ruling elites. These elites are viewed as corrupt because populists argue they often disregard or violate the general will of the people. Ahok, a political figure belonging to both religious and racial minorities (Christian and Chinese), is seen as a powerful minority who has not favored the Muslim majority. He stands accused of undermining justice and the welfare of the people from the perspective of Anies’ group.
Therefore, the populism unfolding is primarily characterized by criticism, resistance, the struggle of the majority (Muslims and the oppressed) against an elite minority (Ahok) seen as oppressors, foreign lackeys, servitors of the West and China, and a perceived threat to the development of the ummah’s civilization (Yilmaz, Morieson & Bachtiar, 2022). In this narrative, realpolitik actors like Anies are portrayed as champions of Muslim civilization, with Anies even being likened to Abu Bakar al-Shiddiq (a friend of the Prophet Muhammad), a figure described as patient, wise, and possessing good leadership qualities (Kumparan, 2017). This form of populism typically exploits rhetoric centered on civilization, which starkly contrasts ‘us’ with ‘them,’ emphasizing cultural and religious differences (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023).
Following Ahok’s defeat, Anies assumed the influential position of ‘Jakarta 1,’ symbolizing the capital’s most prominent figure. However, Rizieq Shihab, the founder of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), faced a different fate. He became a target of the government, accused of being an intellectual actor of Islamist populism posing a threat to national security. In 2016, he managed to mobilize masses from cross-class alliances to enter the political arena against the corrupt elites and others. He then fled to Saudi Arabia. Upon his return to Indonesia, he was arrested for organizing a mass rally during the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in the shooting of his six supporters by the police and the banning of the FPI.
Upon his release on parole, Rizieq Shihab reconnected with Anies. In a baptism-like ceremony, in the presence of Rizieq Shihab’s recitation congregation, Anies was hailed as a leader who had fulfilled his promise as a governor favoring Muslims (Kumparan, 2022). He was contrasted with typical political figures who often renege on their commitments once in power. Rizieq asserted that Anies was different and deemed him a potential candidate for the presidency in Indonesia’s 2024 election, indicating that Anies had become the preferred choice of Islamist populists. However, as of October 2023, the Islamist populist movement has shown no signs of emerging as a large-scale political maneuver involving mass mobilizations.
Anies was respectfully dismissed by President Joko Widodo on October 16, 2022, based on Presidential Decree No. 100/P of 2022. Since then, Anies has begun mobilizing political forces to secure victory in the forthcoming 2024 presidential election. On October 3, 2022, Anies was officially declared a presidential candidate by Nasdem’s leader, Surya Paloh. When asked why Anies Baswedan was chosen, Surya Paloh responded, “Why not? He is the best,” during a press conference at the Nasdem Tower in Jakarta (Savitri, 2022). Additionally, before party officials, Surya Paloh emphasized, “There is no time for us to think and give intolerant thoughts, tolerance is for those who give tolerance. True nationalism, true national thoughts are associated with attitudes that are full of tolerance and that is what Nasdem is fighting for,” (Savitri, 2022).
Subsequently, other parties, including PKS, PKB, and Demokrat, initially voiced their support for Anies, although Demokrat later withdrew. It’s worth noting that Nasdem had previously aligned itself with the victorious PDIP. This means that Nasdem’s stance opposes the Islamist populist movement. In contrast, PKS favors populism and had disassociated from the coalition with Gerindra, the party of another presidential candidate, Prabowo. This shift toward emphasizing tolerance and nationalism, as opposed to Islamist populism’s rhetoric, is indicative of Anies’ evolving political maneuvering style. Nasdem’s expectation is for Anies to win the battle by winning the sympathy of voters outside the Islamist populist group. This does not mean that voters from Islamist populist circles or those who sympathize with identity politics of Islam should be ignored. The goal is for these voters to rally behind Anies rather than Prabowo.
Previously, both Anies and Prabowo had employed Islamist populism as a tool to challenge the ruling government, whether it was Ahok or Jokowi. However, shortly after Prabowo’s defeat in the 2019 presidential election, he accepted Jokowi’s offer to join his cabinet, assuming the pivotal role of Minister of Defense. While this move may have appeared rational, it somewhat eroded the trust of Islamist populist groups in Prabowo. Consequently, these groups shifted their support from Prabowo to Anies. With the additional votes from a diverse electorate less concerned with identity politics, Anies has a chance to outperform Ganjar. The Islamic populist movement may continue to play a role in Anies’ political strategy, albeit with a reduced emphasis on Islamist identity politics, if not its complete elimination.
The change in Anies’ political maneuvering style is evident in an interview with Solo Pos. When asked, “Can Pak Anies ensure that he will be a leader for all Indonesian people when he becomes president?” Anies responded, “I have worked in Jakarta for five years. Can you show me Anies’ policies that are intolerant, discriminatory, not inclusive, that reflect partisan views? So don’t ask about the future, because anyone can boast in front of you. Ask about the track record. …I can show you that in Jakarta we have the best democracy index, the best tolerance… even in cohesiveness (also the best). This is based on a study by Nanyang Technological University. In Jakarta there is no polarization, there is cohesiveness. Where is the polarization? On social media. There is no polarization in the community,” (Baswedan 2023).
Clearly, Anies’ real identity still remains uncertain. He may indeed be a pluralist, but it is also possible that he is ideologically aligned with staunch defenders of Islamism. As an academic and the rector of Paramadina University, a campus influenced by the progressive Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid, Anies understands the importance of fostering Indonesian pluralism. However, in politics, ideologies can change and adapt to serve one’s political interests. What the public can comprehend in this context is an adherence to an ideology that advances personal political ambitions. Anies’ moderation of Islamism, his role as a defender of diversity, and his efforts toward a more pro-equality, anti-discrimination, and tolerant form of Islamism may be driven by pragmatic political considerations rather than a fundamental shift to democratic post-Islamism, as proposed by Asef Bayat (2013). What is certain is that his ultimate goal appears to be securing practical political victories.
The public views Anies Baswedan not only as a potential presidential candidate but also as a prominent figure who played a crucial role in the Islamist populist movement during his bid for the governor’s seat in the Jakarta gubernatorial election. He was a central figure in the process that led to Ahok’s imprisonment, a symbol of political elites from religious and ethnic minority backgrounds. However, as the 2024 election draws near, Anies’ style of political maneuvering has undergone a transformation. Acting upon the advice of Nasdem, the party that endorsed him as a presidential candidate, Anies now presents himself as a figure committed to upholding the values of equality, tolerance, and nationalism.
In his recent article titled “Meluruskan Jalan, Menghadirkan Keadilan (Straightening the Path, Presenting Justice)” in Kompas (February 17, 2023), Anies expressed, “The essence of democracy is to provide equal space for all. Presenting legal certainty and security by guaranteeing the rights of citizens, especially safe spaces for women, children, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples and marginalized groups. … healthy democracy and legal equality that will drive equitable economic progress. Economic progress without the prospect of social justice will feel false.”
This change allows us to consider the post-Islamist thesis with an optimistic tone. Through Anies, the political style of Islamist populism appears to be evolving into a more democratic form. Anies presents himself as a democratic Muslim. Nevertheless, the post-Islamism thesis has faced significant criticism, particularly because Islamist figures, parties, and social and political movements have rarely advocated for substantive democratization. In this context, post-Islamism often seems more like a political expression that embraces democracy while engaging in Machiavellian political pragmatism that may disregard religious morality. In essence, it can employ various means, including instrumentalizing religion, to attain and maintain the status quo.
However, political reality unfolds dynamically. It is this dynamism that offers an opportunity for the development of a vibrant democracy, as argued by Dan Slater (2023). His thesis is, of course, far more optimistic than Thomas P. Power’s (2018) diagnosis and similar views, emphasizing that Islamist populism and state authoritarianism can lead to a regression of democracy in the country. We shall see—will Anies emerge victorious? And if he does and has to lead all ethnic groups, will he continue to present himself as a Pancasilaist or will he adopt a more populist approach, catering primarily to the majority?
The extent of these political shifts remains uncertain. Will it be as Kartini (2014) suggested, “Habis gelap terbitlah terang (Out of darkness comes light),” or will the darkness, as Power (2018) and his associates fear, usher in a continued regression of democracy? Nevertheless, Anies (2023) expressed in his article that “State administrators need to be humble, avoiding monopolization of the truth, and instead, providing comfortable spaces for citizens to come together and participate.” If he assumes the role of a state administrator, will he monopolize the truth as he did when aligning with Rizieq Shihab, the FPI, and other Islamist populist figures against Ahok? The future trajectory of Indonesian politics will provide answers to these questions.
(*) Hasnan Bachtiar is a lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, University of Muhammadiyah Malang (UMM), Indonesia. Additionally, he is pursuing his Ph.D. in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University, Burwood, Australia.
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Yilmaz, Ihsan; Akbarzadeh, Shahram & Bashirov, Galib. (2023). “Comprehending Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs).” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). September 10, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0024
In this paper, we introduce the concept of “Strategic Digital Information Operations” (SDIOs), discuss the tactics and practices of the SDIOs, explain the main political goals of state and non-state actors in engaging with SDIOs at home and abroad, and suggest avenues for new research. We argue that the concept of the SDIOs presents a useful framework to discuss all forms of digital manipulation at both domestic and international levels organized by either state or non-state actors. While the literature has examined the military-political impacts of the SDIOs, we still don’t know much about societal issues that the SDIOs influence such as emotive political mobilization, intergroup relations, social cohesion, trust, and emotional resonance among target audiences.
In recent years, the convergence of the digital realm and political sphere has created a dynamic environment where a wide range of state and non-state actors try to leverage digital platforms to pursue their political goals. This trend includes diverse cases, spanning from the continual targeting of autonomous media establishments in nations like Egypt and Turkey to the deliberate manipulation of electoral processes in democratic countries such as the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), while also extending its reach to include extremist groups such as ISIS who use digital platforms for their propaganda endeavours (see Ingram, 2015; Theohary, 2011). These “Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs),” as we call them here, refer to efforts by state and non-state actors to manipulate public opinion as well as individual and collective emotions by using digital technologies to change how people relate and respond to events in the world. As such, SDIOs involve deliberate alteration of the information environment by social and political actors to serve their interests.
We use this term – SDIOs – because it combines several facets of digital manipulation at both national and international levels. “Information Operations” is a term social media companies like Facebook have adopted to describe organized communicative activities that attempt to circulate problematically inaccurate or deceptive information on their platforms. These activities are strategic because rather than being purely communicative, they are driven by the political objectives of state and non-state actors (see Starbird et al., 2019; Hatch, 2019). We add the concept ‘digital’ to emphasize the distinction between the old ways of information operations and the new ones that operate almost specifically in the digital realm and use much more sophisticated tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and algorithmic models to disseminate information. Of course, some aspects of digital information operations have been carried over from the non-digital environments that have been mastered over the past century. Nonetheless, the affordances of the digital environment have provided not only radically new and sophisticated tools but also an opportunity for much wider dissemination and reach for strategic information operations.
The SDIOs involve various tactics used by political groups who try to shape the online environment in their favour. Their goal is to control the flow of information, where politics and social actions meet. We note that these tactics can cross borders between countries: these operations don’t just target people within a country; they also aim to reach people in other nations. In this article, we briefly discuss the tactics and practices of the SDIOs, explain the main political goals of state and non-state actors in engaging with SDIOs at home and abroad, and present venues for new research.
Tactics and Practices of SDIOs
As researchers started to examine the many ways in which state actors have tried to manipulate domestic and foreign public opinion in their favour, disinformation has become the main focus of their analysis with an emphasis on spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. Various forms of disinformation have been used in order to create doubt and confusion among the consumers of malign content. Spreading conspiracy theories makes people doubt the truth, which weakens trust in social and political institutions. Moreover, sharing fake news or other fabricated stories weaves a web of lies that shapes what people think. While the latter has certainly been effective in manipulating public opinion, observers have noted recently a shift in emphasis from disinformation to more sophisticated and less discernable means of manipulation.
The aforementioned shift has taken place due to the growing awareness of the fake news and lies in digital environments on the part of both users and digital platforms. As platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have increased their clampdown on such content and as users have become more capable in spotting them, state and non-state actors have moved to more sophisticated means of digital manipulation where content is carefully designed to change how people see things. For example, instead of outright lies or fake news, strategic actors have started to spread half-truths that create a specific version of events by conveying only part of the truth (Iwuoha, 2021). Moreover, these actors have made massive investments on smart public relations messages and clever advertisements to prop up their messages. An important tactical goal has become not simply to deceive the audience but more so to ‘flood’ the information space with not just false, but also distracting, irrelevant, and even worthless pieces of information with the help of trolls and bots, hired social media consultants and influencers, as well as genuine followers and believers (Mir et al., 2022).
For example, observers noted how a prominent strategy of the Chinese domestic propaganda is to ‘drown out’ dissident voices through incessant propagation of the government messaging, a campaign called ‘positive energy’ (Chen et al., 2021). The Orwellian campaign involved not only the use of a massive influencer and troll army to promote government messaging but also the forceful testimony of the Uyghur people. In one instance for example, seven people of Uighur descent were brought to a press conference to share their stories of “positive energy” and made-up hype against China to disprove allegations of mistreatment by the Chinese government (Mason, 2022). As such, SDIOs encompass all these tactics and practices rather than merely focusing on means of disinformation that have so far dominated the research into digital manipulation. It also shows the ability of SDIOs to adapt and change over time based on the operational context. While disinformation through direct messages remains a consistent approach, actors increasingly move towards using subtler tactics to create distractions and cause confusion among their audience, which weakens the basis of well-informed political discussions. For example, the Egyptian government has flooded the information space with the news of the ‘electricity surplus’ and the future of Egypt as ‘an electricity carrier for Europe’ amidst an ongoing economic crisis in the country that has left millions of Egyptians without access to reliable electricity (Dawoud, 2023).
At the heart of discussions about strategic digital information operations lies the creation of narratives carefully designed to connect with their intended audiences. These narratives aren’t random; instead, they’re tailored to match how the recipients think. The interaction between these narratives and their audiences involves psychology, culture, and emotions. How the audience reacts depends not only on how convincing the content is, but also on their existing beliefs, biases, and cultural contexts (Bakir and McStay, 2018). While some people might approach these narratives with doubt, others could be drawn into self-reinforcing cycles, giving in to confirmation bias and manipulation. This back-and-forth underlines the close link between creators and consumers of strategic narratives in the digital era.
Among the many narrative tropes that SDIOs use, we want to note the increasing role ascribed to historical and religious notions to influence public opinion and political discussions. SDIOs mix past grievances and religious beliefs to make their stories more impactful and believable. Bringing up old injustices can stir up strong patriotic feelings or strengthen shared memories. At the same time, using religious stories can tap into deeply held beliefs, making people think there is divine approval or a connection to common values. This blend of history and religion makes their stories powerful and emotional, making them more effective. In Turkey, for example, the state authorities have disseminated victimhood narratives that largely rested on conspiracy theories and half-truths in order to legitimize their rule and quash dissent (Yilmaz and Shipoli, 2022). Research has noted that Islamic religious ideas and the reconstructed history of the Ottoman collapse have been strategically inserted into such narratives to elevate their influence among the Turkish masses (Yilmaz and Albayrak, 2021; Yilmaz and Demir, 2023).
Finally, it’s important to stress that these information operations aren’t always coordinated by automated bots or pre-planned campaigns. Sometimes, they happen naturally through implicit coordination among various participants, which makes the situation even more complex. Starbird et al.’s (2020) research demonstrates that online information operations involve active participation by human actors. The messages these operations spread are disseminated by utilizing online communities and various sources of information. As such SDIOs can be ‘cooperative’ endeavours in that they do not always rely on mere “bots” and “trolls,” but also encompass the contribution of online crowds (both knowingly and unknowingly) in the propagation of false information and political propaganda. For example, during the Russian information operations in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential elections, agents of the Internet Research Agency (RU-IRA) based in St. Petersburg worked together through the operation of more than 3.000 accounts that presented themselves as people and organizations belonging to the American political spectrum (such as the Black Lives Matter and the Patriotic Journalist Network). While undertaking such ‘orchestrated’ activity, the RU-IRA also managed to integrate organic communities by impersonating activists within those online communities, building networks within those communities, and even directly contacting ‘real’ activists. In some cases, RU-IRA agents directly collaborated with activists to organize physical protests in the US (see Walker, 2017).
Goals of SDIOs
SDIOs span both national and international contexts, targeting domestic and foreign audiences through an array of tactics to achieve the political goals of their organizers. Looking at the domestic realm, SDIOs have influenced the functioning of the government and social and political institutions. In many instances, authoritarian governments use digital platforms to influence individuals’ opinions through stories, emotions, and viewpoints that are carefully designed to resonate with specific groups of the population. Their toolkit includes a range of elements, such as conspiracy theories that legitimize a government policy or deflect attention from a government failure, or that create doubt on the arguments of the opposition parties and social actors. Governments may also present narratives where they portray themselves as victims, manipulate facts, and spread distorted statements. For example, in Egypt, the government’s digital narratives have portrayed independent media outlets as agents of Western conspiracies designed to infiltrate and destroy the Egyptian social and political fabric. Similarly, the civilian presidential candidates against President Sisi have been labelled Western puppets created to destabilize Egypt (Michaelson, 2018). In China, the CCP government has used media management platforms such as iiMedia to control public opinion, including providing early warnings for ‘negative’ public opinions and helping guide the promotion of ‘positive energy’ online (Laskai, 2019).
It must also be noted that these narratives, particularly those that employ victimhood tropes, are strategically employed to trigger various emotions among the masses. In Turkey, for example, the Erdogan regime has consistently abused a victimhood claim that rested mainly on the already-existing emotions of the masses such as envy, disgust, humiliation, hatred, anxiety, and anger (Yilmaz, 2021). These emotions are triggered and aroused by government elites as well as government-controlled media in order to legitimize the Erdogan regime’s authoritarian rule and deflect attention from its failures (see Yilmaz, 2021; Tokdogan, 2019).
While both sets of actors pursue political goals through digital manipulation, there are certain differences between state and non-state actors when it comes to utilizing the SDIOs. On the one hand, the state actors tend to be well-resourced and possess good infrastructure of human and technological capital. They tend to have access to a range of digital tools to be used in domestic and foreign contexts, whether to silence the critics and legitimize their rule at home or destabilize their adversaries and extend their geopolitical influence abroad. They tend to carefully plan campaigns to infiltrate foreign information systems, reshape stories, and generate social conflicts, all of which take long-term thinking and strategic foresight. On the other hand, non-state actors, including hacktivist groups and extremist organizations, may lack resources but they tend to be more adaptable to new environments. They use digital platforms to promote their causes, attract supporters, and amplify their voices. These players manoeuvre through the digital world with agility, reflecting the changing nature of the medium.
Research has noted the implications of information operations for democratization as authoritarian and populist governments have leveraged digital media’s features to advance their political objectives. The calculated manipulation of digital platforms by these actors serves as a conduit for amplifying narratives that bolster their policies, worldviews, and perspectives. Authoritarian governments utilize digital censorship and surveillance to suppress dissenting voices and exert control over digital narratives. Populist leaders, in turn, harness the immediacy and interactive nature of social media to establish direct, emotional connections with their constituents, bypassing traditional gatekeepers (Perloff, 2021). By capitalizing on the resonance of online platforms, these actors perpetuate narratives that exploit societal grievances, positioning themselves as advocates for the marginalized while vilifying opposing viewpoints (Postill, 2018).
A Specific, International SDIO: Sharp Power
SDIOs undergo a transformation into tools of geopolitical orchestration and influence projection. In this context, digital strategies manifest as instruments designed to strike a chord with international audiences. They sow seeds of social and political division in target countries that perpetrators try to destabilize. These efforts generate support for both domestic and foreign policy objectives of the perpetrators, often exceeding the boundaries of the conventional notion of soft power and giving rise to what is termed “sharp power” (Walker, 2018). This variant of influence extends beyond the benign strategies commonly associated with “soft power,” taking on a more coercive character where “it seeks to pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environment” (Walker, 2018: 12; Fisher, 2020; Elshaw and Alimardani, 2021).
The emergence of “sharp power” has denoted a significant shift in the dynamics of external influence, as digital platforms are being used to coercively reshape geopolitical interactions between major powers such as the US, China, and Russia, as well as middle powers such as Australia, Turkey, and Egypt. For example, over the last decade, Australia, its public authorities, media entities, and civil society organizations have been systematically targeted by Chinese sharp power operations that included lavish donations to campaigns of useful political candidates, harassment of journalists, and spying on Chinese students in university campuses (The Economist, 2017).
Social Impacts of SDIOs
The study of strategic information operations is not new as scholars noted the US and Soviet attempts at influencing each other’s information environment since the start of the Cold War (see Martin, 1982). Nonetheless, we note that the strategic information operations have been used mostly in two fields of study: military influence and social media analysis, with the political science literature mostly discussing the elements of the concept without fully operationalizing it.
On the one hand, scholars working within military studies have rightly pointed out the strategic reasoning of information operations for international politics (see Rattray, 2001; Kania and Costello, 2018). For example, Kania and Costello (2018: 105) showed how the creation of the Strategic Support Force within the Chinese army structure was aimed at “dominance in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic domain,” thus generating synergy among these three domains, and building capacity for strategic information operations. States have also been manipulating the information environment to influence the internal affairs of their adversaries for decades. This has led to discussion of information operations as a potential threat to national security and stability (Hatch, 2019).
On the other hand, those working on social media analysis have tried to explain how these information operations have been carried out in social media environments. Researchers have identified technical means through which sophisticated tools of manipulation have been put in place in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that led to the spread of dis/misinformation (see Starbird et al., 2019). Among other things, this literature has also helped us to understand why certain pieces of information resonate with users and generate a response (such as those that are more surreal, exaggerated, impressive, emotional, persuasive, clickbait, and shocking images tend to generate better results).
The political science literature has noted various ways in which specific forms of mis/disinformation have affected political discussions in mostly democratic countries without utilizing the SDIOs as an umbrella term. In democratic contexts, the rapid dissemination of misinformation and divisive narratives poses a substantial threat, corroding informed decision-making and hindering the robust exchange of ideas. Trust, a cornerstone of functional democracies, becomes fragile as manipulation proliferates, eroding institutional credibility and undermining the fundamental tenets of democratic governance. For example, in the US, the Russian information operations around the 2016 Presidential Elections targeted key political institutions such as the political parties, the Congress, and the Constitutional Court through hacking, manipulative messaging, and social media campaigns, leading to erosion of trust among American citizens on these institutions (see Benkler et al., 2018).
While the literature covered such issues, we note that social aspects have not received as much discussion so far. We have seen that the SDIOs create significant social impact in terms of social cohesion, polarization, intergroup relations, and radicalization just to name a few. However, the literature’s discussion of these concepts has been limited to technical or political aspects. For example, when the literature examines polarization, they either try to demonstrate how these operations polarize the discourse on the internet, or they focus on political polarization (e.g. between the left and the right, or the majority and the minorities) (e.g., Howard et al., 2018; Neyazi, 2020) while overlooking the wider societal polarization and corruption. Moreover, we need further investigations into how social media platforms amplify the impact of information operations on group dynamics, specifically, whether the content on social media exacerbates polarization and reinforces group identities. This is premised on the fact that the impact of SDIOs extends beyond individual psychology, permeating the collective fabric of societies and democratic institutions. By exploiting digital platforms, these operations can foster polarization, exacerbate existing divisions, and undermine the foundations of social cohesion.
Impacts of SDIOs on Individual and Collective Emotions
In the context of social issues, an important underexplored aspect is the emotional dimension. The SDIOs aim to provoke a wide range of emotions among their targets, including negative, positive, and ambivalent feelings. They aim to generate these emotional responses to achieve various political goals such as gaining support for their political causes, undermining opposing groups, eroding trust in society, marginalizing minority groups, and making people question the credibility of independent media outlets. These operations are usually planned to trigger specific emotional reactions that align with the intentions of the perpetrators. For example, Ghanem et al. (2020) found that the propagation of fake news in social media aims to manipulate the feelings of readers “by using extreme positive and negative emotions, triggering a sense of ‘calmness’ to confuse the readers and enforce a feeling of confidence.” However, we need further research to understand how such emotional responses generate social impacts such as intergroup resentment, xenophobic fear, and anger, potentially leading to societal dissent and upheaval. Conversely, positive emotions like empathy and camaraderie can foster social unity and rally support around social causes. Therefore, the strategic coordination of emotional experiences stands as an important dimension of SDIOs that needs further research.
The final underexplored area we want to emphasize pertains to the content of strategic narratives, including the social and political reasons behind their resonance within target societies. For example, in addition to the content of conspiracy narratives, new research needs to identify why and how certain narratives work in specific social contexts and not in others. Research needs to investigate how historical events, cultural norms, and collective memories shape the reception and resonance of strategic narratives. For instance, narratives that invoke historical grievances might gain traction in societies with unresolved historical conflicts. Further research can explore how strategic narratives tap into individuals’ sense of identity and belonging. Narratives that align with or reinforce a group’s identity can gain more resonance, as they validate existing beliefs and foster a sense of unity.
In this paper, we introduced the concept of the Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs), discussed the tactics and practices of the SDIOs, explained the main political goals of state and non-state actors in engaging with SDIOs at home and abroad, and presented avenues for new research. We highlighted that the concept of the SDIOs present a useful framework to discuss all forms of digital manipulation at both domestic and international levels organized by either state or non-state actors. We noted that while the literature has examined military-political impacts of the SDIOs, we still don’t know much about societal issues that the SDIOs influence such as intergroup relations, social cohesion, trust, and emotional resonance among target audiences.
Understanding how audiences perceive and react forms the foundation for generating effective countermeasures against the harmful impacts of SDIOs. Initiatives aimed at promoting digital literacy, critical thinking, and the ability to discern media authenticity will empower individuals to navigate the potentially deceptive terrain of manipulated information. Additionally, creating transparency and accountability in algorithms that digital platforms use and rely on, along with dedicated fact-checking initiatives, will enhance the tools necessary to distinguish between truth and deceit. Furthermore, collaborative efforts involving governments, technology companies, and civil society entities can serve as a strong defense against the corrosive effects of manipulation, safeguarding the integrity of democratic discourse and the informed participation of citizens.
Finally, we note that the examination of SDIOs demands a comprehensive range of methodologies that arise from various disciplines including, quantitative and qualitative analysis that aims at revealing patterns of engagement and shifts in emotions, tracing the pathways of information dissemination, and mapping the networks of influence. Ethnographic investigations that delve into the personal experiences of participants can provide a human-centred perspective, showing the psychological, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of manipulation. Effective collaboration among technology experts, academic scholars, and policymakers can foster a deeper understanding of digital operations work and generate influence.
Funding: This research was funded by Gerda Henkel Foundation, AZ 01/TG/21, Emerging Digital Technologies and the Future of Democracy in the Muslim World.
(*) Dr. Shahram Akbarzadeh is Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum (MESF) and Deputy Director (International) of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University (Australia). He held a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship (2013-2016) on the Role of Islam in Iran’s Foreign Policy-making and recently completed a Qatar Foundation project on Sectarianism in the Middle East. Professor Akbarzadeh has an extensive publication record and has contributed to the public debate on the political processes in the Middle East, regional rivalry and Islamic militancy. In 2022 he joined Middle East Council on Global Affairs as a Non-resident Senior Fellow. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?hl=en&user=8p1PrpUAAAAJ&view_op=list_works Twitter: @S_Akbarzadeh Email: email@example.com
(**) Dr Galib Bashirov is an associate research fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. His research examines state-society relations in the Muslim world and US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. His previous works have been published in Review of International Political Economy, Democratization, and Third World Quarterly. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=qOt3Zm4AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2023). “Gender Populism: Civilizational Populist Construction of Gender Identities as Existential Cultural Threats.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 24, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0023
In the Islamist version of civilizational populism, the emotionalbacklashagainst the rise of secularism, multiculturalism, progressive ideas, and ‘wokeness,’ has been skillfully employed. While for the populists, populist far right and civilizational populists in the West, usually the Muslims are the civilizational other, we argue in this article, in the Islamist civilizational populism, the list of civilizational enemies of the Muslim way of life also includes feminists and LGBTQ+ rights advocates. Gender populism is a relatively new concept that refers to the use of gender symbolism, language, policy measures, and contestation of gender issues by populist actors. It involves the manipulation of gender roles, stereotypes, and traditional values to appeal to the masses and create divisions between “the people” and “the others.” This paper looks at the case study of gender populism in Turkey, where the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for over two decades. The AKP has used gender populism to redefine Turkish identity, promote conservative Islamism, and marginalize women and the LGBTQ+ community. The paper also discusses how gender populism has been used by the AKP to marginalize political opponents.
In minimal terms, populism is conceived as a unique set of ideas, one that understands politics as a Manichean struggle between a reified will and sovereignty of the morally pure people and a conspiring elite (Hawkins et al., 2018: 15). In addition to this vertical dimension, populism’s horizontal dimension posits the Manichean binary opposition betweeninsiders and outsiders, whereby the outsiders, who may even be citizens, are regarded as foreigners, if not internal enemies, based on their identities. In some cases, these demonized individuals and groups are seen as internal extensions, agents, puppets and pawns of foreign conspiring forces and institutions such as the European Union (EU), “the Jewish lobby,” and extremist Islam. All these are seen as threatening the people’s security, identity, and way of life. In these manifestations of populism, the binary is based on not just national differences but an imagined civilizational enmity (Brubaker, 2017). This type of populism has been dubbed as ‘civilizational populism’ (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; 2022b).
Populism is involved in interpretative processes that lead to intense emotions (Salmela & von Scheve, 2017; 2018). It paints the events, in-groups, and out-groups in certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitate sharp emotions in the audience (Brady et al., 2017; Graham et al., 2011). Emanating from structural (national and international) as well as affective foundations, populism has been effective in speaking to the deep emotions of the masses. It mobilizes people against other groups and/or the state by generating feelings of belonging, love, passion, fear, anger and hate (Morieson, 2017; DeHanas & Shterin, 2018; Yilmaz, 2018; 2021).
In the Islamist version of civilizational populism, the emotional backlash against the rise of secularism, multiculturalism, progressive ideas, and ‘wokeness,’ has been skillfully employed. While for the populists, populist far right and civilizational populists in the West, usually the Muslims are the civilizational other, we argue in this article, in the Islamist civilizational populism, the list of civilizational enemies of the Muslim way of life also includes feminists and LGBTQ+ rights advocates.
What Is Gender Populism?
Much like the highly contested definitional parameters of populism, there is no singular definition of the term ‘gender populism.’ It is a rather new combination that has peaked the interests of academics since the mid-2010s. Gender populism is essentially the use of gender symbolism, language, policy measures and contestation of gender issues by populist actors. For instance, both left- and right-wing populist groups in many Western communities have expressed a need to “protect” their countries, specifically women, from the “illiberal” or “conservative” influences of migrant groups. They profile migrant men as a security threat or as “groomers” and some countries have taken issue with women’s choice to wear a headscarf (Hadj-Abdou, 2018).
At the same time, it is not uncommon to see a huge wave of resistance from right-wing groups reading gender roles. These groups aim to “restore” traditional gender roles which leads them to marginalize feminist directives and disapprove of the LGBTQI+ movements (Agius et al., 2020; Roose, 2020; Gokariksel et al., 2019).
This first stream of literature shows how gender populism helps in the creation of an ideal people or “the people” as opposed to “the others” based on what they consider deviance from their relative gender norms. This also intertwines with the idea of civilizational populism because it gives an image of a utopian dream society or urges people to revert to “the golden era” e.g., the promotion of traditional roles for women (Sledzinska-Simon, 2020).
Gender populism also helps in creating the image of populist leaders in many cases (Ashwin & Utrata, 2020; Löffler et al., 2020; Eksi & Wood, 2019; Roose, 2018). The leader is not only pure from the corruption of conventional “elite” politicians, but he is also a strongman. The populist demagogue is constructed as a ‘strongman’ who can keep threats a bay and take ‘tough decisions’ (Roose, 2022; 2018). Zia (2022) notes that in Pakistan and India, Imran Khan and Narendra Modi present their ‘strongman’ images and vitality as part of their gender populism. Similarly, Eksi and Wood (2019) discuss how both Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan through symbolic (language and body language) present themselves as a mixture of strongmen but at the same time fatherly figures to guide “the people.”
Studies of female populist leaders show that gender plays a critical role in shaping the image of the leader in the eyes of “the people.” In France, Marine Le Pen’s gender populism constructs her as a mother saving the country from the cultural threats posed by ‘the others’ and her comparison to Jonah of Arc makes her the ‘brave hero’ who needs to act against threats such as migration (Geva, 2019; Sayan-Cengiz & Tekin, 2019).
Effeminization of the Elites and Dangerous Others by Populists
The literature on gender populism also points out that gender populism is used to marginalize “the others” or “the elite.” One of the most common manifestations is the effeminization of ‘the elites’ and ‘the others’ by populist leaders (Agius et al., 2020; Ashwin & Utrata, 2020; Löffler et al., 2020; Eksi & Wood, 2019; Roose, 2018).
By contrasting “feminine” political opposition, populist leaders contrast them with their “strong” image to gain credibility in the eyes of voters. For example, in the Philippines, the former President Rodrigo Duterte, is known for this ‘tough man’ acts and imagery while he uses terms such as “bitches,” “son of a bitch,” “chicken-hearted,” “sissy” and “idiots” to address all those who oppose him (UCA News, 2019; Bonnet, 2018; McKirdy, 2016).
In short, gender populism manifests in various forms and is highly determined by contextual factors. It helps in the creation of “the people,” the populist leader/party, and “the others.” Simultaneously, it adds layers to the idea of an “ideal” society and is frequently used to marginalize both civilian and political opposition to populist forces. In a nutshell, it adds a layer to the divisiveness of populism using gender as the focus.
Turkey’s AKP: A Case Study of Gender Populism
In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for over two decades. These two decades have been marked by political as well as major social transitions. This has been a phase of reengineering Turkish citizens from a Kemalist identity to an Erdoganist one: an Islamist, militarist, civilizational populist, neo-Ottomanist citizen and a staunch follower of Erdogan’s personality cult (Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021).
At the heart of this recreation of Turkish identity, people and homeland gender has taken center stage. This makes the case of Turkey quite important to understand gender populism. Given the heated debates around the 2023 general elections, various hues of gender populism have emerged which this article will discuss along with the party’s past recorded use of the phenomenon.
The first signs of AKP’s populism were via the means of gender populism in 2007 when the party was contesting to secure its second term. To maintain its support, AKP positioned itself directly in a clash with the Kemalist principles of modernization which had previously barred women from wearing headscarves in public offices and educational institutions (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). At that time, AKP predominantly represented Muslims and the future (possible) first lady wore a headscarf which was unprecedented in the republic’s history. AKP presented itself as a defender of women’s rights as it sought to reverse the headscarf ban. This led to a mass protest by the Kemalist elite especially on social media which was dubbed “a digital coup” and in-person rallies “Republican Rallies.”
To counter this Kemalist resistance, AKP did not simply make this a matter of right of choice for women, but it constructed the issue as a Manichean binary between Islam and the West, Western ideals being imposed by the Kemalists (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). This overtly ‘human rights issue’ was, at its core, the beginning of the populist Islamist ideology of AKP. Erdogan in 2013 led the country to abolish this ban as he announced in the parliament, “We have now abolished an archaic provision which was against the spirit of the republic. It’s a step toward normalization.”
But this “normalization” is towards Islamist ideas of gender roles. For instance, during the 2010s on several occasions, the then Prime Minster and now President Erdogan expressed gender conservatism. In 2014 during an international summit,he said, “You cannot make men and women equal,” […] That is against creation. Their natures are different. Their dispositions are different.” He also accused feminists of not understanding the idea of “motherhood.” He also openly said Muslim families should not use birth control, “I will say it clearly … We need to increase the number of our descendants.” He added, “People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that. As God and as the great Prophet said, we will go this way. Over the years he has glorified the role of mothers and demonized the idea of a non-traditional women, for example, he said, “A woman above all else is a mother.” He has also called women “half workers” and labelled childfree women “deficient.” His exact quote for this instance reads, “A woman who rejects motherhood, who refrains from being around the house, however successful her working life is deficient, is incomplete.”
In 2021, during a meeting with various officials from the EU, Erdogan ignored the head of the Union, Ursula von der Leyen, and left her standing while all the other men were seated on chairs. In a later comment, von der Leyen noted, “I am the first woman to be President of the European Commission. I am the President of the European Commission, and this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey two weeks ago, like a commission president, but I was not […] Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie? In the pictures of previous meetings, I did not see any shortage of chairs, but then again, I did not see any women in these pictures either.”
These are not just simple comments by an elected official, they have real-life consequences for women in the country. Since AKP’s ascend to power, the rights of women have greatly suffered in the country compared to its European counterparts e.g., an increase in violence against women. Due to the growing discontent in 2015, following the murder of a woman, a social media and in-person campaign featured men wearing skirts to show solidarity with women who were being brutally attacked for wearing “Western attire” or were increasingly being subjected to violence without any state efforts to curb them.
A direct policy consequence of this growing disregard for women’s safety is the historical pull out of the country from the Istanbul Convention in 2021. The Convention was designed to ensure pathways of seeking safety in case of domestic abuse by providing not only legal support but ensured victims safe places to reside when feeling from violent partners. AKP and its ultra-conservative alliance argued that this convention was hurting family values or was a hurdle in traditional ways of family law even though the murder rate of Turkish women rose from 66 women being killed in 2002 to 953 in 2009 which is an increase of 1400 percent. Erdogan and his party scraped this crucial form of protection by simply saying, “We will not leave room for a handful of deviants who try to turn the debate into a tool of hostility to our values.”
In addition to Erdogan, over the years various AKP officials and allies have issued highly contested remarks about women and their rights. For instance, in 2014 former Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc publicly on national television advised women not to “laugh in public.” Arınç has also told Nursel Aydoğan, a member of the Turkish Parliament from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to be quiet because she is a woman. He said, “Madam be quiet. You, as a woman, be quiet.” On a state-sponsored television program, Omer Tugrul Inancer an Islamist religious leader, said that it is a shame for pregnant women to be out in public. Turkey’s Finance and Treasury Minister, Nureddin Nebati, while discussing economic factors clearly stated that women should not or are not “suited” for “heavy work.” He defended his stance by saying, “Women are the crown of our heads, the medicine for our hearts. We do not care about some extremist and ideological discourses. Our values, this civilization and beliefs already order us to be sensitive about women. We just need to understand it. The enrolment rate in school for girls increased to 97 percent. The number of female MPs increased from 4.4 percent to 17.5 percent [under the AKP government]. The participation rate of women in the workforce has increased.”
After over a decade of gender populism, women from within the party and from other opposition parties are open to sexist attacks within the parliament and also by citizens on online social media platforms. Arrest patterns since the 2016 mysterious coup attempt show that women along with dependent children and babies in thousands have been arbitrarily arrested because of their alleged involvement with what the government terms “terrorist” organizations. Women face a greater brunt of state-sponsored violence because they are harassed during “strip searches,” separated from their dependent children and infants, and at times are arrested because of the alleged crime of their husbands.
Another gender dimension of AKP’s populism has been directed at the LGBTQI+ community. As early as 2013 the group has been repeatedly targeted by the party. In the country, there are no laws that criminalize or legalize the community but in recent years with the growth of Islamist views, state-led persecution and hate crime towards the community has escalated.
One of the most prominent waves of opposition to AKP took place in 2013 in the form of the Gezi Park protests. The protests began as a peaceful denunciation of AKP’s gentrification of public spaces in Istanbul and soon turned into a violent spectacle due to police brutality. After the death and injury of several peaceful protests and mass rioting, the Gezi Park protest fiasco was framed by the AKP as a ‘foreign’ attempt to curtail Turkey’s progress (Yilmaz, 2021).
It was after the mass protests and their violent aftermath that AKP directly targeted the LGBTQI+ community by barring the Pride Parade under the guise of security. Since 2015, the state has actively tried to stop the parade but rather than security concerns the parade is framed as a ‘threat’ to Turkish culture and society as well as a foreign agenda to ‘mislead the youth.’ Nearly a decade after Erdogan has blamed ‘deviant’ youth for causing unrest and rioting over the years. In 2021 during a mass protest at a higher educational institute, the President Erdogan again blamed the group and said, “You are not the LGBT youth [to his followers], not the youth who commit acts of vandalism. On the contrary, you are the ones who repair broken hearts.” In 2022 he hinted at introducing legislation to criminalize LGBTQI+ communities in Turkey and he justified these actions by saying, “Can a strong family have anything to do with LGBT? No, it cannot. … We need a strong family. … Let’s protect our nation together against the onslaughts of deviant and perverted currents.”
Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu called the LGBTQI+ community a “propaganda of a terrorist organization” in 2022. He also added, “There is cultural terrorism. The propaganda of a terrorist organization tries to make people forget their values, their religion, unity, parental love, and family loyalty. It is exactly Europe’s policy, exactly America’s policy of divide and rule.” He added, “What will happen? They will bring LGBT to Turkey. Forgive me, men will marry men, women will marry women. It just suits (the main opposition CHP leader Kemal) Kilicdaroglu. What a shame. It lacks all values. They are trying to create a policy based on an understanding that will alter almost all our values so that they can win the hearts of the Europeans and the West.”
The 2023 elections have sadly become a showcase of homophobia by AKP. Various AKP electoral candidates along with Erdogan have weaponized gender populism. They have attacked and accused the opposition coalition as supporters of ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘Western agendas’ because they supported the LGBTQI+ community and at times AKP has attacked the opposition by labelling them as ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT’ to construct them as weak, alien and loyal to the West.
In 2023, during a re-election campaign Erdogan said, “In this nation, the foundations of the family are stable. LGBT will not emerge in this country.” He went on to say, “Stand up straight, like a man: that is how our families are.” He contrasted this by publicly accusing Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the alliance opposition leader, of being gay, as Erdogan at a rally said, “We know that Mr Kemal is an LGBT person.”
During the period the LGBTQI+ community has been demonized as a threat to “family” and a ploy of the West, which according to AKP, represents “deviant structures” and stands as a symbol of a “virus of heresy.” At the same time, political opposition is not only targeted for its support for the community, but they are emasculated by being labelled as part of the community.
While the 2023 presidential and general elections hold political significance for all those in Turkey, for women and the LGBTQI+ community these elections directly impact their future existence. This wave of Islamist reengineering of society, under the AKP regime, has changed the country’s social fabric. Women are increasingly left without state support when at their most vulnerable while top ministers and officials are openly issuing sexist comments and remarks. The Turkish idea of womanhood has undergone extensive change. Motherhood, virtue, and modesty are new parameters where those who oppose these traditional confines are constantly demonized, marginalized, or demonized. Similarly, the LGBTQI+ community, which enjoyed a relatively obscure existence, has become the front of a cultural battle. Their existence is seen as a direct existential threat positioned by the West to the Turkish ‘traditional’ values.
These are not merely instances of the state being simply sexist or sexism being displayed by elected parliamentarians. It is rather a marriage between populism and gender conservatism which has fed AKP’s civilizational populism. It is a layer of populism that helps in the creation of “the others” and “the people” while remaining a useful tool to discredit the political opposition also called “the elite.” It also gives a threatening face to the ‘crises’ under the guise of being a threat to family and the way of life, making it quite simple and relatable for many. In essence, gender populism also feeds off the sentiments of the masses, it is not purely created by populists.
The election results do matter, but what is worrying is the toll gender populism has taken on the Turkish social fabric. Its attempts to redefine gender roles have been met with opposition but at the same time have found a home in various quarters of society. This means a possible clash of narratives and further polarization in society which emanates gender-based hatred towards women and LBGTQI+ individuals might continue.
Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.
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The Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamist and populist political party led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has increasingly incorporated what we term civilizational populism into its discourse. This article examines civilizational populism in AKP discourse, especially in the discourse of its leader Erdoğan, and finds it to be an important element of AKP discourse and ideology. The article also examines the impact of civilizational populism on Turkish domestic and foreign policy under AKP rule. The article finds that the AKP has increasingly, and especially since the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the mysterious coup attempt in 2016, construe opposition between the Turkish ‘self’ and the ‘other’ not in primarily nationalist terms, but in civilizational terms, and as a conflict between the Ottoman-Islamic ‘self’ and ‘Western’ other. Furthermore, the article finds that the AKP’s domestic and foreign policies reflect its civilizational populist division of Turkish society insofar as the party is attempting to raise a ‘pious generation’ that supports its Islamizing of Turkey society, and its neo-Ottoman imperialism in the Middle East. Finally, the paper discusses how the AKP’s civilizational populism has become a transnational phenomenon due to the party’s ability to produce successful televisions shows that reflect its anti-Western worldview and justify its neo-Ottoman imperialism in the Middle East.
Scholars observing the AKP transformation describe the party as increasingly defining Turkish identity not in a narrowly nationalist or ethnonationalist manner, but in religious and civilizational terms (Hazir, 2022; Uzer, 2020; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). Language describing a clash between civilizations in AKP discourse is not difficult to find. Turkey, according to Erdoğan, is “heir” to Islamic civilization, and has called upon the people of his nation to rejuvenate Islamic culture, claiming that this duty not merely of government but also general “society, the business world, NGOs, universities, people of arts and culture” (Erdoğan, 2017).
This paper argues that a civilizational turn in Turkish politics analogous to the civilizational turn in European and American populism identified by Brubaker (2017) Haynes (2017; 2020), Morieson (2023) and Yilmaz and Morieson (2022; 2023a) has taken place. Brubaker, for example, describes how right-wing populist parties in north-western Europe are increasingly constructing “the opposition between self and other not in narrowly national but in broader civilizational terms” (Brubaker, 2017: 1191) (i.e. between the Western and Judeo-Christian ‘self’ and the Islamic ‘other’). Haynes (2017; 2020) finds that a similar present in populist discourses in the United States, particularly within the Trump Administration and its supporters. According to Yilmaz and Morieson (2022) “In the 21st century, across a variety of democratic political contexts, ‘civilizationism,’ a political discourse that uses a largely religious classification of peoples in order to define national identity, has become a significant component of populist political rhetoric.” Yilmaz and Morieson (2022), drawing on Mudde’s definition of populism (2004), argue that “civilizational populism” is “a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people. Is there, then, evidence of this ‘civilizational populism’ in Turkey, an in the form of the AKP led government? Moreover, what role does civilizationism play in AKP discourse? And is civilizationism evident in Turkish domestic and foreign policy?
Civilizational Populism in Turkish Domestic Politics
What is civilizationism? Civilizationism, or the belief that the world can be divided into several civilizations, has been present in political discourse across the world for decades. For example, Samuel P. Huntington’s (2000) famously argued that post-Cold War politics is defined by civilizational identities, and that the nations of the world can be divided into several clashing civilizations, often possessing at their core a single dominant state (i.e. the United States is the ‘core state’ of Western civilization). This interpretation of post-Cold War politics arguably influenced American foreign policy throughout the 2000s. Populists in the West also adopted ‘clash of civilizations’ narratives. Across a number of European nations and in the United States, civilizationism entered populist discourse as a reaction to the rise of Islamist terrorism in the 2000s, “large-scale immigration from the non-West to the West resulting in rapid demographic change, the deindustrialization of much of Europe and North America” (Morieson, 2023), and the dominance of “a new cultural politics” that “emerged around difference and identity” and thrived within the neoliberal environment despite its origins on the political left (Robertson and Nestore, 2022).
A civilizational turn in populist discourse was first observed by sociologist Rogers Brubaker. Brubaker (2017: 1193) identified a number of right-wing populist parties in North-Western Europe who, he wrote, “reconceptualized in civilizational terms …the boundaries of belonging and the semantics of self and other.” The ultimate causes behind the civilizational turn, according to Brubaker (2017), is the growing presence of Islam in Europe and the perception among many Europeans that Muslims pose a threat to Europe’s Western and Christian identity. Other scholars have identified a similar civilizational turn occurring in populist political discourse in many other Western nations, including in the United States, Hungary, and Italy (Haynes, 2020), Germany, France, Greece (Kaya and Tecmen, 2019) and Poland (Morieson, 2023). Other scholars now find that civilizationism has entered populist discourse beyond the West (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022; Shukri, 2023; Gamage, 2023; Saleem, 2023) including in many Muslim majority democracies and hybrid regimes (Hadiz, 2018; Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz et al., 2022).
In the Muslim majority world, Turkey is home to an influential and powerful populist party, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which incorporates civilizationism into their discourse in several important ways. In this section we first discuss the role of civilizationism in the AKP’s ideology – Erdoğanism – and its populist division of society into three groups: ‘the pure people,’ ‘corrupt elites’ and ‘dangerous others,’ and attempt at constructing a new desired citizen and ‘pious generation. Following this we describe the role of civilizationism in the AKP’s domestic politics, and the manner in which the AKP frame its repression and authoritarianism as a defense not merely of the Turkish nation, but of Islamic civilization and the ummah. Finally, we discuss the role of civilizationism in the AKP’s foreign policy discourse and discuss how the party justifies its military intervention in Syria and its attempts to increase cooperation between majority Sunni Muslim nations as part of its responsibility as the core state of Islamic civilization and heir to the Ottoman Empire.
Civilizationism is an important element of Erdoğanism, manifested in its glorification of the Ottoman Empire, and its claim that Turkey is “the legitimate inheritor of Ottoman legacies and power, the leader of the Islamic world, and the protector of Palestine (Hintz, 2018: 37, 113). Erdoğanism combines Turkish nationalism with Islamism and neo-Ottomanism, and the result is an eclectic ideology that asserts that majority Muslim nations ought to come together for mutual protection against an aggressive West and as a civilizational bloc led by Turkey. The belief that a ‘clash of civilizations’ is occurring between the West and Islam is a critical component in the AKP’s construction of ingroups and outgroups in Turkey. The AKP portrays itself as defending pious Turkish Sunni Muslims (or the ummah) from their enemies: morally corrupt secular ‘elites’ and dangerous non-Muslim ‘others’ alleged to be working with Western powers to dismember Turkey and destroy Islam.
The AKP has attempted to create the distinction between ‘the people’ (ummah) and their enemies (non-ummah), and to portray themselves are protectors of ummah, in a number of ways. The mysterious coup attempt in 2016 provided the AKP with an opportunity to ‘prove’ that its opponents were dangerous enemies of the Turkish people and Islam. The Gülenists were subsequently branded terrorists by the government, which claimed that they were working with Western powers to destroy Turkish democracy (Taş, 2018). Shortly after the coup attempt Erdoğan remarked “This coup attempt has actors inside Turkey, but its script was written outside …unfortunately the West is supporting terrorism and stands by coup plotters” (Reuters, 2016). Erdoğan furthermore claimed that the coup was a “gift from God” that allowed him to expose all of Islam’s and the Turkish people’s enemies within the country (Şik, 2016; Ak, 2022). Thus, the AKP portrayed the coup as part of a wider conflict between Islam and its enemies: Gülenists and other “perverters of Islam” within Turkey and the West. Furthermore, Erdoğan portrayed himself as acting in the name of God to protect the Turkish people from their enemies.
The AKP’s response to the coup included attempts to re-educate the Turkish people and to raise an Islamist ‘pious generation.’ This ‘pious generation’ is taught the key ideas of Erdoğanism, including the glorification of the Ottoman Empire and conservative Islamic values in Islamized schools and state-controlled mosques. Erdoğan and his party also encourages Turkish Sunni Muslims to perceive “non-Turkish Muslims, such as Kurds and Lazes, …and non-Muslims, such as Christians and Jews” as enemies (Yilmaz, 2021: 58). These minority groups are now part of the AKP’s ‘unwanted citizens,’ a group consisting of people involved in the Gülen movement, journalists critical of the government, human rights activists, and opposition political parties critical of AKP regime (Yilmaz, 2021; 2018). Furthermore, these groups and individuals are increasingly portrayed by the AKP as “traitors” who do the bidding of foreign “dark forces” trying to “destabilize Turkey” (Yilmaz, 2018). This categorization is intended to help Erdoğan both a sense of a common community in the ummah, but also fear and hatred of non-ummah, including Kemalist ‘elites’ who wish to return to the secular nationalism of the 20th century, and non-Sunni Muslim minorities, Gülenists, and non-ethnic Turks.
Another important element in the AKP’s attempt to raise a ‘pious generation’ and revive Islamic civilization has been its use of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). Under AKP rule, Diyanet has been transformed from a body created by Kemalists to encourage Turkish Muslims to accept, through a programme of social engineering involving control of the texts of Friday sermons, fatwas, and education, the new Turkish Republic and its secular constitution, to an instrument of the AKP itself. The AKP, throughout its period in power, increasingly staffed Diyanet with AKP supporters (Yilmaz, 2018; Aşlamacı & Kaymakcan, 2017). As this occurred, Diyanet used its authority to support the AKP’s political agenda and feed the growing cult around Erdoğan, who the body portrayed in sermons as a pious Muslim who was liberating Turkish Muslims from secular authoritarianism.
The AKP installed two successive pro-AKP and staunchly Islamist Diyanet leaders, Ali Erbaş and Mehmet Görmez, who sought to perpetuate Erdoğanism and help the AKP construct a ‘pious generation.’ Görmez sought to perpetuate Erdoğanism and demonize the West by declaring that Muslims should not enjoin ‘Western’ traditions such as celebrating the New Year. According to Görmez, “No one can say it is right for the pagan culture and consumption culture, converging with hedonism, to create a corrupt culture over our children and teens, especially if all those are joined by things like Christmas, pine tree, gambling, drinking, lottery and such forth, that will move a human away from himself and his God to create a tradition that will corrupt the society” (Korkmaz, 2015).
In making such statements Diyanet officials are not merely attempting to prevent Muslims from partaking in Christian rituals but attempting to frame both Christian religious rituals and entirely secular activities such as celebrating New Year’s Eve and playing the lottery as corrupt and inherently Western, and therefore as a foreign threat to the Turkish people. Erbaş, Görmez’s successor, in his inaugural address called for Turkish people to “work harder than ever to deliver the eternal and everlasting messages of the God and his Prophet to the humanity which flounder into the clamp of secularism and valuelessness” (Parlamento Haber, 2017). Later, during a sermon upon the converting of the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, Erbaş held a sword and spoke from the minbar in imitation of an Ottoman Sultan, and in what was likely a calculated affront to Christians and Turkish secularists (Hurriyet, 2020).
Friday sermons in Diyanet mosques are also used to perpetuate Erdoğanism, especially insofar as the sermons portray Turkish Sunni Muslims as part of a global ummah forever threatened by non-Muslim enemies, and by Gülenists and others false Muslims who pervert the religion, and whose corrupt activities are ultimately the product of the West attempting to create conflict among Muslims. These efforts have become increasingly pronounced since the 2016 attempted coup (Yilmaz et al., 2021). These sermons, which name no specific enemy, imply that the West is attacking the Muslim ummah, and attempting to destroy Turkey “the flagbearer of the Muslim Ummah” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). Even when Muslims attack other Muslims Diyanet – reflecting AKP ideology – frames the conflict as the result of Western attempts to divide the ummah. For example, a Friday sermon delivered on October 4, 2014, claimed that “By looking at the conditions the believers live in, it should be known how the power centers [i.e. the West] gather strength through the blood of the believers and how the brotherhood of faith that makes believers closer to each other is attacked and damaged and turned into fighting, violence and hostility” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). Each of these sermons re-enforce Erdoğanism insofar as they portray the world as riven by clashing civilizations in which the Muslim ummah is forever threatened by the West, and in which Turkey –the core state within Islamic civilization and heir to the Ottoman Empire – is the particular target of Western attacks. Equally, the sermons portray conflicts between Muslims as the product of Western attempts to weaken Islam, rather than the result of political, economic, and cultural differences between Muslims themselves.
Erdoğan has also attempted to portray the damage caused his party’s unorthodox economic strategies, which have brought the nation close to economic ruin in the 2020s, as part of an economic war waged on Turkey by the West, which he claimed was attempting to bring “Turkey and its people to their knees” (Voice of America, 2018). Contrasting the pious Muslim values supposedly shared by his followers with Western consumerism, and in an effort to rally support for his economic policies following the dramatic decline of the value of the Turkish lira, Erdoğan told the Turkish people to remember that “if they [the West] have their dollars, we have our people, our God” (CNBC, 2018).
Civilizational Populism in Turkish Foreign Policy Discourse
The civilizational turn in Turkish populism is present in AKP rhetoric on Turkey’s foreign relations, where it has two purposes. First, the AKP often presents foreign conflicts to their domestic audience as part of a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West, in which Turkey is targeted by Western powers because it is the leading nation within Islamic civilization. However, the AKP is also driven by a mixture of Erdoğanism and national self-interest, and its foreign policy is the product of the intertwining of Turkey’s new identity as their heir to the Ottoman Empire are protector of the ummah, and the government’s desire to increase Turkey’s power.
As a result of the Islamist belief in the decline of American power “the AKP had desired to pursue a more ‘independent’ foreign policy as a regional hegemonic power and demoted its foreign policy with the West to transactionalism” (Bashirov and Yilmaz, 2020). Thus, since its rule was threatened by the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and the 2016 failed coup, the AKP has attempted to maintain transactional relationships with Western countries while also using a discourse in which the West is portrayed “as the ‘other’ of Turkey” (Kaliber & Kaliber, 2019).
By “invoking the glories of the Ottoman period, the AKP has engaged in a (neo)imperial project” (Taş, 2022a) which has caused Turkey to become deeply invested in Middle East geopolitics. Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East is “unmatched” in the Republic’s history, and “along with the country’s drift away from its Western orientation in the 2010s” demonstrates how the AKP’s ideological divergence from Kemalism has altered both its domestic and international politics” (Taş, 2022a). Following the Arab Spring, and in an attempt to restore the glory of the Ottoman Empire and reinvigorate “Pax Ottomana,” Turkey “pursued a maximalist, regional-hegemony-seeking” foreign policy in the Middle East, calculating “that the authoritarian regimes in the region would sooner or later crumble through the Arab uprisings, paving the way for the rise of Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood) offshoots across the region (Taş, 2022b). Yet when the Muslim Brotherhood and its associated political parties were banned or marginalized following the failure of democracy across the much of the Middle East and the re-establishing of secular authoritarianism, the AKP continued its neo-Ottoman foreign policy with an even “more hawkish tone after the siege of Kobani in 2015 and, more pronouncedly, the 2016 abortive coup” (Taş, 2022b).
Erdoğan’s ‘clash of civilizations’ rhetoric is echoed in Diyanet’s Friday sermons. For example, a sermon delivered on December 9, 2016, argued “Because of the ambitions and power struggles of the hegemonic powers in our region, the Islamic lands are falling into ruins” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). A Friday sermon delivered in January 2018 asked listeners the rhetorical question: “Isn’t the greed of global powers the cause of the bloodshed and suffering in our geography?” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). Another argued that “What happened in the Islamic geography today clearly shows the point reached by those who try to destroy our women, children, lives, values, history, culture, and civilization. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, the unity of the ummah, the honor of the nation, the respect of the country has been trampled” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). Although the foreign nations attacking Muslims are not mentioned, these remarks suggest that Western powers are conspiring to divide Muslims and destroy their civilization, and in this way they echo anti-Western remarks by Erdoğan and other AKP officials. Diyanet sermons have also encouraged the faithful to believe that Turkey is the defender of all people who suffer oppression. On October 11, 2019, for example, a sermon told argued that “Just as in the past, today, too, our nation will continue to be the remedy for the remediless people, be there for those people who has nobody by their side and be the hope and safe haven for the victimized and the refugees” (Yilmaz et al., 2021).
Civilizationism within the AKP’s Transnational Populism
Yilmaz and Demir (2022) suggest the AKP is attempting to win support from and perpetuate Erdoğanism within the 3.1 million strong Turkish diaspora and the wider and far larger European Muslim population. Like early secular nationalist Turkish governments, they argue, the AKP “have also tried to use the Turkish diaspora to foster a positive image of Turkey while trying to prevent undesired ideologies spreading among them and thus influencing Turkey’s domestic politics” (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). However, rather than promoting secular nationalism within the diaspora, the AKP has “reengineered the position of ideologically proximate conservative-nationalist diaspora Turks, as loyal allies that would help Turkey extend its legitimacy and soft power beyond its borders and to produce a new state-centric identity” (Arkilic, 2021: 591). Furthermore, the party “has tried to mobilize its loyal diaspora against the dissidents abroad. It has also invested heavily in its diaspora policies and has created new institutions to reach out to the transnational diasporic spaces occupied by Turkish-speaking communities, especially in the West, and to proactively engage with the Turkish diaspora” (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022).
Yilmaz and Demir (2022) contend that “This policy shift has also been reflected in the state’s diaspora definition,” in which “YTB (Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı – Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities), in its Strategic Plan 2019–2023, included members of non-Turkish Muslim communities who are not from Turkey in its diaspora definition as ‘related communities’” (YTB, 2019: 7). Yenigun and Adar (2019) argue that the AKP is using a variety of institutional tools, including Diyanet and Turkish media, to ‘validate Turkey [as the] leader of the Muslim world and patron of the Muslim masses worldwide.’ These include “formal institutions such as the Diyanet’s overseas organization (DITIB, Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği – The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs) and its mosques,” but also Turkish embassies and consulates and other “state institutions that work with Turks abroad and related communities (YTB, Yunus Emre Enstitusu, Maarif, and others).”
The AKP also operates or funds “country-specific organizations operating in Western Europe” including the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD) and the Turken Foundation which “was established jointly by the pro-AKP TÜRGEV (Türkiye Gençlik ve Eğitime Hizmet Vakfı – the Turkey Youth and Education Service Foundation),” and also the “Ensar Foundation in the US and the UK operate for the purpose of transnational populism” (Yimaz and Demir, 2022). Diyanet plays a vital role transnationally in reproducing the AKP’s ideology. An analysis of Diyanet Friday sermons delivered under AKP rule concludes that “the interests of Turkey are weaved in by using identity-creating elements” (Carol and Hofheinz, 2022: 18), suggesting that promoting Sunni Muslim unity under Turkish leadership is a key element of Diyanet’s messaging. Indeed, in order to spread the message of Sunni Muslim unity under Turkish leadership, “Diyanet has organized conferences and visits and sent out delegations to disseminate the Islamist civilizational populist narrative of the AKP regime” including “the Diyanet organized the First World Muslim Minorities’ Summit in Istanbul” in April 2018 (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022).
Finally, the AKP has also sought to perpetuate Erdoğanism, and especially the notions that Islam is under attack by the West, and that globally Muslims must unite under Turkish leadership on the grounds that Turkey is the heir to the glorious Ottoman Empire, to a worldwide audience of Muslims via television. (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). Pan-Islamism and the glorification of the Ottoman Empire have become important elements in popular Turkish television programs during AKP rule over Turkey (Özçetin, 2019a: 247). According to Çetin (2014: 2477), the AKP politicizes television dramas by using as a means of: “(1) dealing with contemporary political issues, (2) settling accounts with the past, (3) neo-Ottomanism, and (4) piety and the Islamic worldview.” Turkish dramas, then, “disseminate the AKP’s narrative of historical and contemporary in-groups and out-groups” both within Turkey across the Muslim world (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022; Çevik, 2020: 177). For example, Dirilis (Resurrection) and Payitaht (Abdulhamid, the Last Sultan are historical dramas that attempt, at times, to find parallels between the Ottoman past, in which the Ottoman Empire came into conflict with the Christian West and other non-Muslim civilizations, and Turkey’s present (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022).
Within these dramas, Muslims are portrayed as threatened by “Crusaders, the Templars, the Mongols, Byzantium and their contemporary successors such as the EU, the US and the Jewish lobby” (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). At the same time, the dramas frequently present opponents of Islamism and the AKP within Turkey as “collaborators and pawns of these external enemies” (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022; Özçetin, 2019b: 947). Throughout these series Muslims who act as guardians of Islamic lands from Christians and Jews – and against false Muslims who secretly collaborate with Muslims’ enemies – are portrayed as heroes (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). Within these television dramas, as in Diyanet sermons to a domestic and transnational audience, the AKP – to borrow a phrase from Brubaker (2017) – construes opposition between ‘self’ and the ‘other’ not in primarily nationalist terms, but in civilizational terms, and as a conflict between the Ottoman-Islamic ‘self’ and ‘Western’ other.
The AKP’s civilizational populism impacts Turkish domestic and foreign policy in a variety of ways. Domestically, the AKP have attempted to perpetuate their rule by raising a ‘pious generation’ who glorify the Ottoman Empire and wish to rejuvenate Islamic civilization within Turkey. As part of this project, the AKP has not only altered the school and university curriculum to reflect their ideology, but has greatly enlarged the budget, scope, and direction of Diyanet to encourage Turkish Sunni Muslims to believe that the AKP is protecting them from internal and external enemies who hate Islam and wish to destroy Turkey. The AKP and Diyanet portray Western culture and Christianity as corrupting influences on Turkish Muslims and admonish believers to cease celebrating so-called Christian holidays including New Year’s Eve. Equally, the AKP has sought to encourage Turkish Muslims to think of themselves as part of a great Islamic civilization through their opening of a museum glorifying Islamic civilizations and through his call for everyone in Turkey to “make efforts to build and revive the civilization while thinking over the culture” (Erdoğan, 2017).
The AKP’s civilizational populist turn has also impacted Turkish foreign policy. Erdoğanism, as an ideology, defines Turkey’s role in the world as leader of the ummah and successor to the Ottoman Empire, and possessing many of its responsibilities to the ummah. As a result, AKP ruled Turkey plays an especially active role in Middle East geopolitics. After the Arab Spring, the Turkey began to attempt to achieve the AKP’s goal of “reinvigorating Pax Ottomana” and “pursued a maximalist, regional-hegemony-seeking” foreign policy, believing that American power was growing weak and that the secular authoritarian regimes in the Middle East were at an end. However, Turkish foreign policy is also constrained by the region’s other powers, and by the world’s sole superpower, the United States. Thus, rather than acting to consistently protect the ummah from non-Muslim aggression, Turkey has instead sought alliances with European nations such as Hungary, remained in NATO despite Turkey being the only non-Western, non-Christian member of the alliance, and re-established full diplomatic relations with Israel. Equally, Erdoğan has remained quiet on China’s abuse of Muslims in Xinjiang, despite evidence of Muslim Uighurs being interned by the hundreds of thousands in concentration camps where they face secular ‘re-education.’ This suggests that the AKP and Erdoğan remain pragmatic actors and will not act rashly to protect Muslims’ interests when the result might be contrary to Turkey’s national interest. Finally, the AKP is spreading its ideology within both the Turkish diaspora and the wider European Muslim population via a variety of organizations and through popular television series. In this way, the party attempts to move its ideology beyond Turkey’s borders, in an effort to convince diaspora Turks and Sunni Muslims in Europe to perceive themselves to be part of an aggrieved ummah facing constant attacks from the West, and Erdoğan and the AKP as the leaders of the ummah.
The AKP has increasingly, and especially in reaction to the Gezi Park protests and 2016 attempted coup, construed opposition between ‘self’ and the ‘other’ not in primarily nationalist terms, but in civilizational terms and as a conflict between the Ottoman-Islamic ‘self’ and ‘Western’ other. Furthermore, the party has achieved repeated electoral success by portraying its opponents as anti-Muslim and therefore illegitimate and morally bad and portraying the party’s mistakes as the result of foreign anti-Muslim forces intervening in Turkish politics and attempting to destroy Turkey’s economy and society. Finally, despite the AKP’s success in framing Turkey’s economic and social problems as the result of Western attempts to oppress Muslims globally and prevent Turkey from flourishing, Turkey’s increasingly poor economic performance has caused the party to lose support. The May 14, 2023, general elections will therefore test the AKP’s ability to perpetuate its rule via an anti-Western populist narrative.
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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After the Cold War, not only the economic discontent created by capitalism and globalization went to the extreme, leaving the environment at the mercy of multinational corporations, but also the perception that the sovereignty, autonomy and independence of nations, and with them, the right to self-determination was increased to a limited extent. In particular, as the global crises of 2008-2009 hit people’s lives hard, the sense of “being left behind” prepared the ground for the demand and supply of populist politics. However, populist governments not only failed to achieve any progress on the main problems complained about, rather the contrary, but primarily right-wing authoritarian-populist governments also worsened the situation by threatening multilateralism, democracy, human rights and the free market economy worldwide. Besides, the Covid-19 pandemic since 2020 posed quite mixed results for the future of populism. While the populists gained strength in the opposition, the right-wing populists in government began to lose power. Therefore, in such an environment, in Brazil, the rise of Lula’s left-wing (and to some extent populist) government to power after defeating a right-wing authoritarian government has potential implications for the future of democracy, human rights, the market economy, and multilateralism. If the Lula government takes a reformist, transformative, and progressive path, it can become a positive role model for other countries under populism threat. However, this article questions the possibility of that under local and global constraints.
After a fierce race against the right-wing authoritarian populist leader Jair Bolsonaro, the left-wing leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Lula (Lula, hereafter) took the lead on November 2, 2022, elections by a considerably narrow margin in Brazil. Given the fact that the local and global structural challenges are there, Bolsonaro’s loss of power does not indicate the final defeat of his right-wing populism. Latin America’s recent history shows that as long as the internal and external conditions that provide supply and demand conditions for populism remain in place, the ongoing vicious circle between the right and left populist pendulum will continue. For this reason, this result in Brazil can be seen as the beginning of a new showdown rather than a final victory against authoritarian tendencies in society that is highly characterized by authoritarian populist values.
On the other hand, while the right-wing populism (RWP) poses an obvious threat to the democracy and human rights, it would be too simplistic to present the left-wing populism (LWP) as progressive, democratic, and pro-human rights from the viewpoint of hardcore populist theory. The current question is whether Lula, one of the established actors of Brazilian politics, who previously ruled Brazil for two terms, can show a genuine leadership for change and reform, and trigger a conjuncture with an overarching impact that might extend beyond Brazil, and trigger an anti-populist wave. Despite Latin America’s political graveyard, which imposes a political culture of excessive short-termism, Lula can lead Brazil in that direction.
To discuss these arguments, after analyzing the nature of the currently shifting global landscape towards populism in the second part, the third part deals with the overall political climate between right- and left-wing populism in Brazil. This section will consider Lula’s legacy (2003-2010), Bolsonaro’s populism in power and the expectations from Lula, who has returned for the third time. Finally, the fifth section considers the new global conjuncture and its implications for a comprehensive economic transformation, the need for funding and source of finance, efficiency considerations on the use of public money as well as the need for comprehensive tax reform to create a new source of finance such as wealth tax. Article ends with final remarks and observations.
Shifting Global Landscape Towards Populism
Many prominent economists, such as Stiglitz (2003), Rodrik (2011), Acemoğlu & Yared (2010), and Greider (2003), argue that hyper globalized capitalism has exceeded its limits and produced unsustainable social, political, economic, and environmental repercussions. With those self-reinforcing inherent mechanism, they argued, “excessive globalization” threatens democracy, human right, and market economy.
Some alternative views, however, found that perspective overly pessimistic in an environment where socialist planning economies had collapsed in former Soviet Union in the early 1990s and nearly a decade after when China began transforming Mao’s regime to embrace and converge to the market economy led by Deng Xiaoping. After socialism collapsed and the possibility of communism as an alternative ideology lost its appeal worldwide, Fukuyama (1993) hastily published his “end of history” thesis, presenting capitalism as the most progressive and definitive form of an organization human beings can create.
Besides China and Russia, the number of countries transitioning to democracy and the market economy system suddenly increased and that created illusions about the final victory of capitalism over its alternatives. This process of globalization which was driven by technological breakthroughs, trade-openness, and financial liberalizations paved the way for multinational national enterprises (MNEs) to accumulate disproportionate concentration of wealth and a worsening of global income distribution at the national and global levels (IMF7WEO, 2007). Besides the great recession of 2008-2009 and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, a recent UN report also underlines the impact that climate change, urbanization and international migration has had on global income inequality (World Social Report, UN, 2020).
Global income disparities and a lack of opportunities are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration, and discontent across generations and consequently have serious negative repercussions in the rise of authoritarian populism. Societies detach from the institutional structures to which they are accustomed to and eventually become more receptive to the recipes of the populist politics. Therefore, in a sharp contrast to the expected “third wave of democratization” in the post-Cold War period, the world has experienced “the third wave of autocratization,” an era that can be termed “the New Cold War.” For the first time in the post-Cold War world, authoritarian-oriented regimes outnumber democracies. This number does not include countries that have already surrendered to authoritarianism, like Russia and China (Lührmann & Lindberg, 2019). As of today, the global conditions for freedom and democracy are clearly trending downward. The growing signs of democratic recession, spreading to the core of the world’s liberal democracies, particularly Europe and the United States. While these are the first serious doubts about the future of democracy in the advanced liberal democracies since the beginning of the third wave of democracythe erosion of liberal democracies is part of a broader downward shift worldwide. Besides the former president Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who lost the chair, recent autocrats include Hungary’s Viktor Orban, India’s Narendra Modi, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicholas Maduro formerly, Filipino Rodrigo Duterte, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz (Meyer, 2022).
The key observation to make here is that the rise of the new global wave of populism in the so-called New Cold War era has been driven by the current distorted globalization, large MNEs spiraling out of control, and the Western-biased multilateral governance order (MLO) losing its relevance. A rising multipolar world and new global powers such as Russia, India and China are the driving force of the populist tide, among others. As geopolitical competition between the West (especially the US) and these two geopolitical rivals intensifies, we are increasingly threatened with a regression to the Cold War days where alliances matter above democracy and human rights. The rulers who aspire to become autocrats, or to deepen their autocracy, perceive no serious consequences from “the international community.” Seeking a way to distance themselves from the West, many populist leaders are finding an opportunity to consolidate their power by exploiting the gaps in this emerging world (Aiginger, 2020).
A Quick Evaluation of the Populism in Opposition and in Power
Having lacked a coherent known ideology or a worldview, populism is better understood as a technique for striving for power. Populists increase their strength and adaptability through pragmatism and opportunism and, therefore, are compatible with an unlimited range of specific ideologies. It can be deployed anywhere through several rhetoric, such as anti-elite resentment, that can mobilize the masses, especially in countries where economic inequality and inequality in power sharing are widespread. The failure of the status quo to answer the ever-growing challenges such as economic woes, cultural fears, the speed of change brought about by globalization and digitization, and the failure of politics to manage the transition to higher levels of prosperity, provide the necessary supply and demand conditions for populist politicians to gain electoral support from the forgotten or socially neglected part of society. Under these challenging conditions people frequently turn to messianic solutions and demand extraordinary leaders with a cult of personality or metaphysical charisma who denies institutions and rules.
Left- and right-wing populists expose the following common characteristics: First, as Britannica emphasizes, a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the people’s will to consolidate his power also explains the inherent tendencies of populists towards authoritarianism. In this personalized form of politics, political parties lose their importance, and elections confirm the leader’s authority rather than reflect the people’s different allegiances. Believing themselves to be the “voice of the people and the right,” they keep themselves outside and above the norms of control and regulation, often acting dependent on the situation and the people, and even displaying purely arbitrary administration.
Second, with no initial chance of coming to power alone, the populist parties seek social and political legitimacy by creating coalitions with “mainstream” parties. In situations where political elections reveal no majority rule options, they also play a more active part in the party and make further inroads until they dominate (Hayward, 2003). Once they finally take the lead by promoting simplistic solutions to complex problems, extreme promises, and superficial rhetoric, they entrench themselves by changing the rules and dismantling the separation of power among government, parliament and the courts. Additionally, they restrict media freedom, grow closer to the military, and close foreign borders. By harming MLO, the rule of law, democratic control mechanisms, human rights, and the market economy, populists ultimately incline to authoritarianism. Rather than do away with elections altogether, they hold pseudo-elections to legitimize their anti-institutionalist, plebiscitary, and majoritarian attitudes (Naím, 2022).
A third related and common unifying feature of the RWP and LWP is their “divide and rule” strategy. They practice this by pushing intensely polarizing messages and dividing people binarily into the “us” and the “them.” The former is used to refer the ordinary people as virtuous citizens and the latter as a corrupt, self-serving elite. This divisive policy is shared among the populist, whether they are in opposition or in power. After the division of society into “the evil and happy minority” and “the good, unhappy and the silent majority,” the assertion that the great masses, i.e., the real people, also have an extremely homogeneous structure has significant consequences (Vidigal, 2022).
Relatedly, populist actors strive for “uniting the nation,” and perceive this as a permanent crisis. To that end, authoritarian populism tends towards extreme nationalism, racism, conspiracy-mongering, and scapegoating of marginalized groups. If there are sinister foreign forces and cultures that seek to intrude on the homogeneity of ‘our people’, country, nation, and religion, then the society needs protectors or guardians who can take care of society. All these factors help consolidate the leader’s power and distract public attention from the leader’s failures, the nature of the leader’s rule or the real causes of economic or social problems (Britannica, 2022).
Fourth, when they are in power, as Diamond (2017) summarizes, (i) populists demonize the opposition as illegitimate, (ii) undermine the independence of the courts, the independence of the media, gain control of public broadcasting, put stricter control on the internet, (iii) subdue (depoliticize) other elements of civil society and the business community into ceasing support for opposition parties, (iv) use state control over contracts, credit flows, and other resources to enrich a new class of political crony capitalists, (v) extend political control over the state bureaucracy and security apparatus to purge professional civil servants and create loyal servants to the political party. (vi) They also use the state intelligence apparatus as a weapon against the opposition, manipulate electoral rules and gain control over electoral administration to retain power in the elections.
Fifth, in economics, populism refers to a process that results in heroism when they are in opposition; while in power, they might foster pleasure in short-run unsustainable policies. With their oversimplified interpretation of a society’s problems, they talk about fair income distribution, national sovereignty and independence. What they do in reality is that by ignoring scientists, professional and economic constraints, and efficiency considerations, they rely upon policies, such as excessive monetary expansion, inflationary financing, and accumulation of debt and, thus, unsustainable growth (Aiginger, 2020). Populists characteristically favor strong but somewhat selective government intervention in the economy to counteract market forces, which ends with economic inefficiency and unsustainable growth.
Sixth, in terms of “good versus bad populism” (Larry, 2017), one must first consider populist leaders’ main ideologies, not their pragmatism, opportunism, tactics or maneuvers (Huber & Schimpf, 2017). Hardcore ideologies like communism, capitalism, or fascism target to redistribute political power, economic dominance, and cultural leadership away from what they declare as corrupt, greedy, over-centralized, urban-based oligarchies in favor of empowering “the common people.” In that context, three distinguishing characteristics of LWP than RWP can be mentioned: Because of their main leftist ideologies, LWP parties tend to define the people on a class basis, mainly referring to the poor. They, therefore, recognize class differences, consciousness, and conflicts of interest. In contrast, RWP parties define the people on a cultural and nativist base (Mudde, 2004). In other words, while LWP parties frame their criticisms economically and seek to protect the proletariat from exploitation by capitalists, RWP parties’ champion nativism (Mudde, 2007).
Seventh, RWP and LWP differ regarding political inclusion but share similarities in their ideas of political contestation and control of power. While LWP parties generally do not discredit minority groups nor object to granting these groups political rights, they do not accept political competition for that they, and only they, are the true representatives of the people. Consequently, they consider political control through effective opposition and institutional power check mechanisms as obstacles that prevent them from implementing the people’s will. In this sense, left-wing populists are inclusive on the societal level and the dimension of political participation. Thus, left-wing populist parties differ from right-wing populist parties in that they embrace an inclusive as opposed to an exclusive view of society (Katsambekis, 2017; Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2013).
Eighth, like RWP, LWP parties are also anti-elitist and anti-establishment, but LWPs are more international than RWPs. This attitude might help bring about necessary institutional reforms to mitigate injustices, break monopolies, redistribute power and income, and therefore play a progressive role in integrating forgotten or left-behind groups in the system. In this categorization, LWP represents progressive, good populism, whereas RWP represents the “bad.” However, the mentioned similarities should also not be overlooked. Populism, both right and left, is based on an individual’s personal preferences and their emergency management and arbitrary decision-making. They constantly try to increase power and adjust the system to their whims. RWP and LWP demand more power for the ruling executive to shift power away from parliaments and courts. They show no significant difference regarding their influence on mutual constraints.
Looking at the issue from this perspective, it is clear that the populist leaders from both sides should be under constant suspicion. Their act of undermining modern governance based on the separation of powers between the legislature, judiciary and executive, undermining media freedom and silencing civil society NGOs with various tactics should be resolutely opposed.
Populists often use a strong pragmatism full of empty promises (i.e., promising a return to non-existent past glory) that helps them defeat the status quo parties in the elections. Their underestimation or oversimplification of society’s problems cause them to severely underperform when in the power. However, that doesn’t mean they can be removed from power just for not fulfilling their promises. Removing the populists from the seat is likely to be much more complicated than ascending them. As Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Orban in Hungary have shown, they do not go as easily as they come. That is because of the crimes and corrupt activities they commit while in power. After “crossing the Rubicon” in power, they pass a point of no return, and “unable to leave power.” They try to hold on to power by any means within their courage and strength by undermining the democratic order that enabled them to come to power. They even invent a foreign enemy or dangerous power or, like Erdogan in Turkey, artificially organize a fake coup to consolidate their power. As Naim (2022) puts it, both left- and right-wing populists can be more ideologically different but more similar in their strategies to seize and retain power.
In this respect, as Aiginger (2020) states, democracies are fragile in their efforts to protect themselves from destructive attacks by populists. Although the number of military dictatorships, which peaked in the 1980s, has sharply declined, they have been replaced by pseudo-democratic personal dictatorships (Lührmann & Lindberg, 2019). Given that an “authoritarian” regime refers to the absence of democracy, a system where free and fair elections determine who holds power, the most dangerous form of dictatorship in our time comes with the populist regimes. They are evolving under God-like charismatic leaders and seek legitimacy through a theater of rigged elections to govern their “pseudo-democracies” (Frantz, 2018).
In game-theory language, society may prefer “the least bad,” the so-called “second-best” where “the first best solution” is not possible in the given social pay-off matrix. However, when it comes to favoring populism over the established order, the situation expressed by the phrase “get caught by the hail while escaping the rain” can arise. As Martin Wolf puts it, “yes, indeed, the failings of the existing governmental and commercial elites – their indifference to the fate of large sections of the population, their greed and incompetence, which have been so clearly demonstrated – are hard to answer for; the solution does not lie with the populists.”
To conclude this section, populism does not allow a self-determined life to enrich human dignity and self-esteem. It does so by undermining life opportunities and lowering income. It also increases the probability of conflict with neighbors. Under populism, government expenditures for policy, border control, environmental degradation and health problems increase significantly, and this in turn leads to higher taxes and debt.
In terms of fighting with populism, it has multiple roots which must be addressed, but there exist numerous better solutions for these problems if they are discussed with citizens. However, given the new majority rules and suppression of the media, if there is no candidate presenting an alternative or opposition is divided, the return to liberal democracy is difficult. In order to combat and reverse populism, the disappointments of the “big silent majority” must be addressed and their hope for the future must be managed on a realistic basis.
In that regard, economic, cultural, and social expectations must be satisfied. The fears, anxiety, and concerns (i) like unemployment, income loss and inequalities, and rising cost of living in economics must be resolved. Also, negative repercussions of excessive globalization that comes with free trade and the unbounded activities of MNEs should be prevented from giving the impression of losing national autonomy, sovereignty, and independence. (ii) “Fear of foreigners,” that caused mainly by legal and illegal immigrants, are also perceived as a threat over the settled life patterns and civilizational values of native citizens. That should also be managed more accurately. Redrawing the picture without whitewashing must be the starting point of a new policy. It is necessary to explain the importance of a pluralistic society and its dynamism. Furthermore, it needs to be stressed that heterogeneity is not negative. The interaction of different cultures brings innovativeness, creativity and opens the door to further prosperity.
Moreover, each era has its own language, culture, and necessary organizations. Reactions should be appropriate. Instead of fleeing to the supposed “glorious centuries” of ancestors in different ages, it should be made clear that the necessary advances will never come through protectionism. Previous jobs and family structures will not be repeated either. As Rumi (1207-1273) once said: “My sweetheart faded away along with yesterday / No matter all the promises of yesterday / Now it’s time to say something new.”
In this respect, developing a vision outlining where the country or region wants to be in the medium term, for example by 2030, and defining the effective tools that can be used and partners found to achieve that vision are two Herculean tasks. In other words, it is important to structure the institutions, rules, instruments, actors, stakeholders, future industries, financial resources, and the place of the major national sectors in the global value chain and division of labor in a timely manner. All vision and measures should comply with good governance criteria, like transparency, accountability, and inclusion. The vision, which needs to be developed together with experts and policymakers, should be ambitious but achievable and shared by citizens, including the type of jobs to be created in a number of specific, future-oriented sectors. The skills and educational level of the youth as well as emigrants should also be aligned with this overall vision. The vision should specify which public services should be provided and how living conditions can be improved. Performance should be assessed against sustainable development goals. Actions needed include comprehensive tax reform, transforming the education system, supporting the hybrid work systems, and taking public action to support the process, investing in climate change and supporting green sectors such as better public transport, electric car incentives, car sharing and renting unused houses.
Brazil between RWP and LWP
To uncover the right-wing and left-wing populism of Bolsonaro and Lula, respectively, and to predict Brazil’s future in terms of democracy, human rights, and the market economy, it would be helpful to briefly examine the rhetoric of these two leaders on the one hand and their real policies and implementations in power on the other. Although they both refuse to be labeled as populist, both Lula and Bolsonaro cause political polarization, albeit in different tones, by adopting an exclusionary, discriminatory, marginalizing, and divisive language. This turns politics into a struggle between angels (the big silent majority) and demons (elites, professionals, bureaucrats).and reduces political competition to a dangerous struggle between “traitors” and “patriots.” According to a recent analysis by Käufer (2022), in the last election campaign, they both used terms like fascists, communists, devils, demons, thieves, agents of genocide, or Ku Klux Klan sympathizers to describe each other.
More specifically, Lula, who governed Brazil for two terms between 2003-2010, followed aggressive campaign rhetoric and insulted anyone who did not vote for him as “enemies.” Rather than pursuing a reconciliatory course to build bridges, repairing social fault lines, and uniting the nation, he used the environment Bolsonaro had divided to his advantage. It seems he found this to be a productive strategy in a socio-political culture where demand for strong political leadership, authoritarian and populist values is high. Lula was able to win the election with a majority, just 2 million votes more than his rival, and take charge of a deeply polarized country from January 1, 2023 by making different coalitions (León &Magni, 2022). Now, however, Lula has to mend this division he helped create and in such an environment he must propel Brazil into the future by giving the country a new vision.
Bolsonaro’s campaign was characterized by a fear of violence when he repeatedly cast doubt on the electoral system in October 2022. Bolsonaro announced that “only God can remove him from the presidency” and suggested that if he received less than 60 percent of the vote that would mean “something unusual (fraud) happened.” Like former US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro refused to say whether he would leave office peacefully if he lost. He also scapegoated Lula by arguing that he is not only corrupt and a thief, but also will bring Communism to Brazil. The last, but not least, he blamed Lula for being pro-LGBTQ supporter, harming Brazilians morality. When he lost elections to Lula,Bolsonaro remained silent for hours after the result was announced and called on the military to oversee the vote count in October.
Both Bolsonaro and Lula have commonly attempted “scapegoating methods” to divert attention from their failures. Lula heavily relied on this strategy as he ruled the country for two terms (2003-2010). After the court rejected his candidacy, Lula ceded his post at the pinnacle of his popularity and social approval to another president (Dilma Rousseff – January 2011 – August 2016) from the same party, the Labor Party. Facing similar and serious controversial corruption-related lawsuits, Rousseff lost her post to Michel Temer (August 31, 2016, to December 31, 2018) as interim president, and then Bolsonaro rose to power from January 2019 to late 2022 (Käufer, 2022).
Looking at the language used by the two political leaders during Brazil’s last election campaign, one can say that both can be cited as “examples of subversive populism.” However, as the analysis presented in the first section concludes that LWP are expected to be more progressive than RWP because of the difference in their main ideology, we should focus on what they did in power in addition to their rhetoric. In this context, some selected practices of Lula and Bolsonaro (2018-2022) will be briefly discussed below.
Lula’s Legacy (2003-2010)
Lula, a politician who has made a name for himself as a unionist and struggling leader in Brazilian politics since the 1980s, gained experience on his way to the presidency. There were two main challenges for Lula to overcome: (1) Brazilians were overly politized and had a divided political culture and (2) Lula’s hardcore left ideology on economic management.
In terms of the first issue, the important chronic challenge was that all presidents of Brazil since re-democratization in the late 1980s have had to form coalitions among rival factions in the Brazilian Congress to govern (Käufer, 2022).Considering that fact and his previous attempts at the presidency, he toned down his rhetoric and succeeded in increasing his stakeholders and coalition partners. Lula was able to win the 2002 elections as a result.
Regarding the second issue, Lula was aware of the uncertainty that was held amongst the public on how a left-wing leader, who used very harsh ideological language during the election process and was a union leader in his past, would act as leader of the country. Lula kept a flexible and pragmatic approach; He emphasized the unity of the country and tried to calm fluctuating markets by publishing market-friendly statements. For instance, by publishing a “letter to the nation,” Lula tried to relieve “financial capital” by ensuring to follow an “evolutionist, pro-market, not revolutionary” reform and change path if the phrase is appropriate. The old saying that “the crowned head grows wiser” was vindicated in Lula’s case. As soon as he came to power, he began to adopt very pragmatic policies as if to say, “what is said on the campaign trail stays there.”
Lula was expected to take the necessary steps to resume economic growth during his first term in power, after almost 25 years of semi-stagnation, fight poverty, and improve historically deep income inequalities. Lula decided to continue the International Monetary Fund (IMF) program signed in 2002 by the former academic president Cardoso. Lula greatly benefited from the stability created by the Cardoso government, with the Plano Real taming inflation while avoiding recession and the privatization of monopolies increasing the inflow of foreign capital. To increase the credibility in his commitment to the market economy system, Lula also appointed Cardoso’s Minister of Finance Pedro Malan to the same position.
Thanks to these measures, compared to other left-of-center reform projects, Lula caused fewer confrontations with internal political adversaries and economic elites. He gained a reputation as a moderate and pragmatic leader (Hughes, 2012). However, that level of pragmatism even risked disappointing his ideological supporters’. In a way to balance that perspective, he also stressed that rather than following the so-called Darwinian philosophy, implying the survival of the fittest where the big fish eats the small, advocated by the right-wing politicians, he would pay attention to the social policies to improve income distribution and alleviate poverty. In other words, Lula protected the balance between the elites, that is to say, the finance capita and the “silent majority”. The combination of social sensibility and fiscalresponsibility promoted him as a “modern left” (de Carvalho, 2008).
In addition to his capacity to build and maintain coalitions and his ability to promote a pragmatic-flexible approach to the economic management Lula was also lucky, which allowed him to benefit a great deal from changes underway before his presidency. Geologists found a huge new oil field deep in the ocean off the Brazilian coast, and ethanol production expanded. The tens of billions of barrels of oil discovered in the fields of Rio de Janeiro in 2006 have been declared one of the most important discoveries of this century. Many hoped this would bring an abundance of education and health and make Brazil one of the largest economies in the world (The Guardian, 2015).
The most significant luck for Lula and Brazil was a new phase of globalization that encouraged an uninterrupted long growth cycle from 2002 till the burst of the global financial crisis in 2008. This new phase of globalization was driven by revolutionary developments in communication and transport technologies, the integration of China and then ex-Soviet markets into the world system via the WTO, and the breaking down of barriers to factor movements across the board. Globalization of production, trade, and financial flows, accompanied by great opportunities for energy and commodity-exporting countries like Brazil. As a result, unlike the period between 1990-2022, when, besides Argentina, Russia, and the South African Republic, Brazil recorded the lowest growth performance among developing countries (DCs) and, therefore, almost stagnated (Figure.1), during Lula’s two terms, a growth rate more than doubled in the 2000s and surpassed the OECD and world growth averages. Accordingly, nominal GDP increased fivefold from $500 billion in 2002 to over $2.5 trillion and per capita income from about $4,500 to $13,000 in 2010 (Figure.2). With that performance, Brazil came to the brick of successfully graduating from upper middle-income country status to becoıam a high-income country for the first time in its modern history.
The growth performance and the associated social policies have contributed significantly to Lula’s phenomenal success in the social sphere (Green & Skidmore, 2021). Growing export surplus and rising tax revenues allowed the Lula government to fight widespread poverty by investing in social programs, such as the Family Stipend (Bolsa Família), which started in 2003, to reduce poverty and increase human capital. Former president Cardoso’s School Stipend (Bolsa Escola) preceded that program, and Lula merged it with his Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) campaign (Hall, 2006). Bolsa Família 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. As of 2010, 12.4 million households had enrolled in the program, and, in sum, 20 to 30 million Brazilian escaped from poverty.
According to Neri (2014: 25), one-sixth of Brazil’s strides in poverty reduction can be attributed to this program, which only costs 0.5 percent of the Brazilian GDP. Besides Bolsa Família, the creation of 13 million new jobs and the minimum wage surge from 100 to 205 dollars during his presidency helped him improve traditionally very skewed income distribution. According to the World Bank (2022) indicators, the Gini coefficient, an indicator of inequality, was above 0.60 in 1995s and 0.58 when he took office in 2003, declining to 0.53 at the end of his two terms in 2010, signifying a significant improvement. Rather strikingly, some experts like Hughes (2012) attribute Brazil’s success in securing the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, during his successor Dilma Rousseff, to Lula’s legacy. Among others, what is equally important to note is that the mentioned average rate of 4.5 percent annual growth during his two terms associated with a reduced public debt from roughly 60 percent to 40 percent of GDP, reduced inflation from more than 12 percent in 2002 to just under 6 percent in 2010, and increased trade surplus from $13.1 billion to $33.3 billion (The Economist, Sep.19, 2022).
To conclude, through pragmatism and a flexible attitude, Lula successfully balanced a market-friendly economic approach with his socially sensible programs. He aligned with the market expectations and did not give much space to the expected left-wing populism, which sacrifices fundamental macroeconomic balances at the expense of unsustainable high growth, income redistribution, and economic isolation policies. That is to say, he sacrificed neither social sensibility nor business responsibility and macroeconomic stability. After all, his ten years were a period of delivering high economic growth, macroeconomic stability, and social protection not only subsided reactions from international investors and national economic elites but also increased his approval rating among the citizens to an unprecedented rate of 87 percent.
The appropriate question is: Why did Brazil then surrender to right-wing populism in 2018? What lessons can we learn from the experiences of Lula and his Labor Party? Accordingly, what can be expected from Lula in his third term, which came at a drastically different local and global political and economic surrounding?Despite these positive aspects, Lula’s two terms in power were also subject to the following shortcomings.
Among others, the most disdainful criticism against Lula’s government concerns his inability to propose a strategic transformation vision for the country. Particularly during the first term, when capitalism was in a period of favorable expansion, the opportunity to transform the overall economy and diversify the existing industrial base through the use of a large volume of foreign capital inflows and the revenue generated from commodity exports was largely missed. Instead, the resources were directed to bigger transfer expenditures for single use at consumption (de Carvalho, 2008). So, the big vicious-cycle and therefore source of fragility for Brazil is that while the country remained dependent on unstable income via the exports of commodities and unstable capital inflows, the significantly big size of the population became dependent on transfer expenditures from the budget.
Moreover, being subject to a host of special interest groups at congress, despite levying taxes at levels close to the OECD average, much public spending is misdirected into feather-bedding bureaucrats or oiling political machines. In other words, interest-seeking coalitions lobbying power led the government to misdirect the resources to the investment in the sunset industries of the 20th century, with lower productivity and innovativeness.For instance,Brazil hosted the football world cup and Olympic games in 2014 and 2016, respectively, while the country’s hospitals and schools fell into disrepair, causing severe economic problems and social tensions. Much of the explanation related to these failures have to do with governance. Brazil remains a relatively closed economy and has failed to develop internationally competitive exports outside of agribusiness and mining (de Paula, 2016; Jenkins, 2014).
If there is a “missing vision and wrong investment” somewhere, it is inevitable that corruption will follow it, and it points to a reality that is looming over Brazil like a nightmare. Relatedly, a period of big disappointment began in 2005 when Lula did not take “corruption rumors” seriously while in office. His involvement in the vast Odebrecht, a giant construction company, and Petrobras, Brazil’s most prominent public institution corruption scandals have not been appropriately investigated (Sotero, 2022; DW, 2020). There was a constant effort to hide all these corruption scandals involving the name of Lula. However, Lula’s reputation came crashing down after leaving office when he was convicted in a wide-ranging corruption probe involving the state oil company Petrobras. Corruption rumors during the presidency of his close colleague Dilma Rousseff, whom he handed over in 2010, were reheated. While Rousseff’s defense of playing the “three monkeys” was roughly summed up as “I did not see it, I did not hear it; I did not do it,” she preferred to explain the incident as a political revenge plot on her political career by her opponents. However, none of these defenses saved her from impeachment in 2016 by the senate. That is because, for years, Ms. Rousseff had been placed on the board of directors of Petrobras.
Finally, she was replaced by the vice-President Michel Temer, who was also impeached and arrested during his tenure as acting president in 2016. Temer has been the subject of five court cases and one investigation, mostly related to passive corruption and money laundering. As part of the investigation, he was jailed in 2018 on bribery and money laundering charges and ultimately replaced by right-wing authoritarian leader Bolsonaro in the same year. After presidents Rousseff and Temer, this process eventually reached Lula, which led to his imprisonment for 580 days. However, the Supreme Court later ruled it as a mistrial, clearing his path to run for reelection. The inability of the judiciary to resolve these issues with the necessary transparency and impartiality in a country where all political leaders, including Lula, are prosecuted for corruption, impeached, or imprisoned has caused corruption to be legitimized, the public to lose its sensitivity to these scandals, thus, causing those involved to return to politics quickly. This social mediocrity points to a legacy that eclipses reformist and changer expectations for Lula.
Bolsonaro’s Populism in Power
Bolsonaro came to power by successfully mobilizing anti-establishment anger towards the above-given political deadlock. He ran against the grain in a country roiled by scandalsand suffering from a stagnant economy (Phillips, 2022). Moreover, the negative repercussions of the global economic crisis in 2008-2009 continued to hurt society. As a result, in 2018, after two years of economic crisis and several public corruption scandals, Bolsonaro came to power in this environment with intense anti-establishment populism.
Bolsonaro began implementing policies that should be expected of a right-wing populist party. To mention just a few, he first worked to curb the judiciary’s power and attack electoral institutions. Second, with time, his aggressive and often profane manner and his attacks on women and journalists have left the population tired of him (Phillips, 2022). Third, the pandemic set an excellent example of how a populist denies science, scientists, expertise, division of labor, institutional capacity, and autonomy. Experts say the story of how Brazil’s leader went flaccid involves a litany of outrages, ineptitudes and errors committed during a chaotic four-year reign. At the height of the pandemic, like many other populists, Bolsonaro dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu” and promoted the unproven and possibly harmful remedy hydroxychloroquine (Burni & Tamaki, 2021). He has expressed skepticism of vaccines — he suggested they could cause women to grow beards and turn people into crocodiles — in a country that has embraced them. Not surprisingly, Brazil has recorded one of the worst COVID-19 responses—nearly more than 34.5 million cases and 700,000 deaths since 2020. Both are presumed to be significantly undercounted (Béland et al., 2021).
Surveys show that more than 40 percent of Brazilians rate Bolsonaro’s administration as “bad” or “very bad.” Many experts also accuse him of having a role in hundreds of thousands of Covid deaths and his fake news-fueled attacks on Brazil’s young democracy (Boyle, 2022; Villega, 2022). Therefore, it is expected that after losing power and presidential immunity, he might be subject to sanctions. With that fear, just two days before the successors’ inauguration ceremony, Bolsonaro left Brazil for Florida and did not specify his return date. This action breaks with the Brazilian convention of outgoing leaders being present at the ceremony.
Fourth, besides pandemic challenges in the supply side of the economy, rising inflation stagnated national income and declining per capita GDP (Figure.2), and rising government debt that reached a record high of 90 percent of GDP (as of 2020), 30 percentage points higher than a decade ago. Because he underestimated hunger and malnutrition, tens of millions were plunged into poverty. Rather strikingly, after Lula’s globally renowned success story in fighting against poverty, 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 face acute hunger, and 100 million live in poverty, the highest number in years. It is a significant setback for a country that had been removed from the map in 2014, after an economic boom and landmark social programs helped lift 30 million people from poverty during Lula’s administration (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.
Lastly and most dramatically, South America’s largest economy become an international pariah notorious for Amazon annihilation. Deforestation in the Amazon region returned with a vengeance, turning Brazil into a pariah in the global fight against climate change. After almost a decade of steady decline in the deforestation process, mainly under Lula’s administration, the damaging process took off again under Bolsonaro’s administration beginning in January 2019 (Figure.3).
Bolsonaro’s actions up to this point typically describe a populist politician; to exploit the failures of the incumbent regime, making grand promises, and ascendance to power using the democratic mechanisms that the system still allows. When in power, however, populist politicians do the opposite of what they promised resorting to unsustainable policies and not leaving power by employing all the available means when unsuccessful. Bolsonaro paid too much effort to reverse the situation towards the campaign’s final stretch to keep his power. Flagging billions of dollars of welfare payments designed to seduce poor voters and a suspected attempt at voter suppression by federal highway police on election day. With Brazilians struggling with double-digit inflation and an election just weeks away, Bolsonaro has cut fuel taxes to reduce prices at the pump and sent monthly cash transfers to low-income families. He has created cash benefits for truck and taxi drivers and dispensed $20 to families needing gas cylinders for cooking. Although energy prices stabilized, inflation started to decline, and employment rose, Bolsonaro lost the seat.
The legacy of Bolsonaro is that Bolsonaro’s policies weakening institutions, loosing macroeconomic stability, dismantling environmental regulations and agencies, and disregarding social programs. Brazil’s fiscal situation is worse: public debt is 78 percent of GDP and 93 percent of the budget is consumed by mandatory spending on things such as salaries and pensions. The global outlook is fraught. Though high commodities prices have helped the economy, inflation is hurting the poor. Political conditions are tougher, too. Brazil’s Congress is more avaricious and less cooperative (The Economist, Sept.19, 2022). The highly fragmented political system in Brazil remains the biggest concern. In his inauguration ceremony on January 1, 2023 Lula described the diagnosis he received from the Bolsonaro government as follows: “emptied the resources for health, dismantled education, culture, science, they destroyed the environmental protections, haven’t left resources to school meals, vaccines, public security, forest protection and social assistance” (Watson & Davies, 2022).
Lula’s Third Return and Expectations
After his third-round successful presidency in his sixth run, Lula has once again overtaken a politically divided and economically devastated country. Bolsonaro has gone, but “Bolsonarism” remains strong, making Congress hostile to the new government and society more fragmented (Sabatini, 2022). Keeping a possibly wider reform coalition in such a surrounding is troublesome. For instance, many prominent backbenchers (to be translated as “political parasites”) are funded by agribusiness. Therefore, they could be a significant obstacle in Lula’s highest priority areas of protection of the Amazon forests. That is why much of his speech to Congress at the inauguration ceremony was about “unity” and “reconstruction” of the nation through keeping and enlarging his existing stakeholders, which took him to the election victory.
Deep as they are, political divisions are not Brazil’s only problem. Economic problems are relatively high inflation, unemployment, high public debt, deep income inequality, massive poverty, and an almost stagnating economy (Ottis, 2022). Real growth in GDP per capita has averaged zero since 2011. The commodities boom that generously helped financing many of Lula’s social programs the first time around is over.
Very similar to what happened before he came to the power for the first time in 2003, during his third adventure to the power, Lula has once again tried to convince markets that he would not go on an uncontrolled spending spree. Similarly, he chose Geraldo Alckmin, a center-right and business-friendly former São Paulo Governor who was Lula’s rival in the 2006 election, as his Vice President. Going even beyond that, Lula has criticized a few of Rousseff’s policies, such as keeping fuel prices artificially low and offering tax breaks worth more than 450bn reais ($86bn) to businesses (which amounted to 7.5 percent of GDP).
On the other hand, today’s fraught geoeconomics climate offers Brazil some opportunities as well. The country is rich in food, fuel and metals and has a flourishing renewable energy sector. It is located far from global conflict spots and has traditionally sought good relations with the US, China, Europe, and Russia. However, economic transformation, industrial diversification, and generating funding resources in an unfavorable global and national environment are pretty uncertain. By lamenting the drop in car production and Brazil’s dependence on commodity sales to China, Lula has underlined the need for “re-industrialization,” proposed solutions such as investments in technology and the green-energy transition. However, Lula will continue balancing his “market-friendly” approach with “society-centric sensibilities.”
Lula’s quite ambiguous program involves the following topics:
In terms of fighting with poverty, through the Bolsa Familia poverty-relief program that includes transfers, expansion of social-housing scheme as well as debt-relief, Lula wants to “put the poor back in the budget.” He targets 33m Brazilians, who live on less than 289 reais ($55) per month, the highest number since 2012. Accordingly, the poorest families will get 600 reais ($110) a month and those with children under six years of age will get an additional 150 reais ($30). His second major measures to improve income distribution involves “updating” the existing labor reform, which he calls “slaveholder mentality.” Accordingly, he will increase the minimum wage, provide equal pay for men and women, aims adding protections for part-time workers.
Other challenges await Lula that are as important as overthrowing Bolsonaro through a legitimate and fair election. Lula must maintain the coalition he has formed, convince the highly politicized parliament to get support for the needed reforms, provide the necessary financial resources and restore the badly damaged financial balances. Implementation of a comprehensive tax reform, therefore, is one of his priority areas.
The New Global Conjuncture
It is a very positive development that Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil were removed from their seats without being given a chance for a second term. However, after the right-wing authoritarian populist leaders lost elections in both countries, their supporters became even more divisive and did not accept the election results. Trump’s supporters in the US and Bolsonaro’s in Brazil have shown again that right-wing authoritarians come with free elections but try not to go by fair elections. At first, they wanted “military intervention” after the election results in October 2022. However, thanks to the army’s neutral position, it did not happen. After that, Bolsonaro fled the country to the US before Lula took office. Finally, with the encouragement and organization of the Bolsonaro team that occupied high-level security-oriented bureaucracy, his supporters attempted a coup d’état against the newly appointed government and stormed parliament. Thanks to his leadership and experience, Lula had no hesitation in declaring a state of emergency and dismissing many of the top security bureaucracies appointed by Bolsonaro. This evidence shows that Trump and Bolsonaro have gone, but Trumpism in the US and “Bolsonarismo” in Brazil have remained. This fact has deep-rooted implications that current global order and its structural characteristics feed populism at both the global and local levels remain.
Multiple adverse effects of excessive globalization manifest themselves in DCs through transmission mechanisms like the activities of the MNEs, mainly in labor markets and foreign trade sectors. Among others, the primary outcomes appear in the form of unemployment, downward pressure on wages in traditional import-competing industries, and difficulties in regulating tax evasion of MNEs, generating income inequalities and poverty. It also cultivates a perception of a loss of sovereignty and national independence. The wave of global immigration, triggered by the mentioned process, not only increases the fear of local people losing their jobs but also alienates native people and feeds the perception of losing their endogenous values. Furthermore, international capital movements not only have weakened national governments’ regulatory and taxation autonomy, but they have also shifted the balance of power within nations away from labor towards capital and allowed it to accrue further political power and wealth, opening yet more opportunities for the internationalization of capital.
According to a recent report by IPSOS Global Trends (2020), while six in ten (62 percent) globally agree with the meritocratic ideal (that if you work hard, you will get ahead), it is under threat in even in the most advanced and social welfare states in key European countries. For example, only half of those in Germany (53 percent) and Spain (50 percent) feel their economies produce rewards their efforts, as do just four in ten people in Italy (41 percent). One core response to this perceived inequality of outcome and opportunity is support for wealth redistribution – one of the top ten values of IPSOS in 2020. It encompasses the widely held view that national economies are rigged to advantage the rich and powerful (74 percent agree globally) and that large income differences are bad for society (76 percent). Finally, “the big silent majority,” who was entirely excluded from the decision-making processes but could not avoid its negative consequences, have come to rely more and more on populist rhetoric, which, given the excesses of hyper globalization, is obsessed with the idea that zero-sum situations invariably characterize market exchanges.
To reverse the mentioned process, DCs need to balance excessive globalization through localization, poverty prevention, tax reforms, and improved skills and abilities for a comprehensive future oriented sectoral transition. These tasks require four interlinked transitions comprised of mainly manufacturing, fiscal structure, education, and governance sectors. To address these tasks following tasks must be fulfilled.
i) Repositioning of the country in the global supply chains through re-scaling and re-shoring.
ii) Further localization of production and governance.
iii) Transition of energy systems towards renewables from fossil fuels, and
iv) Substitution of basic universal and targeted income through a comprehensive tax reform are the priorities.
Regarding the first three recommendations, the pandemic crisis has marked another turning point in the process already underway, which is leading many companies to transform their supply chains and invest in more resilient and often more localized production patterns (Zhan et al. 2020; Lawrence, 2020). Localization measures involve empowering community-based decision making, participatory budgeting, and local action on such issues as renewable energy, green infrastructure, public services, and food production. As thought from Brazil’s perspective, localization is especially beneficial for food production, as the pandemic has revealed the precariousness of global food supply chains. Yasmeen etal. (2020) adds that nearly one quarter of the world’s food crosses a border before consumption. Countries tend to specialize in a few products and import most others. Meanwhile, just a handful of mega-sized corporations dominate international food markets, and production often depends on the exploitation of vulnerable groups, such as migrant workers. As can be seen, one of the critical issues here is the balance between the quality of integration into the global order and localization.
Lula’s vision to give more weight to the public sector in transforming the industries where Brazil has competitive advantages, particularly in infrastructure investments, transition to a green economy with low-carbon target in the 2030s, agribusiness has been one of the hot topics of discussion in the country. However, the quality of public sector leadership in industrial transformation through selecting the national champions or the potential winners has been a highly problematic issue, as we know it from the failed industrialization models of import substitution in Latin American countries. It is a story of failed models, squandered resources, entrenched crony capitalism in corruption, and widespread authoritarian regimes.
Similar to his earlier experiences, Lula insists on big infrastructure projects, like public transportation, energy and water with investment from both the public and private sector. He also advocates a heavy dose of intervention, describing a national food reserves policy, the exchange rate as an instrument to reduce volatility, and the need to “Brazilianize” petrol prices. Meanwhile, Lula does not talk much about reducing trade barriers or making public spending more efficient.
Considering the nature of rising industries, in the age of fourth industrial revolution, Brazil should craft a model which carefully distinguishes between “crony-friendly,” “business-friendly,” and “market-friendly” approaches in search of attributing a new role to the public sector. In a crony-friendly policy regime, a few firms obtain many privileges from the government by leveraging their political connections. These include resources directly allocated by the state, such as public procurement contracts, public land, or subsidized credits. Politically connected businesses may influence the regulatory framework in a way that creates barriers to entry for potential competitors through several direct and direct lobbying. In a business-friendly approach, rather than bestowing favor on a few cronies, some businesses groups are supported in a transparent way to stimulate specific sectoral and regional development policies. Obviously, business-friendly policies are superior to crony-friendly policies. However, sometimes these policies may also disproportionately benefit a few. For example, suppose a tax benefit, cash subsidy, or import tariff protection are given in a sector or industry, where concentration ratio is high, dominated by a few big conglomerates. The “first best condition” is market-friendly policies as it fosters fair competition in the market after setting the rules and observing the proper implementation of the game’s rules.
In order for Brazil to grow faster, it needs reforms to improve the quality of spending and the business environment. Viewed in terms of the public sector effectiveness, when using public banks to finance large infrastructure projects, it must be ensured that this support remains at the level of providing a positive signal effect to the private players. The efficiency criteria are consistently met when the projects are carried out under more market-oriented conditions. Given the caveats above, a market-friendly public-private-partnership (PPP) (Matsumoto et al., 2021; Straub & Islam, 2022) model might trigger externalities in important sectors such as (renewable) energy, agroindustry, automotive, machinery, iron and steel, health, finance, and logistics, which, in turn, creates “crowd-in” effect for foreign as well as domestic investors. Foreign interest will emerge much stronger in the above sectors, especially as Brazil, with its 250 million population, raises its per capita income to the upper middle-income level and strengthens the middle class by improving the income distribution.
Finally, in repositioning the country in the global supply chains through re-scaling and re-shoring, localization, and transition of energy systems also require resources, to be briefly discussed below.
The Search for a Risky Flexible Budget
Since 2016 Brazil’s budget has been restricted by a Constitutional Spending Cap (CSC) that limits the growth of spending to the rate of inflation. However, such a restrictive anchor for Brazil, where crony business-friendly capitalism has been deeply rooted, is seen unacceptable (Limoeiro, 2020). First Bolsonaro announced that he plans to replace it with “more flexible” fiscal rules. However, the challenges with the COVID-19 crisis caused this constraint to be de facto out of action, as it did in other countries, without the need for a de jure amendment to fund COVID-19 spendings. However, these stimulus measures were also used to benefit former president Bolsonaro’s campaign and harmed the fiscal balances in the country. As a result, it has lost its power as a fiscal anchor.
Quite reasonably, Lula also wants a new fiscal framework that allows for more short-term borrowing while assuring markets that the debt-to-GDP ratio will come down in the medium term. Indeed, under Lula’s initiative, Brazil’s Congress has already suspended the government’s CSC to allow his government to raise expenditures on social welfare and public works, two urgent task and priority for his government. It corresponds to a spending of an extra $28 billion in 2023 outside of the CSC, sidestepping a fiscal anchor designed to keep free-spending governments in check (Pearson & Magalhaes, 2022).
However, several caveats should be noted also here. In Latin America in general, and Brazil in particular, the issue of fiscal flexibility points to a deep stalemate. On the one hand, the priority of Lula’s administration is to “put the poor back in the budget”, but, on the other hand, it is open to irresponsible populist abuses. As seen in the previous Bolsonaro era, the populist government ignored budgetary constraints, particularly the current anchor, leaving the Lula government financially vulnerable to extreme damage. This applies to both the national debt and budget deficits. The policy implication is that, in Latin America, where populism and short-termism dominate, lacking technical control over the use and draft of budget and borrowing can open the door to costly abuses. For that reason, that approval has prompted concerns in markets about the fiscal health and long-term growth of Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy. So, we have come to two conclusions: First, for sustainable economic growth, transparency and efficiency in public spending, on the one hand, and second, a disciplinary, albeit flexible, limitation on budget expenditure in the medium term, if not now, on the other, should be sought. However, in addition to these measures at the spending side, the biggest challenge in providing the required funding for development projects as well as for improving income distribution, a truly tax reform is needed.
Wealth and Taxation
The tax reform could play a crucial role for Lula’s government to permanently reverse the waves of populism via improving the distribution of income. Since the lower social segments are dragged into deeper poverty due to job and income loss as well as rising cost of living recently, finding ways to support such vulnerable segments, for instance, through the provision of either a guaranteed/universal basic or targeted income, and the necessary financial resources for social expenditures have become one of the most urgent topics of discussion globally. The “guaranteed” basic income provides the same lump sum to all citizens regardless of circumstances, whereas a “targeted” basic income is available only to those who need it because their income falls below a minimum threshold. Their goal is to alleviate poverty and replace other need-based social programs that potentially require greater bureaucratic procedure.
It is evident that all these expenditures would increase the cost to government budgets, which are already being inflated by fiscal stimulus. Among others, one important source of income would come from levying a net wealth tax on the wealthiest without causing capital flight, tax base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS). OECD defines BEPS as “the tax planning strategies used by multinational enterprises that exploit gaps and mismatches in tax rules to avoid paying tax. BEPS is quite crucial in DCs due to their higher reliance on corporate income tax, and they, therefore, suffer from it disproportionately. Among other harms it causes, this undermines the fairness and integrity of tax systems because businesses that operate across borders can use BEPS to gain a competitive advantage over enterprises that operate at a domestic level. Moreover, when taxpayers see MNCs legally avoiding income tax, it undermines voluntary compliance by all taxpayers. Thus, the task of financing growth and development in DCs becomes clear; By evaluating in terms of efficiency, equity and administrative arguments the imposition of a net wealth tax on the richest will not cause capital flight and levying a tax on the earnings of MNEs from the country they operate in a way to prevent BEPS are the two interrelated tasks (OECD, 2018)
However, the needed measures such as the implementation of a comprehensive tax reform are relatively easier to pronounce but hard to execute for numerous reasons. First, governments have long feared that higher taxes would produce capital flight and discourage investment. As a result, countries are engaged in a “race to the bottom” on corporate taxation, which ultimately, they lose. Second, in a world of large MNEs, mobile capital, and seamless digital transactions, it is hard to identify where modern businesses with significant intangible capital, especially digital businesses, locate their activities to be taxed away.
As a global public good, a tax reform requires international cooperation in renewing fiscal sovereignty through a new social contract. However, as Cobham (2021) notes, there are also potential arrears to be taxed away despite its complications along the way. As a matter of fact, according to the finalized landmark deal in October 2021, agreed by 136 countries and jurisdictions representing more than 90 percent of global GDP, MNEs will be subject to a minimum 15 percent tax rate from 2023, corresponding to more than $125 billions of profits from around 100 of the world’s largest and most profitable MNEs to be reallocated globally. Therefore, as the winners of globalization,paying a fair share of tax wherever they operate and generate profits will contribute to a more balanced globalization and multilateralism.
Returning to the taxation of richest companies, in principle, a fiscally neutral reform pair higher income taxes on high earners with lower payroll taxes for firms to incentivize formal employment seems reasonable in Brazil. Lula is quite eager to move quickly on a reform that would increase taxes on the richest while simplifying the labyrinth of levies on consumption, which are seen as a drag on growth. Income tax and VAT reform are priorities, particularly in the context of one of Lula’s main pledges, which is to address the crushing poverty situation in Brazil and ensure a progressive tax system where the wealthy pay more tax than the poor. However, given the fact that involves complex negotiations with states and interest groups, and the polarized political divisions in Brazil, these herculean changes, like a tax reform seem almost unlikely.
To conclude this section, it should be noted that when the agenda of industrialization and transformation in new sectors for Brazil is combined with the plan of taxing MNEs and levying a “welfare tax” on the richest in the country: In the efforts to delegate a more active role to the public sector, crony capitalism through rent-seeking of the privileged segments that distort competition, effectiveness, and innovations should be carefully avoided. Brazil’s attractive potential should be opened to the world, and the above taxes should be levied on high earnings.
Only at the end of the 1980s did Brazil transform into a democracy, which was also quite unstable. Brazil’s experience has also shown that even if the modern bureaucratic apparatus, autonomous and professional institutions, and principal institutions of the state— executive, legislative and judiciary—are supplied, if culturally and mentally supportive epistemology is not there, the system will not cultivate the expected outcomes.
In Brazil, the erosion of institutions in the last three decades have continued and they have become increasingly dysfunctional and politicized. In such an environment, corruption has become rampant, and the country’s presidents, including Lula, Rousseff and Temer, have been impeached or imprisoned on corruption charges. In the last case, Bolsonaro is trying to rid himself of the same fate by leaving the country. However, not only has the modern state apparatus failed to stop the rise of such a massive crony system and corruption, but also most of the impeached leaders were soon released from prison and compromised to return to politics, like Lula himself. These examples point to the poor quality of the judiciary and the institutionalization that is destroying public confidence in the system. That overall environment leaves voters open to losing their interest in the democratic system, adhering to short-term solutions and populist rhetoric. While the country’s authoritarian culture persists, populist discourse seems to dominate politics on both the right and left.
Externally, the imperfections created by the multilateral order in the post-WWII era and global capitalism, which both reflect Western values and dominance, have been subject to significant structural economic, political, social, and civilizational problems. The message is that, in the persistence of unresolved problems, the supply and demand conditions of populism at home and abroad also stay in place.
During Lula’s first two terms in power (2003-2010), the dimensions of left-wing populism were seen both in terms of progressive as well as regressive aspects. During his government, Lula followed a responsible, flexible, pragmatist path regarding the market and a socially sensible path adhering to societal expectations. Intending to improve income distribution, he focused on eliminating poverty. However, rather than driving the economy into a wide-range competitive transformation and boosting employment and income Lula addressed social vulnerabilities through regular social transfer expenditure aided by the fact that energy commodity prices gave Brazil relative fiscal flexibility in Lula’s first two terms. This shows that Lula’s vision was far from a fundamental transformation and relied heavily on the positive global conjuncture. Likewise, we can say that Lula supported the privileged classes and sectors with “business-friendly” approaches instead of being “market-friendly,” and therefore his government could not stay away from corruption rumors and gossip. He did not even take them seriously, until he left power in 2010, when all these allegations started to undermine the entire system in more than one decade.
As of today, with the world teetering on the brink of authoritarianism and Brazil itself oscillating on the verge of such authoritarianism, Lula who has been active with a left-progressive rhetoric in Brazilian politics since the 1970s, might lead a radical reform leadership the impact of which would extend beyond Brazil. With that in mind, we can assume he sees it as “the last exit before the bridge.” Despite the social fragmentation and the split in parliament making it challenging to reach a consensus, Lula will have to build efficiency in governance and the economy and create competitive advantages in the sectors of the future through fundamental reforms. Provided that Lula keeps the “social and political coalition,” which led him to the victory in the last election, he can succeed these tasks and also overcome populism.
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Batool, Fizza; Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2023). “Contest between leaders of the Ummah: Comparing civilizational populisms of PTI and TLP in Pakistan.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 15, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0020
With the recognition of populism emerging in varied forms across the Global South, the lacuna of research on populism in Asia is gradually filling. Yet, research on populism in Pakistan is still limited and focused mostly on the singular case of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his political party Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). There is much lesser attention to the populism of Tahreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right movement-turned-party. This paper addresses this gap by comparing the two cases of populism in Pakistan – PTI and TLP – to outline the similarities and differences in their characterization of “the people,” “the elite” and “the others,” using the framework of civilizational populism. The comparative analysis of public discourse of the leadership of two parties shows an extensive use of civilizational rhetoric by both parties, with varying degrees of religious sloganeering, to cater public support. Civilizational dimension forms an overlay over the vertical-horizontal dimensions of populism. Given that 2023 is the election year in Pakistan and both parties are planning to contest elections, this is a timely piece to warn about the treacherous trajectory taken by Pakistani politics.
With the recognition of populism emerging in varied forms across the Global South, the lacuna of research on populism in Asia is gradually filling. Yet, research on populism in Pakistan is still limited and focused on the singular case of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his political party Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b). There is much lesser attention to the populism of Tahreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right movement-turned-party, as most studies on TLP focus on its radical Islamism and militancy (Abbas, 2022; Matoi, 2021; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2022). TLP, however, does not fit the profile of a militant or terrorist organization. It is a registered political party under Pakistan’s electoral laws and has contested elections successfully in 2018, securing third highest percentage of votes in Punjab and two seats in Sindh provincial assembly (Chaudhry, 2018). It also mostly employs democratic methods like public protests to meet its political demands, though the protests are turning more violent over time (Basit, 2020). This paper compares the two cases of populism in Pakistan – PTI and TLP – to outline the similarities and differences in their characterization of “the people,” “the elite” and “the others.”
We chose the three-dimensional structuration of populism by Brubaker (2017, 2020) and Yilmaz and Morieson (2022; 2023) as the framework for this comparative research. Extending the work of Brubaker (2017; 2020), Yilmaz and Morieson (2022) point out how populists pit “the people” with three categories of non-people, each forming a dimension of populist antagonism. Along vertical dimension, populists use the socioeconomic power structure to define “the people” as plebs who have been ruled by the corrupt elite against their will. Horizontally, they define “the people” through cultural identity and target groups with different cultural identities as “the other.” Brubaker (2017) introduced a third dimension of antagonism where populists go beyond the national boundaries to define “the people” as member of a larger civilization who must compete for power with other civilizations. Borrowing from Huntington’s clash of civilization, populists usually define civilization based on religious identity (Yilmaz, Morieson, & Demir, 2021). In a seminal work on the connection between religion and civilizational populism, Yilmaz and Morieson (2023: 291) 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 antagonist 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.”
For this comparative research, we reviewed the public discourse of the main leadership of PTI and TLP from 2000 till 2023, with focus on how they are referring to the people, the elite and the other in their speeches, statements, and social media posts. The paper begins with an introduction to the two political parties with a brief overview of their political history. It follows a critical analysis of the civilizational populism of two parties individually and ends with comparative analysis of the two.
Given that 2023 is the election year in Pakistan and both parties are planning to contest elections, this is a timely piece to warn about the treacherous trajectory taken by Pakistani politics. With two of its mainstream political parties raising religious slogans against the West and presenting all political leadership as agents of the enemies of Islam, in a security environment of rising religious militancy and terrorism in the country, Pakistan’s future is anything but peaceful.
Founded in 1996 by Imran Khan, a cricketer and philanthropist, the PTI is one of the three mainstream political parties of Pakistan. It was founded in a period of political chaos when, owing to the constant intervention of military in the political affairs of the country, the two major political parties Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) were busy throwing each other out of power instead of addressing the issues of poor governance, growing inflation and massive corruption (Batool, 2020). The voter turnout in 1993 and 1997 elections was a record low, showing that public support to the political system was in decline. At that moment, Imran Khan tried to present his party as a third force that can offer fresh blood to the dying political body (Batool, 2020). The slogan of change did not work, and the party could only win one seat in the 1997 general elections. With military coup of General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, the PTI tried to grab public support through anti-establishment slogans built mainly around criticism of Pakistan’s decision to support the US government in war against terrorism. Targeting both the main political leadership and the military leadership for their inability to serve masses and appeasing Western powers, Khan’s politics took a strong anti-elitist and anti-American turn during Musharraf period.
In the second half of 2010s, as agitation against Musharraf’s liberal policies saw a rise, the PTI emerged as an important political actor, organizing massive rallies in Pakistan’s urban centers (Paracha, 2019). It could tap into the apolitical segments of societies such as middle-class urban women and young educated voters (Mulla, 2017). In 2013 elections, it received second highest number of votes and third highest number of seats in the national assembly. In addition, the party was voted in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) – the Pashtun dominated province bordering Afghanistan – reflecting the success of Khan’s discourse against the war on terror. As an opposition in the center, PTI gave a new peak to its populist politics, organizing protests and long march against the PML-N government.
The 2013 elections brought a major shift in both the political sloganeering of the party and its make-up. After being unable to win majority seats in the 2013 elections, Khan extensively used horse trading to chip off senior politicians from other political parties – a practice known in Pakistan as “politics of electable” (Islam et al., 2019). Meanwhile, he started adding religious references in his talk more explicitly and frequently (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b). Khan’s anti-elitist rhetoric targeted specifically the dynastic political parties while he excluded the military establishment from his definition of “the elite” – a sign that he was trying to win the support of establishment. The experiment worked, with PTI scoring major victory in 2018 elections, forming government in center as well as Punjab and KP provinces. Imran Khan became the new Prime Minister of Pakistan. However, upon coming to power, the party mostly failed in addressing the economic and governance issues in the country and was ousted from power in 2022 through a parliamentary no-confidence motion against Imran Khan. Currently, Khan has restarted his dharna (protest) politics and is demanding early elections after dissolving assemblies of Punjab and KP (Rafiq, 2023). In the current environment of political instability, economic turmoil and growing insecurity, Khan has good odds to come back to power (Batool, 2022).
A relatively new political contender, TLP is a Barelvi (a Sunni sect) party born from a movement to protect Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of then Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011 (Batool, 2021a). Taseer was a strong proponent of revising the blasphemy laws, as he believed the laws were used to persecute non-Muslims and Muslim minority sects. He was campaigning for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman alleged to have committed blasphemy. Qadri, who was a government employee serving as a security guard of Taseer, justified his actions claiming the governor of Punjab had committed blasphemy by advocating for Aasia Bibi (Yilmaz & Saleem, 2021). Following Qadri’s arrest, Khadim Rizvi, a Barelvi Muslim cleric having strong following in Punjab, established the Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (a movement for the release of Mumtaz Qadri) naming Qadri the Mujahid of Islam (Maţoi, 2021; Yusuf, 2019; Sevea, 2018). The movement got intensified after the judicial execution of Mumtaz Qadri, was renamed as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolallah (TLYP), and later adopted its current title of TLP (Sabat et al., 2020). The party was led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi till his death in 2020. Since the death of Rizvi, the party’s leadership has passed on to his eldest son Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi.
Unlike other Islamists parties, TLP has shown a remarkable electoral performance, receiving third highest number of votes from Punjab in 2018 elections and winning two seats in Sindh Assembly (Chaudhry, 2018). This is far better performance than any other religious political party contesting elections for the first time. Moreover, the party has been able to showcase its strength through street power. The main success of these protests is the one-point agenda built around any sensitive religious issue such as the finality of prophethood or sanctity of Islamic personalities and symbols. Although there are some rumors of the decline in party’s popularity, mainly after its inability to secure much success in by-elections of 2022 (Yousufzai, 2023), the party’s political presence is evident through its public rallying and its strong social media campaigning.
Civilizational Populism of PTI
While Imran Khan established PTI in 1996, he added Islamist populism in its political discourse during the late 2000s, when Pakistan was transitioning from its latest military dictatorship to a democracy (Batool, 2023). It coincided with the bitter impacts of 9/11, particularly of the “war on terror” in Afghanistan and the birth of the global wave of Islamophobia. Because of Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror, the country had lost some 83,000 lives while its economy was drained of some $126 billion (Jamal, 2021). This hefty economic and human burden provided Khan the ideal space to play the role of an anti-Western and pro-Muslim voice.
As the Afghan conflict spilled over into Pakistan, Khan openly started to defend the Taliban and blamed “the West” for its militarized actions. He considered the presence of US airbases in Pakistan as an issue of tarnished sovereignty and vowed to end “foreign” influence from the country (Afzal, 2019; Bokhari, 2019; Khan, 2021). For him, the Taliban were jihadist heroes who are indulged in a “holy war” by trying to reclaim their home and faith from the “foreigners” or “colonists” (Boone, 2012; Ellis-Petersen, 2021; Muzaffar, 2021). This explicit support to the Taliban earned him the title of “Taliban Khan,” which is a symbol of pride and “resistance” for him (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a & 2021b)
The civilizational political framework also started mirroring in Khan’s domestic politics – he called politicians in power “puppets” or “stooges” of the United States, who were letting the Western powers kill Pakistani and Afghan Muslims through drone attacks. He constantly criticized “the elite” for taking the “begging bowl” to the IMF which turn Pakistanis into “slaves” and the country into a “puppet state” (Business Standard, 2023; The Express Tribune, 2023). Khan vowed never to bend before the Western powers (Kari, 2019).
After PTI formed its first provincial government in KP in 2013, Khan coined the idea of “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan), which encompasses all dimensions of PTI’s populism relaying heavily on Islamist civilizationalism. On the horizontal dimension, Khan presented “Naya Pakistan” as one where Islam is a model for all aspects of life and where people are not “misguided” by Western ideas. He held that the only solution to all issues faced by Pakistan is by embracing the ‘true’ ideals of Islam thus, making Pakistan a homeland for Islamic civilization. On the vertical dimensions, Khan argued that he would bring the “looted” wealth of Pakistan from the bank accounts of Europe (Ahmed, 2022; OCCPR, 2018). Once returned, this would fund “New Pakistan,” while an import driven economy would sustain long-term development. This silver bullet solution was a dream come true for voters. The hero worshippers of “idol smashers” now had a contemporary hero who would free them from the influence of Judeo-Christian “civilization” and their alleged ill intentions (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a & 2021b).
The anti-corruption campaign to “empty” the “Swiss bank accounts” of PPP and PML-N leadership grew aggressive amidst the Panama Papers leaks (Cheema, 2018). Interestingly, PTI’s demand for accountability from political elite had an Islamist angle. PTI used the constitutional article 62(1), introduced by Zia regime for Islamization of Pakistani constitution, to declare that “corrupt mafias” of Pakistan are no more eligible to hold office because they do not fulfil the criteria of being “Sadiq” and “Ameen.” The court ruling based on this article resulted in life-time disqualification of Nawaz Sharif just a few days before the 2018 elections. Not surprisingly, PTI was finally able to score electoral victory in 2018.
Upon coming to power, PTI remodeled its populist vision for “New Pakistan” on Riyasat-i-Madina – an Islamist populist utopia rooted in the lost, idealized and fictionalized society of the first city state established by the Prophet (Shaukat, 2021). In this version of a promised land, Khan used a dash of nostalgia to mobilize a largely Muslim society around resurrecting the “lost” golden Muslim age.
Khan fashioned himself as a leader of the Muslim world and not just Pakistan (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021). He advocated for a transnational Islamic order hosting OIC summit of the Council of Foreign Minister in Pakistan. He also used his social media and international platforms to highlight the victimhood of the Ummah (Muslim Nation). During his time in office, he called out increasing incidents of Islamophobia in the West and labelled bans on hijab as “secular extremism” (Raza ,2021; United Nations, 2020).
His Islamization project was aimed at alienating masses from their cultural lineage and connecting them with the Arab society, equating Middle Eastern culture with Islamic culture. While in power, Khan promoted “Muslim content,” importing and mainstreaming pan-Islamist and neo-Ottomanist shows from Turkey (Hoodbhoy, 2020a). At the same time, he pushed local media to feature “Muslim heroes” and “educate” the youth about Islam (The News, 2021). Following this policy, in 2021, the Imran Khan-led government launched a National Amateur Short Film Festival (NASFF), with the aim to promote “soft image” of Pakistan. In the prize award ceremony of NASFF, Khan stated: “Speaking English and wearing Western clothes does not project a soft image, it only speaks of an inferiority complex… Soft image is projected through self-reliance… So, first respect yourself and the world will respect you in turn” (The News 2021).
At the same time, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) banned shows with strong female leads, movies that call out the abuse carried out in religious seminaries and shows that discuss the culture of child abuse in Pakistan (Isani & Alavi, 2020). This populist rhetoric alienates the liberal Pakistanis for voicing a different narrative (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021 a).
In addition to popular media, the “New Pakistan” project also attempted to instill “Islam” and “Muslims ethics” via formal education. A prime example of this was the hurriedly imposed Single National Curriculum (SNC). This idea advocated for a centralized syllabus for schools for ensuring “quality” education but also on protecting youth from “Western education.” Khan explained, on the launch of the first of the three phases of SNC: “I had a vision to introduce the Single National Curriculum, but the elites making the most of the current system will not change that easily… When you acquire English medium education, you adopt the entire culture and it’s a major loss because you become a slave to that particular culture” (Dawn, 2021).
Hoodbhoy (2020b), a long-term critic of Islamism in Pakistan, notes that, “the huge volume of religious material they (SNC) contain beats all curriculums in Pakistan’s history.” Apart from the already compulsory Islamiat (Islam studies) subject, SNC introduced two additional compulsory subjects of Muamilaat (social matters) and Islam aur daur e hazir ke taqazay (Islam and requirements of the modern world), designed with close coordination with Ittehad Tanzimat ul Madaris Pakistan – the central board of Pakistani Madrassahs (Geo News, 2021).
However, Khan struggled to materialize most of his promises around establishment of a just society free from corruption. To mask his shortcomings, he increasingly instrumentalized religion. The circle of “the others” was expanded to blame “rebel” groups such as Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and Baloch separatists for not letting him focus on policy matters, while criticizing Western governments, non-Muslim ‘enemy’ states such as India, and political opposition for scheming against him. Critics of Khan’s policies in media and civil society organization were deemed ‘liberal fascists’ (Kermani, 2021; Hamid, 2018; Backer, 2015). The failure to control rape crimes and violence against women were deflected to ‘Western’ induced immoralities (Taseer, 2019). Similarly, a culture of economic corruption in the country was linked to the moral and religious corruption of society (Hoodbhoy, 2021).
In 2022, as Khan was ousted from office through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, his Islamist civilizationalism reached a peak (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2022d). In various interviews and public addresses during the last weeks of March 2022, he claimed that Pakistan’s sovereignty was under attack from internal “traitors” who were conspiring with Western powers. Out of office, he now openly names an American official to write a “letter” threatening of dire consequences if he was not ousted from office (Syed, 2022; Hussain, 2022). He constantly uses his misconstrued version of colonial history, labelling PDM leadership as “Mir Jaffar” and “Mir Sadique.” With PTI actively campaigning for 2023 elections, the saga of the “all evil” and “all good” continues to be part of political narrative.
Civilisational Populism of TLP
Khan’s instrumentalization of religious populism pales in comparison to that of TLP’s. Much like the PTI, this group feeds on the negative experiences faced by Pakistanis in the aftermath of the US “war on terror.” TLP projects the growing wave of Islamophobia and right-wing populism in the West as a “threat” to Islam (Maţoi, 2021; Yusuf, 2019; Sevea, 2018). The group uses civilizational lens to present a world divided among the Muslims and the non-Muslim enemies of Islam and advocates for a foreign policy that unite Ummah against the Western powers. Many of TLP’s protests are a response to any comment or act in a Western country that the group saw as blasphemous. The leadership demanded “immediate” action by Pakistan by severing diplomatic ties or even taking military action against the blaspheming country (Maţoi, 2021; Sabat et al., 2020; Sevea, 2018; Yusuf, 2019; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2022). It was not uncommon for Khadim Rizvi to demand use of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to “blow” Western blasphemous nations.
Domestically, the party presents the Barelvi Sunni as a majority, while otherizing Shias, Ahmadis and liberal moderate Muslims. In 2018, they successfully campaigned to remove Atif Mian from the Pakistan Economic Council because he was a member of the Ahmadi community (Hashim, 2018a). Despite its Sufi roots, the party follows a very stringent and non-tolerant attitude, particularly towards the issue of blasphemy of Holy Prophet and his companions. (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2022).
Another horizontal dimension of TLP’s civilizational populism hinges on gender conservatism. Unlike PTI, this party has a louder and harsher stance over “modernization” of women. TLP leaders explicitly endorse limiting women to the domains of homes and ending their participation in the work force. In their public speeches, they use gruesome depiction of punishment in hell for women who do not conform to “Islamic” ideas of womanhood. The anti-feminist program of TLP is gradually gaining the form of a globalized agenda. Saad Rizvi strongly opposed the ban on veil in the province of Karnataka in India and deemed it a part of a global war against Muslims. In 2022, TLP supporters actively used Twitter to demand abolition of the 2018 Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act. This act provides basic rights to the transgender community in Pakistan such as right to access identity cards, education, positions in public offices, and other freedoms enshrined in the constitution (Geo, 2022). Saad Rizvi also became a prominent voice critiquing bill by terming it directly “clashing with sharia” (Rizvi, 2022).
In addition to this horizontal divide, TLP also attack “the elite” calling them as “morally” compromised or “bad” Muslims for not defending Islam and its Prophet. Khadim Rizvi was of the view that the Pakistani political elite is secretly empowering the Ahmadis to appease their American and Western allies (Rizvi, 2020). In 2018, he called for the resignation of the then Minister of Law and Justice, Zahid Hamid, over changes to the wording of the Elections Bill 2017 drafted by the government (The News, 2017). The changes were in the oath concerning commitment to the finality of Prophet Muhammad from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe.” Zahid Hamid’s home was attacked, and TLP vigilantes staged sit-ins until he was forced to resign (The News, 2017). Clashes with police injured some 200 and killed four (Abbas & Rasmussen, 2017). TLP again caused mass violence in 2018 when the Supreme Court overturned the previous conviction of Aasia Bibi. TLP called for the judges to be killed for the acquittal, forcing them to leave the country (The Express Tribune, 2018).
When asked about the party’s economic policy on a popular television show, Rizvi showcased both his political acumen (using the language of people’s everyday experience) and apparent lack of economic expertise (eschewing detailed policy commitments), noting that when the Nizam-e-Mustafa was established, the country would prosper because the government would, like any ordinary household, just live within its means. However, when pressed for a specific policy, he launched into a classic rant against the state and used civilizational rhetoric to blame the elite for lacking piety as the cause of all problems. Following in his father’s footsteps, Saad Hussain Rizvi has also provided ‘quick’ fixes for the economy rooted in populist civilizationalism. In early 2023, as balance of payment crisis ushered in the country. S. H. Rizvi offered his solution: “They are sending the Prime Minister (Shehbaz Sharif), his entire cabinet and chief of army staff to other countries to beg for economic aid… I ask why they are doing this. They said the Pakistani economy is in danger. […] Instead, I advise them to take the Quran in one hand and the atom bomb suitcase in the other, and take the cabinet to Sweden, and say that we have come for the security of the Quran. If this entire universe does not fall under your feet, then you can change my name!” (Rizvi, 2023).
Unlike PTI, or other populists in the past, TLP’s no-tolerance attitude towards blasphemy and support for Qadri like fanatics has encouraged “the people” to carry out violent acts in a vigilante style. In the last five years, several individuals, claimed to be motivated by Rizvi’s speeches, have committed cold murders of innocent civilians. On January 23, 2018, Sareer Ahmed, during school hours attacked and killed his school’s principal who had reprimanded him for skipping classes to attend a TLP sit-in (Muhammad, 2018). The same year PML-N politician and National Assembly Member, Ahsan Iqbal, was critically wounded by Abid Hussain, who charged Iqbal with committing blasphemy (Hashim, 2018b). Next year, Khateeb Hussain, a young boy, killed his professor during a lecture over allegations of blasphemy (Imran, 2019). Next year in the city of Khushab, a bank manager was shot dead by the bank’s own security guard for identifying as Ahmadi (Gabol & Niazi, 2020). In 2021, the lynching of the Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot was also inspired by TLP supporters who declared him blasphemous for removing TLP banners from factory walls (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2022). In 2022 an angry mob stoned a mentally ill person to death for allegedly damaging a copy of the Quran (The Guardian, 2022).
While Khadim Rizvi was laid to rest in 2020, the legacy continues. Much like Qadri’s, Rizvi’s funeral procession became a huge fanfare with thousands flocking to support the man who is now revered as a baba jee (a saint) by his followers (Shah, 2020). Under the leadership of his son Saad Rizvi, the party has held several rounds of protests against the blasphemous comment of French President (Batool, 2021b). Rizvi junior has staged a major sit-in during 2021 and pressured the state into discharging him when he was being tried for inciting violence (Batool, 2021b). Online, the party has amassed a strong following and regularly run anti-state, anti-Ahmadiyah and anti-Western social media campaigns (Chowdhury, 2021; Sareen, 2021). It has continued its sit-in and subsequent vandalism in the name of “saving the Prophet’s sanctity” at the cost of damaging peace, spreading hatred and loss of life of TLP members and security forces (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2022). Now that TLP seems to be busy preparing for the next general elections where it will contest against the PTI, the country is going to witness a strong contest between the two claimants of the leaders of Ummah.
PTI’s Riyasat-e-Medina against TLP’s Nizam-e-Mustafa
Comparing the two cases demonstrate that while TLP and PTI differ significantly in their formation, leadership and even audience, at the core they share very similar ideas. These ideas are rooted in populist civilizationism (See table below). On both vertical and horizontal fronts, they use civilizationalism to disrupt social trust and pluralism in the country. However, PTI has a much larger following than TLP, and has formed government both at the center and in provinces. Following catch-all populism, PTI’s characterization of Islamism is also milder as compared to TLP’s. Yet considering the gradual increase in PTI’s reliance on Islamic civilizationalism, one cannot rule out further radicalization of its political slogans and stances.
The difference in the intensity of Islamism in the two parties is rooted in the difference of leadership. The founder of PTI, Imran Khan, was a sports celebrity belonging to an upper-class family, educated in elitist institutes like Oxford, and married to a member of British glitterati. He gradually transformed his persona to match the populist discourse, changing from casual sports wears to formal starched plain-colored Shalwar Kameez. Known as a playboy in his youth, he had to do much religious showcasing like offering prayers in public and holding Tasbih in hand to prove himself as a savior of Muslim Ummah. A pharisaic for whom religion is a means to reach his political ends, Khan’s Islamism is no match for Rizvis for whom religion was a source of power much before politics. Politics in fact is a way for them to consolidate their religious authority. Knowing well that TLP voters are mainly Sunni Barelvis, Rizvis’ acrimony towards the non-Muslims or Muslims of other sects is more real and profound in comparison to Khan whose party membership and voter base is not limited to Sunni Muslims.
Summary comparison of populist civilizationalism of by TLP and PTI
· Barelvi Sunni Muslims- explicit favor of the sub-sect.
· Outright rejection of other Muslim sections and religious minorities.
· Narrative of injustice and victimhood applied to “the people.”
· Urged to be pro-active protectors of faith: this leads to street violence and massive roadblocks.
· Caters to the sentiments of Sunni Muslims – no specific subsect. The term used is “Muslim.”
· No outright rejection but discriminatory attitude towards other sects and minorities noticed in actions, statements and, at times, silence.
· Narrative of injustice and victimhood applied to “the people.
· Urged to be pro-active: this leads to online activism and political rallies/protests.
· All political parties in power since the inception of Pakistan.
· State institutions are blamed for not adopting sharia.
· All political parties in power since the inception of Pakistan.
· Western countries which are threatened directly with violence.
· Shows clear signs of antisemitism (Jewish lobby).
· Local liberal/secular left-wing factions- seen as Western inspired, pawns of the West and bound to hell.
· Other sects such as Ahmadis and Shias usually painted as non-Muslims or blasphemers.
· Active acts of violence (sometimes leading to death) target religious minorities.
· Western countries- seen a hard and soft power threat.
· India is also portrayed as an enemy of the people.
· Local liberal/secular left-wing factions- seen as Western inspired. Usually seen as agents of the West or misguided youths.
· A mixture of silence over atrocities faced by non-Sunni sects and outright discriminatory actions and comments as well.
· No direct comment made about religious minorities.
· No direct comment made about “Jewish lobby” conspiracies.
· Hard-line sharia driven state having Nizam-e-Mustafa.
· A modern inception of sharia driven state also called the Riyasat-i-Madina.
Portrayal as saviors
· Saviors of “the people” from all “the others” and “the elite.”
· A leader who is the voice and representations of ‘the people’s desires.
· Seen as guides for the “rightful” for a peaceful afterlife.
· Saviors of “the people” from both “the others” and “the elite.”
· A leader who is the voice and representations of ‘the people’s desires.
In this comparative work we found that leaderships of both PTI and TLP employ civilizational populism with varying degree of religious sloganeering to cater public support. Interestingly, the civilizational dimension forms an overlay over the vertical-horizontal dimensions. This result is consistent with that of Yilmaz and Morieson (2022: 18) who in their comparative research on civilizational populism in India, Turkey and Myanmar reported that civilizationism “gives content to populism’s key signifiers: ‘the pure people,’ ‘the corrupt elite’ and ‘dangerous others.’ In both cases studied herein, with important differences, “the people” are described as “good Muslims” who are willing to sacrifice for the sanctity of Islamic values and personalities. Along vertical dimensions, both Khan and Rizvis refer to “the elite” as “bad Muslims” who have given up on their civilizational identity for worldly gains. The main target for the Khan and Rizvi is the mainstream political parties while TLP also criticize state institutions for not implementing Shariah in the country. For Khan, “the others” include foreign countries and their supporters in Pakistan who fear the rise of Islam in the world. TLP leadership also include non-Muslims or Muslims of other sects, but PTI refrain from such explicit othering of Shias or Ahmadis.
However, what distinguishes the case of Pakistani populism from other cases reported by Yilmaz and Morieson (2022) is the absence of territoriality. While defining the ideal homeland for the people, PTI and TLP seek inspirations from the 7thcentury Arabian Peninsula instead of referring to the Muslim empires in South Asia. In contrast, Indian populists talk of Ashoka and other Hindu rulers while Turkish populists dream of reviving the Ottoman Empire. This total absence of territoriality make religion the only defining feature for the civilizational identity. As a result, populists detach the local population from their culture and land and try to impose a foreign Arab culture in society. While all prior studies on civilizational populism have reported religion to be of prime importance (Barton et al., 2021; Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz et al., 2021), in case of Pakistan, Islam takes a central stage and compete with cultural identities of the people. Populists, hence, discard the ethnonationalist movements as against the spirit of Islam and declare all nationalist parties as the traitor – “the other” (Batool, 2023).
Given that Pakistan was founded on the principle of Muslim nationalism (Paracha, 2019), and the state has since been using religious symbolism to homogenize a culturally and ideologically diverse society, populists do not face much trouble in propagating the civilizational discourse. However, since the same discourse is being used by the Islamic militants, the anti-Western rhetoric of populists would fuel the militancy in the country. The country is constantly seeing a rise in terrorism after the departure of the US and The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces from Afghanistan (Rana, 2023). Meanwhile, the two populist parties are openly calling for Jihad against the corrupt and pro-Western elite of Pakistan. No political actor is currently strong enough to compete with them as they thrive on extenuating existing crises to make people insecure and position themselves as their only source of salvation. Civilizational populism is dragging Pakistan to darker depths with no silver lining in sight.
(*) Dr Fizza Batool is a policy researcher and academic with research interests bordering on Democratization in South Asia, Comparative Politics and Peace Studies. At present, she is serving as an Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at SZABIST while regularly contributing research papers and blogs in different periodicals. In 2020, she was the South Asian Visiting Fellow at Stimson Center.
Gabol, I. & Niazi, S.A. (2020). “Bank manager shot dead by security guard allegedly over blasphemy in Punjab’s Khushab.” Dawn. November 04, 2020. https://www.dawn.com/news/1588614 (accessed on February 2, 2023).
Mațoi, E. (2021). “Tehreek-E-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP): A Rising Extremist Force, or Just the Tip of a Larger Radicalised Iceberg in the AfPak Region?” Scientific Research & Education in the Air Force-AFASES, 203-222. https://doi.org/10.19062/2247-3173.2021.22.26.
Yilmaz, I. & Shakil, K. (2022). “Religious Populism and Vigilantism: The Case of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.”Populism and Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 23, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0001
Yilmaz, Ihsan; Shukri, Syaza & Shakil, Kainat. (2023). “The Others of Islamist Civilizational Populism in AKP’s Turkey.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 4, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0018
Turkey’s history and politics allow populism and Sunni Islamist civilizationalism to thrive. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) use of Islamist authoritarian populism in its second decade of power has widened its “otherization” of political opponents, non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, ethnic minorities, vulnerable groups, and all those who reject the AKP’s views and democratic transgressions. To comprehend how Erdogan and his deft colleagues leverage identities of Sunni Islam and Turkish ethnicity, alongside pre-existing collective fears to develop populist authoritarianism, in this article, each category of “the others” is investigated through the lens of civilizational populism. This article specifically delves into the “otherization” process towards the Kemalists, secularists and leftists/liberals, Kurds, Alevis, and practicing Sunni Muslim Gulen Movement. The different methods of AKP’s civilizational populist “otherization” continues to polarize an already divided Turkish nation, generating incalculable harm.
The last two decades have transformed Turkey. Previously, the conservative democratic AKP promoted democracy and human rights development in its first decade in power until it got rid of the Kemalist establishment (Yilmaz, 2021; 2021a). The second decade of AKP rule, however, has observed these objectives receding. Instead, the party and leadership have veered into authoritarian territory coinciding with increased rhetoric on Islam and religion (Shukri & Hossain, 2017). The country has suffered a severe reduction in freedom of expression, media restriction, and political persecution (Amnesty international, 2023; Human Rights Watch, 2022; Freedom House, 2022). Ankara’s constitutional and societal changes weakened government checks and balances and instead promoted religious conservatism (Stockholm Center for Freedom, 2022; Yilmaz, 2022; Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2022).
Populism has shaped politics in the third decade of AKP rule (Balta, Kaltwasser & Yagci, 2022; Taskin, 2022; Yilmaz, 2021; Sozen, 2020; Aytaç & Elçi, 2019). This study examines the AKP’s otherization and demonization of “others” through the Turkic Sunni Muslim identity that underpins AKP’s civilizational populism. This subset of populism has been used to appeal to nationalist and conservative sentiments and justify AKP’s authoritarianism. This article aims to show how Erdogan and his AKP’s populist authoritarianism skillfully blends both sentiments by manipulating historical fear of Kemalist suppression. We shall examine AKP’s use of civilizational populism by analyzing “the others” it has constructed over two decades. Before that, the following section briefly introduces civilizational populism. The next section then uses civilizational populism to demonstrate the AKP’s “otherization” of Turkish nationals who do not agree with the policies and worldview of the AKP. Finally, the conclusion discusses the case study and its implications.
What Is Civilizational Populism?
Civilizational populism emphasizes a group’s religious, cultural, or historical identity (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023: 10; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). This theory has been used mostly to examine populism in Europe and North America, where anti-migration emotions are dominant (Ozzano & Bolzonar, 2020; Brubaker, 2017; Marzouki et al., 2016; Apahideanu, 2014). The Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy, Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, and National Front (FN) in France all claim Islam to be a threat to European culture as part of their strategy to get votes (Kaya & Tecmen, 2019).
On the other hand, understanding right- and left-wing politics are useful outside the West in India and Latin America (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). This paradigm analyzes left-wing populism through figures like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Chavez’s “Nuestra América (our America)” and its anti-imperialist rhetoric called North America and past imperial powers a civilizational threat to South Americans that entails Latin American unity (Wajner & Roniger, 2019). Since 2014, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has turned India into a center for religious and ethnic minority human rights atrocities (Amnesty International, 2021; Saleem, 2021; Jain and Lasseter, 2018). Civilizational populism—the hallmark of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populist politics—is responsible for this upsurge in undemocratic tactics (Saleem, 2021; Jain and Lasseter, 2018).
Civilizationalism helps explain populist leaders, movements, and parties in the current political climate. Geographical boundaries, cultural differences, and populist divisiveness are different, but horizontal and vertical populism are still comparable (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022; Taguieff, 1995). This paradigm creates the differences between “the people” and “the elite” and the layers of “moral/pure” people and “immoral” others. Civilizational populism also identifies with religion (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022) through a religious push or a symbolic use of faith for identarian politics (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021). Religion currently dominates civilizational populism worldwide (Yilmaz, Morieson, & Demir, 2021: 20).
Civilizational populism uses sacred identities like religion to manipulate emotions. Populists might create fear of the civilizational enemy or patriotism by asserting elites and others are threatening the country (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021: 19). Thus, whether it’s the “pink tide” in Latin America, the “Saffron tide” in Asia, or “Make America Great Again (MAGA)”, civilizational populism is a useful tool to understand these phenomena (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). In Turkey, President Erdogan instrumentalizes civilizational populism to create a supposed utopia called “New Turkey” that is based on a specific civilization of Sunni Islam and Turkish identity. This has several constitutive others that we will now analyze.
Historically, schisms have existed between Islamist and Kemalist forces in politics (Yilmaz, 2021). The Kemalists were instrumental in reshaping the Ottoman Empire’s ruins into a republic. Their ideological foundations were based on modernization objectives of the Ottoman elite, which resulted in the development of the Young Turks (Zürcher, 2010; Hanioglu, 2001). Under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s guidance, the Young Turks evolved into Kemalists (Hanioglu, 2001). The President died in 1938, but his philosophy was carried on by the military-led Kemalist tutelage regime that allowed multi-party politics after 1946 but made sure that Islamists, Socialists and Kurds would not make inroads into mainstream body politics. This has changed with the AKP’s second decade in power.
AKP has been promoting itself as the voice and savior of “the people” by showing itself as a democratic force and increasingly the authentic voice of “the people” or “Black Turks.” The party has continuously portrayed itself as the face of “Black Turks” empowerment over “White Turks,” emphasizing its support for historically marginalized religiously conservative groups. This is due to the lack of democratic liberties during the eight decades of Kemalist government, which pushed for proscriptive secularization (Tunçay, 2019; Zürcher, 2004).
An early example of this may be found in the mid-2000s, when the AKP used the Kemalist-imposed strict attire regulation as a point of civilizational conflict. Since the founding of the republic, women have been prohibited from wearing headscarves in public places in an effort to modernize Muslims, while men have been required to dress in Western attire (Tutar, 2014; Demiralp, 2012). This top-down imposition of “secular” dress hampered women’s mobility in higher-level positions, access to education, and, most importantly, self-expression. Using this conflict, the AKP turned the 2007 election into a campaign of the “White Turks” victimizing the “Black Turks.” For example, the First Lady chose to wear her headscarf to all public meetings and functions. While the AKP has never advocated for women’s right to choose (Kocamaner, 2018), it has used the First Lady’s Islamic faith to accuse the Kemalists of launching a “digital coup” against “democracy” (Yalçin, 2022; Elver, 2016). The image of Kemalists and the liberal opposition as anti-democratic forces was intended to undermine their cause (Yilmaz, 2021a).
The notion of the Kemalist elite’s social and economic injustice toward the Turkish masses grew over time. It peaked around 2010, when the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials dominated national politics. The Ergenekon trials looked at high-ranking Kemalists suspected of trying to destabilize the AKP-led government as a way of “White Turks” overturning “the people’s” government. The Sledgehammer trials targeted military leaders accused of preparing a coup against the government. Despite being very contentious, with several defendants ultimately acquitted or sentenced to lesser terms, the trial turned Kemalists from cultural threats of “corrupt” and “uncaring” elites to a security concern (Yilmaz, 2021; Tahiroglu, 2020; Ozdemir, 2015; Tisdall, 2012).
The Turkish Referendum in 2010 took place against this backdrop which weakened the military and judiciary’s involvement in politics (Yilmaz, 2021; Şahin & Hayirali, 2010). While the vendetta against the Kemalists exploited civilizational populist feelings, the events of 2010 were a strategy to keep the AKP in power. As the Kemalists were demonized and politically pacified, their main party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), became “the other,” while the “Black Turks” were eventually represented by the AKP.
Despite setbacks, the CHP has remained active in politics, making it a frequent target of AKP civilizational populism. The CHP has been accused of coups and being a co-conspirator with “Western enemies” on multiple occasions. In 2021, President Erdogan commented about the party’s bad impact on national prosperity by referencing prior coup attempts: “They constantly vow to bring us down. They have threatened me with the same end as (Adnan) Menderes. All the initiatives to threaten us with coups are being done with the help of CHP… Coups and walking together with the enemies of the state have become part of CHP leaderships’ genes” (Birgun, 2021a).
Furthermore, the party members have been characterized as adversaries of Islam, with many accusing them as being puppets of the West and pawns employed to harm Islam. A statement made by Turkey’s Minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdag, targeting Huseyin Aygun, a CHP deputy, is an example of this characterization: “Recently, one of their deputies used a language that insults the Messenger of Allah, the Prophet. If you respect the spirituality, religion and values of this country and this nation, o Kılıçdaroğlu, then you have to put this presumptuous faithless to his place” (Merhaba Yozgat,2014).
On some occasions CHP or Kemalists are also depicted as a threat by aligning them with local “others.” This includes charges that CHP members support “terrorist groups” such as the Gulenists or the Kurdish community, two groups that will be discussed in more detail later. Fikri Isik, a cabinet minister, linked the CHP to the Gulen Movement by saying: “The parallel establishment [Gulenists] are a gang, and CHP is working with them. Until today we have not let any gang operate inside the state, and from now on we won’t let any of them operate either” (Pusula, 2014).
Erdogan has not shied away from making these claims. He accused CHP of being affiliated with a diverse group of “others” during a public appearance in 2019 close to the local election. He asked voters to consider their children’s “future,” as he put it: “We are not serving as a subcontractor to that charlatan in Pennsylvania and the terrorist network in Qandil [Mountains] just to get a few more votes as the CHP […] On March 31, you will vote for our independence and our future through the election of mayors” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2019).
In another case, Suleyman Soylu, the AKP’s Interior Minister at the time, prohibited CHP regional chairmen from attending the funeral of a Turkish soldier killed in a confrontation with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The minister claimed that the CHP were PKK supporters and that they should instead attend the funerals of PKK soldiers (Kucukgocmen, 2018).
To retain its two-decade-long authoritarian hold on politics, the AKP is capitalizing on century-old schisms and grudges. It has used Turkish history to instigate a crisis, instill collective trauma and mass fear, and, most significantly, to divide and redefine society (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2022a, 2022b; Yilmaz & Shipoli, 2022). It has created a new concept of “the people” and “the others” in the process. Despite its efforts to distance itself from Kemalist oppression, Erdogan’s AKP is motivated by Kemalist authoritarianism and uses the follies of the previous administration to justify its political crimes and social reengineering of Turkish citizens (Cook, 2016).
Secularists and Leftists
The concept of a “White Turk” extends beyond Kemalists to secularists and left-wing politicians. While Kemalists represent administrative elites such as the military and judiciary, secularists and leftists are individuals who do not subscribe to AKP’s political ideology. Since the early 2010s, these groups have been a regular target of populist civilizational otherization by the AKP. This sub-group, like the Kemalists, is accused of posing a security and cultural threat to Turkey. They are also accused of being Western agents and alleged co-conspirators with local otherized groups.
The Gezi protests in Istanbul are examples of the simultaneous beginning and continuation of the otherization process as a new approach to gain political traction (Shukri, 2019). Initially, the rally was a peaceful protest against AKP-led development projects encroaching on public places. It grew to symbolize the public’s rising discontent with the party. The escalating intensity of the protests resulted in the paralysis of major cities and clashes between unarmed people and state officials (Yilmaz, 2021, 2021a, 2021b). Through a victimization rhetoric, several groups were “otherized” in order to divert attention and highlight Erdogan’s legitimacy. Secularists and leftists were particularly targeted during these protests. They were depicted as rioters or, at times, Western operatives out to destabilize Turkey’s economic development and discredit its Islamic values.
Erdogan’s use of fear and retribution to create a civilizational crisis is visible in his statements: “Those who work against Turkey will tremble with fear,” and “What is happening in Taksim is not only about the Gezi Park. These are events that have links outside and inside of Turkey” (Yilmaz, 2021; The Guardian, 2013). As prime minister, he publicly accused leftist forces of being behind the protests. During an interview in Tunisia, he explained: “But as I told you earlier, some terrorist groups are involved.” He claimed this to implicate an illegal left-wing militant organization, which was accused of bombing the US Embassy in Ankara the same year, with the protests (Weaver, 2013).
On the sixth anniversary of the protests, Erdogan has proceeded to marginalize members of the left. In 2019, he reiterated his point of view: “In the past, some have destroyed our cities claiming that they wanted to protect the environment. We are here planting trees. So, where are they who claimed that they care about trees? None of them is here” (aHaber, 2019).
Even in 2022, Erdogan stood by his 2013 statements about “Westernized” youth. The President accused them of vandalizing a mosque by torching it, violating the mosque’s spiritual precepts, and drinking there. All these claims have been refuted (Duvar English, 2022). Erdogan has also asserted that the culprits were foreign sponsored in order to destabilize the country. He said: “Everyone is now understanding who the powers behind the Gezi protesters were. They are together with the terrorist-lovers” (Independent Türkçe, 2022).
Beyond Gezi protests, similar civilizational threats and anxieties have been used in various uprisings. When university students and faculty members protested the appointment of a pro-AKP leader to a university in 2021, the issue swiftly deteriorated into a gender debate. The students and professors at Bogazici University were opposed to an AKP-appointed president, culminating in a large protest that was eventually “managed” by police forces in Istanbul’s center (Gall, 2021). Erdogan and his allies used a Gezi Park-style approach to deny the opposition’s legitimacy. After spotting a pride flag attached to a photograph of the holy Kaaba, police accused the students of being ‘delinquents’ and disrespectful to Turkish and Muslim culture during the campus raids (The Independent, 2021). Erdogan, as a populist, successfully side-lined the appointment and portrayed the students as a group of Western-inspired troublemakers by using homophobic undertones to appease a vote base favorable to Islamism.
While addressing the protests, Erdogan accused left-wing and secular groups of encouraging violence. He said: “These youngsters [Bogazici protestors] who are members of terrorist organizations, do not represent our national and moral values. Are you students or are you terrorists who wanted to occupy the office of the rector? We won’t let terrorists take over this country. Mr. Kemal [Kilicdaroglu] you can continue your journey with your terrorist friends, but we will never be together with terrorists. There is no such thing as LGBT. This country is moral, and it will go into the future with these values. This country won’t bow to terrorists and will never live another Gezi protest” (NTV, 2021).
He specially categorized them as “terrorist youth, communist youth” and promised to eradicate their presence by saying: “Universities would not educate terrorist youth, universities should educate the youth that will serve the motherland and the nation” (Cumhuriyet, 2018). He also singled out CHP Istanbul chair Canan Kaftancioglu, who was essential in the party’s 2019 electoral win in Istanbul. Erdogan accused her of being a terrorist because she supported the protests: “Unfortunately, we see the chair of Istanbul branch of CHP, who has no relations to the students, but anyway she is a militant of DHKP-C [Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, identified as a terrorist organization by Turkey]” (Erdogan, 2021).
Following this, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu blasted the Chair on Twitter: “Canan Kaftancioglu is the clown of terrorist organizations. The chair of CHP’s Istanbul branch is personnel of DHKP-C, PKK/KCK and MLKP terrorist organizations. She already has a sentence of 1 year and 8 months for propagating for PKK/KCK and DHKP-C, according to Istanbul’s 37th Criminal Court, file no 2019/171” (Soylu, 2021).
Furthermore, the AKP increasingly attacks the LGBTQ+ community. The government has used pre-existing homophobic prejudices among ultra-conservative groups to denounce the community. It is critical to note that identifying as LGBTQ+ is not illegal in Turkey; nonetheless, the AKP has bred “distrust” in the community by portraying them as a cultural threat to Islam. Various instances, such as the suspension of yearly pride celebrations, are presented as a way of protecting the Islamist ethos of a Sunni Muslim Turkey, and demonstrations have sometimes been trivialized by tying them to the topic of gender fluidity (Ahval, 2021).
In addition to the university demonstrations described earlier, the AKP has used gender as a civilisational strategy. Erdogan stated to AKP youth branches: “You don’t represent the LGBT youth. You are not the broken youth, on the contrary, you are the youth that raises the broken hearts. I believe in you, I trust you” (Diken, 2021).
Other secular voices in Turkey have been repressed through the use of religion. Erdogan chastised Turkey’s most famous pop star Sezen Aksu for insulting Islam. Aksu is well-known for being candid about her feelings towards the regime. Following the release of her 2017 song Şahane Bir Şey Yaşamak, she was accused of demeaning Adam and Eve. She was mocked online by AKP supporters when the President said:“No one’s tongue can reach our Prophet Adam [Hz. Adem]. It is our duty to cut those stretching tongues when the place comes. No one’s tongue can reach our mother Eve. It is our duty to give them what they deserve” (DW, 2022).
When viewed under the prism of Islamist civilizational populism, it is clear that Erdogan and the AKP have systematically used secular and left-wing groups as scapegoats during times of political disapproval. These groups have consistently been regarded as suspicious, hostile, and dangerous. They are viewed as both a national security concern and a challenge to the faith. They are also suspected of collaborating with local “others” and foreign forces.
Kurds have long been seen as “second-class citizens” in Turkey (Yegen, 2004; Yildiz, 2001). During Kemalist leadership, the implicit promotion of Turkish as the state’s ultimate ethnicity frequently marginalized the ethnically diverse Kurdish people (Yilmaz, 2021). Throughout Kemalists’ eighty-year rule, the state forced the Kurdish community to “assimilate” to Turkish culture. As a result, the Kurdish language was prohibited in parts of Eastern Turkey, as well as in government-owned institutions and organizations (Jongerden, 2007; Yildiz, 2001: 281). Informally, government officials stopped registering Kurdish names in order to force Kurdish citizens to “Turkify” their names (Yilmaz, 2021). Despite the cultural annihilation, Kemalists attempted to persuade Kurds that they are “brothers” to Turks due to shared beliefs (Yilmaz, 2021). Throughout the years, the state has been quite proactive in criminalizing the Kurdish population, with any criticism of the regime or opposition made by the Kurds being seen as terrorism or a criminal violation (Yilmaz, Demir & Shipoli, 2022).
The AKP sought for reconciliation with the Kurdish population in its early years (2002-2010). This was in sharp contrast to the position of the Kemalist state, which denied the existence of Kurds in modern-day Turkey. Erdogan and his colleagues were optimistic about talks between the government and the armed Kurdish movement in Eastern Turkey. A cease-fire was established after the PKK was summoned to Ankara for talks. Following decades of disputes, this cleared the way for negotiations. Reforms such as allowing the use of Kurdish language in official capacity and participation in educational institutions were debated and, to some extent, authorized during the AKP’s early “democratic” phase in office (Yilmaz, 2021; Karakoc, 2020; Martin, 2018; Geri, 2017; Ozpek, 2017). These reforms not only resulted in the democratization of formerly securitized Kurdish pockets in Eastern Turkey, but also paved the way for language programmes, cultural activities, and media backing for Kurdish-led projects (Yilmaz, Demir & Shipoli, 2022). It was a welcome addition to the AKP’s previous initiatives that de-securitized the Kurdish minority after decades of cultural extinction.
During the height of Ankara-PKK reconciliation talks, however, the Kurds were re-securitized. This occurred shortly after the AKP lost power in the June 2015 elections (Yilmaz et al., 2021; Karadeniz, 2015; Smith, 2005). The Kurdish peace process had come to a stop and was worsening rapidly. The AKP was experiencing economic difficulties, and the corruption scandal affected its public image. Turkey’s ambitions of entering the European Union, which had driven its democratization in the 2000s, were also diminishing (Yilmaz, 2021, 2021a, 2021b). Furthermore, a political party pushing for Kurdish rights and liberal ideas was pulling Kurdish votes away from the AKP by this time (Geri, 2017). The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) posed a strong threat to Erdogan and his colleagues. During this time, many state institutions demonized Kurds and portrayed them as “the others,” and the Kurdish peace movement came to a halt and was destroyed.
The HDP’s threat to the AKP became clear during the 2015 election campaign, when the opposition party criticized Erdogan’s proposed presidential reforms (Ozpek, 2019; Bianet, 2015). In the 2015 elections, the HDP won 80 seats, threatening Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions (Candar, 2019). During the early stages of the AKP’s authoritarianism, civilizational populism was utilized to turn Kurds from “brothers” to “security threats.” Erdogan called two general elections in five months in 2015, coinciding with the re-securitization of the Kurds, resulting in turmoil.
Unfortunately, a succession of violent attacks in several locations hampered the Kurdish peace effort. The state accused the PKK of the attacks and imposed a state of emergency in Eastern Kurdish districts, allowing security forces to search for Kurdish “terrorists” including the HDP. Despite simply being pro-Kurdish, the HDP was portrayed as a pro-terrorist party. The AKP was portrayed as a pro-people hero preventing the HDP, an alleged terrorist sympathizer, from capturing control of the parliament. Thus, the HDP was “otherized” for being ethnically unique and posing a threat to “the people.”
While the HDP was marginalized and the Kurdish community was labelled as a “problem,” the AKP sought a new political alliance with the ultra-right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020). Erdogan has called for a jihad-style response to “threats” posed by the HDP and Kurds in general, with the MHP on his side. Part of this strategy is accusing political opponents of collaborating with the PKK. For example, Erdogan’s coalition partner, Bahceli, accused Istanbul mayor of hiring PKK militants, claiming that “these terrorists employed by the Municipality are jeopardizing National Security” (T24, 2021). Another example of how the party and its allies consistently prove “the others” are co-conspirators is re-securitizing the PKK as a threat and aligning them with resistance. This allows them to threaten the groups with a shroud of civilizational menace.
The AKP attacked the HDP with the accusations of “Irreligious, Communist, Armenian, Uncircumcised” to reduce HDP’s votes below the threshold (Adalet Biz, 2015). In June 2018 speaking at a political rally in Diyarbakir, Erdogan addressed majority Kurdish audience as follows: ‘Are we ready to teach them [HDP] their lesson on June 24 [date for general elections]? … Do they have any connection to our values? Do they have any connection whatsoever to Islam? They are atheists, they are irreligious’ (Ahval, 2018).
In March 2019 he spoke about the HDP and claimed that: “They [HDP] shot [bombed] the Kurşunlu Mosque. Who? The irreligious, unbelieving, atheist team called HDP. They have such a structure. They ignored if it is a mosque and so on” (Arti Gercek 2019).
In November 2021 speaking in pre-dominantly Kurdish city of Batman, President Erdogan targeted at HDP with following accusations: “What am I saying, is there a Turkish, Kurdish, Laz or Circassian distinction in my religion? But this PKK, this HDP has no religious faith!’ (Birgun, 2021b).
The Kurdish example shows too how the AKP has successfully outcasted its political opponents by generating civilizational populist fear and anxiety in them through the use of religious rhetoric. It has taken advantage of the Kemalists’ pre-existing distrust of ethnic minorities and made it feasible in a new context.
Historically, Alevis were considered by Sunni majority as “suspicious” and untrustworthy (White, 2017). During the first eighty years of Turkish history, Alevis, who constituted around 10 percent of the population, were almost unknown. Alevism is founded on Shia-inspired theological teaching, yet it has been labelled a heretic cult. Because Alevism differs from the state-endorsed Sunni Islam, they are regular targets of the AKP (Dressler, 2015). Furthermore, during times of civil turmoil, the community is portrayed as an untrustworthy group and a security threat to the country. The community was not targeted throughout the first decade of the AKP’s administration. However, 2010 marked the start of the otherization process, which has only accelerated.
The first onslaught on Alevis was launched by the AKP administration in 2010, when Erdogan was leading the party into dictatorial ambitions. Erdogan expressed dissatisfaction with the country’s judicial system at a public speech to mobilize support for the constitutional referendum (Yilmaz & Shipoli, 2022). The next year, when CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was targeted by the AKP, sectarianism was reignited. Kilicdaroglu’s faith, Alevism, was brought up in the conversation in order to publicly humiliate him (Yilmaz & Shipoli, 2022).
By the time the Gezi demonstrations occurred, the blatant charges against protestors had grown, with the government and its leadership portraying them as Alevis despite the presence of other groups at the rallies (Karakaya-Stump, 2014). This prompted the state to target Alevi neighborhoods in order to quell protests, resulting in the community being subjected to state-sanctioned brutality (Karakaya-Stump, 2014). Karakaya-Stump (2018: 62) reported on community profiling during the crackdown as follows: “The release of a police report, according to which 78 percent of those detained during the protests were Alevi, was no doubt part of the same deliberate strategy to vilify the protests in the eyes of conservative Sunnis.”
Following the 2013 events, this targeting and harassment of Alevis not only continued, but expanded beyond the police to media outlets (Lord, 2018: 158). During the Gezi protests, a gas canister wounded a small boy. Erdogan called the 15-year-old Alevi child a “terrorist” in order to excuse the police assault (Hurriyet Daily News, 2013). Worse, Erdogan said of the death of an Alevi boy caused by police brutality: “There was a funeral in Istanbul recently. Unfortunately, there was a child from the terrorist organizations, with a baggy face, a slingshot in his hand, and iron balls in his pockets, and unfortunately, he was exposed to a tear gas. How will the police know how old that person is, with a puffy face and a slingshot in his hand, tossing iron balls? But Kılıcdaroglu is lying as usual, saying ‘the boy went out to buy bread.’ Be honest. What does it have to do with bread?” (Oda TV, 2014).
Unlike the Kurds, who were ethnically different, Alevis were eventually portrayed as “threats” or “suspect,” with roots in sectarianism. In July 2016 and ensuing years, the situation exacerbated and got more severe. The AKP accused Alevis of being pro-Gulenists and hence “untrustworthy” collaborators with “FETO” and its alleged Western masters (Yeni Safak, 2016). Erdogan creates “the enemy” through a discursive chain of equivalences in which Alevis are akin to Gulenists and Gulenists are analogous to the despised West. These claims are reflected in Erdogan’s statement: “Parties, marginal groups and terrorist organizations that did not even greet each other until yesterday, all of a sudden, lined up on the same side. The marginals who made fun of the values of this nation, the boils of the idea of Alevism without Ali, the enthusiasts of February 28 [coup], all came together. The main opposition party is at the top of the line. Behind them is the party that claims to be a nationalist [IYI Party], and next to them is the party under the control of the terrorist organization [HDP]. The parallel organization [Gulenists], the separatist organization [PKK], the terrorist organization that killed our prosecutor in Caglayan Courthouse [DHKP-C], and the Armenian lobby are right behind them” (Oda TV, 2015).
In addition to securitization, the AKP has attempted to portray Alevism as alien to Islam and, at times, as a threat. During a trip to Germany, he openly labelled them as atheists. He said: “In Germany, there is something like ‘Alevism without Ali.’ In other words, there is an atheist understanding, a structure that they [Germans] also support under the guise of Alevism. They try to project that onto us. We said that there is no such Alevis in Turkey. There’s a handful of them in Germany and the Germans support them, then they come and speak in their name here” (Cumhuriyet, 2014).
At other instances AKP has labelled them as distrustful and “fake” Muslims. In 2015 Erdogan said: “… there is something we are seeing where there are people who say they are Muslims, but because they are from different sects, they defend even those who are atheists in the fight against terrorism in our country. We see such an approach. But when it comes to words, they say, ‘We are Muslims.’ But on the other hand, we see those who defend terrorist and atheist organizations because of this sectarian difference. So, we must be vigilant against them” (Hurriyet, 2015)
The AKP’s portrayal of a largely misunderstood faith under the party’s developing Sunni overtone has incited the general public. Alevism’s status as a spiritual faith, affiliation with Shia-inspired ideology, and recent labelling as “untrustworthy” or “disloyal” have exposed the group to mob violence. In addition to being imprisoned and labelled a “suspect,” a number of people have committed horrible crimes against Alevis in recent years, including physical and psychological harm (Topuz, 2021; Bulut, 2020).
The Gulen Movement
The Gulen Movement is led by Fethullah Gulen. When the Kemalist state prosecuted Gulen on charges of planning to destabilize the system, he was pushed into self-imposed exile in the United States (Balci, 2014; Tol, 2014; Angey, 2018). In the 2000s, the Movement and the AKP became significant allies on a number of social and political fronts (Yilmaz, 2021). However, splits arose in the alliance in late 2013 which eventually led to the utter vilification of the leader and the group’s members as “terrorists” (Sanderson, 2018). Since 2016, the state has labelled the movement as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO), and it has employed every available tool to criminalize, punish, and harm its members (Yilmaz, 2021; 2021a, 2021b; Tol, 2014). This change from allies to security threats may be the AKP’s most direct attempt to create a new class of “others” through civilizational populism.
Erdogan chose to accuse the Movement’s president of being a “foreign” entity hostile to the republic and its people. This is typical of a populist leader who depicts “the enemy” as not belonging to “the people.” Civilizational populists regard “the others” within a country as morally “evil” because they come from a different civilization with presumably lower moral and religious standards (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2023: 38). Erdogan used the same language to resuscitate Gulen’s 1990s charge of regime upheaval and portray it as conspirators. Erdogan used people’s fear and suspicion of the West in order to depict Gulen as a Western ally out to impede Turkey’s ostensible progress (Day, 2016).
Erdogan and prominent party members were embroiled in a corruption scandal on December 17/25, 2013. Leaked phone tapes implicated Erdogan, various members of his family, and the AKP leadership in severe instances of corruption and nepotism (Day, 2016). Cunningly, the entire tapes leak mess shifted from an AKP corruption issue to one of national security. The audio leaks, according to Erdogan, are a “judicial coup” against his party. He accused the Gulen Movement, which at the time had members in the police and civil services, of “spying” on the government and leaking state secrets.
The AKP-led government used “the threat of Gulenists” being “foreign agents” to begin its first wave of purges against them. Hundreds of police officers were arrested, and members of public service office were terminated from their work for allegedly jeopardizing the country’s “security.” Throughout this pandemonium, word of a change on the prosecution bench in the AKP corruption case went unnoticed. The pro-AKP media was active in demonizing the movement and ignoring the corruption trial’s conclusion (Day, 2016; Butler, 2014; The Guardian, 2014). Erdogan described his actions as necessary to fight purported national security concerns. He went on to say: “At the moment, we are eliminating a new coup attempt that started on December 17, and we are deactivating a new attack, a new sabotage. We have demonstrated with all the evidence that this is not a corruption issue, but a sabotage attempt against democracy, a strengthening economy, active foreign policy, and especially the solution [Kurdish and Alevi opening] process” (AA, 2014).
Using conspiracy theories provided justification to the public about their fear of the “parallel system” and its Western rulers, rather than just a means of instilling fear. Erdogan portrayed himself as the “man who holds Turkey together,” which appeared to be an emotional play to appease the public (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020). In order to instill terror and consolidate the AKP’s grasp on power, the Gulen Movement was used as a scapegoat in a conventional “rally behind the flag” strategy. Erdogan’s allegations persisted throughout 2014. His next statement demonstrates his disdain for the erstwhile ally and its persistent presentation as a threat to the country: “These are blackmailers, they have data storages. They extract things from everywhere at any moment, and they are organized. They rent houses around [their targets] and listen and watch from there, they are such a treacherous organization. There is a treacherous terrorist organization right now. This is a terrorist organization. It is our duty to take the necessary measures against it. This Pennsylvania [referring to Gulen] took down the leader of the CHP by this type of tape” (Yeni Şafak, 2014)
Even before to the controversial coup attempt in July 2016, the Movement’s members and leadership were suspected of assisting foreign conspiracies. Erdogan openly addressed the group in 2015, saying: “Shame on them [the base of the GM supporters, not the decision makers] if they can’t see that the parallel structure still cooperates with MOSSAD. This structure is not just a structure that attacked me. First of all, it attacked Turkey’s national security and integrity. […] They are not national. Those who do business with them will soon experience embarrassment. Whoever does not take a stand against them has done injustice to their country, conscience, and religion” (BBC, 2015)
A year after the 2015 elections, in which the AKP was fighting for its political survival, the 2016 coup attempt proved decisive. The coup was utilized by Erdogan to instill fear, worry, uncertainty, and distrust of “the others.” He accused the Gulenists of staging the coup on Western directions. Following the events, Erdogan openly targeted Gulen, saying: “I have a message for Pennsylvania [referring to Gulen]… you have committed enough treason against this nation. Return to your homeland if you dare” (Arango & Yeginsu, 2016). Following the broadcast of this warning, the foundation’s activities both inside and outside of Turkey were seized, as was an extensive witch-hunting of its sympathizers. People were encouraged to believe, through official media manipulation and populist rhetoric, that Gulen and his followers are Western-backed conspirators out to destabilize the AKP. The narrative cast the AKP as “the people’s” last hope for stability, while the Movement was heavily criticized (Yilmaz, 2021, 2021a, 2021b; Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020).
Following the coup attempt, Gulen Movement-led schools were closed and transferred to AKP partners or simply placed under government control. Businesses owned by supporters of the movement were seized and distributed among AKP supporters. Academics, journalists, teachers, and families were unjustly imprisoned and punished behind closed doors. The authorities formally branded the Movement as a “terrorist” organization, renaming it FETO. As a result, thousands of “FETOists” have been imprisoned or expelled (Yilmaz, 2021a). The president justified his decision in the following way: “The name ‘Fethullahist Terrorist Organization’ is officially recorded, and we sent the recommendation to the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers also made its decision, and the decision came to us for approval. We approved it and now it is included in this National Security Policy Document. They tore this nation apart; we will not give an opportunity to those who tear this nation apart. They will pay for this. Some of them escaped, some are currently on trial in prisons. This process will continue like this” (DW, 2016)
AKP has been very successful in exploiting the Gulen Movement to create an enemy by characterizing it as an ally of the long-feared Western powers representing the civilizational “others” to Turkey’s Islamic “people.” Based on pre-existing trauma from the Ottoman Empire’s demise, Erdogan developed a clash of civilizations-styled narrative. Turkey has “internal opponents” who collaborate with “foreign powers” to hinder its progress. As a result, the Turkish government has accused the group of being a threat to Islam as well. In one such statement, the President articulated his point of view: “FETO is a very insidious terrorist organization that hides behind the religion of Islam and looks like a modern face, but is actually bloody, tyrannical and aims to take over the world. For this reason, the organization does not only concern [is a threat to] Turkey, but all countries in the world. The fact that FETO is organized in 160 countries helps us determine the goals of the organization” (TCCB, 2019)
To remain politically relevant and to mask the AKP’s escalating political crimes, Erdogan deploys Islamist populism laced with civilizationalism which has changed even a former Sunni Muslim Turkish ally into a prime example of “the other.”
Turkey is currently volatile and autocratic. Previously, the varied Turkish population had been under an authoritarian Kemalist regime that tried to alter its culture for nearly 80 years. The secular Kemalist ideal citizen was created out of the First World War’s pain and humiliation which shaped their views of other cultures and the West. The Young Turks and their successors ended the monarchy but failed to turn the republic into a democracy with social capital. Many left, rebelled, conformed, or hid from the state’s tyranny. But this wounded the suppressed communities. Pre-AKP Turkey experienced widespread mistrust, persecution, and injustice.
In the early 2000s, the AKP emerged as a democratic movement, raising hopes of tackling these social inequities and other concerns. Unfortunately, the AKP’s goal of reversing modern Turkish politics’ harsh legacy was thwarted by EU estrangement, economic problems, democratization failure, Erdogan’s corruption, and Islamist ideology. The AKP progressively established an electoral authoritarian regime coinciding with increased rhetoric on Islam and religion. Islamist civilizationalism and populism enabled this transformation. Despite its name, worldwide engagement, and vision, “New Turkey” is similar to Kemalist Turkey. It still pits identities and ideals. These contrasts have created deep divisions that the AKP has used to keep power.
Erdogan and his party have used populism to create “the people” from an oppressed Turkic Sunni Muslim majority and give the “majority” a voice and representation. This mainstreaming appears to help a religiously and socially marginalized population. The AKP, official institutions, and pro-regime entities have also reinforced this group’s fears, uncertainties, and misgivings. Islamist civilizationists’ concerns and hopes have helped Erdogan and his party succeed in Turkish politics. On the other hand, “the others”—both domestic and abroad—are growing. The AKP’s fear factory has criminalized and maligned millions, from Kemalists to human rights groups. Sadly, “otherization” violates human rights and democratic liberties (see figure 1 for AKP’s list of “the others”).
Figure 1: Use of Civilisational Populism by AKP to create “the others”
When it began
Categorization of “the others” by AKP
* The Ergenekon trials were used to motivate the 2010 Turkish constitutional referendum.
* Intensifies and continues.
* Disloyal to Islam and the nation.
* Co-conspirators of Western enemies.
* Referred to as White Turks.
* Selfish elite.
* Disconnected elite.
* A obstacle in reaching Ottoman glory.
* Ceasefire and peace with PKK stopped in 2015.
* Re-securitization of Kurdish population continues.
* Viewed as outsiders in Turkish land and to Turkish culture.
* Highly securitized.
* Seen as criminals or terrorists, making them a security threat for the nation.
* Untrustworthy and co-conspirators of the West and other outside forces.
* Often characterized as uncivilized or “mountain people.”
Seculars & Leftists
* Have been under attack since Gezi protests in 2013.
* Sporadic attacks at various events toward different subgroups such as feminists, seculars, leftists, and LGBTQ+ community members.
* Misguided by Western influences.
* A threat to the Muslim “way of life.”
* Funded by alleged foreign forces.
* Values seen alien to Turkish culture and Islam.
* Viewed as a moral and cultural threat to the religion and nation.
* Often used as scapegoats e.g., rowdy youth leading to riots.
* Talks about Alevis being in hold of judiciary around the 2010 referendum.
* Previous examples include demonizing Alevi youth during Gezi protests.
* Marked rise in AKP leadership targeting the group post-2016. As a consequence, rise in hate crime against Alevis in recent years.
* Mistrusted based on their religious outlook such as being labelled as heretics and accused of corrupt faith.
* At times of riots the group is posed as a security threat but more so a cultural threat to Sunni Islam.
The Gulen Movement (GM)
* Fractures appeared in 2013.
* Declared a terrorist outfit in 2016 following the attempted coup d’état.
* Otherization continues to take place.
* Seen as Western “agents”.
* Classified as traitors to the nation.
* Accused of being cultists.
* By extension classified as non-Muslims at time by the Directorate of Religious Affairs.
* Labelled as a terrorist organization, Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO).
* Members of the movements are also declared terrorists called “FETOists.”
Erdogan’s political ideology is to create many crises to frighten the Turkish people. It enables him to deflect attention from the party’s fundamental shortcomings and sell himself and the party as the savior while marginalizing or limiting political and civil society opposition voices.
After two decades in power, Ankara’s power center has helped solidify the AKP’s narratives. Erdogan believes Islam is a singular entity, thus he teaches the people to fear and loathe anyone who practices their faith differently, portraying any deviation from his own interpretation of Islam as an attack on “real Islam” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023: 68). History of Kemalist Turkey enabled this. The party inherited these “traumas” from early years of Islamist politics. These trauma points formed “crises” that currently threatens Turkey and Islam in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
However, the AKP is vulnerable despite its Islamist civilizational populist victory. Political and societal unrest has always threatened the party’s power. AKP has created new conspiracy theories to cast its own citizens as “others” with each general election. Without a doubt, Erdogan will stir up fear to win the upcoming 2023 general and presidential elections. During this process, we will, most probably, see lots of anti-Western, anti-Kemalist, anti-secularist, anti-leftist, anti-Kurdish, anti-Alevi and anti-Gulenists hate speeches and demonizations from different AKP figures.
Unfortunately, manipulation, unfairness, and violence harm citizens, social capital, and social cohesion. Even if the AKP loses power, its two decades in power have deepened divisions. After decades of “otherization” and fearmongering to subjugate a society, democracy must be fought for. For the time being, civilizational populism looks to be thriving in the country, pitting citizens against one other.
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The largest democracy in the world is now moving towards authoritarianism under the Hindutva civilizational populist prime minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rule. This article focuses on digital rights in India that have seen a sharp decline in recent years. It explores the transformation of the internet and social media, from a relatively open and liberal space to a restricted one. This survey of India’s digital landscape finds that the rise of civilizational populist Modi and his eight years long rule have led to an upsurge in digital surveillance and control and has fostered an environment of online harassment and bullying for those who are critical of the BJP’s views and politics. The article uses a four-level framework (Full Network, Sub-Network, Proxies, and Network Nodes) to explore digital authoritarianism by the BJP government. At each of these levels, the Hindutva populist government has closed avenues of open discussion and exchange of views by enforcing new rules and regulations.
The rise of populism has slowly hijacked the digital space as a medium for forming a strong relationship with public opinion. This practice is not particular to authoritarian states or democratic ones as these boundaries are increasingly being blurred by attempts to control and influence the digital space by all governments, irrespective of their ideology or types. Over the decade, the relationship between digital space and politics has evolved from a one-dimensional relation where one endangers or compliments the other to an interplay of different social, political, and economic forces determining the outcome. This essay aims to understand this interplay by focusing on the case study of India analyzing the nature of right-wing populist digital authoritarianism. The inquiry is also useful in understanding how formal and informal changes to cyberspace enable a system where authoritarianism is maintained by the creation of an ecosystem that supports its political survival. Narendra Modi’s eight years rule provides an opportunity to study not only the formal tools of cyber authoritarianism but its justification – a toxic nexus of populism and religion.
Human civilization entered the twenty-first century with a promise of a democratic, liberal global space where digital technologies were seen as tools that would ensure people-centric governance, improve access via e-governance, and foster connections with the citizens (Shirky, 2011). After two decades, the hopes and optimism regarding democratic development, based on the availability and easy access of digital technologies to all, have been dashed to the ground. The increase in the use of digital technologies has been accompanied by concerns regarding the misuse and manipulation of digital tools in the political space, specifically after incidents such as the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. In 2019, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey among 979 technology experts asking them about the impact of the use of technology on citizens, civil society groups, democracy, and democratic representation. Nearly half of the respondents (49 percent) said that the use of technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy as the misuse of digital technology to manipulate and weaponize facts will affect people’s trust in institutions and each other, impacting their views about integrity and value of democratic processes and institutions (Anderson & Rainie, 2020).
According to Freedom House’s The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism Report, during 2017-18, 26 of the 65 countries assessed experienced a deterioration in internet freedom. Reductions in half of these countries were related to a rise in disinformation, censorship, technical attacks, and arrests of government critics in the lead-up to elections. Governments in 18 countries have increased state surveillance since June 2017. They have often avoided independent oversight and weakened encryption to gain unrestricted access to data. Thirteen countries have also blocked at least one social media or communication platform due to political and security reasons. There has also been a rise in governments manipulating social media content with pro-government commentators, bots, or trolls manipulating online discussions and content in 32 out of 65 countries.
These alarming figures from cyberspace are in line with political realities. With growing social and economic pressures democracies around the world are struggling to remain true to their fundamental principles. Populism in its various forms is on the rise and authoritarian and illiberal practices are no longer limited to ‘fragile’ and weak democracies. Western Europe, Europe in general, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) are facing a multitude of challenges on these fronts. India, the world’s largest democracy was a symbol of progression and promise when its founding fathers, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar, framed the construction in a secular and democratic spirit. However, India, like many other countries, is on a dangerous trajectory with its leading party, the BJP, exhibiting clear hallmarks of authoritarianism. This reality is replicated in cyberspace as well.
In this study, digital authoritarianism in India is explored using a four-level framework: Full Network, Sub-Network, Proxies, and Network Nodes. This framework is based on the research done by (Howard et al., 2011).
India’s Political Landscape
Cyberspace usually mirrors the realities of the physical world. Those who are powerful in the physical world tend to dominate the virtual world too. The once celebrated status of India’s democracy is now tarnished as its large, diverse population is under constant psychological and physical threat. In Freedom House’s 2021 Democracy Under Siege report, the country has dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free” status for the first time primarily due to legal and vigilante violence against people’s right to freedom of speech and expression, escalating violence and prejudiced policies against Indian Muslims. India’s score on the Freedom of the World index, measuring civil and political liberties, dropped from 71 to 67 (Freedom House, 2021). In 2022, India’s score dropped further and declined for the fourth consecutive year to 66 (Freedom House, 2022a). While the Indian government decried the report and termed it biased, the Freedom House was not the only organization to document the decline in democratic rights in India (Scroll, 2021). According to the 5th Annual Democracy Report by the V-Dem Institute, India has been downgraded to the status of electoral autocracy (2021). This deterioration has primarily been enabled by the popularity of the right-wing Hindutva.
While it seemingly looks attached to Hinduism, it is more of a political derivative which is roughly equivalent to Islamism. Hindutva, as mobilized by populists, is quite different from the actual faith of Hinduism itself. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world and its followers term their devotion as Sanatana Dharma (translated as eternal order, way, or duty) rather than classifying to a strict Hindu identity. Even traditions, behaviors, and identities that are linked with a Hindu identity such as karma (causality of good actions/ideas leading to good and bad leading to bad consequences), samsara (cycle of life, death, and rebirth usually referring to the seven cycles until the final stage of release), veganism, cow-worship, idol worship, etc are not the key features of what it means to be a Hindu. There are no parameters set by the faith itself or even by the government of India that make a person Hindu on the bases of customs and traditions being practiced, rather the definition of a Hindu citizen by the government of India is one who is born of Hindu parents or who does not identify with other local religions such as Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrian, etc. This makes Hinduism both a pluralist and fluid religion, more so in comparison to the Abrahamic faiths since it is not exclusive and has a centuries-old history of inclusively embracing the edicts and principles of other religions from a higher, holistic perspective (Saleem, 2021). Hindutva, on the other hand, is an exclusive and closed ideology.
The advent of Hindutva comes from V.D Savarkar who wrote a book in the early 1920s, titled Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? which defines a Hindu as someone “who considers India to be his motherland (matrbhumi), the land of his ancestors (pitrbhumi), and his holy land (punya bhumi)” (Tharoor, 2018). Savarkar claimed that Hindus as the rightful and hereditary owners of the land, thus excluding Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. and degrading them to the status of outsiders and enemies. This transition occurred over time under the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hundred years old religio-militant organization and its various affiliated bodies called the Sangh Parivar which was focused on the revival of the old “Hindu” traditions and encouraging people to adopt the Hindutva way of life. The RSS also builds a successful cultural identity of the group making its members long for a lost glorified Hindu age which came to an end due to “tyrant invaders” such as the Muslims and British.
The Hindutva Civilizational Populism
Harnessing the multi-layered insecurities, the Modi-led BJP has rooted its politics in Hindutva-driven populism. BJP’s populism is based on Hindutva and embraces not only the Hindus of India but also those living in other countries. It also draws its symbols, heroes, villains, culture, holy books, etc. from ancient Hindu civilization. Therefore, one can argue that BJP’s populism is not national but civilizational. ‘Civilizational populism’ is “a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022b).
Under Modi’s rule, India is becoming highly discriminatory and at times violent towards “the others.” This hostility is manifested in formal authoritarianism enabled by the instrumentalization of state institutions. In this part of the article, the civilizational Hindutva populism propagated by the BJP is explained.
Narendra Modi’s success in India has a lot with his Hindutva populist leadership and BJP’s expertise in digital media. Modi is a classic populist as he divides the nation into two groups of pure and impure people and claims that the pure people have been victims for centuries as impure people have used their innocence, purity, and good nature to subjugate them. He presents himself as someone that will make the pure people “Vishwaguru” (teacher, guru, or mentor of the world). The distinguishing feature of the pure group of people is Hinduism; impure people are non-Hindus, primarily Muslims (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). This deadly nexus of religion and populism is peculiar to Modi. Hindutva leadership, under various parties (Hindu Mahasabha, Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party, etc.) had been gradually gaining ground since the 1950s but populism was not part of its repertoire until Modi emerged on the political scene (Saleem, 2021).
Modi won his first election in his home state Gujarat in 2002 after an anti-Muslim pogrom. Although the Indian Supreme Court acquitted Modi of all charges, there is widespread evidence of Modi’s acts of omission, if not commission, in allowing the pogrom to continue (Jaffrelot, 2003; Ghassem-Fachandi, 2012; Nussbaum, 2009). In November 2022, Amit Shah, the current Home Minister of India, Modi’s right hand man for more than two decades and co-accused in the Gujarat pogrom, gave further evidence of a planned massacre by saying in a public rally, “They tried to create a problem for Narendra Bhai [Modi] but he taught them such a lesson that they have not dared to do anything till 2022” and “But after they were taught a lesson in 2002, these elements left that path (of violence). They refrained from indulging in violence from 2002 till 2022. The BJP has established permanent peace in Gujarat by taking strict action against those who used to indulge in communal violence.” Since Muslims were the primary victims of the 2002 pogrom, it was obvious Amit Shah was referring to Muslims (Hindu Bureau, 2022). The old anti-Muslim message was given a populist twist by Modi in 2010-11 when he started concerted efforts to become the Prime Minister of India. Fortunately, for him, India had already experienced a digital revolution and was ready for a new kind of campaign.
Other political parties were no match to BJP’s successful digital campaign in 2014. Since then, during elections and at other points of political significance, the BJP has used digital alternatives along with the mainstream media (Schroeder, 2018). With extensive outreach, large funding, and little to stop them from airing controversial views, the party has gained significant clout on social media. This clout allows Modi to cultivate Hindutva populism which legitimizes the authoritarian actions of the state and creates a loyal supporter base that is not bothered about the rapidly deteriorating state of democracy and human rights. Gaining a favorable supporter base in cyberspace is important for the BJP as, according to data by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the total number of internet subscribers in India has risen to 825.30 million while broadband subscribers are 778 million at the end of March 2021 (TRAI, 2021).
The BJP leadership has a long history of hate speeches and propaganda against religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians. This is now practiced on social media too. Social media contributes 87.4 percent of the fake news spread in India, with mainstream media only contributing 12.6 percent, producing around seven times more fake news compared to mainstream media (Al Zaman, 2021). The BJP constantly portrays minorities as enemies of the Hindu nation and casts doubts about their loyalty. When such narratives are mainstreamed, they become “truths” and legitimize the government’s questionable actions such as the passage of laws restricting inter-faith marriage or citizenship that target Muslims and poor Indians with threats of deportation.
Similarly, News Laundry reported on the telegram network of Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader, and his ‘Hindu Ecosystem’ network that creates propaganda material and manufactures trends across social media platforms to whip up communal hatred and bigotry, and support for Hindutva (2021). The network began with Mishra tweeting the link to a membership form to join the team. The group was joined mostly by upper-caste Hindu men, growing to around 20,000 members. Mishra asked the members to subscribe to Organizer and Panchjanya, house journals of the RSS boosting the reach of the supremacist group. The Hindu Ecosystem picks up a theme to trend on Twitter each week, ready with mass propaganda and a bunch of fake news with bad aesthetics, to put the Hindutva ideology, along with a bunch of tweets that only had to be copy-pasted by the members to start a campaign. The group has been growing exponentially since then, with over 30,000 members working in a coordinated way to incite communal hatred, complete with readily shareable images, videos, and forwards to tap into the hate-network effect (Thakur & Meghnad, 2021).
The Hindutva populist message of hatred, oppression, and discrimination embraced and mainstreamed by the BJP has also found its way into the hearts of millions of people. Exposed to these ideas many segments of the public mirror the state’s overt aggression towards “the others” within the cyber realm. There are many instances where things go beyond cyberbullying leading to actual physical attacks taking place due to the spread of news on social networking sites. In India, hate speech, false news, and misinformation shared on social media have been linked to increased violence and hatred towards non-Hindu religious groups. Specifically, WhatsApp users among a section of rural and urban upper- and middle-class Hindu men are predisposed both to believe populist disinformation and to share misinformation about “othered” and “impure” groups in face-to-face and WhatsApp networks. This discrimination culminates in the form of widespread, simmering distrust, hatred, contempt, and suspicion towards Muslims, Dalits, and non-Dalit Hindu dissenting citizens (Banaji & Bhat, 2020).
An example of such social media-led violence can be found in incidents of lynching of Muslims and Dalits that are fueled by rumors spread on social media. Since 2015, there have been more than a hundred instances of lynching, targeting individuals from the discriminated groups (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis) based on allegations of cow slaughter, cow trafficking, and cattle theft leading to further instances of extreme mob violence and lynching that have resulted in death and trauma. Although these victims are targeted for different reasons, these incidents have in common mobs of vigilantes who use peer-to-peer messaging applications such as WhatsApp to spread lies about the victims and use misinformation to mobilize, defend, and in some cases to document and circulate images of their violence (Banaji & Bhat, 2020).
There is a “thematic alignment” between those who propagate and believe in conspiracy theories and populists. Both do not believe in mainstream media or the government and are paranoid – afraid of minorities, refugees, and other groups plotting against them. Their basic assumption is that the government and media are in cahoots to deceive the majority group, who are the victims (Krasodomski-Jones, 2019). Unsurprisingly, one sees conspiracy theories promoted by the Hindutva against Muslims. During the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories became viral on social media blaming Muslims for the spread of the novel Coronavirus in India. As reported by The Guardian, Mehboob Ali from Harewali was beaten mercilessly by a Hindu mob after a conspiracy theory became viral nationwide that linked the spread of the COVID-19 virus in India to a Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi. Hundreds of Tablighi Jamaat members were arrested all over India and remained in jail for months before being declared innocent by courts. There was also a concentration of attacks on Muslims in Karnataka state after an audio clip began to be shared widely over WhatsApp, urging people not to allow Muslim fruit and vegetable sellers into their areas, claiming they were spreading the virus through their produce. The hatred reached such a level that some hospitals denied treatment to Muslim Covid-19 patients (Pisharody, 2020).
Similarly, there have been incidents of lynchings and beatings of Muslims after allegations of ‘love jihad’, whereby Muslims are accused of luring/grooming Hindu women to deceitfully convert them to Islam, spread on social media. This conspiracy has been referenced in more than 2000 tweets on social media prompted by Hindu nationalists, fueling violence and unrest since 2013, resulting in the killing of 62 people and forced displacement of over 50,000 Muslims in the northern Indian town of Muzaffarnagar (Dotto & Swinnen, 2021).
The scope and themes of discussion in this Indian, anti-Muslim network hijack global conversations as well. As the conflict in Israel and Palestine broke out, thousands of anti-Islam and pro-Israel messages flooded Indian social media, using the conflict as a vehicle to promote Islamophobia. On May 12, 2021, an open call was launched on social media to get the anti-Muslim #UnitedAgainstJehad trending, accompanied by graphics with detailed instructions to retweet at least 40 times, alleging that radical Islamic Jihadis were much more dangerous than any pandemic. In a few hours, the likes and shares poured in and by May 13, the hashtag had already appeared over 11,000 times, producing nearly 70,000 interactions on Twitter (Dotto & Swinnen, 2021).
This core support base for Modi and the party aids in creating an environment where authoritarianism inspires vigilantism and supports the extreme formal measures of the state. Cyberspace populated by pro-Hindutva advocates and shaped by the BJP narratives is a highly oppressive place for “the others.” Actual incidents are animated and inspired by Twitter trends and viral videos (Mirchandani, 2018)
Digital Authoritarianism in India
Despite widespread internet access, internet freedom in India, however, remains compromised. According to Democracy Watchdog by Freedom House, internet freedom in India declined for four consecutive years until 2021. The internet freedom score improved slightly from 49 to 51 in 2022 but India is still designated as ‘Partly-Free’ (Freedom House, 2022b). During the last five years, the Indian government regularly shut down the internet to suppress protests the Citizenship Amendment Act, scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir state, Farm laws, and targeted critical voices with spyware. It also pressured international social media platforms to remove content that was critical of the government’s Hindu nationalist/populist agenda (Freedom House, 2021). This signals an increasing effort on part of the government to regulate the digital space and limit, block, and penalize those who question or oppose the party.
Sahana Udupa (2018) argues that the Hindu nationalist BJP was the first major political party to have a social media campaign strategy. During the 2014 national election campaign, the BJP used numerous new mobilization tactics on social media that were not seen before. The branding on social and print media projected Modi as a “populist messiah of New India.” His complicity in the 2002 Gujarat massacre was downplayed. After winning the elections, the BJP established an IT cell that is the envy of other parties. Amit Shah, the then BJP President, claimed in 2018, that “it is through social media that we have to form governments at the state and national levels, by making messages going viral” (Basu, 2019).
Swati Chaturvedi (2016), in her book “I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army” gives useful insights into the workings of the social media cell of the BJP led by Arvind Gupta, the same BJP official who was responsible for leading BJP’s 2014 election campaign. The cell runs from BJP’s headquarters located at 11 Ashoka Road in New Delhi and comprises members who ensure that certain hashtags, decided by the head, are made to trend on social media on a particular day. Each day has a different tweet agenda that is sent out to a large network of social media workers across India, mostly standard PR containing tweeting routine addresses by PM Modi, Amit Shah, and BJP Chief Ministers or creating the BJP or Modi-related trend topics. Over the years, the BJP has built a reservoir of thousands of dormant Twitter accounts to be used when needed for synchronized tweeting, along with bots controlled by the party’s central IT cell which tweet out identical messages simultaneously.
The following section explores India’s digital authoritarianism using the four-level framework.
Full Network Level Governance
Full network governance refers to a complete internet shutdown or substantial degrading of the internet (e.g. from 4G to 2G or 3G) in a region. Between 2014 and November 2022, there were 680 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet blocks in the world. In 2021, there were 101 forced internet shutdowns in India. This is a significant increase from only six and 14 shutdowns in 2014 and 2015 respectively (Internet Shutdowns, 2022). The worst example of an internet shutdown in India was the internet shutdown in Kashmir, for almost a year, after the stripping of its special status on August 5, 2019. This was done ostensibly to end violence, militancy, and online extremism in the region, however, according to most observers, it was clearly done to stifle criticism and dissent against the highly unpopular decision. Internet shutdown was imposed despite objections from human rights organizations, civil society, political parties, and even retired security officials (Shah, 2020). The shutdown continued despite concerns raised by many residents on the additional challenges it posed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sub-Network or Website Level Governance
When it comes to Sub-network level governance, the government has introduced a panoply of digital surveillance measures, normalizing the shift from targeted surveillance to mass surveillance (Mahapatra, 2021). This has been justified on the account of rising terrorism in India, especially after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. The most recent development in this realm has been the induction of a Central Monitoring System (CMS). The CMS is a surveillance system that monitors most of electronic and other communications, including phone calls on landlines and cell phones, text messages, and social media engagement. It was primarily introduced post the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, after which a need was felt for a greater coordinator between law enforcement and security agencies. This system puts the privacy of the public at risk as a person will not know if and when their data has been intercepted and when turned into a mass surveillance practice. Large groups of people will have their data intercepted without a valid reason (Internet Freedom Foundation, 2020).
Other than CMS, in the past few years, police have routinized the use of fingerprint and facial recognition technology (FRT) to stop and screen people on grounds of suspicion, without any evidence. Such digital surveillance enables dragnet surveillance, which makes everyone a suspect. Secondly, it also leads to datafication of individuals, turning the identity and activity of human beings into quantifiable data for governance and business purposes (Mahapatra, 2021).
The next level of analysis is the sub-network level where websites and webpages are banned by governments. In India, websites are blocked by the central government, under Section 69A of the IT Act and the 2009 Blocking Rules, which allows the reasons for the ban to be kept confidential too. There has also been an upsurge in the number of websites blocked. A total of 6096 websites were blocked in 2021. This is low as compared to the 9849 websites banned in 2020 but considerably higher than to 633 websites banned in 2016. (Qureshi, 2022). It is worth noting that censorship and digital surveillance in India are not only limited to blaming and censoring Muslims. During the Farmer Protests, hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts that voiced support for the farmers were suspended as India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology directed the company to take down accounts that had used “incendiary” hashtags during the January 26 violence, raising questions about the neutrality of Twitter when it comes to free speech in India (Rej, 2021).
Proxy or Corporation Level Governance
The next level of analysis is proxies and corporations, especially social media websites or intermediaries, all while keeping in mind India’s powerful position as having the third-largest Twitter users in the world (behind the US and Japan), the largest number of Facebook users in the world, and largest WhatsApp market in the world (Buchholz, 2021). Such a big consumer base puts India in a dominant position in the international market, forcing intermediaries to accept its advice even if it goes against their rules and individual privacy.
Under the recent restrictive Information Technology Rules 2021, social media platforms’ freedom to operate and immunity from prosecution (because of what someone has written or posted on their websites) have been greatly reduced. Social media intermediaries are now required to remove content identified as illegal by the government within three days. They are also required to provide user information to law enforcement officials. For this, they need to increase their data retention period to 180 days, increasing the costs of noncompliance for these global firms, thereby putting end-to-end encryption at risk.
Pal (2021) elaborates that the intermediaries are required to appoint three officers: a) a Chief Compliance Officer who shall be responsible for compliance with the Information Technology Act and the rules framed there under, b) a Nodal Contact Person who shall be responsible for communication with law enforcement agencies, and c) a Resident Grievance Officer who shall be responsible for the grievance redressal mechanism. All these officers are required to be residents of India. Another obligation cast upon these intermediaries is to enable the identification of the ‘first originator’ of any information on their platform. Simply put, this means that an intermediary, like Facebook or Twitter, would be open for liability if a third-party user posts unlawful content on their platforms (The Wire, 2021; Pal, 2021).
Apart from endangering the privacy of users, these rules directly put the users’ freedom of expression at risk. These rules also restrict companies’ discretion in moderating their own platforms and create new possibilities for government surveillance of citizens, threatening the idea of free and open internet (Rodriguez & Schmon, 2021). The 2021 Rules also require all intermediaries to remove restricted content within 36 hours of knowing of its existence by a court order or notification from a government agency, with noncompliance resulting in penal consequences (Rodriguez & Schmon, 2021).
The manifestation of this law can be seen in the following examples. During the COVID-19 crisis in 2021, the Indian government made an emergency order to censor tweets criticizing the government for its negligence and inefficiency in combating the virus. This specifically referred to a tweet from a politician in West Bengal holding Prime Minister Modi directly responsible for Coronavirus deaths, and from an actor criticizing PM Modi for holding political rallies while the virus raged, raising concerns about the government`s obsession with political supremacy and censorship during a public health crisis (BBC, 2021). Such requests by the government to block content on Twitter peaked in the aftermath of the revoking of Articles 35A and 370, related to Kashmir, as already discussed, with Modi’s government issuing its highest-ever number of monthly blocking orders to Twitter, with all of the censorship requests aimed at Kashmir-related content. On August 11 and August 12, 2020, Twitter was asked to take down eight accounts, including some Pakistani and Kashmir-based accounts claiming that they were “circulating fake news” and that the language used was a “clear indication” that they were either being run by the ISI or the Pakistan Army” (Srivas, 2020). The tensions also escalated due to the recent mass protest movement by farmers against three farm laws that renewed criticism of Modi’s regime, to which the government responded with hundreds of takedown orders to Twitter. The platform initially resisted, but later complied with many of the requests and blocked some 500 accounts permanently (Christopher & Ahmad, 2021).
Twitter and other intermediaries have faced increasing pressure, many call it intimidation, from the Indian government to comply. In a November 2022 article, Time magazine called it “Twitter’s India problem.” There have been raids, court cases, and the threat of arrests. Twitter has tried to walk a thin line in India. It has increased its compliance but has also tried not to become too servile. Since the implementation of new rules, it has deferred to Indian government “requests” for the removal of posts, blocking of accounts, revealing user information, etc. According to Twitter’s transparency report, it complied with only 9.1 percent of requests to remove the content in the six months before the new rules came into force. Since then, Twitter has compiled with 19.5 percent of requests, more than double the previous percentage. During the same period, Twitter became much more amenable to revealing user data. It complied with almost ten times as many government requests for private information. However, Twitter has also tried to remain independent by filing a lawsuit in July 2022 against the demand of the government to remove 39 tweets and accounts (Perrigo, 2022). In 2022, the Indian government has also come up with a new Digital Personal Data Protection Bill that further increased the government’s power on the transfer of data and virtual communications (Saran, 2022).
Network-Node or Individual Level Governance
Coming to individual-level internet governance in India, the primary targets are journalists and social media activists resulting in arrests under terror or treason charges. India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index has decreased from the 133rd position in 2016 to the 142nd position in 2021 and the 150th position in 2022 (The Quint, 2022). India is among the countries categorized as “bad” for journalism and is considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists (Kaushik, 2021). In July 2021, India was engulfed in the Pegasus spyware scandal. Pegasus is a spyware, made by an Israeli company, that was used to spy on journalists, political opponents, foreign leaders, military officials, etc. It was sold only to governments to supposedly control terrorism and other illegal activities. However, Modi’s government, like many other governments, bought this spyware to spy on anyone it considered a threat (Basak, 2022).
Journalists, particularly Muslim journalists, are under consistent threat of arrest and courts have provided constitutional protection in a few cases. National and state governments regularly file cases against Journalist Rana Ayyub for disturbing communal harmony when she exposes BJP’s Hindutva cadres’ excesses. In June 2022, Delhi state police arrested Zubair, owner of Alt News, a prominent fact-checking website, over a four-years old post. Siddique Kappan was arrested in October 2020 when he was trying to cover a murder and rape case. After struggling through lower courts for two years, he was granted bail by the Supreme Court of India but before this verdict, the state filed another lawsuit, and he is still in jail (Freedom on the Net, 2022; Mamta, 2022). In March 2022, three Kashmiri students remained in jail for five months under sedition charges for allegedly sending anti-India WhatsApp messages after Pakistan’s victory in a cricket match. They have been granted bail, but their future remains precarious as the case is still to be decided (Jaiswal, 2022).
The article analyzed and examined the law, rules, and regulations which the BJP government uses to control cyberspace. This was carried out by using the four levels of network analysis. In India surveillance, blockage, censorship, and legal actions for cyber activities are all regulated under legal frameworks that have been tailored to support the BJP’s undemocratic transgressions. The article focused on analyzing the multifaceted and layered populist usage of cyberspace by the BJP in India and its impact on their Hindu base as well as on “the others.” We find that civilizational authoritarian populism in India has spread like wildfire which makes it quite a volatile society both offline as well as online. Both these spaces intersect and influence each other. The once democratic and plural country has transformed into a breeding ground for extremism, repression, and violence.
Targeting religious minorities has now become the most dominant theme on Indian social media. As discussed, the virtual hate, propagated by the BJP, eventually transcends into real life in instances of violence targeting these groups. The state-led cyber oppression emboldens many to not only embrace these narratives online but also to be violent against “the others.” This violence or vigilantism is not limited to online harassment but frequently results in the death of the intended targeted communities.
Overall, our analysis has shown that civilizational populist digital authoritarianism in India has recently become more prominent. Since Modi’s ascend, India has experienced a decline in internet freedom and has also lost its status as a vibrant democracy. Modi has built a strong digital presence around the country in four main ways:
The BJP has established a top-down, organized social media presence model, controlled by the BJP IT Cell in New Delhi. The IT Cell commands thousands of paid and unpaid volunteers and bots who share posts and tweets. These posts/tweets follow specific themes that are decided by the party leaders and involve targeting political opponents, harassing religious minorities, and spreading propaganda and fake news.
The BJP government has introduced a set of rules and regulations to increase its digital oversight which augments its control over social media networks and coerces the latter into complying with the government’s narrative if they are to thrive in India. Some recent developments in this regard include the introduction of the Central Monitoring System (CMS) and the new rules Information Technology Rules, 2021.
As India has one the largest number of social media users in the world, the BJP government enjoys preferential treatment from social media platforms that have a history of giving in to BJP’s concerns and removing content that is undesirable to the BJP.
As a spillover of the BJP authoritarianism, the Hindutva voter base has also accepted and enacted the state’s populist authoritarianism in both online and physical space.
Emerging from these factors, the digital landscape in India has become increasingly intolerant.
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