Pericles Funeral Oration on old Greece 50 drachma (1955) banknote. Famous historical speech of Pericles at the end of first year of the Peloponnesian War. Photo: Shutterstock.

A Survey on Political Rights of Individuals under Different Forms of Ancient Greek Government

Although not perfect, as no government form ever is, Athenian democracy allowed citizens to have the greatest say in how they were governed, giving them necessary legal and economic protections to do so. One can see why modern scholars define Athens as having a ‘radical’ democracy, as actions such as changing the surnames of citizens to incorporate the name of their deme, having a highly complex jury selection system, and even paying individuals for public service, were all radical ideas when compared to the oligarchic systems of other city-states and kingdoms such as Macedonia.

By Christo Pretorius

It’s hard to miss the stark warnings from a variety of sources about the dangers of populist leaders and how democracy is currently on decline around the world (Freedom House, 2024; Netherlands Helsinki Committee, 2022; Pengelly, 2022). It would perhaps surprise many that, what we consider to be current contemporary issues are not necessarily new, and we can draw from the past a rich collection of political discourse and historical conflict. 

The term “Democracy” originates from the Ancient Greek world, derived from the Greek words demos, meaning ‘people,’ and kratos, meaning ‘rule’ (Kofi, 2015). In the Classical Period of Ancient Greek history, various city-states adopted different forms of government, often influenced by local and foreign circumstances. By the 4th Century, there was a general consensus on three main types of political systems: autocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. As the Greek statesman Aeschines pointed out, “Autocracies and oligarchies are administered according to the tempers of their lords, but democratic states according to established laws” (Aeschines, 1.4). Similarly, Aristotle writes his views on the different systems: ‘…The deviations from these are as follows: from kingship, tyranny; From aristocracy, oligarchy; from constitutional government, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy, which looks to the interests of the ruler; oligarchy looks to the interests of the wealthy; and democracy to the interests of the poor: none of these looks to the common good of the people as a whole’ (Aristotle, Pol., 1279b4). 

This passage raises an interesting question that is worth exploring – what political rights did the average person have under these different systems of government? For the purpose of this article, three aspects closely related to political freedoms will be investigated: Political participation, legal equality, and social mobility. Political participation ties into the ideas of freedom of speech, and the means for individuals to make changes to the way they are governed; Social mobility would indicate whether individuals have the ability to achieve a greater political status within the state; Legal equality would allow us to use the rule of law as a measure of political freedom. 

For optimal analysis, this article is divided into two parts. The first part will contextualize the three different government systems, drawing from case examples within the Ancient Aegean. This will be particularly helpful for readers who might not be familiar with Ancient Greece. The second part of this article will then do a cross-comparative study focusing on the three afore mentioned factors, before a conclusion can be made on which system allowed for the greatest amount of individual choice and freedom in the public sphere. The risk with doing an analysis such as this is the danger of over generalization. As such, to the extent that the sources allow, each political system will have a case study state, all found within the same period of time – namely democratic Athens, monarchical Macedonia, and the oligarchic Boeotian Confederation. 

Athenian Democracy 

Ancient Athens has provided modern scholars a wealth of archaeological and literary sources that allow us to better understand how a highly developed ‘radical’ democratic system in the ancient world functioned (Leppin, 2013). Chief among these sources is Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians, a late 4th century work detailing the history and development of city-state’s political system (Aristotle, Const. Ath.). The Athenian government consisted of three primary institutions which were supported by numerous smaller ones of lesser importance (Blackwell, 2003). As a result of the reforms of the Athenian statesman Pericles in the 5th century, most of the political power in the state was given to what was known as the ‘Assembly of the Demos.’ This institution consisted of Athenian males over the age of 18 and gave every participant the right to discuss and vote on decrees that pertained to every aspect of Athenian life (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 27.1/41.2; Dem. 15.1). In the sources we have examples where we can see the Assembly voting on everything from whether or not to go to war (Dem. 15.4), to the laws governing the proper qualifications of ferry-boat captains (Aeschin. 3.158). In theory this institution represented the core of Athenian democracy. 

‘The Council of 500’ is the second of the three main institutions, and represented the full-time government of Athens (Blackwell, 2003). It was made up of 500 citizens, 50 from each of the ten tribes, or demes, delineated by the Athenian lawmaker Cleisthenes in the 6th century (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 21.3). Importantly, these demes were created to encourage a new political social group where individuals were not designated by family names, but officially used their deme as a surname both in public and private life (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 21.4/28.3). Upon reaching the age of eighteen, Athenian male citizens were enrolled on a deme list, and had the opportunity to participate for one year as a member of the Council. From Aristotle it is inferred that there was an expectation for individuals to serve at least once in their lifetime, and provisions were in place that prohibited individuals from serving on the Council more than twice (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 42.1/43.2/62.3). 

The final institution discussed is the People’s Court. This was the primary judicial body in Ancient Athens and had elaborate mechanisms to ensure complete randomness in juror selection for both civic and domestic cases (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 64-69). The jurors themselves were selected from Athenian citizens over the age of 30 and had the requirement that they not be in debt or disenfranchised (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 63.3). Most courts consisted of 500 jurors, but when the need arose, two courts could be combined to have 1,000 jurors, with the most serious cases being brought before the maximum of 1,500 (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 68). 

On the surface level, one can make the assessment that Athenian democracy strove to involve nearly all Athenian male citizens within every aspect of civic life, with different checks and balance mechanisms in place to ensure an element of randomness in both judicial and political office selection.

Hellenistic Kingship 

While Athenian Democracy boasted a high level of citizen participation, kingship represented its polar opposite. Macedonian kingship, and similar authoritarian regimes in the successor states to Alexander the Great’s short -lived empire, are the best examples of these autocratic states. Arthur Eckstein (2009: 249) highlights that ruler legitimacy in these kingdoms relied heavily on conquest and military governance, with institutions that reflected this fact. A royal court acted as the central hub for governance headed by the king himself and his philoi, or ‘friends,’ who would manage both the military and administrative affairs of the state (Eckstein, 2009: 250). These philoi seemed to have been from minor noble houses, high-ranking military officials or experts drawn from within the kingdom or abroad (Weber, 2009: 86). Within this court culture, a web of personal relationships maintained a balance of power between the philoi and the monarch. Gregor Weber (2009: 87) demonstrates in his article that during the reign of King Philip II, he had virtually monopolized all power within the court without much opposition, employing ‘each man according to his abilities, as the occasion demanded.’ 

In relation to Macedonia’s legal system, there are very few sources that we can use to construct a clear picture of their judicial institutions. In Plutarch’s account on the life of Alexander we find him mention: ‘[Alexander] would spend the day in hunting, or administering justice, or arranging his military affairs, or reading’ (Plut. Alex. 23.2). The Roman historian Quntius Curtius Rufus highlights: ‘In accordance with the ancient custom of the Macedonians, the king conducted the inquiry into criminal cases, and the army passed judgement – in time of peace it was a duty of the common people – and the power of the king availed to nothing’ (Curt. 6.8.25). Modern historian Joseph Roisman (2012: 133) presents that, as a result of the lack of sources, modern scholarship on the topic is divided into two camps – with one using examples from Alexander’s life, such as Plutarch, as evidence of the Macedonian king’s role as the supreme legal authority within the state, whilst others draw from Rufus’ account that while kings acted as judges, they would still heed the verdict of an assembly. 

Oligarchy in Ancient Greece 

Unlike Democracy and Autocracy which has been subject to extensive investigation by scholars, ancient oligarchic regimes have not received the same amount of attention due to the scarcity of sources and the greater interest in the alternatives. Of the work that has been written on oligarchies, the primary focus of debate has been defining the line which separates a democracy from an oligarchy (Simonton, 2017; Leppin, 2013). 

Aristotle indicates to us that oligarchies share similarities to democracies, as they are ruled by the majority, but a key difference is that a democracy can be defined where the ‘free are sovereign,’ and in an oligarchy ‘when the rich and more well born are few and sovereign’ (Aristot. Pol. 4.1290b). He continues to say that these oligarchic states are democratic in nature, and thus share the similar institutions with democratic states, but ‘may be administered in an oligarchic fashion’ (Aristot. Pol. 4.1295a). 

The Oxyrhynchus Historian’s Boeotian Constitution supports Aristotle’s claims and gives us a rare glimpse into the political institutions of an oligarchic system. Boeotia consisted of ten sovereign states, or eleven district wards, that each contributed individuals to the central government – The Boule (Council) (Oxyrhynchus Historian, Boeotian Constitution XI.2-4). In the text it is mentioned that each city had a local government which consisted of four smaller boulai. Decisions were passed unanimously, and only landed individuals with a certain undisclosed amount of land could partake in these councils. Unlike the Athenian government, the Boeotian Confederation’s central government did not pay individuals for participation in civic life, but rather the text highlights that ‘The wards provided the magistrates in this way, and together with each [magistrate] they supplied sixty members of the central Boule and paid their expenses themselves.’

Matthew Simonton (2013: 82-83), who has provided the most comprehensive study of oligarchies in the last few years, comments that the Boeotian system of local governance displays an ‘anxiety’ of the oligarchs that larger meetings could result in a ‘mob mentality,’ and thus by rotating oligarchs in and out, ‘the oligarchs figured out a way to be active citizens all of the time… while avoiding the problem of large, chaotic meetings’ that one finds in democracies. 

An important aspect within oligarchic regimes was the need for the elite to regulate each other’s political influence and power, lest the one group, family or individual becomes too powerful and assumes autocratic control. Thus, the adoption of democratic institutions with checks and balances helped oligarchs regulate each other. Hartmut Leppin (2013: 202)highlights that one thesis on Greek oligarchies is that they were ‘mostly restrictive democracies, with a variously limited citizen body.’ 

Although we do not have concrete evidence for how an oligarchic legal system worked, one prominent theory is that oligarchs empowered officials to settle disputes for them. Xenophon indicates this in his Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, where the Spartans employed Ephors as independent judges that could settle legal disputes by enforcing fines, stripping individuals from serving as a magistrate, and even have the authority to imprison individuals (Xen. Const. Lac. 8). However, Xenophon later comments that these ephors do not allow elected officials to rule however they want as they do in other cities, which contradicts Leppin’s findings by making them unique to Sparta (Xen. Const. Lac. 10.3). 

When it came to the relationship between the ruling oligarchs and the ordinary person, the oligarchs had a higher legal standing within the state, yet Simonton (2013:120) provides ample evidence to suggest that regulations were put in place to limit the power oligarchs had by imposing higher fines in some areas on an oligarch, should they abuse their position against the common person. Of course, in practice, the adherence to these regulations varied, and there are some examples of oligarchic regimes collapsing due to the abuse of legal authority – a lesson for other Greek city-states on why oligarchic power had to be controlled for the survival of their authority, best summarized by Isocrates as: ‘oligarchies as well as the others—have the longest life when they best serve the masses’ (Isocrates, 2.16).

Political Agency 

Turning to the comparative analysis of the three discussed political systems, ordinary individuals had little to no say over how they were ruled within Macedonia and/or other Hellenistic kingdoms, that is, unless they managed to usurp the throne through military means. Becoming one of the king’s philoi was the only way one could gain some form of political agency, but unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how much political freedom these philoi actually had, since the sources do not indicate whether or not Macedonia could be considered a constitutional monarchy or an outright autocracy (King, 2010). Weber (2009: 88-89) presents an interesting argument that the interdependence between king and the aristocracy meant that mutual cooperation was necessary, and thus competing interests had to be balanced between the king himself, and the groups that would form within the court from likeminded nobles seeking to push their agenda (See also Plut. Alex. 47). 

We do know greater political agency was afforded to individuals within democratic and oligarchic city-states, yet restrictions still applied. Notably, it was universal across all city-states that women were not permitted to partake in public life (Katz, 1992). Slaves were another group without political agency, who had little to no rights at all within any state (Cuffel, 1966). Therefore, political life was dominated by men. Within oligarchies these men were either wealthy, fulfilled some legal requirement, owned land, or some combination of these three factors. 

Whereas in Athens, participation in public life was based on citizenship and age. Aristotle gives us a clearer insight into how these different citizenship statuses apply, highlighting that in some oligarchies foreigners were permitted to partake in politics, as the only excluding factor was not being wealthy and owning land. In democracies citizen-women bore citizen-children, and in some instances this citizenship status would pass onto a child even if the father was a slave (Aristot. Pol. 3.1278a). 

At the time of Aristotle’s work, he mentions that foreigners, known as metics in Athens, were excluded from political affairs due to lack of citizenship, but James Watson (2010) makes a compelling argument that in practice the granting of citizenship to metics was not as clear cut. In his article, he proposes that the granting of citizenship status depended on the demes themselves when creating their citizenship lists, with some taking a hardline anti-immigrant stance, whilst others granted citizenship to metics up until the mid-5th century. This date coincides with the citizenship reforms of the prominent Athenian stateman Pericles, changing the laws so that citizenship was only conferred to children whose mother and father both were Athenians (Aristot. Const. Ath. 26.3). Unique to Athens was payment for public duties, which was also introduced in the mid-5th century, and allowed those living further away from the city, and with lesser financial means, to participate in all the democratic institutions (Aristot. Const. Ath. 62.2; Podes, 1993: 499). 

Of the three systems, Athens actively attempted to involve the greatest number of individuals to participate within civic life, and although the system was exclusively dominated by free men of Athenian birth, they had a much greater say in how they were governed compared to individuals found in oligarchies and Macedonia.

Social Mobility 

In this article, social mobility ties into the concept of achieving greater political agency and examines the barriers that existed in each separate government form. Democratic Athens once again afforded the greatest amount of political agency to the largest amount of people, especially when considering the existence of the Assembly, which allowed citizens from various economic backgrounds to partake in politics. The only real barrier to participation was monetary reasons, but we see a clear attempt to solve this problem with the aforementioned payment for attendance to the Assembly – which was increased over time from one obol to three (Aristot. Const. Ath. 41.3). 

The Macedonian kingdom offered little to no real means for political advancement within its autocratic system, rather it was the whim of the king that decided whether you would be permitted to the court. In seeking to tie his conquered territories closer to his kingdom, Philip displays the willingness to incorporate foreigners into his court, a trend that would be followed by Alexander during his conquest of Persia (Polyb. 8.10; Arr. An. 3.16.41). The aristocratic class themselves were drawn from local and foreign nobles and leaders. Service in the military would allow another avenue for individuals to get closer to the court, but ultimately there would only ever be one king. Unfortunately, it is once again hard to comment on Greek oligarchies without drawing from multiple sources. In theory, individuals could be drawn into the oligarchic class through any number of means depending on the system of election in place. Andrew Alwine (2018) preformed a cross-oligarchic survey and found that in many ways oligarchic systems of election resembled democratic systems – which is perhaps unsurprising given that previously it was highlighted that many of these oligarchies share close characteristics with democratic states. The drawing of lots, a small electorate council that weighs the ‘virtues’ of individuals, and having a polis-wide election where citizens write down the names of three men ‘regarded in all respects as the best’, are but some of the ways that oligarchic regimes maintained their number and power (Alwine, 2018: 248-251).

Legal Systems 

Although we cannot be certain of the characteristics of the Macedonian legal system, we do know that the king played a large role. We can assume that in a means to maintain a balance of power and the status quo, kings would attempt to be fair in judgement, lest it would disrupt their ability to effectively rule. An anecdote from Plutarch supports this, as Philip II fell asleep during his judgement of one Machaetas, who proceeded to appeal the judgement to the king because of the unfair trial (Plut. Moral. 178-179). Although the verdict wasn’t changed, Philip decided to pay the fine, thus maintaining the authority of his judgement, but acting ‘morally’ in the dispensing of justice. Similarly, Plutarch also reports that Alexander fined his friends whom he caught gambling illegally, a minor but important example that Macedonian kings had to dispense perceived justice in a fair manner (Plut. Moral. 181d). 

Fair and unbiased justice was just as important in oligarchies, particularly considering their precarious political position. Although Alwine (2018) is critical of applying Sparta’s ephors to other city-states, he does argue that oligarchies either had top-down regulations, often with the oligarchic class regulating itself, or had an external judge to settle legal disputes. Prolonged civil strife within the oligarchic class nearly always threatened to break out into civil wars, and thus strong legal regulations were needed to prevent not only oligarchs from abusing each other, but also the demos themselves. Simonton (2017) demonstrates exactly this in chapter 6 of his book, highlighting the need to uphold a strong legal system between the oligarchic class and the demos, and an even stronger legal system between oligarchs, lest the entire system collapses into a democracy. 

Contrasting this, the Athenian legal system didn’t rely on an independent or controlled judiciary, rather they relied on an extensive and complicated system built on randomness and a large number or judge-jurors. Aristotle goes into extensive detail on how legal procedures took place in Athens, but from it we can see three important factors: A large number of citizens make up what we could equate to a modern-day jury, who would all pass verdict on the case anonymously; Jurors, randomly selected after a complicated process, did not know which case they would sit in on until the same day; The jurors were all paid a salary (Aristot. Const. Ath.). These systems all allowed for an unbiased, and hopefully fair trial that was difficult to tamper with. 

Conclusion 

Of the three government forms looked at, Athenian democracy appears to give the greatest political freedoms to its citizens. Although not perfect, as no government form ever is, Athenian democracy allowed citizens to have the greatest say in how they were governed, giving them necessary legal and economic protections to do so. One can see why modern scholars define Athens as having a ‘radical’ democracy, as actions such as changing the surnames of citizens to incorporate the name of their deme, having a highly complex jury selection system, and even paying individuals for public service, were all radical ideas when compared to the oligarchic systems of other city-states and kingdoms such as Macedonia. 


References

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Aristotle. (1944). “Politics.” In: H. Rackham (trans.). Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, Harvard University Press: Cambridge. 

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Blackwell, C.W. (2003). “Athenian Democracy: A brief overview.” In: Blackwell, C. (ed.), Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (Mahoney, A., & Scaife, R. (eds.), The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities). https://www.stoa.org/demos/article_democracy_overview@page=1&greekEncoding=UnicodeC.html (accessed on March 26, 2024). 

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Dr. Meredith Shaw, a Research Professor at the University of Tokyo's the Institute of Social Science (社研) and the managing editor of Social Science Japan Journal.

Professor Shaw: Even Progressive Politicians in South Korea Occasionally Display Authoritarian Tendencies

Professor Meredith Shaw of the University of Tokyo discussed the issue of “autocratization” in South Korea, highlighting concerns about authoritarian tendencies even within progressive political circles. She pointed out that some progressive politicians on the left have at times exhibited authoritarian behavior. For example, they have proposed laws like the national security law, which aimed to penalize statements perceived as supportive of North Korea. Professor Shaw further noted recent proposals for laws targeting the misrepresentation of historical events, such as the Japanese colonial rule or the democratic movements, including the Kwangju massacre under the military dictatorship.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Giving an exclusive interview to European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Meredith Shaw, a research professor at the University of Tokyo’s the Institute of Social Science (社研) and the managing editor of Social Science Japan Journal, talked on “autocratization” in South Korea and stated that “Unfortunately, in the democratic era, some progressive politicians on the left have occasionally displayed authoritarian tendencies, though not to the same extent.”

According to Professor Shaw, even these progressive politicians in South Korea employed authocratic tactics, such as proposing laws like the national security law, which aimed to penalize statements perceived as supporting North Korea. “More recently, there have been proposals for laws punishing the misrepresentation of historical events like the Japanese colonial rule or the democratic movements, such as the Kwangju massacre under the military dictatorship. While preventing the spread of false historical narratives is essential, such laws could potentially enable governments to selectively dictate acceptable historical interpretations, ripe for manipulation by either side,” said Professor Shaw.

In this exclusive interview, Professor Shaw delves into the complex landscape of South Korean politics. With a wealth of knowledge spanning historical contexts, socio-political dynamics, and the intricacies of populism and authoritarianism, Professor Shaw offers insightful analyses and nuanced perspectives on the challenges and trends shaping contemporary South Korea.

South Korea’s political landscape is deeply influenced by its historical context, marked by a transition from anti-communism to a burgeoning anti-Japanese sentiment. Against this backdrop, the rise of populism and authoritarian tendencies presents multifaceted challenges. Professor Shaw sheds light on the historical and socio-political factors contributing to these phenomena, exploring how they intersect with the dueling antagonisms of anti-Japanism and anti-communism.

Throughout the interview, Professor Shaw navigates through the intricate dynamics of South Korean politics, examining how populist leaders frame their rhetoric and policies to resonate with the populace. She elaborates on the utilization of historical events and symbols by different factions to shape political messaging, providing insights into the evolving political discourse.

Furthermore, Professor Shaw discusses the impact of populist and authoritarian tendencies on democratic institutions and processes in South Korea. As the interview progresses, Professor Shaw explores the influence of nationalism in South Korean politics, particularly during election campaigns. She assesses the strategies employed by political parties to maintain relevance and examines the role of securitization theory in shaping political rhetoric and decision-making.

Drawing on her expertise in North Korean politics and literature, Professor Shaw also offers intriguing insights into the readership and dissemination of state-produced fiction within North Korea. She analyzes how these literary works intersect with the regime’s control over information and ideology, providing valuable perspectives on understanding the reception and interpretation of foreign interactions among North Korean society.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Meredith Shaw with minor edits.

US Supported Authoritarian Military Dictators in South Korea

Professor Shaw, thank you very much for joining our interview series. I want to start right away with the first question.Given the historical context of South Korea’s democracy emerging from a period of severe anti-communism and anti-Japanese sentiment, what historical and socio-political factors have contributed to the rise of populism and authoritarian tendencies in South Korea? How have anti-Japanism and anti-communism shaped the South Korean politics as two dueling antagonisms?

Meredith Shaw: South Korea has emerged from a long period of Cold War classic anti-communism. Anti-Japan sentiment is a relatively newer phenomenon, and it has escalated over time. I perceive it as a response to anti-communism posing a threat to left-wing parties in South Korea in broad strokes, leading them to seek an equivalent emotional trigger to shift the discourse. With North Korea situated nearby, and with a liberal party in power, their left-leaning counterparts in South Korea often find themselves associated with North Korea. There are numerous reasons why this association occurs, but evidently, any party advocating for a redistributive welfare state is susceptible to accusations from the opposing side, much like in Europe. People assert, “this is socialism in South Korea.”

Some left-leaning parties have countered this by proposing a different vision of redistribution. They advocate for reclaiming wealth accumulated through ill deeds—be it from the colonial era or military dictatorships—and redistributing it to benefit the entire country. Instead of simply taking from the rich and giving to the poor, they may frame it as reclaiming wealth gained from ancestors who worked for colonial authorities. This approach aims to circumvent the traditional accusation of leftist policies being communist. Whether this strategy is a sound solution, given recent events showcasing various phenomena, remains debatable. 

Additionally, this addresses the aspect of authoritarian tendencies, albeit in a roundabout manner. We must also consider the role of the United States over decades, supporting fairly authoritarian military dictators in the South, under the guise of necessity to counter Communism. This has led even fairly centrist individuals to believe that measures such as the national security law and government censorship are essential for the state’s safety and security. Such beliefs may find easier acceptance in a country like South Korea, which faces an immediate, threatening neighbor.

Both Righ- and Left-Wing Parties Engage in Dueling Narrative of Weaponization of History 

Visitors and mourners tie yellow ribbons to tents in remembrance of the victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy in Seoul, South Korea on May 5, 2014. Photo: Joshua Davenport.

How do populist leaders in South Korea typically frame their rhetoric and policies to resonate with the populace? What messaging and discourse strategies do they employ to appeal to the grievances of the people they intend to exploit? For example, how do different factions utilize historical events and symbols to shape their political messaging? Is there any indication of an eagerness to move beyond colonial history?

Meredith Shaw: Great question. In South Korean politics, there are many symbols that hold significant importance for both the left and the right. Traditionally, the left-wing tends to emphasize symbols connected to traditional culture. Some left-wing politicians often appear wearing traditional Korean Hanbok attire and deliver speeches at historical sites linked to Korea’s premodern past. Alternatively, they may have a backdrop of young schoolgirls dressed in traditional costumes. This might seem counterintuitive from a European perspective, but in South Korea, it’s the progressive left that embraces traditional values and art forms, while the conservative right tends to adopt a more modernist, utilitarian approach. They typically opt for business attire, focusing on economic growth and technological advancement, showing little interest in the raucous religious or traditional dancing and cultural displays favored by left-wing activists.

It might sound somewhat counterintuitive, but I’ve observed that the left-wing in South Korea also employs symbolism in response to recent tragedies, such as the 10th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry. Associated with this tragedy is the symbol of the yellow ribbon, prominently displayed in downtown Seoul around a shrine dedicated to the students who lost their lives. Interestingly, another tragedy occurred two years ago during the Halloween crush in Itaewon, where numerous young people were fatally crushed at a party. In South Korea, when such tragedies occur, people often look to the highest levels of leadership for accountability far more than they might in America. In both the ferry incident and the Itaewon crush, people wear yellow ribbons as an activist response directly challenging the conservative president in office at the time. Those displaying the yellow ribbon symbol are likely progressives or, at the very least, disapprove of the current president. It’s a curious connection to make from tragedies stemming from lax regulations over many years, attributing blame to the sitting president. But such is often the nature of events in South Korea.

On the right, certain far-right groups have weaponized anti-feminist sentiments, with men’s rights becoming a significant symbol. One such online community in South Korea is ILBE Jeojangso, openly far-right and primarily focused on anti-feminism and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Often regarded as the trolls of South Korea, they wield influence over the extreme right and shape political discourse, particularly concerning colonial history. However, it’s worth noting that everything right of center in Korea generally seeks to move beyond colonial history, as dwelling on it isn’t a winning message for them. Nevertheless, right-wing politicians are still often associated with that history and perceived as descended from collaborators, whether rightly or wrongly.

Interestingly, many politicians on both sides have family connections to collaborators. However, the progressive left tends to openly address and recount these stories from the past, emphasizing the importance of remembering history. While it’s crucial not to forget the past, it often becomes a political tool, with personal histories being used to assign blame by association for actions during the colonial era. On the right side, there’s a counteraction by pointing out whose ancestors were involved in certain activities during the Korean War or had connections to North Koreans, creating a dueling narrative of weaponization of history on both sides. Both sides have moments in history they would prefer to forget, yet they continually keep these discussions alive in the political discourse.

Favoring Cronies Is Acceptable Among Political and Business Leaders

From a historical perspective, how have populist and authoritarian tendencies impacted democratic institutions and processes in South Korea, including governance, civil liberties, the rule of law, and the broader implications for democracy in the country?

Meredith Shaw: As mentioned, the military dictatorship period, spanning from the post-war era through the 1980s and supported by the US as a bulwark against encroaching Communism, established a society accustomed to government crackdowns on various aspects of public speech and subcultures, such as hippie culture and rock and roll. This regime controlled what people could read and imprisoned individuals for owning certain books, ticking all the classic authoritarian boxes. One could argue that even before this period, during the Japanese occupation, a framework of authoritarianism was established in the country from which they never truly recovered. While the historical connection may be debated, it’s undeniable that prior to 1986, there were few instances when South Koreans could openly express themselves without fear of reprisal.

Unfortunately, in the democratic era, some progressive politicians on the left have occasionally displayed authoritarian tendencies, though not to the same extent. They’ve employed similar tactics, such as proposing laws like the national security law, which aimed to penalize statements perceived as supporting North Korea. More recently, there have been proposals for laws punishing the misrepresentation of historical events like the Japanese colonial rule or the democratic movements, such as the Kwangju massacre under the military dictatorship. While preventing the spread of false historical narratives is essential, such laws could potentially enable governments to selectively dictate acceptable historical interpretations, ripe for manipulation by either side.

There are factors like the national security law that are deeply entrenched and challenging to remove. Additionally, there’s a prevalent concept of guilt by association in South Korean society. If one’s parents or grandparents were involved in wrongdoing, there’s a belief that individuals should, at the very least, not benefit from their actions. This leads to a permisevness for punishing people based on family or friend connections. On the flip side, it fosters a mentality among political and business leaders that it’s acceptable to favor cronies, as everyone could face punishment together if things go wrong. In essence, there’s a perception that it’s preferable to mutually benefit one another while there’s an opportunity. I believe this tendency is deeply ingrained in South Korean politics.

All Perceived Shortcomings Are Attributed to the Current President

The election is viewed by many as a crucial midterm evaluation of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government. President Yoon Suk-yeol (center) is pictured attending the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain on June 30, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

In its 2024 Democracy Report, the V-Dem Institute of Sweden ranked South Korea under Mr. Yoon as one of the 42 countries undergoing “autocratization.” What factors have contributed to the autocratization of South Korea?

Meredith Shaw: I’ve read the report, and I agree with their conclusion. However, I question the internal logic they used to arrive there. Based on what I read, it seems like they’re suggesting that a transition from a progressive administration to a conservative one automatically constitutes democratic backsliding. Additionally, they mention current President Yoon Suk Yeol’s predecessor Moon Jae-in as being a human rights lawyer in the 1980s, but they don’t provide much further context about him. This gives the impression of a human rights lawyer being replaced by a right-wing leader who has made efforts to prosecute the previous administration. While this is true, it presents a somewhat one-sided view of the situation. South Korean democracy is in trouble. While it may not be backsliding yet, there are tendencies on both sides to target their opponents when they are in power and then to distribute benefits to their cronies.

The Moon administration also implemented stringent restrictions on freedom of speech, particularly concerning the North Korean Human Rights Movement and North Korean defectors attempting to discuss North Korea in a negative light. The Moon Jae-in Administration was cautious about such discourse because they were advocating for closer inter-Korean ties and feared upsetting North Korea. Consequently, they imposed both direct and indirect limitations on the publication of certain reports, the writing of memoirs, and discussions about experiences on television. These restrictions were lifted when Yoon Suk Yeol came into power, leading to a resurgence in discussions about North Korean human rights abuses. However, discussing efforts to promote inter-Korean relations remains challenging. Thus, neither side is effectively upholding freedom of speech; instead, each prioritizes certain types of speech while suppressing others.

I would say that Korean politics has long grappled with issues surrounding free journalism and press freedom. There are significant challenges regarding media access, with certain media outlets receiving preferential treatment for offering favorable reporting, leading to clear biases. Most major media organizations in Korea are associated with either the left or the right, lacking a truly impartial centrist perspective. Consequently, the party in power tends to reward media outlets aligned with their own party, a trend observed on both sides of the political spectrum.

In short, the transition from Moon to Yoon Suk Yeol marked a shift from a left-wing to a right-wing leader, which in itself isn’t necessarily problematic. However, the deeper issue lies in widespread disappointment and disenchantment with the political process, irrespective of who holds power. There’s a tendency to attribute all perceived shortcomings to the current president. There’s a tendency to blame the current president for all perceived shortcomings, leading to rapid shifts in party favorability. As evidenced by the significant loss of Yoon Suk Yeol’s party in the recent election, there’s volatility in South Korean politics. While V-Dem might view this as a positive turnaround on the surface, the reality of the recent election was messy. There’s much complexity at play.

The former President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in took a group photo with visitors who came to visit in Cheongwadae (Blue House) in Seoul, South Korea on August 30, 2019. Photo: Chintung Lee.

Both Sides of Political Spectrum Promote Nationalist Messages

How has nationalism been used during the election campaign both by the People Power Party and the opposition the Democratic Party? Can you elaborate on specific strategies or actions taken by these parties to maintain their political relevance? Furthermore, could you assess the role of these strategies in recent elections?

Meredith Shaw: Both parties have made nationalist appeals to the electorate. In the most recent election, the focus appeared to be more on domestic issues rather than regional tensions, given the significant domestic controversies driving the Conservative party’s message. The People Power Party engaged in actions early in the election cycle that aligned with their anti-North Korea, pro-nationalist stance. There was a brief story where the People Power Party warned of signs indicating North Korea’s potential interference in the election, alleging the possibility of a cyber attack. It remains unclear whether this warning was based on credible information or intended to escalate fear towards North Korea.

There was also a recent story I came across stating that the same party issued a directive to the regional election centers to emphasize an anti-North Korea message in this campaign. However, this directive faced resistance from some of the regional candidates, who didn’t perceive it as a winning strategy. If true, this represents a notable shift. In the previous two General Assembly elections, both sides enthusiastically promoted nationalist messages concerning the North Korean threat and Japan. However, in this most recent election, there seemed to be a change in focus. Perhaps they sensed that people were growing weary of such rhetoric, or maybe they found more productive messages centered around the economy. Regardless, this recent election appeared to be relatively more focused on domestic, internal, and economic issues compared to previous ones.

Dueling Antagonisms of Anti-Japanism and Anti-Communism

In one of your past articles, you applied securitization theory to analyze how domestic actors construct foreign threats, particularly concerning Japan and North Korea, within South Korean politics. Could you elaborate on how these securitizing speech acts contribute to the dueling antagonisms of anti-Japanism and anti-communism, and what implications they hold for political rhetoric and decision-making in the country?

Meredith Shaw: In that paper, I argued that politicians don’t only discuss the North Korean threat or engage in anti-Japanese rhetoric in reaction to actions by North Korea or Japan. They also tend to employ such rhetoric reactively in response to criticism from the opposing side. For instance, if North Korea conducts an attack or engages in a provocative action at the border, people immediately turn to left-wing politicians, expecting them to adopt a defensive stance due to their perceived association, whether justified or not.

In response, you see them turning to Japan as a way to bolster their reputation in handling Japan-related issues. There’s a sentiment of questioning whether one should trust those who appear overly friendly with Japan. Similarly, on the right, during the trade dispute with Japan about five years ago, Japan was frequently in the news, leading people to look to the political right-wing and expect them to face repercussions due to their perceived stance favoring better ties with Japan. Consequently, some right-wing politicians pivoted to North Korea, emphasizing its threat as a counterpoint. When individuals instinctively retreat to their comfort zones, it keeps both Japan and North Korea constantly in the public eye. When Japan takes action, the conversation shifts to North Korea, and vice versa. Internally, politicians cannot influence the actions of either country. However, these dynamic prompt reactive responses that often keep the conversation excessively focused on these external threats.

There’s also the issue of excessive scrutiny on family relations, as I discussed earlier. Past history is consistently brought up in every election cycle, which keeps memories of that history fresh and allows grievances to grow. While it’s important not to forget the lessons of history, consider a European example: if there were a highly competitive party in Belgium today with a past history of affiliations with the Nazi party, they would always be associated with that past by virtue of their lineage. It’s somewhat similar, in South Korea, past history remains ever-present in the political conversation, ensuring it is never forgotten.

South Korea Aims to Avoid Being Associated with Leaders Like Orbán

Presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea speaks in front of supporters for his election campaign in Jeonju-si, North Jeolla Province, South Korea on on February 19, 2022. Photo: Yeongsik Im.

How will the elections held last week influence the political landscape in terms of right-wing and left-wing populism? Does the surge in populist movements in Europe have any impact on South Korean populism? What are the potential avenues for countering the challenges posed by populism and authoritarianism and strengthening democratic norms in South Korea?

Meredith Shaw: Last week’s election marked a significant victory for South Korea’s mainstream center-left party, often dubbed progressive by some, though its level of progressiveness remains a subject of debate. This outcome is somewhat surprising considering the recent turmoil within the left-wing camp, with notable defections and attempts to establish new political entities. Amidst this, allegations of corruption and immorality were rife, tarnishing the image of the mainstream center-left party. Just weeks prior, the Conservative party appeared more composed and in control. However, the election revealed that these splinter groups from the left, including defectors, fared poorly, while the mainstream center-left party exceeded expectations.

The implications of this outcome may lead to a period of gridlock, as the mainstream center-left party, along with the third-largest party, nearly commands a supermajority in the legislature, enabling them to push their agenda with greater ease. Nonetheless, lacking sufficient numbers to override a presidential veto could result in political stalemate. This scenario might compel President Yoon Suk Yeol to adopt a more conciliatory approach, as evidenced by his recent offer to meet with the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, a gesture he had staunchly refused for two years. Such developments may hint at a potential shift towards more cooperative and compromising politics from both sides. It remains to be seen whether the defector politicians will reconcile and return to the fold, adding another layer of intrigue to the evolving political landscape.

In terms of the influence of populist movements in Europe, I haven’t observed significant connections, though I acknowledge this isn’t my expertise. South Korea seems to look to the West and Europe with a sense of pride in its democratic achievements, aspiring to be recognized as a leader among smaller democracies. Just last month, Seoul hosted a summit for democracy, garnering considerable media attention and support from President Yoon Suk Yeol and President Biden of the US. This event, promoted by various democratic nations, underscored South Korea’s desire to play a pivotal role in the global democratic movement. In this regard, South Korea looks to Europe as a model and aims to avoid being associated with leaders like Viktor Orbán. This aspiration serves as a deterrent against democratic backsliding and reinforces their commitment to democratic values.

There Isn’t Samizdat Tradition of Dissident Writers in North Korea

Caricatures of US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un. Photo: Willrow Hood.

Lastly, as an expert on North Korean politics and literature, could you provide insights into the readership and dissemination of state-produced fiction within North Korea? How does the distribution of literary works intersect with the regime’s control over information and ideology, and what implications does this hold for understanding the reception and interpretation of foreign interactions among different segments of North Korean society?

Meredith Shaw: This is my favorite topic: North Korean literature and how it affects the view of the outside world. So, I can share what I’ve learned and understood from conversations with a few North Korean defectors who’ve been involved in this industry, and also from reading the works of South Korean scholars who study it. North Korea has an impressive system of state-run, state-produced literature and art, which in some ways dates back to the early Soviet-controlled era right after the war, or even the Japanese colonial era. One could argue this because they also had some institutions created during that era for producing literature. But anyway, there’s not what you would call a Samizdat tradition in North Korea of dissident writers. The idea of that doesn’t make any sense; how would they even publish? Where would they find a press?

However, the State boasts a vast and seemingly efficient system for identifying talent. Talented young writers from all over the country are encouraged to compete for literary awards, thereby gaining recognition. Moreover, there’s a system in place where individuals can sign up to become what is known as literary correspondents. While maintaining their day jobs, they also write stories about their workplaces, be it a factory or a farm. If these stories are published by the party and garner attention, there’s a chance of transitioning into full-time writers. This includes the possibility of relocating to Pyongyang and enjoying a significantly better quality of life. In some respects, it appears to be a fairly functional system. Undoubtedly, many individuals are excluded from this system for political reasons. Nonetheless, they have an effective method of incentivizing potentially talented writers to produce work in support of the regime.

When you read these works, they tend to reside on the more mundane end of the Socialist-realist tradition. All the characters are meant to be role models for either extremely good behavior or extremely bad behavior, with the message at the end. The breakthrough always occurs when the leader encourages people, or when the leader comes up with the idea for the breakthrough they were seeking. Then, everyone exclaims, ‘Oh, it’s such a fantastic leader we have.’ An individual never comes up with the idea without some kind of help from the leader.

There’s a relatively small portion of this literature that discusses foreign events and foreigners, such as past US presidents or depictions of Perestroika in Moscow, or portrayals of traders at a convention in Singapore. Every once in a while, you’ll encounter a story where, for some reason, they have to depict a foreigner or a foreign setting. It’s really interesting because these authors have clearly never seen the things they’re describing. Perhaps they have some idea from the limited amount of foreign media they might be allowed to access. However, their depictions are obviously colored by their understanding of the world from within the confines of their environment. So, it’s an interesting phenomenon to analyze and to observe how they interpret foreign events.

To illustrate, consider the depictions of summits with foreign leaders that have occurred in the past. One might expect these portrayals to be somewhat adversarial, especially the meeting between the North Korean leader and former US President Jimmy Carter in the 1990s. However, in these depictions, President Carter is always presented as a relatively nice guy, especially for an American. He is portrayed as a positive character because he interacts with Kim Il-Sung, listens to him speak, and is immediately won over by the greatness of the North Korean leader in the story. Thus, depictions of foreigners who have actually met and conversed with the North Korean leader are consistently positive.

I think they haven’t written the story yet about the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summits, but I can predict that, regardless of their approach, they will portray the American President as being very impressed by the North Korean leader and immediately becoming amicable as a result of meeting him. Additionally, I anticipate they will enjoy writing about President Trump keeping Kim Jong-Un’s letters. I can envision how they might frame that particular news story, with the idea that the American President cherished the letters so much that he would break the law to retain them. That message could be seen as pure gold for them. With all the material I’ve read, I could practically write that story myself.

Putin-Jinping-Modi

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

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

 

Abstract

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Populism and Authoritarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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


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The election is viewed by many as a crucial midterm evaluation of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government. President Yoon Suk-yeol (center) is pictured attending the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain on June 30, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Role of Populism, Nationalism, and Xenophobia in South Korea’s 22nd General Election in 2024

The 22nd general election in South Korea offers a pivotal perspective for examining the interactions of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia within the nation’s political fabric. It sheds light on persistent issues such as confronting authoritarianism, bridging societal divides, and integrating foreign nationals more deeply into the societal framework. This election marks a critical juncture in South Korea’s political development, with implications that extend far into the realms of democratic governance, social unity, and the broader political landscape.

By Junhyoung Lee

On April 10, 2024, South Korea stood at a pivotal juncture, undertaking its 22nd general election. In the latest general election for the 300-seat National Assembly, the opposition Democratic Party (DP) emerged victorious, securing 175 seats and thus commanding 58.33% of the legislature. Meanwhile, the governing People Power Party (PPP) managed to secure 108 seats, equating to 36% of the assembly. This election, seen by many as a crucial midterm evaluation of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government, has been interpreted by a range of media outlets as a clear call from voters for enhanced judgement on the government. 

Far from being a mere democratic procedure, this election represented a critical point in South Korea’s intricate political saga, particularly following President Yoon Suk-yeol’s marginally secured victory in the presidential election, the narrowest in the country’s electoral annals. This scenario provides the groundwork for a detailed examination of the election’s ramifications, with a focus on the narratives of populism, nationalism, and nativism, while deliberately sidestepping a general overview of Korea’s political chronicles or party mechanisms. This analysis endeavours to unpack these themes within the context of South Korea’s rapidly inclining authoritarian landscape, ominously suggested by the V-Dem data’s bell curve.

Populism: The Two-Edged Blade

In South Korea, populism has emerged across the political spectrum, acting as a tactical instrument that capitalises on public sentiment for electoral advantage. The Democratic Party (DP), epitomising left-wing populism, directed its campaign efforts towards addressing economic disparity and advocating for social justice. It proposed an augmentation of the public sector, enhanced welfare initiatives, and rigorous regulation of conglomerates, with the aim of garnering support from the working class and economically disadvantaged demographics. The manifesto of the DP was a clarion call for the rejuvenation of livelihoods, economic innovation, democratic progression, and the restoration of peace, covering a broad spectrum of societal ambitions. In contrast, the right-wing populism, championed by the incumbent People Power Party (PPP), offered a divergent narrative, accentuating nationalism, conservative ideologies, and a firm stance on immigration and law enforcement. This strategy was tailored to appeal to the middle-class and conservative electorate, with an objective to uphold social and cultural norms, and the values traditionally held. The PPP’s campaign underscored the importance of national security and societal stability, committing to political reforms and the betterment of societal welfare as central tenets to solidify its foundation.

In the recent general election, the discourse dominating the media spotlight has leaned more towards highlighting an antagonistic rivalry between the parties, rather than delving into specific policies or local issues. The opposition leveraged a narrative of ‘government judgment,’ tapping into the public’s disillusionment amid a cost-of-living crisis and a series of political scandals. The populist tendencies of the opposition became evident, particularly with their focus on major issues like the high cost of living. President Yoon Suk-yeol’s attempts to stabilize prices of essentials like spring onions and apples through subsidies did not meet the desired effects, leading to intensified public criticism. Opposition candidates seized the opportunity to use the spring onion price issue as a powerful tool to strengthen their campaign against the government.

Conversely, the ruling party framed “the shameless opposition leaders” as a legal risk, particularly focusing on the day before the election when Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the DP, was required to attend court, and Cho Kuk, leader of the newly formed Rebuilding Korea Party, awaited a Supreme Court review. The PPP emphasized a narrative contrasting law-abiding ‘my fellow citizens’ against the allegedly less scrupulous opposition leaders, suggesting that such figures should not be elected. A notable aspect of the conservative campaign was Han Dong-hoon, the PPP’s Acting Chairman, emphasizing ‘my fellow citizens’ in his speeches and the party’s manifesto. In theory, this term was envisioned to project a mature liberal democracy built on camaraderie among citizens. However, as legal controversies involving significant figures from both sides emerged, the potential for substantive political dialogue faded, leading to heightened partisan division. Thus, this term became a classic example of ‘othering,’ used as a populist mobilization strategy to unite conservative forces.

Nationalism and Its Diverse Implications

Nationalism became a central strategy for both the government and opposition, utilising the ‘politics of memory’ to reinterpret historical narratives for contemporary political benefit. In the lead-up to the election, there was a conservative movement to reassess the contributions of historical figures like President Syngman Rhee, through documentaries and other forms of media, thereby accentuating conservative nationalist ideologies. “The Birth of Korea” stands out as a testament to the sacrifices and endeavours of President Syngman Rhee and the pioneering nation-builders who, over the past seven decades, have strived to forge and safeguard the Republic of Korea as it is known today. This documentary received acclaim from numerous conservative commentators and politicians, including Han Dong-hoon, the PPP’s Acting Chairman, who lauded Rhee’s land reform achievements. Nevertheless, this approach attracted criticism for resembling government-endorsed propaganda, especially when it was revealed that the Mayor of Ulsan had organised for civil servants to watch the film as part of Public Officials Membership Training. This incident ignited a debate, highlighting concerns over the appropriateness of such actions.

Conversely, left-wing nationalism found momentum through critical analyses of the effects of Japanese imperialism on Korea, illustrating the adaptable nature of nationalist sentiment in electoral strategy formulation. During the electoral period, the progressive faction countered the nationalist rhetoric prompted by “The Birth of Korea” with the cinematic portrayal in “Exhuma.” This horror film delves into the tale of a traditional Korean shaman confronting and dispelling the malevolent spirits tormenting a family, with a narrative deeply intertwined characters’ name with independence activists from the era of Japanese colonial rule. Such thematic elements garnered significant attention from progressive critics and the general public.

“The Birth of Korea” and “Exhuma” fulfil different roles within the cultural sphere, as a propaganda documentary and a horror film, respectively. While “The Birth of Korea” champions ‘Koreanism,’ predicated on Rhee’s Ilminism with a strong pro-American and anti-communist narrative, aiming to side-line North Korea from the discourse, “Exhuma” presents a stance of anti-imperialist nationalism, based on the concept of ‘one nation, two states’ and underscores anti-Japanese sentiment. These distinctions have attracted varied audiences to each production, leading to a rivalry at the box office.

During the campaign, Lee Jae-myung, the DP’s leader, critiqued the government and ruling party for perpetuating what he termed as ‘diplomatic subservience to Japan,’ including the approval of the discharge of Fukushima’s contaminated water. He also drew attention to the controversy surrounding Sung Il-jong, a PPP member, who had praised Itō Hirobumi, the Japanese resident-general of Korea from 1905-1909, as an exemplar of talent development and scholarship. Lee Jae-myung’s declaration that “Even though Itō Hirobumi may be a hero to Japanese politicians and people, he is an unforgivable invader from the perspective of the Korean people. […] This election could indeed morph into a ‘New Korea-Japan War’” underscored the revival of the intertwining of left-wing populism and nationalism within the Korean electoral narrative. This campaign period witnessed a resurgence in the linkage between left-wing populism and nationalism in Korea, strategically leveraged within the electoral discourse. This was followed by an outpouring of social media content juxtaposing Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a historical Korean hero instrumental in defeating the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598), against the conservative parties accused of neglecting to address the remnants of the Japanese colonial legacy.

Xenophobia: A Nascent Theme in the Electoral Discourse

The political landscape in South Korea has historically favoured candidates with deep-rooted connections to the nation, be it through heritage, birth, or significant contributions and residency, emphasising a predilection for individuals with a steadfast dedication to the nation’s welfare. In this electoral cycle, Ihn Yohan (John Alderman Linton) assumed the role of the new innovation committee chairman for the People Power Party (PPP), and was elected as a proportional representative. Stemming from a lineage of foreign missionaries in Korea, his service to Korean society and his medical expertise are anticipated to offer meaningful contributions to policy development. Yet, it remains uncertain how fervently he will engage with and advocate for the equitable treatment of multicultural families and foreigners.

This election has cast a spotlight on xenophobia towards foreigners, revealing entrenched societal and political prejudices. While Western European elites and foreigners expressing a robust interest in Korea are met with widespread popularity and representation in the media, discernible biases against ethnic minorities and Muslims are evident, particularly in conservative locales. The pronounced resistance to the establishment of an Islamic mosque in Daegu, coupled with a candidate’s assertive approach towards undocumented migrant workers, has accentuated xenophobia as a prominent electoral concern, necessitating a reassessment of societal perspectives towards foreign nationals.

Independent of the government’s position on the waning birth rate and the embracement or expansion of foreign immigration, this matter is set to significantly impact the political vista of South Korea going forward. Although there are 58,000 individuals who have completed social integration programs out of the 2.5 million foreign residents (as of 2023), the prevailing attitudes of the Korean populace and governmental stance towards foreigners will ultimately shape policy directions.

The Aftermath: Implications for Yoon’s Administration

The landscape following the election poses significant challenges for President Yoon’s government, notably with the National Assembly now dominated by the opposition. The outcomes of the election serve as a public referendum on the government’s inclination towards authoritarianism and its curtailment of media freedoms, casting doubts on the future trajectory of substantial reforms across key sectors.

The 22nd general election in South Korea thus offers a pivotal perspective for examining the interactions of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia within the nation’s political fabric. It highlights the persistent issues in confronting authoritarianism, bridging societal divides, and weaving foreign nationals more integrally into the societal framework. This election marks a critical juncture in South Korea’s political development, with implications that stretch far into the realms of democratic governance, social unity, and the broader political milieu.

Moreover, the election’s focus on ‘fellow citizens’ and its subsequent descent into legal disputes underscores a squandered opportunity to cultivate a more inclusive and unified political dialogue. The escalation of legal battles, especially those involving prominent members of both the DP and the PPP, has shifted focus away from potential enhancements in political communication and understanding, solidifying a landscape marred by divisiveness and conflict.Additionally, the sophisticated employment of nationalism by both political factions, from the invocation of historical narratives to the articulation of current geopolitical predicaments, unveils a complex weave of identity, memory, and political strategy. The election’s accent on both conservative and progressive interpretations of nationalism emphasizes the profound influence of historical consciousness in molding contemporary political dialogues and strategies.

The pronounced focus on xenophobia within the election discourse, especially against the backdrop of South Korea’s socio-political landscape, necessitates a thorough reassessment of societal attitudes and policies towards foreign nationals and ethnic minorities. This issue, manifested through public resistance to Islamic mosques and aggressive approaches towards undocumented workers, underscores an urgent requirement for a societal ethos that is more inclusive and tolerant.

In summation, the 22nd general election encapsulates the varied challenges and dynamics within South Korean politics, from the ascendancy of populism and nationalism to the disconcerting trends of xenophobia. As South Korea progresses on its trajectory of political and societal development, the results of this election and the related discussions provide vital insights into the enduring efforts for democratic integrity, societal harmony, and a comprehensive national identity. The repercussions of this electoral process extend beyond the immediate political outcomes, heralding a phase of reflection, discourse, and potentially transformative shifts in the nation’s democratic journey.

Photo: Shutterstock.

The Contested Relevance of “Populism” in Politics, Law, and Mass Mobilization

Populism – a term frequently used in the media, politics, law, as well as in academia in social sciences and political science studies – aims to describe a particular concept, ideology, and strategy to explain mechanisms closely related to democracy and the far-right and far-left as well as extremism. Populism is often referred to as a comprehensive and flexible term. But where strictly does it come from, and how is it still relevant? 

By Katharina Diebold

Populism has changed massively in its conceptualization and methodology over the last 50 years. However, mainly because of its recent popularity and academic discourse, a vast range of criticism from researchers, politicians and media emerged. To make sense of this development, this article will outline different waves of populism and analyze its general relevance today. This will be followed by explaining scientific and political criticisms of populism. Lastly, the specific relevance of populism in the fields of law and activism will be investigated. 

Development of “Populism” 

Populism experienced multiple waves of development methodologically and content-wise. In the late 19th century, the term populism was already used within party politics by the People’s Party in North America and the Narodniki in Russia (Akkerman, 2003). In the following, the term was introduced to the French discourse and party system in the 1920s (Allcock, 1971). No particular political party claimed populism as an exclusive description or characterizing element of their party as such at the beginning of the term’s expansion (Canovan, 1981). This contributed to the broad and multi-faceted development of populism. 

The first wave was characterized by a conference set up by the London School of Economics in 1967, where scholars specifically met to define the phenomenon (Allcock, 1971; Ionescu & Gellner, 1969). This research then further developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The focus was the determination of a unifying underlying unity of a definition. However, the contradicting emergence of populism, including the Narodniki in imperial Russia; nondemocratic regimes, such as Latin America’s postwar autocracies; interwar peasant movements in Eastern Europe and the Balkans; and anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements in Africa made it difficult to find one specific definition (Ionescu & Gellner, 1969; MacRae, 1969). According to Ionescu & Gellner (1969), the focus was pro-democratic, nondemocratic, and anti-liberal political populism. 

The second wave of populism constitutes “classical populism” and started its development in the 1970s and 1980s, pushed by scholars in Latin America. This research study mainly investigated socio-economic reasons for mass political movements and why lower social classes participated in populist movements (Germani, 1978). Malloy (1977) explained that such research resulted in the modernization theory, which describes that populism is used as a tool to get the urban working and middle class active within politics. Contrary, Cardoso & Faletto (1979) investigated the developing structural Marxist theory, describing populism as a multiclass political movement. Criticism about this scholarly work is that the findings are very context-specific and incomparable (Germani, 1978). 

The third wave, developing as a reaction to classical populism, uses neoliberal populism, which defines politicians implementing neoliberal policies but still gaining a lot of popular support. Blaikie (2000) says that this research was mainly focused on Latin America. Scholars also call this phenomenon “neo-populism” (Roberts, 1995). Lastly, the fourth wave of populism research in recent years focused on the concept of populist “zeitgeist” and Western democracies, particularly political parties, institutions and parliamentary systems and social conditions that increase populism (Mudde, 2004). 

Turning from its development to its current relevance, Stavrakakis (2017) found that populism and its research gave valuable insight into how populism frames and constructs realities and discourses, which is crucial for politics, journalism, and academia. Additionally, populism studies and the knowledge about those mechanisms can help detect, analyze and discredit fascist and anti-democratic as well as illegitimate behavior of political parties and shape the critical thinking and mindsets of populations (Hammersley, 2021). Moving from critical engagement with fascist and anti-democratic movements towards climate movements, Meyer (2024) discovered significant influence of populist social movements on climate policies. This means that populist mechanisms of movements mobilizing for climate protection can have an influence in shaping and creating climate policy (Meyer, 2024). 

Criticism on “Populism” 

When we look at relevant criticism of populism, a vast range of methodological and content-specific critiques can be identified. One of them is the unspecified empirical spectrum of populism, also known as the Summun Genus Problem. It refers to the issue that no inclusive class (unit or entity) of the matter needs to be studied. It makes comparison within the concept of populism difficult (Pappas, 2016).

Secondly, the lack of historical and cultural context specificity can be problematic since it makes comparisons difficult. Populism is such a context-specific and time-specific phenomenon that conceptualizing and narrowing down the definition is challenging (Pappas, 2016; Gerring & Barresi, 2003). Thirdly, there is a lack of essentialism since, throughout the diverse definitions and frameworks of populism, no concrete “essence” of populism has been identified yet. Thus, a consistent pattern to measure and investigate populism is missing (Taggart, 2000). 

Additionally, conceptual stretching is an issue since it expands the boundaries of a concept so much that the concept becomes too undefined and vague. The term has become too flexible and loose, and people misuse it (Pappas, 2016; Canovan, 1981). Moreover, populism has an unclear negative contrasting pole, making conceptualization and definition even harder. If a concept can identify a clear negative antidote, the meaning of this concept is more straightforward to establish. According to Aslanidis (2015), the reasons already mentioned above, and the lack of a clear negative pole all contribute to the difficulty of differentiating populism from other related concepts. 

The sixth criticism is degreeism, as populism is difficult to quantify a certain degree of, as definition and conceptualization are lacking (Sartori, 1984). Thus, when looking at populism, it is hard to pinpoint exactly which action or behavior would constitute which kind of level or degree of populism (Aslanidis, 2015). 

Furthermore, an empirical operationalization must be included, which is necessary for laying out conditions to verify the concept (Sartori, 1970). Elster (1993) claims that populism neglects micro-mechanisms, including charismatic leadership and symbolic framing, which could help better understand the concept of populism in its existing form and future developments. 

To add on to that, populism shows poor data and inattention to crucial cases, which means that the data conducted can lead to poor, meaningless results because of the loose framework and contextual specificity. In the following, such data then impacts the meaning and power of the theory created. It has to be pointed out that researchers sometimes tend to study and focus on a subfield in the realm of populism that is more familiar and relatively easy rather than unknown. This can create a particular case selection bias, influencing what is researched and what is not (Sartori, 1970). 

Research by Sartori (1970) and Canovan (1981) shows that populism also does not allow for normative indeterminacy. Many scholars believe that populism is a rather negative symptom of political democracy, especially in conjunction with democracy and social mobilization. This can potentially negatively impact research (Stengel, 2019). 

Consequently, the political argument against populism and its research is, that it is dangerous to categorically claim populism as a negative or dangerous concept, which happens partly within its research (Stengel, 2019). It generalizes the nuances of populism, increases polarization and tension between parties and neglects the positive impacts of populism on critical thinking, mass mobilization and political participation (Stengel, 2019). Mudde & Kaltwasser (2012) suggest that populism tends to be used as a buzzword in recent years. Moreover, scholars such as Dean & Maiguasca (2020) indicate that populism should re-orient itself since the party sustains existing relations of power and ideology through its discourse (including its scholarly discourse).

Activism and Law: Relevance

Even though research suggests such a vast range of criticism regarding populism and its studies, this exact gap and un-specificity in the literature shows that more research should be done. The question of the positive effects of populism has not been researched enough yet. Since the research focused partly on the negative effects of populism conducted by authoritarian regimes, the focus should shift towards positive examples of populism, significantly beyond Europe and the Western world. An example could be Japanese populism, which can be identified as more liberal than its Western counterparts. Local politicians call for more liberal-democratic reforms to challenge the “conservative elite” (Miyazawa, 2008; Fahey et al., 2021).

Furthermore, research should pay attention to left-wing populism as well. We can also see, specifically when we look at law, mass mobilization, and democratization, that populism can have an immense positive impact on legal systems, legislation, politicians, and society. Scientifically, research studies of populism help significantly improve studies about democracy and the process of democratization on a theoretical and empirical level (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012). 

Examples of populism influencing legislation positively or negatively can be found regarding climate policy and the alteration of criminal codes. Recent climate policies were specifically affected by mass movements using populist narratives (Dean & Maiguashca, 2020). Concretely, Lockwood & Lockwood (2022) found that right-wing populist parties have significant influence on climate and renewable energy policies in OECD countries. Another example is the Chilean criminal code, which was massively impacted by penal populism, where politicians compete about tougher prison sentences in the media (Acuña, 2023; Aslanidis, 2015).

This shows that populism can improve the communication of crucial messages towards the public and can mobilize them to take action in the following. Meyer (2024) found that populism can help convey messages against the elite and big corporations. Matus (2023) supports this claim by showing that populism can help to delineate and adjudge where there should be limits and where not regarding the development and changes regarding imprisonment and legal systems, such as in Chile. 

Conclusion

To conclude, populism and its research are still fundamentally crucial for today’s society, especially in law, politics, activism, and academia. However, populism and its studies should aim to understand specific mechanisms and fill in the gaps of certain incomprehensive developments. More research should be done on the positive impacts of populism and left-wing populism. Scholars should not be afraid to research populism because it is a flexible term, but they should be aware of its implications. 


 

References

Acuña, J. P. M. (2023). Penal populism. In Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG eBooks (pp. 649–658). https://doi.org/10.5771/9783748920717-649

Akkerman, T. (2003). “Populism and democracy: challenge or pathology?” Acta Politica, 38(2), 147–159. https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.ap.5500021

Allcock, J. B. (1971). “POPULISM: A brief bibriography.” Sociology, 5(3), 371–387. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42851097

Aslanidis, P. (2015). “Is populism an ideology? A refutation and a new perspective.” Political Studies, 64(1_suppl), 88–104. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.12224

Blaikie, P. (2000). “Development, post-, anti-, and populist: A Critical review.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 32(6), 1033–1050. https://doi.org/10.1068/a3251

Canovan, M. (1981). Populism. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt P. (1st ed.) New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovuch.

Cardoso, F. H., & Faletto, E. (1979). Dependency and development in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dean, J., & Maiguashca, B. (2020). “Did somebody say populism? Towards a renewal and reorientation of populism studies.” Journal of Political Ideologies, 25(1), 11–27. https://doi.org/10.1080/13569317.2020.1699712

Edwards, C. (2023, July 22). “Why are far-right parties on the march across Europe?” CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/07/22/europe/europe-populism-far-right-extreme-intl-cmd/index.html

Fahey, R. A.; Hino, A.; Pekkanen, R. J. & Pekkanen, S. A. (2021). “Populism in Japan.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Politics (pp. 316-350). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Germani, G. (1978). Authoritarianism, fascism, and national populism. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Gerring, J., & Barresi, P. A. (2003). “Putting ordinary language to work: A min-max strategy of concept formation in the social sciences.” Journal of Theoretical Politics, 15(2), 201–232.

Hammersley, M. (2021). “Karl Mannheim on Fascism: Sociological lessons about populism and democracy today?” Sociological Research Online, 28(2), 320–335. https://doi.org/10.1177/13607804211042032

Heinisch, R.; Holtz-Bacha, C. & Mazzoleni, O. (Eds.). (2017). Political Populism. Nomos eLibrary.

Ionescu & Gellner (1969). Populism: Its Meaning and National Characteristics. (New York: Macmillan. 1969.

Lockwood, B., & Lockwood, M. (2022). “How Do Right-Wing Populist Parties Influence Climate and Renewable Energy Policies? Evidence from OECD Countries.” Global Environmental Politics, 22(3), 12-37. https://doi.org/10.1162/glep_a_00659

MacRae, D. (1969). “Populism as an ideology.” In: G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (Eds.), Populism: Its meanings and national characteristics (pp. 153–165). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Malloy, J. (1977). “Authoritarianism and corporatism in Latin America.” In: J. Malloy (Ed.), Authoritarianism and Corporatism in Latin America (pp. 3–23). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press

Meyer, J. M. (2024). “‘The People’ and Climate Justice: Reconceptualizing Populism and Pluralism within Climate Politics.” Polity, 000. https://doi.org/10.1086/729277

Miyazawa, S. (2008). “The politics of increasing punitiveness and the rising populism in Japanese criminal justice policy.” Punishment & Society, 10(1), 47-77.

Mudde, C. (2004). “The populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition, 39(4), 542–563.

Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2012). Populism in Europe and the Americas. Cambridge University Press eBooks. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781139152365

Roberts, K. M. (2015). “Populism, political mobilization, and crises of political representation.” In: C. de la Torre (Ed.), The promise and perils of populism: Global perspectives (pp. 140–158). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Sartori, G. (1970). “Concept misformation in comparative politics.” American Political Science Review, 64(4), 1033–1053.

Sartori, G. (1984). “Guidelines for concept analysis.” In: G. Sartori (Ed.), Social science concepts; a systematic analysis.Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

Stavrakakis, Y. (2017, January 1). “How Did ‘Populism’ Become a Pejorative Concept? And Why is This Important Today? A Genealogy of Double Hermeneutics.” POPULISMUS working papershttps://www.academia.edu/32641393/How_Did_Populism_Become_a_Pejorative_Concept_And_Why_is_this_Important_Today_A_Genealogy_of_Double_Hermeneutics

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Photo: Matej Kastelic.

ECPS Academy Summer School — Populism and Foreign Policy: How Does Populist Politics Influence Foreign Affairs? (July 1-5, 2024) 

Are you passionate about global politics and understanding the dynamics that shape it? Are you looking for a way to expand your knowledge under the supervision of leading experts, seeking an opportunity to exchange views in a multicultural, multi-disciplinary environment, or simply in need of a few extra ECTS credits for your studies? Then, consider applying to ECPS Summer School. The European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) is looking for young people for a unique opportunity to assess the relationship between populism and foreign policy in a five-day Summer School led by global experts from a variety of backgrounds. The Summer School will be interactive, allowing participants to hold discussions in a friendly environment among themselves in small groups and exchange views with the lecturers. You will also participate in a Case Competition on the same topic, a unique experience to develop problem-solving skills in cooperation with others and under tight schedules. 

Overview 

Populism has often been studied as a subject of political science and investigated as a topic of domestic affairs, namely party politics and elections. Nevertheless, a growing body of literature suggests that this phenomenon is not confined to the borders of nation-states; it interferes with international relations thanks to populist leaders’ desire to shape foreign affairs with a populist and mostly revisionist view. Trump’s threats to withdraw the US from NATO, Modi’s handling of India’s relations with Pakistan, Erdogan’s diaspora politics towards European countries, Orban’s instrumentalization of migration in the EU, Netanyahu’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Johnson’s management of the Brexit process and numerous attempts by populist leaders to undermine or subvert international or supranational organizations, such as the UN, WTO, and EU, are among many examples that showcase how external relations can be blended with populism. 

Considering the current political landscape in which the number of populist figures is on the rise, we may witness more similar instances in the international political arena in the period to come. Populism in international relations has the potential to complicate existing problems, create new ones and bring about repercussions for the multilateral liberal global system. This outlook urges scholars and policy-makers to understand the interwoven relationship between populism and external relations more deeply and take into account the populist dimension of problems while crafting solutions to interstate issues. 

Against the background explained above, at the ECPS Summer School this year, we would like to look at populism from an international relations perspective. To this end, we will discuss the theoretical background of the interplay between populism and foreign affairs and examine a number of case studies from different parts of the world with a view to see similarities as well as differences between the ways populist leaders craft external politics. 

The program will take place on Zoom, consisting of two sessions each day. Over the course of five days, interactive lectures by world-leading practitioners and experts will discuss the nexus between populism and foreign policy. The lectures are complemented by small group discussions and Q&A sessions moderated by experts in the field. The final program with the list of speakers will be announced soon. 

Moreover, as last year, the Summer School will comprise a Case Competition on a real-life problem within the broad topic of populism and foreign policy. Participants will be divided into teams to work together on solving the case and are expected to prepare policy suggestions. The proposals of the participants will be evaluated by a panel of scholars and experts based on criteria such as creativity, feasibility, and presentation skills. 

Our five-day schedule offers young people a dynamic, engaging, and interdisciplinary learning environment with an intellectually challenging program presented by world-class scholars of populism, allowing them to grow as future academics, intellectuals, activists and public leaders. Participants have the opportunity to develop invaluable cross-cultural perspectives and facilitate a knowledge exchange that goes beyond European borders. 

Schedule 

Day 1: Populism and International Relations: A Theoretical Overview 

Day 2: Populism, Conflicts and International Courts

Day 3: Populism, Sharp Power, Peace and Security

Day 4: Populism and the EU Foreign Policy 

Day 5: Showcases: USA, Turkey, India, Israel and Brexit 

Who should apply? 

This unique course is open to master’s and PhD level students and graduates, early career researchers and post-docs from any discipline. The deadline for submitting applications is June 21, 2024. The applicants should send their CVs to the email address ecps@populismstudies.org with the subject line: ECPS Summer School Application. 

We value the high level of diversity in our courses, welcoming applications from people of all backgrounds. Since we have a limited quota, we suggest you apply soon to not miss this great opportunity. 

Evaluation Criteria and Certificate of Attendance 

Meeting the assessment criteria is required from all participants aiming to complete the program and receive a certificate of attendance. The evaluation criteria include full attendance and active participation in lectures. 

Certificates of attendance will be awarded to participants who attend at least 80% of the sessions. Certificates are sent to students only by email. 

Credit 

This course is worth 5 ECTS in the European system. If you intend to transfer credit to your home institution, please check the requirements with them before you apply. We will be happy to assist you; however, please be aware that the decision to transfer credit rests with your home institution.

 

Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute.

V-Dem Director Lindberg: If Trump Is Reelected, Democracy in the US Might Not Survive

V-Dem’s Director Staffan I. Lindberg expresses his concern: “I am deeply concerned about the possibility of Donald Trump being reelected. In the current context, I believe that if Donald Trump is reelected, democracy in the US might not survive. He has been explicit about his dictatorial intentions, even going as far as labeling Democrats as vermin, a term that evokes disturbing parallels with Nazi Germany from the late 1930s to 1945. Such statements must be taken seriously, as they could embolden autocrats worldwide.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Expressing deep concern over the potential reelection of Donald Trump in the upcoming November elections in the US, Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg, warns, “In the current context, I believe that if Trump is reelected, democracy in the US might not survive.” Highlighting Trump’s explicit dictatorial intentions, Professor Lindberg points out his divisive rhetoric, such as labeling Democrats as “vermin,” drawing disturbing parallels with Nazi Germany from the late 1930s to 1945. Lindberg emphasizes the seriousness of such statements, as they could embolden autocrats worldwide.

In an exclusive interview, Professor Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, share their analysis of the recent V-Dem report and discuss current political developments worldwide. While Lindberg underscores, “It’s premature to declare the end of democracy,” he remains hopeful for the perseverance and strengthening of democracies, with a vision for more people to enjoy democratic rights, human rights, and freedoms in the future. Dr. Nord adds that their examination of data suggests an era of instability, noting that “while autocratization is frequently reversed, so too is democratization.” Therefore, she underscores the importance of shifting the focus of democracy promotion towards democracy protection.

Professor Lindberg sheds light on the pervasive trend of autocratization, spanning almost 15 years, during which the share of the world’s population residing in autocratizing countries has outstripped that in democratizing nations. He identifies key drivers such as China’s anti-democratic stance, Putin’s influence in former Soviet republics, and Saudi Arabia’s support for non-democratic ideologies, underscoring the gravity of these global shifts. The interview also delves into Israel’s departure from the liberal democracy category, reflecting on the constitutional crisis that precipitated this shift.

Additionally, Professor Lindberg emphasizes that according to their criteria, neither India, Hungary, nor Turkey qualify as electoral democracies anymore. He states, “They now fall below that threshold and are classified as electoral autocracies. Turkey has held this classification since around 2016 or 2017, while Hungary followed suit after 2018-19, and India shortly thereafter. Consequently, they rank among the worst offenders in terms of autocratization globally over the past decade and a half.”

Amidst the concerning trends, Dr. Nord emphasizes the importance of resilience and defiance against autocratization. Drawing from their research, she delineates five key factors driving democratic resurgence, ranging from large-scale protests to international democracy support.

The interview with Professor Lindberg and Dr. Nord offers a profound exploration of the complexities and challenges facing global democracy. The interviewees unveil the challenging landscape of global democracy, marked by concerning trends and crucial insights that demand attention and action. Their arguments offer valuable insights into strategies for combating autocratic tendencies and illuminate the path forward, urging concerted efforts to defend democratic ideals and uphold the rights and freedoms of people worldwide.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord with minor edits.

Far-Right Nationalists Is Undermining Democracy with a Shared Recipe, Diverse Flavors

Professor Lindberg and Dr. North. Thank you so very much for joining our interview series. I want to start right away with the first question. One of the basic findings of your 2024 report, which was published last month, is the level of democracy enjoyed by the average person in the world in 2023 is down to 1985-levels; by country-based averages, it is back to 1998. Since 2009 – almost 15 years in a row – the share of the world’s population living in autocratizing countries has overshadowed the share living in democratizing countries. How do you explain, broadly, the trend of autocratization, what major factors have accelerated this trend?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I suppose that’s a billion-dollar question these days. The first thing to note is that we lack a scientific, rigorous answer to that specific question. While there are some certainties about factors contributing to this trend, the scientific community is still debating many aspects. It’s widely acknowledged that China has been working against democracy since at least the mid-1990s. They expressed dissatisfaction with the third wave of democratization, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the global movement toward democracy and human rights. Similarly, Vladimir Putin, upon assuming power in Russia, exerted influence over many former Soviet republics. His recent illegal invasion of Ukraine and involvement in disinformation campaigns and support for radical right-wing, nationalist movements across Europe undermine democracy.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia has long supported the spread of a Salafist version of Islam incompatible with democracy and human rights, which has gained significant ground globally. Moreover, there is a global rise of far-right nationalist, reactionary, and anti-pluralist political parties, leaders and movements, evident not only in Europe and America but also in other regions. These movements, whether Hindu nationalists in Modi’s India, Muslim nationalists in Erdogan’s Turkey, or Christian nationalists in Hungary, among others, share a common recipe, albeit with different flavors, undermining democracy in their respective countries.

 

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

One of your findings in the report is ‘the decline is stark in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia.’ What went wrong in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia? How do you explain this downward trend?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I’m not entirely sure what to say about that. I believe there are factors present in Eastern Europe and across Central Asia, beyond those I mentioned. Additionally, I think there are individual country-level factors that vary from one nation to another, making the local context crucial. In Europe, one could at least speculate, although it’s challenging to claim we have concrete evidence. It’s suspected that in countries where the transition from a common ideology occurred before the end of the Cold War, followed by a rapid shift to a market economy and a more liberal political sphere, there might have been expectations of significant improvement. However, when this transformation didn’t lead to the anticipated results, many individuals were financially and otherwise harmed in the process, potentially triggering reactions. However, I wouldn’t generalize this to be the same situation in South and Central Asia. Different processes are at play there, and each country may have its own set of contextual factors influencing the situation.

Israel No Longer Falls within the Category of Liberal Democracy

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

Another finding of the report is ‘Israel falls out of the liberal democracy category for the first time in over 50 years.’ Can you please elaborate on Israel falling out of liberal democracies league as it was often referred to the only democracy in the region?

Marina Nord: For many years, Israel stood as the sole liberal democracy in the Middle East and North Africa region. However, in 2023, there was a significant decline in the indicator measuring the transparency and predictability of laws. This decline was largely attributed to the constitutional crisis that unfolded in 2023 when Netanyahu’s Government passed a bill stripping the Supreme Court of its power to declare government decisions unreasonable. The crisis persisted for several months, marked by widespread protests against the change. Eventually, in January 2024, the bill was revoked. Nonetheless, since we only measure indicators for 2023, Israel no longer falls within the category of liberal democracy for that year. Without knowledge of events in the current year, we cannot predict whether it will regain its status.

In the report, you argue that: ‘Almost all components of democracy are getting worse in more countries than they are getting better, compared to ten years ago. Freedom of expression remains the worst affected component of democracy and is worsening in 35 countries in 2023.’ What is the underlining factor in this finding both globally and domestically?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I think you need to put yourself in the shoes of a would-be dictator. What’s one of the first things you’d aim to undermine? It’s freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the media. When you’re in power, you don’t want people freely writing about your actions, voicing opposition against you, or communicating the true facts instead of the disinformation you’re trying to spread. You seek control over the media sphere, as well as the ability of civil society and other actors to speak openly and freely. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, or to anyone, that we observe many countries moving in the wrong direction, towards autocratization, with freedom of expression being the most affected area, often targeted first.

You also underline in the report: ‘The wave of autocratization is notable. Autocratization is ongoing in 42 countries, home to 2.8 billion people, or 35% of the world’s population. India, with 18% of the world’s population, accounts for about half of the population living in autocratizing countries.’ But you also argue that ‘There may be signs that the autocratization wave is slowing down but one should be cautious with that interpretation.’ What are the signs that show the autocratization is slowing down and why one should be cautious about it?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: It primarily originates from the new methodology adopted for this year’s report, which has been evolving over the past few years. With this methodology, the number of countries experiencing autocratization appears to potentially decrease from 47 to 42 in recent years. There’s a slight uptick in the number of countries democratizing. However, because this new methodology sets high standards for a country to qualify as autocratizing, requiring statistical significance and substantial meaning, it can take 2-3 years after a country starts declining before it qualifies as an autocracy according to this rigorous criteria. Therefore, the decrease from 47 to 42 is accompanied by 25 countries that have begun to decline, termed as “near misses” that have not yet met the criteria. While not all of them may ultimately qualify, it only takes a few to meet the criteria to potentially raise the count from 47 to 42 or even higher. Thus, while the trend has shown a slight decline in the past couple of years, this may change in the next one or two years. Consequently, one should exercise caution when interpreting this specific graph as proof or conclusive evidence that the wave of autocratization is slowing down.

Five Key Factors for the Resurgence of Democracies

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

In your report, you highlight “Defiance in the Face of Autocratization,” showcasing countries that have managed to reverse democratic decline. Can you delve into the key factors that contributed to these countries bouncing back, and how can their experiences inform strategies to combat autocratization globally?

Marina Nord: We conducted a similar analysis last year, examining the factors primarily responsible for the resurgence of democracies. We identified five key factors. Firstly, large-scale protests, often referred to as “magic protests” in the literature. These instances, such as the mobilization of millions in places like South Korea, demonstrate a powerful force against autocratization. Secondly, unified opposition, which frequently aligns with civil society movements. Thirdly, judicial independence emerged as a significant factor, with courts resisting executive overreach, as described by Nancy Burnell as “executive aggrandizement.” The fourth factor encompasses critical elections or other major events, like the end of two-term limits. Finally, international democracy support and protection played a crucial role. While not all these factors guarantee a reversal of democratization, they have consistently influenced outcomes in numerous cases. These are the primary elements we believe could contribute to countries reversing autocratization and rebounding. However, further research is essential. To provide some statistics, our ongoing research indicates that approximately 70% of countries have managed to reverse autocratization trends within a maximum of five years after the autocratic regime ended. Thus, we hold optimistic prospects for many countries currently experiencing autocratization, as we anticipate eventual rebounds.

Academicians like Prof. Steven Levitsky of Harvard University and Prof. Kurt Weyland of Texas University argue that the findings of V-Dem are ‘exaggerated’ and they underscore the resilience of democracy globally. How do you respond to this criticism?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: There are various ways to approach this. One way is to emphasize that we’re simply reporting on the data. V-Dem stands as the largest dataset on democracy globally, comprising 31 million data points, and our analysis reflects the trends revealed by this extensive dataset. So far, there hasn’t been any substantial argument challenging the accuracy of the data from individuals like Steven and Kurt.

Another perspective to consider is the broader context. Steven has presented an argument alongside Lucan Way regarding the resilience of countries that democratized during the third wave of democratization. However, this viewpoint only captures a fraction of the overall picture. It’s essential to recognize that there are numerous countries currently experiencing autocratization during the third wave that were not part of the democratization wave. For instance, India serves as a notable example. When we adopt a global perspective and assess the development of all countries since the late 1990s, the outlook for democracy appears rather grim, as evidenced by various indicators. Marina, would you like to contribute further to this discussion?

Marina Nord: I would like to add briefly that it’s a major question of how we measure certain things, such as democratic breakdown or democratic backsliding. Many papers only measure the transition from democracy to autocracy, overlooking the potential decline in the quality of democracy itself, which is also a concerning trend. Secondly, there is a moral obligation for us as researchers to be confident in the claims we make. If Steven Levitsky claims that there is no decline in democratic practices worldwide, it sends a troubling message to those striving to protect democracy globally. This is particularly worrying given the observed declines in media freedom even within democracies. While resilience in terms of democratic survival may endure, liberal democracies may not be affected, but many countries are experiencing a decline in democratic quality, and this is indeed worrisome.

Turkey, India and Hungary Are Electoral Autocracies

Your research has shown worrying trends not only in autocracies like Russia and China but also in countries classified as electoral democracies, such as India, Hungary, and Turkey. Could you elaborate on the factors driving democratic decline in these countries, and what measures can be taken to reverse these trends and strengthen democratic institutions?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Let me start by stating that neither India, Hungary, nor Turkey qualify as electoral democracies anymore according to our measures. They now fall below that threshold and are classified as electoral autocracies. Turkey has been classified as an electoral autocracy since around 2016 or 2017, while Hungary followed suit after 2018-19, and India shortly thereafter. Consequently, they rank among the worst offenders in terms of autocratization over the past decade and a half globally. What measures can be taken to reverse these trends in these specific countries? I’m not entirely certain. It would likely require a substantial shift in public opinion, as these autocrats and their parties still enjoy significant popularity among large segments of the population. Perhaps, as seen in Turkey’s recent local elections, there’s a diminishing support for these leaders. However, it would also necessitate the independence of institutions such as electoral management bodies, which have been compromised in recent years. Furthermore, it would entail creating more freedom in the media space and fostering freedom of expression more broadly, along with relaxing restrictions on civil society. This would require significant effort on their part, along with potential international pressure. Nonetheless, experts who specialize in studying these countries in detail would be better positioned to provide more specific recommendations on reversing these trends.

I am sure you followed local elections in Turkey that were held on March 31 and which Erdogan badly lost. In your last report, you categorize Turkey as ‘electoral autocracy.’ Do you see his defeat as a venue for Turkey to bounce back from authoritarian politics?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Maybe, maybe not. I haven’t been keeping up with developments in Turkey over the past week or so. The initial reports I saw indicated that the opposition was prevented from assuming power or winning in at least one of the major cities they had secured. This suggests some potential vulnerability or weakness. However, we are unsure of the extent to which Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are willing to go to maintain power; the future will reveal that. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate the existence of a substantial opposition in Turkey, which could be considered a prerequisite for initiating a turnaround.

Trump’s Statements Embolden Autocrats Worldwide

In the interview you gave to Democracy Paradox, you talk about the possibility of Donald Trump to get re-elected. How concerned are you about the possibility and how do you think a possible re-election could galvanize autocrats globally?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I am deeply concerned about the possibility of Donald Trump being reelected. I have expressed this concern on multiple occasions in various public settings. In the current context, I believe that if Donald Trump is reelected, democracy in the US might not survive. He has been explicit about his dictatorial intentions, even going as far as labeling Democrats as vermin, a term that evokes disturbing parallels with Nazi Germany from the late 1930s to 1945. Such statements must be taken seriously, as they could embolden autocrats worldwide. During his previous term, Trump demonstrated a willingness to cozy up to dictators in North Korea and Putin in Russia. They understand what they could expect from him. We can extrapolate the potential consequences for NATO collaboration, support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. In summary, it presents a bleak outlook not only for the United States but also for the world as a whole.

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

You highlighted the role of nationalist reactionary narratives in driving autocratization, citing examples such as Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, and Erdogan’s Turkey. How do you think these narratives interact with existing socio-political tensions within societies, and what strategies can be employed to counteract their influence?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Once again, this is a difficult and complex question, and I believe it’s incumbent upon us to acknowledge that social science may not yet have all the answers. However, what we do know is that there is a growing body of literature utilizing various methodologies, including experimental evidence such as experiments with people, survey experiments, and lab experiments, as well as more traditional opinion surveys. These studies increasingly demonstrate a clear relationship between individuals who perceive social and economic relative deprivation. Typically, these perceptions are gauged through questions such as “Do you think your children will be better or worse off than yourself?” or “Do you feel that you yourself are better or worse off than your parents?” Individuals who perceive themselves or their children as worse off economically or socially are much more likely to vote for far-right nationalist or reactionary political parties and leaders, who often drive autocratization if they come into power. Therefore, there is mounting evidence of a link between sociopolitical or socioeconomic tensions and autocratization.

In your article, ‘A Third Wave of Autocratization is Here. What is new about it?’ you argue that “As it was premature to announce the ‘end of history’ in 1992, it is premature to proclaim the ‘end of democracy’ now.” Do you still think the same or do you have a more somber view about the global nature of democracies?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Of course, it’s premature to declare the end of democracy. We remain hopeful that democracies will persevere, regain strength, and that more people will enjoy democratic rights, human rights, and freedoms in the future than they do today. However, this hopeful outcome is not guaranteed, and it will require continuous efforts from leaders worldwide as well as grassroots movements advocating for democracy. We hope to see such efforts emerge both from leaders and people on the streets standing up for democracy. What are your thoughts on this, Marina?

Marina Nord: I agree with that assessment. It holds true in many respects. In our upcoming article, set to be published at the end of this month, we examined some data and observed that we seem to have entered an era of instability. Notably, autocratization is frequently reversed, but so too is democratization. Therefore, the focus of democracy promotion should now shift more towards democracy protection. This is a crucial perspective to keep in mind moving forward.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watching the August 30 Victory Day Parade in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo by Mustafa Kirazli.

Towards the Fall of ‘Erdoganism’ in Turkey

Given the inability of Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s to satisfy Turkey’s 86 million citizens with an economy reliant on corrupt patronage networks and the challenges of implementing a heavy austerity program within a democratic framework, diverting public attention to domestic and foreign disturbances to suspend democracy becomes a realistic expectation. Ultimately, Erdogan’s pursuit seems to lead toward a costly Pyrrhic Victory.

By Ibrahim Ozturk

In one of his poems, the late Turkish poet Sezai Karakoc, whose verses were even recited with enthusiasm by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, proclaimed, “Never say fate, there is a fate beyond fate,” and spoke of “victories growing from defeat.” Through these words, he sought to nurture the hope that the oppressed, who steadfastly endure in their just “cause,” will ultimately triumph.

Tactical Commitment to Democracy Between 2003-2011

It all began with a “cause”! Erdogan and a few friends decided to engage in politics in an independent party, breaking away from the main political backbone known as National Outlook (Milli Gorus), of which he was a member, and its cult leader, Necmettin Erbakan, in the early 2000s. Erdogan explained his “taking off the National Outlook shirt” as “evolving and transforming towards perfection.” He described Turkey’s fundamental problems as political repression, leading to corruption and resulting in poverty. To break this vicious cycle, Erdogan declared that his team would not address the ambiguous rhetoric of National Outlook but rely on human rights-based, pluralistic, participatory democracy, full membership in the EU and, in this context, a modern and democratic constitution.

The party program of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he founded, confirmed this. With the support of EU reforms, favorable domestic and international circumstances, and relatively good governance, he continuously elevated the bar for success during a period that could be considered successful. As a Muslim country on the path to EU membership, adhering to the norms and values of a democratic secular regime and safeguarding the rule of law and a market economy, Turkey stirred feelings of admiration in the Islamic world, underscoring its role model status.

As the famous political historian Lord Acton wrote in a letter to an Anglican priest in 1887, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Having observed Erdogan’s successive election victories in general elections for central government and local elections for municipalities and his subsequent rise in power, I raised questions in my commentary in Project Syndicate in 2011 about how Erdogan would wield his increasing power or how it would be balanced. The question is legitimate because when populist politicians come to power, they might disregard the promises made to society during their time in opposition. Instead, they may opt to perpetuate the old regime and exploit it for their own benefit rather than reforming it in a positive direction, particularly when confronted with real challenges in governance, leading to the implementation of unrealistic solutions to real problems. Additionally, the manner in which they would relinquish power in case of failure remains a highly controversial issue.

Corruption Economy and Return to Authoritarian Agenda

Much has transpired since then, and the AKP’s utilization of its acquired power has been viewed with dismay. Indeed, following the success of the 2011 elections, Erdogan veered toward a different path. AKP Istanbul Provincial Chairman Aziz Babuscu openly declared at the April 1, 2013, Inner City Meetings what they intended to do: “… in the next decade, we will separate our ways from our stakeholders with whom we collaborated when we were powerless because we will no longer need them. For us, the state and social order they idealized were merely tactics and war ploys. We will depart from this intersection, and due to the bitter realities of life, we will have a callous agenda to eliminate them.”

Therefore, society would come to understand for the first time that the proclamation of being an “exemplary secular-conservative democratic model” before and upon assuming power was merely a strategic maneuver until the AKP cadre consolidated enough power. With the eruption of a corrupt regime, where Erdogan diverted economic resources to construct a political order he had long envisioned, coupled with the environmentalist Gezi Protests in June 2013 and the police-judicial graft operations on December 17-25, 2013, he found himself compelled to expedite the inevitable transition towards authoritarianism. This pivotal juncture, symbolizing the crossing of the Rubicon, is fraught with danger for individuals like Erdogan, burdened by a multitude of transgressions and devoid of any avenue for retreat. Indeed, the die has been cast, the arrow released from the bow, and the conflict has commenced.

We have also witnessed how the evolving multipolar world provides authoritarian populists with additional opportunities to validate their “political engineering” and shift towards more oppressive regimes. By labeling corruption files and probes as “imperialist-foreign capital induced coup attempts against the autonomous government of the people,” Erdogan promptly forged an emergency alliance with the previously corrupt state apparatus inherited in 2002, significantly overhauling it to align with Turkey’s EU membership requisites. In exchange for his cooperation, Erdogan directed his highly politicized judiciary to dismiss all former Gladio-related cases in 2014, thus safeguarding his government and himself while closely collaborating with members of the old oligarchy.

After the defeat in the general elections on June 7, 2015, amidst escalating violence due to a resurgence of intelligence-led terrorism and heightened pressure on the Kurds, Erdogan capitalized on security concerns among the populace. He was subsequently reelected in the snap election held on November 1, 2015. However, achieving his political goals required strategic planning and luck. The “witch hunt,” which couldn’t be conducted within the bounds of a democratic rule of law, found fertile ground only under a state of emergency where legal norms were disregarded. This tactic, often employed by Turkey in the past to target minorities of various ethnic backgrounds, proved effective under such circumstances. The “failed coup attempt” on July 15, 2016, served precisely this purpose.

Following the coup attempt, hundreds of thousands of public employees were dismissed from universities, the judiciary, the police, the military, and the Ministry of Education etc. Dozens of foundation universities, widespread educational institutions, and prep schools were shuttered. Thousands of companies were seized, and their assets confiscated. A witch hunt ensued, wherein people were stigmatized for exercising their constitutional rights, ostracized from society, and rendered unemployable. To solidify Erdogan’s party state, hundreds of thousands of political militants were recruited without regard for merit-based criteria to fill the vacancies left by those purged from the public sector.

With the controversial July 15 coup attempt, not only was the relatively moderate faith-based Gulen movement demonized by Erdogan, but also those who did not support the regime were declared open enemies, or at the very least intimidated, with the slogan “those who are impartial will be eliminated.”

The final stage in the regime’s transformation occurred with the 2017 referendum. The adoption of a partisan Presidential system effectively eradicated the separation of powers and checks and balances. The Turkish Parliament (The Grand National Assembly of Turkey, TBMM) lost its efficacy, becoming a mere formality. The judiciary, police, and media were completely co-opted and utilized to serve the regime’s interests. Authoritarian populism, forsaking long-term scientific and institutional planning in favor of a cult of strong leadership centered around a single man, led to decisions made on a whim and managed arbitrarily. Decisions made overnight were rescinded during the day, while personal preferences and exceptions proliferated. Institutions whose autonomy was dismantled were infiltrated by unqualified party militants.

Several crucial examples illustrate the extent of the damage: the Turkish Statistical Institute’s (TUIK) inability to provide accurate information; the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey’s (CBRT) inability to execute specialized monetary policies crucial for price stability; the Competition Authority’s inability to prevent market monopolization; and the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) and the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund’s (TMSF) inability to fulfill their roles in the financial system. Furthermore, the Court of Accounts’ capacity to audit the legality of public administration actions was compromised. The Public Procurement Law underwent constant amendments and violations, leading to inflated costs through preferential tenders, while compromising quality and exacerbating impoverishment. The erosion of the rule of law was further evidenced by the severe repression of civil society.

At this juncture, political power took precedence over social dialogue, exacerbating polarization and conflicts. While certain influential industrialists, pro-government media entities, and rent-seeking groups found favor under the regime, disillusionment grew among the educated middle class and youth, who had once harbored hopes for a society founded on principles of freedom of thought, expression, rule of law, and human rights. The Turkish populace, yearning for an open and progressive society, felt betrayed, particularly evident during the 2017 referendum and the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections, where they expressed their discontent by voting against Erdogan.

The consolidation of political power within Erdogan’s inner circle, notably through intra-party elections in August 2017 which saw power being transferred to his relatives, and the appointment of his son-in-law as Treasury and Finance Minister in the subsequent government, heightened perceptions of “familism” and cronyism among the public. Projects backed by “customer and foreign currency-indexed price guarantees,” which were later transferred to the Treasury, became significant drains on public finances, resembling black holes in their insatiable consumption of resources.

At this point, it’s crucial to briefly examine Erdoganism’s governing model. Erdogan’s tenure, starting from his days as the mayor of Istanbul, has been characterized by notable successes in creating “win-win games” and “interest coalitions” primarily through rent-seeking. In this corrupt system, Erdogan has enriched himself through a give-and-take approach. Secondly, “purchased loyalty” emerges as another key aspect. His transactional strategy involves incentivizing individuals to partake in his corrupt regime by generously sharing the spoils, thereby securing their loyalty, and inducing compliance. Thirdly, a tactic of creating scapegoats and governing through division, even if it means ruthlessly sacrificing one’s allies and offspring when necessary. For Erdogan, any means to achieve his objectives are deemed permissible. Politics is regarded as a battlefield, where deceit and stratagems are not only necessary but also legitimate. This ethos shapes both alliances and enmities. Just as forming coalitions is inevitable, so too is the elimination of partners to strengthen one’s position at every stage.

Tragedy of Patronage in A Low Productivity Economy

Despite the exposure of Erdogan’s blatant corruption model during the December 17-25, 2013 corruption operations, the public did not retract its support from this political structure, which it perceives as vital to its bread and freedom. As is the case globally, the political behavior of Turkish society oscillates between instability, fear of authority, and the risk to livelihood. Until the adverse effects of the deeply entrenched corruption within the regime directly impacted their lives, society not only refrained from reacting out of fear that Erdogan’s absence could lead to instability, but also remained steadfast in their support for him.

Numerous factors, including justice, contribute to the source of political legitimacy, yet the provision of livelihood stands out as the pivotal influence. Erdogan’s dilemma lies in maintaining the sustainability of a patrimonial order characterized by high levels of contingency and arbitrariness in a country as populous as Turkey, with its 86 million inhabitants, largely possessing relatively weaker human capital. Furthermore, the challenges posed by the country’s large population and the inadequacy of natural resources are compounded by external changes. As the world undergoes a new wave of “creative destruction” marked by intensified technological competition, driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Fifth Generation Communication Revolution, Erdogan’s focus on sectors from the first and second industrial revolutions, such as textiles and land-construction, which are shielded from foreign trade and competition, as well as rent-seeking activities facilitating wealth transfer, proves unsustainable.

Attempting to evade the Middle-Income Trap (MIT) through reliance on these sectors—often associated with the lowest value-added and situated at the cheapest end of the global value chain—is futile. The MIT concept posits that traditional sectors, at the current stage of development, are excessively costly to compete with low-cost developing countries, while modern sectors demand higher quality and added value to rival leading industrialized nations. Consequently, the manufacturing industry finds itself trapped between traditional sectors characterized by high prices and modern sectors marked by inadequate quality.

Indeed, in a 2012 economic report I edited for the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (MUSIAD), of which Erdogan was one of the founders, I forecasted a continuous decline in per capita income from 2013 onwards, suggesting that Turkey would likely fall into the MIT by the 100th anniversary of the Republic. These projections have largely materialized today: Per capita income, which stood at $12,500 in 2013 and for the first time in her modern history put Turkey on the brink of entering the high-income country group and attracting global attention, has steadily decreased and plummeted to $10,674 by 2022. In the context of the 2023 election, due to excessive suppression of the exchange rate and the exclusion of migrants, who were considered in the calculation of the gross domestic production (GDP), when GDP was divided by the population, per capita GDP was reported as $13,000 (Figure 1). Despite the national income remaining at $1 trillion in 2023, the per capita income aimed at $25,000 stagnated at half that level—a loss of a decade’s worth of progress. Turkey, which climbed to the top of the developing country groups in the 2012-2013 transition, has slipped back to the status that Erdogan took over 20 years ago, as of 2022. In 2021, Turkey dropped out of the “top 20 largest economies in the world” rankings for the first time in modern history.

The predictions regarding macroeconomic management under populist regimes, spanning from right to left-wing populists, have been largely confirmed in Erdogan’s case. Initially, Erdogan began his term in late 2002 with an IMF program and effectively implemented EU reforms. However, following the regime change in 2018, which marked the onset of his authoritarian tendencies, Erdogan exhibited numerous shortcomings. These included the implementation of expansive monetary and fiscal policies, resulting in soaring inflation rates, price controls, credit rationing, persistent budget deficits, unsustainable debt accumulation, arbitrary and short-term decision-making, non-compliance with established economic programs, and failure to achieve projected outcomes.

Erdogan’s management has failed to address chronic macroeconomic imbalances, characterized by persistent external and internal deficits, high inflation rates, volatile borrowing and lending rates, and depreciation of the Turkish Lira (TL), thus impeding the economy from achieving sustainable growth. The economic environment, marked by a sharp annual increase in broad money supply by 65 percent and the political decision to keep the policy rate well below inflation, has led to a significant negative real return, creating conditions favorable to speculative attacks on the TL. Heightened insecurity and uncertainty have further increased demand for foreign exchange, while the annual credit volume has surged by approximately 55 percent, driving up consumption and import demand and inflating the real estate sector bubble. These factors have exacerbated inflationary pressures, which have already spiraled out of control (Figure 2a). Johns Hopkins University professor Steve H. Hanke and the Inflation Research Group (ENAG) have meticulously uncovered a stark reality: TURKSTAT, evidently under the direct influence of Erdogan’s administration, has significantly understated inflation data. This revelation sheds light on a deliberate manipulation aimed at distorting income distribution, particularly impacting fixed-income civil servants, workers, and employees. The wealth transfer orchestrated through this misrepresentation has inflicted a substantial blow to their financial well-being (Figure 2a).

Meanwhile, the dollar exchange rate surged from ₺3.86 in 2018, the year of the regime change, to ₺32 by the end of March 2024, marking an 850% depreciation of the TL over five consecutive years. Despite unreliable public data, inflation spiked to around 100% at one point in 2022, up from 17% in 2020, before closing the year at 65%. The same level of inflation, 65%, was recorded in the election year 2023. However, Erdogan intervened aggressively in the foreign exchange markets to curb further inflation after his politically motivated decision to lower interest rates, depleting over $200 billion from central bank reserves in just two years.

With Mehmet Simsek’s return to politics, who served as finance minister in the AKP government until 2018, in June 2023, and his reappointment to the same ministry, there has been discussion of a stabilization program under the motto “cutting off the wrong and returning to rational ground.” However, despite having a name, its content has remained unfulfilled. When Simsek took office, the CBRT policy rate stood at 8.5%, with inflation around 39%. By the end of 2023, the interest rate had soared to 45%, while inflation reached 65% by the year’s close.  Despite selling more than 40 billion dollars of additional borrowed reserves from the Central Bank, and the interest rates rose to 50% during the election to repress inflation, it hit 68,50%. Such a doubling of consumer inflation over less than a year, accompanied by an almost 6 to 7-fold increase in the policy rate, is highly unusual, reflecting the heavy injury of the demand and supply mechanism. Populist policies implemented following successive elections have worsened expectations, and the secondary effects of the inflation shock in autumn 2021 appear to be further strengthening.

Erdogan’s “economic model,” based on unfulfilling prophecies and aimed to determine the opportunity cost of money through political decrees centrally, assumed that lowering interest rates would reduce production costs and decrease inflation. It also posited that an increase in the exchange rate would enhance Turkey’s export competitiveness, thus allowing the country to close its foreign exchange deficit. However, these prophecies did not come true, and instead, the opposite happened. The model eventually transitioned into a tragic stage when Erdogan and his “politburo members” attempted to control inflation through direct and indirect exchange rate and price controls at all costs. This “learning-by-doing experience,” which incurred a devastating political and economic cost, reflects the tragic “self-fulfilling prophecies” of populist leaders like Erdogan, who aim to keep interest rates low while unreasonably hoping to prevent prices, foreign exchange rates, and inflation from rising. The process resulted in an incredible transfer of wealth and increased cost of living in favor of a small segment of society at the expense of the majority.

As outlined above, the challenges under Erdogan’s regime extend beyond resource allocation efficiency and raise significant concerns about distributional issues. This is sadly reflected in Turkey’s income and wealth distribution statistics in 2023, compiled by TUIK. According to labor union studies conducted in March 2024, the hunger threshold for a family of four in Turkey, where the minimum wage is 17,000 TL, was estimated at nearly 20,000 TL, while the poverty line stood at almost 55,000 TL. Thus, voters faced dire circumstances without security or other guarantees when hunger and poverty levels reached such heights. According to TUİK, by 2023, the share of the highest-income group, comprising 20 percent of the population, had surged to 50 percent of the national income, while the lowest-income group remained stagnant at 6%.

The Gini coefficient, a key measure of income inequality (where zero indicates perfect equality and one signals extreme inequality), has been on the rise since 2014, reaching an estimated 0.433. Finally, data released by Credit Suisse and UBS in March 2024 depict an even grimmer picture of wealth distribution in Turkey. The country’s wealth Gini coefficient stands at 0.8, with the wealthiest 10% owning a staggering 70%. According to a recent European Commission for Turkey report, Turkey still lacks a dedicated poverty reduction strategy. After sustained price increases, the poverty rate reached 14.4%, up from 13.8% in 2021. The severe-material-deprivation rate reached 28.4% in 2022.

In that, after 2011, it became increasingly evident that Erdogan’s focus shifted towards exploiting the flaws of the old regime to consolidate his government rather than addressing political repression, corruption, and poverty. Instead of actively tackling poverty and income inequality, he opted to “manage” these issues, perpetuating a cycle of dependency. Emerging data summarized above shows that Erdogan can not sustain his role as a Robin Hood figure, redistributing part of the wealth generated from public rents to society through various mechanisms in a low-value-added, low-productivity economy (Figure 3) with a population of 86 million people.

A recent publication indicates that this range of patronage or patrimonial economic relationships was facilitated through cultural and ideological narratives, civilizational and religious populism, anti-elite polarization, and the government’s inclination to scapegoat foreigners.

Erdogan’s purported model, as discussed thus far, aims to position Turkey as a “cheap production base” in the western part of Eurasia and the eastern part of Europe by suppressing real wages, utilizing cheap surplus labor provided also by immigrant workers, channeling people’s savings to cronies through subsidized interest rates, attracting capital by devaluing all national assets through currency depreciation, sustaining economic growth inflated by inflation, raising indirect taxes, and ultimately exporting low-value-added products to improve the external balance. However, these objectives have yet to be fully realized. Despite the sharp devaluation of the TL and the imposition of very high customs duties, trade deficits have continued to increase, and financing quality has deteriorated, leading to the accumulation of unsustainable foreign debt (Figures 4 and 5).

From a longer-term perspective, the combined impact of institutional erosion, the dismantling of checks and balances, and a contentious foreign policy under autocratic rule have resulted in flawed economic policies and the disintegration of the production fabric. The total volume of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) entering Turkey has experienced a sharp decline since 2007. The crisis of trust has led Turkey to detach from the European value chain. Simultaneously, political tensions with major Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have prompted a distancing from the Middle Eastern market. Meanwhile, Erdogan’s allies in Eurasia, such as China and Russia, dominate in trade deficits but do not contribute to financing. China relegates Turkey to merely an “open market” and a “transit route” to access the EU and neighboring countries duty-free. In summary, China and Russia are the primary sources of Turkey’s trade deficit, while the source of finance remains traditionally Western Europe (Figure 6, Table 1).

‘God of Hunger’ Prevails over the “Gods of Fear’

In Greek mythology, Limos represents the embodiment of starvation, hunger, and famine, while Deimos and Phobos epitomize chaos and fear. Deimos symbolizes terror and dread in ancient Greek religious beliefs and mythology, whereas his sibling Phobos embodies panic, flight, and rout. Recently, the Turkish populace, losing hope and experiencing escalating hunger, has rebelled against the dominion of the “gods of fear.” Instead, they find themselves under the sway of the god of hunger, embodying their current struggles.

In the March 2024 local elections, amid the economic crisis and regional and global contractions in foreign policy, a pivotal moment emerged where the “god of hunger” prevailed over the “god of fear.” Despite the government’s extensive propaganda urging the populace to prioritize “stability,” maintain “gains” under Erdogan’s regime, and resist foreign influence, people turned a deaf ear to these messages. Consequently, the elections resulted in a resounding defeat for the ruling party.

In recent years, Erdogan has crafted his entire political narrative around themes of national honor, sovereigntism, independence, and autonomous foreign policy. Consequently, he has leaned towards polarization, alienation, and divisive governance both domestically and internationally. Erdogan has positioned himself as the guardian of the Muslim ummah, the champion of a Free Palestine, and the rightful inheritor of former Ottoman territories. However, his loss of ability to engage in economic and political populism at home and abroad during the March 2024 local elections underscores the unsustainability of populism in a country of Turkey’s magnitude and geopolitical complexity. It is indeed a notable irony in the history of a religiously motivated populist authoritarian political leader to transition from the rhetoric of the “caliphate of the ummah” to being labeled as a “collaborator of Zionism” amid Israel’s Gaza massacres. This shift arises from the diverse forms of support, including weapons and kerosene, extended to the Netanyahu government during the ongoing massacre of civilians in Gaza and the relentless destruction of the city. This transformation must be viewed as a profound turn of events in the history of the region.

Finally, despite the ruling party’s defeat in the local elections, the opposition strategically positioned itself to claim victory. Firstly, by gaining control of critical municipalities in major cities through the “Nation Alliance,” formed in 2019 as a counterforce to Erdogan’s “People’s Alliance,” the opposition effectively deprived the government of a populist tool while providing an avenue for engagement with the public and showcasing its capabilities. Despite Erdogan’s acknowledgment that losing Istanbul equated to losing Turkey, he couldn’t prevent it in 2019. Fast forward to 2024, not only did he fail to reclaim any major cities lost in 2019, but the losses extended further, with additional significant cities slipping away.

Utilizing this opportunity, opposition-led municipalities efficiently reached out to citizens facing hardships during the crisis. Secondly, the opposition embraced positive populism, taking cues from Erdogan’s playbook. This involved a notable transformation within the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which shifted from its elitist and establishment image to a more grassroots approach. By speaking the language of the people, acknowledging past shortcomings, and seeking forgiveness, the CHP significantly bolstered its appeal and credibility among the populace.

Conclusion

Following Erdogan’s recent electoral defeat, exacerbated financial crisis, and foreign policy constraints, the period between 2024 and 2028 is poised for turbulent developments. The stark contrast between the people’s needs and Erdogan’s priorities renders the situation even more fragile. Erdogan’s primary objective is to maintain power and evade accountability at all costs.

The inevitable repercussions of the March 2024 local elections seem unavoidable, primarily due to the substantial number and size of municipalities lost, rather than merely the overall voting percentages. These cities predominantly housed Erdogan’s rent projects, thrived on corrupt economies, and relied on assistance to people experiencing poverty, cementing their dependence on him.

Hence, Erdogan suffered losses not only in terms of the popular vote but also in terms of financial resources. Ambitious projects like “Canal Istanbul” or the construction of malls in Taksim Gezi Park now seem unattainable. Moreover, his loss of domestic support and resources has tarnished his reputation. To reclaim these lost assets, it’s foreseeable that Erdogan will centralize numerous resources and administrative units previously overseen by municipalities. This might involve appointing trustees to many cities, obstructing municipal budgets, and hindering investment financing initiated by municipalities.

However, instead of focusing on trivial matters, a more comprehensive political strategy should be anticipated to address the underlying issues. The saying goes, “each blow that doesn’t kill strengthens.” Erdogan finds himself wounded, vulnerable, and, consequently, highly perilous. Just as Turkey spiraled into a state of fear following the June 7, 2015 elections that he lost and witnessed the suspension of law after the failed coup attempt orchestrated by government intelligence on July 15, 2016, Erdogan might resort to provoking Kurds and stoking societal tensions using his concocted “FETO” narrative to neutralize the impact of local elections by sidelining legal procedures once more.

The recent attempt to hinder the elected candidate in Van province immediately after the election may signify something more than a conclusion but rather the inception of a more extensive process. Erdogan’s alliance with the ultranationalist National Action Party (MHP) and its leader, Devlet Bahceli, known for their connections with criminal elements, could potentially draw Erdogan into hazardous undertakings, leveraging Turkey’s instabilities to their advantage.

Another urgent agenda that influences the aforementioned projects is Turkey’s austerity program, whether implemented with or without the IMF. Turkey is currently facing economic and political crises, and implementing a rigorous stabilization program is crucial to mitigate inflation and urgently address the foreign exchange shortage. However, the societal burden of such programs is significant, and only a newly elected government with high credibility could realistically enact one. Given the ongoing erosion of trust, compounded by Erdogan’s autocratic regime’s arbitrary and amateurish practices, it seems unlikely that the current government could effectively execute such a demanding program to fully address the situation.

The upbeat “signaling effect” of an IMF agreement is undoubtedly more urgent than a gradual loan dispersal. Yet, Erdogan’s acceptance of such an agreement presents another challenge, as it would require substantial reforms, including transparency, accountability, addressing past crimes, and moving away from entrenched corruption. Moreover, the specific political and economic concessions the US might demand from Turkey to facilitate an IMF agreement still need to be determined.

In terms of the root cause of Erdogan’s tragedy in Turkey, while Erdogan endeavors to assert leadership within “the Islamic Ummah” rather than “bowing to Europe,” he finds himself increasingly isolated not only from Europe but also from the Arab world. His efforts to appease Russia and China have faltered, and he is entangled in a costly “war of liberation” without sufficient resources. In this scenario, the longstanding propaganda that portrayed Erdogan as “the guardian of the Ummah” has collapsed and been replaced by the perception of him as a “Zionist collaborator.” 

Therefore, given Erdogan’s inability to satisfy Turkey’s 86 million citizens with an economy reliant on corrupt patronage networks and the challenges of implementing a heavy austerity program within a democratic framework, diverting public attention to domestic and foreign disturbances to suspend democracy becomes a realistic expectation. Ultimately, Erdogan’s pursuit appears to lead toward a costly Pyrrhic Victory.

Locals walking in front of a big statue in Pyongyang, North Korea on August 15, 2016. Photo: L.M. Spencer.

Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Philip Christo & Valev, Radoslav. (2024). Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 5, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0054                               

This report offers a summary of the 11th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism, and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea, and Mongolia,” held online on March 30, 2024. Dr. John Nilsson-Wright moderated the panel, featuring insights from five distinguished scholars: Dr. Joseph Yi, Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw, Dr. Sang-Jin Han, Dr. Junhyoung Lee, and Dr. Mina Sumaadii.

By Philip Christo Pretorius and Radoslav Valev*

This report encapsulates the highlights of the eleventh event hosted by the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) as part of its monthly Mapping European Populism (MGP) panel series. Titled “Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism, and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea, and Mongolia,” this event unfolded online on March 30, 2024. The esteemed Dr. John Nilsson-Wright expertly moderated the panel, which boasted insights from five distinguished scholars in the field of populism.

The panelists featured in the event included experts such as Dr. Joseph Yi, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Hanyang University, Seoul, renowned for his work on “Discourse Regimes and Liberal Vehemence.” Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Social Science, The University of Tokyo, provided valuable insights into the regional context through her research on “Foreign Threat Perceptions in South Korean Campaign Discourse: Japan, North Korea, and China.” Dr. Sang-Jin Han, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University, shared his expertise on sociopolitical trends in South Korea, focusing on the “Transformation of Populist Emotion in Korean Politics from 2016 to 2024.” Dr. Junhyoung Lee, a Research Professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Ulsan, South Korea, contributed with his research on “Nationalism and Resilience of Authoritarian Rule in North Korea.” Lastly, Dr. Mina Sumaadii, a Senior Researcher at the Sant Maral Foundation, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, offered a unique perspective on “Populist Nationalism as a Challenge to Democratic Stability in Mongolia.”

The panel served as a platform for a rich exchange of ideas and analysis, shedding light on the complex interplay between populism, authoritarianism, and democracy within these East Asian nations.

Professor John Nilsson-Wright opened the panel by giving a few introductory remarks about North Korea and South Korea. Starting with the latter, he posed the question on whether or not thinking about populism in South Korea is relevant since it seems to be a successful and vibrant state with a healthy and vigorous political process that participates with the international community. 

Using the Candlelight Demonstrations as an example of the strength of the political culture in South Korea, Dr. Nilsson-Wright further states that the country’s institutional frameworks are an example of successful democratic governance. However, critics of the system argue that South Korea has not yet become an ‘advanced democracy,’ and that is in danger of democratic backsliding. Further to this, the country has a polarized society with a strong sense of anti-elitism, and have a poor record of press freedom. According to Dr. Nilsson-Wright, one of the features of populist politics in the country is the debate over who constitutes as ‘the people,’ and it is underscored by the debate between the narrative of economic exceptionalism, and those who celebrate the achievements of democratic transition. In contrast to the above-mentioned critics, Dr. Nilsson-Wright turns to scholars who praise South Korea’s democratic emergence, using examples of the 2004 impeachment attempt against President Roh Moo-hyun, and the historical evolution of South Korea’s democracy from its illiberal and authoritarian past, as evidence of the country’s democracy in action.

Dr. Nilsson-Wright highlighted some of the problems that currently undercut and threaten the integrity of South Korea’s Democratic institutions, indicating that there are legitimate questions about the maturity of South Korea’s political system. On a positive note, the last presidential election was strikingly close, with discourse grounded in economic efficiency rather than emotive political issues. The open question remains on whether or not South Korea’s institutions will continue to contain polarizing tendencies from both internal tensions and external threats. Expanding on the latter threat, Dr. Nilsson-Wright highlights that, because of the concerns commentators have over China, a new type of populism has emerged – nuclear populism – which a sign of how fear and distrust can fuel a political climate. 

Turning to North Korea, Dr. Nilsson-Wright presents scholarly work that’s been conducted on totalitarian control, and in particular focuses on the works that focus on social, rather than political, change. For him, this has opened new avenues of thinking about the links between populism in South Korea and the style of politics in North Korea. In explaining the persistence of North Korea’s system, Dr. Nilsson-Wright argues that the emotional dimension of politics has been important in the analysis of the two Koreas closer together. These emotions are mostly fear and resentment of opponents, weaponizing the past, and political nostalgia. 

Enquiring on whether or not the authority in North Korea will last, Dr. Nilsson-Wright concludes by giving examples of Kim Jong-Un has both continued on with traditional forms of totalitarian control, yet in some respects have broken others, and all that remains now is to watch closely the way the leadership of North Korea formulates national policy objectives.

Dr. Joseph Yi: “Discourse Regimes and Liberal Vehemence”

Dr. Joseph Yi posed two questions. Firstly, he questioned whether individuals with access to identical information and facts would exhibit a greater propensity to compromise and cooperate. Secondly, he explored the notion of diverging strains within liberal democracy. Dr. Yi expressed his belief that populist tendencies exist in South Korea across the political spectrum, with both the left and the right accusing each other of being illiberal and questioning the legitimacy of each other’s procedural rights.

Dr. Joseph Yi commenced his presentation by emphasizing that Populism frequently portrays its adversaries as enemies of both the people and authentic democracy. Additionally, Dr. Yi referenced International Relations literature, asserting that democracies tend to collaborate with one another, contrasting with the animosity often observed between democracies and illiberal regimes. However, there has been a noticeable rise in animosity among OECD democratic polities, evident at both the national and subnational levels. Dr. Yi illustrated this with concrete examples, including California’s state-funded travel ban against Florida and the European Union’s decision to suspend financial funds to Hungary.

Dr. Yi advanced a theoretical argument suggesting that the divergence among democratic polities fosters animosity, with each democratic entity perceiving others as either illiberal or false democracies. He then outlined two approaches: the positive sum approach, where procedural rights support substantive rights, and an emerging approach that sees procedural rights as incompatible with substantive rights. Both the Left and the Right contend that certain groups’ rights have been marginalized, leading to distinctions between “right-wing victim’s rights (RVR)” and “left-wing victim’s rights (LVR).” Dr. Yi introduced his second variable, the information markets, noting that even in “mature” democracies, discourse on victims’ rights limits the information market by restricting “harmful” speech.

Dr. Yi proceeded to make a number of propositions. First, he claimed that there is greater animosity between democracies with different discourse regimes. Proponents of the RVR and LVR views claim that the other regime tolerates hate-speech and censors the voices of victims. 

Dr. Yi’s second proposition was that there is especially high animosity when one democracy follows a “victim’s rights” model that restricts information nationwide and the other does not. For example, in South Korea between 1948-1980, the RVR regime repressed communist speech. Similarly, since the 2010s, LVR regimes have prioritized victims of colonialism over academic freedom of dissenting scholars. Dr. Yi provided a personal example where some student activists from his university in Seoul violated his procedural rights by distributing fliers with a quote which was taken out of context i.e. not providing the full set of facts which is an example of limiting the rights of dissenting scholars. 

However, in Japan there is more thorough discourse where the government does not criminalize either left-wing or right–wing scholarly perspectives. In South-Korea, the narrative that the Japanese Imperial Army abducted over 200,000 women is very prevalent, while in Japan, the media claims that there is no evidence that this happened. In this context, both Japan and South Korea frame each other of being illiberal. Countries such as the Philippines and Taiwan do not limit the information market and have FTAs with Japan, whereas South Korea cooperates more with countries that restrict the free flow of information. 

Dr. Yi concluded by stating two questions. The first one being whether people who have access to the same information and same facts would be more likely to compromise and cooperate with each other. The second question he posed is whether there are diverging strains of liberal democracy. Dr Yi finally stated that he believes that there are populist tendencies in South Korea of both the left and the right to accuse each other of being illiberal and that the other group does not deserve its procedural rights to be respected. 

Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw: “Foreign Threat Perceptions in South Korean Campaign Discourse: Japan, North Korea and China”

Dr. Meredith Shaw discusses some key elements she is monitoring for the “second image reversed problem,” particularly regarding the upcoming Korean elections. Two of these elements are Sadaejuui (flunkeyism) and sade oegyo (flunky diplomacy), both of which entail acting subservient or subordinate to a larger nation. While historically referring to Korea’s tributary status to the Qing Dynasty in China and collaboration with Imperial Japan, these terms have recently resurfaced in relation to China. Dr. Shaw notes that both the Left and the Right employ this rhetoric, accusing each other of flunkeyism, thus balancing each other out in terms of populist rhetoric and preventing one side from effectively utilizing this tactic to gain favor with the populace.

Starting her presentation, Dr. Meredith Shaw starts with a powerful statement that she believes South Korea should have already been taken over by right-wing populism as they face two communist threats in both China and North Korea, both of whom they fought a war against. Whenever North Korea launches a missile, support for progressive-left parties tends to diminish, as their opponents find it convenient to associate them with guilt by association. Using the ‘Second Image Reversed’ problem as her foundation, Dr. Shaw highlights that events in the international arena can have effects on domestic politics, of which she believes South Korea is particularly vulnerable to. She posits that the reason that South Korea has escaped this drift is a result of the recent memory of its right-wing dictatorship and the emotional counterweight of the anti-Japan sentiment. Right-wing politics in South Korea is usually more pro-Japan (Chinilpa), giving the left a counterweight to hit back with in reaction to allegations that the left has pro-North Korean (Chongbuk) policies. 

In Dr. Shaw’s own research, she found that both Chinipla and Chongbuk resemble populist narratives as both sides portray the opposition as ‘elitist,’ particularly in memes and political imagery. When the right feels attacked on pro-Japanese policies, they hit back with claims that the left is pro-North Korea and -China with similar imagery and memes used by the left, known as retaliatory mimicry. As a result of the rising anti-China sentiment, Dr. Shaw investigated the impact it would have on the Japan/North Korea dueling antagonisms. Politicians on both sides seem uncertain on how to respond to this new public sentiment, particularly because of the close trade ties between South Korea and China. Right-wing candidates are more willing, yet still apprehensive, to partake in anti-Chinese rhetoric, using the same language that the left uses towards Japan – a big power neighbor that steals Korean culture, encroaches on territory, and bullies neighbors with its economic power. This sets up China to overtake Japan as the ‘pushy neighbor.’

To conclude Dr. Shaw shares some of the elements that she’s tracking for the second image reversed problem, particularly in relation to the upcoming Korean elections. Two of these elements are Sadaejuui (flunkeyism) and sade oegyo (flunky diplomacy), which are both often translated as someone who acts subservient or subordinate to a bigger nation. In the past it referred to Korea’s tributary status to the Qing Dynasty in China and those who collaborated with Imperial Japan, but recently has been used in relation to China once again. Dr. Shaw provides examples of how both the Left and Right employ this rhetoric, accusing the opposing side of flunkeyism. This dynamic serves to balance each other out in terms of populist rhetoric, preventing one side from effectively utilizing this tactic to curry favor with the populace.

Dr. Sang-Jin Han: “Transformation of Populist Emotion in Korean Politics from 2016 to 2024”

Professor Sang-Jin Han explains that in anticipation of the upcoming April 2024 election, both the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party engage in demonization, utilizing emotions of hatred and resentment. The ruling party accuses the opposition of aligning with North Korea, thereby endangering liberal democracy in South Korea. Conversely, the opposition party accuses the ruling party of being subservient to Japan and thereby undermining the sovereignty of Korea. Dr. Han concludes that Korean parties have excessively politicized issues and rely on animosity towards their opponents rather than fostering constructive dialogue.

Professor Sang-Jin Han initiated his presentation by emphasizing that the ramifications of populism are intertwined with the definition of its criteria. He outlined two primary elements of populism: distrust towards the ruling class and the prioritization of the people in guiding politics. Subsequently, Dr. Han provided a historical overview of populist emotion in South Korea.

The first stage was the last quarter of the 19th century, when Korea faced a series of crisis. The second stage concerned the Imperial Japanese rule over Korea, which was marked by great hatred and animosity towards the Japanese elite as a catalyst for populism. The third stage is related to the Korean War and again this stage is defined by high levels of hatred and distrust but this time towards North Korea. The fourth stage is concerned with the democratization in the 1980s and in that time the movement mainly led by college students attempted to bring back the original cornerstone of populism, namely the primacy of the people in politics. The final fifth stage is related to digital populism. Because South Korea enjoyed a high-level of digitalization, the populist movement also began to utilize technologies to further their cause. 

Dr. Han introduced the two populist movements in South Korea, the so-called Candlelight movement and the National Flag movement. Both are characterized as highly distrustful towards politicians and want to bring power back to the people. Dr. Han in his research found out that whether populism is considered as a promoter of democracy or as a barrier to democracy really depends on the definition of the criteria of populism. Dr. Han found out through his empirical research that the Candlelight movement was very much constructive towards strengthening democracy. Meanwhile, the National Flag movement which was led by older and more conservative people appears to obstruct the security of democracy. 

The empirical research that Dr. Han conducted through a survey in 2018 found out that the Candlelight movement was more associated with the primacy of the people in politics, while the National Flag movement was associated with the distrust towards the elites. Furthermore, the Candlelight movement was not associated with support towards a strong authoritarian leader, whereas the National Flag movement was deeply associated with that idea. These findings ultimately mean that the question whether populism could strengthen democracy is not determined by populism itself. Rather, this depends on whether the populist movement focuses more on anger and antagonism than promoting the idea that the people should be the primary sovereign in politics. 

Therefore, the threat to democracy is South Korea actually comes from the National Flag movement and not from the Candlelight movement. Ultimately, the idea of distrust as the main definitional criteria for populism could endanger democracy, whereas the criteria of promoting the primacy of the people seems to promote democracy. 

Dr. Han concluded by having a look at the current situation in 2024. Ahead of the coming election in April 2024 both the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party demonize each other by using hatred and resentment emotions. The ruling party accuses the opposition of being an ally of North Korea and therefore jeopardizing liberal democracy in South Korea. The opposition party accuses the ruling party of being a comprador of the Japanese and therefore destroying the pride of the sovereign Korean nation. Dr. Han concluded that Korean parties have politicized issues too much and are relying on the hatred and animosity towards their opponents rather than being constructive. 

Dr. Junhyoung Lee: “Nationalism and Resilience of Authoritarian Rule in North Korea”

Referring to the main implications of his research, Dr. Junhyoung Lee highlights the use of nationalism as a primary means to bolster the regime’s resilience and cultivate loyalty among the population in North Korea. Additionally, he emphasizes the significance of performance legitimation as another essential tool for fortifying the regime’s resilience, showcasing the state’s responsiveness to critical issues. Lastly, Dr. Lee underscores the importance of implementing effective co-optation strategies for the regime to address generational shifts within North Korean society and ensure ongoing stability.

Dr. Junhyoung Lee structured his presentation as a historical overview of how the North Korean regime utilized nationalism, intertwining family lineage with the national narrative. The use of nationalist rhetoric has intensified since Kim Jong-un assumed power, primarily aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of his rule. While North Korea initially displayed similarities to the de-Stalinization period in the USSR, Kim Il-sung later embraced a distinct style of socialism and totalitarian ideology following the Sino-Soviet disputes. The subsequent North Korean rulers have relied on utilizing personalism and the socialist ideology to mobilize the collective memory. This underscores the significance of North Korean nationalism in shaping the regime’s resilience. Dr. Lee also researched the legitimation claims in the new year statements of the Kim family. He found that Kim Il-sung made frequent references to the revolutionary legacy of North Korea. In the Kim Jong-il era, there was a particular focus on the cult of personality and loyalty to the ruler. With the current ruler, Kim Jong-un, there is much less reference to the cult of personality than his predecessors. 

The Ch’ŏllima (“Flying Horse”) in North Korea could be used as an example of how nationalism could be used for bolstering the regime’s resilience, particularly during periods of crisis. The idea was the mass mobilization of the people, similarly to the Stakhanovite movement in the USSR. It later became the cornerstone of legitimation of the successive North Korean rulers. Rulers such as Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un invoked the Ch’ŏllima movement during times of crisis by utilizing the collective memory to bolster nationalism and loyalty to the regimes. 

Dr. Lee also analyzed articles from the Korean Central News Agency from 2005-2018 and found out that between 2005 and 2010 the references to the concept of the nation decreased significantly. However, there was a peak in the reference of the nation in 2011, namely when Kim Jong-un came into power. This suggests that he used the concept of the nation more to solidify his regime. 

Dr. Lee further analyzed the frequency of the visiting of high-ranking members of the North-Korean Politburo in the areas of economy, politics and military from 1994 until 2015. Following Kim Jong-il succession in 1994 there was increased engagement in the political and military spheres which suggests a move towards power consolidation. Economic engagement remained low during that time, which suggests it was a secondary priority for the regime. Following Kim Jong-un succession in 2011, there was a dramatic spike in the engagement in all areas but particularly in the economic area. This suggests an attempt to link the economic development to the legitimacy of the regime. 

There is seemingly a strategic shift in the North Korean state propaganda. This suggests a growing confidence of the stability of the regime to focus on other themes such as economic development and diplomacy. Furthermore, less amount of referencing to the nationalist concept could signal a response to the internal challenges, such as economic hardship. 

Dr. Lee concluded by presenting the main implications of his research. First, the employment of nationalism as a tool to bolster the regime’s resilience and the population’s loyalty. Second, performance legitimation also serves as an important tool to enhance the regime’s resilience, as it shows the concern of the state towards other key issues. Lastly, in order for the regime to cope with the generational shifts on the North Korean society, they must implement effective co-optation strategies in order to ensure the stability of the regime. 

Dr. Mina Sumaadii: “Populist Nationalism as a Challenge to Democratic Stability in Mongolia”

Dr. Mina Sumaadii elaborated on how the economic and legal landscape in Mongolia has led to adverse outcomes, with politicians resorting to populist nationalism to conceal inequality. During elections, there is a deliberate attempt to discredit rival candidates based on ethnicity, often accusing them of having connections to China, whether familial or business-related. Additionally, paternal populism plays a role, with politicians advocating for ‘strong’ leadership, and anti-democratic reforms being rationalized under the guise of ensuring stability.

In contextualizing the rise of populism in Mongolia, Dr. Mina Sumaadii traced back to the 1985 post-communist revolution, marking the inception of Mongolia’s democratic system. Unlike other post-communist nations, Mongolia stands out due to the former Communist Party’s transformation into the main ruling party during the democratic era. However, with the decline of its primary opposition, the Democratic Party, Mongolia has experienced an extended period of one-party dominance since 2016. Consequently, V-Dem has downgraded Mongolia’s status from an electoral democracy to a ‘grey area’ hovering between electoral democracy and electoral autocracy.

Expanding on her contextualization, Dr. Sumaadii emphasized the impact of the 1990s recession and the shift towards an East-Asian orientation, both of which were bolstered by a mining boom in the 2000s. This boom played a significant role in Mongolia’s successful democratization, as the mining industry was not sufficiently developed during the initial democratization period in the 1990s, resulting in a delayed ‘resource curse’ effect. However, subsequent to this, the mining boom led to increasing inequality, with profits from the industry unevenly distributed, contributing to extreme poverty persisting until the 2010s, as wealth became concentrated among select individuals.

Poverty still remains a key economic and political issue, especially as it has not been reduced significantly in recent years, with corruption becoming a major problem as a result. Dr. Sumaadii reported that Mongolia has now, unfortunately, fallen into the same resource curse pattern as other developing nations. An increase in public protests has been the response to the rising inequality, with public confidence in political institutions at an all-time low, resulting in a loss of legitimacy since the populace believes that they cannot solve the problems in the country. 

Although Mongolia is a multiparty system, two major parties have historically dominated politics, but both were/are weakly institutionalized, with poor communication and record keeping of candidate’s policies. Dr. Sumaadii presented that whilst presidential elections receive better coverage, parliamentary elections have little to no record keeping, and no modern study exists investigating if elected candidates fulfilled any of their campaign promises. Political parties themselves do not have a consistent political platform, with individuals promising different contradicting policies under the banner of their political party. As a result, analysis in the traditional terms of ‘left and ‘right’ becomes nearly impossible in this context.

According to Dr. Sumaadii, restrictions on media freedom aid problems, as the country consists mostly of private media broadcasters that are often linked to certain political candidates. Censorship laws fine both local and international reporters for liable defamation, resulting in journalistic self-censorship. Dr. Sumaadii indicates that she still found a means to conduct an analysis of populism by focusing on the strategies employed by politicians, especially in regard to economic populism since most candidates do not campaign on ideology. The center point of this economic populism is alienating rivals with corruption allegations and a narrative of Mongolian ownership of resources as opposed to foreign ownership. In the past, anti-establishment campaigning formed another facet of this economic populism. However, its prominence has waned due to the shift towards a one-party state and the imperative to project party unity to the population. Dr. Sumaadii underscores that the weak rule of law and economic pledges made without due consideration for the national budget have resulted in the failure of many proposed policies, particularly those aimed at combating corruption.

To conclude, Dr. Sumaadii discussed that the economic and legal situation has had a negative effect as politicians try to mask inequality with populist nationalism – where in elections there is an effort to discredit rival candidates based on ethnicity, and in particular accusing them of having a Chinese connection, whether familial or business related. Paternal populism is also a factor, as politicians discuss the need for ‘strong’ leaders, and anti-democratic reforms are justified by the need for stability. 

(*) Radoslav Valev is an ECPS intern.

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

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

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

 

Abstract

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

By Nicholas Morieson & Ihsan Yilmaz

Introduction

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

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

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

Anti-Western Civilizational Populism in Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Western Civilizational Populism in Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Western Civilizational Populism in Israel 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


 

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


 

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