Russian President Vladimir Putin observed amidst soldiers during the military parade in Belgrade, Serbia on October 16, 2014. Photo by Dimitrije Ostojic.

Resurgence of Expansionist Tsarism: Populist Autocracy in Russia

Please cite as:

Valev, Radoslav. (2024). Resurgence of Expansionist Tsarism: Populist Autocracy in Russia. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 14, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0057     

 

The thirteenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Resurgence of Expansionist Tsarism: Populist Autocracy in Russia,” convened online on May 30, 2024. This event delved into the evolving political landscape of Russia. Moderated by Dr. Maxine David, a respected lecturer in European Studies at Leiden University and a foreign policy analyst specializing in Russian and EU foreign policy, the panel featured a distinguished line-up of scholars who provided unique insights into Russia’s populist autocracy from diverse disciplinary perspectives.

Report by Radoslav Valev

The thirteenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Resurgence of Expansionist Tsarism: Populist Autocracy in Russia,” convened online on May 30, 2024, delving into a multifaceted exploration of Russia’s evolving political landscape. Moderated by Dr. Maxine David, an esteemed lecturer in European Studies at Leiden University and foreign policy analyst specializing in Russian and EU foreign policy, the panel assembled a distinguished line-up of scholars, each offering unique insights into Russia’s populist Autocracy from diverse disciplinary lenses. 

Dr. David initiated the discussion by reviewing the deteriorating EU-Russia relations, emphasizing the need to understand domestic politics and the impact of populism in both regions. She also highlighted the importance of including gender and minority perspectives in research to better understand these dynamics globally.

The subsequent presentations delved into more specific discussions in Russia’s political landscape. Dr. Luke March, Professor and Personal Chair of Post-Soviet and Comparative Politics at the University of Edinburg, argued that while populist elements exist in Russia, they are outweighed by Putin’s overarching ideological foundations of statism, imperialism and nationalism, as well as his leadership approach prioritizing state control over populist mobilization. Dr. Alexandra Yatsyk, Researcher at IRHIS-CNRS at the University of Lille and a lecturer at Sciences Po, France, argued that Putinism’s populist rhetoric extends beyond political discourse and is actively supported and disseminated by various allies. Dr. Yulia Gradskova, Associate Professor, Researcher at Södertörn University, Sweden, focused on how the Russian government uses “Traditional Values” to justify restrictive policies, particularly against the LGBTQ+ community, to control women’s reproductive capacities, intertwining these values with militarism and patriotism to support the war against Ukraine. Finally, Dr. Dóra Győrffy, Professor of Economy at Institute of Economics, Corvinus University of Budapest, provided a comprehensive analysis of Russia’s economic prospects in the aftermath of the Ukraine war and the impact of Western sanctions.

Through comprehensive analyses and interdisciplinary perspectives, the panellists examined the intricacies of Russia’s authoritarian practices and their global implications. As geopolitical landscapes shift, understanding Russia’s trajectory is essential for gaining critical insights into the evolving dynamics of international politics and governance.

Dr. Maxine David, the moderator of the panel, provided an overview of the panel’s topic. She began by noting that her academic focus is primarily on EU-Russia relations, stressing the importance of understanding both domestic politics in Russia and within EU member states. She highlighted the disbanding of the EU-Russia Expert Network (EURAN) in February 2022 as a sign of deteriorating relations, which has halted valuable dialogue among experts.

Dr. David stressed the necessity of a clear understanding of populism and autocracy, cautioning against overemphasizing populism’s role in contemporary Russian politics given the state’s dominance in Putin’s discourse. However, she pointed out that populism significantly impacts EU member states, where right-wing populist parties often echo Russian narratives. Despite a noted decline in positive views of Russia among right-wing populist supporters in countries like Italy, France, Hungary, and Germany, Dr. David warned against complacency, as these supporters still tend to view Russia and Putin favourably. Maintaining solidarity in supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia requires a focused attention on the far-right, and also on the far-left, as was suggested by Dr. Luke March.

Dr. David also reflected on the need for introspection among those involved in EU-Russia relations, acknowledging that certain perspectives, such as gender and minority issues, have been underrepresented in past work. Dr. David commended Dr. Gradskova’s emphasis on gender, noting that women and minority groups, including indigenous peoples, have not been sufficiently centered in research on Russia and populism. This conversation is deemed crucial not only for understanding Russia but also for its implications in a broader global context, where the division between autocratic and democratic regimes remains significant, despite being a somewhat simplistic binary.

Dr. Luke March: “Why Putin Is Not a Populist, But Worse” 

Dr. Luke March emphasized that while Putin exhibits some populist elements, they are not systematic or central to his ideology and leadership. Instead, Putin’s core ideology revolves around statism, imperialism, conservatism, and nationalism, with populism serving as a selective and strategic tool rather than a defining feature. Putin’s anti-mobilizational approach and the Russian political system’s aversion to grassroots mobilization make him fundamentally different from populist leaders who seek to rally the people against elites. Putin’s primary concern is maintaining state control and depoliticizing the population, which contrasts sharply with the mobilizational nature of populism.

Dr. Luke March began his presentation by acknowledging that Putin exhibits certain populist elements in his communication style and leadership persona. Putin presents himself as a macho, taboo-breaking outsider who identifies with the common person while also portraying superhuman qualities. This approach aligns with the populist playbook of leaders like Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, as he cultivates a cult-like following through mass events and portrays himself as a voice for the people.

However, Dr. March argued that focusing solely on these populist elements provides an incomplete portrayal of Putin’s leadership. Putin also adopts a statist, organizational persona as the sober CEO and state-builder, invoking Russia’s historical traditions and continuity with Soviet structures. This non-populist style involves more high-blown rhetoric, quoting philosophers, and positioning himself as the guardian of Russia’s statehood rather than an outsider.

While Putin holds mass events that could be seen as populist, the Dr. March contended that these are often stage-managed and rely on paid activists, lacking true spontaneity and grassroots mobilization. Crucially, Dr. March’s analysis of Putin’s speeches and rhetoric revealed a limited emphasis on core populist elements like anti-elitism and popular sovereignty. Putin is people-centric, identifying with the masses, but he does not consistently mobilize this identity against domestic elites or empower the people against them. His anti-elitism is primarily directed at foreign, Western elites, but even then, it is packaged within a broader anti-Western narrative rather than a populist call for popular empowerment.

Dr. March concluded that while Putin exhibits some populist elements, they are not systematic or central to his ideology and leadership. Instead, Putin’s core ideology revolves around statism, imperialism, conservatism, and nationalism, with populism serving as a selective and strategic tool rather than a defining feature. Putin’s anti-mobilizational approach and the Russian political system’s aversion to grassroots mobilization make him fundamentally different from populist leaders who seek to rally the people against elites. Putin’s primary concern is maintaining state control and depoliticizing the population, which contrasts sharply with the mobilizational nature of populism.

While there may be populist elements in Russian media or opposition, the presentation focused on Putin himself, concluding he is not a populist leader at his core. Dr. March concluded that while populist elements exist, they are outweighed by Putin’s overarching ideological foundations of statism, imperialism and nationalism, as well as his leadership approach prioritizing state control over populist mobilization. Portraying Putin primarily as a populist is selective and misleading.

Dr. Alexandra Yatsyk: “Katechontintic Sovereignty of Z-Populism in Putin’s Russia” 

Dr. Alexandra Yatsyk argued that Putinism’s populist rhetoric extends beyond political discourse and is actively supported and disseminated by various allies, including the Russian Orthodox Church, neo-conservative thinkers, and popular culture figures, who collectively promote the ideas of Russian sovereignty, nuclear Orthodoxy, and Russia’s sacred mission as the Katechon. This collective effort contributes to the normalization and aestheticization of these narratives in Russian society.

Dr. Alexandra Yatsyk’s presentation discussed the concept of “Putinism” and its populist rhetoric, focusing on the ideas of Russian sovereignty and the role of nuclear weapons. It argues that while Putinism may not be a populist rhetoric per se, it contains populist arguments, particularly in its portrayal of enemies – both external (the West) and internal (those disloyal to the state, liberals, LGBTQ+ individuals).

According to Dr. Yatsyk, the key rhetoric of Putinism revolves around the notions of security and sovereignty, drawing from the concept of “Katechon” – a figure who restrains apocalyptic forces. This idea, rooted in theosophy and Russian philosophy, portrays Russia as the “Third Rome” and the Russian leader as the Katechon, tasked with protecting the world from evil.

This concept of Russia as the Katechon and defender of sovereignty has been actively developed by Russian neo-conservative thinkers like Alexander Dugin and projects like the Izborsky Club. Dugin, in particular, has become an influential figure in promoting the idea of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as a final battle between the forces of God and Satan, with Russia playing a sacred role.

The presentation also highlighted the idea of “nuclear Orthodoxy,” which portrays Russia as having a divine nature and nuclear weapons as enabling the country to protect its sovereignty. This notion has been reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church, with Patriarch Kirill stating that Russia’s nuclear weapons were invented with God’s help to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty.

Dr. Yatsyk then examined how these ideas of sovereignty and nuclear Orthodoxy are disseminated through popular culture, particularly by “Z singers” – artists who actively promote the idea of Russian imperialism and mission. Dr. Yatsyk gave examples of singers like Julia Chicherina, Akim Apachev and Shaman, whose lyrics and aesthetics reinforce the narratives of Russia as a great, strong country with a sacred mission to defend itself, including through the use of nuclear weapons.

The presentation also discussed the “normalization and aestheticization” of nuclear explosions in popular culture, with references to Shaman’s work depicting nuclear blasts in an aesthetic manner, drawing parallels with fascist aesthetics. Interestingly, Dr. Yatsyk mentioned how some Z singers, like Apachev, attempt to reinterpret Ukrainian cultural legacy from a Russian imperial perspective. For instance, Apachev has rewritten the lyrics of a famous Ukrainian song, “Plyve Kacha,” to portray Ukrainian fighters as demons fighting against the “right country,” while also singing in Ukrainian as a Mariupol native.

In conclusion, Dr. Yatsyk argued that Putinism’s populist rhetoric extends beyond political discourse and is actively supported and disseminated by various allies, including the Russian Orthodox Church, neo-conservative thinkers, and popular culture figures, who collectively promote the ideas of Russian sovereignty, nuclear Orthodoxy, and Russia’s sacred mission as the Katechon. This collective effort contributes to the normalization and aestheticization of these narratives in Russian society.

Dr. Yulia Gradskova: “‘Traditional Values’: Gendered and (New)Imperial Dimensions in Russia” 

Dr. Yulia Gradskova underscored that the convergence of actors spreading “traditional values,” including religious groups and state-supported women’s organizations, aims to control women’s reproductive capacities and strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position. It silences the suffering of women and children in Ukraine, presenting women as responsible for providing human and economic resources for the “Imperial War.” This ideology gains strength despite open rejection by part of the population, as contestation and resistance are difficult in an authoritarian dictatorship. The demographic problem has transformed into portraying women as responsible for the lack of resources for the war against Ukraine.

Dr. Yulia Gradskova began her presentation by stating that the Russian government promotes “Traditional Values” as a value system based on social cohesion, family values, and traditional family life. However, these values are used to justify policies that restrict individual rights and freedoms, particularly targeting the LGBTQ+ community. There is a demographic anxiety in Russia surrounding low birth rates, with “traditional values” emphasizing the importance of motherhood. Organizations like the Patriarchal Commission and Sanctity of Motherhood actively promote these values, sometimes controversially discouraging abortions.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, “traditional values” have become increasingly intertwined with militarism and patriotism. Measures incentivize motherhood, such as reestablishing the “Heroine Mother” status and new public holidays. Simultaneously, laws criminalizing LGBTQ+ expression as “extremism” and effectively outlawing trans identities have been introduced. “Traditional values” place significant expectations on women to have multiple children for “reproducing the nation,” serve as primary caregivers, and instil patriotic values. This is facilitated by state-dependent women’s organizations like the Women’s Union of Russia, which promote “traditional values” through campaigns, courses, and events focused on motherhood and women’s health.

These organizations have also been involved in supporting the war effort, encouraging women to volunteer, produce items for soldiers, and participate in patriotic events that involve children in militaristic displays. They combine rhetoric about caring for women’s welfare with promoting “traditional values” and instilling patriotism in children. The Women’s Union of Russia is particularly influential, with regional chapters across Russia ensuring control over diverse populations. It organizes campaigns discouraging abortions, trains psychologists to convince women against having abortions, and promotes courses on “traditional values” for pregnant women.

The convergence of actors spreading “traditional values,” including religious groups and state-supported women’s organizations, aims to control women’s reproductive capacities and strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position. It silences the suffering of women and children in Ukraine, presenting women as responsible for providing human and economic resources for the “Imperial War.” This ideology gains strength despite open rejection by part of the population, as contestation and resistance are difficult in an authoritarian dictatorship. The demographic problem has transformed into portraying women as responsible for the lack of resources for the war against Ukraine. 

The Women’s Union actively promotes the “happiness of motherhood” through campaigns like “Plus One” instead of abortion. It trains psychologists to convince women not to have abortions and organizes events, festivals, and seminars on women’s health, often focused on future mothers. “Traditional values” are integrated into mandatory courses for pregnant women on how to raise children. Beyond promoting motherhood, the Union diversifies its activities to support the war effort. 

Other state-dependent women’s groups like “Mothers of Russia” similarly combine “traditional values” rhetoric about caring for women’s welfare with support for the war. They host photo exhibitions honouring wives and mothers of soldiers fighting in Ukraine, inviting them to be proud and show their relatives’ military uniforms to children. Dr. Gradskova argued that this convergence of actors spreading “traditional values,” with open state support through presidential grants and local administration involvement, aims to control women’s reproductive capacities for strengthening Russia’s geopolitical position. The suffering of Ukrainian women and children has been silenced, even as Russia faces criminal persecution for abducting Ukrainian children.

Dr. Gradskova concluded by saying that despite open rejection by some, this ideology gains strength in an authoritarian context where contestation is difficult. What was once framed as a demographic problem is now portrayed as women being responsible for providing human and economic resources for the “Imperial War” against Ukraine. 

Dr. Dóra Győrffy: “The Economic Costs of Autocracy in Putin’s Russia”

Dr. Dóra Győrffy’s presentation emphasized that Putin’s autocracy in Russia carries severe economic costs in the medium and long term. Russia has become asymmetrically dependent on China, which is primarily interested in procuring raw materials rather than fostering Russia’s economic development. Although state spending on the war sustains short-term economic growth, the long-term outlook for the Russian economy is dire. The war in Ukraine has undermined every essential factor for long-term growth, including capital, labor, technology, institutions, and freedom.

Dr. Dóra Győrffy’s presentation provided a comprehensive analysis of Russia’s economic prospects in the aftermath of the Ukraine war and the impact of Western sanctions. It highlighted the initial resilience of the Russian economy, with a 3.6% growth rate in 2023 and a projected 3.2% growth for the current year, defying expectations of an economic collapse due to sanctions. This resilience is attributed to Russia’s ability to redirect energy trade, particularly oil, to countries like China, India, and Turkey, aided by a “shadow fleet” that circumvents the G7 oil price cap. Additionally, widespread evasion of sanctions through complex trade networks has allowed Russia to import battlefield goods and other essential items from countries like China.

However, the long-term economic outlook for Russia appears grim. The presentation drew upon theoretical frameworks, such as the Solow Growth Model and the work of Nobel laureates like Paul Krugman and Douglass North, to analyze the factors that determine long-term economic growth: physical capital, human capital, technology, institutions, and culture.

Regarding physical capital, Russia has lost access to Western financial markets, faced asset freezes, and witnessed the exodus of Western companies, resulting in losses of around $107 billion. Foreign direct investments have dried up, with Greenfield investments in Russia plummeting to near zero. Russia’s current account surplus, fueled by energy exports, has been steadily decreasing since its peak in 2022, while imports have become more expensive due to increased transaction costs associated with sanctions evasion.

The labor force in Russia is also facing significant challenges. The country’s population decline, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis and the Ukraine war, has been partially offset by migrants from former Soviet republics. However, the war has led to an estimated 350,000 to 450,000 Russian casualties and the emigration of around 900,000 Russians, including many educated professionals and IT engineers. Measures to address population decline, such as limiting abortion access and increasing payments for having children, are unlikely to produce sustainable results.

Russia’s access to technology has been hampered by its dependence on Western inputs in sectors like computers, electronics, motor vehicles, and machinery. Import substitution efforts have proven problematic, and while sanction evasion has allowed Russia to procure some high-tech products, China’s unwillingness to provide advanced technology remains a significant obstacle.

Institutionally, Russia has been steadily deteriorating in terms of governance quality, property rights protection, and accountability, as indicated by the World Governance Indicators. The war has further entrenched state control over the economy, stifling private initiative and innovation. The mobilization of troops has forced companies to negotiate for retaining their workforce, and the potential return of decentralized corruption and violent groups poses additional threats to business activity.

The presentation concluded that autocracy has severe economic costs in the medium and long term. Russia has become asymmetrically dependent on China, which is primarily interested in procuring raw materials rather than fostering Russia’s economic development. While state spending on the war sustains economic growth in the short-term, the long-term outlook for the Russian economy is dire, as the war has undermined every factor essential for long-term growth, including capital, labor, technology, institutions, and freedom.

Several people during a rally calling for the contra la amnistía resignation of Pedro Sanchez, at Plaza de Cibeles, on March 9, 2024, in Madrid, Spain. Photo: Oscar Gonzales Fuentes.

The EP Elections in Spain: A New Composition of the Radical-right?

The elections to the EP in Spain largely reflect the broader trends occurring at the European Union (EU) level but also have unique dynamics and consequences. Notably, the evolution of the radical-right space is crucial; it appears divided yet shows potential for growth. The expansion of the Eurosceptic radical-right should concern all pro-European parties. It seems logical for mainstream parties to consider whether incorporating radical-right ideas contributes to their normalization and electoral success.

By Hugo Marcos-Marne*

A major concern before the European Parliament (EP) elections was the electoral strength of the radical right and, relatedly, the ability of mainstream parties to resist electorally. Overall results for the 27 member states indicate the consolidation of radical-right parties as a significant electoral force, but also show that mainstream center-left and center-right parties retained enough power to secure a majority in the EP. However, aggregate results often mask different or even divergent dynamics, highlighting that EP elections have had heterogeneous outcomes across European Union (EU) countries. This commentary focuses on the results and effects of the EP elections in Spain.

The elections held on June 9th took place after a polarized electoral campaign in which national issues occupied a prominent role. As a textbook example in this regard, the main opposition party (Partido Popular, PP) framed the campaign as a plebiscite against the Prime Minister (Pedro Sánchez), and there were abundant references to “internal issues” such as the amnesty law affecting the Catalan procés, alleged corruption cases affecting the Socialist government, or the government’s decision to recognize the Palestinian state. The relevance of national issues in the EP elections is well reflected in data gathered just before the elections by the Spanish Center for Sociological Research (CIS). Only 29% of the respondents declared that EU and EP topics would be key for them to cast their vote, a figure that reaches 63% when they were asked about the importance of national politics. Furthermore, more than 50% of the respondents declared to be little or no informed at all about EU issues, and only 4.8% of the sample assigned the highest importance to the EP elections (CIS study 3458). This is in line with an interpretation of the EP elections as second-order, which can also be seen in the low(er) turnout rates.

The elections’ main results had been anticipated by most polls. The PP won the elections with roughly 34% of the valid votes (22 MEPs), followed by the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) with 30% of the votes (20 MEPs), and the radical-right VOX occupied the third place with 9.6% of the suffrages (6 MEPs). The fourth place was to the electoral coalition Ahora Repúblicas (Now Republics), formed by left-wing peripheral nationalist parties such as EH-Bildu, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) or the Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG) (4.9% and 3 MEPs). A divided state-wide radical-left won approximately 8% of the votes and 5 seats in the EP (SUMAR 4.9% and 3 MEPs, Podemos 3.3% and 2 MEPs), and the candidatures by Junts and CEUS (lead Partido Nacionalista Vasco and Coalición Canaria) secured one MEP each. 

The 61 seats that Spain had in the EP were completed with the 3 seats (4.6% of the valid vote) gained by the anti-politics/outsider candidature Se Acabó La Fiesta (SALF, The Party Is Over). SALF is led by Luís Pérez (commonly known as Alvise Pérez), a former political advisor retrained into social media activist with a discourse combining anti-feminist, anti-immigration, nationalist, and anti-party ideas, the latter mostly directed against PSOE and left-wing forces. Pérez has also incorporated strong authoritarian ideas in his (quickly formed) electoral platform, such as building a macro jail for 40,000 people, restating forced labor, or allowing security forces to kill drug dealers.

There is an overall intuitive connection between the general results at the EU level and those from Spain. The main representatives of both the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) family come in first and second place, respectively. The liberals lost many votes, to the extent that Ciudadanos disappeared from the EP (0.7% of the votes, 0 MEPs). The stablished radical-right party VOX improved their results to a certain extent, and a new outsider platform (SALF) strongly aligned with radical-right ideas emerged and secured 3 seats in the EP. Therefore, the results of the elections in Spain evidence the strength of mainstream parties, suggest a general movement towards the right, and leave a divided space in the radical-right camp that is now occupied by two forces. 

In fact, more than 50% of SALF supporters had voted for VOX in the past general elections, which raises the question of what the main differences between those are who remained loyal to VOX and those who switched to SALF. It initially looks as if the electorate of SALF is (even) more masculinized, younger, more educated, and self-position comparatively less to the right on the left-right scale (CIS Study 3458). It is notable that the most popular points on the ideological scale among those who intended to vote for VOX were 8 and 10, with more than 52% choosing one of these options. For those who intended to vote for SALF, the most popular points were 5 and 7, with more than 56% selecting one of the two. Various interpretations may explain this phenomenon, including a less radical electorate casting protest votes regardless of the electoral platform, a less informed electorate that does not interpret the left-right scale in the same way, or an electorate influenced by desirability biases, choosing not to identify with the radical right while supporting policies typically associated with that space. Future analyses are needed to determine if SALF resorts to populist ideas, but preliminary evidence suggests its discourse resembles that of other politicians who use strong anti-elite rhetoric without constructing a benevolent and homogeneous definition of the people.

The elections to the EP have had significant consequences in some member states, such as Belgium, where the Prime Minister resigned, and France, where legislative elections have been announced. In Spain, the effects were less dramatic but still notable. Yolanda Díaz, founder of SUMAR, resigned her position as party general coordinator, although she remains the vice-president of the government and Minister of Labor. The election results may also impact the ongoing formation of a government in Catalonia, where the PSOE was the most voted party on June 9th, following Salvador Illa’s success in the May 2024 regional elections.

The elections to the EP in Spain largely reflect the broader trends occurring at the European level but also have unique dynamics and consequences. Notably, the evolution of the radical-right space is crucial; it appears divided yet shows potential for growth. The expansion of the Eurosceptic radical-right should concern all pro-European parties. It seems logical for mainstream parties to consider whether incorporating radical-right ideas contributes to their normalization and electoral success.

(*) Dr. Hugo Marcos Marné is an Assistant Professor at the University of Salamanca.

Demonstration of the Austrian Identitarian Movement organized a demonstration "to defend Europe in Vienna" on June 11, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

Professor Vieten: Individualized Profit and Socialized Risk Fuel Far-Right Populism

Dr. Ulrike M. Vieten points out that the 2008 economic crisis played a significant role in exacerbating people’s anxieties, highlighting that “profit is individualized while risk is socialized.” This economic instability, coupled with the recent pandemic, has deepened the feeling of insecurity across Europe. These socio-economic factors, she argues, have paved the way for the far-right’s rise, as people seek to channel their distress and anger. Drawing parallels with the normalization of far-right ideologies in the early 20th century, Vieten underscores that this historical context is crucial in recognizing how quickly societal values can shift and the dangers of complacency.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

As critical European Parliament elections take place across Europe, Dr. Ulrike M. Vieten, an Assistant Professor in Sociology of Gender, Migration and Racisms, at Queen’s University Belfast, points out that the 2008 economic crisis played a significant role in exacerbating people’s anxieties, referencing German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, by highlighting that “profit is individualized while risk is socialized.” This economic instability, coupled with the recent pandemic, has deepened the feeling of insecurity across Europe, particularly among young people and students who lost their jobs. These socio-economic factors, she argues, have paved the way for the far-right’s rise, as people seek to channel their distress and anger.

In an interview with European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on Friday, Professor Vieten discussed the complex dynamics driving the rise of populist and far-right parties in Europe, one of the most affluent regions globally. Professor Vieten, a historical sociologist, offers valuable insights into the multifaceted factors contributing to this phenomenon. “The emergence of far-right, particularly racist populism, is surprising in such a wealthy continent. In my view, this has to do with the population itself; it is a class issue,” she explains, emphasizing the middle class’s fear of losing social status and the sense of entitlement that fuels these fears.

The professor also underscores the importance of understanding history to grasp the current political landscape. Drawing parallels with the normalization of far-right ideologies in the early 20th century, she notes, “The shocking reality is that within just ten years, a very cosmopolitan, modern, and diverse society like Germany in the late 1920s could suddenly transform into a monocultural, antisemitic, and racist society.” This historical context is crucial in recognizing how quickly societal values can shift and the dangers of complacency.

Addressing the role of migration as a propeller of far-right populism, Professor Vieten explains how the politicization of migration creates divisions and anxieties. She highlights the interconnectedness of the housing crisis and xenophobic sentiments, exacerbated by media and political rhetoric. “The ideologically loaded notion of migration and migrants is something that has developed over the years,” she notes, pointing to the lack of effective strategies to address these issues.

In combating the influence of far-right populism, Professor Vieten advocates for a culture of open-mindedness, solidarity, social justice, and equality. She emphasizes the need for counter-mobilization against authoritarian tendencies and the importance of cultivating anti-racism bystander habits to challenge the normalization of exclusionary ideologies.

Through this interview, Professor Vieten provides a nuanced understanding of the rise of far-right populism in Europe, rooted in historical context and contemporary socio-economic challenges. Her insights call for a concerted effort to address these issues and promote a more inclusive and equitable society.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Ulrike M. Vieten with some edits.

Rise of Populist Far-Right Is a Class Issue

Professor Vietenthank you so very much for joining our interview series. Let me start with the first question. What do you see as the primary factors driving the rise of populist and far-right parties in Europe which is one of the most affluent parts of the planet? Are there common social, economic, or political conditions that are particularly conducive to their growth across different European countries?

Ulrike M. Vieten: This is an interesting question, and I’m glad we can discuss this issue. As you noted, Europe is a wealthy and rich continent, so the emergence of far-right, particularly racist populism, is surprising. In my view, this has to do with the population itself; it is a class issue. Contrary to some prejudices, this issue is primarily about a middle class that increasingly fears losing its social status.

This fear of losing social status is tied to a sense of entitlement that, unfortunately, many European citizens have. The notion of citizenship plays a crucial role here, as it is still largely based on territorial rights. The European Union or Europe as a concept has not promoted or engaged sufficiently with the idea of a common European citizenship that transcends national identities and citizenships.

The rise of the far-right, particularly in the last 10 years, is also connected to the economic crisis of 2008. Many people tend to forget the impact of that crisis. As Habermas noted years ago, profit is individualized while risk is socialized. This means that the cost of living crisis we are currently experiencing is real, with more people losing ground in terms of income and job security.

We must also consider the impact of the pandemic. Some people, such as white-collar workers, academics like myself, or those working in offices, were relatively privileged because we could switch to online work. Although we experienced isolation and related emotional challenges, we were able to continue working. This experience contrasts sharply with that of young people and students who lost their jobs. The widespread feeling of anxiety and insecurity has affected various European countries.

This issue is complex. A journalist in Paris raised the point that there might be significant divisions between different regions of Europe or the European Union. The experiences of Eastern European countries may differ from those of Western, Central, or Scandinavian countries. It’s crucial not to generalize across all countries. Instead, studies and researchers should examine what is happening in different countries to understand what is triggering these feelings and the rise of far-right populism.

Of course, we do have some commonalities, as I mentioned previously in my speeech at the conference in Paris. For example, the housing crisis is a significant issue, not only in Ireland but also in other countries, contributing to the rise of far-right parties, such as in the Netherlands. It’s an issue in Spain as well. Despite these countries’ differences, they share an unfortunate trend of commercializing housing to an extreme extent, often lacking a functional rental market.

I’m originally from Germany, where renting is generally well-regulated, although there are issues in places like Berlin. On average, however, Germany maintains a more balanced rental market, emphasizing the right to decent housing. This level of regulation is absent in countries like the UK and Ireland. I’m focusing on Ireland because it’s part of the European Union, and the situation there illustrates a broader problem. Addressing this housing crisis should be a priority for policymakers.

The current conditions have led to a rise in xenophobic sentiments across various countries, targeting migrants and refugees. This is partly due to a sense of entitlement among long-settled citizens who feel their needs are being neglected while international migrants are accommodated. This growing xenophobia and the housing crisis are interconnected, reflecting deeper societal issues that need urgent attention.

The Temporal Proximity of Shifts Toward the Far-Right Is Shocking

An old published photo of Adolf Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany, in 1934, with enthusiastic locals from the Obersalzberg area. Photo: Andreas Wolochow.

In your speech at the “Do not wake the Dragon,” you often refer to history. Why do you think history is so central in understanding the rise of far-right populism?

Ulrike M. Vieten: I’m a historical sociologist, not just a political sociologist, and, as I mentioned earlier, I come from Germany and was born in the sixties. Therefore, one must come to terms with the impact of national socialism, institutional anti-semitism, and the Holocaust not only on Germany but on Europe as a whole. This historical context is essential for understanding the significance of these events.

In my recent publication with my Australian colleagues, we focus on the normalization of the global far-right. It is absolutely important and central to examine contemporary witnesses of the rise of Hitler’s nationalist socialism and fascism in other countries, such as Italy and Spain. This helps us understand what we refer to as normalizing processes. Fortunately, there is a wealth of knowledge available, including books, archival materials, and documentaries, which is why I emphasize the importance of this historical study.

The shocking reality is that within just ten years, a very cosmopolitan, modern, and diverse society like Germany in the late 1920s could suddenly transform into a monocultural, antisemitic, and racist society. This drastic change is where the mythical figure of the dragon becomes relevant. My argument is that the seeds of such transformation are embedded within liberal democracies and capitalism itself. This transformation often occurs due to a mixture of socioeconomic crises and deliberate manipulation of majority populations, making them believe that a specific group is responsible for their hardships.

Historically, this scapegoating targeted European Jews, who were assimilated into various national identities—German, French, Romanian, Bulgarian, etc. Despite their assimilation, they were singled out as the “other” and blamed for the societal disruptions and economic challenges, particularly those faced by the disadvantaged classes. This process of targeting a minority group as responsible for societal issues has repeated throughout history, highlighting the importance of understanding these mechanisms to prevent future occurrences.

The shocking element is the temporal proximity of these changes. From the late 1920s to the early 1930s—a span of just 10-13 years—Germany transformed rapidly. This serves as a stark reminder of how quickly such shifts can occur, paralleling events unfolding before our eyes today.

We have lived through the 1980s and 90s, a period when multiculturalism, diversity, equality, and inclusion were highly valued. We could not have imagined that within 10-15 years, the discourse would shift so dramatically. This change has significant consequences for the political landscape and the kinds of parties that emerge and gain influence.

Some of these far-right parties, for example, in France, have been established and present for years, so this is not a new phenomenon. The normalization process involves their ideologies becoming respectable and acceptable to a significant minority, not necessarily a numerical majority, but enough to wield considerable influence. This minority can empower these parties to gain parliamentary seats, not just in national elections but also in the European Parliament.

This trend is concerning and underscores the importance of studying history and listening to contemporary witnesses. Many people may not fully comprehend the gravity of the situation because it is human nature to take things for granted until they are lost. As an academic, and for organizations like yours, it is crucial to alert and alarm people about these developments. Understanding the past is essential to grasp the potential implications of current events, and to recognize that the rise of such parties is not entirely new.

It’s not new; it has been done before. It’s not simply a matter of history repeating itself, but the elements are there. So, in response to this concern, I like to cite intellectuals of the Frankfurt School in exile, particularly Adorno and Horkheimer. If these names ring a bell, my favorite quote comes from Max Horkheimer, who wrote in 1939: “Those who do not want to talk about capitalism should be silent about fascism.” In my view, this encapsulates the core of the problem.

Adorno, in the 1960s, gave a very famous lecture in Vienna, which was published in both German and English. He foresaw that the transformations and different stages of capitalism might again lead to feelings of losing social status and the concentration of capital. We are witnessing a further push in modernity and the dynamics of late capitalism, which can exacerbate these issues. This is why understanding history is so crucial.

Migration Has Become Politicized

How do the increasing populist and far-right tendencies in various member states affect the process of European integration and the overall stability of the European Union? Are there specific policy areas (like migration) where their influence is particularly noticeable? Can you please especially explain the role of migration as one of the propellers of far-right populism in Europe?

Ulrike M. Vieten: It goes back to what I mentioned earlier about migration being the main problem, which I believe was staged. I wouldn’t go so far as to directly compare the projection of anxieties and racism toward Jews in the 1930s to the current situation with migrants. However, we do see similar patterns and structures. The ideologically loaded notion of migration and migrants is something that has developed over the years. As someone who has observed this both from within and outside the European Union, I find it very interesting to understand.

Until 2016, before Brexit, there was always a distinction between migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. These distinctions, which are also legal, have somewhat collapsed over time. We are not just talking about migration as an issue; it produces anxieties for the reasons I outlined earlier. For example, if there is a systemic housing catastrophe, as Irish President Michael Daniel Higgins noted two years ago, and no real strategy to resolve it, it becomes easier to blame arriving international protection applicants and refugees who need housing. These individuals have a right to accommodation, while in many countries there are issues not only with homelessness but also with the availability and affordability of housing.

These divisions are often exacerbated by the media and politics, which unfortunately are not helpful here. They often play into the tune of far-right populism by creating boundaries and divisions. Instead of framing the issue as one that affects all people living in a particular country and promoting solidarity, it’s easier to focus on numbers, like saying there are 13,000 refugees coming into the country while there are 10,000 homeless citizens. Even if those 10,000 homeless people can’t vote because they don’t have an address, others perceive the situation as unfair. People might relate more to a fellow citizen than to a refugee or someone from Sudan. This issue intersects strongly with racism, highlighting differences between white and black bodies and is heavily gendered. It becomes a mixture of various complex areas, influencing who is welcomed and allowed to stay.

In my view, migration has become politicized. Emotions and distress are being used to channel anger, rather than being fair or open about capitalist interests. The housing market is commercialized, interest-focused and privatized rather than collective. Some discussions have really gotten out of hand. The media and mainstream politicians have not been helpful, as they often follow the lead of far-right populist politicians and leaders. Efforts to counter this division and the racism it conveys are not very visible, at least in the news I follow, which includes German-speaking and English-speaking media.

Assumption That Younger Generations Would Be More Liberal and Left-Wing Disproved

Demonstrators of the Austrian Identitarian movement form a guard of honor of flags in Vienna, Austria on June 11, 2016. Photo: Johanna Poetsch.

 

 

What strategies are populist and far-right parties using to attract voters ahead of the upcoming EP elections? How are they framing their messages to resonate with a broader audience, and what role does social media play in their campaigns?

Ulrike M. Vieten: I must say this question is a bit beyond my comfort zone, as I’ve been outside the European Union for a few years now. However, from what I understand, various countries have successfully gauged the type of anger and socio-economic upset present in different localities, particularly at the subnational level. They take the frustration and anger of local people seriously. This approach seems more successful, perhaps because a crucial element of populism is its anti-elite stance. Populists argue that the political elite has not listened to people’s concerns and has had 20 years to address these issues but has not done much. This narrative has been a success story for far-right populists, as they can relate to and communicate with people on a very local level, at least pretending to take their concerns seriously.

Regarding social media, I mentioned earlier that the pandemic, in my view, triggered a lot of what’s happening now. Social media’s potential for spreading conspiracy theories and fake news has been exploited, with platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram being used to mobilize people. You might have heard about the incidents in Ireland last year, which were based on false information about the events and the actors involved. The Irish police, Gardaí, were apparently unprepared for the resulting outrage and riots on the streets. Populists are very capable of using social media, which is also a generational issue. We might assume that younger generations would be more liberal and left-wing, but that’s not the case. The landscape is much more fragmented, with movements like the Identitarian movement in France capturing the interests of younger people. This is a significant concern. While I can use social media, I am not able to fully understand its extent or impact. Established parties may not use or understand these tools as effectively, which could be attributed to generational differences.

People in Poorer Urban and Rural Areas Often Feel Abandoned

In your opinion, what measures can mainstream political parties and civil society take to effectively counter the narratives and influence of populist and far-right movements? Are there successful examples of such counterstrategies in recent European political history?

Ulrike M. Vieten: European history sounds grand, but here I refer to the constructive, positive experience of a group called “Hope, Not Hate” based in Ireland. Originally, they started with a different name that more explicitly focused on monitoring far-right activities. They have since shifted their focus to promoting a positive, inclusive vision. Their approach is similar to some strategies used by far-right populists: they engage with local communities, taking their concerns seriously. Instead of immediately stigmatizing those protesting the accommodation of new asylum seekers in previously empty hotels, they engage in dialogue to understand the sources of their anxieties and frustrations. This is hugely important as it addresses feelings and experiences of deprivation in a very tangible sense.

It’s not by chance that in poorer parts of cities or rural areas, people often feel abandoned. These communities, already experiencing significant deprivation, are then confronted with a larger group of people who look different, speak differently, and have different cultures. There is often no encompassing structure to help them manage their fears and learn about these individuals. In some places, volunteers have addressed this by not only offering language training but also organizing shared cooking and socializing activities. This helps break down barriers and the sense of “otherness” that dehumanizes and stigmatizes these groups. Without normal or spontaneous communication, it becomes easy to criminalize and marginalize them. As soon as people target a specific group and that group becomes marginalized, it becomes abstract, making it easier to criminalize them.

What’s happening right now with the illegal Migration Bill is concerning. At another time, I would argue that such a bill would have been considered illegal. Some actions may become legal, but in terms of ethics and a deeper understanding of what law and justice should be, it’s the opposite. This is where historical knowledge is crucial. We must be very aware of how legal systems can be established to criminalize, marginalize, and rationalize the exclusion of others. This is what’s on the agenda now.

Re-election of Trump Expected to Further Normalize Far-Right Ideologies

QAnon Shaman, Jake Angeli is seen as roaming near the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 insurrection which was initiated by Former US President Donald Trump in Washington D.C.. Photo: Johnny Silvercloud

How do you think a possible victory by Donald Trump at the upcoming US elections will affect the normalization of global far-right movements?

Ulrike M. Vieten: My spontaneous answer to this is that it’s already normalized. That’s the problem. This normalization started 10-20 years ago, possibly even after 9/11, with the racialization of Muslim communities. It’s a process where people become accustomed to accepting that a vulnerable group can be stigmatized. For example, in some Continental European countries like Belgium, where you’re based, there’s criminalization of headscarves and targeting of gendered clothing. This normalization process makes it acceptable to criminalize wearing certain types of clothing.

If Trump wins a second term, which I think is very likely, it will only continue a trend he started earlier. It’s almost like a theater of absurdity, where a politician can encourage followers to attack the symbolic buildings of liberal democracy in the United States. He should stand trial for such actions, but instead, the most significant trial he faces seems to be about paying hush money to a sex worker. This shows how far we have come in this process of normalization.

It might be a new stage, and that’s very relevant in terms of international politics. However, it’s not a symptom of a new stage of normalization because the normalization and accommodation of far-right, racist, white superiority, as embodied by Trump, is part of an ongoing process. This process involves machismo, patriarchy, and white superiority. The shocking aspect I mentioned is the widespread polarization in different societies, including the United States, European countriesand Brazil. Social cohesion is gone, and there is no longer a consensus on what democracy, social values, gender equality, or inclusion mean. We now have polarized positions.

Trump’s prominence is partly due to his many white, middle-class, or working-class followers who admire his sexist and racist positions. This admiration of certain identities and claims globally is alarming. Reading history books, we often wonder how people could have admired figures like Hitler. However, what we see now has similarities, including the sexualization of politics, which helps explain why figures like Trump become so successful.

Silencing Dissent Can Lead to Increased Polarization and Fragmentation

Lastly, Professor Vieten, based on your recent article, “Accomplices to Social Exclusion? Analyzing Institutional Processes of Silencing,” how do institutions systematically mobilize silencing as a tool of power, especially given the rise of populist radical right and far-right parties that are socially and politically exclusionary? Can you elaborate on how institutional silencing specifically affects intersections of social class, gender, race, and ethnicity and what the potential effects of these exclusions and silencing might be in the upcoming EP elections?

Ulrike M. Vieten: That’s a very complex question that touches on various dynamics inherent to these problems. I’ll start with the institutional processes of silencing. In opposition to silencing, we could argue that there is a right to free speech. Far-right parties and politicians definitely have the right to express what they think is right and wrong. Likewise, populations who identify with these far-right populist views have the right to tell their stories.

On the other hand, limitations on free speech must align with constitutional rights, values, and respect for others. These limitations are necessary to maintain a balanced discourse. The issue of silencing is not limited to far-right populist parties; it’s more complex. What I’m observing is institutional silencing on controversial issues, which varies by country. For example, discussions about the war in Gaza are handled very differently in Ireland and Spain compared to Germany and France. In some places, expressing critical views about certain politicians or Israeli policies can lead to being labeled as antisemitic. This kind of silencing can lead to increased polarization and fragmentation, making people feel disenfranchised.

Far-right populist parties often capitalize on this feeling of being silenced or marginalized. This can drive people toward these parties as they seek a platform to express their views. This phenomenon isn’t as visible with left-wing parties at the moment, unlike in previous years when left-wing populist parties were stronger in Greece and Spain. This is a macro societal issue that affects the overall political landscape.

Another issue that hits close to home involves institutions like universities, newsrooms and even public spaces like buses or trains. What does it take to speak up and overcome bystander silence? We should cultivate what I would call anti-racism bystander habits. This idea is linked to countering authoritarian characters, harking back to the Frankfurt School’s analysis of how National Socialism emerged and became successful. They identified the authoritarian character as a key factor.

We need counter-mobilization to combat the silencing of different views. Traditions and cultures of communication vary across countries, but there is a universal need for a positive understanding of conflict. Conflict can be constructive if disputes are accepted and people are trained to understand communication dynamics. This is not just about becoming a successful leader but about understanding how communication works and how enriching it can be to listen to different perspectives. Understanding where other views come from is crucial, and this skill is currently lacking. There is much work to be done in this area.

Unfortunately, my final thought on this topic is rooted in my experience as an academic. I began writing about cosmopolitanism in Britain and Germany in 2004-2005 and published on it in 2012. Back then, I thought the idea of cosmopolitanism was beautiful, but it can’t exclude any groups or people from other countries. That was a naïve perspective. Claiming cosmopolitanism as a specific cultural attitude for Europe, Europeans or even worse, European Union Member State citizens, is absolutely ridiculous.

We need to recognize that cosmopolitanism was already visible as potentially being co-opted for middle-class mobility and cosmopolitan interests, rather than embracing its true vision. The vision of cosmopolitanism should be about developing a culture of open-mindedness, solidarity, social justice, and equality—principles that are still not fully realized. Achieving this would require a willingness to share and support local communities. It isn’t something that can be achieved overnight, but it involves unlearning a sense of entitlement developed over centuries and learning to engage with others, with the stranger, to lessen fear and build connections.

A poster of a political party in Cape Town, South Africa, on January 18, 2024, for the 2024 elections. Photo: Remo Peer.

The Rise of Populist Parties in South Africa and End of the ANC’s Parliamentary Majority

In the recent national elections in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time, indicating widespread discontent with its governance. While the ANC remains the ruling party, its ongoing failure to address the nation’s economic woes, violent crime problem, and racial inequalities has made South Africa fertile ground for charismatic populist leaders, like Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, who make grand promises to solve these issues.

By Nicholas Morieson

This commentary briefly examines the decline of the African National Congress (ANC) and the concomitant rise of populist parties in South Africa, focusing on the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In the recent national elections, the ANC lost its parliamentary majority for the first time, receiving less than 50% of the vote, indicating widespread discontent with its governance. The success of the new populist movements stems not only from their leaders’ charisma but also from their ability to exploit the ANC’s failures. While the rise of populism may invigorate political competition, it also poses significant risks given these new parties’ often radical and exclusionary rhetoric.

The Decline of the Ruling African National Congress

The African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid, lost its parliamentary majority for the first time following national elections this week. In an unprecedented turn of events, the party is estimated to have won less than 50% of all votes, forcing it to find a coalition partner in order to govern. The result suggests that a majority of South Africans now believe that the ANC is incapable of solving the country’s problems. Despite its long rule, the party has not been able to create enough employment, particularly for its young people, 40% of whom do not have a job. Nor has it found the funds to construct an adequate electricity grid and supply power to its cities twenty-four hours a day, or decrease the astonishing number of violent crimes and robberies committed each year, and which places South Africa among the world’s most dangerous nations. 

The decline of the ANC has not come due to a dramatic rise in support for their traditional rival, the Democratic Alliance, which won around 23% of all votes and is most widely supported by white and Asian South Africans. Rather, an increasing number of black voters have turned away from the ANC and now vote for populist parties such as former ANC leader Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (commonly abbreviated to MK), which has been estimated to win around 15% of votes contesting its first election, and the Julius Malema led Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which won more than 9% of votes. Both Malema and Zuma are products of the ANC, and in a way their success might be understood as a breaking apart of the ANC into three parties, representing the interests of different groups in South African society, rather than the rise of entirely new political movements. However, what is new is the intrinsically populist nature of the new parties. Thus while many reports on South Africa’s elections will focus on the decline of the ANC, the rise of populist parties is an equally important story and the primary cause of the ANC’s loss of its cherished parliamentary majority. 

Although different, MK and the EFF share important characteristics. First, both present themselves as the voice of the authentic black people of South Africa. Second, both promise to solve South Africa’s problems by removing the corrupt ANC elite and installing a wise leader who knows the will of the people and will govern in their interests. Third, both parties blame many of the nation’s economic and social difficulties on foreigners and – in the case of the EFF – on white South Africans. 

MK 

uMkhonto weSizwe, meaning ‘spear of the nation,’ is a populist movement based around the personality of Jacob Zuma, South African president from 2009-2018, who founded the party in 2023 after leaving the ANC. Zuma’s presidency was marred by numerous allegations of corruption, eventually leading to a criminal case against him and a subsequent conviction for contempt of court. Despite this, Zuma remains a popular figure, and is considered by his supporters a man of the people who fights for the interests of the authentic Zulu people of South Africa. Such is Zuma’s popularity, particularly among Zulus, that his conviction led to the worst violence in post-Apartheid South Africa, which saw more than 350 killed in mass riots.  

It is difficult to discern a particular ideology behind MK’s political statements and positions. The party is so closely tied to the personality and charisma of Zuma, and his peculiar combining of Zulu traditional culture (including support for polygamy – Zuma himself has several wives), social conservatism on issues such as same sex marriage, and left-wing economic policies, that it is difficult to imagine the party existing without its leader. Zuma launched MK by declaring that he would not betray the South African people by campaigning for incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa, and that the return of the ANC would “lead our people to more misery, poverty, racism, unemployment, deepening load-shedding (power cuts) and a government led by sellouts and apartheid collaborators”.

In contrast, Zuma promised his new party would bring South Africans “total liberation” from the nation’s corrupt elite and a better future.  

Although Zuma was banned by a South African court from running for parliament, his name still appeared on ballot papers, where he was listed as MK leader, a bizarre situation that demonstrates flaws in South Africa’s electoral processes.  

His immediate electoral success came almost exclusively at the ANC’s expense, especially in KwaZulu-Natal province where MK has won the largest share of votes, and the party must now decide whether MK and Zuma can be relied upon as a coalition partner in the government they attempt to form. 

The Economic Freedom Fighters

The EFF, founded in 2013, is most often categorised as a communist and populist party. However, the party is perhaps best understood as a ethnonationalist populist movement that blames South Africa’s lack of development on both the corrupt ANC elite and – most importantly – white South Africans. The latter are portrayed by the EFF and its leader, expelled ANC member Julius Malema, as possessing a monolithic identity as the enemy of ‘the people’, i.e. black South Africans. The party is thus in certain respects not left-wing at all, but rather a nativist, exclusivist, and racist group that far from abhorring violence makes its anthem the old anti-white rule song ‘Kill the Boer,’ and which tells followers to not “be afraid to kill” and that “killing is a revolutionary act”. Malema is also famous for refusing to rule out the mass killing of white South Africans, although he did suggest that this event, should it take place, would occur in the future, and that he was not at present calling for any killings to occur. 

The EFF’s key policies in 2024 reflect its populist nativism, especially its call for land reform without compensation to white farmers who lose their land, plan to nationalise the country’s most important industries including banks and mines, it’s aim to end efforts at reconciliation between black and white people and move towards giving black people ‘justice’, and what it calls “massive protected industrial development” intended to give create jobs for all Africans and to end income inequality between racial groups. 

The EFF’s platform appeals to educated and young black South Africans who often struggle to find jobs despite holding a degree, and who are tired of watching on as ANC policies failed to address the country’s persistent economic and racial inequalities, which they believe will not be resolved until the ANC is removed from power and land is redistributed from whites to the black people from whom it was taken.

Although the party appears to have failed to substantially increase its share of the vote from previous elections in 2019, the EFF remains an influential political movement, and together with MK will play a major role in deciding who governs South Africa. 

Conclusion

The growth of populism in South Africa in the form of MK and the EFF has come at the expense of the once unassailable ANC. Significantly, both Zuma and Malema are former ANC men who turned against the party, and now present themselves as saviours of the true people of South Africa and authentic Africans who fight against ANC corruption and white oppression. 

Now lost, it is unlikely the ANC will win back its parliamentary majority, and therefore South Africa enters a new period of its politics in which populist movements promising liberation from corrupt elites and, in the case of the EFF, revenge against whites, now play vital roles in deciding which parties will govern in coalition with the ANC, and may even themselves win important roles in government. 

The ANC remains the ruling party of South Africa, but its continuing failure to solve or even improve the nation’s economic woes, violent crime problem, and racial inequalities make South Africa fertile ground for charismatic populist leaders who make big promises to solve the nation’s problems. And although the ANC’s decline fuels the rise of new parties, and in this way may reinvigorate South African democracy or force the ANC to improve its governance, populists such as Malema or Zuma are unlikely to deliver the South African people from the poor and corrupt governance they have experienced for two decades. 

ECPS-MGP Panel 13 Thumbnail

Mapping Global Populism – Panel XIII: Resurgence of Expansionist Tsarism: Populist Autocracy in Russia

Date/Time: Thursday, May 30, 2024 — 10:00-12:00 (CET)

 

Moderator

Dr. Maxine David (Lecturer in European Studies at Leiden University and Foreign Policy Analyst Specializing in Russian and EU Foreign Policy).

Speakers

“Why Putin Is Not a Populist, But Worse,” by Dr. Luke March (Professor, Personal Chair of Post-Soviet and Comparative Politics at the University of Edinburg).

“Katechontintic Sovereignty of Z-Populism in Putin’s Russia,” by Dr. Alexandra Yatsyk (Researcher at IRHIS-CNRS at the University of Lille and a lecturer at Sciences Po, France).

“‘Traditional Values’: Gendered and (New)Imperial Dimensions in Russia,” by Dr. Yulia Gradskova (Associate Professor, Researcher at Södertörn University, Sweden).

“The Economic Costs of Autocracy in Putin’s Russia,” by Dr. Dóra Győrffy (Professor of Economy at Institute of Economics, Corvinus University of Budapest).

Professor Simon Tormey, a political theorist and the Executive Dean of Arts and Education at Deakin University in Australia.

Professor Tormey: The World Is in an Era of Economic Liberalism with Great Power Rivalry

Professor Simon Tormey stated that great power rivalry is more significant than any new ideology, indicating a shift away from globalization, which suggested diminishing differences between countries. Tormey highlighted that nationalist and nativist power struggles are likely to shape political outcomes for at least the next two decades. He noted the reemergence of great power rivalry, alongside economic interconnectedness and trends of de-globalization and decoupling. Tormey predicted continued regional conflicts and the persistence of populism without evolving into a new form of neo-populism.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on Monday, Professor Simon Tormey, a political theorist and the Executive Dean of Arts and Education at Deakin University in Australia, discussed the complex dynamics shaping the current global political landscape. Professor Tormey offered a deep dive into what he describes as an era characterized by economic liberalism intertwined with great power rivalry.

“Great power rivalry is probably more important than any neologism or new ideology,” stated Professor Tormey, highlighting the significant geopolitical shifts that have overshadowed the once-dominant narrative of globalization. He pointed out that we are witnessing a retreat from the idea that the differences between countries are becoming less significant than their similarities. Instead; nativist, nationalist great power rivalries are reemerging and are likely to dictate political outcomes for the next 15-20 years.

The interview covered various topics, including the role of populism in modern democracies. Professor Tormey explained that populism, whether from the right or left, often arises in response to crises. “We are in an era of poly-crisis,” he noted, referring to the simultaneous challenges of economic turmoil, climate emergencies, geopolitical conflicts, and social instability. These conditions create fertile ground for populist movements that seek to undermine trust in ruling elites and offer radical solutions.

Despite the rise of populism, Professor Tormey argued that the fundamental structures of capitalism and economic liberalism remain robust. “Neoliberalism is more entrenched than this description suggests. The belief in the market, capitalism, and the ability of people to invest in various countries is intrinsic to capitalist modernity,” he asserted.

On the topic of migration and social cohesion, Professor Tormey acknowledged the concerns of right-wing populists but emphasized the benefits of multiculturalism. He pointed out that successful multicultural societies, such as the US, Canada, and Australia, enrich democratic life. However, he also recognized the need for a balanced approach to immigration, as seen in the ongoing debates in the UK, the Netherlands and Australia.

Reflecting on the future, Professor Tormey underscored the importance of democratic engagement and innovation. He believes that democracy must adapt to include both traditional institutions and new forms of participation driven by technological advances. “We need both established institutions and the energy of street protests and new forms of political participation,” he concluded.

This insightful interview with Professor Simon Tormey offers a comprehensive overview of the current state of global politics, the challenges of populism and the enduring influence of economic liberalism and great power rivalry.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Simon Tormey with some edits.

Crisis and Populism Are Closely Intertwined

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu’s Judicial Coup in Israel. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

Thank you so much, Professor Tormey, for joining our interview series. I’d like to start right away with the first question. In your article titled “Stresses and Strains: Will We Ever Agree on What’s Going Wrong with Democracy?” you discuss the chronic nature of democracy’s crisis under capitalist conditions. How do you think current global economic trends, such as rising inequality and economic uncertainty are influencing this crisis and the public’s perception of democracy?

Professor Simon Tormey: We are in an era of poly-crisis, a modern term that encapsulates our current multifaceted challenges. We face an economic crisis, a climate emergency, significant geopolitical risks, a land war in Europe and threats of conflict elsewhere. Additionally, poverty, starvation and political instability plague many regions. These crises provide fertile ground for populism, which thrives by undermining trust in the ruling elites and their ability to improve the situation. To understand populism, we must recognize its deep interconnection with crisis; the two are closely intertwined.

We can see this dynamic clearly in Europe, where a confected immigration crisis is fueling the far-right. Italy currently has a far-right leader, and the Netherlands has just formed a new government. We’ve got the British, who are trying desperately to avoid tumbling into a populist right-wing formula for dealing with immigration problem. Ireland may also shift to the right soon. Additionally, of course, we have the run-up to the French Presidential election in 2027. It looks like the far-right is poised to do very well in the next European elections.

Another crucial point is that contemporary media amplifies these crises. The media thrives on crisis, generating a sense of collective doom with images from Palestine and other troubled regions. This exacerbates the feeling, especially among young people that we are heading towards disaster and that only those with radical, simplistic solutions can help. Contemporary democracy has amplified our sense of crisis, and populism feeds off this, making life increasingly difficult for the once dominant technocratic elite.

In your discussion of the democratic crisis, you mention that the global financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures accelerated certain negative traits in liberal democracy, leading to the rise of populism. How do you see the interplay between economic factors and political populism evolving in the current global landscape?

Professor Simon Tormey: These issues are very intimately interconnected. Before the global financial crisis, interest in populism was quite limited in my field. In political science, it was mostly a few scholars examining curious, idiosyncratic movements like the Narodniks in Russia, certain figures in the US during the 1920s and 1930s, and the Cordillo movements and parties in Latin America. However, what really sparked contemporary interest in populism was the global financial crisis, which called into question the competence and trustworthiness of the elites leading Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the US and similar regions.

This crisis elicited two main reactions. The first is the right-wing populist approach, which argues that open markets, free borders and cosmopolitanism have created a precarious interconnectedness where problems in one part of the world quickly impact another. This perspective fuels a backlash against these principles, exemplified by figures like Donald Trump, who represent a right-wing rejection of open markets and cosmopolitanism.

On the other hand, the global financial crisis also provoked a left-wing reaction. This began with Syriza in Greece and continued with movements like Podemos in Spain and Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity stance in Britain. These movements also employ populist rhetoric, framing the struggle as the people versus the elites and critiquing the European Union as a pro-capitalist, pro-austerity entity.

The contemporary wave of populism is thus deeply rooted in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, manifesting in various forms. We see both right-wing and left-wing backlashes. Mark Blyth highlights this well in his work, justifiably arguing that populism can be seen as a response to the perceived failure of neoliberalism.

As populism scholars, we recognize that populism predates the financial crisis. It is more intrinsic to democratic life than merely a backlash or reaction to economic turmoil. Populist movements have existed since the mid- to late-19th century. Thus, there is a deeper aspect to populism beyond just responding to financial crises. It is a political stance that seeks to position elites as complicit in the hardships faced by the people. These hardships can be expressed in economic terms but also in other ways.

In unequal societies, there is a persistent dynamic where some claim that the people are being used or abused by elites for their own purposes. This is inherent in unequal societies, particularly in feudal and aristocratic systems, and in our modern capitalist societies, where inequality is deeply embedded in the structure.

Even Anti-Representative or Anti-Elite Movements Make Representative Claims

Techno-populist movements include the Five Star Movement (Italy) and the AfD (Germany), Podemos (Spain) in Europe, Occupy Wall Street in the US and One Nation in Australia through online communication. Photo: Shutterstock.

Given your discussion on the decline of traditional party-based representative politics and the emergence of new forms of political engagement, what do you consider the most promising alternatives to traditional democratic structures for addressing the current democratic stress? Additionally, what role will populist parties and leaders play in either exacerbating this crisis or potentially mitigating the crisis of representation and democracy?

Professor Simon Tormey: I think populism is an interesting case because populist leaders often say, “We, the voiceless, need a voice. I can be that voice for the voiceless.” This represents a paradoxical response to the crisis of representation. In my 2015 book, I didn’t delve deeply into this because it predated the rise of many populist figures. Populism can be seen as a form of hyper-representation, positioning the people against those who are supposed to represent their interests.

On the other side of the coin, we have various democratic innovations, closely linked to technological advances over the last 20-30 years. Researchers like Lance Bennett and Clay Shirky have documented the impact of digital mechanisms on increasing connectivity among people. Some political scientists dismiss this as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism,” but my research suggests that tools like Twitter, Facebook, and flash mobs have flattened organizational structures, transforming how political life operates. This shift calls into question the traditional modus operandi of political parties.

In Spain, for example, we’ve seen the rise of instant political parties. Technology hasn’t rendered political parties obsolete; it has transformed them. Now, we have a variety of political party types, from mainstream parties to pop-up parties, single-issue and flash parties, even those that are anti-representational by design. This has expanded the repertoire of representation forms, some paradoxically anti-representative.

I agree with Ernesto Laclau, who argues that even anti-representative or anti-elite movements still make a representative claim, asserting that they represent the people’s deepest needs. This challenges traditional theories of representation, leading to a rethinking of why we need political parties to represent us. Social media and digital mechanisms have dismembered, dismantled, and reprogrammed our understanding of political representation.

Despite these changes, I believe democracies are as lively as ever. We haven’t lost the desire to come together, participate, and make our grievances heard. The mechanisms for doing so have become more diverse, and we are still learning which are most effective.

Democracies Inherently Involve Crisis

Anonymous & Stop Mass Incarcerations Network held a Million Mask March & Rally that started in Union Square & marched to Columbus Circle by way of Times Square in New York on November 5, 2014. Photo: Shutterstock.

You highlight that some theorists view the democratic crisis as a permanent and endemic condition, while others see it as episodic and short-lived. How do you think these differing perspectives influence the strategies proposed to address the democratic crisis? You also argue that the term “stress” might be more appropriate than “crisis.” Can you elaborate on specific actions or reforms that could help alleviate this ‘democratic stress’ and strengthen democratic institutions?

Professor Simon Tormey: At one level, I share David Runciman’s view on democratic crises: democracies inherently involve crisis. Similarly, we might agree with Nassim Nicholas Taleb that democracies are “Anti-Fragile.” Democracies provoke crises, respond to them, and this is one of their strengths. If we consider democracy as a style of crisis management, it prompts the realization that crises aren’t existential threats to democracy. Instead, they are what democracies are designed to manage and organize. There’s always a crisis, whether it’s a COVID crisis, a geopolitical crisis, or a climate crisis. Democracies are remarkably permeable, malleable, and resistant to the kind of existential crises that often concern critics.

On the other hand, we might discuss democratic stresses—factors that impact how democracy functions. When people shut down a national newspaper, threaten insurrection or imperil the modus operandi of democracy, these can be seen as stresses. We need to be mindful that democracy is a civilizational construct, a way of life as well as a set of institutions and practices. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider how we can protect and fortify democracy against these stresses.

I’m still surprised by how little emphasis is placed on education in the accounts of those who support democracy. In most countries, we don’t teach citizenship or strive to inspire young people with the heritage and inheritance of democratic structures. This is evident in places like Australia and the UK, where I recently observed the same issue. There’s very little civics education, the kind that late-19th century thinkers like J.S. Mill or Henry Thoreau advocated for—educating and encouraging young people to understand and nurture democracy.

In the Australian case, for example, we have compulsory voting. Initially, I wasn’t in favor of this policy when I moved to Australia, as I lean towards a libertarian viewpoint and prefer people to make their own decisions about how to act. However, I’ve seen the impact of compulsory voting on my own children, their friends and students in general. It forces people to take a stake in the system, prompting them to get off the fence and stop blaming others for their situations.

If we consider enhancing civics education, maintaining compulsory voting and involving citizens more directly in deliberative or citizen juries, we could introduce interesting innovations. These could alleviate some issues related to the perception that democracy is controlled by elites in places like Canberra, Brussels or London. Viewing democracy as a practice that everyone should engage in—and indeed has an obligation to engage in—through voting and other interactions with our systems could foster a shared sense of responsibility. This collective engagement could serve as a defense against the unrealistic promises and rhetoric of some populist leaders.

The Contemporary Mindset Is Inherently Democratic

In your article published in 2015 and titled “Democracy will never be the same again: 21st  Century Protest and the transformation of Politics,” you discuss the emergence of new forms of political mobilization such as cloud, swarm, and connective initiatives. How do these new forms challenge traditional organizational structures, and what implications do they have for the future of representative liberal democracy?

Professor Simon Tormey: In political science literature, we discuss the difference between vertical organizations, like political parties and horizontal political organizations. Horizontal organizations are characterized by a commitment to open participation, with no leaders or representatives for the movement or groups. We’ve seen examples of this in recent history with the Occupy Movement, the Indignados Movement in Spain, and the Arab Spring. These innovations are often technologically driven. This isn’t to say that the belief in horizontal structures didn’t exist in classical, Marxist or socialist traditions but technology has made them easier to operationalize for social movements.

On the other hand, another recent lesson is that even these movements, like the Indignados, represent a broad social base and make collective claims. They speak for “we, the 99%” and highlight systemic failures and necessary changes. Despite their horizontal nature, these movements still embody elements of representation. This reveals that even the most horizontal movements incorporate vertical elements.

The binary between vertical and horizontal is not as clear-cut as we once thought. Vertical organizations, such as modern political parties, now often include elaborate forms of participation and engagement. They have evolved significantly over the past 40-50 years to include open structures, consultations, mechanisms of self-control, and accountability.

Conversely, horizontal structures, like social movements, need to be more transparent and accountable regarding leadership and organization. They must clarify their rules and regulations for diverse actor participation, ensure balanced agendas and maintain an equitable platform. This blend of vertical and horizontal elements in both types of organizations suggest a more nuanced understanding of political organization is needed. 

All of these points suggest to me the need for greater sophistication in our understanding of organization and how we organize. We need to be more visible, accountable, and transparent. This aligns with the current Zeitgeist. These themes are prevalent in universities, corporate governance and business. Society is now less accustomed to hierarchy and asymmetry and more inclined towards democracy, accountability and transparency, regardless of the organizational form.

The contemporary mindset is inherently democratic. We want people to be present and involved as much as possible. It’s crucial to establish and maintain mechanisms that enable this participation.

You highlight the decline in trust and participation in traditional electoral politics and the rise of anti-representative movements. Do you see these movements as capable of sustaining long-term political engagement and effecting substantial policy changes, or are they more likely to remain episodic and focused on immediate issues? What kind of populism-proof democracy are you envisaging?

Professor Simon Tormey: This is really about institutionalizing social energies. Reflecting on my fieldwork in Spain, there were initially many street demonstrations, followed by semi-permanent encampments. However, sustaining that level of engagement is impractical—people need to care for children, look after the elderly, work and study. Institutionalization is intrinsic to political life.

Agnes Heller, the renowned political philosopher, made this observation when I interviewed her about 30 years ago. She pointed out that we can’t have a polis or demos that is permanently active. People have lives to lead and responsibilities to manage, so institutionalization is necessary. A healthy democracy is one where both these dimensions—the vibrant moments of direct engagement and the stable institutional structures—are vividly enacted.

We also see citizens participating in various ways, whether through street protests, creating new Facebook groups or finding other methods to make their voices heard. Some of these activities will be brief and fleeting, while others will become institutionalized. For example, in Spain, the Indignados movement gave rise to Podemos, and other movements led to figures like Ada Colau in Barcelona and Manuela Carmena in Madrid. These leaders emerged from street protests and social movements, carried forward by the organizational structures that developed from those movements.

Currently, while large-scale demonstrations have subsided, there is still activity and noise from neighborhood communities and committees. This shows a blend of direct citizen engagement and the institutionalized outcomes of previous movements, reflecting the dynamic nature of democratic participation.

Political parties, in a few years, will themselves be challenged. This reflects a healthy democratic ecology, where we need both established institutions and the energy of street protests and new forms of political participation. If you have one without the other, problems arise.

For instance, if you only have street protests and public clamor without trust in political elites, you’re close to a breakdown, akin to post-Chavez Venezuela or Argentina. Conversely, if you only have a traditional party system without citizen participation beyond political parties, the system becomes stale and susceptible to challenges from those with vigorous social agendas. Thus, democracy requires both institutional structures and dynamic citizen engagement to thrive.

Democracy Should Be Emotional and About What People Want and Need

For right-wing populists in the Western world, “the others” primarily include immigrants but also encompass “welfare scroungers,” regional minorities, individuals with “non-traditional” lifestyles, communists, and more. Photo: Shutterstock.

In your article ‘Populism: Democracy’s Pharmakon’, you argue that framing populism as either negative or positive is, in an important sense, unsatisfactory. Taking into consideration the fact that populism is usually construed negatively, can you please elaborate the positive side of populism?

Professor Simon Tormey: In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, much of the political science literature focused on why citizens were turning off, becoming apathetic and feeling bored with politics. This was largely due to a technocratic consensus around neoliberalism, market centrality and cosmopolitanism. This consensus dictated how the world should function, leading to a lack of contestation and technocratic governance, where citizens felt unheard.

What disrupted this system was the global financial crisis and the emergence of voices challenging the consensus. These challengers argued that democratic debate and discussion should encompass more than what the consensus allowed. Populists often brought this energy and sense of emotion into the public sphere, highlighting the need for a more inclusive and contested democratic discourse.

Depending on your ideological orientation, reactions to populism vary. Left-wing individuals may dislike far-right populism, while right-wing individuals and culturalists may oppose left-wing movements. However, it’s undeniable that this shake-up was probably necessary in hindsight. We were blindly walking towards a collapse of democratic life, marked by a lack of debate and a consensus that left citizens feeling unneeded. We had a democracy without citizen engagement, devoid of the contingency and emotion about the collective’s fate that populists brought with them.

So I saw very closely in Spain, at close hand, a left-wing set of responses to the global financial crisis. People like Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena from Podemos self-declared their populism. I’m not accusing them of being populist; they said we needed a populist series that required popular leaders like Jeremy Corbyn for the many, not the few. These are populist phrases and movements. What they did was shake our sense that we had to accept whatever the elites brought to us as medicine. They re-energized politics.

They re-energized the sense of possibility for citizens at a time when it seemed harmless. I use the parable of the pharmakon as a way of saying that sometimes shaking the tree hard is a necessary antidote to the opposite, which is boredom, paralysis and apathy on the part of citizens. Where it leads, of course, is dependent on the nature and forms of the populist movements that arise in those moments of crisis and urgency. But I think that is the political. I agree with Ron Sierra and Chantal Mouffe. Democracy isn’t a technocratic image; it’s not a machine and shouldn’t be one. It should be emotional and about what people want and need, where they see their interests, and it needs to play out. But that energy also needs to be institutionalized because, without institutions, we do have chaos, no doubt about it.

How can we check and balance the elite and make the elite more accountable?

Professor Simon Tormey: Obviously, in a democracy, we do have traditional means. We do have political parties and I’m not the kind of person who says that there’s no difference between them. There are incredible differences between political parties and there’s also an incredible difference now between presidential candidates if we look at the upcoming US election. The choice for citizens between Trump and Biden is significant, particularly in areas like geopolitics and immigration. However, if you’re looking for a candidate who supports socialism or transformational changes to capitalism, you will be disappointed.

But we know that in American political life, there are candidates who highlight these issues. We’ve had Bernie Sanders running for president, who brought these issues to the forefront. We’ve got Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we’ve got Kennedy, we’ve got Beto O’Rourke, and so on. It’s naive to imagine that these arguments aren’t being discussed, but it’s also naive to imagine that the scales aren’t tipped in favor of the status quo in terms of consensus and so on. But I think that is all part of the cut and thrust of democracy.

I’d also point out that we have many more effective ways of being heard and participating in democratic life than our forebears. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, street protests and demonstrations were seen as last resorts by some democratic theories. I can almost hear my former colleague, Pippa Norris, saying that elections are really what count. However, we can’t imagine that people standing for election are immune to street protests, mobilizations or the kind of ruckus we see regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All these forms of clamor are ways of being heard. They are capable of influencing public opinion and ultimately, we don’t achieve social progress simply by trusting political elites and parties to do what’s best for us. We get progress because those elites come under pressure to respond and react to what ordinary citizens are articulating.

The welfare state, free education, housing and healthcare are products of a groundswell of popular opinion, sometimes expressed at the ballot box but also in various other ways—subtle and not so subtle—that citizens have available to them. That is the right and proper approach in a democracy. Democracy is not just about casting a vote every four or five years (or every three years in Australia); it’s also about people making themselves heard and they have many opportunities to do that.

Without Immigration, Aging Societies Are Dead in the Water

Is populism or its right-wing version problematic for social cohesion?

Professor Simon Tormey: Of course, right-wing populists believe that they are in favor of social cohesion. They think social cohesion is threatened by an influx of refugees and new migrants from parts of the world with different values, whether that’s the Middle East, Asia, or elsewhere. Their view is that social cohesion is a cultural artifact of indigenous people organizing themselves according to a common core of values. I believe multiculturalism is the antidote to that. There are very successful multicultural societies, such as the US, Canada, and Australia (where I am currently), which are essentially nations of migrants. The proper counterbalance is to point out the incredible richness and diversity of contemporary democratic societies.

One can also understand the concerns people have and that’s the debate we’re having at the moment in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and so on. Is there a critical mass picture? Is there an optimal number of people coming into a society before it gets out of control? We are living in an experiment of transnational populations, movements, and flows of people at the moment. There is also a very serious reaction to that, and we will find out over the next couple of decades whether people are happy to concede that our societies have been enriched or otherwise.

Ultimately, I think this is a topic for democratic contestation. People feel that the balance may tip too far towards open borders, creating issues. Here in Australia, the debate is about housing. We don’t have enough housing, infrastructure lags behind the sheer number of people coming in and so on. We’ll just have to find a happy medium. This is democratic life—people are interested in how many people are enough, basically.

However, we also have the problem of aging populations in places like Italy, Japan and parts of Europe. Without immigration, these societies are actually dead in the water—they won’t be able to pay for their welfare bills or support their aging populations and they won’t be able to renew themselves. So, there is an interesting balance in the argument and we just have to see how democracies are able to cope with this set of issues.

Economics Trumps Politics vis-a-vis Rise of Populism and Great Power Rivalry

Aerial view of a large, loaded container cargo ship traveling over open ocean. Photo: Sven Hansche.

How can liberal democracies tackle with the rising civilizational populism in the US, Russia, India, China, Turkey and elsewhere?

Professor Simon Tormey: It’s a kind of backlash against globalization argument. For 30, 40, 50 years, we’ve had globalization. We’ve had relatively porous borders and increased mobility. I was born in Ireland, moved to the UK, then to Australia, and back to the UK. My kids all have multiple passports, which has been a great advantage. However, this advantage is primarily enjoyed by the elite. The problem is that elites, even those who benefit from globalization—such as Donald Trump with his overseas investments, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and others—are often the ones arguing against it. This two-faced aspect is evident, but politicians are responding to the demands of their populace and trying to come up with creative solutions.

I hope the wheel will turn, as I believe economics trumps politics in this matter. Economic globalization and the ability of countries to import and export goods and people have driven significant economic growth over the last half-century. For example, the relative integration of the US and China means that China would be very unlikely to jeopardize this relationship by invading Taiwan, as the US has made clear that this would harm their economic ties. China also holds substantial investments in the US.

Even the emerging great power politics involving Russia, China, India and the US will likely be tempered by their economic needs. However, we are on the edge of a precipice. There’s no doubt about it. We must hope that the economically and commercially minded elites prevail over the aggressive nationalist and nativist factions, which are powerful in places like India, China, and the US. These economic elites are crucial, as many politicians depend on them for support and to maintain their political parties and privileges. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s a key question for the next part of the 21st century.

In a New York Times article titled “A New Centrism is Rising in Washington,” it is argued that a new centrism is emerging in Washington because neoliberalism has failed to deliver, and both Democrats and Republicans have grown skeptical of free trade. This shift is referred to as “neo-populism.” Do you agree with the assertion that we are witnessing the dawn of neo-populism?

Professor Simon Tormey: It’s an interesting article. Of course, people are reflecting on the 30 years between the early to mid-1970s and the global financial crisis when there seemed to be a strong consensus in favor of free trade, open borders, transnational flows and so on. In the current phase, it seems that this consensus has come to an end. People are using phrases like de-globalization or neo-nationalism to describe these emerging trends.

I think neoliberalism is more entrenched than this description suggests. The belief in the market, capitalism and the ability of people to place their money and bets in whatever currency they choose and to invest in various countries, including those in Europe and China, is intrinsic to capitalist modernity. I don’t see any real threats to this fundamental organization of our society. At this level, we’re kidding ourselves if we think politics will trump economics. We tend to take capitalism for granted as we try to come up with new phrases and terminology to describe the current situation. 

I think we are in an era of economic liberalism with great power rivalry. I would take a more cautious approach, much like John Mearsheimer, who I’ve been watching a lot recently because he’s very controversial, particularly regarding the origins of the Ukraine war and the rise of China. It seems that great power rivalry is probably more important than any neologism or new ideology. I don’t think we’re heading towards a new kind of consensus, as neo-populism suggests. Instead, we’re witnessing a retreat from the narrative of globalization, which posited that the differences between countries would become less significant than the similarities.

The core of nativist nationalist great power rivalry is present and will likely dictate political outcomes for the next 15-20 years at least. We’re in the shadow of the reemergence of great power rivalry, with an undercurrent of economic interconnectedness. This includes some forms of de-globalization and decoupling at the core, along with numerous regional wars and conflicts to manage over the next 15-20 years. It’s reasonable to imagine that populism is not going to die, but nor is it going to evolve into a new ideological neo-populism. I’m not a believer in that perspective.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hold a press conference after their meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on July 27, 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Professor Haughton on Fico Assassination Attempt: Polarization Boosts Charged Political Climate in Slovakia

In an illuminating interview Professor Tim Haughton assessed the recent assassination attempt targeting Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico and underlined that the camp around Fico has pushed numerous polarizing narratives that could be categorized under the populism label. “This polarization has contributed to the charged political atmosphere in Slovakia,” he noted, highlighting the environment that led to the assassination.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Dr. Tim Haughton, Professor of Comparative and European Politics and Deputy Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability, and Representation (CEDAR) at the University of Birmingham, stated that the camp around Robert Fico has pushed numerous narratives that could be categorized under the populism label. “This polarization has contributed to the charged political atmosphere in Slovakia,” he noted, highlighting the environment that led to the assassination attempt targeting Fico.

In an illuminating interview he gave, on Friday, to the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), sheds light on the complex and evolving political landscape of Slovakia. With a deep understanding of Central and Eastern European politics, Professor Haughton provides insightful analysis on the rise of radical right and far-right movements, the influence of populism, and the role of national identity and immigration in shaping political rhetoric. He discusses the significant impact of Robert Fico’s leadership, the challenges facing Slovak democracy, and the broader implications for European politics.

Professor Haughton begins by addressing the characteristics of radical right parties in Slovakia, noting the historical roots of the Slovak National Party and the more recent emergence of neo-fascist parties like those led by Marian Kotleba and Republika. He emphasizes the shift in focus from ethnic Hungarians to non-European elements, particularly in response to the migration crisis, aligning these parties with broader European trends.

Regarding Robert Fico, Professor Haughton highlights the nuanced nature of his political stance, combining leftist economic policies with nationalist rhetoric. According to him, this complexity makes it difficult to categorize Fico simply as a far-right populist. Professor Haughton also delves into the polarization of Slovak politics, exacerbated by populist narratives and the divisive rhetoric surrounding the war in Ukraine.

The assassination attempt on Fico and its aftermath underscore the fragility of democracy and the deep-seated tensions within Slovak society. Professor Haughton discusses the influence of Russian disinformation, the significance of journalist Jan Kuciak’s murder, and the broader discontent with liberal democracy. Through his thoughtful analysis, Professor Haughton paints a comprehensive picture of the challenges and dynamics at play in Slovakia, offering valuable perspectives on the region’s political future.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Tim Haughton with minor edits.

A Strong Stance Against Muslim Immigration Creates a Common Cause

Hungarian government’s anti-immigration billboard says “STOP the refugees” in Budapest, Hungary on April 4, 2018.

Professor Haughton, thank you so very much for joining our interview series. Let me start with the first question. What are the main characteristics of the radical right and far-right movements in Slovakia, and how do they compare to similar movements in other European countries?

Tim Haughton: It’s worth emphasizing that Slovakia has a number of radical right parties and movements. For example, the Slovak National Party, which has been a significant political force in Slovakia for the past 30 years, actually traces its roots back to the 19th century. This party has consistently maintained a radical right agenda.

In more recent times, particularly in the past decade, we have seen the emergence of parties that could be labeled as neo-fascist. These include the party led by Marian Kotleba and the party that split off to form Republika. These parties have a much sharper and stronger nationalist message and a more discriminatory stance towards specific minorities.

When comparing these Slovak parties to other radical right parties across Europe, there are notable similarities. Many radical right parties, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, have historically focused their criticism on neighboring countries or ethnic groups. For instance, the Slovak National Party has been very critical of ethnic Hungarians in the past. However, this focus has shifted more towards a common criticism of non-European elements, particularly in response to the migration crisis. This has included a strong stance against Muslim immigration into Slovakia, or even the perceived threat of it. This shift aligns these Slovak parties with many other radical right parties in Europe, creating a common cause among them.

How has Robert Fico’s leadership influenced the rise of populism and far-right politics in Slovakia? Additionally, how significant a role, do you think, populism played in the assassination attempt on the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico?

Tim Haughton: I should probably stress at the outset that, while I appreciate speaking to the European Center for Populism Studies, I am not the biggest fan of the term “populism” as a label. I prefer examining populist appeals rather than labeling particular politicians or parties as populist.

When considering broad populist appeals, such as the notion of a pure nation versus a corrupt elite, these have been utilized by Robert Fico over time. It’s also important to note that there have been increasing links between Robert Fico and parties or politicians known for using populist appeals. Fico has certainly played a role in promoting these messages in Slovakia.

Regarding the shooting involving Fico and the role of populist appeals, two key points are worth emphasizing. First, we can distinguish between the individual who was arrested and his motivations, which appeared to center on criticism of Robert Fico’s domestic policies, particularly changes to the state broadcaster. This was highlighted in the video he shared on social media.

Second, it’s essential to understand the broader context of Slovak politics, which has become highly polarized in recent times. The camp around Robert Fico has pushed numerous narratives that could be categorized under the populism label. This polarization has contributed to the charged political atmosphere in Slovakia.

PM Fico and His Party Can Not Be Classified As Far-Right

Protesters hold signs during an anti-government demonstration demanding a change in government in Bratislava, Slovakia on March 16, 2018. Photo: Ventura.

What is the role of immigration and national identity in the political rhetoric of Slovakia’s far-right parties? How do they use these issues to gain support, and what strategies have populist and far-right parties in Slovakia used to gain and maintain political power? How effective have these strategies been?

Tim Haughton: Firstly, I want to emphasize that I wouldn’t classify Robert Fico’s party as far-right. When discussing other parties that fit that description, the theme of immigration is very important. For these radical right parties, it’s not just about actual immigration but often a perceived threat or worry about its cultural and political impact on Slovakia.

This fear of the outside, or fear of the other, is something that far-right parties and politicians have exploited. However, it’s also crucial to note that their appeal hinges significantly on domestic issues. They rally support by focusing on what they perceive as the negative impacts of liberals and progressives on Slovak politics. This opposition to liberal and progressive agendas has been a significant rallying point for the far-right in Slovakia.

In your article ‘The Return of Robert Fico,’ you argued that the fate of democracy was at risk with the ‘Orbanization’ of Slovakia. Can you please elaborate on the future of Slovakian democracy after the assassination attempt?

Tim Haughton: In that particular article, my remarks referred to observations about Orbanization and the situation in Slovakia. Since the election, specifically, we have seen the creation of a government that has implemented measures which conflict with our understanding of liberal democracy. For example, there have been changes to the criminal code, efforts to alter the state broadcaster, and measures that have impacted funding for the NGO sector. This indicates a movement in a concerning direction.

I want to emphasize both the immediate and longer-term reactions to these developments. Initially, I was very concerned because several key politicians close to Fico blamed liberals and progressives, exacerbating the polarization of Slovak society. Efforts by leaders like incoming President Peter Pellegrini and current President Zuzana Čaputová to encourage unity among political party leaders were snubbed by several politicians, which was worrying.

In the last few days, however, the situation appears to have calmed somewhat, which is slightly reassuring. Nevertheless, Slovak politics is at a critical juncture, heavily influenced by Robert Fico himself. He has been the dominant figure in Slovak politics for the past 20 years and controls his political party. Currently, there are differing voices within his party on how to respond to recent events. Some, like the de facto Prime Minister Robert Kaliňák, advocate for a pragmatic approach, while others, like politician Ľuboš Blaha, push a more pro-Russian stance.

Slovakia’s future direction depends significantly on the language and rhetoric used by politicians around Fico. Although the rhetoric has recently toned down, making me feel a bit more optimistic, it’s challenging to judge the situation so soon after these events.

Slovakia Can Not Be Described As a “Black Hole” in Central Europe

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Slovakia a ‘black hole in the center of Europe’ back in 1997. What do you think of this characterization? Does Slovakia still deserve to be labeled as the black hole in the center of Europe?

Tim Haughton: It’s worth emphasizing that Albright came up with that label during the time when Vladimir Mečiar and his government were in power. At that time, Slovakia wasn’t invited to begin accession negotiations to join the European Union in 1997, unlike the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. It seemed as if Slovakia was diverging in a different direction, so the label may have been reasonably apt then.

However, it’s important to note that Slovakia has been a member of the European Union for 20 years now. It is more integrated into European structures than some of its Visegrád-4 Group partners. For instance, Slovakia is part of the eurozone, which is not true for all neighboring states. Thus, Slovakia is very much part of the European mainstream.

There have been some recent question marks since Fico took power, particularly regarding Slovakia’s stance on the war in Ukraine. The country has shifted from being a strong advocate and supporter of Ukraine to becoming critical of military involvement under Fico. While this indicates that Slovakia may be currently less aligned with the ideological core of the EU, I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a “black hole” in Central Europe.

Strong Polarization of Politics in Slovakia

From Left: Hungary PM Viktor Orban, Poland PM Beata Szydlo, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakia PM Robert Fico pose prior their meeting in Prague on February 15, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

What does the assassination attempt on Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico tell us about the political culture, the level of polarization, and populism in Slovakia?

Tim Haughton: So again, I would distinguish between the actual event itself and the reaction to it, which is important. Regarding the event itself, according to what we know about the individual who was arrested and charged for the assassination attempt, he seems to have been motivated by a strong political disagreement with Fico. However, various images and narratives about this individual have circulated on social media, making it difficult to say definitively.

More broadly, the reaction to these events highlights the strong polarization of politics in Slovakia. The country is quite divided. I was reading an article today that examined polling data on a range of political questions and policies introduced by the Fico government. It is very clear that there are significant numbers of people who strongly support the government’s agenda and those who strongly oppose it. What’s striking about this polarization is the strong overlap between the groups in favor of particular measures. This division underscores the significant polarization in Slovak society.

Interior Minister Matus Estok stated that the country was ‘on the doorstep of a civil war’ right after the shooting, suggesting that the assassination attempt on the prime minister confirmed this. Do you believe Slovakia, a member of the European Union and NATO, is truly on the brink of a civil war, or do you find this assertion a bit far-fetched?

Tim Haughton: I don’t think that particular characterization is accurate. Slovakia is a country where there are tensions and strong differences of opinion, but it’s much too strong to suggest that the country is on the verge of civil war. That phrase was uttered in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and was likely driven more by emotional reaction than by careful judgment. While Slovak society is divided, I don’t believe it is accurate to depict it as on the brink of civil war.

Senior officials in Fico’s governing Smer party have accused liberal journalists and opposition politicians of motivating the shooter to open fire. Rudolf Huliak, an ally of the government from the far-right Slovak National Party, claimed progressives and journalists “have Robert Fico’s blood on their hands.” Is there any truth in these accusations?

Tim Haughton: Obviously, that’s a very emotive phrasing, and I certainly wouldn’t want to use such language. If we step back and look at it in a more scholarly way, we can see that polarization in Slovak society has stemmed from the rhetoric and language used by both sides of the political spectrum. The liberal progressive media is very critical of the steps taken by Robert Fico, arguing that it is their right as journalists to call out what they see as wrong and to highlight the harmful actions taken by the Fico government.

However, there are critical voices and certain politicians who assert that we need to stop Robert Fico. We must be careful with this rhetoric, as it can be interpreted as providing some justification for what happened. I don’t think that’s true. This heightened rhetoric creates a context in which the stakes of politics seem much higher, contributing to the polarization of Slovak society and politics.

It Is Challenging to Categorize Fico Definitively

Mr. Fico is pushing a strongly contested overhaul of the judiciary to limit the scope of corruption investigations, reshape the national broadcasting system to purge what the government calls liberal bias, and crack down on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. He opposes military aid to Ukraine, LGBTQ rights, and the power of the European Union, while favoring friendly relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Do you agree that all these points indicate that Fico is a far-right populist leader par excellence or not?

Tim Haughton: I would not classify Robert Fico as a far-right populist politician. Reflecting on his political career and policies, it is challenging to categorize him definitively. At the core of Fico and his party, Smer, are leftist economic policies focused on the welfare state and supporting the poorer segments of society. Many of his socioeconomic measures, such as free travel for pensioners and increased pensions, have populist characteristics but are fundamentally left-leaning.

In recent years, particularly since the migration crisis in 2015, Fico has adopted more nationalist rhetoric. This shift is also reflected in the evolution of his party’s name. Originally called just Smer (meaning “Direction”), it briefly adopted the name Smer – Tretia Cesta (Direction – Third Way), echoing the era of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. In the mid-2000s, it became Smer – Sociálna Demokracia (Direction – Social Democracy), emphasizing its social democratic roots. Recently, it has been rebranded as Smer – Slovenská Sociálna Demokracia (Direction – Slovak Social Democracy), which conveys both a Slovak version of social democracy and a stronger national emphasis.

This combination of leftist economics, nationalist appeal, and Fico’s leadership makes it difficult to classify his policies neatly. While my explanation may be lengthy, it underscores the complexity of Fico’s political stance. It is essential to recognize this nuance and understand that Robert Fico is not a far-right politician.

Russia Plays Substantial Role in Shaping Debate in Slovakia

An elderly lady is looking at the advertising newspaper of the presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini ahead of elections in Bratislava, Slovakia on April 2, 2024. Photo: Shutterstock.

How have pro-Russian media and the issue of Ukraine shaped Slovakian politics?

Tim Haughton: Regarding the war in Ukraine, it became a significant theme in domestic Slovak politics leading up to the elections. Robert Fico’s criticism of Western military involvement in the war played an important role in his re-election in 2023. While domestic factors were primarily at play in his 2023 campaign, the Ukraine war did have some influence.

Since taking power, Fico has implemented policies such as halting Slovakia’s military contributions to the war in Ukraine, stating that not another bullet would be sent. However, he has emphasized his support for Ukraine’s reconstruction and economic recovery. For instance, there was a meeting about a month ago in Michalovce, in the far east of Slovakia, where ministers from both the Slovak and Ukrainian governments agreed on deals regarding infrastructure, energy, and other areas.

Opponents of Robert Fico, particularly from the progressive side, have criticized his stance as moving Slovakia away from the European mainstream. They advocate for a stronger pro-Ukrainian position. This division was evident during the Presidential elections in Slovakia earlier this year, highlighting the differing views on military involvement in Ukraine.

Regarding Russia and Russian disinformation, numerous studies suggest that disinformation from Russian sources is influential in Slovakia. A significant number of Slovaks get their news from alternative media sources, many of which are believed to be influenced by Russian interests and funding. This impact on the media sphere translates into people’s views and attitudes, affecting actual politics. While it is challenging to provide concrete scholarly evidence for these influences, there seems to be a substantial role played by Russia in shaping debate and discussion in certain sections of the media. Additionally, Russian influence on social media platforms is also believed to be significant.

In 2018, Fico had to resign as prime minister in the face of enormous street protests following the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating government corruption, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova. What has been the significance of Kuciak’s murder in Slovakian politics?

Tim Haughton: It was a very significant event with major consequences. It led directly to Robert Fico resigning as Prime Minister in 2018, although he remained the leader of his party. This event also played a crucial role in the defeat of Smer in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Broadly speaking, it has been a pivotal moment often used by anti-Fico forces to mobilize and rally support.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, there were major demonstrations on the streets of Slovakia. The campaign “For a Decent Slovakia” became significant in mobilizing anti-Fico sentiment. This event was also instrumental in bringing together opposition forces after the 2020 election to form a government. It remains a key event in Slovak history, frequently invoked to rally anti-Fico forces. Even six years later, it still has significant resonance.

The Sense of Disappointment with Democracy Is Quite Widespread

Lastly, according to The New York Times, Slovakia has the highest proportion of citizens who view liberal democracy as a threat to their identity and values among all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that shook off communist rule in 1989. Additionally, 27 percent of Slovaks see Russia as a key strategic partner, the highest level in the region. What does this tell us about the political culture of Slovakia compared to other Central and Eastern European countries?

Tim Haughton: This situation highlights some important factors. A significant proportion of the population in Slovakia feels that the system hasn’t delivered or hasn’t delivered well enough for them. This indicates that we need to be aware of the threats and dangers to democracy, as it is fragile in many respects—not just in Slovakia, but in many other countries across the region and even across Europe as a whole.

Concerns about the state of democracy are widespread. The data from Slovakia illustrates underlying tensions, problems, and challenges that many European countries face. The sense of disappointment with democracy is quite widespread. However, I don’t want to exaggerate or suggest that all democracies in Europe are on the verge of collapsing. Rather, it’s important to recognize that a significant portion of the population is dissatisfied with what democracies are delivering.

In Slovakia, this dissatisfaction is particularly evident. When large segments of the electorate are unhappy with the current political system, they may be more open to the appeals of politicians advocating for changes, whether minor or more extensive.

Young activists participate in an opposition rally during the Ugandan presidential elections, organized by the FDC (Forum for Democratic Change), opposing the ruling party NRM in Mbale, Uganda on February 14, 2011. Photo: Shutterstock.

Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa

Please cite as:
Sithole, Neo; Nguijol, Gabriel Cyril & Micozzi, Martina. (2024). Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 2, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0056    

 

This report provides an overview of the second regional panel organized by the ECPS titled “Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa,” which took place online on May 9, 2024. Moderated skillfully by Dr. Chipo Dendere, the panel included experts from Southern Africa, Central Africa, and beyond. They offered a comprehensive examination of the largely overlooked phenomenon of populism in Africa. Through their insightful presentations, the panelists analyzed the various forms and behaviors of populism on the continent, tracing its historical role as a galvanizer during anti-colonial struggles for self-determination to its current impacts on social and political affairs. A common theme emerged: as both Africa and the globe witness a decline in democratic integrity despite the rise in populist movements, it is crucial to understand the complex roles populism plays—both beneficial and detrimental—in shaping local political landscapes.

Report by Neo SitholeGabriel Cyril Nguijol & Martina Micozzi

This report summarizes the second regional panel organized by the ECPS titled “Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa,” held online on May 9, 2024. Expertly moderated by Dr. Chipo Dendere, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who studies the factors that influence party survival and democratization in the developing world, the panel featured experts from Southern Africa, Central Africa, and beyond. Each provided a diverse look into the understudied phenomenon of populism on the African continent.

Dr. Dendere forwent an opening speech to dive straight into the presentations, allowing more time for discussions. The panelists examined various unique aspects of populism in Africa. In order of presentation, Dr. Henning Melber, Professor, Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala; Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria and the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, gave an introductory overview of populism’s historical place in Africa, focusing on the narratives used by populist actors, particularly in Southern Africa.  Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu, researcher and Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of European Studies, Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, explored the possibility of progressive populism in Africa. Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo, a political scientist specializing in international relations and strategic studies at the University of Yaoundé II, illuminated the relationship between populism and the challenges in African governance, emphasizing the tendency of populists to erode institutional stability.

Continuing the theme of governance from populism’s ‘supply side,’ Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh, an English law lecturer at the University of Bertoua, Faculty of Law and Political Science, discussed how government failures in services, welfare, and employment create fertile ground for populist support. Dr. Derick Fai Kinang, a Political Scientist, Jurist, Conflict Resolution Specialist, and Crime Expert with the Cameroon National Council of Crime Experts, reviewed how populist narratives further inflame hate speech and fuel societal divisions. Lastly, Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor, a senior lecturer at the University of Dschang, Cameroon, examined how African populist actors reinforce patriarchal norms, undermining women’s and girls’ rights and undoing decades of gender-based societal progress.

Through their insightful presentations, each panelist provided thorough analyses of the shape and behaviors of populism in Africa, from its historical role as a galvanizer and unifier during the continent’s anti-colonial struggles for self-determination to its contemporary impacts on societal and political affairs. A unifying thread emerged: as the continent, and indeed the globe, experiences growing democratic decline despite the rise in populist expression, it is vital to understand the multifaceted roles populism plays—both positive and negative—in shaping Africa’s local political realities.

Dr. Henning Melber: “Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian, and Nationalist Trends in Africa”

According to Dr. Henning Melber, the populist parties in Africa frequently rely on the continued heroic narrative of former liberation movements, seeking to connect the electorate with the country’s past to legitimize the present political realities. They appeal to a still-present struggle against foreign domination, marketing themselves as the only true alternative and promise of a better future—a concept Dr. Melber labeled ‘retrospectively applied populism.’ African liberation movements still retain a movement-like character while in government, often combining this with charismatic leaders and vivid individuals who make politics personal and immediate instead of remote and bureaucratic.

In the opening presentation, Dr. Henning Melber emphasized that populism in politics is far from a new phenomenon, despite the recent increase in scholarly attention likely driven by new communication technologies that enhance populism’s reach (such as ‘new media’ which are often effective tools for spreading populist messages). He pointed out that populism’s presence in the political sphere is not limited to African contexts. In reality, populist politics has manifested in various historical settings across numerous societies and ideological frameworks worldwide.

As is customary when discussing populism, Dr. Melber explained his understanding of the term. He stated that beyond its specific subjective content, which is typically context-dependent, populism operates through a distinctive kind of rhetoric that addresses the people simply and directly. According to Dr. Melber, populism gives people the impression that they matter, count, and are more important to the populist actors. He also noted that populist forms of mobilization are not necessarily despotic or authoritarian, as they are often perceived. Sometimes, populism can promote liberal democracy (either intentionally or deceptively) while remaining illiberal at its core.

Next, Dr. Melber shifted focus to populism in Africa, unpacking the behaviors and narratives of populist messages. In Africa, the transmission of populist messages often relies on personal appearances and face-to-face mobilization, highlighting a vital aspect of populism: the presence of leaders who personify populist policies and invite identification with individuals as much as with policy programs. Generally, there is a close affinity between forms of populism and strong nationalist-oriented forms of government and governance. Dr. Melber argued that this connection is rooted in the continent’s political history, where the fight for political self-determination cultivated strong nationalist tendencies that played a substantial role in nation-building. He further articulated that contemporary forms of populism on the continent are situated within established democracies, where populist figures mobilize against the establishment and appeal to the sentiments of those who are suspicious of the elites in the government.

To provide a mental picture of populist messaging and its relationship to Africa’s history of self-determination, Dr. Melber referred to former liberation movements in Southern Africa that now stand as the ruling parties in their respective governments, such as the African National Congress in South Africa and the South West Africa People’s Organization in Namibia. These parties frequently rely on the continued heroic narrative of former liberation movements, seeking to connect the electorate with the country’s past to legitimize the present political realities. They appeal to a still-present struggle against foreign domination, marketing themselves as the only true alternative and promise of a better future—a concept Dr. Melber labeled ‘retrospectively applied populism.’ Additionally, Dr. Melber articulated that outside of retrospectively applied populism, African liberation movements still retain a movement-like character while in government, often combining this with charismatic leaders and vivid individuals who make politics personal and immediate instead of remote and bureaucratic. 

 

Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu: “Taming the Lion: On the Conditions of Possibility of a Progressive Populism in Sub-Saharan Africa”

Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu shared results from research conducted in 23 sub-Saharan African states aimed at understanding the conditions necessary for the emergence of progressive populist movements. The findings revealed a generalized mistrust in existing leaders, perceived to be under Western influence, alongside support for movements focused on improving material conditions and removing current elites from power. Respondents emphasized the need for former colonial powers to fully acknowledge their historical responsibility and support development projects effectively and impartially.

Our second panelist, Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu, began by revisiting the centrality of nationalist-popular sovereignty for liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa. He noted that many of these movements included authoritarian or even totalitarian components, whether from extreme ideas of Marxist-Leninism or ultra-nationalism. In this context, Dr. Mișcoiu posed the question, “Is progressive populism possible in sub-Saharan Africa?” and if so, what would its articulatory form and discursive contents be, and where would its main proponents emerge from?

Before answering, Dr. Mișcoiu unpacked how populism is understood in the context of his presentation. He explained that his understanding is derived from populism ‘discourse theory,’ built on the works of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Jacques Ranciere. Dr. Mișcoiu emphasized that populism can be defined not as an ideology but rather as a discursive register with a hegemonic vocation. Aligning with the general consensus, it is based on an “us vs. them” narrative, where on one side there is “the people,” who should align with populist leaders, parties, intellectuals, and those expressing demands for justice, redistribution, and morality. On the other side are the “non-people,” comprising the elites, the rich, foreigners, and minorities who are perceived as preventing the people from being themselves.

Progressive populism, however, was described as the virtuous articulation of the popular identity that includes all groups and individuals who were previously oppressed or marginalized, or as Ranciere calls them, “the part of no part.” Progressive populism is not devoid of exclusion; those excluded are the forces that prevent unity and democratic consistency among the people. In this case, progressive populism can be emancipatory, aiming at the economic and political empowerment of the people, as well as being liberal democratic, establishing a tolerant and inclusive participatory system of collective decision-making.

In setting the scene, Dr. Mișcoiu reviewed the evolution of populism across the continent, beginning in the 1950s with the first emancipatory anti-colonial platforms. He highlighted the 1960s wave of independence, which initially sparked societal enthusiasm but soon waned as democracy was sacrificed on the altar of Cold War alignments. This period led to the rise of populist movements under Marxist-Leninist or ethno-nationalist ideologies, culminating in the 1980s with the growth of authoritarianism and widespread political repression.

Having established a conceptual foundation of progressive populism and contextualized the historical background of African populism, Dr. Mișcoiu addressed his earlier question by examining the case of Senegal’s recently elected president, Ousmane Sonko. Sonko has exhibited aspects of progressive populism by advocating for a political platform rooted in deliberative democracy, social and economic progressivism, and a stance against elitism, corruption, stagnation, and neo-colonial dependence. His foreign policy prioritizes state interests over broader African values. However, Sonko’s platform falls short of being fully progressive due to its ambiguity around cultural and societal emancipation and its moral and cultural conservatism, particularly concerning women’s rights.

In closing, Dr. Mișcoiu shared results from research conducted in 23 sub-Saharan African states aimed at understanding the conditions necessary for the emergence of progressive populist movements. The findings revealed a generalized mistrust in existing leaders, perceived to be under Western influence, alongside support for movements focused on improving material conditions and removing current elites from power. Respondents emphasized the need for former colonial powers to fully acknowledge their historical responsibility and support development projects effectively and impartially. However, they also noted that while reconciliation and tolerance are essential, they cannot come at the expense of radical reforms. 

Conversely, these results also highlight more harmful aspects, such as support for populist movements rooted in essentialist ethno-religious traditions and skepticism about the sustainability of democracy in Africa. Some respondents advocated for strong leadership, order, and discipline as necessary guarantees of freedom. 

 

Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo: “Populism and the Challenges of Democratic Governance in Africa”

According to Dr. Yogo, who examined the strategies contributing to the success of prominent populist leaders in Africa, these leaders often employ nationalist rhetoric that emphasizes national pride and sovereignty, tapping into sentiments of patriotism to gather support. They capitalize on anti-elite rhetoric, portraying themselves as champions of the people against corrupt or out-of-touch political elites. Furthermore, populist leaders in Africa frequently promise simple solutions to complex issues, offering quick fixes to deep-seated problems such as poverty, unemployment, and inadequate public services.

Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo’s contribution to the panel focused on the link between the rise of populism and the challenges of democratic governance in Africa. Dr. Yogo began by mapping the African political landscape, which he characterized by various challenges, including governance issues, socio-economic disparities, and post-colonial legacies. He noted a recent rise in populism in Africa, structured around charismatic leaders leveraging popular grievances to gain power. This trend has significant implications for democratic governance in Africa, shaping political discourse and influencing policy decisions.

Dr. Yogo noted that populism in Africa can be seen as a political movement emphasizing the interests and needs of the common people against those of established elites or perceived outsiders. Populism generally involves charismatic leaders employing discourses that appeal to emotions, identity, nationalist rhetoric, anti-elite sentiment, and promises of rapid changes or transformation, rather than rational policy solutions.

Dr. Yogo further explained that populism in Africa can be better understood through several factors, such as socio-economic and historical contexts. Persistent socio-economic inequalities foster the rise of populist discourses, as marginalized populations express their grievances. Corruption also plays a significant role, weakening trust in traditional political institutions and prompting people to seek alternative leaders who promise to eradicate corruption. Additionally, post-colonial legacies, including ethnic divisions and weak state institutions, exacerbate social tensions and provide opportunities for populist leaders to exploit identity politics.

Dr. Yogo also examined the strategies contributing to the success of prominent populist leaders in Africa. These leaders often employ nationalist rhetoric that emphasizes national pride and sovereignty, tapping into sentiments of patriotism to gather support. They capitalize on anti-elite rhetoric, portraying themselves as champions of the people against corrupt or out-of-touch political elites. Furthermore, populist leaders in Africa frequently promise simple solutions to complex issues, offering quick fixes to deep-seated problems such as poverty, unemployment, and inadequate public services.

Dr. Yogo further discussed the consequences of populism on democratic governance in Africa. According to him, populism weakens democratic institutions, such as the separation of powers, which is essential for maintaining checks and balances within a democratic system. Populist leaders may attempt to consolidate power by undermining the independence of the judiciary, sidelining legislative bodies, and concentrating authority in the executive branch. They also contribute to political polarization and social fragmentation by framing political discourse in terms of “us” versus “them.” Populist leaders often appeal to a narrow segment of the population, fostering divisions along ethnic, religious, or regional lines. Additionally, populism impacts the rule of law and human rights by resorting to repression, such as the arbitrary detention of political opponents, censorship of the media, and restrictions on freedom of expression. 

To address the dynamics of populism in Africa, Dr. Yogo elaborated on several perspectives. He emphasized that African states should:

1.         Strengthen democratic institutions and inclusive governance:

– Promote the separation of powers.

– Guarantee the independence of the judicial system.

– Protect civil liberties, including freedom of speech, assembly, and association.

2.         Promote transparency and accountability:

– Implement robust mechanisms such as oversight bodies and whistleblower protections.

– Rebuild citizens’ trust in the political system.

3.         Combat misinformation and political manipulation:

– Invest in promoting media liberty and critical thinking skills to empower citizens to discern fact from fiction and resist manipulation.

– Promote collaborative efforts between governments, civil society, and technological companies to combat misinformation and preserve the integrity of democratic elections and public discourse.

4.         Encourage citizen participation and political education:

– Facilitate access to information through transparent government communication channels and public forums.

– Foster dialogue and collaboration between government officials and citizens through public consultations and participation in decision-making processes.

In wrapping up, Dr. Yogo called for action to fight against populism in Africa. He emphasized that these actions should focus on preserving democracy and strengthening democratic institutions. He advocated for collaborative efforts between governments, civil society, and citizens to uphold democratic principles, protect human rights, and promote inclusive governance.

 

Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh: “Democratizing Africa: Navigating Populist Trends, Building Trust in Institutions, and Promoting Stability through Inclusive Governance”

Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh outlined, much like Dr. Yogo, that populist leaders are often charismatic figures who exploit public disappointment with the status quo and challenge established institutions. Dr. Nyitioseh described populism in Africa as a political approach that appeals to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. She explained that populism manifests in various forms and ideologies but often involves simplifying complex issues and using emotional rhetoric to gain support.

In her presentation, Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh introduced the triangulation between populist trends, the strengthening of institutions, and the promotion of stability through inclusive governance. According to her, this triangulation renders the democratization process in Africa very complex and fragile. She outlined, much like Dr. Yogo, that populist leaders are often charismatic figures who exploit public disappointment with the status quo and challenge established institutions. Dr. Nyitioseh described populism in Africa as a political approach that appeals to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. She explained that populism manifests in various forms and ideologies but often involves simplifying complex issues and using emotional rhetoric to gain support. Dr. Nyitioseh highlighted this form of populism during the Kenyan elections in 2017, where President Uhuru Kenyatta used populist rhetoric to consolidate his power base.

During the field trip, Dr. Nyitioseh navigated the delicate situation surrounding the causes and consequences of populism in Africa. According to her, populism is driven by socio-economic inequalities, characterized by a growing gap between the rich and the poor, and reinforced by resentment toward elites perceived as indifferent to the struggles of ordinary people. She illustrated this by referencing the Gini coefficient in South Africa, which has been used to indicate significant income inequality between the elites and the general population. The Gini coefficient was around 0.63 in 2009, remained the same in 2022, and continues to reflect substantial disparities in income distribution in the country.

Corruption is also a significant factor in the rise of populism in Africa, as it weakens institutions and destroys public trust. Dr. Nyitioseh cited examples such as Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe regime’s corruption and mismanagement led to economic collapse, driving public disappointment and paving the way for populist movements. In Nigeria, widespread corruption among political elites favored support for populist figures like Muhammadu Buhari, who promised to tackle corruption. In South Africa, the ANC’s corruption scandals under Jacob Zuma’s presidency contributed to the rise of populist opposition parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Youth unemployment also creates fertile ground for populism in Africa, as disillusioned young people may turn to charismatic leaders offering simple solutions. Populist leaders often exploit these frustrations by simplifying complex issues and identifying scapegoats. While they may initially appear responsive to citizen concerns, their rhetoric can exacerbate social divisions and undermine democratic institutions. Dr. Nyitioseh illustrated this with the example of Julius Malema in South Africa, who gained popularity among unemployed youth by advocating for radical economic policies and land redistribution. In Nigeria, the “Not Too Young to Run” movement emerged partly in response to high youth unemployment rates, reflecting a desire for political change among the younger generation. A similar trend was observed in Zimbabwe with the creation of the “This Flag” movement, led by Pastor Evan Mawarire, who highlighted youth frustrations with unemployment and government corruption, calling for united support for change.

Dr. Nyitioseh then outlined the best strategies to combat populism in Africa. She emphasized the importance of establishing and consolidating the rule of law through the fair and impartial application of laws, regardless of social status. For instance, South Africa has undertaken constitutional reforms to strengthen institutions and uphold the rule of law, while Liberia has made efforts to reform its judicial system after the civil war. Ensuring that the judiciary is free from political influence is crucial in this regard.

She said Rwanda and Ghana have implemented robust anti-corruption measures, essential for promoting transparency and accountability, key elements of the rule of law. In Kenya, vibrant civil society movements advocating for legal reforms and accountability have contributed to a stronger rule of law. Dr. Nyitioseh also highlighted the importance of promoting human rights and fighting corruption as vital components in eradicating populism in Africa. Countries like Rwanda, Botswana, and Mauritius have established anti-corruption commissions to address these issues effectively.

Dr. Nyitioseh reminded us that African countries must promote good governance by empowering civil society and encouraging effective decentralization, as seen in Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia. She stressed the need for investing in mass education, as democratization in Africa is an ongoing process. In conclusion, Dr. Nyitioseh asserted that if African countries address the root causes of populism, foster trust in institutions, and promote inclusive governance, they can build more stable and democratic societies free from populism.

 

Dr. Derick Fai Kinang: “Populism Discourse and the Proliferation of Hate during Elections in Central African Sub-region.”

Dr. Derick Fai Kinang pointed out that the use of ethno-tribal stereotypes and hateful clichés during the election periods in Africa undermines social cohesion, fuels tensions, and can lead to conflict. He emphasized the need for reforms to promote justice, democratic values, and socio-economic development to counteract the harmful effects of populism and hate speech. By implementing these measures, societies can become more resilient and capable of discerning between populist and democratic ideologies, ultimately fostering sustainable peace and development.

Dr. Derick Fai Kinang’s presentation focused on the relationship between populist discourse and the proliferation of hate speech during elections in the Central African sub-region. He began by noting that populism has existed in Africa in various waves, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to Dr. Kinang, one of the most dangerous waves emerged in the early 1990s with the advent of multi-party politics in Africa. During this period, the use of populist discourse became prevalent as rulers sought to conquer and exercise power.

Dr. Kinang referenced Danielle Resnick (2010) to highlight how the imposition of multi-party politics led to the adoption of populist strategies, often accompanied by hate speech, as a means to achieve and maintain power. This approach, he argued, has significantly impacted the political landscape in the Central African sub-region, contributing to increased tensions and undermining democratic processes.

Before delving into the intersection between populism and hate speech during elections, Dr. Kinang defined populism. Citing Jane Mansbridge and Stephen Macedo, he explained that populism involves the people in a moral battle against the elites. This dynamic, where political leaders using a populist approach encourage people to see their political engagement as part of this moral battle, can sometimes devolve into hate speech.

Dr. Kinang noted that there is no universally accepted definition of hate speech but often refers to the one provided by the United Nations. According to the UN, hate speech is “any form of communication in speech, writing, or behavior that attacks or uses pejorative and discriminatory language concerning someone’s religion, ethnicity, color, descent, nationality, gender, or identity factor.” In Dr. Kinang’s opinion, hate speech is any form of communication that attacks, discriminates against, or denigrates someone because of their background.

Furthermore, Dr. Kinang emphasized the significance of elections, highlighting their crucial role in understanding how populist discourse, particularly through the use of hate speech, manifests during election periods. Using Ewang’s (2008) definition, he stated, “elections can be considered as the mechanism by which power is given to certain individuals to govern the people.” Populist discourse, through the use of hate speech, has been a widely used political strategy to conquer and exercise power during elections in Africa, especially in the Central African sub-region. During the electoral calendar, political populism often reaches its peak during presidential elections.

Dr. Kinang highlighted the 2018 presidential elections in Cameroon as an example of deep national polarization. He pointed out that the use of ethno-tribal stereotypes and hateful clichés during these periods undermines social cohesion, fuels tensions, and can lead to conflict. He emphasized the need for reforms to promote justice, democratic values, and socio-economic development to counteract the harmful effects of populism and hate speech. By implementing these measures, societies can become more resilient and capable of discerning between populist and democratic ideologies, ultimately fostering sustainable peace and development.

 

Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor: “The Protection of Female Rights and the Rise of Populism in African Democracies: A Need for a Reformed Society”

Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor emphasized that the rule of law is essential for maintaining societal order and ensuring gender equality, highlighting its incorporation into many African constitutions. For example, Dr. Chefor mentioned the Maputo Protocol, which protects women’s rights and sets a minimum age for marriage to prevent early marriages. Despite these legal frameworks, cultural norms and biases in Africa continue to suppress women’s voices, affecting their rights and status.

Panel’s last presenter, Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor, focused her presentation on the challenging intersection between the protection of women’s rights and the rise of populism in African democracies. She divided the presentation into four parts, each highlighting populism’s implications on women’s rights, the rule of law, and democracy. Dr. Chefor began by defining populism, noting that while the concept can carry various meanings, she adopted a simpler approach, viewing populism as “the will of the people” and equating it with public opinion. By adopting this definition, Dr. Chefor aimed to illustrate how populism contrasts with traditional democratic representation. She described populism as a system where politicians or political leaders tend to depend on the will of the people, often against their representatives, whom they portray as corrupt.

Dr. Chefor raised the question of whether populism is legal or has legal backing. She noted that while populism appears to be legally supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly its provisions for freedom of expression and opinion, it raises doubts about its impact on society. Specifically, she pointed out that populism can either benefit or harm societal values, particularly by undermining the rule of law.

Subsequently, Dr. Chefor proceeded with the second part of her presentation, examining the rule of law and arguing that it is a system where law is supreme, and society should be governed by the statute of law. She emphasized that the rule of law is essential for maintaining societal order and ensuring gender equality, highlighting its incorporation into many African constitutions. For example, Dr. Chefor mentioned the Maputo Protocol, which protects women’s rights and sets a minimum age for marriage to prevent early marriages. Despite these legal frameworks, cultural norms and biases in Africa continue to suppress women’s voices, affecting their rights and status.

Dr. Chefor argued that these difficulties persist due to the advent of populism, which tends to reinforce traditional patriarchal beliefs that women should not have a voice or an opinion. This led to the third part of her presentation, where she addressed the implications of the failure of democracy. Dr. Chefor explained how populist tendencies can disrupt the rule of law, leading to failures in democratic processes. This disruption is evident in outdated or biased laws, such as those in Cameroon’s penal code before 2016, which reflected deep-seated societal biases that hinder gender equality and justice.

To counter these challenges, Dr. Chefor emphasized the need for accurate and necessary information for a successful society. An informed public can better navigate the challenges posed by populism and ensure the effective implementation of democracy and the rule of law.

Sir Graham Watson is a liberal European politician and Advisory Board member of ECPS.

Sir Graham Watson: We Must Persuade Younger People to Go to the EP Polls

As opinion polls indicate a potential surge in support for far-right parties in the European Parliament elections scheduled for June 6-9, Sir Graham Watson emphasizes the critical need to persuade younger people to vote. “In recent years, we have seen significant abstention among younger voters. This was a major factor in Brexit,” Watson explains. “We desperately need everyone eligible to vote, especially those over 18 across the European Union, to exercise their democratic rights. Perhaps the younger generation does not fully grasp that freedom must be actively used, or it can be lost. If they do not use their freedom to vote and participate in democratic society, they risk losing that freedom in the future,” he warns.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Sir Graham Watson, a liberal politician and Advisory Board member of ECPS, emphasizes the urgent need for mainstream parties to intensify their efforts in the upcoming European Parliament elections. “It is particularly important to persuade younger people to go to the polls,” Sir Watson asserts, highlighting a critical factor that influenced the Brexit vote. “In recent years, we have seen significant abstention among younger voters. This was a major factor in Brexit, where older voters, who largely supported leaving the EU, turned out in high numbers, while younger people, who favored remaining, did not vote in large numbers.”

As opinion polls indicate a potential surge in support for far-right parties in the elections scheduled for June 6-9, Sir Watson shares his concerns about the implications for the European Union’s future. He acknowledges the far-right’s growing presence in countries like Germany and Italy, where parties such as Fratelli d’Italia and Lega Nord are gaining traction. “Clearly, the next Parliament will include a larger far-right group,” Sir Watson notes. However, he believes that mainstream democratic forces will still hold a majority, provided they collaborate effectively to counteract the far-right’s influence.

Sir Watson, a former leader of the Liberal Group in the European Parliament, also addresses the broader threat posed by the far-right and populist radical right parties, arguing that their potential success does not signal the end of liberal democracy but represents a significant danger. “A lot of people think ‘Oh, well, it’s only the European Parliament. It’s not national parliaments.’ They underestimate the European Parliament’s role in shaping public policy in every Member State,” he explains. Watson warns that the presence of nationalistic and anti-democratic forces could lead to the fragmentation of the EU and a rollback of social progress.

Highlighting the external threats to the EU, Watson points to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its financial support for far-right politicians like Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France. “The Russians are trying to destabilize the European Union to reestablish their hegemony on the continent,” he warns. Sir Watson underscores the necessity for EU member states to recognize and respond to this threat.

Addressing strategies to boost voter mobilization, particularly among the youth, Sir Watson stresses the importance of leveraging technology and social media algorithms to counter the far-right’s influence. “We need to use this technology ourselves to get our message across,” he says, emphasizing that mainstream parties must defend the principles of liberal tolerance and democracy more effectively.

As Sir Watson prepares to stand in Italy for the European Parliament elections, his commitment to combating the rise of the far-right and promoting European unity is clear. “We must persuade younger people to go to the polls,” he reiterates, underscoring the critical role of voter participation in safeguarding the future of the European Union.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Sir Graham Watson with minor edits.

Mainstream Democratic Forces Need to Collaborate Much More Effectively 

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

Many polls and pundits argue that there is a significant possibility of a far-right surge in the upcoming European Parliament elections scheduled for June 6-9. Given the current political climate and recent events in Europe, how likely do you think a far-right victory is, and what would be its implications for the future of the EU?

Sir Graham Watson: I think the far-right will certainly perform better than they have in the past. Opinion polls suggest their growth in several countries, particularly in Germany and Italy, where I’m a candidate. In Italy, we see strong support for Fratelli d’Italia and Lega Nord, both of which can be considered far-right parties. There’s also Vox in Spain and the far-right in the Netherlands. Clearly, the next Parliament will include a larger far-right group. The question is whether they will have a majority and if they can organize themselves well enough to influence policy. Currently, the far-right is divided among two or three different political groups, making them less effective. I believe mainstream democratic forces will still hold a majority in the European Parliament, but they will need to collaborate much more effectively to minimize the far-right’s impact.

If the far-right and populist radical right parties win in the upcoming elections, do you think this will signal the end of liberal democracy as we know it?

Sir Graham Watson: I don’t think it will signal the end of liberal democracy as we know it, but it does represent a far greater threat than most people realize. A lot of people think “Oh, well, it’s only the European Parliament. It’s not national parliaments.” Many dismiss the significance of the European Parliament, thinking it doesn’t impact national parliaments. They underestimate the European Parliament’s role in shaping public policy in every Member State and the influence a strong performance in European Parliament elections can have on national elections. I am very worried about the immediate future of the European Union because of the presence of forces that are not only nationalistic, which can lead to the fragmentation of the EU, but are also fundamentally anti-democratic and aim to reverse social progress achieved in many areas.

People Have Not Yet Fully Grasped How Dangerous The Situation Is

Marine Le Pen, from the Front National, a national-conservative political party in France in meeting for the presidential election of 2017 at the Zenith of Paris on April 17, 2017. Photo: Frederic Legrand.

In an interview with The Guardian, you argued that the rise of the far-right and the threat Russia posed to the EU compelled you to accept the invitation to stand in Italy. How serious do you think the Russian threat to the EU is, and how do you assess the strong relations between Russia and far-right parties in Europe?

Sir Graham Watson: We see the military threat every day on our television screens in Ukraine. Although Ukraine is not a member state of the European Union, it is a candidate country, and Russia’s attack on Ukraine and attempts to seize more territory demonstrate that no European country is safe from expansionist policies. Alongside this, we see Russian money supporting figures like Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France, and previously Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom. The Russians are trying to destabilize the European Union to reestablish their hegemony on the continent. People have not yet fully grasped how dangerous this situation is.

There are stories in the European media that far-right voters are very well mobilized for the upcoming elections compared to the voters of mainstream parties. What strategies do you believe pro-European parties should adopt to increase voter mobilization, particularly among the youth?

Sir Graham Watson: Clearly, we, the mainstream parties, need to put much more effort into the campaign. It is particularly important to persuade younger people to go to the polls. In recent years, we have seen significant abstention among younger voters. This was a major factor in Brexit, where older voters, who largely supported leaving the EU, turned out in high numbers, while younger people, who favored remaining, did not vote in large numbers. We desperately need everyone eligible to vote, especially those over 18 across the European Union, to exercise their democratic rights. Perhaps the younger generation does not fully grasp that freedom must be actively used, or it can be lost. If they do not use their freedom to vote and participate in democratic society, they risk losing that freedom in the future.

European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)’s research in March argued that the agenda of the European Union will not be defined by far-right parties as they are divided on their aims and ambitions. Do you agree with this finding?

Sir Graham Watson: I’m not sure I agree with it, but I understand where they’re coming from. Their arguments suggest that the far-right is not sufficiently unified at the European level, and that the parties comprising the far-right groups in the European Parliament are not well-coordinated. These parties may not recognize the same priorities, whereas the democratic forces in the European Parliament tend to be well-organized, accustomed to working together, developing common agendas, and reaching agreements even when compromises are needed on policies such as energy and transport. In contrast, the far-right tends to be more splintered and less effective. However, we should not let studies indicating the far-right’s lack of effectiveness make us any less concerned about the potential consequences of a far-right victory.

President of the European Commission Should Be Elected Directly

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister arrives for a meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels, Belgium on Dec. 13, 2019. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

As a former leader of the liberals and a candidate running in the EP elections, what are the basic promises you present to the electorate? What are your plans to combat the surge of far-right parties?

Sir Graham Watson: I think the most important thing is to make the European Union work properly. Currently, we have a Confederal Europe, where any country can veto important policies. For example, Viktor Orban can veto crucial developments in European defense policy needed to defend against Russia in Ukraine. We need majority voting by qualified majority in the Council of Ministers, rather than allowing individual states to have a veto. Additionally, we should see the President of the European Commission elected directly by the people, similar to how the President of the United States is elected. This would ensure a proper ideological debate during European elections and a President elected on a clear program for government. This is more understandable for most voters than the current situation, where individual parties present their programs, which are not always well understood.

It has been announced that the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders will be forming the next coalition in the Netherlands. Do you think this is a milestone in terms of far-right parties’ ability to form governments?

Sir Graham Watson: I believe they will not be forming a government on their own, as they don’t have the numbers to do so. We already have an example in Europe with a far-right party, the so-called Sweden Democrats, who are part of the governing coalition but have no ministers. They are part of the governing majority, but without ministerial positions. I hope we see a similar outcome in the Netherlands. I don’t think anyone is seriously considering Geert Wilders as Prime Minister, and I hope his party will not have any ministers. However, I believe parties should avoid participating in governments with the far-right if it is at all possible.

How concerned are you that mainstream parties might imitate far-right rhetoric to garner more votes? In other words, are you concerned that the values of far-right parties will be mainstreamed by center-right parties?

Sir Graham Watson: I’m very worried about what is happening within the European People’s Party (EPP), where member parties in some countries are shifting to the right on policy issues like immigration, abortion, and LGBTQ+ rights. They are doing this to try to protect their vote share, essentially saying, “We don’t want to lose votes to the far-right, so we’ll adopt their policies.” This approach is absolutely wrong. These parties need to defend the society built on principles of liberal tolerance against the far-right’s attacks. In other words, they need to advocate for their positions much more effectively rather than fearing voters on the far-right.

Democracy Is Now Being Undermined by Far-right Forces

From Left: Hungary PM Viktor Orban, Poland PM Beata Szydlo, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakia PM Robert Fico pose prior their meeting in Prague on February 15, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

The recent assassination attempt on Slovakian PM Robert Fico has raised concerns about political stability and violence in Europe. How do you think the EU should respond to such incidents to ensure the safety and security of its political leaders, including the populist radical right or far-right ones, and maintain democratic integrity?

Sir Graham Watson: I think this is a big challenge. As we saw in the 1930s—although few people remember that time directly—politics can become very nasty. During that decade, we witnessed the assassination of numerous mainstream politicians as the far-right gained power. I’m very concerned about the current situation, not only with the attempt on the life of Robert Fico but also with attacks on candidates in Germany and other countries. Through the European Union, we have established something rare and incredible in European politics: a peaceful, secure, stable, liberal democracy. This democracy is now being undermined by far-right forces, often financed by the Russians, and it’s something we must defend. That’s why I’m a candidate. It was not in my life plan to run again at my age, having already served 20 years in the European Parliament. But I’m so worried about what’s happening and the failure of young people to stand up against it that I’ve decided to confront people like Matteo Salvini directly.

Considering the potential long-term challenges that the EU faces, including the rise of soft and hard Euroscepticism, anti-European sentiments, and anti-EU political parties, what strategies do you recommend for maintaining the EU’s resilience, strengthening European unity, to protect democratic values and institutions across member states?

Sir Graham Watson: First, we need to communicate all the remarkable achievements of the European Union, many of which people take for granted. It’s not just about programs like Horizon for scientific cooperation or Erasmus for student exchanges. It’s also about having Airbus, a leading aircraft manufacturer that competes with Boeing, and world-leading pharmaceutical companies thriving due to Europe’s single market freedoms. In emergencies, such as a major terrorist attack, we can seamlessly move human blood supplies across borders. These are all results of laws adopted at the European level.

When I was in the European Parliament, I helped pass the European Arrest Warrant, allowing police and judicial services from different countries to collaborate in arresting criminals and tackling international organized crime. However, very few people understand these achievements. We must first help them recognize what Europe is capable of and what it has already accomplished, especially as we seek to grant Europe more powers to achieve even more.

Additionally, we need to be smarter and acknowledge that the far-right has succeeded by effectively using social media algorithms, an inexpensive but powerful way to influence people against the European Union. When you lose a battle, it’s often because your enemy has better technology. We need to leverage this technology ourselves to get our message across.

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

Dr. Pawel Zerka: Low Turnout in EP Elections Worries Me More Than the Results

Just three weeks ahead of the European Parliament elections, Dr. Pawel Zerka says he is more concerned about low turnout than the election results. Dr. Zerka stated, “Even if the far-right increases its number of seats, it will still be a clear minority. What is much more concerning is the lack of reasons for a high turnout.” Concerning the potential threat to liberal democracy in Europe due to the possible success of the far-right in the EP elections, Zerka said, “There is surely a danger for what the EU will stand for in the coming years. However, the responsibility for that danger lies on the shoulders of not just the far-right, but even more so on the center-right.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

As the European Parliament (EP) elections approach, Dr. Pawel Zerka, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and a leading analyst on European public opinion, emphasizes his concern over low voter turnout rather than the election results themselves. In an interview with the ECPS on Friday Dr. Zerka highlighted his worries, stating, “Even if the far-right increases its number of seats, it will still be a clear minority. What is much more concerning is the lack of reasons for a high turnout.”

Dr. Zerka also expressed concerns about the potential threats to liberal democracy in Europe stemming from the possible rise of far-right power in the EP elections. He argued that the real danger lies in how the European Union (EU) might be reshaped in the coming years, emphasizing that the responsibility does not rest solely on far-right parties but also on center-right ones. He elaborated, “Maybe ‘threats to liberal democracy’ would be an exaggeration for me. But there is surely a danger for what the EU will stand for in the coming years. However, the responsibility for that danger lies on the shoulders of not just the far-right, but even more so on the center-right.”

The far-right’s potential surge in the EP elections, scheduled for June 6-9, has been a topic of intense discussion. However, Dr. Zerka clarifies that a far-right victory is unlikely, and the focus should instead be on the broader implications for EU policies and dynamics. According to his analysis, the far-right and Eurosceptic parties, grouped under the “Identity and Democracy (I&D)” and “European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)” factions, might increase their seats from 30% to 37%, remaining a minority but achieving a significant foothold in the Parliament.

The increasing influence of far-right parties across Europe is evident, as seen in recent political developments in the Netherlands, Finland, Croatia, and Austria. Dr. Zerka noted, “This is quite worrisome. We have Georgia Meloni, who leads the coalition government in Italy. Even though she has largely detoxified her image and is no longer seen as a problem by most European leaders or the public, she still represents Brothers of Italy, a party with several disturbing elements in its political platform.”

Reflecting on the mainstreaming of far-right values, Dr. Zerka highlights a troubling trend where center-right parties adopt far-right positions to retain voter support. He observed, “In a way, it’s the center-right or liberal parties that, by working with the far-right, legitimize and normalize the far-right alternative. This has already happened to a large extent with migration policies and is increasingly occurring with climate policies.”

Here is the transcription of the interview with Dr. Pawel Zerka with minor edits.

Votes of Anti-European and Eurosceptic Parties Will Increase to 37 Percent

Dr. Pawel Zerka is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Photo: seesaw-foto.com

In one of your commentaries, you discuss the possibility of a far-right surge in the upcoming European Parliament elections scheduled for June 6-9. Given the current political climate and recent events in Europe, how likely do you think a far-right victory is, and what would be its implications for the future of the EU? 

Pawel Zerka: We never suggested that there will be a far-right victory. Let me start by saying that I’m coming from a foreign policy think-tank. We are not studying populism in the same way as you; we are interested in it from a foreign policy context. European elections are important to us because we believe they will impact Europe’s foreign policy in the coming years. That’s why we conduct regular public opinion polling to gauge evolving public sentiment in Europe. On the occasion of these elections, we asked our academic friends, led by Simon Hicks, to predict how the next European Parliament might look. They did this in January, a few months ahead of the real campaign.

Their prognosis indicated that the next European Parliament is likely moving to the right. This means that two more Eurosceptic groupings—the “Identity and Democracy (I&D)” group, which includes Germany’s AfD and Marine Le Pen, and the “European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR),” which includes Jarosław Kaczyński, Georgia Meloni’s party, and Spain’s Vox—are expected to increase their number of seats. Altogether, we expect that the parties considered anti-European, although many are simply Eurosceptic rather than anti-European, will increase from the current 30% to 37%. They will still be a minority, not even close to a majority. In that sense, we never expected them to win the election. However, it will still be a significant success for those Eurosceptic parties if they manage to further increase their number of seats and power in the European Parliament.

This is particularly important as the national context in several capitals is changing rapidly. Recently, we heard about the new coalition government in the Netherlands, where the largest member is Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party. We also see far-right parties in government roles in Finland, Croatia, and potentially Austria, where polls show the Freedom Party (FPÖ) leading ahead of this year’s national elections. This is quite worrisome. We have Georgia Meloni, who leads the coalition government in Italy. Even though she has largely detoxified her image and is no longer seen as a problem by most European leaders or the public, she still represents Brothers of Italy, a party with several disturbing elements in its political platform.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to define what victory for the far-right or Eurosceptics actually means. They are not going to win the European elections in the sense of gaining a majority of seats, but the fact that they increase their number of seats is already a victory. This victory is particularly significant as their positions in several national capitals across Europe are also strengthening.

Division between Left and Right Has Become So Blurred

Donald Tusk speaks at an election rally after a televised debate on government television at the end of the campaign in Warsaw, Poland on October 9, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Even if the far-right parties do not have a victory but a substantial increase in their votes, what will this result tell us about liberal democracy?

Pawel Zerka: This largely depends on what the other part of the political spectrum, which we tend to consider pro-European, will do. In a way, it’s the center-right or liberal parties that, by working with the far-right, legitimize and normalize the far-right alternative. There’s a long discussion about whether there should be a “cordon sanitaire” around parties whose political platforms include illiberal and undemocratic elements. Critics of the “cordon sanitaire” argue that it only strengthens the far-right and that real people have voted for these parties in democratic elections, so their will should be respected. This was the main argument for why mainstream pro-European parties in the Netherlands chose to create a coalition with Geert Wilders. They realized that he leads the party with the largest number of votes in the country, and the electorate’s choice needs to be respected.

However, when mainstream parties enter coalitions with far-right or radical right parties, they give these parties more impact on policies, particularly on migration and climate issues. Additionally, they normalize the language and approach of these parties, which often includes distrusting elites, glorifying a direct voice of the people, and oversimplifying complex political issues. Normalizing these elements makes it even more difficult to address the problems they can bring.

I don’t know whether this signifies a crisis for liberal democracy, but I feel we often start the discussion about the far-right or radical right from the wrong place. We demonize them, presenting them as an alien body and a problem, whereas they might simply be a response to a different problem. Many people choose to vote for Georgia Meloni in Italy, AfD in Germany, Vox in Spain, or Chega in Portugal because they are disappointed with what we call the pro-European mainstream. This disappointment can stem from various reasons, such as corruption scandals, as seen in Spain, or the convergence of center-left and center-right parties, making them appear as if there is no alternative. 

They started representing something which was then mocked as “there is no alternative (TINA)” politics. Whether you are on the center-left or center-right, you now accept the presence of the state in the economy, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that pouring money into the economy is necessary. There is also a general consensus on the need to address climate change, as it is widely recognized as a major challenge. The previous division between the left and right has become so blurred that we now essentially have a center. It’s natural for people to seek some sort of alternative.

When there is no longer a clear left-right alternative, the most significant choice becomes between the center and a more radical alternative, often positioned on the far-right. For many voters, these parties represent the only credible alternative to an increasingly similar center. While we tend to demonize far-right parties, they are, in a way, providing a response to issues that exist within the center of our political spectrum.

There Is A Danger for What EU Will Stand For in Coming Years

Geert Wilders (PVV) in House of Representatives during a debating at the Tweede Kamer on April 5, 2023 in Den Haag, Netherlands. Photo: Jeroen Meuwsen.

ECFR’s research back in March argued that the agenda of European Union will not be defined by far-right parties as they are divided on their aims and ambitions. Do you still have the same diagnosis?

Pawel Zerka: These are my colleagues who authored the paper, and I will serve as an imperfect spokesperson to explain in what sense I believe they are correct, and in what sense they are not. Currently, the public debate ahead of the European elections is largely dictated by the far-right parties indirectly. Every day, my colleagues and I receive numerous calls and questions from journalists, and 95% of those questions are about the threat of the far-right. It feels like this is the only topic ahead of the European elections, as if there is no positive story or agenda that the pro-European parties could promote. The main focus seems to be the danger of the far-right, which in itself shows that the far-right is having an impact on the debate.

They have also had a key impact on why and how migration was debated, prompting many centrist leaders like Emmanuel Macron in France to adopt a harsher stance on migration because he knew he could not afford to be seen as too liberal on that point. Even in Poland, where there is a new pro-European government led by Donald Tusk with strong European credentials, there is a conservative approach to migration. Tusk is self-censoring to avoid easy criticism from the Law and Justice (PiS) party, a more anti-European alternative in the country.

I feel that, yes, the radical right or far-right parties have already had an impact on how topics are discussed in Europe. Climate has also become a topic where they benefit from people’s disappointment or dissatisfaction with how that policy has been handled at the European level. This makes it more difficult for otherwise pro-European centrist forces to stand up and defend Europe’s climate policies. So, I agree, they have an impact on the debate.

I believe my colleagues were suggesting that their impact will be limited on these concerned policies. To change or implement new policies, you need stable cooperation and a majority. The ECR and I&D parties in the European Parliament, despite being grouped together, have often disagreed on various occasions. These groups are much less coherent and consistent than those in the center of the political spectrum. Still, I don’t exclude the possibility that if they increase their number of seats and their position in the Parliament—each of these two groups could hope to become the third largest political group, ahead of the Liberals and the Greens. If they somehow managed to merge, they could even become the second largest group in the European Parliament.

Once they are stronger, they could also become more united for pragmatic reasons. Looking at how Meloni and Geert Wilders behave domestically, the leaders of Europe’s far-right have started acting very pragmatically. They are ready to give up some elements of their political platform to preserve the parts that are really important to them and to remain in government. One conclusion from observing the Dutch coalition negotiations is that Geert Wilders agreed not to become Prime Minister and not to question the Netherlands’ general support for Ukraine. In return, he secured a strong position on migration policy and some flexibility in climate policy. Migration and climate issues were critical for him, but he was ready to compromise on foreign policy.

We see similar behavior from Georgia Meloni. While many people initially feared her, she has shown to be quite constructive on several points, ensuring that the rest of Europe is content. This leaves her room to pursue domestic policies that may be less visible to most Europeans but still worrisome.

So, I was saying that those forces can still have an impact, but they are divided. What I should add is that the result of the European elections in terms of seat distribution can still significantly impact European policies. This impact arises not just because the far-right or anti-Europeans are gaining seats, but mostly because we cannot fully trust the EPP, the center-right, on what they will choose. They seem to be quite divided and at a crossroads.

For example, climate policy could be revised negatively, or we could see a harsher approach to migration or enlargement, because EPP parliamentarians might choose to vote with the far-right rather than with the Liberals and Social Democrats. If your question is whether there is a danger for liberal democracy, maybe that would be an exaggeration for me. But there is surely a danger for what the EU will stand for in the coming years. The responsibility for that danger lies not just with the far-right, but even more so with the center-right.

Example of Meloni Could Normalize the Far-right Threat

Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, attend a center-right coalition rally in Rome, Italy on March 01, 2018. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

In your article published at Euronews back in March, you argue that far-right parties have been successful in ‘detoxifying’ themselves and consequently it has been more difficult for mainstream parties to make a convincing case to save Europe from far-right parties. Can you please elaborate on how successful ‘detoxifying’ has been?

Pawel Zerka: I am responsible for conducting daily public opinion polls on foreign affairs. In our latest poll, we aimed to gauge perceptions of different far-right or anti-European party leaders in various countries, tailored to each specific context. For example, in Italy, we asked about Georgia Meloni; in Poland, about Jaroslav Kaczynski; in Germany, about the leaders of AfD; and in Austria, about the leader of FPÖ. We asked people, “Do you believe that this person—Kaczynski, Marine Le Pen, etc.—wants to: first, get your country out of the EU; secondly, get your country out of the Eurozone; and thirdly, obstruct the work of the European Union?”

Then we analyzed the results by dividing voters into supporters of the given leader (like Meloni, Kaczynski, or Le Pen) and everyone else. In some cases, like Poland, very few of Kaczynski’s supporters believed he had anti-European intentions, while two-thirds of the rest believed he posed a threat to Poland’s EU membership and sought to obstruct the EU’s work. Conversely, in Italy, Georgia Meloni has managed to detoxify her image remarkably well. Not only do her voters not believe she has dangerous intentions towards Europe, but neither do most other voters. They don’t think she seeks to pull Italy out of the Eurozone or the EU or to obstruct the EU’s work. This indicates that she has successfully created an image of a constructive and reliable leader despite initial fears.

I believe Geert Wilders is learning from Meloni’s approach, which is why he was not so radical during the negotiations for the new government in the Netherlands. He adopted a conciliatory stance to be in the government and preserve the core elements of his platform. Similarly, while Meloni might have once learned from Marine Le Pen, it now appears that Le Pen is learning from Meloni ahead of the 2027 elections in France.

In a way, looking at this phenomenon from a distance, there are reasons to be somewhat optimistic. It shows that anti-European or Eurosceptic forces behave differently depending on whether they are in opposition or in government. It’s promising that once they assume government roles, they start behaving more responsibly. However, this is not always the case. Poland, Hungary, and the US under Donald Trump are clear demonstrations that leaders can remain alarming and continue having negative impacts on national politics and democracy even after taking power.

Therefore, I think it’s dangerous that the example of Giorgia Meloni could normalize the far-right threat, making many in France say, “Look, in Italy, they feared Giorgia Meloni, and nothing happened. So perhaps in France, we shouldn’t be that worried about Marine Le Pen, and we shouldn’t listen to all of those pro-European radicals who are so afraid of the far-right threat.”

However, in France, it could be a completely different story. Not only is France a different country, but it is also a member of the UN Security Council, holds nuclear power, and has a much bigger economy. Therefore, a far-right leadership in France would have a more systemic impact on the European economy. Moreover, Marine Le Pen might choose to behave differently than Giorgia Meloni and could be more radical, especially considering the French presidential system, which grants her much more power. She would be less constrained by the democratic system and economic factors.

Perhaps Giorgia Meloni’s constructive behavior can be partly attributed to the fact that the Italian economy needed stability. Meloni understood that her survival as Prime Minister depended on gaining the trust of the markets and other leaders, not just her supporters. In contrast, Marine Le Pen might be less concerned about these issues.

Low Participation Rate Could Undermine Legitimacy of European Leaders

Autonomous community of Madrid elections in Spain on May 05, 2021. Photo: Sangiao Photography.

Your article mentions the potential for a “bitter-sweet victory” for progressives. Could you elaborate on what this might look like in practice, and what it would mean for the EU’s internal dynamics and policies? How concerned are you about the mainstream parties to ape far-right to garner more votes? In other words, are you concerned that the values of far-right parties will be mainstreamed by the center-right parties?

Pawel Zerka: Exactly. We’ve already mentioned that the danger lies not only in the far-right but also in the center-right adopting far-right positions. This has already happened to a large extent with migration policies and is increasingly occurring with climate policies. The center-right seems to hope that by moving further right, they can prevent their voters from defecting to the far-right. This strategy might result in a “bitter-sweet victory.”

Actually, thinking about the European elections, with three weeks to go, I am more concerned about low turnout than the results. As I said earlier, I don’t expect, nor should we expect, a complete catastrophe. Even if the far-right increases its number of seats, it will still be a clear minority. What is much more concerning is the lack of reasons for a high turnout.

I am currently visiting several EU Member States and following the discussions in those I know better, such as Poland and France. Recently, I’ve been to Italy and just returned from Greece. Despite the differences among these countries, there is a common trend: no debate, no campaign, and no clear stakes for voters. Even as an expert, I find it challenging to argue convincingly why people should vote in a country like Greece, which sends only 21 members to the European Parliament out of 720. It wouldn’t significantly impact Europe whether New Democracy gets 9 rather than 7 MEPs. It’s hard to motivate people to spend part of a sunny weekend voting.

In Poland, even the ruling pro-European coalition isn’t investing much in the campaign. Perhaps they realize that mobilizing their voters might also mobilize PiS voters. After several recent elections, including parliamentary elections in the autumn and local elections a month ago, people are election-weary. They may feel they’ve done their part by helping pro-European forces regain power in the autumn, so why vote again in European elections? When I hear Donald Tusk, Poland’s Prime Minister, say these are critical elections for the country, even I find it hard to believe. 

Five years ago, there were reasons to mobilize voters, such as the “Fridays for Future” movement and the climate urgency. The fresh argument about the far-right threat also helped. But you can’t repeat the same argument indefinitely, and climate change is no longer a strong motivator because the European Union has introduced a lot of progressive climate legislation in the past five years.

While I personally see it as a positive development, I understand that European society is divided and largely critical. This criticism extends to the EU’s handling of the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Some people believe the EU should be more supportive of Ukraine, while others feel the EU is pushing Ukraine towards conflict rather than investing in peace solutions. As a result, there is significant dissatisfaction with the EU.

The challenge lies in accepting this dissatisfaction and acknowledging that being critical of the EU does not equate to being anti-European. Pro-European forces need to create space for citizens to express their dissatisfaction and work together to find solutions to improve the EU. Many people are pro-European but critical of various EU actions. The task for the next five years is to address this criticism constructively.

In the short term, however, this dissatisfaction, coupled with unclear stakes in the upcoming elections, may lead to low voter turnout. This low participation rate could undermine the legitimacy of the next European leaders compared to those elected five years ago.