India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a Bharatiya Janta Party  rally ahead of state legislative assembly election on February 22,2021 in Hooghly, India. Photo: Saikat Paul.

What after Populism? Analyzing General Elections in India, 2024

The BJP consistently built a mass movement to construct a temple for Lord Ram at his birthplace of Ayodhya. This populist narrative, which framed an imagined majority as the ‘authentic people,’ resonated widely. The temple’s construction became the central issue for the 2024 General Elections. However, soon after the temple’s inauguration in February, the expected exuberance was noticeably absent. Mobilization around the temple fell flat, failing to create the kind of hysteria that Modi expected would secure him a third term in office.

By Ajay Gudavarthy* 

Indian democracy, alongside global shifts, took a ‘populist turn’ in 2014. It had populist features since 1970s that some have referred to as ‘agrarian populism,’ which included populist welfarism for rural peasants (Ghosh, 2019). However, in 2014, India witnessed a dramatic shift to a majoritarian discourse of authentic (Hindu) people; strongman phenomenon that undermined procedural niceties, legal norms and rule of law; centrality of performance and narrative over mobilization of social identities such as caste, class and language; pre-eminence of personality cult over institutional functioning; foregrounding of culture and civilizational ethos over public discourses on redistribution and justice; penetration of anti-elitist discourse against entitled and entrenched caste/class networks and finally a shift to mobilization based on psychological imperatives, latent emotions and everyday ethics. 

Under the stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, populist features assumed heightened mobilizational potential that could be seen in greater street mobilization, everyday violence (such as mob lynching) and aspirational aggression combined with electoral successes. Though BJP`s (Bharatiya Janta Party) vote share was limited to 37% at the height of its popularity, there was an unprecedented spread of the BJP’s footprint to unchartered territories in the Northeast of India and South of Vindhayas. Modi became the glue cutting across the regions. He symbolized a new age religiosity, hyper-nationalism, and supremacism that came across in popular politics as resurgent Hindu identity and renewed Indic civilizational belonging. Modi managed to tap deep-seated cultural codes, harness ‘collective sub-conscious,’ and stroke a sense of historical injury in majority Hindu community. It was a decade long (2014-2024) high decibel cultural narrative that left the opposition parties struggling with the muscular nationalism and populism of Modi. BJP, at one point, began to make hyperbolic claims such as ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ (India free of Congress) and that it will continue in power for the next 50 years. The Modi juggernaut looked unstoppable.

Come 2024 General elections, there is a deafening silence, and lull. It now looks like the Modi juggernaut has come to a sudden and an abrupt screeching halt. In complete contrast to the last ten years, the ongoing general elections in India are without a national narrative, excitement, hyperbole, and in fact is witnessing a steady withdrawal by the electorate. The current elections are witnessing a palpable drop in the voter turnout. According to the data released by the Election Commission, the first phase witnessed 66.14 per cent turn out as against 69.89 per cent in 2019; second phase saw 66.71 turn out as against 69.64 per cent in 2019, and the third phase 65.68 per cent as against 67.3 in 2019. India’s voter turnout is lower than in several emerging markets (Mohan, 2024).

India is considered one of the youngest nations of the world, given its demographics of the largest youth population. Modi was considered an aspirational figure for the young. However, Election commission claimed only 38% of eligible first-time voter (18 million out of 49 million) registered to vote in 2024 elections; merely 17% of youth population of Bihar (state with highest concentration of youth and considered one of the poorest) registered to vote and only 21% in the capital city of Delhi. A Recent survey titled Drivers of Destiny argued that the young do not see politics and elections as a way out of social problems (Rama, 2024). Does this suggest an initial and preliminary withdrawal from populist mobilization? If so, we could ask what after populism? Do we return to constitutional liberal democracy, or would it be a new combination of constitutionalism and populism? 

In fact, in the ongoing elections opposition parties are seeking support around the counter narrative of ‘save constitution, save democracy.’ Protection of the Constitution is the central plank for the opposition parties. If the INDIA bloc (opposition alliance) is to come to power in June 2024, what kind of questions should one raise in terms of the continuances of the ‘populist turn’? Could we refer to a certain combination of social democratic imagination, with nyay (justice) as its central theme, and bringing back institutional accountability as a turn to left populism? However, there is no populist leader, no strongman, there is no appeal to an authentic people and there is a return to social identities of caste and local narratives and issues. 

Equally perplexing is the sudden change in the contours of Hindu identity. Much of BJP`s mobilization in the last ten years was centered around the construction of an authentic Hindu identity that needs to avenge the historical injury caused by external invaders (read Muslims). It consistently built a mass movement for building a temple for Lord Ram at his birthplace of Ayodhya. This populist narrative around an imagined majority as the ‘authentic people’ found a great deal of resonance. In fact, construction of the temple was the central issue for the General elections, 2024. However, soon after the temple was inaugurated (referred in religious parlance as ‘Pran Prathistha’) in February 2024, it was followed by absence of exuberance. Mobilization around temple fell flat and it failed to create the kind of hysteria that Modi expected will grant him his third term in the office. However, another decision of the Modi government of abrogation of Article 370 that granted autonomy to Kashmir, continued to remain popular. 

What does this variance between religious mobilization and nationalist mobilization suggest? Does it mean nationalism with regard to Kashmir has a better appeal owing to the sense of belonging it offers, as against the communalism centered on religious identity? Could we then meaningfully argue that populist assemblage could crack into smaller parts that do not find an easy equivalence? Does this lead to decline of populism or into the emergence of different shades of populism?

Finally, there is a return of the region and the local, as against the national. The ongoing general elections are witnessing a distinct voting pattern between the Hindi-speaking Northern states and the non-Hindi speaking Southern states. Modi’s populist mobilization based on nationalism and religiosity managed to partially obscure these boundaries. More than voting, the North-South divide foreground significant issues for our understanding of the interface between the social/cultural and the political domains that is at the heart of the ‘populist turn.’ 

Populism indicated certain kind of culturalization of politics and economy. While, North had, for instance, politicization of caste through the emergence of caste-based political parties, it had very little impact on the socio-economic indicators in terms of the mobility of marginalized castes. In contrast, in South of India, anti-caste movements took to social mobilization, independent of political parties, and electoral politics. It witnessed significant change in the socio-economic mobility of the marginalized castes. 

Along these lines, independent social activists and organizations for the first time took part in the electoral process by campaigning against the BJP. It had significant impact in the electoral outcomes in Karnataka and Telangana, two developed states of the South. Karnataka forged, Eddelu Karnataka (wake up Karnataka) and in Telangana it was called Jago Telangana (Wake up Telangana). The understanding was, while Rastriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) mobilized around socio-cultural issues for the BJP, it was the social activists working for the opposition bloc. 

North of India had no independent social activists or movements that coincided with the unprecedented rise of right-wing populist-authoritarianism. This tells us something about the workings of populism after the ‘neoliberal consensus.’ If there is independent and social mobilization, it seems to work as a check on hyperbolic political mobilization. However, to check populist authoritarianism, independent social activists were ‘compelled’ to take part in electoral campaigns. There seems to be a need to recalibrate the interface between the social/cultural and political domains. In fact, the changing equation between these domains in modern, complex and socially differentiated societies is what decides the future of populism.

(*) Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy is an Associate Professor at the New Delhi Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. His recently published book is titled as Politics, Ethics, Emotions in ‘New India,’ (Routledge, India, 2023).


Ghosh, Atig. (2019). “Rearticulating ‘Agrarian Populism’ in Postcolonial India: Considerations around D.N. Dhanagare’s Populism and Power: Farmers’ Movement in Western India: 1980-2014 and Beyond.” Delivered as Lecture entitled as part of the Friday Lecture Series of Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group on July 18, 2019.

Mohan, Archis (2024). (92 Of 102 Seats in First Phase Saw Voter Turnout Drop.” Rediff. May 1, 2024. (accessed on May 16, 2024).

Rama, Bijapurkar. (2024). “Does Young India Care About Elections 2024?” Rediff. May 4, 2024. on May 16, 2024).

ECPS-MGP Panel 12 Thumbnail

ECPS Regional Panel 2: Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa


Dr. Chipo Dendere (Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College).


“Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian, and Nationalist Trends in Africa,” by 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).

Democratizing Africa: Navigating Populist Trends, Building Trust in Institutions, and Promoting Stability through Inclusive Governance,” by Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh(Assistant Lecturer, Department of English Law, University of Bertoua, Cameroon).

“Taming the Lion: On the Conditions of Possibility of a Progressive Populism in Sub-Saharan Africa,” by Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu (Professor of Political Science, Director of the Centre for International Cooperation Babeș-Bolyai University).

Populism and The Challenges of Democratic Governance in Africa,” by Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo (Executive Director and Principal Researcher at the Bureau of Strategic Studies (BESTRAT), University of Yaoundé II, Cameroon).

Populism Discourse and the Proliferation of Hate during Elections in Central African Sub-region,” by Dr. Derick Fai Kinang (University of Buea, Cameroon).

“The Protection of Female Rights and the Rise of Populism in African Democracies: A Need for a Reformed Society,” by Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor (Senior Lecturer, Department of English Law, University of Dschang, Cameroon).

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot is a research director at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS and Avantha Professor of Indian Politics and Society at King's India Institute, School of Global Affairs, Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College, London. Photo: H. Naudet.

Professor Jaffrelot: India under Modi Shares Similar Patterns with Israel in Their ‘Ethnic Democracies’

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot notes that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindutva has taken on a distinctly populist and more aggressive posture, marking a shift from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s previously disciplined, cadre-based approach. Modi’s populist influence has further polarized Indian society, rendering his brand of Hindu nationalism more exclusionary and assertive than ever. He also highlights the subtle yet significant similarities between India and Israel in their conceptualization and treatment of minorities. In India, minorities, particularly Muslims, experience systemic exclusion from equal opportunities in employment, housing, and other areas.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In a compelling interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Christophe Jaffrelot, a distinguished CERI-CNRS Senior Research Fellow who teaches at Sciences Po across three schools, delves into the intricate patterns of ‘ethnic democracies’ as exemplified by India and Israel. He highlights the subtle yet profound similarities between the two nations in how they conceptualize and treat their ethnic majorities and minorities. According to Professor Jaffrelot, while Israel’s ethnic democracy is de jure, India’s version manifests de facto, where minorities, particularly Muslims, experience systemic exclusion from equal opportunities in employment and housing among others.

According to Professor Jaffrelot, this discrimination is not just a passive societal residue but an active part of governmental policy and social rhetoric. Professor Jaffrelot articulates that the ideological underpinnings of this approach in India stem from a century-old ideology known as Hindutva. This ideology, largely unchanged since its formal introduction in 1923 by Savarkar in “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?”, defines the nation in terms of Hindu heritage and culture, positioning Hindus as the rightful sons of the Indian soil. This framework inherently diminishes the status of other communities, effectively making them second-class citizens unless they assimilate into the dominant Hindu culture.

The Professor points out that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindutva has acquired a distinctly populist and more aggressive posture, which is a departure from the earlier disciplined, cadre-based approach of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi’s populist dimension has further polarized the Indian society, making his version of Hindu nationalism more exclusionary and assertive than ever before.

The implications of such a hardened stance are far-reaching, affecting not just the internal social fabric of India but also its external diplomatic relations, especially with countries like Pakistan and Israel. The shared ideological and strategic interests between India under the BJP and Israel, particularly their common stance on Islam and Islamism, underscore a unique geopolitical alignment that transcends mere diplomacy, touching the core of national identity and cultural politics.

As the interview progresses, Professor Jaffrelot explores the consequences of this ideology on India’s secular and multicultural ethos. He argues that the populist manipulation of Hindu nationalism under Modi’s leadership does not merely challenge the pluralistic foundations of India but also poses a significant risk to the democratic principles enshrined in the constitution.

Through this in-depth discussion, Professor Jaffrelot not only provides a critical analysis of the current political climate in India but also places it within a broader global context of rising ethnic nationalism and far-right populism. His insights offer a sobering reminder of the potent mix of populism and nationalism, which is reshaping nations across the world, making this interview a crucial read for anyone interested in understanding the contemporary challenges facing democratic societies today.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Christophe Jaffrelot with minor edits.

Modi Has Changed Hindu Nationalism More Than Anybody Else

How has Hindu nationalism and Hindutva evolved, and what historical factors shaped its current form, especially in its intersection with populism in contemporary Indian politics?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: Well, this movement is now 100 years old. It was initiated in the 1920s, with the first ideological charter published in 1923 by Savarkar titled “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” The ideology, which remains largely unchanged to this day, defines the Indian nation on the basis of Hinduism, or more precisely, on the basis of the Hindu people. Hindus are seen as the sons of the soil, the main community, the primary people, and minorities are expected to pledge allegiance to their religion and culture or accept that they are second-class citizens. This ideology has not changed significantly. The organization evolved; in 1925, two years after Savarkar’s book, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was born. This organization embodies Hindu nationalism and is non-political.

Initially, RSS didn’t seek any particular role but aimed to organize Hindus and make them more cohesive and muscular. They adopt a paramilitary style for disciplining young Hindus. This organization has remained largely the same since then, except that after independence in the 1940s, they started building additional subsidiaries such as student unions, trade unions, labor unions, peasant unions, and a political party. This political party is now the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi. Modi has probably changed Hindu nationalism more than anybody else by enrolling it with a populist dimension. Until Modi, the BJP was a disciplined, cadre-based organization. With Modi, after the 2014 elections, a mass appeal emerged, making a huge difference, and as a result, the BJP has become the largest Indian party, with the majority of members of Parliament in the Lower House now belonging to it.

Ethnic Democracy Is De Jure in Israel, De Facto in India

What does Hindutva’s proliferation mean for the Indian democracy? How does Hindutva challenge the secularism, pluralism, and the multi-culturalism of the Indian state?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: As I mentioned, the Hindutva ideology considers that minorities must either pledge allegiance to Hindu culture or expect to be in a dominated situation. So, there is a rejection of multiculturalism and secularism. In India, secularism means that all groups are treated equally by the state. This principle is enshrined in the Constitution, which includes articles stating that minorities can apply for subsidies to run their own schools, among other provisions. However, Hindu nationalism has consistently opposed this idea, arguing that citizens should not be seen as equals and that Hinduism should prevail. This stance is detrimental to multiculturalism and democracy. But it’s not surprising, as populism tends to oppose pluralism. 

When you say that the people are enshrined, epitomized by the “sons of the soil,” it becomes very challenging for minorities to secure the collective rights they deserve in a democratic, multicultural setup. In this way, India appears to be following a pattern seen in many other places, including Israel. In Israel, the concept of “ethnic democracy” was introduced by Sammy Smooha, a political scientist. Ethnic democracy can be de jure, as in Israel, or de facto, as in India. In the de facto scenario, minorities are second-class citizens because they lack equal access to the job market and the housing market. This discrimination is precisely what we observe today vis-a-vis the Muslims.

Hinduism and Hindutva Are Distinctly Different

Volunteers of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on Vijyadashmi festival, a large gathering or annual meeting during Ramanavami a Hindu festival in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh on October 19, 2018. Photo: Pradeep Gaurs.

How would you characterize the relationship between Hindu nationalism, Hindutva and populism in the context of the BJP’s rise to power? What factors have contributed or paved the way for BJP’s and Modi’s electoral victory in 2014? How has the BJP shaped and promoted Hindu nationalism, and is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership style effective in this context?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: Hinduism and Hindutva are certainly not the same, although some claim they are. They argue that Hindutva is merely an extension of Hinduism, but this is not the case. Hinduism, unlike many religions, lacks a definitive corpus; it has no central book with a capital “B,” no clergy, no church, and no singular center of gravity. Instead, its unit of analysis is the Sampradaya, or sectarian movements, which have been established by Gurus who demonstrated significant spiritual creativity. Unity in Hinduism stems from the caste system and social organization, rather than a religious framework, which is highly diverse. A fitting metaphor for Hinduism is the Banyan tree, where the trunk—or core—is elusive, and all Gurus are equally legitimate in their approaches to guiding disciples toward salvation.

Hindutva is an ideology and does not view Hinduism as a creed. It is not concerned with paths to salvation or beliefs; instead, it focuses on forging a collective identity to make a people. Hindus are not just believers; they are a people. This mirrors the difficulties in distinguishing between Zionism and the Jewish people. Hindutva has instrumentalized Hinduism for its purposes. For example, in the 1980s, proponents of Hindutva launched a movement to reclaim a sacred site in Ayodhya, in northern India. This site was the location of the Babri Masjid, a mosque built in 1528 by the first Mughal Emperor, Babur. They claimed this mosque was erected over a demolished Hindu temple, purportedly at the birthplace of Lord Rama, an avatar of Lord Vishnu—a belief widely held among Hindus. In the 1980s, this sentiment was leveraged to mobilize Hindus against Muslims, incite riots, and eventually lead to the demolition of the mosque and the construction of a new Hindu temple, which was inaugurated in January this year. This is a prime example of how religion can be instrumentalized by ideologues. However, I must emphasize again that Hinduism and Hindutva are distinctly different.

Populism Results in Authoritarianism

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

How would you describe Narendra Modi’s populism and how does it differ from other populisms in particular populist parties in Europe?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: There are many similarities. The concept of populism, in my view, primarily involves a direct connection between the leader and the populace, bypassing traditional intermediaries. Narendra Modi, for instance, did not heavily rely on his party or the RSS, despite being a product of the RSS. As an RSS volunteer since the age of seven, he certainly embodies the organization’s ethos. However, upon becoming the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he opted to establish his own parallel power structure, which focused more on promoting his personal image rather than the party or organization. He pioneered the use of social media, holograms, and even a TV channel named after him to communicate directly with the public. This strategy of direct engagement is a quintessential element of his approach.

The second characteristic of populism is that the leader is perceived as “one of the people,” yet also possesses a unique charisma. Modi exemplifies this as he comes from a humble, low-caste background, making it easy for him to appear as one of the people, one of the plebeians, one of the common folk. He often speaks in a manner that resonates with the general populace, frequently discussing his impoverished childhood and his closeness to the poor. Despite this, Modi is also viewed as a charismatic and exceptional figure. Notably, he took bold actions, such as the military strike on Pakistan in 2019, which was unprecedented since 1971. Additionally, his tenure as Chief Minister is marked by controversial events like the anti-Muslim pogroms, underscoring his extraordinary and divisive role in politics. Thus, the second criterion of populism is being “a man of the people,” but one who is distinctly apart from them in capability and action.

This insight is crucial for grasping Narendra Modi’s populist style, a trait he shares with other populist leaders globally. Similar patterns can be observed in figures like Erdogan, Duterte, and Trump, who position themselves as antagonists of the elite, often claiming victimization by them. Modi frequently portrays himself as a victim of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the liberal elite, English-speaking elite, emphasizing his vernacular identity by predominantly speaking in Indian languages rather than English.

Now there are two other very important criteria of populism that Narendra Modi fulfills, and they have to do with ideology. He is a national populist. He speaks in the name of the majority, not in the name of all citizens. Thus, he continues to polarize. In the ongoing election campaign, he has been very critical of Muslims, openly denigrating them in a mean manner. His style is also very vulgar because he wants to mobilize Hindu voters, not all voters. So, he is a national populist. Similarly, Netanyahu, when conversing, does not try to get the Muslim vote. He does not care for the Muslim vote. On the contrary, he tries to polarize by attacking Muslims, Palestinians in the colonies. The similarity there is also striking.

The fourth, but very important, dimension that I want to bring into the picture is that, like many other populists, he is authoritarian. Populism leads to authoritarianism almost automatically because the moment you can say, “I am the people,” there is no place for diversity, dissent, or opposition. If you are opposing the man who represents the people, you are deemed international. Therefore, you’re illegitimate. He has kept disqualifying the opposition leaders and has even sent many of them behind bars. Today, for the first time in the history of India, a chief minister, the chief minister of Delhi, is in prison, and that’s just one example among political prisoners. Secondly, the Congress party, the number one opposition party, has seen several of its bank accounts frozen because, again, they are seen as threats, which are considered illegitimate. 

The media is also captured by the ruling party, most of the time. News channels, including NDTV, the last independent channel, have been bought by oligarchs, friends of the ruling party. So, that’s another very important criterion of populism: populism results in authoritarianism, and this authoritarianism is conducive to fighting against opposition and transforming the election competition into a non-level playing field. It’s a non-level playing field because of the media coverage of the election campaigns and also because of money. The kind of financial resources the BJP has is nothing compared to what the opposition possesses. The opposition is, of course, at the receiving end of so many rules and regulations, making it very difficult for them to finance the election campaign. So, it’s still not a level playing field.

I conclude that in a populist regime like this one, the leader must take the risk of an election. It’s not North Korea; it’s not China. Populists need the popular mandate. They need legitimacy derived from the vote, from the electorate, to be in a position to say, “I can prevail because I am the people.” Of course, when you take the risk of the vote, of the election, you also risk losing. That’s why it’s an authoritarian regime, but not a fascist regime. It’s a different category.

Muslims in India Are Getting Ghettoized

A man chanting songs with a dummy cow in the background during the Golden Jubilee
celebration of VHP – a Hindu nationalist organization on December 20, 2014 in Kolkata, India. Photo: Arindam Banerjee.

What role do the BJP and Modi play in promoting exclusionary practices against Muslim minorities in India? How does the nexus of Hindu nationalism and populism impact social cohesion, diversity, and India’s democratic ideals?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: This time, Modi has been explicitly communal, using words vis-à-vis Muslims that he had never publicly used before, because he is on the defensive. He needs to mobilize his support base as much as possible. However, until recently, he was not explicitly anti-Muslim. Thus, the dirty job was done by others. There was a very clear division of labor: the government and the party tried to remain clean. By contrast, underground, there were groups we call ‘vigilantes’. These vigilantes indulged in cultural policing, patrolling university campuses to check whether Muslim boys were talking to Hindu girls, to prevent them from interacting with Hindu girls because of the fear of them seducing and converting Hindu women. It sounds banal, but in practice, it could be very ugly and result in violence. Violence is the order of the day when they patrol highways to check whether truck drivers are transporting bovines to the slaughterhouse, with the cow being the sacred animal, par excellence, in India. This movement, known as cow protection, is clearly a way to discipline and harass Muslims, and there have been many cases of lynchings. Similarly, the same groups make it very difficult for Hindus to sell their flats or houses to Muslims in mixed neighborhoods, to ensure that there is no interaction and that ghettoization remains the order of the day. Muslims are getting ghettoized for that reason among others, including socioeconomic decline. Of course, all these practices go together with discrimination in the job market, and Muslims are suffering socioeconomically.

These are the daily routines for Muslims, who live in fear, especially when they are in small minorities. However, what is new is the passing of laws that not only de facto but also de jure make them second-class citizens. For instance, a significant law passed in 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act, states that only non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan would be eligible for Indian nationality and citizenship. Many other laws have been enacted at the state level, making interreligious marriages very difficult, severely restricting conversion out of Hinduism, and complicating the sale of houses to someone from a different community. 

So, while BJP and Modi at the center appear to remain clean, underground vigilantes do the dirty work. But lately, we also see governments at both the state and national levels indulging in overtly communal practices. This is a notable change. In India, we use the term ‘communal’ because it was the word used, especially under Nehru in the 1950s and 1960s, to indicate a departure from nationalism. Communalism can be Hindu, Muslim, Sikh; nationalism is Indian. People were encouraged to feel like Indians and not indulge in communalism. I find this distinction still very useful.

You often refer to ‘the banalization of Islamophobia.’ How has this banalization evolved as BJP took root in Indian politics?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: The center of gravity in public discourse has shifted. For me, banalization is evident in the acceptance of words that would never have been deemed legitimate in the public sphere 15-20, or 25 years ago. Saying that Muslims have many wives and engage in polygamy, or that Muslims have many children precisely because they have many wives, or that they pledge allegiance to Mecca and the Middle East—none of these assertions would have been possible 15-20, or 25 years ago. They would have faced sanctions and been considered outside the bounds of legitimate discourse. Now, the situation is entirely different. There is a banalization of prejudice, making it very commonplace. This isn’t only in India; it’s something you find elsewhere. But it has emerged prominently in India, with the type of words and stigmatization that have become so routinized. It’s truly astonishing. This shift also manifests in physical violence, including lynching, which was not at all part of the public life scenario 10-15, or 20 years ago, again.

To what extent has Hindu nationalism influenced foreign policy decisions under the Modi government?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: It’s not so easy to establish a clear correlation between these two. Certainly, vis-à-vis Pakistan, but even there, this assertion must be qualified. Narendra Modi invited Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014 and made a stopover in Lahore to wish Nawaz Sharif a happy birthday in 2015. He wanted to normalize relations with Pakistan, and Nawaz Sharif was seen as the right partner for this endeavor. This effort halted after terrorist attacks in India, likely perpetrated by Jihadi groups who were opposed to this normalization. These groups have consistently sabotaged the normalization process between India and Pakistan. After these incidents, Modi became probably more aggressive than any of his predecessors, except perhaps Indira Gandhi, vis-à-vis Pakistan, influenced by his ideological stance. It can be argued that his position as a Hindu nationalist leader played a role, but this became evident only after 2015-16. Regarding other international relations, there are affinities with Israel that can be understood only through ideological proximity and a shared opposition to Muslims or, at least, Islamists. The fact that the Modi government has not been critical of Netanyahu lately is very revealing.

There Are Affinities between Zionism and Hindutva

Photo: Shutterstock.

This is the next question, Professor, let me ask it. Why does Israel present itself as an ideal polity for BJP?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: It is because there are affinities between Zionism and Hindutva, as I’ve mentioned previously. These two ideologies perceive their people not merely as believers of a religion but as descendants of the original inhabitants of a sacred land. Very few religions in the world can claim that their practitioners have in their veins the blood of the original inhabitants of the land where their most sacred sites are located. Thus, you have two sides of the same coin: the identity of the people, a kind of ethnic unity, and the location, a sacred land. These commonalities are significant. Additionally, there are very few countries with these characteristics, and atop that, they can claim to have been there for 3,000 years or 4,000 years—and they are often generous with these estimates. This represents their common ground.

Of course, they share one more thing in common: the fear of Islam and Islamism. This fear is certainly exaggerated, and both sides play the victimization card very effectively. However, this fear is not entirely imagined; there have been Islamist attacks. The Jihadi attacks on India in the 2000s had a significant impact. These attacks targeted, of course, Kashmir, but also, as you may remember, Mumbai in 2008 and Delhi in 2001. This common enemy, so to speak, has brought them closer, even before the BJP took over. As early as the 2000s, the Congress-led government considered that fostering closer ties with Israel for security reasons made sense. This is why they also collaborate in military terms.

After EP Elections We Will See A Different Europe

Lastly, Professor, do you think the electoral victory of Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom opens a new chapter in European politics signaling the normalization of far-right parties? How concerned are you about a possible surge of far-right parties in the upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections in June?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: It’s certainly a trend we see all across the board. Most European countries will witness the rise of far-right parties. Interestingly, they are not all aligned in their approaches, which is something we sometimes overlook. Some parties are striving to appear more moderate; Marine Le Pen, for example, is desperately trying to present a more moderate image, and it’s working. Conversely, in Germany, we see a radicalization of the extreme right. So, the trajectories are not the same.

Moreover, their views on Russia differ significantly. Many national populist parties in Eastern Europe, including Poland’s PiS, identify Russia as the main threat, whereas other parties, including Orban’s Fidesz, still regard Putin as a role model. Putin is also a role model for others, including Salvini’s Lega and Le Pen’s National Rally.

This divergence creates another point of contention. For instance, forming a unified group in the European Parliament won’t be straightforward; the risk of this happening is, in fact, minimal for all these reasons. However, this doesn’t mean they won’t impact the European Parliament. My concern is that they will consistently join forces on issues like immigration and the Green Deal, making it very difficult to continue many policies in the spirit they were initiated.

Yes, the risk is very real that we will see a different Europe. They don’t want to leave the EU; rather, they aim to transform it from within. Brexit is not a model they wish to emulate, especially given the high cost Britain has paid. Instead, they will try to transform the EU from the inside, and the European Parliament will be the laboratory for this transformation.

A photograph which was taken during Candlelight March in South Korea. Photo: Shutterstock.

Professor Sang-Jin Han: Threat to Democracy in South Korea Doesn’t Come from Populists, but from Neoliberals 

When queried about the correlation between populism and democracy and the potential jeopardy to democracy in South Korea, Profesor Sang-Jin Han argues the potential threat to democracy in South Korea does not come from populist citizens, but from neoliberal ones. By sharing insights from his 2018 empirical study, he elucidated, “My research aimed to discern which citizens genuinely endorse autocracy and strong leadership. Surprisingly, the findings unveiled that those meeting specific criteria for populism did not inherently endorse robust autocratic leadership. Rather intriguingly, it was the neo-liberal citizens who exhibited a tendency to endorse such authoritarian leadership.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Giving an exclusive interview to the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on Monday, Profesor Sang-Jin HanEmeritus Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University in South Korea, says the potential threat to democracy in South Korea does not come from populist citizens, but from neoliberal ones.

When queried about the correlation between populism and democracy and the potential jeopardy to democracy in the nation, Professor Sang-Jin Han shared insights from his 2018 empirical study. He elucidated, “My research aimed to discern which citizens genuinely endorse autocracy and strong leadership. Surprisingly, the findings unveiled that those meeting specific criteria for populism did not inherently endorse robust autocratic leadership. Rather intriguingly, it was the neo-liberal citizens who exhibited a tendency to endorse such authoritarian leadership.”

According to Professor Han, the perplexing aspect is why neo-liberal citizens, who typically enjoy the benefits of political liberty and economic liberalism, would support authoritarian leadership. One possible explanation is that they perceive a threat from a powerful civil society and civil movements, fearing that these forces could potentially hinder democracy. In their view, embracing a strong leader is a means to mitigate this perceived threat and safeguard against the influence of civil society.

This puzzling phenomenon raises questions about the motivations of neoliberal citizens, who, despite enjoying political and economic liberties, rally behind authoritarian leaders. Professor Han suggests that their support may stem from a perceived threat posed by powerful civil society and civil movements, which they fear could hinder democracy.

The interview delves into various aspects of populism in South Korea, exploring its historical roots, manifestations, and implications for democracy. Professor Han also challenges the traditional left-wing/right-wing dichotomy often applied to populism, arguing that populism in Korea transcends ideological boundaries and is more about emotion than specific political positions. He highlights the rise of a populist leader, Cho Kuk, and the emotional fervor observed during recent elections, signaling a potential threat to democracy.

Moreover, Professor Han sheds light on the genealogy of populism in Korea, tracing its origins to the aftermath of the Korean War and its enduring influence on the country’s political landscape. He emphasizes the unique context of Korean populism, distinct from Western models, and the role of digital media in shaping public discourse.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Profesor Sang-Jin Han with minor edits.

Two Pillars of Populism: Distrust to Political Elites and Advocacy of the People as Source of Political Legitimacy

Professor Han, thank you so very much for your time and for joining our interview series. Let me start with the first question. How do you define populism in the context of South Korean politics, and what are the key criteria you use to identify populist movements?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I propose two criteria for a theory of populism: a high degree of distrust towards political elites and conventional politicians, coupled with the advocacy of the people as the genuine source of political legitimacy. I define populism based on these overarching criteria.

Why do you think Derrida’s concept of hauntology is useful to the study of populism not only in Western Europe or Latin America but also globally?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I was very fascinated by Derrida’s concept of hauntology because we can say that the specter of populism is spreading, haunting the world today, much like Marx and Engels declared the specter of Communism haunting Europe in 1848. Now, living in Asia, I find an interesting overlapping imagination. In East Asia, when someone passes away, we wish for their soul to rest in peace. However, sometimes these specters emerge, wandering around sensitizing attention to their deep-seated sorrows, resentment, or anguish. We feel compelled to address to this anguish in order for them to rest in peace. In a similar way, Derrida argues that the specter of Marxism resurfaces to express their desperate anguish over the lost future which is related to the normative principle of democracy. Thus, Derrida attempts to reconstruct the specific specter of Marxism as critique because it contributes to democracy while deconstructing other specters arising from the genealogical traces of orthodox Marxism or historical materialism. I find this hauntological approach very intriguing.

Profesor Sang-Jin Han, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University in South Korea.

In your article The Hauntological Approach to Populism, you argue that: Thus, there is no reason for the hauntological approach to treat populism in itself as an intrinsic danger to democracy. On the contrary, in many historical examples, populist orientations and movements have paved the road to democracy until modern democratic institutions became rooted there.” Can you please give concrete examples to clarify the assumption that populism is not intrinsically danger to democracy?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: To start, democracy operates on the normative principle that the people are the genuine source of legitimacy in political power. Populism often taps into this appeal. However, the empirical reality often diverges from this normative ideal, leading to the emergence of populism in the real world. This disjuncture serves as the starting point for analysis. Derrida, naturally, acknowledges this complexity. Populism arises as a response to this gap, representing a longing for a future that never quite materialized, yet refusing to relinquish hope for it.

What does this hope for the future entail in the context of populism? Primarily, it involves recognizing the people as the true source of political legitimacy. This underscores the importance of scrutinizing which aspects of populism contribute positively to democracy. While populism can bolster democracy by emphasizing the primacy and advocacy of the people, it also poses dangers. If populism breeds hatred, it becomes a threat to democracy. History provides ample examples. Many experiences in Latin America during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, as well as instances in Southern Europe and Korea in the 1980s, illustrate how populism can either serve as a catalyst for furthering democracy or undermine it, depending on its manifestations.

Role of “Minjung” in Shaping History of South Korean Populism

What are the basic historical milestones in the formation of the significant genealogical traces of populist imagination in modern Korean history?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I believe one of the most significant occurrences in the 1980s was the transition towards political democracy in our country. The primary actors were the students and the protestant church, advocating a form of emancipation theology. Together, they played a pivotal role in shaping the history of populism. At the heart of this movement was the concept of “Minjung,” representing the grassroots people. The students endeavored to revitalize Minjung culture through various forms of expression such as art, folk dancing, and pop performances, all the while spearheading the democratization process.

Their advocacy extended to marginalized and oppressed individuals under military leadership and dictatorship. Thus, the 1980s stand out as a crucial milestone in Korea’s history. During this period, students ventured into urban shanty towns, rural areas, and factories, actively engaging with workers to help organize labor unions. Through these efforts, they contributed significantly to shaping a constructive image of populism in Korea’s democratization process.

Candlelight March Movement versus National Flag Movement

Ranks of men carry banners to protest against the policies of South Korea President Moon Jae-In in Seoul on November 16, 2019. Photo: Matt Ragen.

You state that, populism in itself involves both pro-democratic and anti-democratic streams. Yet, in the case of South Korea, the historical experience as well as the empirical analysis shows that the pro-democratic streams, exemplified by candlelight vigils, have been so far much stronger than the anti-democratic ones like hatred populism. Can you please elaborate on the pro-democratic streams that help consolidate democracy in South Korea?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: As observed by foreign onlookers, South Korea stands as a compelling example of political democracy despite enduring periods of military or authoritarian rule. The peaceful transition of government through elections in 1988, roughly four decades ago, marked a significant milestone. With two robust political parties, an active opposition, a vibrant political culture, and a strong civil society and public sphere, Korea doesn’t fit the mold of a populist country. However, there are populist tendencies evident among citizens, actors, and popular movements.

Notably, events like the Candlelight March and the National Flag Movement in 2016 and early 2017 showcased dramatic instances of populist movements. These gatherings, occurring in the same downtown streets of Seoul for months, remarkably remained peaceful with no clashes or violence. Despite their differences, with the Candlelight March predominantly composed of young, progressive, and liberal individuals advocating for democracy, and the National Flag Movement comprising older, conservative individuals leaning towards authoritarianism. They peacefully coexisted, competing for attention.

Interestingly, supporters of the Candlelight March emphasized the primacy of the people, while backers of the National Flag Movement harbored significant distrust towards politicians. This dichotomy suggests that populist movements advocating for the people, albeit in a republican sense, tend to bolster democracy, as demonstrated by the events of 2016 in Korea.

Your research distinguishes between the Candlelight movement and the National Flag movement. Could you explain the differences between these two movements and their respective impacts on democracy in South Korea?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: The Candlelight March Movement has a deep-rooted history in Korea, often emerging as a form of populism during periods of democratic regression. In the case of 2016, our government was under the control of President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former President and military leader Park Chung-hee. Her administration sought to revert to a bureaucratic authoritarian regime by exerting control over civil society through a well-organized bureaucracy.

However, Korean society had undergone significant progressiveness since the democratization movements of the 1980s. The main energy within civil society had become younger, more dynamic, and increasingly committed to principles of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and democratic governance. This growing disparity between the political establishment and civil society eventually culminated in clashes, notably in downtown areas.

These clashes symbolize a recurrent pattern: whenever our democracy faces a threat of backsliding, energy within civil society surges, manifesting in movements like the Candlelight March. While not unprecedented, the 2016 protests were particularly decisive and successful. Ultimately, Parliament moved to impeach the President—a decision upheld by the Constitutional Court. This peaceful, progressive process demonstrated the power of people to advance democracy by countering threats and sources of democratic regression.

The events of 2016 stand as a remarkable chapter in Korean history, showcasing the resilience and efficacy of democratic movements in safeguarding and advancing democratic principles.

In your view, what are the main threats to democracy in South Korea, and how do these threats relate to populist movements such as the National Flag movement?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I’d like to clarify that the National Flag Movement in 2016 didn’t pose a direct threat to democracy; rather, it represented a genuine voluntary effort by individuals, predominantly with conservative leanings, to defend Korea’s freedom against perceived threats from North Korea. Unlike past movements orchestrated by the government or conservative factions, this movement arose more spontaneously, indicating a positive evolution in democracy. However, its advocacy wasn’t inherently pro-democratic; instead, it focused on safeguarding freedom against North Korean threats.

Central to this movement was a strong aversion to the political elite, particularly those perceived as aligning too closely with North Korea. This sentiment, characterized by a sense of hatred or animosity towards certain political figures, rather than a commitment to democratic principles, has the potential to impede democratic progress. The National Flag Movement thus exemplifies this trend. While the movement’s intentions to defend national sovereignty and freedom are commendable, its emphasis on anti-North Korean sentiments and distrust of political elites may detract from broader democratic objectives.

Neo-Liberals as a Threat to Democracy

A group of demonstrators sit on the steps of a downtown building, chanting in protests against president Park Geun-hye in Seoul, South Korea on December 3, 2016. Photo: Kaitlyn McLachlan.


What were the findings of your empirical research regarding the association between populist movements in South Korea and support for democracy? How do these findings inform our understanding of the relationship between populism and democracy in the country? You argue; in the case of South Korea, the potential threat to democracy does not come from populist citizens, but from neoliberal citizens. Can you please explain why this is the case?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: Explaining this question in a simple yet insightful manner is indeed challenging. My empirical research, conducted in 2018, aimed to understand which citizens truly support autocracy and a strong leader. Interestingly, the findings revealed that those citizens meeting certain criteria for populism did not actually support a strong autocratic leader. Instead, it was the neo-liberal citizens who tended to favor such leadership.

The perplexing aspect is why neo-liberal citizens, who typically enjoy the benefits of political liberty and economic liberalism, would support authoritarian leadership. One possible explanation is that they perceive a threat from a powerful civil society and civil movements, fearing that these forces could potentially hinder democracy. In their view, embracing a strong leader is a means to mitigate this perceived threat and safeguard against the influence of civil society.

Despite being relatively privileged and satisfied compared to other groups in South Korea, these neo-liberal citizens still rally behind an autocratic leader. It’s a puzzle, but it’s the reality we uncovered through our research.

What is your response to the arguments that South Korea is democratically backsliding and in the middle of a democratic depression?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: As I previously mentioned, during moments of democratic backsliding, we often witness spontaneous societal movements pushing back against threats to democracy, ultimately succeeding in overcoming these challenges. Currently, while I don’t believe South Korea is facing democratic backsliding, there are concerning signs that suggest we may be heading in that direction.

In recent national elections held in April, both ruling and opposition parties and their leaders heavily relied on populist rhetoric, fueled by a sense of animosity towards each other. Unlike previous elections where strategists led the charge, this time, political leaders themselves actively advocated populist ideas, portraying their opponents not just as political adversaries, but as enemies deserving of punishment, even imprisonment. Consequently, the electoral atmosphere became emotionally charged, marked by harsh and unrestrained confrontations.

This heightened emotional struggle and the unprecedented level of confrontation during the election could potentially set the stage for democratic backsliding in the future. However, it’s worth noting that South Korea has overcome many difficulties in maintaining democracy thus far.

How will the elections held last month influence the political landscape in terms of right-wing and left-wing populism? What implications do you see for South Korean politics in terms of the polarization and demonization observed between the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I’m skeptical about the concept of left-wing populism versus right-wing populism, particularly in the context of South Korea. In my observation, neither left nor right ideology dominates the content of populism here. Populism, by its nature, tends to be more about emotion than adhering to specific ideological positions. Of particular concern is the cultivation of hatred, which I observed flourishing during the last general election.

A notable development during this election was the rise of a specific populist leader, Cho Kuk, a former law professor at Seoul National University and a close aide to former President Moon Jae-in. Over the years, for some understandable reasons related to the legal prosecution of himself and his wife, Cho Kuk has gained public sympathy as a symbol of political oppression and resentment. Just before the election he created a political party which became surprisingly the third party in national congress. He continues to employ aggressive rhetoric, labeling opponents as enemies deserving punishment. The emergence of such a populist leader and party may signal a potential threat to democracy in Korea.

This observation is intriguing, and while I can’t make a definitive judgment, I’m closely monitoring the role of this populist politician and party. Despite being a colleague and friend, his transformation into a popular populist figure underscores a significant shift in Korean politics. Unlike in the past, we now witness the emergence of a strong populist politician and party as a notable departure from previous political landscapes.

South Korea Follows Its Own Trajectory vis-à-vis Populism

Does the surge in populist movements in Europe and the US have any impact on South Korean populism? 

Professor Sang-Jin Han: When examining the genealogy of populism in Korea, I find little influence from either Europe or the US. The roots of populism in Korea can be traced back to strong emotions, particularly those that emerged during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 and its aftermath. During this period, anti-communist sentiment proliferated, heavily influenced by American Cold War policies. While we’ve moved past this era, remnants of this anti-communist fervor persist, shaping the political landscape.

However, today’s populism in Korea is not directly tied to past influences from Europe or America. Rather, it’s evolving in its own context, influenced by the country’s unique historical trajectory. Populism is no longer neatly categorized into left or right ideological frameworks. Instead, it’s become more of a visually driven phenomenon, especially in the age of social media. Korean society is emotionally charged and deeply divided, and politicians and other actors capitalize on this by leveraging digital media to create and disseminate compelling images.

Korea’s advanced digital technology allows for effective image production and dissemination, shaping public perceptions and discourse. While foreign observers may attempt to apply labels like left populism or right populism, these dichotomies just reflect political slogans or flags but don’t necessarily capture the nuances of Korean populism. Korea follows its own trajectory, distinct from Western models, and its populism reflects this unique context.


Populist Authoritarianism in China: National and Global Perspectives

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Christo & Valev, Radoslav. (2024). “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 2, 2024.      


This report provides a summary of the presentations delivered during the twelfth installment of ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives.” The event, held online on April 25, 2024, undertook a comprehensive examination of China’s dynamic political terrain. Dr. Rune Steenberg, an esteemed anthropologist and Principal Investigator at Palacký University Olomouc, adeptly moderated the panel, which featured a distinguished lineup of scholars. Each expert contributed unique insights into China’s populist authoritarianism, drawing from diverse disciplinary perspectives.

By Christo Pretorius Radoslav Valev

The twelfth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives,” convened online on April 25, 2024, delving into a multifaceted exploration of China’s evolving political landscape. Moderated by Dr. Rune Steenberg, an esteemed anthropologist and Principal Investigator at Palacký University Olomouc, the panel assembled a distinguished line-up of scholars, each offering unique insights into China’s populist authoritarianism from diverse disciplinary lenses.

Dr. Steenberg initiated the discussion by contextualizing the rise of populism within China, tracing its trajectory over the past decade under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Highlighting themes of nationalism, surveillance, and internal suppression, Dr. Steenberg elucidated the complex interplay between populist rhetoric, state power, and societal transformation, emphasizing China’s assertive global posture and its implications for domestic governance.

Subsequent presentations delved into specific dimensions of China’s populist authoritarianism. Dr. Kun He, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Computational Linguistics Group within the University of Groningen, scrutinized the intricate dynamics of populism within China’s socio-political landscape, delineating its manifestations and distinguishing features. Dr. Martin Lavička, Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University, illuminated the state’s regulation of religion under Xi Jinping, underscoring its implications for religious practitioners and broader societal dynamics. Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk, Professor of Economy and visiting fellow at the University of Duisburg-Essen, elucidated China’s global populist endeavors through the lens of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), unraveling its geopolitical implications and coercive strategies. Lastly, Dr. Yung-Yung Chang, Assistant Professor at Asia-Pacific Regional Studies at the National Dong Hwa University, explored the intersection of technology and populism, shedding light on China’s digital authoritarianism and its ramifications for global governance.

Through nuanced analyses and interdisciplinary perspectives, the panelists navigated the contours of China’s populist authoritarianism, unraveling its complexities and global reverberations. As geopolitical landscapes continue to evolve, understanding China’s populist authoritarian trajectory assumes paramount importance, offering critical insights into the unfolding dynamics of global politics and governance.

Dr. Rune Steenberg: “Rise of Populist Authoritarianism in China”

Although the global-oriented policies of Deng Xiaoping played a part, according to Dr. Rune Steenberg, the pivotal moment that has put China on its current path was the economic crash of 2008. Furthering this theory, he highlighted that the hardening of borders, refugee crises, the environmental crisis, rising global inequality, and the attack on personal freedoms and liberties globally, have all been the context for both other populist leaders to gain popularity and power across the world, and the breakdown of the liberal world order. This has allowed power to shift towards China and its interests and offers scholars a wealth of avenues from which they can investigate the minute details of how and why this shift is occurring.

The panel moderator, Dr. Rune Steenberg, started the session by stating that he has seen the rise of populist authoritarianism in China during his work as an anthropologist, which has allowed him to investigate the issue from a broader anthropological perspective. He indicated that populist authoritarianism in China has been on the rise for at least ten years, often connected to Xi Jinping’s rise to power and his ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,’ certain forms of nationalistic propaganda, competition to the United States, which all coincided with internal suppression of individual rights, freedom of expression, and the expansion of surveillance. Dr. Steenberg also noted that there is a popular support for ‘imperial ambitions’ on Hong Kong, Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang that is often hard for outside commentators to understand. 

Highlighting one strain of analysis, Dr. Steenberg notes that the use a Chinese historical perspective to explain China’s rise to power is often used – notably the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, which emphasized hiding one’s strength until become strong enough to assert oneself on the global scene. Commentators, such as Andre Gunder Frank, state that China is currently emerging from the shadows, a narrative often linked to the reversal of the ‘Century of Humiliation.’ In connection to this is China’s policies to go abroad, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its connection and cooperation with Latin American and African countries, and the framing of China as an anti-colonial power, all while furthering its own colonial policies in the process. 

Dr. Steenberg questioned how much of these policies come from grassroot elements compared to state elements. To frame this question, he indicated that there are certain reminders of the joint state and grassroot “Cultural Revolution” that can be found in the re-education camps in Xinjiang, which can be coupled with the breaking up of traditional society to the advantage of a modernization policy pursued by the Chinese government. Scapegoats, both internal and external, are a major part of populism, and in China modern scapegoats take on a different context than they did during the “Cultural Revolution,” especially as China becomes a major global power both economically and militarily. 

Although noting that the global-oriented policies of Deng Xiaoping played a part, according to Dr. Steenberg, the pivotal moment that has put China on its current path was the economic crash of 2008. Furthering this theory, he highlighted that the hardening of borders, refugee crises, the environmental crisis, rising global inequality, and the attack on personal freedoms and liberties globally, have all been the context for both other populist leaders to gain popularity and power across the world, and the breakdown of the liberal world order. This has allowed power to shift towards China and its interests and offers scholars a wealth of avenues from which they can investigate the minute details of how and why this shift is occurring.

Dr. Kun He: “Who Are the People, Populist Articulation of the People in Contemporary China”

According to Dr. Kun He, three categories exist in China to define the ‘people.’ First it is the group that fight against those are defined as ‘foreign others’ and the elites who betray Chinese identity, whilst the idea of a Chinese nation functions as an ideological glue to unite those of the Chinese nationality. These ideas tie into historical contexts of China as ‘victor’ and ‘victim’ to mobilize and protest against the external ‘others.’ The second category of mass resistance is an anti-intellectual emotional appeal, with people rejecting elite dominated cultural production and their institutions, as well as established norms and values. The third category of the people are the netizens who are impoverished, vulnerable, and marginalized in society.

To start his presentation, Dr. Kun He gave examples of successful populist campaigns across the world, stating that ‘populism’ itself is, however, a contested concept. He goes on to give examples used to define populism, including: the ‘pure people’ vs. the ‘elites,’ criticism of established power structures, and its rhetoric and left- and right-wing orientations. Because of the diverse understanding of what populism is, multiple approaches to its study can be found, including populism as an ideology, strategy, discourse, and social movement. Populism’s ability to adapt to changing political and socio-economic circumstances further makes it difficult to pin down an all-encompassing definition. 

Continuing, Dr. He demonstrates that in democratic countries populism often takes a top-down approach, with populist leaders acting as mediators in the name of the people against the elite. However, in China populism takes a more bottom-up approach, with grassroot movements often using collectivist languages – such as ‘we are the 99%.’ According to Dr. He, this difference of perspective is what was needed to pin down a more precise definition of populism, which, according to him, can indeed be understood as ‘the people’ vs. ‘the elite.’ Within China, populism has adapted to fit a Chinese context. By using the anonymity of the internet, Chinese netizens can collectively express their grievances towards the government, which they perceive as corrupt elite with established power. A key characteristic of this approach to populism is that it is decentralized, unlike what is found in democracies. Populism therefore relies on spontaneous and collaborative efforts for collective actions such as disseminating contested information.

By using a video example of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, which itself is steeped in populist rhetoric, Dr. He demonstrated how Trump managed to tap into a general feeling of discontent that many voters felt – the political system was broken, and the government was not serving the people. He goes on to discuss generalities in western populism: a vertical axis of power, and a horizontal axis of boundaries. Modern democratic theory proposes that legitimacy of political power rests on the ‘sovereign people,’ which is why populist leaders can argue that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people. The populist leader therefore represents this will against the corrupt elite who have leading positions in every aspect of society. The ‘people’ is also, therefore, an inclusive and exclusive concept, and contributes to the ambiguity of where the line can be drawn between elites and the people. Dr. He highlights that on larger scales of investigation ‘the people’ should therefore be seen as a united abstract construct. 

According to Dr. He, three categories exist in China to define the ‘people.’ First it is the group that fight against those are defined as ‘foreign others’ and the elites who betray Chinese identity, whilst the idea of a Chinese nation functions as an ideological glue to unite those of the Chinese nationality. These ideas tie into historical contexts of China as ‘victor’ and ‘victim’ to mobilize and protest the external ‘others.’ The second category of mass resistance is an anti-intellectual emotional appeal, with people rejecting elite dominated cultural production and their institutions, as well as established norms and values. The third category of the people are the netizens who are impoverished, vulnerable, and marginalized in society.

Dr. Martin Lavička: “Religion with Chinese Characteristics – Regulating Religions under Xi Jinping’’

Dr. Martin Lavička emphasized that the Chinese government regards religion with suspicion, fearing its potential exploitation by foreign entities to undermine central authority. Consequently, China pursues a strategy of “dereligionizing” religious practices and restructuring religious institutions to conform to the CCP’s centralized control. These regulatory efforts are geared toward preserving the dominance of communist ideology and preempting both internal and external challenges to the party’s power. Moreover, China not only seeks to exert control over religion but also aims to leverage it for its own strategic advantage.

Dr. Martin Lavička began his presentation by arguing that the steady rise of religious believers in China not only poses a significant challenge but also an opportunity for the central government’s leadership. Therefore, the purpose of the presentation was to uncover the Chinese regulatory policies aimed at religious practitioners in China.

Dr. Lavička stated that the Constitution of the Chinese People’s Republic (CPR) prohibits any discrimination based on nationality or religious affiliation. Furthermore, as part of the UN Security Council, China should have a leading role in promoting the UN Bill of Rights. Despite these legal obligations, independent observers such as UN bodies or NGOs have consistently found a more troubling reality regarding religious freedom in China. What is reported specifically is the mistreatment of Uyghurs (a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Xinjian Autonomous region). In 2022, the UN Human Rights Office concluded that China might be responsible for committing crimes against humanity. However, it seems that the strategy of blaming and shaming someone to make them comply with international obligations does not work, especially when it comes to global powers such as China. 

According to Dr. Lavička, even though the majority of the media attention goes to the Muslim Uyghurs, that does not mean that the other religious groups in China are free from oppression and control. The religious restrictions from the Chinese government have intensified since Xi Jinping took office. However, Chinese leaders have not really changed their attitude since the 1980s. Document 19 which was published in 1982 from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stated that religion is a tool for oppression by feudalists and capitalists and the eradication of religion in China would be a lengthy process. However, it appears that the Xi Jinping administration would like to accelerate that process of eradication. In 2016, in a conference relating to religious affairs, Xi Jinping stated that CCP members must consolidate their believes and remain unyielding Marxists and atheists which stands in contrast to the Chinese Constitution and religious freedom. 

Dr. Lavička further argued that the Chinese government views religion with suspicion and believes that foreign forces could use it to undermine the power of the central government. Therefore, the government believes that religion should obey and respect the CCP and adapt to the path of the so-called Socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is also signified by the decision to incorporate the State Administration of Religious Affairs to the United Front Work Department which shows that the CCP wants greater control over religious affairs. However, China not only wants to control religion but also use it for its own benefit. 

According to Dr. Lavička, China has been increasingly attempting to regulate the religious institutions. One of the most important objectives is to ensure that the religious teachings do not undermine the party’s ideology. This means that the religious personnel are carefully selected to convey the right ideas to the religious followers. However, the central government is not only concerned with the religious content and the religious personnel’s loyalty but also with the materialization of the foreign influence. For example, the ban of religious attire such as the head coverings of Muslim women or the removal of architectural features of religious venues such as the domes and minarets of mosques. The central government views those features as bearing foreign influence and undermining the Chinese characteristics. 

Dr. Lavička concluded his presentation by examining the future trajectory of religion in China. He underscored China’s ongoing efforts to “dereligionize” religious practices and reshape religious structures to align with the CCP’s centralized administration. The regulatory measures implemented aim to safeguard the primacy of communist ideology and preempt internal and external challenges to the party’s authority. Ultimately, these initiatives seek to ensure that China’s purported 200 million religious adherents do not place any authority above that of the CCP.

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk: “Unveiling China’s Global Populism – Sharp Power Politics Along the Belt and Road Initiative”

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk highlighted several outcomes of the BRI, including debt-trap diplomacy and the transfer of strategic national interests. To exert influence over countries along the BRI, China employs sharp-power politics, utilizing manipulation, coercion, infiltration, and misinformation to shape societies. Dr. Ozturk emphasized the imperative for democratic nations to reject China’s flawed transnational populist rhetoric. It’s crucial to raise awareness among the populace to counter disinformation and reduce economic reliance on China.

At the outset of his presentation, Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk began by arguing that populism is defined by the enhancement of people’s representation in politics. Therefore, when discussing populism, there is an electoral and competitive aspect wherein the balance of power can shift due to both fair and unfair elections. However, this paradigm does not apply in China, given its one-party system, ensuring the perpetual dominance of the CCP. Consequently, discussing populism in China poses challenges. To effectively analyze the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a shift in perspective is required, moving from national populism to transnational populism.

In the transnational populist approach, the national citizens are replaced with transnational citizens and the national elite with transnational elite. Furthermore, the unit of analysis is on a global scale rather than the national level. There has been one such political effort in Europe, namely the political movement of the former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He wanted to construct a transnational left-wing project with the objective to democratize Europe which would decouple Europeans from their national identities and towards a European one. This European society would vote in European elections and would have a European constitution that would represent them. 

However, Dr. Ozturk aimed to adopt the approach of transnational populism and apply it to China, particularly within the context of the BRI. In this scenario, the ‘elite’ would encompass the capitalist West, namely the US and Europe. China employs critical rhetoric against global corporations and designates them as scapegoats. Additionally, China selectively critiques Western multilateral organizations, highlighting the absence of Chinese representation within them rather than acknowledging their status as global institutions.

Dr. Ozturk argued that there was a principal-agent problem, claiming that China criticizes the global economy and its principal institutions, however China was benefitting from those to a large extent and saw great success because of them. Therefore, it is not clear who China is blaming in terms of global elites. In terms of defining the transnational people, the Chinese approach also fails to conceptualize this idea. China does not advocate globally for the interest of the masses and its diplomacy is based on a state-to-state approach. 

In general, said Dr. Ozturk, China advocates for sovereignty and independence in the international affairs of each state while also promoting collaborative globalization through the BRI. China endeavors to shape discourse around a “global community with a shared destiny and harmonious society,” advancing a win-win nation-state approach encapsulated by “One Belt, Many Recipes.” The BRI stands out for its cooperation model, lacking clear-cut rules and established institutions like Western multilateral organizations. Instead, it operates through Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), offering a flexible framework subject to continuous negotiations and adjustments.

The BRI primarily focuses on projects in extraction, construction, and transportation. However, the complexity and scale of these endeavors, coupled with government involvement and opacity, create opportunities for skimming, corruption, and money laundering. As authoritarian governments seek to benefit from the BRI, they often compromise their sovereignty, undermining their administration and ultimately harming global citizens.

In conclusion, Dr. Ozturk highlighted several outcomes of the BRI, including debt-trap diplomacy and the transfer of strategic national interests. To exert influence over countries along the BRI, China employs sharp-power politics, utilizing manipulation, coercion, infiltration, and misinformation to shape societies. Dr. Ozturk emphasized the imperative for democratic nations to reject China’s flawed transnational populist rhetoric. It’s crucial to raise awareness among the populace to counter disinformation and reduce economic reliance on China.

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang: “The Expanding Reach of China’s Authoritarian Influence: Shaping a New Illiberal Digital Order”

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang highlights China’s ambition to become a cyber superpower, noting its persistent efforts to regulate the digital space. China has promoted the “Digital Silk Road,” aimed at establishing digital infrastructure along the BRI participants and promoting Chinese tech giants. This initiative underscores China’s leadership in a novel form of digital governance, where digital technologies serve both economic advancement and the extension of political power. Consequently, the distinction between Chinese companies’ pursuit of commercial interests and the state’s pursuit of strategic objectives has become increasingly blurred. Some Chinese firms have received subsidies from the central government and collaborated on projects related to military and security.

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang’s presentation centered on delineating the intersection of technology and populism. Dr. Chang initiated by categorizing scholars’ perspectives on the crisis of the liberal world order into two camps. The first group perceives the crisis as temporary, advocating for the continued importance of US rule and influence to uphold the liberal order. Conversely, the second group contends that the crisis has persisted for an extended period and has undergone substantial transformation. According to this perspective, the liberal world order is irreversibly altered and unlikely to revert to its previous state. In this context, China’s influence emerges as pivotal, as a major power dissatisfied with the current global order and actively seeking to reshape it.

Dr. Chang specifically aimed to examine China’s impact on the digital order within the broader context of its emerging influence. The primary concern surrounding the new digital order revolves around whether it will bolster people’s freedom or amplify autocratic influence. Consequently, two main discourses emerge. On one hand, the liberal digital order posits that digital technologies can promote democratic values, freedom of expression, and individual autonomy. On the other hand, digital authoritarianism contends that digital technologies enable governments to exert control over their populace, manipulating and disseminating disinformation. In this narrative, state security and stability take precedence over internet freedom.

In China, according to Dr. Chang, we can already see upcoming ambitions that the country wants to become a cyber superpower. China has been attempting to continuously regulate the digital space. Furthermore, there has been the promotion of the so-called Digital Silk Road which establishes digital infrastructure along the participants of the BRI and promotes Chinese big digital companies. China has been the leader of a new form of digital governance where digital technologies not only advance the economy but also serve as a tool to extend political power. Therefore, the line between the pursuit of Chinese companies towards commercial interests and the state’s pursuit of achieving strategic objectives has been blurred. Some Chinese companies have been subsidized by the central government and have worked together on projects relating to military and security. Therefore, digital technologies can also be used for the advancement of military hardware and not only for economic advancement. 

Dr. Chang’s research delved into the case of Huawei’s “safe city” project, designed to enhance urban safety and reduce crime rates. Participating cities typically share similar characteristics: they are located in Asia or Africa, exhibit limited political liberalism, and fall within the lower-middle income bracket. This underscores China’s influence in establishing a digital authoritarian paradigm. The rationale behind Huawei’s safe city initiative is straightforward. Cities facing public order challenges and high crime rates demand solutions, prompting Chinese companies to offer digital technologies as a remedy. These companies are particularly attractive to states due to their ability to provide enhanced capacity and legibility.

A notable case study is Huawei’s sponsored safe city project in Nairobi, Kenya. In response to the city’s high crime rate, thousands of cameras were installed throughout the urban area to collect and transmit information to local law enforcement agencies. However, despite these efforts, there has been no significant reduction in the crime rate. Additionally, the absence of data protection laws in Kenya raises concerns about the relationship between the government and its citizens, potentially exacerbating tensions.

In conclusion, Dr. Chang asserted that the safe city project should be examined from both demand and supply perspectives, as China did not impose these technological assets on participating countries. Moreover, Dr. Chang contended that deploying surveillance technologies does not necessarily lead to the advancement of authoritarian leadership. Looking ahead, this digital order has the potential to facilitate not only authoritarianism but also democracy. However, it’s crucial to recognize that liberal and authoritarian digital ecosystems cannot coexist indefinitely within the same environment. Political leaders must make a decisive choice between the two paradigms. 

EU flags in EU Council building during the EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 28, 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Ventotene Manifesto, Europe, and Federalist Liberalism Today

The Ventotene Manifesto beautifully weaves together the aspirations for a united Europe with the principles of (federalist) liberalism. Its legacy should encourage European citizens to ponder the significance of European values and to defend them. How? By promoting a system both market-based and social; that rejects collectivism and embraces individualism; that prompts personal responsibility and denounces populism; that promotes transparent, efficient, and democratic governance; that acknowledges liberal democracy’s flaws but knows that the authoritarian pathway – fostered by populist forces – is ruinous. This is federalist liberalism.

By Amedeo Gasparini

The European Union (EU) has historically been seen as a beacon of peace, cooperation, and shared values. However, in recent years, there has been a noticeable rise in populist movements – from the right to the left – across several EU countries. The use of nationalist discourse, the unabashed use of demagogy and populism as a method of political offer, and the recourse to the “protection” of the state, are elements which demonstrate today’s crisis in the EU. These elements typically belong to the populist discourse and weaken the EU as a whole. In particular, the surge in right and far-right movements has led to increased polarization in the member states (Roberts, 2022), with political discourse becoming more confrontational. Alongside the rise of far-right ideologies, euroscepticism has also gained momentum. Eurosceptics often criticize the EU’s institutions for being bureaucratic, undemocratic, and infringing upon national sovereignty.

A general sense of dissatisfaction concerning the economic conditions in some EU countries, immigration, the post-Covid-19 pandemic, and the Russian war in Ukraine are among the conditions that enable right- and left-wing populism and anti-Europeanism to gain popularity. Growing eurosceptic sentiment fuels debates about the EU’s future, with traditional debates on supranationalism – that is, supranational actors promote integration through the spillover effect – and intergovernmentalism – that is, member states, following national interests, dictate control (Schmidt, 2016). Modern Europe has a decade-long legacy of fighting against totalitarian regimes and defending democratic values; and this should remind the EU about its determination to overcome internal divisions and continue to promote peace, prosperity, and solidarity.

The 80th anniversary of the Ventotene Manifesto, penned by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi (2006 [1944]) is being celebrated this year and continues to stand as an inspirational cornerstone text of the EU and its values. However, it is also a useful guide for dealing with the multiple crises plaguing the EU. Conceived in 1941 while the two authors were confined on the island of Ventotene, the document was initially distributed covertly. Eugenio Colorni later published it, adding a preface. Secretly printed in Rome in January 1944, it was later complemented with two essays by Spinelli, “The United States of Europe and the Various Political Tendencies” (1942) and “Marxist Politics and Federalist Politics” (1942-1943). While Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Pan-Europe (1997 [1923]) advocated for a European union steered by technocrats (thus more functionalist), the Manifesto proposed a European Federation with a parliament and a government wielding substantial powers in areas like economics and foreign policy.

While this article reviews Spinelli’s and Rossi’s work, it starts from the Manifesto and its legacy to outline some priorities for the EU to return to the federal spirit and the renewal of liberal ideas in a federalist key considering the EU’s current political context. The Manifesto proposed the creation of a “United States of Europe” as a solution to avoid future conflicts on the continent and to promote peace and prosperity through greater political and economic integration between European nations (D’Auria, 2011). The document, which has had a major impact on the federalist movement (Vayssière, 2005), is still a roadmap towards an unfinished project in today’s EU, threatened in its cohesion and unity by internal – populists – and external actors – autocrats. The Manifesto’s principles and ideals might serve as a guide to strengthen the European integration process and face the current challenges with determination and common vision.

In his preface, anti-fascist Italian philosopher Eugenio Colorni cautioned against merely rearranging populations after the Second World War, advocating instead for a genuine European Federation, more advanced than the ineffective League of Nations. Mindful of the 1930s they experienced, Spinelli and Rossi argued that an integralist principle of non-intervention among European nations was absurd; and no country should freely opt for an authoritarian regime – as this would have, as it had, dramatic consequences for its neighbors. Thus, they emphasized the need to establish a new transnational political entity, a European Federation. Colorni called for the establishment of a unified federal army, a single currency, the elimination of customs barriers and migration restrictions between states, representation of citizens in federal institutions, and a cohesive foreign policy.

There is little point in listing the Manifesto’s achieved and unachieved policies, as the world today is significantly different from the mid-1940s’. It is rather useful instead to focus on the major insights set out by the authors and to understand how these can be adapted today and how they can benefit the European governance. At the Manifesto’s core lies the principle of freedom and the four liberties – free movement of goods, people, capitals, and services. For Spinelli and Rossi, a free and united Europe represented the path to rekindling the development of modern civilization oriented on liberal democracy. They envisioned a federal union enhanced by the close cooperation among member states, democratic representation for European citizens, and an unwavering respect for the continent’s cultural diversity.

The authors started by proposing to overcome territorial selfishness, both at the national and European levels, and to eliminate obstacles to the free movement of people and goods. They aspired to a reduction of state interference in citizens’ lives, openly criticizing authoritarian approaches (2006 [1944]). A significant section of the Manifesto addresses economic issues. The authors argued that given the global economic interconnectedness, the entire world has become the living space for people eager to maintain a modern way of life. In an age of economic interdependence, the authors argued, trade wars are counterproductive and unnecessary. Rossi and Spinelli highlighted how the total nationalization of the economy was seen as a liberating utopia by the working classes; however, once realized, it did not lead to the desired goal, but rather to a system in which the population is subservient to the bureaucratic managerial class.

A Europe that is truly free and ready to face future challenges is also one that values the free market and assigns the state an appropriate role, one that does not see it as a protagonist in the lives of citizens. On these notes, without mentioning it, the Manifesto was to designate federalist liberalism as the way forward for a future European construction – not by chance, both federalism and liberalism champion individual freedom, advocate for the autonomy of local communities, checks and balances. Federalist liberalism aims to strike a harmonious balance between the sovereignty of member states, and prioritizes safeguarding individual rights, while fostering economic growth and welfare. Within this framework, European federalism emerges as an indispensable system for securing peace, stability, and progress across the continent, harmonizing the individual nations’ autonomy with collaborative efforts at the European level.

The federalist vision of a united, free, and democratic Europe shines as a beacon of hope, and serves as both compass and inspiration. The Manifesto’s relevance endures today for several reasons, each aligning with five EU’s key priorities: an effective European Federation, the emphasis on peace and democracy, the spirit of solidarity, the quest for a shared European identity, and the promotion of democratic governance.

The vision of a European Federation has seen significant realization with the gradual formation of today’s EU. Given today’s global challenges, there’s an amplified need for increased integration and cooperation among EU member states. But most of all, there is still much to be done in terms of the EU’s efficiency and integration (Schimmelfennig et al.,2023) – for example fiscal union, cooperation in the energy sector, policies for high-tech companies. Today’s EU needs Spinelli’s and Rossi’ enthusiasm to reinvigorate, enhancing cohesion and cross-collaboration among its member states. It is in times of change that the concept of a European Federation might renew its significance. While deepening integration in key areas like defense, health, and foreign policy will pave the way for more effective EU as local and global actor. Just as in the early days of the European Community, when nations pooled coal and steel within the supranational organization European Coal and Steel Community (Glockner-Rittberger, 2012).

Secondly, the Manifesto underscored the pivotal role of peace and democracy in averting conflicts and ensuring the citizens’ welfare. Peace in Europe is not a given; and it is indispensable for forging a united and prosperous Europe. However, geopolitical tensions, regional crises, and autocratic and terrorist threats still test the continent’s security. Thus, upholding democratic values and fostering unity among European nations remain crucial for peace and stability. There cannot be peace without rule of law. European-style democracy is not merely a political system; it embodies a set of values, principles, and rights safeguarding well-being and freedom. But again: without the rule of law, democracy is also vacuous. It is from freedom that peace and democracy are achieved, not the other way around. See, for example, the accession of some former Warsaw Pact countries to the European Community in 2004: only under conditions of freedom they were able to develop a modern economy and liberal democracy, thus true peace, and welfare.

Solidarity is emphasized in the Manifesto as a vital principle binding the peoples of Europe together and it continues to resonate in today’s European political discourse. Solidarity – an ethical guideline and element of integration – is a hidden principle of federalist liberalism: the better-off helps the weaker – not only out of a spirit of charity, but because it may be in its interest to deal with partners in the best conditions to cooperate. Effective solidarity transcends national divisions. A unified response from EU member states, solidarity is also sharing responsibility in the current challenges. It encompasses respecting human rights, but it is also pivotal in the economic sphere as well, fostering also growth, dignity, and prosperity.

The Ventotene Manifesto advocated for a European identity rooted in shared values, cultures, and a common historical legacy. Federalist liberalism would preach that fostering European identity might be an answer to rising nationalism. The concept of European identity is not necessarily at odds with the idea of nationhood and national identity. It offers a pathway to a united yet open and uncertain future, complementing – and not substituting – national identities. It offers a shared platform where diverse European cultures and traditions coexist, fostering mutual enrichment and collaboration. While the European identity has been and still is object of debate (Wallace-Strømsnes, 2008), the European identity is an identity among other global identities. It is on this common ground that European states came together and federated; and today it needs further integration via a new European governance model (Kaplan, 2018).

A fifth element is a governance system grounded in democratic principles and transparency. Amid ongoing critiques of EU bureaucracy, the Manifesto – again – offers valuable perspectives on this. The transparency of European institutions cannot only be a matter of fact but must also be perceived by the population (Brandsma, 2019, Font-Pérez-Durán, 2022). Such a governance framework would prioritize European citizens’ democratic representation and their interests, ensuring that European-level decisions resonate with people’s interests and values. Transparency empowers citizens with access to information and involve them in decision-making processes, expanding their rights, bolstering the legitimacy and efficacy of European institutions to get the new European governance more efficient and accountable.

Today the Manifesto underscores the significance of a free and open society, a fundamental framework cherishing individual freedom, market economy, and the rule of law. The Ventotene Manifesto beautifully weaves together the aspirations for a united Europe with the principles of (federalist) liberalism. Its legacy should encourage European citizens to ponder the significance of European values and to defend them. How? By promoting a system both market-based and social; that rejects collectivism and embraces individualism; that prompts personal responsibility and denounces populism; that promotes transparent, efficient, and democratic governance; that acknowledges liberal democracy’s flaws but knows that the authoritarian pathway – fostered by populist forces – is ruinous. This is federalist liberalism. Spinelli and Rossi could not have imagined today’s EU, which has made huge strides from post-World War Two Europe, but they wanted a transnational and social, open, and transparent European federalist movement.

The Manifesto stands as a symbol of the quest for a European identity anchored in cooperation, unity, and solidarity. Federalist liberalism not only represents a perfect synthesis between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism, but it might reinvigorate the current EU. Spinelli and Rossi envisioned a federation as the output of a new governance. However, the realization of this project has been gradual, and the journey remains unfinished. The Ventotene Manifesto is not only a historical reference point, but also a source of inspiration and a call to action for who believe in the European project. It is a reminder of the need to overcome national divisions and to work together to enhance a united, free, and prosperous Europe. It offers both a history lesson and a roadmap for the future. Its federalist viewpoint, rooted in liberal and democratic principles, is still valid today for us to recognize the compatibility of cooperation and freedom.



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Kaplan, Yılmaz (2018). “(Re)considering sovereignty in the European integration process.” Asian Journal of German and European Studies. Volume 3, Issue 1, DOI: 10.1186/s40856-017-0023-4.

Roberts, Kenneth M. (2022). “Populism and Polarization in Comparative Perspective: Constitutive, Spatial and Institutional Dimensions.” Government and Opposition. Volume 57, Issue 4, pp. 680-702, DOI: 10.1017/gov.2021.14.

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Schmidt, Vivien A. (2016). “The ‘new’ EU governance: ‘new’ intergovernmentalism versus ‘new’ supranationalism plus ‘new’ parliamentarism.” Les Cahiers du Cevipol. Volume 5, pp. 5-31.

Spinelli, Altiero; Rossi, Ernesto. (2006 [1944]). Il Manifesto di Ventotene. Milan: Mondadori.

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The Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power 

Please cite as:

Sithole, Neo; Pretorius, Christo; Valev, Radoslav; Guidotti, Andrea & Duman, Hilal. (2024). The Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 28, 2024.     


ECPS’ Third Annual International Symposium on the Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power, conducted online from March 19-20, 2024, raised the question of whether populist policies are contributing to a new wave of illiberal world order, marked by economic protectionism and political isolation. The symposium also aimed to explore the mechanisms that bolster the resilience of populist movements and the implications of their actions for the advancement of a necessary new-generation globalization.

BNeo SitholeChristo Pretorius, Radoslav ValevAndrea Guidotti Hilal Duman


The evolving dynamics of multipolarity and the shifts in global power dynamics have cast shadows on the relevance, legitimacy, and effectiveness of established international cooperation platforms, such as the UN, G-20, World Bank, IMF, EBRD, WTO, and WHO. Concurrently, the rise of initiatives such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), spearheaded by authoritarian and populist leaders, raises questions about their role in shaping the future of global governance. Thus, calls for reform of the post-war global governance architecture, often perceived as “weak” and “disingenuous,” have largely remained unanswered. These developments have far-reaching implications, impacting the ability to address global challenges such as climate change, food security, conflict resolution, and humanitarian crises. As a result, proxy conflicts, political oppression, terrorism, and displacement have triggered irregular and uncontrolled migration, contributing to the rise of far-right parties in developed nations. 

Meanwhile, populist leaders, often prioritizing arbitrariness and contingency over rule-based “multilateral” governance, have operated under the assumption that their actions bear no consequences. What’s concerning is that despite facing numerous economic challenges compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, several populist governments have managed to maintain their grip on power. In our increasingly fragmented world, characterized by diverse actors and factors, these leaders have devised alternative strategies to prolong their tenures, sometimes exacerbating systemic challenges. They have resonated with their constituents by attributing their failures to non-economic factors such as independence and sovereignty.

Hence, the objective of ECPS’ “Third Annual International Symposium on the Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power,” held online between March 19-20, 2024, was to question whether a new wave of illiberal world order, characterized by economic protectionism and political isolation, is perpetuated by populist policies. The symposium aimed to address the mechanisms reinforcing their resilience and the implications of their actions on the necessary new-generation globalization.

You can peruse the report, which comprises summaries of the presentations and speeches delivered throughout the ECPS’ two-day symposium.

Opening Session 

Irina VON WIESE, the Honorary President of the ECPS, delivered the opening speech, setting the stage for deliberations.  Dr. Barrie AXFORD (Professor Emeritus of Politics at Oxford Brookes University), delivered the first keynote speech of the symposium, exploring “The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization.”

Opening Speech by Irina von WIESE 

The honorary president of the ECPS, Irina von Weise, opened the symposium by drawing the audience’s attention first to the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s election in 2016, both of which were successful full-scale populist campaigns. Von Weise added that as a result of these successes, we can not only expect a potential second term for Trump but also a record number of attacks on people’s freedom coinciding with a record number of elections across the world in 2024. According to her, human rights, including the right of freedom of opinion, expression, and association, and the freedom of the press, are the foundations of democracy but have come increasingly under attack across the world. Quoting a German saying, von Weise issued a stark warning: ‘Beware of the beginnings,’ for while countries like the UK and Germany have not reached the point where they have become totalitarian dictatorships like Russia, there has been an erosion of people’s rights. 

Using the UK as a case study, von Wiese highlighted that, in her view, the populist agenda amounts to an attack on democracy and the rule of law in Britain. She notes that Boris Johnson’s attempt in 2019 to see if a hold could be put hold Brexit was a crude assault on the democratic process but ultimately prevented by the UK Supreme Court. In response, the populist media and rhetoric vilified the Supreme Court as members of the ‘ruling elite’ whilst championing Johnson as defending the people since he only wanted to ‘get Brexit done.’ The second attack on the rule of law also came from Johnson’s government when they ignored the treaty, they had just signed with the European Union regarding the post-Brexit trade terms in Northern Ireland, damaging the UK’s international credibility. As a final example, von Wiese indicated that the threat of withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights by Prime Minister Sunak, made in an attempt to appease the far-right wing, would also help enable a nationalist populist immigration policy. Underpinning all these attacks were populist tactics aimed at spreading disinformation, anti-elitist rhetoric, and fostering international polarization among the British people, pitting ethnicities, and religious communities against each other. However, von Wiese ended her speech on a hopeful note, expressing her belief that liberal democracy in the UK is resilient to such attacks. She emphasized that civic education would continue to immunize people against populist manipulation, and we should remain mindful of these beginnings, which often lead down a slippery slope.

Report by Christo Pretorius

Keynote Speech 1

Dr. Barrie AXFORD: “The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization”

Dr. Barrie Axford’s keynote speech elaborated on the complex interplay between rising multipolarity, authoritarian populist governance, multilateralism, and globalization’s evolving nature. His paper has since been published in ECPS’ digital journal Politics & Populism

Acknowledging the vastness of the topic and its diverse perspectives, Dr. Axford highlighted the current challenges facing the liberal international order, such as the rise of multipolarity, the retreat of multilateralism, and the resurgence of populism. After giving an overarching panorama of the scholarship, and his take on the policy world, he set the stage for a deeper exploration of these themes.

Dr. Axford’s comprehensive speech delivered a critical analysis of multilateralism within the framework of the liberal international order, exploring the ambiguity surrounding the concept of the liberal international order and multipolarity. The emergence of multipolarity and its implications for the existing world order was critical to understanding the use and abuse of the liberal order. Besides relatively more obvious challenges to liberal order from authoritarian powers like China and Russia, “the Western world” poses a threat to liberal values, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s presidency. Yet, the growing calls for a more multipolar world order challenge the dominance of Western values and institutions as the existing liberal order relies on Western powers and institutions. 

According to Dr. Axford, tensions within the liberal international order include the coexistence of state sovereignty and liberal principles and the challenges of defining and implementing multilateral cooperation. Yet, the abuse of liberalism is complex. At this juncture, the rise of populism can be seen as a response to the globalized world’s interconnectivity and rejecting its borderless narrative. Populism represents a broader struggle between national and global imaginaries, signaling a shift away from neoliberal globalization narratives. 

Dr. Axford deepened his analysis of globalization and populism by discussing the evolving nature of security in the context of globalization. He referenced previous research on existential security and compared it with the current sense of volatility and insecurity, especially in wealthy countries. This shift in security perceptions contributes to the broader backlash against globalization. The digital world and technologies have contributed to globalizing crises and polarization. 

Observing a shift in individuals’ perceptions of security and existential certainty, Dr. Axford, classified this as part of the crisis of second modernity, which is characterized by increased awareness of risks and uncertainties in the contemporary world. Despite advancements in technology and knowledge, modern societies grapple with profound existential insecurities driven by factors such as declining real incomes, job insecurity, income inequality, environmental degradation, health crises, and perceived threats from immigration. These challenges fuel fears about survival and rights, leading to a resurgence of xenophobic, populist, and authoritarian movements.

This crisis of second modernity has led to a rejection of Western modernity and its associated neoliberal globalization narrative, manifesting in various forms such as anti-globalization, neo-statist rhetoric, and populist movements that seek to reclaim national identities and sovereignty. In this sense, populism is reactive to the perceived failure of reflexive modernization and the inability of institutions to address everyday challenges effectively.

Moving forward, Dr. Axford discussed the implications of globalization and digitalization for contemporary politics and society, commenting that the emergence of diverse forms of globalization challenges the hegemony of the West. Additionally, he emphasized the role of digitalization in reshaping global interactions, economies, and cultures, as it facilitates connectivity, and generates new social dynamics, power structures, and modes of governance. However, this coincides with concerns about surveillance, homogenization, and the erosion of human connections.

The concept of “multipolar globalization” was also discussed by Dr. Axford. This idea paves the way for alternative development and governance models globally, to him, especially as economic power shifts from the West to the East. Delving deeper into the interplay between populism, globalization, and the shifting dynamics of contemporary politics, Dr. Axford focused on the resurgence of “sovereignty” in contemporary politics, highlighting the idea of “sovereigntism,” which represents a longing for a more internalized version of sovereign power that emphasizes mutually exclusive territories and a retrenchment of the national dimension. However, Dr. Axford noted that sovereignty does not necessarily entail a complete withdrawal from globalization but rather seeks to fortify national identity and autonomy within the international system.

Dr. Axford next evaluated the effectiveness of the nation-state in addressing the challenges posed by globalization and populism. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a test of state capacity and resilience, challenging the perception of the state as a guarantor of security and well-being. Despite the vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic, Dr. Axford suggested that the nation-state remains a significant actor in global affairs, particularly in terms of resource management and governance.

Emphasizing the diversity and complexity of contemporary global politics, Dr. Axford argues against labels such as “global capitalism” or “neoliberal order” and emphasizes the need for critical descriptions that account for globalization’s diverse origins and temperaments.

Concluding, Dr. Axford stated that he views populism as a response to economic and cultural insecurities exacerbated by globalization and modernity and reflected on the implications of populism and insecurity for global politics. He acknowledged the deep-seated anger and polarization fueling populist movements but questioned the sustainability of radical solutions in the long term, suggesting that populism may be symptomatic of broader ontological, political shifts, reflecting a reconfiguration of identity and collective consciousness in response to global uncertainties.

Report by Hilal Duman

Panel 1: Interactions Between Multilateralism, Multi-Order World, and Populism

Moderated by Dr. Albena AZMANOVA (Professor, Chair in Political and Social Science, Department of Politics and International Relations and Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent), the first panel focused on: “The Interactions Between Multilateralism, The Multi-Order World, and Populism.” Dr. Stewart PATRICK (Senior Fellow and Director, Global Order and Institutions Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) opened the panel with a discussion titled “Reimagining Global Economic Governance and the State of Global Governance.” Following him, Dr. Viktor JAKUPEC (Honorary Professor of International Development, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Australia; Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, Potsdam University, Germany) presented on “Multipolarity and a Post-Ukraine War New World Order: The Rise of Populism.”

Dr. Stewart PATRICK: “Reimagining Global Economic Governance and the State of the Global Governance” 

Dr. Stewart Patrick gave a speech on the crisis of neoliberalism and on whether it is possible to imagine a new model of global economic governance that is resilient, sustainable, and able to deliver essential global public goods. The starting point was the assumption that the neoliberal ideology has often failed to provide economic prosperity and political stability because of the financialization of the world economy. Additionally, shocks such as the financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the resurgence of geopolitical conflicts, opened new avenues for major institutional change. In this sense, some governments started to renegotiate the terms of their integration within the global economy, particularly as they try to reassert their sovereignty. 

According to Dr. Patrick, different from the past, prominent critics are coming from former supporters of globalization, such as the United States, and the increasing conviction that the major institutions for global economic governance are not fit any more for their purposes, as they are unable to represent shifts in power relations around the world. While certifying these developments, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the Managing Director of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, referred to the need for a new ‘Bretton Woods moment’ to restore the social bargain among international actors. 

To fulfil the outlined purposes, the Dr. Patrick remarked that we need new rules and institutions, and a narrative that sustains and legitimizes them appropriately. Moreover, we must remember that we are also facing a crisis of multilateralism alongside neoliberalism, as multiple governments have lost faith in the ability of current international cooperation frameworks from a security, and accountability driven point of view. Within this context, Dr. Patrick posed the following question: Is it realistic to envision a more equitable and responsive globalization that can balance the realities of global pluralism and diverse preferences, given these dynamics? This would entail giving more voice and weight to the worldwide majority under the guidance of standard rules of international cooperation. The critical challenge lies in reconciling the domestic and international aspects of this balance while updating multilateral institutions to help mitigate the negative spillovers of national policy choices. 

Before answering this question, Dr. Patrick explained more specifically what the Global World Order currently stands for. At a minimum, it implies a degree of predictability or pattern regularity in interstate relations. In other words, it has to rely on a stable power distribution and, hence, the accompanying normative principles of conduct that help to drain the spontaneous anarchy of the system. The distinctiveness of the post-war global order is the proliferation of international organizations’ frameworks, regimes, and treaties across every global domain. This process accelerated after the end of the Cold War and has been complemented by transnational networks of non-governmental actors. The US and its allies have been the main drivers of integration within the order, following the goal of fostering capitalism, democracy and collective defense. 

One point Dr. Patrick stressed is that the crisis of the multilateral world order does not only concern competing and conflicting material interests of its members, but it increasingly involves fundamental divergences of different world order visions over the purposes that global governance should advance, and, therefore, the rules and principles to be followed to grant these interests. Some of the diverging ideas pertain to governing financial development and investments, managing the global commons, and addressing the Earth system concerning climate change and biodiversity, global health, as well as upholding democracy and human rights as essential values. We are witnessing both a resurgence of the East-West divide, particularly in relation to Russia and China, and a deterioration in North-South relations between wealthy and developing countries. Emerging powers like India and Brazil are increasingly assertive, seeking to transition from being mere rule-takers to becoming rule-makers themselves. To conclude, all of these new trends are suggesting the development of a new world order that is normatively thinner. Put another way, global governance will need to aspire less in the domain of global governance. 

Exploring some of the other major issues the global world order is currently facing, Dr. Patrick highlighted a second factor complicating the international world order. Backlash to globalization comes in the argument that it ultimately did not bind nations closer together due to increasing inequalities among and within them. The main losers in this trend have been the lower and middle classes in rich countries, while the big winners are the already wealthy. The third major shock, as a by-product of reducing people living in extreme poverty and increasing their living standards, has been climate change, which is shaping the Earth system. In the face of it, there is an increasing understanding that the cause is at least partially coming from the acquired benefits caused by increased living conditions. 

A fourth challenge is the demographic mismatch between young and old people: while some countries are well below replacement levels, others are booming in practically uncontrolled fertility rates. New risks posed by innovation and technological improvements are related to massive dislocation in knowledge-based sectors, and monopolistic developments. The sixth trend, and the most related to our symposium, is democratic backlash around the global and the parallel rising of populism. This has reinforced the retreat from a common civil and political culture and provided authoritarian governments with an unprecedented surveillance capability. Moreover, a vacuum of leadership, mainly coming from the US, favored skepticism and fueled uncertainty in the multilateral system, marking a qualitative departure from decades of internationalism. 

To conclude his speech, Dr. Patrick tried to offer five solutions to these problems: First, we should learn from history on how relevant policy-oriented ideas, including the empowerment of social movements and the mobilization of broad coalitions, gain political prominence. Dramatic institutional change often occurred during policy failure moments and where crises discredited established orthodoxies, opening a window of opportunity for new models and frameworks of thinking. 

Second, any reimagining and reforming of the system of global economic governance would require building a world economy that rewards labor as much as capital to ensure that the gains from globalization are fairly and equitably shared. Put differently, it is a kind of embedded liberalism along the lines of the post-war period. 

Third, we must invest equally in natural capital as human, physical, and financial capital. That is to say, we need to manage the collision between the Earth and the international systems, remembering that nature is a precondition for human well-being and rethinking environmental damage differently from an unavoidable externality of market activities. The battle against climate change has not to be seen as a costly distraction from the imperative of development but as one of its crucial components. 

Fourth, it’s crucial to expand the benefits of the digital revolution beyond its current winner-take-all dynamics. AI holds the potential to become as widespread and transformative as electricity, but we must ensure its development and accessibility are inclusive for all. This requires the establishment of secure, interoperable digital public infrastructures governed by trusted systems that citizens can access for public services.

Finally, we need to free up space at the top of the global governing system for rising powers within multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and UN Security Council. They will gain legitimacy if relevant adjustments, and not necessarily drastic changes, are implemented. 

Dr. Viktor JAKUPEC: “Multipolarity and a Post-Ukraine War New World Order: The Rise of Populism” 

Dr. Viktor Jakupec, who explored the shifts in power relations and ideological preferences, examined multipolarity in the aftermath of the post-Ukraine war and the new world order, with a specific focus on populism. His main thesis is that after the Russian-Ukrainian war, we will end up in a post-war setting composed of two different orders: a liberal rule-based order and a multipolar populist world order. The war between Russia and Ukraine has catalyzed significant political paradigm shifts, particularly regarding the shifts from liberalism to populism across various global contexts. The primary reason is that a growing portion of the population in the EU is experiencing economic hardship and growing disillusionment with the sanctions imposed on Russia and their consequences. From the point of view of the wider population, the liberal political leadership is focusing on Western liberal values and ideologies at the expense of national interests, while the populist political leadership is directing its attention towards national economic issues and alleviating the negative impacts of the sanctions. 

This divide in priorities sets the stage for significant political shifts, which become evident in the discourse surrounding the 2024 elections in both Europe and the US. The cumulative paradigm shift that is carried by EU elections consists of the weakening of the liberal rules-based world order and the strengthening of the rise of a multipolar populist world order. In this respect, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is causing multiple effects: it is catalyzing a further rise of populism, eroding neoliberalism globally, highlights weaknesses in liberal institutions, and shows the inability of liberal institutions to address complex international relations. Ultimately this causes widespread and general disillusion in liberal ideologies, increasing the appeal of populist movements, and a parallel turn to national interests and sovereignty. 

From the geopolitical point of view, the conflict has had a significant impact on liberal entities such as NATO, the EU, and the UN, especially as it forces nations to align themselves, exacerbating tensions, and prompting diplomatic recalibration. In addition, the Global South criticized the EU and the US’ involvement as a case of neo-colonialism, being in parallel, for many countries, non-compliant with Western sanctions. Taken more broadly, the Global South is moving away from the Washington consensus and is becoming closer to the Beijing one, thus creating new alliances in the global arena and reshaping the multipolar world order. The alliance that currently stands as prominent in criticizing the liberal world order is represented by the BRICS, that, with the addition of countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, is now almost counting for half the size of the global population. 

In conclusion, Dr. Jakupec first discussed the tendency for the populist multipolar order to counterbalance the liberal rules-based world order, highlighting that there is a coexistence between these two orders. He further stated that there is a possibility for the resurgence of an in-out bloc division along the lines of the Cold War divide. Dr. Jakupec also theorized that the complex interplay of geopolitical dynamics and domestic political forces will result in political and military power distribution among multiple actors, enhancing the sovereign capabilities of nation-states from a realist perspective, while also providing a greater diversity of geopolitical and geoeconomic perspectives. This will provide more resilience against the hegemony of a specific country, while also empowering grassroots movements and the protection of socio-cultural identities. 

Report by Andrea Guidotti  

Panel 2: The Future of Democracy Between Resilience & Decline

The second panel, moderated by Dr. Nora FISHER-ONAR (Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of San Francisco), delved into “The Future of Democracy Between Resilience and Decline.” She emphasized that this panel aimed to gather insights from experts across various global regions, focusing on the intersection of material concerns in International Political Economy and normative issues such as democratic resilience and human rights.

Dr. James BACCHUS (Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs; Director of the Center for Global Economic and Environmental Opportunity, School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs, University of Central Florida, Former Chairman of the WTO Appellate Body) was the panel’s first speaker, delivering a speech on “The Impact of Populist Authoritarian Politics on the Future Course of Globalization, Economics, the Rule of Law, and Human Rights.” Following him, Dr. Kurt WEYLAND (Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin) presented on “Resilience of Democracies Against Authoritarian Populism.” Concluding the panel, Dr. Marina NORD (Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg) delivered a speech entitled “Global Trends for Democracy and Autocracy: On the Third Wave of Autocratization and Cases of Democratic Reversals.”

Dr. James BACCHUS: “The Impact of Populist Authoritarian Politics on the Future Course of Globalization, Economics, the Rule of Law and Human Rights”

Dr. Bacchus began by stating that he is an optimist influenced by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper, who believes humans are inherently good. However, continuing, he said it’s hard to remain an optimist in the face of the current collective global issues, such as climate change and the need for sustainable development. According to him, the danger of being pessimistic about populism is that we might start to accept the premise that widespread involvement in politics is harmful and would legitimize the concerns of populists that people who hold those views are “elitists.” 

According to Dr. Bacchus, public participation can be positive as well as negative globally, and the need to look at political and geopolitical events in context is what’s needed. He found that in the United States, the consensus amongst historians, including himself, is that the populist movement in the 19th century had a positive influence on broadening and deepening American democracy and justice. Although the populists never won the presidency, their ideas were adopted by both the Democratic and, to a lesser extent, the Republican parties at the time – ideas such as the direct election of senators and personal income tax, which were all part of the Ocala Demands which originated from a convention of the Populist Party in Ocala, Florida, in 1890. This example highlights Dr. Bacchus’ previous statement that one of our challenges is galvanizing popular participation in a way that produces positive results, not negative ones.

Over the last decade, since the global recession, dangerous forms of populism have grown, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Bacchus focuses on Donald Trump as one of these individuals, remarking that his comments during a rally for Senate candidate Bernie Moreno in Ohio on March 16, 2024, where he predicted a bloodbath if he does not win the presidential election, are not traditionally found in American politics but have become increasingly common. This highlights the highly divisive nature of recent populist rhetoric that aim to polarize public opinion. Trump wants to showcase that with multilateralism America will lose its national industry which will negatively impact the American economy. By creating a climate of fear and attributing economic challenges to multilateralism, a potential victory for Trump in the upcoming elections could result significant shifts in open trade and economic cooperation between nations. 

With the high popularity of Trump in America, right-wing populism is undoubtedly the prevailing populist movement. However, Dr. Bacchus highlighted that there is also a potential for left-wing populism in the United States. So far, no political party has tried to engage with the legitimate concerns of the people – such as the proposed higher taxes on upper-income individuals to provide greater services to those in need. In Dr. Bacchus’ opinion, the US has not seen a president like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who he believes is currently the type of leadership the country needs. There is a positive outcome to this, however, as Dr. Bacchus believes that current events will strengthen democracy in the long term.

Dr. Bacchus looked to the global stage and highlights emerging democracies worldwide in Indonesia and Brazil. The need for a “strong democracy” is a proposed democracy by the philosopher Benjamin Barber, who called for a much more participatory system. These democracies are much more suitable for facing the current global crises. The need to promote affirmative kinds of citizenship and participation is needed. The form of this, which Dr Bacchus suggested, is that trust needs to either be restored or created towards the system, and the right kind of leadership is needed, as opposed to a ‘finger in the wind.’

Dr. Kurt WEYLAND: “Resilience of Democracies Against Authoritarian Populism” 

To start his talk, Dr. Kurt Weyland highlighted that the concern of populism arose around Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The fear is that if movements like this can occur in the United States, which is often seen as the paragon of liberal democracy, then it can certainly happen in other countries. The crux of his argument is that the focus on cases where populist leaders have strangled democracy can be misleading because the majority of populists do not actually end up destroying democracy.

His research started by defining populism – a movement that revolves around a personalistic plebiscitary leadership, a domineering figure that claims to fight for the people. Two key factors are present in this definition: First, these figures are a threat because they not only run up against the checks and balances that liberal democracy has in place to try and constrain people like them, and second, they base their power on mass support from the people, and thus try to establish a direct personal emotional connection to them. This kind of pandering means that a populist “supercharges” their appeals, rallying them around the flag that they are fighting against the elite. Supporting these populist leaders undermines civil electoral democratic competition, as it alienates democratic competitors not as legitimate alternatives but as enemies to be fought.

Because Dr. Weyland argued that populism’s threat to democracy is real and serious but not as severe as it is depicted. He believes that populism is an inherently dangerous movement, he investigated forty cases of populist leaders that won power in Latin America and Europe over the last four decades and found that only seven had destroyed their respective country’s democracies. This number is so low because when populist leaders come to power, they face a high risk of being overturned. Investigating the cases where populists managed to destroy democracies would, therefore, shed light on the conditions they needed to do so. Dr. Weyland found that when a country has weak institutions, populist leaders have more opportunities to concentrate power, which means that in countries with a tradition of strong institutions, such as Western Europe or the US, there is less chance for a populist to damage the democratic system. However, this doesn’t paint the full picture because there are cases where populists did not destroy a country’s democracy despite weak institutions – such as Pedro Castillo’s election in Peru. 

The second factor Weyland focuses on is popular support, which has proven difficult for many populists to gain. For example, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador reportedly had 80-90% support. This support can come in two types, according to Dr. Weyland. The first is a massive resource windfall, such as in the cases of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa, where the government has an enormous revenue source from which they can roll out generous social programs, buy off businesspeople and politicians through juicy contracts and corruption respectively. Economic windfalls are significant for left-wing populists who want to lift people out of poverty, but the conditions also allow them to destroy and strangle democracy. 

On the other hand, there are severe economic crises, such as hyperinflation. Populist leaders can use this as the catalyst to launch their campaign as the people’s savior by controlling the situation. Alberto Fujimori is one such populist who solved hyperinflation and gained major support. According to Dr. Weyland these economic crises are essential for the rise of right-wing populists, as their appeal is typically order and stability, with numerous examples of right-wing populist leaders being elected in the wake of the 2008 financial crash – such as in Hungry – and Erdogan in Turkey following a crisis in 2001. 

Dr. Weyland argued that his findings hold validity, especially when using South America as a case example, because right-wing populism is less likely on the continent, except in the cases of Alberto Fujimori and Nayib Bukele, who both utilized economic crises to come to power. Both also solved a serious public security threat by decapitating the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency and fighting serious gang crime, respectively. This focus on public security is another critical factor for right-wing populists and adds another crisis for the populist to solve, thus increasing his popularity. Dr. Weyland added that sometimes solving one crisis isn’t enough, as in the case of Álvaro Uribe Vélez in Columbia who tackled a public security challenge but was ultimately voted out after his second term, and Carlos Menem of Argentina who was voted out even though he had gained popularity by fighting hyperinflation. 

Dr. Weyland ended his presentation by recapping his talk – highlighting that institutional weakness and a unique conjunctive opportunity are the key ingredients needed for a populist to destroy a democracy, and thus in his opinion, Western European populist leaders such as Marine Le Pen, and US populist Donald Trump cannot be considered a serious threat to American democracy. Paradoxically, Weyland found that a report from Freedom House found that former Italian populist leader Silvio Berlusconi improved Italian democracy because his opposition mobilized more participation. In conclusion while populist leaders do present a threat, Dr. Weyland warns we should be too alarmed by them because democratic resilience is stronger than one thinks. 

Dr. Marina NORD: “Global Trends for Democracy and Autocracy: On the Third Wave of Autocratization and the Cases of Democratic Reversals”

Based on the latest report from the V-Dem Institute, Dr. Marina Nord’s presentation focused on the global changes in democracies and autocracies. According to the report, there are the same number of democracies worldwide as in 1985, with an overall trend of democracy regressing. Since 2009, for fifteen years in a row, the number of people living in autocracies has overshadowed those living in democracies. Political systems, as interpreted by V-Dem, are categorized in different ways – Closed Autocracy, Electoral Autocracy, Electoral Democracy, and Liberal Democracy – with a grey zone between the broadly defined autocratic systems and democratic systems, which encompass countries that are harder to classify due to confidence intervals overlapping. From these definitions, V-Dem has found that Closed Autocracies have increased since 2013, while the number of liberal democracies has decreased. Conversely, there are more electoral democracies currently than electoral autocracies. 

Based on population levels, more people, about 71%, live under autocratic regimes than democratic regimes, extensive in part due to India’s changing political situation. This statistic highlights the growth of authoritarianism globally, as in 2003, only 50% of the world’s population lived under an autocratic regime. V-Dem focuses on specific ‘democracy indices’ when compiling their reports, such as voting, regional elections, freedom of association, clean elections and freedom of expression, with a net positive increase in 2013 for all these indices globally. However, in 2023, nearly all these indices saw a net negative decrease, with clean elections and freedom of expression most affected by global political changes.

When looking at the top-20 declining indicators: government censorship, freedom of expression, harassment of journalists, and free and fair elections- they are all in decline this year. Dr Nord highlights that this is probably because they are the first aspects governments target as they were autocratic. 

Regarding regional changes, Dr. Nord showed that autocratizing countries are mainly in Eastern Europe, North Africa, India, and Central Asia, especially with larger populations. The trends in regime change highlight that in 1992, the number of democratizing countries reached its apex, which coincides with Francis Fukuyama’s book ‘The End of History,’ but since then, the trend has reversed with more countries autocratizing increasing during what has been called ‘the third wave of autocratization.’ Today, according to V-Dem, there are 42 autocratic countries, of which 28 were once democracies, and only 15 have chosen to remain democracies in 2023. 

A distinction is made between ‘stand-alone’ autocracies, in which countries continuously slide into autocratization, of which 8 out of 10 investigated countries, such as Greece and Poland, started as democracies and slowly autocratized. On the other hand, ‘Bell-turn’ autocratization represents failed democracies, where an attempt was made to democratize, but ultimately the country returned to being an autocracy. Examples of these include South Korea, Indonesia and Mali. Dr. Nord indicated that one of the reasons behind this is the decline of freedom of expression, which generally only survives in a later stage of democratization. 

Today, only 18 countries are democratizing, with Brazil being the country with the largest population represented. Once again, V-Dem differentiates between ‘stand-alone’ democratizers and ‘U-turn’ democratizers, with the latter being more important to study as autocratic policies and institutes were reversed. On average, 70% of autocratic countries have been found to have democratized once again in the last 30 years. Because the ‘U-turn’ examples were essential to investigate, Dr. Nord found that large-scale popular mobilization, judicial independence and action, a unified opposition, critical elections and events, and support and protection for democratic ideas were some of the main reasons for countries to democratize again. 

To conclude, Dr. Nord talked about this year’s election, showing that most countries have autocratized during elections. 

Report by Christo Pretorius

Keynote Speech 2

Dr. Robert KUTTNER: “How Globalization, under Neoliberal Auspices, Has Stimulated Right-wing Populism and What Might Be Done to Arrest That Tendency?”   

The second keynote speech of the symposium featured Dr. Robert KUTTNER, Meyer and Ida Kirstein Professor in Social Planning and Administration at Brandeis University’s Heller School, Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The American Prospect. It revolved around populism and its connection to globalization, with a focus on understanding its origins, manifestations, and implications for democracy. Dr. Kuttner, offered a comprehensive analysis of the subject matter, critiquing neoliberal policies and their role in stimulating right-wing populism while advocating for alternative approaches to economic governance.

Dr. Kuttner discussed the nexus between globalization, neoliberalism, and the rise of right-wing populism, drawing from historical contexts and contemporary political landscapes. The discussion aimed to unravel the intricate relationship between these phenomena and their implications for democratic governance in the 21st century. Through a meticulous examination of past movements, economic theories, and policy frameworks, Dr. Kuttner offers a nuanced perspective on the complex dynamics shaping modern democracies.

Dr. Kuttner traced populism’s roots to the late 19th century, emphasizing its dual nature encompassing both progressive and right-wing elements. He distinguished between left-wing and right-wing populism, highlighting their respective ideological underpinnings and socio-political dynamics. 

Analyzing historical precedents, Dr. Kuttner underscored the impact of economic crises, austerity measures, and nationalist sentiments in fostering right-wing movements, citing examples from Europe and the United States. He emphasized the significance of post-World War II recovery programs in curbing far-right extremism and promoting social democratic principles. By contextualizing contemporary developments within a historical framework, Dr. Kuttner illuminated the cyclical nature of populist mobilization and its resonance with periods of socio-economic upheaval.

Dr. Kuttner critiqued the neoliberal paradigm, citing its role in exacerbating economic inequality, weakening labor movements, and privileging corporate interests. He highlighted the adverse effects of globalization, particularly the erosion of national sovereignty and the exacerbation of socio-economic disparities. By interrogating the underlying assumptions of neoliberal economics, Dr. Kuttner challenged the prevailing orthodoxy and called for a reevaluation of economic priorities. In contrast, he praises post-World War II recovery programs for curbing far-right extremism and promoting social democratic principles.

Linking neoliberal policies to the rise of right-wing populism, Dr. Kuttner discussed how economic insecurity, coupled with cultural anxieties and immigration, fueled populist movements. He analyzed the electoral successes of far-right parties and leaders across Europe and the United States, attributing their appeal to disillusionment with mainstream politics and neoliberalism. 

Proposing alternatives to neoliberalism, Dr. Kuttner advocated for a return to managed capitalism, tighter regulations, and inclusive economic policies. He cited examples of progressive measures undertaken by the Biden administration, including industrial policies and support for trade unions, as potential remedies to address socio-economic grievances. By offering concrete policy recommendations, Dr. Kuttner sought to bridge the gap between theoretical analysis and practical policymaking, emphasizing the importance of political will and collective action in effecting meaningful change.

Throughout his presentation, Dr. Kuttner engaged with the ideas of various scholars to support his arguments. He references John Maynard Keynes’ warnings about the consequences of austerity economics and Karl Polanyi’s analysis of the pitfalls of unregulated capitalism. Additionally, Dr. Kuttner drew on the works of contemporary scholars such as Danny Rodrik to propose alternative frameworks for economic governance.

The seminar conducted by Dr. Robert Kutner provides a deep dive into the multifaceted relationship between populism and globalization, shedding light on its historical underpinnings, contemporary manifestations, and socio-political implications. Through a meticulous examination of past movements, economic theories, and policy frameworks, Dr. Kuttner offers a nuanced perspective on the complex dynamics shaping modern democracies. His critique of neoliberalism and advocacy for alternative policy approaches contribute to a richer understanding of the challenges posed by right-wing populism in an era of globalization. By engaging with scholarly literature and advancing novel perspectives, Dr. Kuttner enriches the discourse surrounding populism and globalization, laying the groundwork for informed policymaking and democratic renewal.

Report by Radoslav Valev

Panel 3: Globalization in Transition

Moderated by  Dr. Anna SHPAKOVSKAYA (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, China Research Analyst at Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University), the third panel of the symposium explored “Globalization in Transition.”  Dr. Steven R. DAVID (Professor of Political Science at The Johns Hopkins University) presented the first speech titled “China’s Appeal to Populist Leaders: A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed.” Dr. Jinghan ZENG (Professor of China and International Studies at Lancaster University) followed with a presentation titled “Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Vision for Globalization.” The third speech of this panel was presented by Humphrey HAWKSLEY (Author, Commentator and Broadcaster) on “Predicting the Nature of the Next Generation Globalization under China, Multipolarity, and Authoritarian Populism.” A special commentator alongside the speakers was Dr. Ho Tze Ern BENJAMIN (Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, Coordinator at the China Program, and International Relations Program).

In her brief introduction to the panel, Dr. Shpakovskaya highlighted that despite the topic of globalization’s age, its relevance should not be underemphasized, particularly given the volatility of the international arena in light of geopolitical events. This underscores the importance of conversations around globalization, which have become increasingly critical. Few actors in these conversations have become as vital and pivotal to the changing international dynamic as China.

Dr. Steven R. DAVID: “China’s Appeal to Populist Leaders: A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed” 

Dr. Steven R. David’s speech dealt with China’s appeal to populist leaders and why it matters in terms of the competition for influence between China and the United States, a competition that is estimated to involve close to 40% of the world’s leaders. Prefacing his talk, Dr. David stated that in this competition, China holds several key advantages and looks not only at what these advantages are but also at what can be done to respond to them. 

To understand why populist leaders may turn to China, it’s first necessary to understand what the interests of these leaders are- to do this utilize the theory of omni-balancing. Omni-balancing was developed as a correction to the traditional balance of power theory. In the traditional balance of power theory, states’ heads pursue the national interest, often protecting their countries from external threats like invasions, war, or conquest. Dr. David offers some of the ways omni-balancing differs from traditional balance of power approaches. These include the argument that it’s not so much the national interest that drives the way leaders behave but rather their interest. Here, what is central to the leaders, is maintaining power, and in trying to achieve this end, leaders are hyper-focused on finding countries that are best suited in terms of a willingness and the capacity to assist in helping the leader remain at the helm. Chief among these is the recognition that the most serious threats are not those posed to the state’s security, but rather those directed towards the leaders’ grip on power. While the traditional balance of power theory primarily concerns itself with external threats, omni-balancing theory shifts the focus to domestic challenges. This shift occurs because what concerns populist leaders most urgently are domestic issues such as mass protests, coups, insurgencies, and assassination attempts. According to the omni-balancing theory, populist leaders are inclined to seek assistance in deterring internal threats, much like China would be poised to do.

Having explored China’s appeal as an international partner for populist regimes seeking to maintain power, Dr. David posed a rhetorical question: “How does China achieve this?” The primary reason cited is the extensive export of digital technology, which Dr. David contended has been honed domestically, affording the Chinese government nearly complete surveillance capabilities over its citizens in various forms.

It is suggested that China has globally provided populist regimes with the necessary technology to replicate this surveillance infrastructure, including facial recognition, social media monitoring, data collection, and censorship. Dr. David argued that these tools empower populist regimes to monitor their citizens, suppress dissent, and control access to information. Statistical research indicates that leaders utilizing such digital technologies encounter fewer protests and challenges to their authority than those who do not.

Furthermore, these technologies enable leaders to monitor potential challenges from elites that could incite a coup, a fear shared by many of these leaders. This surveillance capacity is augmented by artificial intelligence, allowing a relatively small number of individuals within a country to monitor the entire population. This capability is particularly crucial during mass protests, which have emerged as the primary catalyst for forcible regime changes in the past decade. 

In this line of thought, Dr. David provided a brief overview of the issue of controlling political preferences and the role of digital technologies in shaping them. China emerged as the favored candidate for international partnership among populist leaders in this context. However, it’s worth noting that Dr. David appeared to show less enthusiasm for the United States, despite its own history of utilizing the internet to influence the political preferences, particularly among its right-wing population.

It is crucial to discuss China’s behavior on the international stage. Often, discussions surrounding China’s international actions assume it operates as a unilateral actor, particularly in the context of initiatives like the Chinese Belt and Road project. However, as Dr. David astutely points out, this is not the case. Like other global powers, China is influenced by various political forces within the country, each with its own interests, agendas, and interpretations of globalization and how to pursue it. Therefore, when analyzing China’s behavior on the global stage, it’s essential to recognize that it is not always driven by a clear, coherent strategy from the central government.

Dr. Jinghan ZENG: “Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Vision for Globalization?” 

Dr. Jinghan Zeng opened his speech by introducing a sentiment that, while not explicitly stated, underlies the discussion: In the collective perception of the West, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Chinese foreign policy are often seen through the lens of geopolitical competition among states. While this perspective holds some validity, Dr. Zeng suggests that the similarities between the Chinese authoritarian state and the US democratic system outweigh the differences.

The Belt and Road Initiative, since its inception and more since its launch, has been widely spoken of as China’s version of globalization, with historical roots in the ancient Silk Road trade routes. Dr. Zeng displayed, however, the existence of two contrasting BRI interpretations. The first sees the initiative as a top-down geopolitical strategy to reshape global order, and the second, which is the focus of Dr. Zeng’s presentation, views the BRI as a political slogan open to interpretation and subject to change. 

The first perspective on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is commonly adopted by the US and numerous other international observers. They perceive the BRI as a meticulously crafted grand strategy intended to bolster Chinese geopolitical dominance and challenge American power in the process. However, Dr. Zeng contends that this viewpoint requires a more balanced assessment of the initiative. There is a need to recognize the evolving nature of the BRI, marked by shifts in focus and alterations in its narrative. These changes have led to a lack of coherence and objective consensus regarding what the BRI truly entails.

This leads us to the second viewpoint. Dr. Zeng posits that the BRI is rooted in decentralization and competitiveness, emerging as a result of competition among various domestic actors, including state enterprises, provincial governments, and the private sector. Contrary to being a unified national endeavor, the BRI is shaped by diverse interests and is not a singular, centrally coordinated effort. For instance, different Chinese provinces vie to position themselves as the starting points or hubs of BRI projects, leading to internal competition and fragmented initiatives. This structural competition reflects China’s distinctive form of federalism and underscores the intricacies within Chinese domestic politics.

Furthermore, the trajectory of the BRI evolves over time as shifting contexts influence its geopolitical and domestic priorities. This notion aligns with Dr. David’s argument that Chinese engagement in the international arena is not solely dictated by central government planning. Instead, the BRI exemplifies a multifaceted initiative driven by various actors with differing interests and objectives. Thus, China’s participation in multilateral cooperation cannot always be attributed solely to its state-centric interests but also reflects the interests of other stakeholders within China.

The presentation culminates with a final point concerning the future trajectory of the BRI. As previously noted, the BRI has undergone evolution, and this evolution is expected to persist in the future. Chinese President Xi Jinping has explicitly expressed his vision for the BRI to become more focused, targeted, and sustainable moving forward.

Dr. Zeng concluded by emphasizing that the Belt and Road Initiative is not a monolithic, top-down strategy but rather a nuanced and dynamic phenomenon influenced by a multitude of domestic and international factors. Recognizing this complexity is essential for comprehending China’s global role and devising effective policies to engage with China on trade, investment, and infrastructure development. This understanding is pivotal for shaping the trajectory of multilateralism and fostering mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other global stakeholders.

Humphrey Hawksley: “Predicting the Nature of the Next Generation Globalization under China, Multipolarity, and Authoritarian Populism” 

Mr. Humphrey Hawksley gave us a refreshing approach not only by granting into the viewpoint of journalism but also because he stated towards the end of his talk that he does not believe China is an existential threat, a change in narrative from the previous two speakers. Mr. Hawksley explains that, unlike the political sciences, journalism encourages ‘getting the message out to the widest possible audience and in doing so requires a dumbing down and speeding up.’ It reminded us that regardless of what is central to the discussion is the ‘phraseology of the elite’ and when speaking of multi-syllable words like globalization, multipolarity, authoritarianism and populism that originate in academia and think tanks of Western democracies, the values and the glue of Europe and North America, we are forced to confront the difference in perception of them between these two regions, and the Global South. 

Hawksley provided a grounding to better grasp the message conveyed in his presentation. He illustrated the Indo-Pacific region, consisting of approximately 50 nations, where five developed democracies exist, depending on how one measures democracy. Among these, Australia and New Zealand are essentially viewed as European satellites, while Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are generally considered American proteges with East Asian work ethics, having emerged from or currently facing war-related circumstances.

The majority of states in the Indo-Pacific, however, represent a diverse tapestry of values and systems, ranging from military oligarchs to various forms of communism, sultanates, and authoritarian regimes. These entities coexist, sometimes uncomfortably, hoping to maintain stability without resorting to violent conflict. Given this intricate landscape, it was argued that many nations in the region cannot readily adopt lofty ideological phrases like “democracy,” “freedom,” and “human rights” to address their realities and meet their day-to-day needs.

To underscore this point, Hawksley recounted an experience from 2019 while in Indonesia during the peak of the Hong Kong protests. He queried a colleague about the lack of support for the Hong Kong Democracy protests in Southeast Asia, to which he was informed that it stemmed from contrasting living conditions between Hong Kong residents and those in the rest of Southeast Asia.

During his presentation, Mr. Hawksley introduced the concept of ‘Asian pragmatism,’ which appears to be a significant factor differentiating electoral and populist support in the Indo-Pacific from that in the West. According to Hawksley, ‘Asian pragmatists’ tend to gravitate towards solutions that offer the most benefit while minimizing risks. For instance, in Taiwan’s recent presidential election, voters supported the governing party’s policy stance against China’s interference and intimidation. However, they also opted for a compromise that signaled their reluctance to provoke Beijing into escalating hostility or inciting war. In essence, Asian voters exhibit what could be termed as electoral ‘common sense’—they eschew idealistic pursuits often associated with liberal ideals and instead seek pragmatic approaches that work within existing systems. They prioritize leaders with a proven track record of achieving tangible results.

As Hawksley highlights, this pragmatic approach starkly contrasts with the more rigid and uncompromising efforts backed by the West, such as the attempts made a decade ago to promote democracy in the Middle East and North Africa without adequate preparation.

When considering the future trajectory of China’s role, Mr. Hawksley suggests that by embracing Indo-Pacific pragmatism, China can reclaim the middle ground. This entails China entering into agreements that foster greater accountability to other Indo-Pacific nations.

Special Comments by Dr. Ho Tze Ern BENJAMIN

In delivering what could be considered the closing statements for this panel, Dr. Ho Tze Ern Benjamin offered a concise, yet comprehensive summary of the key points discussed by the speakers. He also shed light on the underlying threat revealed in the presentations regarding global perceptions of Chinese relations. Dr. Ern particularly emphasized how much of the discourse surrounding populism and its impact on global multipolarity is influenced by US attitudes towards China’s presence in the international arena.

In echoing the sentiments expressed in Dr. David’s presentation, Dr. Ern reflected on how American attitudes towards China are largely shaped by American self-perception. He emphasized that these relations are rooted in US values and how they appear in contrast to Chinese values. However, the fundamental disparity in the international perception of these values lies in how they are implemented at the level of domestic governance, as previously highlighted by Mr. Hawksley.

This becomes increasingly apparent as more players in the international arena scrutinize developments in American domestic politics, observing a perceived decline in local conditions. Global reporting highlights spikes in poverty, crime, homelessness, drug use, and a growing lack of gun regulation, particularly evident in the prevalence of public shootings. These factors have reshaped perceptions of the USA, both domestically and internationally, from its previous image as the “golden land of opportunity,” a transformation especially pronounced among Asian populations, as noted by Dr. Ern. For many Asian states, global prestige is no longer solely about perceived dominance and influence in the international order. Instead, it hinges on which country’s government reliably provides essential services and security at home, encompassing metrics such as safety, economic stability, social services, and housing.

Dr. Ern noted that while populism presents certain challenges, the broader issue concerning multipolarity revolves around how domestic values are upheld, as this determines their potential for emulation. Indeed, in the international arena, the primary means of expansion has been through the exportation and replication of values. Dr. Ern poses the question: “If America’s political values are so highly esteemed and worthy of emulation, why is this not reflected in domestic American governance?” Continuing, Dr. Ern stressed that the disconnect between international and domestic governments should not be overlooked. This discrepancy was the initial reason for Asian compliance with US international leadership, as they witnessed positive outcomes in US domestic political life.

Dr. Ern also weighed in on Dr. Zeng’s accurate description of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a collection of diverse plans and projects by various competing actors, rather than a monolithic program solely executed by the Chinese government, as it is often portrayed.

Reported by Neo Sithole

Closing Session: Economic Implications of Rising Populism and Multipolarity

The closing session of the symposium was moderated by Dr. Patrick HOLDEN (Associate Professor in International Relations at School of Society and Culture, University of Plymouth), and explored the “Economic Implications of Rising Populism and Multipolarity.” Dr. Giorgio SACERDOTI (Professor of Law, Bocconi University; Former Chairman of the WTO Appellate Body) presented his speech titled: “Demise of Multilateralism and Politicization of International Trade Relations and the Multilateral Trading System.” For the symposium’s closing remarks, Dr. Cengiz AKTAR (Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Athens and ECPS Advisory Board Member) reflected on the key insights and discussions from the previous two days, highlighting the challenges facing multilateralism, including external constraints and domestic populist movements. He emphasized the global trend of growing populism leading to a shift towards independence among mid-sized powers, amidst diminishing faith in neoliberal governance and the rise of authoritarian tendencies.

Dr. Giorgio SACERDOTI: “Demise of Multilateralism and Politicization of International Trade Relations and the Multilateral Trading System”

Professor Giorgio Sacerdotti began his presentation by providing background on the optimism towards increasing globalization and international cooperation in economic matters. He also discussed the shift towards protectionism, starting with the financial crisis and the Trump administration’s stance against multinationalism on economic issues, prioritizing ‘America First’ and bringing jobs back to the US. He highlights the perception of foreign economies, particularly China, as unfair competitors harming the American economy and workers despite the benefits of international trade and foreign investment for established and developing countries.

Professor Sacerdotti outlined the challenges faced by the WTO, the pillar of multilateralism, in governing international trade. These include the failure of the Doha Round, addressing non-trade issues like labour, environment, and human rights, and the difficulty of combining free trade with protecting non-trade values. He also mentioned the need for WTO instruments for new aspects of international trade, such as the digital economy.

Professor Sacerdotti emphasized the politicization of international trade relations as a significant issue, contrasting with the post-World War II philosophy of managing trade relations based on equal legal rules independent of political clashes. He discussed the principles of removing border barriers, reducing barriers through mutual exchange, equal treatment (with exceptions for developing countries), and the dispute settlement system. However, these principles were challenged by the Trump administration’s protectionist measures, such as the trade war with China and increased duties on steel and aluminium imports, disregarding WTO rules.

Economic security was also discussed as a measure that the WTO only allows in cases where countries face great financial crises. However, the definition of economic security has been extended, especially by the US. This has happened through subsidies to industries and quotas for exports. However, the EU has also had to justify specific measures such as CBAM or the deforestation regulation, saying that they are non-protectionists but rather protect the environment or human rights. This results in the increased politicization of trade. Even though the WTO has the instruments available to enforce specific rules, these have not been used effectively, and often, certain restrictions are wholly disregarded by more prominent countries like the US.

Concluding Remarks By Dr. Cengiz AKTAR

Dr. Cengiz Aktar made the conclusory remarks for the panel. He argued that multilateralism is externally trapped and is domestically challenged by populists. He also claimed that present-day multilateralism seems to polarise rather than synergise. Furthermore, he quoted other scholars saying that the Global North is losing faith in neoliberal governance and ideology, and Global North voters are turning to the national populist movements in the Global South. Meanwhile, the Global South perceives the global geopolitical and economic problems caused by the West. 

Only less than 30% of the global population is governed by democratic governments, and autocracy often continues after democratic breakdowns, taking countries further into more harsh dictatorships. Finally, Professor Aktar remarked that it seems that growing populism is pushing leaders of mid-size powers to become more independent instead of relying on the hegemons. 

Reported by Radoslav Valev


The conclusion shed light on external and domestic challenges to multilateralism. Externally, multilateralism is constrained by the Orwellian concept of multipolarity, while domestically, populist movements are gaining power. Present-day multilateralism seems to polarize rather than synergize, feeding into populist dynamics at home. We cannot ignore the alarming rise of populist, illiberal tendencies in Europe and beyond, as highlighted by ECPS’ Honorary President Irina von Wiese.

Dr. Axford observed that the current surge in populism is intertwined with the emergence of a new globalization paradigm, indicating its significance as a global political force. Dr. Patrick emphasized how the crisis of the rules-based order complicates international cooperation, particularly in global economic governance. Dr. Sacerdoti highlighted the trend towards “deglobalization” driven by the need for economic security and national control. At the same time, Dr. Kuttner provided a political reading of this trend, linking it to the erosion of prosperity and the rise of neo-fascist tendencies.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jakupec pointed out the dilemma of a world where populism reshapes domestic politics and multipolarity, potentially leading towards a shift away from liberal democratic governance. The research presented by Dr. Nord underscored the global trend of autocratization, highlighting the decline in democracy and the rise of harsh dictatorships in many countries.

On a more optimistic note, Dr. Weyland suggested that advanced industrialized countries may withstand the threat of populism due to their institutional strength. However, Dr. Azmanova cautioned against complacency, particularly in ailing democracies. Finally, Dr. Kuttner reminded us of the importance of distinguishing between neo-fascism and populism conceptually and semantically while also noting that growing populism is pushing leaders of mid-size powers towards greater independence in global governance.

In conclusion, the rise of populism presents significant challenges to multilateralism and global governance, requiring careful consideration and concerted efforts to address the underlying issues and promote inclusive and democratic solutions.

By Hilal Duman

The demonstration "Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM" in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on December 18, 2020, calls for the release of Rizieq Shihab and an investigation into the shooting incident involving the FPI members. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti.

Use of Informal Sharia Law for Civilizational Populist Mobilization in the 2024 Indonesian Elections 

Please cite as:

Bachtiar, Hasnan; Shakil, Kainat & Smith, Chloe. (2024). “Use of Informal Sharia Law for Civilizational Populist Mobilization in the 2024 Indonesian Elections.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 26, 2024.   



The Defenders Front of Islam or the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) is an Islamist civilizational populist movement in Indonesia. Its religious and political blueprints have been a challenge to the elites in power. In 2017 and 2019, it was involved in the contest of electoral politics to fight against the elites by implementing the populist politics that tends to undermine the democratic process. As a result, it was banned in 2020 but re-established a year later. In 2024 elections, it supports for Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar to compete against Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabuming and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD. The findings suggest that by applying the Islamist civilizational populism, the FPI instrumentalizes the informal religious law to support its political mobilization. It emphasizes the legal-centric perspective of “sharia,” which gives the FPI’s activists and its wider audience only one imperative option to solve the problem: join in the populism. We arguably state that the informal religious law can contribute to the process of Islamist civilizational populist mobilization. 

By Hasnan BachtiarKainat Shakil Chloe Smith


The Defenders Front of Islam or the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) is an Islamist civilizational populist movement in Indonesia (Barton et al., 2021; Yilmaz et al., 2022). It was born on August 17, 1998, in Jakarta when the country was undergoing political reform and transition from authoritarian to democracy. The FPI emerged as an Islamist movement that upholds the mission of fighting against immorality such as thuggery, prostitution, alcohols, drugs, gambling, and other street evils, while other Muslim organizations did not spread the Islamic messages in this level (Facal, 2020). In addition, when immorality tended to increase crime during the Reformasi, the police were seen as unable to solve the social problem (Jahroni, 2004: 222-227). To carry out its religious mission, the FPI has frequently implemented violent and vigilante methods to ensure the safety of society.

The FPI wants to Islamize state and society. It desires Indonesia to be a modern state based on the Islamic sharia. It’s ideal, similar to that of the Islamist party Masyumi (1943-1960), is to install the Islamist phrases in the first principles of the state, Pancasila. The FPI wants to transform the principle of “Belief in one Almighty God” (Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa) to become “Belief in one Almighty God with the obligation to carry out the sharia Islam for its adherents.” In 2002, the FPI attempted to transform (Islamize) constitution, but failed (Wilson, 2015). However, it has maintained its ideal persistently by implementing the Islamization of society. In 2012, its top leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab published his book “Wawasan Kebangsaan Menuju NKRI Bersyariah” (The National State of Mind towards the Shariatized NKRI/Indonesia). This book presents the FPI’s thoughts on Islamist politics, suggesting that the Islamist struggle is crucial to establishing a religious society. Accordingly, some scholars identify the FPI as the Islamist populist movement (Hadiz, 2016; Hadiz and Robison, 2017; Hadiz, 2018; Mietzner, 2018; Mietzner & Muhtadi, 2018; Aspinall & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2020). 

The FPI’s Islamist da’wa blueprints have been a challenge to the government. In 2016, the FPI was involved in the cross-class alliances of the populist rally that brought together more than five hundred thousand masses to oust Ahok (a Hakka name for Basuki Tjahaya Purnama) a Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta. At the time, Rizieq was hailed by the populists as their “Grand Imam” (Imam Besar), leading the pure people in their fight against the corrupt elites. As a result, the FPI’s chosen leader, Anies Baswedan had won the chairmanship of the capital in the 2017 gubernatorial election (Bachtiar, 2023a). With Ahok having the backing of President Jokowi, the FPI was also forging a message that the central government is the next target to be overthrown. In the 2019 election, the FPI endorsed Jokowi’s rival, a retired Indonesia special forces general, Prabowo. 

The government banned the FPI in 2020 because of the issue of its relationship with the Islamist extremist groups and its radical campaign to Islamize the republic (Yilmaz et al., 2022; Yilmaz, 2023). In addition, its leader, Rizieq was imprisoned for violating the health quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic, although he was released on parole in July 2022. Since then, the police have continued to prohibit the FPI’s political actions both in the public sphere and the cyber space. In January 2021, however, the neo-FPI was reborn, changing its name to the Front of Islamic Brotherhood or Front Persaudaraan Islam (FPI) (Tsauro & Taufiq, 2023; Taufiq & Tsauro, 2024). In this new form, Rizieq handed over leadership to his son-in-law, a young and charismatic Muslim preacher, Muhammad Husein al-Attas. In the 2024 Indonesian elections, the FPI backed Anies to run as one of the presidential candidates. Even after its dissolution, the FPI still can play a crucial role in the country’s electoral politics. 

This paper aims to analyze the role of the FPI in the context of the 2024 elections in Indonesia. We argue that by implementing the Islamist civilizational populism, the FPI is instrumentalizing the informal religious law to support its populist political mobilization. It emphasizes the legal-centric perspective of sharia, which gives the FPI’s supporters and the public only one imperative option to solve the problem: join in the populism. It is in line with the populist promise that populism is the only solution to the crises. The subsequent section discusses the theory of Islamist civilizational populism and informal religious law. It is followed by the context of the 2024 elections in Indonesia, the FPI’s Islamist civilizational populism, and the FPI’s instrumentalization of the informal religious law in its Islamist civilizational populist mobilization. 

Islamist Civilizational Populism and Informal Religious Law

The mass demonstration “Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on December 18, 2020, demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and an investigation into the shooting incident involving FPI members. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti.

Populism, theoretically, is non-monolithic. There are many definitions of it. In this paper, however, we use the minimal definition of populism that is developed further by Yilmaz and Morieson (2023) which includes not only the vertical element of populism but also its horizontal element so-called civilizationism as a thicker ideology that contributes to the populist identification of ‘self’ and ‘the other.’ They define civilizational populism as a set of ideas that collectively hold that politics must serve the people’s general will, and that “society is ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ who collaborate with the ‘dangerous others’ belonging to other civilizations and who pose a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2023: 4). 

In civilizational populism, the role of religion is crucial. It is because civilizationism highly frequently includes religious aspects such as particularly informal religious law (Yilmaz, 2022). It is the law that the religious society has implemented in an informal way beyond the legal system of the state. Accordingly, we define this informal religious law “as a legal entity outside the formal legal system of a state, and the people of that state uphold and respect this law as it governs all aspects of their lives.” In the context of Muslim society, this informal religious law can be sharia and the other legal entities derived from it such as fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and fatwa (Islamic legal opinion), as the sharia is considered the most significant source of guidance for the lives of Muslims (Yilmaz, 2022: 20). Sharia also contributes significantly to shaping the legal centric perspective among Muslims (Said, 1994).  

The Context of the 2024 Elections in Indonesia

There are three pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the 2024 elections in Indonesia. The first is Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar (AMIN), while the second and the third are Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabuming Raka and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD respectively. 

In the 2019 elections, the FPI supported Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno to compete against Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin. At that time, Prabowo-Sandi was defeated. However, after the FPI experienced political difficulties – the dissolution of the organization, the imprisonment of its leader, the death of its six laskars – Prabowo accepted the Jokowi’s offer to join his cabinets. Prabowo was appointed Defense Minister. This led the FPI to perceive Prabowo as betraying the ummah including in the context of the 2024 elections. 

Prabowo’s running mate, Gibran, is the son of Jokowi. Ganjar Pranowo, a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), backed Jokowi in both the 2014 and 2019 elections. Mahfud MD, Jokowi’s Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal, and Security Affairs, has aligned with Ganjar’s candidacy. Despite their prior support for Jokowi’s administration, Ganjar and Mahfud oppose the Prabowo-Gibran ticket because they perceive Jokowi’s endorsement of his son’s candidacy as a bid to extend his political influence (Bachtiar, 2023b).

The FPI’s support for AMIN is strengthened by the political frauds allegedly committed by the Prabowo-Gibran camp, especially through Jokowi’s political power. These include the perpetuation of Jokowi’s political dynasty, legal manipulation by the Constitutional Court, abuse of authority and power as a state official, and vote counting fraud (Yilmaz et al., 2024a; Yilmaz et al., 2024b; Slater, 2024).

The FPI’s Islamist Civilizational Populism

The FPI is an Islamist civilizational populist movement that is considered still influential in shaping the political dynamics of the Indonesia’s 2024 election. This movement plays a crucial role in supporting one of the pairs of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar (AMIN), who are competing with Ganjar Pranowo and Mahfud MD, and mainly Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka. 

Although all the candidates tend to build their image as pro-diversity nationalists, the FPI helps promote AMIN as the pious leaders of the ummah. The FPI’s image-building of AMIN purposes at retaining the Islamist voters and attracting the public attention, as most of the country’s population is Muslim. 

By supporting AMIN, the FPI produces Islamist civilizational populist narratives and rhetoric that guarantee its populist identification of “the self” and “the other” to distinguish those who are on the side of the ummah from those who are not. Accordingly, the FPI defines certain boundaries between those who can be identified as Islamist civilizational populists and those who are their adversaries. 

The FPI perceives that AMIN’s opponents are its populist enemies. They are the other electoral candidates that have been supported by “corrupt elites.” The FPI directs its identification towards Ganjar-Mahfud, Prabowo-Gibran, and their backers. Ganjar-Mahfud has been proposed by the winning political party in the last election, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), which is also a political force that recommended the banning of the FPI. Meanwhile, Prabowo-Gibran has been supported by incumbent president Jokowi, who backed Ahok, the FPI’s most hated political figure in the 2017 gubernatorial election (Yilmaz et al., 2024a; Yilmaz et al., 2024b). 

The two enemies of the FPI, the PDIP politicians and Jokowi, had been working together in the context of the 2019 elections. The FPI perceives them as the corrupt elites who have invited foreign powers such as the West and China to participate in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources (Yilmaz et al., 2022). Those powers, as the FPI claimed, are categorized as the dangerous others. 

The FPI’s view of the corrupt elites and its civilizational enemies is reflected in a statement by one of its leaders, Munarman: “Currently, we are witnessing that those who are in power, are those who are anti-Islam, anti-Islamic teachings, anti-Muslims, and even accuse the teachings of Islam of being a lie. In terms of global geopolitics, we should not hope for anyone, because it is precisely the power of the White Wolf (the West) that has been a place of dependence for compradors, foreign accomplices. Indonesia has been in contact with the White Wolf. Now the compradors are also accomplices of the Red Dragon (China)” (Munarman, 2016). 

Since then, as well as in the context of the 2024 elections, according to the FPI, the elites have involved the Muslim ummah’s civilizational enemies (the dangerous others) in the social, cultural, political, and economic destructiveness, primarily in a way of undermining the ummah’s general will. The FPI claims that because of the civilizational threats of foreign forces, the ummah have remained marginalized with no access to economic resources or social welfare.

FPI’s Instrumentalization of the Informal Religious Law in Its Islamist Civilizational Populist Mobilization 

The Grand Imam of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Habib Rizieq Shihab, upon his arrival in Jakarta on November 10, 2020. Photo: Angga Budhiyanto.

In its mission to combat perceived threats against the ummah, the FPI actively urges its activists and the public to participate in its populist agenda. The FPI frames this mission as a religious obligation, asserting that it is incumbent (wajib) upon Muslims to engage in it. We contend that the FPI strategically utilizes informal religious laws such as sharia, fiqh, and fatwa to ensure the success of its Islamist populist mobilization efforts.

The FPI employs informal religious law through three primary methods: Firstly, it implements a legal-centric perspective in applying its Islamist doctrine of “commanding good and forbidding evil” (amar ma’ruf nahi munkar), particularly in its populist political struggle. Additionally, the FPI mobilizes the masses by advocating adherence to Sharia principles in electing leaders, often based on outcomes from deliberative consultations (musyawarah) among Ijtima’ Ulama. Lastly, the FPI rallies its supporters and the public to combat alleged political fraud perpetrated by its adversaries.

First, the FPI perceives politics as the arena for its religious struggle in which this Islamist civilizational populist movement must implement its Islamist doctrine of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar. This doctrine urges Muslims to command good and at the same time to forbid evil. It is rooted in the Islamic scripture, Surah Ali Imran verse 104, “And let there be among you a group of people who call to virtue, commanding the good and forbidding the evil; they are the fortunate ones.” Other verses such as Ali Imran 110 and 114, Al-Araf 157, Al-Taubah 71, Al-Haj 41, and Al-Luqman 17 substantively also emphasize this doctrine. According to the FPI’s top leader, Rizieq Shihab, the level of obligation to implement amar ma’ruf nahi munkar is fardu ‘ain (individual obligation) for those in authority, and fardu kifayah(communal obligation) for those who are not (Shihab, 2024). When the authority undermines his or her obligation, however, it becomes the duty of everyone in the Muslim community, including the FPI, to conduct the amar ma’ruf nahi munkar. Therefore, in order to implement it, it is imperative to emphasize the fight against the populist enemies in the context of the electoral politics. 

Second, the FPI trusts the informal religious institution that enables “Islamist” scholars (ulama) from across the country to engage in the collective Islamic legal reasoning (ijtihad) to find a solution to the political problem and select the best leaders from among the available candidates. On November 18, 2023, in the Adz Dzikro Mosque, Sentul, Bogor, West Java, the Ijtima’ Ulama concluded their ijtihad and decided that AMIN was the candidate to vote for (Faktakini, 2023). Rizieq Shihab claims that the result of the Ijtima’ Ulama is based on the Islamic practice of deliberative consultation (musyawarah) which is commanded by God. At length, he expresses his thought that: 

“In matters of struggle, including social and political matters, we have upheld musyawarah. First of all, musyawarah is a command from Allah in the Qur’an. Allah says, ‘wa shawirhum fi al-amri,’ inviting them to deliberate on important matters, especially for the benefit of many people. In another verse, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala makes deliberation the identity of the believers. Allah says, ‘wa amruhum shura’ bainahum,’ meaning that the affairs of the believers are discussed among themselves. …So, decisions made by musyawarah, that’s the advantage, Insha Allah, will be much better than personal decisions because many opinions are taken into account. And that’s not all. Decisions made through musyawarah become a shared responsibility. So, even if there are mistakes or shortcomings in the future, we won’t point fingers (not blame anyone). But if it’s a personal decision, it can be pointed at (personally blamed). That’s the advantage of reflection. And musyawarah is because of Allah’s command, if we carry it out, it will be blessed. Well, a blessed decision, God willing, is not wrong. That is why many people have asked me, what is our attitude towards the 2024 presidential elections? I have answered that I am waiting for the decision of the Ijtima’ Ulama,” (Shihab 2023). 

Based on this FPI’s informal religious law, one of its leaders, Hanif Alatas had mobilized the FPI supporters and the public in various religious assemblies across the country. He strongly promoted the Ijtima’ Ulama’s decision to vote for AMIN. He stated that: “Are you ready to follow the command of the ulama? Are you ready to follow the ulama who are highly consistent (istiqamah)? Are you ready to follow the direction of the Ijtima’ Ulama? We obey the Ijtima’ Ulama! 2024, Anies becomes the president. Takbir!!!” (Alatas, 2024). Ultimately, the FPI organized the massive religious gathering (Istighotsah Kubro) at Benyamin Suaeb Stadium, Kemayoran, Central Jakarta on February 8, 2024, to mobilize Islamist masses to vote for AMIN. 

Third, by using the informal religious law, the FPI mobilizes its supporters and the public to fight against its enemies that who are allegedly involved in political fraud. Rizieq Shihab calls on the masses to fight the political fraud that is taking place, while at the same time building mass confidence that the pure ummah can win against Ahok in the 2017 gubernatorial election, despite not being supported by a large political force. According to Rizieq Shihab, the FPI’s resistance to political fraud and confidence in implementing amar ma’ruf nahi munkar is part of an effort to uphold the sharia. He said:

“Well, because of that, if you want AMIN (Anies-Muhaimin) to win, that’s why I invite you, let’s fight fraud. …Don’t be afraid if there are other candidates supported by economic power, political power… We have experience in Jakarta. In Jakarta, when we fought Ahok, what did we have? …Ahok was supported by the President, supported by the Chief of Police, supported by the TNI Commander, supported by all mainstream TV media, supported by major parties, supported by Taipan conglomerates, supported by the Nine Dragons, supported by survey institutions, brothers. … Those who supported Anis at that time were only parties, brother, whose votes were actually not as big as the parties that supported Ahok. Ahok was backed by foreign powers, brother. On paper, Ahok won. But what happened after that? It turned out that God’s will was different. …Allah Subhanahu wa taala still forced Ahok to resign. The Muslims won, brother. Right? Takbir!!! If we obey Allah, we don’t have to worry. ‘Intansurullah, yansurkum.’ If you defend Allah, uphold His law, uphold His sharia, ‘yansurkum,’ surely Allah will win you all this. Allah’s promise is sure to be true, Allah’s promise is impossible to miss, ya Ikhwan!” (Shihab, 2024b). 

The FPI accused the Prabowo-Gibran political carriage of fraud because they are backed by Jokowi who has committed abuses of power as a state official. Gibran, Jokowi’s son, does not actually meet the requirements of the election law to run for vice-president, mainly because he is under 40. As a result, the Prabowo-Gibran political force filed a judicial review with the Constitutional Court to change the age for vice-presidential candidacy. They managed to change this requirement, especially as the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court is Anwar Usman, Jokowi’s brother-in-law. Their success is suspected to have been due to a collusive and nepotistic practice that manipulated the country’s highest judicial system. In addition, according to the FPI, Jokowi used his social, political, and economic resources to support his son. Jokowi ordered his ministers, police and military chiefs and other officials to mobilize the masses to ensure they voted for Prabowo-Gibran. In addition, they (state officials) were also mobilized to distribute social aid to society, which certainly contained certain political messages in favor of Prabowo-Gibran’s victory. 


Despite its disbandment in 2020, the FPI underwent a resurgence as a similar Islamist civilizational populist movement in early 2021, emerging as a significant extra-parliamentary force in Indonesia’s 2024 elections. Endorsing Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar (AMIN) as the presidential and vice-presidential candidates against Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabumin and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD, the FPI positioned itself prominently. Its support for AMIN stems from its perception of the other candidates and their supporters as populist political adversaries. Specifically, the FPI identifies the Prabowo-Gibran political alliance, endorsed by Jokowi, as representing corrupt elites who allegedly align with dangerous external influences, particularly Western powers and China, posing a threat to the ummah’s civilization.

We contend that in mobilizing its supporters during the 2024 elections, the FPI utilized informal religious law, encompassing sharia, fiqh, and fatwa. The FPI employed this legal framework in three keyways: Firstly, it adopted a law-centric approach in applying the principle of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar, particularly within its political activism. Secondly, the FPI mobilized the masses by advocating adherence to Sharia principles in selecting leaders, often guided by deliberative consultations (musyawarah) among Ulama during Ijtima’ gatherings. Thirdly, the FPI rallied its supporters and the public to combat alleged political fraud perpetrated by its adversaries.

We also arguably state that the FPI uses informal religious law as an ideological expression that helps its populist mobilization. This has to do with the legalistic nature of sharia law, which has nuances of halal (permissible) and haram(forbidden) or black and white. Furthermore, according to the FPI’s sharia-centric perspective, politics tends to be positioned as a field of da’wah (religious proselytization). Thus, for the FPI, politics must have a religious mission. If there is a concept of Islamic politics, then in this context it is sharia-based populist politics. 

So far, in the case of the FPI in Indonesia, we have seen this as part and parcel of Islamist civilizational populism. However, is this also the case for other civilizational populist movements elsewhere in the world?


Funding: We acknowledge that this research is supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) the Discovery Project – DP220100829, titled “Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation: Civilisationism in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan” (2022-2025). 



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residential candidate Prabowo Subianto delivers a speech at a campaign event in Jakarta, Indonesia on January 19, 2024. Photo: Shutterstock.

Appealing to a Religiously Defined ‘the People’: How Religion Was Performatively Operationalized in the 2019 and 2024 Election Campaigns of Indonesia’s President-Elect 


Please cite as:
Smith, Chloe; Bachtiar, Hasnan; Shakil, Kainat; Morieson, Nicholas & de Groot Heupner, Susan. (2024). “Appealing to a Religiously Defined ‘the People’: How Religion Was Performatively Operationalized in the 2019 and 2024 Election Campaigns of Indonesia’s President-Elect.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 25, 2024.   



Observers widely acknowledged the lack of divisive Islamist populism in Indonesia’s 2024 Presidential Elections. This was in stark contrast to the 2019 elections in which Prabowo Subianto, the case study of this article and new leader of Indonesia, led a campaign that overtly supported Islamist interests and actors, and deepened religio-ethnic tensions in society. Despite this acknowledgement, it remains unclear if religion was still operationalized – albeit differently – in his most recent campaigning efforts. This article therefore seeks to examine if religion was politicized and performed by Prabowo in 2024 and contrast the findings with 2019 to address how and why his instrumentalization of religion varied significantly. Applying a discursive-performative lens, discourse analysis will be used to determine if and how religion featured in a sample of Prabowo Subianto’s speeches (six speeches in total, three from each election campaign). Specifically, this analysis will explore how references to religion and a religious community reflect a) his political goals and b) the political community he is attempting to engage. It will also discuss these findings in the context of contemporary populism studies. 

By Chloe Smith, Hasnan Bachtiar, Kainat Shakil, Nicholas Morieson & Susan de Groot Heupner

Introduction: Religion in Populist Campaigning

Although there has been significant progress in recent years, the study of religious populism in non-Western democratic campaigning remains underdeveloped (Sumiala et al., 2023; Zuquete, 2017; Beuter et al, 2023). This is an important gap to address, because understanding the role of religion in electoral politics is important when religion and religious majoritarianism are tightly entangled in national identity, culture, and society and resulting in an inherently more complex phenomenon (Yabanci, 2020: 93; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). 

Electoral campaigns in these countries may feature both exclusionary populist appeals in which the religiously defined in-group is often used as a juxtaposition with ‘evil’ elites and ‘others’ (DeHanas & Shterin, 2018). What has been examined less, particularly in empirical research, is the politicization of religion to link together and homogenize a range of interests and identities (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001), influence the perception of the leader, and create enthusiasm for their political mission.

Indonesia’s 2024 presidential election – and its winner – provides a fascinating account of the instrumentalization of religion in political campaigning. To better understand Indonesia’s new leader and how he may command over the county’s religio-political space, this article considers Prabowo Subianto’s populist orientation toward Islamism in 2019 and compares it with his use of religion in 2024’s campaign, when Islamist rhetoric was notably absent. This has not yet been addressed adequately, nor supported by empirical research, although the change has been widely observed in political commentaries of the recent election (Ismail & Koh, 2024; Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024; Rozy, 2024). 

A Brief Note on Indonesia’s Recent Religious-Political Context

In cases of Islamist populism, researchers have found that ‘the people’ are a collectivized identity group (‘pious Muslims’) consisting of a range of Muslim identities and interests that are grouped together and politicized (Susanto, 2019; Hadiz, 2018). In Indonesia, the literature indicates that in recent history, a range of actors have interacted with or influenced religious populism in Indonesia: from politicians and parties, social media influencers and online preachers, through to grassroots movements and organizations (Mietzner, 2020; Hadiz, 2018; Barton et al., 2021; Kayane, 2020; Widian et al., 2022). 

In 2019, Prabowo Subianto constructed his political image, narratives, and performances in response to the socio-political tensions that had been heightening for some time in Indonesia. Although beyond the limitations of this article to explain in detail, it is suffice to note here that polarization in recent years had been exacerbated by various populist and extreme actors who used religion to inflame tensions, push for social and political change, and destabilize conditions for religious minorities (Mietzner, 2020; Widian et al., 2022; Temby, 2019). 

The most notable period of intensification occurred during the ‘anti-Ahok’ mass protest movement, born in the lead up to the 2017 gubernational elections. The then Christian-Chinese governor of Jakarta, Busaki Tjahaja Purnama (‘Ahok’) was accused of blasphemy after citing a single verse from the Qur’an, and this shared grievance brought together a range of Islamist actors and many Indonesians in a significant period of populist mobilization (Mietzner, 2020; Hadiz, 2018; Mietzner & Muhtadi, 2018; Jaffrey, 2021: 224-225). Mietzner (2020) notes that Prabowo attached himself to this mobilization event, and incorporated Islamist populism and Islamist actors into his campaigning effort. Operationalizing religious populism in his election campaign, Prabowo became a highly influential player in one of the most divisive political contestations in Indonesia’s history (Ismail & Koh, 2024). 

This article contributes to the developing field of religious populism by studying its manifestation in the discourses and performances of Prabowo Subianto in the last two Indonesian elections (2019 and 2024). In both election cycles, Prabowo makes references to religion and conveys religious meaning to the audience he is seeking support from. Yet, scholars widely agree that in 2019, Prabowo used Islamist populism to further his political agenda, mobilize supporters and exploit religio-ethnic tensions in Indonesia (Mietzner, 2020; Hadiz, 2018; Barton et al., 2021). In 2024 however, observers noted that Prabowo refrained from religious populism’s polarizing and antagonistic accounts of people in society (Ismail & Koh, 2024; Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024; Rozy, 2024), although there is little written about his broader incorporation – or eradication – of religion in his most recent political performances. 

Equally, by using Indonesia as a case study, this article underlines how religious populism in the socio-political context of more religious societies usually presents quite differently from democracies of the secularized Western variety (Wawrzynski & Marszalek-Kawa, 2022: 2; Falki, 2022: 227).


This research employs a deductive qualitative approach, in which the theoretical framework of this paper will guide the analysis of collected data (Widian et al., 2022: 354). Discourse analysis will be used to identify and compare the rhetorical religious elements of a sample of Prabowo’s communications. 

The article will ultimately explore how Prabowo’s political style has pivoted away from an exclusionary religious populist style – and what it can teach us about the under-studied role of religion in electoral campaigning. 

Sample Data Collection

This article will use a sample of Prabowo’s campaign speeches which were selected based on a number of considerations, including: Prabowo discussing his campaign and policies, the length of the speech – longer speeches were favored because they provided more data to analyze, and speeches that occurred shortly (in the three months maximum prior) before the election when a leader is likely to most powerfully perform their political persona. 

Sample 1: Prabowo’s official national speech, ‘Indonesia Menang’ at the Jakarta Convention Center, Jakarta, 2019. 

Sample 2: Opening campaign speech in Kotabaru, Gondokusuman – Yogyakarta, 2019.

Sample 3: Prabowo. CNN Indonesia. Pidato Berapi-Api GBK, 2019. 

Sample 4: Prabowo’s political speech in Stadion Gelora Bandung, Bandung, West Java, on February 8, 2024.

Sample 5:  The People Party for the Progress of Indonesia (Pesta Rakyat untuk Indonesia Maju) in Gelora Bung Karno (GBK) Stadium, Senayan, Jakarta, February 10, 2024. 

Sample 6: Prabowo Subianto’s speech at a volunteer consolidation event at the Pekanbaru Youth Center, Riau, 2024. 

Data Analysis

Each author contributing to this research is familiar with and currently undertaking scholarship into the context of Indonesia and Indonesian politics, and religious populism. Our analyses have been guided by our understanding of the socio-political context these speeches have been presented in. One contributor is a native Indonesian and has assisted in ensuring the integrity of the transcribed and translated speeches. 

The four speeches were read in full several times before selecting the passages that have been used for the following analyses. These passages were selected based on their relationship with key themes of religion, religious populism, and religious association. This process resulted in the identification of certain key narrative themes, which the passages have been categorized under below. 

References to God, Prophet Muhammad, and Religion

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

In all sets of 2019 and 2024 speeches, Prabowo references Islam as a shared religion with the Indonesian people, and in each case, he opens with an Islamic greeting to the crowd. 

In the 2019 speeches, Prabowo drew attention to his personal affinity with God and religion.  In sample one (2019), he frames his concluding comments by declaring himself “a proud son of the nation and of Islam.” Similarly, in sample two (2019), he greets the crowd and immediately declares himself a Muslim: 

“I pray that Yogyakarta is in a state of health and well-being. As a Muslim, let us send prayers and peace to our beloved Prophet Muhammad, who has enlightened us all.”

Populism often involves the personalization of politics, where voters connect with a political actor and their representation rather than strictly the set of policies and party affiliation they have (Soare, 2017; Weyland, 2017). In the above examples, Prabowo is drawing attention to himself as a Muslim and son of Islam, which supports his attempts at presenting himself as a pious religious figure throughout the 2019 campaign, and as will be demonstrated below, the savior of Indonesia. 

In sample 3 (2019) Prabowo demonstrates this personalization again and links his happiness with serving the Indonesian people. He owes this to God for providing him with the opportunity to serve:

“And I invite all my friends to do the same. We are devoted, we serve the state and the nation and the people. And I am already 68 years old. The Almighty has given me too much. I am determined. The rest of my life is for the people of Indonesia. My happiness, my joy, if I can see the wealth of Indonesia returning to the people of Indonesia. I am happy.”

In one of the 2024 sample speeches (sample 4), Prabowo ends his speech with a prayer:

“I close my remarks with my prayer, I pray for the presence of Allah, subhanahu wa taala, God the Great, God the Almighty, who rules all the worlds. It is only to You that we pray, only to You that we ask for help. O Allah, O Lord, give us strength, amen, so that we are strong to receive the mandate from the people of Indonesia, so that we have the ability, wisdom, intelligence, courage, honesty, sincerity to protect the people of Indonesia … O Allah, give us the strength, give us the power to continue to be loyal to the nation and the people of Indonesia, amen. Thank you, O Allah, thank you for everything you have given, thank you for your favor, thank you for all the gifts you have given. Thank you. Wassalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.”

This prayer frames the Prabowo and the audience as collective Muslims who are seeking the right direction for Indonesia from God. While the sincerity of this prayer is not for our judgement, we can comment that religion is politicized to create unity and to frame Prabowo’s seeking of power as a holy and pious mission. 

In sample 6 (2024) Prabowo expresses moral absolutisms of right, wrong and evil to highlight the virtuous path he is on: 

“I got teachings from my ustaz-ustaz, from my kiai-kiai, from my teachers. If you are insulted, if you are mocked, if you are slandered, return it to the almighty. I believe that right is right, wrong is wrong, evil is evil, I continue on the right path, I have no doubt, O God, O Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.”

The Discursive Construction of Crisis, Breakdown, and Threat

The sample speeches show Prabowo constructing a rhetorical crisis to a much greater degree in 2019 than he did in 2024 campaigning. Although these passages are not always inherently related to religion, the analysis will demonstrate how these crises can be used to augment an image of saviorhood by the political actor from ‘evil’ elites, which tends to lean on religious ideals and association. 

A key narrative theme in the 2019 samples is that Indonesia is weak, threatened and at a crucial crossroads for its survival. This is most pronounced in the first sample, in which he shares a tragic story of a farm laborer and father who died by suicide because of the burden of his debts, and of the one in three Indonesian children who are malnourished, the ordinary people who can’t afford to live, and the debt Indonesia keeps accruing on a global scale. In the second sample, Prabowo evocatively claims that “our country is sick” and “Mother Earth is being raped” and “the rights of people are being trampled on.”

This state of crisis is attributed to the “handful of elites in Jakarta” that “do as they please.” Prabowo personalizes this state of crisis such as in sample 2 (2019) when he declares: 

“I speak what’s in my heart. I’m fed up, fed up with the antics of the evil elite in Jakarta. Fed up. Always lying, always lying, lying, lying. Lying to the people.”

Religious populism is often used, as it has been here, to create moral distinctions between the ‘good’ people and the ‘evil’ others (e.g. DeHanas and Shterin, 2018).

The perpetuation of crisis, threat and blame was almost absent in the most recent election. In a significant pivot in 2024, Prabowo became allies with and endorsed by his former opposition President Jokowi, despite Prabowo having spread unfounded rumors about Jokowi secretly being a Chinese Christian who was selling out Indonesia in the former election (Lam, 2023). This consequently saw a change in Prabowo’s rhetoric, in which he stopped performing a state of despair when discussing Indonesia and blaming the political elites and government. For example, in sample 3 (2024), Prabowo claimed that Indonesia will become great and prosperous:

“Brothers and sisters, on the 14th of February, all of us, brothers and sisters, will determine the future of your children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters. We are now at a crossroads. Do we want to improve, do we want to progress, do we want to become a prosperous country, or do we want to become a mediocre country? Ladies and gentlemen, Prabowo Gibran and Koalisi Indonesia Maju, we are determined to continue all the foundations that have been built.”

In sample 4 (2024) Prabowo again optimistically describes Indonesia and the state of the country left by President Jokowi:

“We are also grateful to President Joko Widodo, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, the Indonesian nation is a great nation, not just a great territory, not just a great population, but a great heart, a great soul, a great character, ladies and gentlemen.”

We can see a clear change in Prabowo’s strategy from the above passages, from claiming that Indonesia is facing imminent threats from internal and external factors and urgently needing a leader to save the country and its people, to portraying Indonesia as being on the right track but needing a leader to lead it to greatness.

Prabowo as the Savior of Indonesia

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

Political actors using a populist style generally rely on constructing a state of crisis, and then portraying themselves as the one – perhaps the only one – that can lead the people through the crisis or breakdown (Moffitt, 2016; Moffitt, 2020). 

When religion is incorporated into this rhetoric, it can enhance and add credibility to these claims by sacralizing the leader (as the ‘savior’) and consequently, their politics take on a transcendent nature (Zuquete, 2017; Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021; Yabanci, 2020). Furthermore, when a leader references the majority religion, and appeals to the religious community, they are lending legitimacy and authenticity to their political agenda. We can see this in sample 1 (2019) when Prabowo ends his speech with:

“As a proud son of the nation and of Islam, allow me to proclaim the takbir, ‘Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Independence! Independence!’ ‘Good luck fighting, together for a victorious Indonesia’.”

In this passage, Prabowo is creating a connection between himself (a son of Islam), God and religion of ‘the people’ (Allahu Akbar! God is Greatest!) and Indonesia’s independence (exclaiming and repeating Independence! following the takbir). Prabowo concludes his address in sample 2 (2019) in similar terms:

“Then, after voting, guard the counting until it’s finished. God willing, the people will win, Indonesia will win. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Independence, Independence, Independence. Thank you.”

In sample 3 (2019) Prabowo once again portrays his political career as a sacred mission that has been granted by God. This example highlights his perceived role as fighting for justice and against those he opposes (the elite government):

“I am grateful. I am grateful. To God Almighty. God is great. Thank you, God. You gave me the opportunity. To defend the people. Danio. You gave me a chance. With these noble figures. You gave me a chance. To stand up for truth and justice. Thank you, Lord. You gave me the opportunity. To fight against the budget of wrath. To fight against injustice. To fight against leaders who deceive their own people.”

Interestingly, while Prabowo’s 2024 speeches did not construct a vision of Indonesia in crisis like they did in 2019, the most pronounced instance of Prabowo performing as the savior of Indonesia came from one of the 2024 campaign speeches (sample 3). In this example, Prabowo narrates to the crowd: 

“Ladies and gentlemen, from the young age of 18, I have pledged that I am ready to die for the nation and people of Indonesia. Ladies and gentlemen, my ustaz, my kiai, taught me, ‘Prabowo, as a Muslim, before you spend your last breath, you must say two sentences of shahada.’ And I have said it in my life, because I should have been called by God. It turns out that God still gives, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala still gives me breath, still gives me strength, still gives me health. That means I have to fulfil my duty to the nation and the people of Indonesia. And I, at this moment, after I have risked my life for decades for this republic, I am not willing to still see poor people in Indonesia.” 

In this passage, Prabowo describes his political career as a sacred mission. Claiming that he is ready to die for the nation to fulfil this religious duty from God, Prabowo is making a passionate appeal to the emotions of the audience.  

This is an interesting finding. It is quite evident that Prabowo was operationalizing exclusionary religious populism in 2019 to engage with the surging popularity of Islamist sentiment at the time. Yet in 2024, the above examples highlight Prabowo performatively and discursively communicating his religious identity and appealing to the religious identity of his audience. 

Support for Islamist Actors and Collectives

Across the two election cycles, Prabowo expressed his support for very different political and social actors. In 2019 Prabowo clearly signaled to and supported to Islamist influences in Indonesian society. In sample 2 (2019) for example, Prabowo directly endorses the National Movement to Guard Ulama’s Religious Edicts (GNPF Uluma) and the populist Islamist group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI):

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you GNPF, thank you 212, thank you FPI. They want to accuse you of being radical. I say you are not radical. Why, do they want to pit Islam against Nationalism? Why do they want to pit Islam against Pancasila? Islamic leaders who participated in the birth of Pancasila, ladies and gentlemen.”

This quote demonstrates how Prabowo aligned himself with Islamist groups and movements that were widely acknowledged as accelerating religio-ethnic tensions and hostilities in Indonesian society, particularly against ethnic Chinese Christians. However, in this passage, Prabowo is implying that ‘they’ (the ‘others’) are responsible for these tensions by pitting Islam (Islamists) against the state and its ideology. Later in the speech, he directly places himself in the Islamist camp, stating: 

“To say we are radical Islamists is an overstatement; we respect and protect all religions, all ethnic groups, and ethnicities.”

Although Prabowo is attempting to portray his mission as one of inclusivity, in this same statement he is also drawing attention to his association with the populist Islamist movement and the figures attached to it. As pointed out above, these figures are known to work against various types of pluralism in society. 

In sample 3 (2019), Prabowo once again casts a blurry shadow of his position towards Islamism, which likely reflects an attempt to appeal to a broader support base. We also note an attempt to minimize negative perceptions of the Islamist actors he has associated with:

“Ladies and gentlemen. I am with Sandiaga Uno. We have no intention. We have no intention. Apart from working, serving, and devoting to all the people of Indonesia. Some say Prabowo-Sandi, the Coalition of Indonesia Adil Makmur, will change the Pancasila state. Lies! We will establish a khilafah state. Lies! This I say is slander. Cruel slander. Cruel slander. Cruel slander. But it doesn’t sell. The Indonesian people will not be affected, brothers and sisters. That’s right. That’s right. Our Ustadz-ustadz, our kiai-kiai, always teach that Indonesian Islam is Islam rahmatan lil alamin. Our Islam, peaceful Islam.”

By the 2024 election, Prabowo had publicly cut all ties with Islamist figures and instead allied himself with more moderate religious figures and organizations, including the leadership of one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) (Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024; Lam, 2023). As demonstrated in earlier passages analyzed, he redirected his support to the mainstream and became a vocal supporter of his predecessor – and former opponent – President Jokowi. 

Calling for Unity and Inclusivity

Instead of the polarizing religious rhetoric Prabowo became known for in his 2019 campaigning, 2024 saw the leader operationalize religion to strengthen his new political agenda of unity and inclusion. For instance, in sample 3 (2024), he claimed:

“Prabowo, Prabowo, Prabowo, ladies and gentlemen, our ustadz-ustadz, our kiai-kiai, our religious leaders, teach us, religious people, pious people, you can’t demonize others, you can’t insult others, you can’t slander others, you can’t fight against each other, right, ladies and gentlemen…”

Prabowo is still displaying a people-centeredness here, and addressing those who follow and study Islam. Religion here becomes a driver for Prabowo’s new agenda for the de-polarization of Indonesian society (Arifianto & Budiatri, 2024). In sample 4 (2024), Prabowo expresses a similar desire and need for peace and the unification of the Indonesian people, although he steers away from using religious justifications:

“The condition is that we must get along, we must unite, we must be peaceful, we must not fight anymore, we must not divide, we must not suspect each other, demonize each other, ridicule each other, slander each other. No, we must unite so that we become a great country, our people prosper, we eliminate poverty from the land of Indonesia, ladies, and gentlemen.”

In sample 4 (2024) we also see Prabowo making a rhetorical effort to include the ethnic Chinese Christians he had vilified in the past. Although staying away from religious categorization, he stated:

“Firstly, I would like to congratulate all Muslims for celebrating the great day of Isra Mikraj, and also to wish our brothers and sisters of Chinese ethnicity who are celebrating the Lunar New Year. If I am not mistaken, today is exactly the Lunar New Year for the Chinese ethnic group, ladies, and gentlemen.”

These samples are a clear demonstration of Prabowo’s decision to move away from polarizing and antagonistic discourses and performances. There are several reasons why he has changed his strategy (Yilmaz et al., 2024 discuss these in their recent work) but this discourse analysis has also demonstrated that he continues to rely on the mobilizing and legitimizing power of religion in addressing and collectivizing ‘the people’ and connecting his political agenda with the beliefs and culture of the majority religion. 

Concluding Remarks and Future Research

Whether or not Prabowo will return to a religious populist style that antagonizes ‘elites’ and ‘others’ and aligns itself with Islamist actors and ideals cannot yet be determined. What we can identify is that his political style in the most recent election was distinctly flavored by a characteristically populist effort to appeal to ‘the people,’ achieved by communicative strategies that sought the approval of various segments of society (see Yilmaz et al., 2024). Most relevant to this article was Prabowo’s use of religious rhetoric which, as this discourse analysis highlighted, continues to play a central role in his campaign speeches and efforts and showed a distinct effort to appeal to a (shared) collective Muslim identity. With recent polling showing that religious affiliations and identities continue to inform how many Indonesians vote (Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024), this undoubtedly contributed to his electoral success. 

Ultimately, we note a shift from Islamist mobilization to a mobilization directed towards Indonesian Muslims. Like other politicized religions, Islamist ideals are often far removed from the religion it is associated with. Islamist movements and parties have developed their ideologies based on a range of factors such as the political, institutional, and historical legacies of colonialism and nation-building, Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism, and in response to authoritarian regimes (Cesari, 2021). 


Funding: We acknowledge that this research is supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) the Discovery Project – DP220100829, titled “Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation: Civilisationism in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan” (2022-2025).


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

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

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

By Christo Pretorius

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

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

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

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

Athenian Democracy 

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

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

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

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

Hellenistic Kingship 

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

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

Oligarchy in Ancient Greece 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Agency 

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

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

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

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

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

Social Mobility 

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

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

Legal Systems 

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

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

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


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


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