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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crisis and Populism Are Closely Intertwined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracies Inherently Involve Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Contemporary Mindset Is Inherently Democratic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy Should Be Emotional and About What People Want and Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without Immigration, Aging Societies Are Dead in the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Strong Stance Against Muslim Immigration Creates a Common Cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong Polarization of Politics in Slovakia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Is Challenging to Categorize Fico Definitively

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

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

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

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

Russia Plays Substantial Role in Shaping Debate in Slovakia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sense of Disappointment with Democracy Is Quite Widespread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mainstream Democratic Forces Need to Collaborate Much More Effectively 

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

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

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

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

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

People Have Not Yet Fully Grasped How Dangerous The Situation Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President of the European Commission Should Be Elected Directly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy Is Now Being Undermined by Far-right Forces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Division between Left and Right Has Become So Blurred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example of Meloni Could Normalize the Far-right Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low Participation Rate Could Undermine Legitimacy of European Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

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.

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Supported Authoritarian Military Dictators in South Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favoring Cronies Is Acceptable Among Political and Business Leaders

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

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

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

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

All Perceived Shortcomings Are Attributed to the Current President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both Sides of Political Spectrum Promote Nationalist Messages

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

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

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

Dueling Antagonisms of Anti-Japanism and Anti-Communism

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

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

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

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

South Korea Aims to Avoid Being Associated with Leaders Like Orbán

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Junhyoung Lee

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

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

Populism: The Two-Edged Blade

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

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

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

Nationalism and Its Diverse Implications

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

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

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

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

Xenophobia: A Nascent Theme in the Electoral Discourse

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

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

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

The Aftermath: Implications for Yoon’s Administration

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

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

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

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

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