Despite the global far-right’s excitement over Javier Milei’s victory, it is crucial to approach Milei’s election cautiously and avoid interpreting it as a definitive sign of a substantial conservative shift in Argentine politics. To comprehend Milei’s success, it is essential to delve into the Argentine context, where it seems to signify more a public frustration with the establishment than a straightforward resurgence of right-wing populism.
By Imdat Oner*
After a second-round election on November 19, 2023, libertarian candidate Javier Milei emerged as the president-elect of Argentina, securing 56 percent of the votes compared to his opponent Sergio Massa’s 44 percent. This victory marked a significant milestone, as Milei garnered the most votes in any election in Argentine history.
In the wake of Milei’s decisive win, former US President Donald Trump commended the Argentinian president-elect, asserting that Milei would “truly make Argentina great again.” Jair Bolsonaro echoed these sentiments, hailing the victory as a triumph for “progress and freedom.” Some right-wing activists are already envisioning a domino effect, anticipating that Milei’s success could pave the way for Trump and Bolsonaro to reclaim power in 2024 and 2026.
Despite the global far-right’s excitement over Milei’s victory, it is essential to approach Milei’s election with caution and refrain from interpreting it as a clear sign of a significant conservative shift in Argentine politics. Understanding Milei’s success necessitates a nuanced exploration of the Argentine context, where it seems to reflect more a manifestation of public frustration with the establishment than a mere resurgence of right-wing populism.
Milei’s ascension to the presidency is unprecedented, marking the first occurrence of an outsider leading Argentina. His far-right inclinations, epitomized by his self-proclaimed anarcho-libertarian stance, set him apart from the conventional political spectrum. Peronism has upheld its supremacy in Argentine politics by building an alliance that encompasses both the left and the right, uniting trade unions and major businesses. The party movement has effectively established an organizational structure with widespread influence, extending across the country.
Milei, a former TV commentator and economist, presented himself as a symbol of change against this establishment that has been in power in Argentina for the past two decades. His campaign was marked by a strong anti-establishment narrative, echoing the widespread dissatisfaction among voters. He focused on economic ideas and blamed past administrations resonating with a population weary of traditional politics. His use of a chainsaw as a symbol of cutting state spending emphasized his commitment to making radical changes.
In this context, Milei’s electoral success primarily derives from economic dissatisfaction rather than an embrace of far-right policies. The economy with inflation over 140 percent yearly and 40 percent of the people in poverty has fueled a collective desire among citizens for a departure from the existing status quo. Massa, the current Minister of Economy, faced the full force of public frustration during one of Argentina’s most severe economic crises in decades. Milei smartly connected with people by presenting himself as the leader of significant and quick change, contrasting with what many see as the mishandling of past administrations.
However, Milei’s confrontational style, lack of political experience, and limited allies in Congress add an additional layer of unpredictability for the future. In reality, he could turn out to be one of the least influential Argentine presidents in many years. His political party, Freedom Advances, currently has only seven out of 72 seats in the Senate and 37 out of 257 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies. Even if legislators from right-wing parties, including members of Mauricio Macri’s Republican Proposal party, support Milei, he won’t have enough support for a governing majority. The complexity of passing laws and radical reforms requiring a qualified majority poses a significant governance challenge for the president-elect. Securing the necessary majority for passing laws and projects entails negotiations with various factions within Peronism. Furthermore, Milei’s coalition does not have a single governor in any of Argentina’s 23 provinces.
The difficulties ahead for Milei extend beyond legislative hurdles. The implementation of a shock therapy in the economy often results in substantial adverse effects on employment and income, potentially sparking social unrest that could further strain the country’s already complicated situation. The extent of Milei’s ability to capitalize on his personal popularity will play a significant role in shaping his political influence over the country. To achieve the objective of forming a legislative majority, Milei will need to maintain popular support.
In conclusion, while Javier Milei’s political style may bear similarities to Trump and Bolsonaro, his success in Argentina is more indicative of a deep-seated frustration with the establishment and traditional politics. As Milei assumes the presidency, the world watches with curiosity to see whether his unconventional approach can bring about the promised change in Argentina or if it encounters the challenges inherent in radical policy shifts.
(*) Imdat Oner is a former Turkish diplomat who recently served at the Turkish Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. He holds a Ph.D. from Florida International University, where he wrote a dissertation titled “Great Power Competition in Latin America Through Strategic Narrative.” His articles have been published in the Journal of Populism, War on the Rocks, The National Interest, Americas Quarterly, Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica, and the Miami Herald.
Offering profound insights into the dynamics of Israeli politics and the evolving role of radical right-wing populism in the country, Professor Dani Filc of Ben Gurion University confidently asserts that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of conclusion. However, he also underscores that the influence of “clerical fascism” in Israel is poised to persist.
In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Dani Filc, a distinguished scholar in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, confidently asserts that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu, a longstanding figure in Israeli politics, is on the verge of conclusion. However, he also underscores that the influence of clerical fascism is poised to persist.
Offering profound insights into the dynamics of Israeli politics and the evolving role of radical right-wing populism, the interview delves into the historical transformation of the ruling Likud. From its roots as a radical right vanguard to its current status as a sui generis form of right-wing populism, Likud’s evolution is explored. The discussion tracks Likud’s inclusive elements and examines the ideological shifts that occurred during Netanyahu’s tenure.
Addressing the intersection of populism with identity politics, Professor Filc highlights the dangerous chain of equivalencies used to demonize Israeli Arabs and the instrumental use of religion to differentiate the “in-group” and the “out-group.” Professor Filc also provides insights into Israel’s global alliances, pointing out the alliance with European far-right parties. Filc touches on the evolution of Likud under Netanyahu and its alignment with illiberal, right-wing populist movements in Europe.
Asserting that the ongoing war in Gaza signals the end of Netanyahu’s dominance in Israeli politics, Professor Filc predicts that “with the conclusion of the war in Gaza, Netanyahu will fall, leading to the abandonment of the judicial reform.” However, he expresses concerns about the lasting impact of the ongoing conflict on populist movements and calls for a just peace in the Middle East, highlighting potential dangers associated with civilizational populism or a clash of civilizations.
In this comprehensive interview, Professor Filc shares invaluable insights into the intricate landscape of Israeli politics, the evolution of populism, and the challenges posed by religious and right-wing populist movements in the country.
Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Dani Filc with minor edits.
How has populism manifested in Israeli politics historically, and are there specific events or periods that stand out? Can you provide insights into the historical roots and evolution of the radical right in Israel?
I think the first populist moment was when Menachem Begin, who was the then-leader of the Herut Party, the main party of the coalition, became the Likud party, which is the party now in government. Sometime in the early to mid-1950s, Begin led a transformation of the Likud party from a radical right, a vanguard type of party to a populist party. This process was relatively a prolonged one, starting in the mid-50s and reaching its peak when Likud arrived in government in 1977, winning the elections against the Labor party, which had been in government from 1948 until 1977.
Likud, under Menachem Begin’s leadership, was a kind of sui generis type of populism. Why? It was a nationalist party with right-wing views on Israel, a commitment to the idea of Greater Israel, and a denial of the existence of a Palestinian people or a Palestinian state. However, it also had inclusive elements, especially for Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Arab countries). Likud was symbolically inclusive, politically inclusive, and had some material inclusion measures, particularly in areas like housing and education for Oriental Jews. Mizrahi Jews became the central leaders within Likud, ministers, members of the Knesset in a way, and Oriental Jews also became part of the Likud. There were some measures that included Oriental Jews and improved their material conditions. Although there is a kind of commonality between left-wing populism and inclusive populism, and right-wing populism and exclusionary populism, Likud was not more exclusionary than the Labor Party that preceded it while it has not been inclusive towards Israeli-Palestinian citizens. So, Likud’s populism was not stereotypical, and it had some inclusive characteristics, making it a sui generis form of right-wing populism.
Likud Transformed into Extreme Radical Right-wing Populism
On the ideological front, despite Takis Papas define populism as anti-liberalism, Likud under Begin was not anti-liberal. It adopted conservative liberal views, especially in the relationship between judicial power and the executive or legislative power. As people like Ernesto Laclau and Margaret Canovan described, populist ideologies are often framed as against the hegemonic ideology, the ideology of the power, and since the Labor Party in power held socialist rhetoric, Likud’s adoption of a more liberal rhetoric can be seen as opposition to the then-elites or at least to their rhetoric. This situation made Likud under Begin a kind of sui generis populist party.
With Begin’s departure from politics in 1982, Likud underwent a period of transition, with internal conflicts between the more populist wing and the more conservative liberal wing. This lasted until 1992, when Netanyahu became the Likud leader. Between 1992 and 2006, Netanyahu aimed to make Likud a near-conservative party as Ronald Reagan’s or George W. Bush’s Republican Party with radical neoliberal, nationalist, and realistic in international politics and culturally conservative characteristics. When he was replaced by Ariel Sharon as leader of the Likud and he was Sharon’s minister of finance, he performed more radical neoliberal transformations within Israel.
When Sharon split from Likud in the 2006 elections, the Netanyahu-Sharon split occurred because Sharon supported a one-sided retreat from the Gaza strip without an agreement. Netanyahu opposed Sharon on this issue. Netanyahu became the chairperson of Likud once again, and in the 2006 elections, Likud, led by Netanyahu, obtained only 12 seats in the Knesset, which was 10 percent of the vote. These were the worst elections for Likud since the elections to the second Knesset in the early 1950s.
In my view, Netanyahu understood the limits of the Neo-con project in Israel, leading him to shift towards a radical right exclusionary populist party. However, he wasn’t the pioneer of radical right populism in Israel. The pioneer was Avigdor Levi Lieberman, a former Likud member. When Netanyahu was elected chairperson of Likud in 1992, he appointed Lieberman as the CEO of Likud, the principal executive. In 1999, Lieberman split from Likud and created a party called “Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home),” which is a clear-cut exclusionary radical right-wing populist party. They even have observers in the radical right populist group in the European Parliament.
Eventually, Lieberman became the first politician with a clear exclusionary rhetoric and policy against Israeli Palestinians. He was also the first to assert that Israeli Palestinians posed a greater threat to Israel than the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Using populist rhetoric, he positioned himself as the voice of the people against the oligarchy. However, he clarified, “we are not anti-elitists because elites are good, but there is not an elite. There is an oligarchy, and we are anti-oligarchic.”
Netanyahu also embraced that exclusionary rhetoric and approach, and their parties ran together in the 2013 elections. Despite Netanyahu’s ability to build a coalition, the merger was not successful. Lieberman eventually split from the alliance. This marks the moment when Likud transformed into a radical right-wing populist party, even verging on extreme radical right-wing populism, with some members exhibiting characteristics almost akin to fascism.
Religion Is Instrumental for Likud
To what extent does populism in Israel intertwine with identity politics, particularly concerning issues such as nationality and religion (Jewishness)? Are there populist narratives that specifically target or resonate with certain social groups?
Okay, so for sure, nationalism is nativism as Cas Mudde calls them are very central element of Likud’s populism. The demonization of Israeli Arabs is achieved by creating a chain of equivalences that asserts ISIS is like Iran, Iran is like Hezbollah, Hezbollah is like Hamas, and Hamas is like the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority is then equated with Israeli Arabs, and Israeli Arabs are likened to the leftist traitors that support them. This chain of equivalencies places national identity at its core.
Regarding the role of religion, it is more instrumental. Most Likud members are traditionalist, observant Jews. However, they are not explicitly religious, and many do not wear a kippa to cover their heads. While they respect some religious mandates, they disregard others. Religion is primarily used functionally to distinguish between the “in-group” and the “out-group.” This is why Likud is much more tolerant in issues such as the LGBTQ community and women’s rights compared to orthodox religious parties.
How does the media landscape contribute to or counter populist narratives in Israeli politics? Have you identified any patterns in the use of media by populist and radical right figures?
They use social media due to the algorithm and the business model being highly conducive to supporting populist leaders and populist politicians. Social media supposedly enables a direct relationship between the leader and the people, eliminating the need for intermediary organizations such as political parties. It creates a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” The impact of social media is evident globally, from Trump in the US to other leaders. In this context, Netanyahu stands out as a master in the use of social media.
Israel started as a secular country and the Zionist movement strongly supported separation of church and state. Then religious populism gained ground and became so powerful today. What went wrong? How did religious populism become such a strong movement?
At the beginning of Zionism, there was a prominent socialist current. However, when the Labour Party did not succeed, or perhaps chose not to, in 1948 to establish a constitution that would formalize the separation between Church and State, things took a different turn. Due to their political alliance with the national Jewish religious party, decisions regarding the relationship between state and religion were postponed. Consequently, Israel does not recognize civil marriages and civil divorces. The religious establishment often dictates personal matters in many areas such as marriages or funerals. The state funds a national rabbi.
So, from the outset, there was no clear separation between the State and the church.
I believe populism, in terms of establishing a distinction between the in-group and the out-group, has a strong religious identity at its core. However, Likud’s populism is not strictly religious. There is a party called Shas, an ultra-orthodox party, which has exhibited even more pronounced populist characteristics in the past, though this is not the case for Likud. For instance, one of Likud’s prominent leaders is openly homosexual, illustrating that despite its strong core religious identity, Likud is not a religious party. It seems to use religion in an instrumental manner.
Radical Right Populists in Europe are Strong Allies to Likud
In the article you co-authored, ‘Israel’s Right-Wing Populists: The European Connection’, you argue: ‘The partnership between Netanyahu’s Israel and Orbán’s Hungary is indicative of the enormous change that Israel has undergone during Netanyahu’s era. Israel has become, much like Orbán’s Hungary, a right-wing, populist, illiberal powerhouse. And it is not above joining forces with a European far right with antisemitism in its lineage.’ How do you explain this enormous change, what are the dynamics of this change and how did Netanyahu achieve it?
I believe this change is part of a broader global shift marked by the rise of radical right populism in the US and Europe, which supports Likud’s Israel’s policies towards the Arab world. Notably, the Palestinian issue takes precedence over the problematic antisemitic past of many of these leaders. This holds true for figures such as Georgie Melonie and the fascist history of her party, as well as Jean Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen and the antisemitic past of the Front National. Considering Likud’s worldview and its current commitment to exclusionary radical right populism, it seems that radical right populists in Europe are strong allies to Likud. This alliance is especially evident in the close relationship between Poland’s PiS and Likud, despite the potential challenge posed by PiS’s revisionist stance on Poland’s attitudes during the Nazi regime. However, the focus appears to be more on the present than on the past.
As for the strength of Likud, its main supporters are the lower middle class, middle class, and upwardly mobile middle class, particularly among oriental Jews. The loyalty of these social groups to Likud can be explained by Likud serving as an instrument of social and political mobility for them. Likud has also evolved into a more populist party. Netanyahu, in particular, was willing to adopt more heterodox economic policies, deviating from his earlier radical neoliberal stance. Between 2009 and 2019, the decade during which Netanyahu held continuous power, there was a notable process of social mobility for these groups. The minimum wage increased by 38 percent, accumulated inflation was no more than 20 percent, and the Gini Index decreased in Israel for the first time since the mid-1980s. The two lower quintiles showed improvement compared to the higher quintiles. During this period, private consumption in Israel surpassed the average private consumption in OECD countries for the first time. From a security standpoint, the conflict remained relatively quiet, and economically, there was positive development for the social groups that constituted Netanyahu’s main support base.
Clerical Fascism Supports Colonization of Occupied Palestinian Territories
In the same article, you mention ‘the ongoing Israeli colonialism in the occupied territories.’ Do you see Israel as a colonizer? If so, what role does religious populism play in colonizing Palestinian lands?
The question is quite tricky in today’s context. I don’t think that the colonization process should encompass all of Israel, as some advocates of “free Palestine from the Jordan to the sea” claim. However, I do contend that the policies within the occupied territories reflect a colonizing approach, and there is a connection between this type of process and the rise of radical right populism, which is associated with the colonization process. Presently, the primary role in the settlement of the occupied Palestinian territories is not played by Likud as a radical right populist party, but rather by the radical religious right, which is not populist at all. They hold an avant-garde, and in many ways, an anti-democratic conception of populism. My understanding of populism is that it is inherently democratic. While it may support an illiberal form of democracy, it is not anti-democratic in my view. This is why fascism cannot be considered a form of populism; these are distinct phenomena. What is referred to as the religious Zionist party in Israel appears to be a form of religious fascism, and some scholars even characterize it as clerical fascism, providing significant support for the colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories.
In the same article, you underlined that ‘Netanyahu has turned to nativism and xenophobia, mostly in the form of Islamophobia.’ What does this Islamophobic populism mean for the Israeli Arabs and Palestinians?
For Israeli Arabs, it entailed the denial of their collective rights and the delegitimization of their political leadership. Netanyahu employed this tactic rhetorically multiple times. During the 2015 elections, he asserted, “Jews come to vote because the Israeli Arabs are coming by the hundreds in buses paid for by leftist NGOs.” This statement was made on election day. Between 2019 and 2021, there were four rounds of elections. In one of these rounds, Netanyahu and Likud advocated for the inclusion of cameras in voting booths to combat fraud. However, it was evident that this measure was targeted specifically against Israeli Arabs with the aim of reducing their voting percentage. This move backfired. In the subsequent round of elections, there was an attempt to mitigate this nativism, but it resurfaced with full force in the latest elections.
How do you explain the close relationship between Netanyahu’s Likud and the far-right populist parties in Europe like Vlaams Belang in Belgium or the Freedom Party in the Netherlands?
As mentioned earlier, Likud is currently a populist radical right party. Its messages closely mirror those of the Vlaams Belang and Freedom Party, and I see Islamophobia as essentially a replay of the traditional role that antisemitism played for the radical right in Europe. In many ways, they are like brothers in their promotion of Islamophobia. Islamophobia takes precedence over antisemitism. Given that Islamophobia seems to supersede and, in a way, legitimize their shared narrative.
What do you think about the fate of the so-called judicial reform being pushed by Netanyahu? Do you think the Israeli people will agree to it?
The proposed judicial reform has faced opposition for quite some time; as you may be aware, there were extensive protests against it, and the nation became divided following the massacre of October 7th. The ongoing war in Gaza seems to mark the end of Netanyahu’s dominance in Israeli politics. I hope for a swift resolution to the war, and I anticipate that with its end, Netanyahu will fall and leading to the abandonment of the judicial reform.
A Just Peace Is Crucial to Preventing Reemergence of Radical Right Ideologies
How does the current war with Hamas will impact the Populist movements in Israel? Some argue that the era of Netanyahu is about to end. Would you agree with that?
I believe Netanyahu’s era is coming to an end, but the influence of clerical fascism will likely persist. In Israel, as in many democratic countries, populism arises from the blind spots and a lack of self-criticism within liberalism, particularly due to its association with neoliberalism. My optimism is limited concerning a significant shift in liberal self-critique, especially as neoliberalism remains a potent factor contributing to the emergence of populism, specifically the populist radical right in Israel.
While Netanyahu may face setbacks, and there might be a temporary decline in the power of the populist radical right, I am concerned that, in the medium and long term, we may witness a resurgence of the radical right if there are no changes in socioeconomic policies. Additionally, a shift toward a just peace in the Middle East, considering the collective rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, is crucial to preventing the reemergence of radical right ideologies.
Do you believe that the recent conflict in Gaza could potentially trigger a wave of civilizational populism beyond Israel and Palestine, and even beyond MENA region? How would you characterize this wave: as civilizational populism or a clash of civilizations?
I do not categorize all right-wing ideologies as populist. My greater concern lies with the potential emergence of clerical fascism or fascism within right-wing populist movements. It’s important to note that clerical fascism or religious fundamentalism does not necessarily have to be populist, and its non-populist manifestation can be particularly dangerous. I sincerely hope for a swift resolution to the ongoing conflict, as it could prevent an escalation and a clash of civilizations that would only lead to more circles of death and destruction. Ending the war promptly is crucial, and it should be followed by a broader understanding that the only sustainable solution for Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the entire region, is an agreement that respects the right of self-determination and security of both peoples, while safeguarding their collective and individual rights and respect it.
In an exclusive interview exploring the intricacies of declining democracy, the rise of far-right populism, and the adaptability of democratic systems, Prof. Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord voice their deep concerns, highlighting that this is a matter of significance for all. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes, “We’ve demonstrated through various publications that far-right extremist parties are not only populist but also hold anti-pluralist views in their rhetoric and policies. When they attain power, they often spearhead the ongoing wave of autocratization. I would be very concerned if that also translates into and materialized in the European Parliament elections.”
The state of democracy across the globe is under intense scrutiny as the world grapples with shifting political landscapes and the rise of authoritarian tendencies. In an exclusive interview, Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, provide valuable insights into the complexities of this critical issue.
Addressing criticisms from Professor Steven Levitsky in an interview with the ECPS on October 12, 2023, the interview begins with a robust response to his contention that the global democratic decline highlighted in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report may not be as dire as depicted. Lindberg and Nord emphasize the significance of their data, underlining the approach of population-weighted data, which accounts for the global impact of democratic changes in countries with large populations.
The interviewees discuss the apparent resilience of democracy and its concurrent decline, emphasizing that these findings are not necessarily contradictory. They point to countries such as that have made significant democratic improvements, as well as others where the situation has deteriorated. These varying experiences contribute to the complex global picture of democracy.
Prof. Lindberg explained the use of population-weighted data to assess the state of democracy worldwide, emphasizing that it gives more weight to countries with large populations due to their greater impact on the global state of democracy. This approach led to the conclusion that the global average for democracy regressed to 1986 levels in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report.
Dr. Nord also pointed out that even when looking at country averages, there is a decline, which dates back to 1997. However, she highlighted the resilience of democracy in terms of the continuation of elections in many countries. The interviewees delve into the multifaceted nature of democracy, highlighting that it encompasses much more than the mere presence of elections. Dr. Nord notes that while elections may still take place in certain countries, the decline in essential democratic attributes such as freedom of speech and freedom of association is a pressing concern.
Prof. Lindberg also expressed a deep concern about the potential surge of far-right populist parties in the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024. He emphasized that extremist and anti-pluralist parties often drive the current wave of autocratization, and their rise in Europe is worrisome.
Moreover, the interview explores the adaptation of democratic systems to specific cultural and socio-political contexts. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes the inherent contradiction in the concept of an “illiberal democracy” and highlights that the core principle of liberalism is the acceptance of opposing views, which is not compatible with an illiberal stance.
The interviewees conclude with the discussion of the recent Democracy Report by International IDEA, aligning with the findings in the V-Dem Project’s report. Professor Lindberg and Dr. Nord emphasize the urgency of collective action in the face of the growing number of countries undergoing autocratization.
Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord with minor edits.
Democratic Erosion Prevalent Worldwide Across All Metrics
Prof. Steven R. Levitsky, in his article ‘Democracy’s Surprising Resilience’ co-authored withProfessor Lucan A. Way, argues that the data does not support your findings in V-Dem Project’s 2023 report. He writes: ‘The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project’s 2023 report claimed that global levels of democracy had declined to 1986 levels and, thus, that the global democratic advances of the last thirty-five years had been “wiped out’’. What is your response to Prof. Levitsky’s assessment?
Staffan I Lindberg: The data supports our findings otherwise, we wouldn’t publish it. It’s essential to note that this is a quote based on our calculations using population-weighted data. This approach gives more weight to larger countries with significant populations. The rationale behind this is that when we assess the overall state of democracy worldwide, the country-weighted averages treat all territories with governments equally. In this method, countries with small populations, like the Seychelles with 90,000 inhabitants, carry the same weight as a giant nation like India with 1.4 billion people. While this approach serves specific purposes, we believe that, in the context of assessing the state of democracy worldwide, it’s more meaningful. For example, when democracy declines in a country as populous as India, with 1.4 billion people, it has a more significant impact than democracy improving in the Seychelles with 90,000 inhabitants. According to the population-weighted measure, the global average regresses to 1986 levels. Marina, do you have anything to add to what I just mentioned?
Marina Nord: Well, I would like to add that even when we look at country averages, we still observe a decline. While the decline might not be as dramatic, it harks back to 1997, if I recall correctly. Nevertheless, there is still an overall decline.
Prof. Levitsky highlights ‘Democracy’s Surprising Resilience’ all over the world which is exactly the opposite of your findings in the 2023 Democracy Report. How do you explain the two very different findings?
Staffan I Lindberg: These findings are not necessarily contradictory. It’s important to acknowledge that there are numerous countries globally that have made significant improvements in terms of democracy compared to their state in 1989. Large portions of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa have made substantial progress, to name a few examples. However, there are also countries where the situation has deteriorated, and in some cases, significantly so. It’s entirely possible to have countries that democratized during the third wave of democratization, as Stephen Levitsky mentioned, and have since remained stable or even improved their democratic standing. Yet, the global average declines because other countries have witnessed declines. These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive.
Resilience in Elections Amidst Diminished Democracy Quality
Marina Nord: If one only considers the survival of democracy as the presence of contested elections, then, in many countries, elections are still being held. However, the quality of these elections and other aspects that contribute to democracy, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association, are in decline. This is indeed surprising. So, while we observe resilience in terms of the continuation of elections, the decline in the quality of democracy and its essential attributes is a noteworthy concern. These findings don’t necessarily contradict each other; they provide different dimensions of the overall picture.
Alright. In his article ‘Democracy’s Surprising Resilience’, Prof. Levitsky further argues that: ‘Thus, even if Freedom House and V-Dem are correct in identifying an increase in incumbent abuse over the last decade or so, the consequences of that abuse appear to be modest, for many autocratic-leaning incumbents are failing to entrench themselves in power.’ How would you comment on this judgement?
Staffan I Lindberg: Well, if you were to ask serious observers of countries like Turkey, Hungary, and others, it’s not necessarily a viewpoint shared by many. The term “many” is quite flexible. While it’s true that we’ve witnessed cases where autocratizing incumbents have been defeated or removed from power recently, such as in Poland where transition is still ongoing, like Bolsonaro in Brazil and the Trump administration in the United States, there have also been reversals in countries like Zambia. We’ve seen periods of decline in South Korea that were eventually reversed. So, there are indeed significant instances where the autocratizing incumbents have failed. However, based on our data and assessments by organizations like Freedom House, there are many more countries where autocratizing parties and leaders have continued to undermine democracy and, in many cases, have dismantled democratic institutions. This broader trend is what we observe globally, rather than the isolated instances where incumbents fail to solidify autocracy.
Marina Nord: I would agree with that.
Autocratization Has Worsened Since 2019
In your article ‘A Third Wave of Autocratization is Here: What Is New About It?’ co-authored with Anna Lührmann and published in 2019, you argue that a new wave of autocratization is emerging. Given the time that has passed since its publication, do you still stand by its findings?
Staffan I Lindberg: No. We began our work on that article in 2016-2017, and it was eventually published in 2019. At that time, we observed the emergence of a third wave of autocratization, and it was still unfolding. I would say that it’s still ongoing, but I must clarify that it has worsened. In our subsequent research on waves of autocratization, and also in the work we conducted for the democracy report, that wave has become much worse. In the article, if I recall correctly, the maximum number of countries undergoing autocratization simultaneously was 28. In last year’s democracy report, in which Marina was also involved, we counted 42 such countries. This represents a significant increase. What I would not agree with in that article is the notion that there is no cause for panic and alarm.
Exactly. That’s next question: In the same article you underlined that ‘As it was premature to announce the “end of history” in 1992, it is premature to proclaim the “end of democracy” now.’ You argue that democracy is in decline, but it is no reason to panic. It seems that you agree with Prof. Levitsky when he says that democracy has proved to be resilient.
Staffan I Lindberg: No. I hope it’s still too early to declare the end of democracy globally. However, I find myself in a different position today than Anna Lührmann and I were back in 2018 before that article was published. I believe there is a reason to be very, very concerned, if not to panic, which might be an extreme reaction, but to be deeply concerned. Many others share this sentiment. I think that what Professor Levitsky and some other commentators are doing when they suggest that not much is changing is doing a disservice to the world. When I examine our data and witness daily news reporting, I see democracy under attack in so many places, including my own country, Sweden, where signs of another far-right, extreme anti-pluralist party have emerged. This is putting pressure on our current government and could lead to a trajectory of autocratization. It’s deeply worrisome when established democracies start experiencing these challenges. So, while it may not be a time to panic, I believe it’s essential to be extremely concerned and very worried.
Marina Nord: I agree with the sentiment that “panic” might not be the right word, but being worried is indeed appropriate. To provide you with some statistics, our latest data from 2020 indicates that 43 percent of the world’s population resides in autocratizing countries. This is a global trend. What’s concerning is that not only democratic countries like Brazil, Ghana, or Greece are undergoing autocratization, but already autocratic countries are further regressing into autocracy, such as Hungary, India, the Philippines, and Russia. In the case of Russia, which was already a stable autocracy, we’ve observed further autocratization. This is the reason for concern. So, I would say it’s a time for action, not panic, but to take action and pay attention.
Autocratization and Growing Discontent with Democracy
One of the findings of the Democracy Report 2023 by V-Dem is that the global advances of democracy achieved in the last 35 years has been wiped out. The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 is down to 1986 levels. How do you explain the dynamics of this downfall? What went wrong?
Staffan I Lindberg: Yes, I think that’s what it is called these days as one-billion-dollar question. I don’t think we have an answer, and the explanation is likely quite complex. Various forces are at play simultaneously in many countries and regions of the world, including local dynamics. What’s remarkable is that it’s a global phenomenon. We observe this trend in every region of the world, with countries undergoing autocratization across different levels of socioeconomic development, various ethnic, linguistic, and social identity configurations, ranging from countries with dominant/homogenous groups to highly heterogeneous ones, and varying levels of economic development and pre-existing democracy.
This diversity suggests that there are global forces at play. We know about some of these forces, such as Russia, which played a role in the third wave of autocratization. Putin in Russia turned things around in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and its subsequent actions, including the invasion of Ukraine, involvement in Brexit, interference in American elections, and support for far-right extremist parties and groups across Europe. Then there is China, which has been pushing back against the democratic wave since the mid-1990s, impacting both established democracies and countries in the global south. Let’s not forget about Saudi Arabia. They have been doing a similar thing by supporting anti-democratic Salafist movements. Salafis used to be the microscopic, little part of the Muslim world. It is no longer. Iran is another player on that side. Of course, there are many versions of practicing Islam, that are compatible with human rights and democracy and women’s rights, and so on. Salafism is not.
There’s a growing body of research suggesting that a significant increase in relative economic inequality, which began in the 1980s and spread worldwide, is providing fertile ground for wannabe dictators to exploit dissatisfaction and fears for the future often associated with inequality. While there’s no solid scientific consensus, a growing body of evidence points in this direction.
Marina Nord: I would agree that each case has context-specific factors, but a general explanation could be a growing discontent with democracy as a regime. In each instance, it might be triggered by factors like inequality, an economic crisis, or migration, which are often country-specific. This discontent can give rise to populist movements, ultimately paving the way for wannabe dictators to come to power within democracies. Once in power, these leaders significantly undermine elections.
What distinguishes contemporary autocratization from historical examples is that it’s often a gradual process, not happening overnight, and it often occurs under the facade of legality. This process is frequently referred to as “democratic backsliding” or “democratic corrosion,” marking a substantial decline in a country’s democracy over time.
Having Legislature Does Not Automatically Translate into a Democracy
In the V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2023, you underline that “Democracy broke down in seven of the top 10 autocratizing countries in the last ten years: El Salvador, Hungary, India, Serbia, Thailand, Türkiye, and Tunisia.” What do you mean by democratic break-down? In Turkey, for example, elections are still held, and the Parliament is open and keeps legislating.
Staffan I Lindberg: The same is also the case in Russia. The mere presence of multiparty elections and a functioning legislature on paper doesn’t equate to having a democracy. Back in the 1990s, Thomas Carothers and others referred to this as the “electoral fallacy.” Democracy necessitates more than just holding multi-party elections. To be considered a democracy, it’s crucial that these elections are genuinely free, fair, and held periodically. Furthermore, even if elections meet these criteria, it’s essential that opposition parties are not harassed, oppressed, prosecuted for political reasons, or otherwise impeded between elections.
Beyond this, democracy also requires freedom of speech, particularly in terms of media and individual freedom of speech. In a genuinely democratic environment, people can express their opinions freely. However, in cases like Hungary, where, since around 2018, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have gained control over 98 percent of the media, it becomes challenging to maintain a climate of free speech. Even if individuals on the street can technically voice their opinions without consequences, having a media regime controlled by those in power can shape public perceptions, leading to beliefs that align with the government’s agenda. In Hungary, for instance, the government-loyal press has propagated stories like Putin being compelled by NATO to invade Ukraine, thereby legitimizing Russia’s actions. Many people in Hungary have accepted this narrative, not because of freedom of speech but because of the media environment. Holding elections and having a functioning legislature does not automatically translate into a democracy. Furthermore, civil society’s ability to express opinions, demonstrate, and criticize the regime is vital for a true democracy. In the case of Turkey, many leaders, academics have been imprisoned or subjected to harassment, making it challenging for civil society to operate freely.
Marina Nord: I would like to emphasize that there are only six countries worldwide that do not hold elections at this moment. Therefore, democracy encompasses much more than just the act of voting. To illustrate, the Soviet Union had regular elections, but they were devoid of meaning. So, the mere presence of elections does not automatically signify the existence of a democracy.
Many pundits argue that the upcoming European Parliament elections in June 2024 will witness a surge of far-rights populist parties. How concerned are you about a possible victory of far-right parties?
Staffan I Lindberg: Very concerned and I think everyone should be. We’ve shown in a number of publications, also using the varieties of parties and party organization data set, which is separate from the regular V-Dem data set, but with data on individual parties that are far right, extremist parties which are not only populist, but they are anti-pluralist in the rhetoric and policies that when they come into power they are the ones in the current wave of autocratization that typically drive those processes. There are also a few instances of left-wing parties and leaders that have also talked recently, but they’re very few and far between
in comparison to the vast majority that are driven by these right-wing. So yes, I would be very concerned if that also translates into and materialized in the European Parliament elections.
Marina Nord: I would agree.
Illiberal Democracy Is an Oxymoron
Leaders like Erdogan and Orban who deviate from democracy and veer towards authoritarianism often claim that they have not strayed from democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedoms. They even argue that they are models for other aspiring democracies. They defend these claims by arguing that they have embraced a form of democracy tailored to their country’s socio-cultural characteristics. What is your response to the claim that beyond the democractic systems with universal values and forms we are familiar with, there can be different forms of democracies adapted to each country and culture?
Staffan I Lindberg: Yes, of course. We already see that among the established democracies. It’s been very different the way democracy has functioned in the United States, since they got a really good democracy in around 1970, very different from France and France is very different from Sweden in many ways. And in Ghana it also functions different as a culture, different cultural background, and so on. We can go down the line, of course. That doesn’t mean that any version of what some leader proclaim is democracy is a democracy. China also claims that they are actually -the last white paper they put out on that- the only democracy that works in the world. That was a white paper they issued after the first democracy summit that the Biden administration put together.
(Viktor) Orban claims to have or wants to have an illiberal democracy. That is an oxymoron. That is a contradiction in terms. A democracy cannot be illiberal because the founding principle of liberalism is the reciprocal acceptance and tolerance of opposing views. If you’re illiberal, you don’t accept the opposing views and that’s not compatible with democracy. Now, Orban tries to frame this in terms of LGBTQI and women rights and conservative family values and all that. But that’s just a framing. The real politics is about eradication of opposing views and opposing political forces. And that’s not compatible with democracy.
Marina Nord: I would just add that I have heard several times in Russian political circles that Russia is called as a “guided democracy,” and that also contradicts this definition of democracy that we have.
Lastly, latest Democracy Report by International IDEA found that almost half the countries have suffered a notable decline in democratic values. ‘What may be worse is that it is the sixth consecutive year in which countries with net declines outnumbers those with net advances, the longest such pattern in our data set’ argues the report. Are you surprised or feel vindicated by the findings of the report?
Staffan I Lindberg: These findings align closely with our Democracy Report, and they come as no surprise because most of the data used in the International IDEA report originates from V-Dem. While I don’t have the latest figures, it used around 70 percent of their data sourced from V-Dem. Therefore, the patterns observed in their report, released nine months after ours, closely mirror those in our Democracy Report.
Based on the findings of the IDEA report, what are your thoughts on where this trend is leading us?
Staffan I Lindberg: We are not in a position to make predictions; our role is to present the facts as they are. The stark reality is that the number of countries undergoing autocratization has seen a significant increase in recent years, and we have yet to witness a reversal of this trend. This is a cause for concern that should prompt collective action.
“This process of a declining Liberal West, along with its increasing inability and unwillingness to promote democracy, presents a significant challenge in the world. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we can return to the world of 1990 to 2003 when democracy was, in many respects, almost the only game in town. Those days are over, and we now face a much more complex and challenging world,” says Professor Steven R. Levitsky.
Dr. Steven R. Levitsky, the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and Professor of Government at Harvard University, stated that “the process of a declining Liberal West, along with its increasing inability and unwillingness to promote democracy, presents a significant challenge in the world.” In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Levitsky analyzed the state of liberal democracy worldwide, saying, “Unfortunately, I don’t believe we can return to the world of 1990 to 2003 when democracy was, in many respects, almost the only game in town. Those days are over, and we now face a much more complex and challenging world.”
Primarily discussing the article jointly written by him and Professor Lucan A. Way for the Journal of Democracy on October 4, 2023, titled “Democracy’s Surprising Resilience,” where they emphasize that authoritarianism has a hard time consolidating power in countries with weak states, Levitsky argues that democracy promoters exaggerate democratic backsliding and criticizes those scholars for doing so because they want to highlight the degree of autocratization in the world. “I’m concerned that there has been an almost a rush to declare the world in a democratic recession, with an excessive focus on cases of backsliding, which are undoubtedly real. But they’re not the only thing happening in the world… Our assessment indicates modest backsliding over the last 15 years, rather than dramatic backsliding,” underlined Dr. Levitsky.
Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Steven R. Levitsky with minor edits.
“The Record of Democracy Is Actually Quite Impressive”
The first question is about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the leader of PiS in Poland, Mr. Kaczynski, who have been shaping their versions of illiberal democracies for over a decade. With Italy governed by the far-right-winger Georgia Meloni, Slovakian populist Robert Fico scoring a victory in recent election, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party rising fast in the polls, the signal is that right-wing populism is gaining strength across Europe. Do you not see a looming danger for democracies in Europe?
Steven R. Levitsky: It’s important to note that among the cases you’ve listed, only one could be argued to have seen a significant breakdown of democracy, which is Hungary. Poland has experienced some democratic backsliding, and there is a very competitive election next week in which PiS could find itself without a majority. It is not as if democracy has been extinguished in Poland.
In the other cases, Robert Fico governed for four years in Slovakia without breaking democracy, and he won 23 percent of the vote and needs to form a coalition. So, it is not like seeing a Hugo Chavez-style takeover in Slovakia. In Italy, I don’t like the Brotherhood, and there is obviously much to worry about. However, it’s a coalition government that doesn’t pose an immediate threat to democracy.
The far-right is pretty illiberal in Europe, and of course, there is much to worry about. But in terms of democracy breaking down, the record is actually quite impressive. The only place in all the list that you just named, where democracy is arguably broken down is Hungary. So, my main point is, there’s a difference between being worried about a changing scenario and declaring that democracy is breaking down. We need to be clear about that difference.
Despite the arguments presented in your article, “Democracy’s Surprising Resilience,” we are witnessing the rise of far-right populism in almost every European country. How do you explain this rise of populism in Europe, given the terrible historical experiences with leaders like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin?
Steven R. Levitsky: First of all, I am not an expert on far-right populism in Europe. I primarily study political parties in Argentina; I’m a Latin Americanist. I think there are pretty good, persuasive explanations suggesting that a combination of economic anxiety resulting from the 2008-2009 financial crisis and broader economic changes globally, coupled with the increasing ethnic diversity brought about by migration, has generated reactions among segments of the electorate, particularly among non-college-educated, rural, white Christian sectors in Europe. This phenomenon has occurred across the industrialized world, including the United States.
In various places, typically between 15 and 30 percent of the electorate, which is often non-college-educated, residing in small towns, more frequently male, and predominantly white, has supported right-wing populist parties. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that fascism is imminent. Most far-right parties in Europe, while certainly holding illiberal views, have, for the most part, adhered to democratic norms. Golden Dawn in Greece is a significant exception. Therefore, we should be cautious about jumping from the rise of far-right parties to declaring an immediate threat to democracy, let alone the imminent arrival of fascism in the region. Frankly, I don’t see that on the horizon.
As a Turk, I would like to ask: You list Turkey as one of the three well-known backsliders, along with Hungary and Venezuela. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently announced his desire to draft a new constitution, and most pundits believe this desire stems from his wish to be re-elected for a third term, which is currently prohibited by the existing constitution. Do you foresee any danger to Turkish democracy if Erdogan succeeds in being elected for a third term?
Steven R. Levitsky: The danger to Turkish democracy is already present. Turkey hasn’t been a democracy for very long. Prior to the late 1990s, military power and restrictions on religious parties made Turkey less than democratic. It briefly achieved full democracy in the early 2000s during the early years of the AKP. However, democratic backsliding began in the first decade of the 21st century and escalated significantly after the failed coup attempt in 2016. Today, Turkey can be characterized as a competitive authoritarian regime, with Erdogan acting as an autocrat.
(However) he has not fully consolidated authoritarian rule, and it doesn’t surprise me that he is continuing to try to perpetuate himself in power. What’s interesting feature of Turkey is the degree of democratic pushback and Erdogan’s inability to prevent the opposition from winning power in the major cities even in elections with tilted playing fields that Erdogan had created. I have a very smart former graduate student who tells me if the opposition had nominated the mayor of Istanbul as its candidate, it probably would have won the recent election although Erdogan would almost certainly have tried many shenanigans to try to stay in power. There’s a good chance that Erdogan would have had to cede power. So, on the one hand, Turkey is a competitive authoritarian regime and on the other hand, the democratic pushback is such that elections remain really competitive. So, I don’t think the question is well framed in saying there’s a danger to Turkish democracy. The danger’s been there a long time and Turkey is not a democracy. But I think that the opposition stands as good a chance as of removing Erdogan in the coming years. It’s a pretty sort of evenly matched battle between an autocratic President and a pretty robust opposition.
“American Democracy Is Heading for Some Rough Times”
Turning to the United States, Professor Levitsky, if Donald Trump is re-elected in the US, what kind of strains do you anticipate for democracies worldwide? After Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted by the far-right Republicans, what do you foresee for American democracy?
Steven R. Levitsky: American democracy is heading for some rough times. Given the strength of opposition forces, I find it highly unlikely that we will witness the consolidation of an autocracy in the United States, akin to Russia or even Hungary. However, it’s very probable that we will observe what we used to call an unconsolidated democracy—a very unstable regime teetering on the brink of constitutional crises and possibly experiencing periods of weak authoritarianism. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a considerable amount of political violence, considering the level of extremism and the prevalence of firearms in the country.
The most significant problem lies with the Republican Party, which has largely abandoned democratic rules of the game. We see this in its willingness to continue supporting Donald Trump, even though he attempted to overturn the results of an election. If Trump wins, the US will undoubtedly slide into another democratic crisis, with the possibility of an authoritarian attempt. This time, it could be much more severe than before because Trump didn’t anticipate becoming President previously. He didn’t have a comprehensive plan for purging and packing the state as Erdogan and Orban did. However, if he succeeds this time, he will likely make a much more concerted effort to purge state institutions, pack them (with loyalists), and politicize them—similar to what we’ve seen in other cases of elected authoritarianism.
Such a scenario would send a terrible signal and have a detrimental impact on democracies worldwide. We’ve already witnessed this between 2016 and 2021 in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and even Nicaragua, where autocrats perceived autocratization processes as tacit approval, not being opposed by the United States. Emerging autocrats, feeling emboldened by Trump’s actions, started copying his style by attacking the press and denying election results, which closely followed Trump’s rejection of the election outcome. Similar copycat efforts emerged in Peru and Brazil.
What transpires in the United States has global implications in two ways. First, people worldwide look at the United States as a model, so if it’s acceptable to be an autocrat in the United States, it will embolden autocrats elsewhere. Second, US foreign policy will change. While the Biden Administration could do more to promote democracy, it has at least been relatively active behind the scenes in opposing autocratic behavior. For example, we saw this in Guatemala recently and in Brazil after the election, where the Biden Administration pressured autocratic forces to step back. If Trump regains office, these efforts will likely diminish, and there may even be open support for autocrats in some cases. Consequently, a Trump re-election would have profoundly negative consequences for democracy worldwide.
May Weak State Institutions Be a Chance?
How does the presence of weak state institutions in low- or middle-income countries with authoritarian tendencies hinder the consolidation of authoritarian rule? Can you explain the role of these same weak state institutions, which have been observed as key factors contributing to insufficient democratic resilience against authoritarianism in cases like Turkey, Serbia, and Hungary, in contrast to the cases of the US and Brazil?
Steven R. Levitsky: Well, Turkey doesn’t have such weak institutions. Turkey possesses relatively strong institutions. Hungary also boasts quite robust institutions. When I refer to weak institutions, I’m mentioning countries like Ukraine, Albania, Benin, Honduras, Zambia, and Malawi. These are countries with weak state institutions. Turkey and Hungary, on the other hand, have relatively strong institutions. Serbia has slightly weaker institutions but is not excessively weak either. When we discuss the failure of democracies and the third wave of democracies, we have extended electoral politics to places where democracy had never previously existed, and where sustaining it is quite challenging. These are very poor countries, marked by high levels of inequality and very weak state institutions, such as Nicaragua, Benin, Albania, Mali, and Malawi. These are nations where almost every existing social science theory would predict that democracy would have a hard time to survive. Indeed, democracy has had hard time in such countries. However, the point we emphasize in the article is that authoritarianism has a hard time in consolidating power in countries with weak states, primarily for two reasons.
First of all, where the state is weak, governments have a hard time getting state officials to do what they want them to do so. That’s a problem for democracies, because democratic governments have a hard time implementing, enforcing their policies and providing public goods. But it’s problematic for autocrats, too. Because, when they want to steal an election, for example, they have a hard time getting bureaucrats and low-level state officials to go along with them. Similarly, when they want to repress or spy on opponents, they have a hard time getting state institutions to go along with them. We’ve seen that notoriously, for example, in Ukraine where, as my co-author Lucan Ahmad Way has shown, autocrats repeatedly have failed to consolidate power. I’m talking about people like Yanukovych, precisely because they couldn’t get the state to go along. So, when the state is weak, autocrats have a hard time enforcing their power.
Secondly, weak states result in poor governance. Governments govern ineffectively when state institutions are weak, and they have trouble ensuring security and implementing policies that matter to people. So, what does it mean for autocrats? It means that autocrats become unpopular. It means people turn against autocratic governments in the same way that they turn against democratic governments in response to poor performance. As long as elections are held, autocrats are going to have hard time to secure victory in countries with weak institutions. We have witnessed this trend in countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Ukraine, Zambia, and Malawi. Governments leaning towards autocracy fail, lose elections, and even lose unfair elections because people are dissatisfied with the government’s poor performance. This poor performance is rooted in the weakness of state institutions. Therefore, while democracy remains vulnerable in lower and middle-income countries, particularly those without significant oil resources, autocracies also prove vulnerable in many of these nations. Autocratic regimes often last for about 7-10 years before they collapse.
You have extensively analyzed the influence of internal factors and the general international political climate on democratic backsliding and democratic resilience. Do you believe that the well-coordinated efforts of authoritarian states such as Russia, China, and Iran to export their authoritarian or illiberal governance style through various economic, political, diplomatic, and technological means and projects play a significant role in these processes?
Steven R. Levitsky: I believe that the claim you just made is overstated. I don’t think there is much effective coordination among China, Russia, and Iran. These are three very different states with distinct interests and activities. While it’s true that all these states oppose the Liberal West and seek to counterbalance the power of the United States, they do work together at times and share an interest in limiting and thwarting US power. There’s no question about that and they have at times supported autocratic governments, but they’re not particularly well coordinated. They’re not particularly affective. Russia, in particular, has largely failed in its efforts, even in neighboring countries like Ukraine or Georgia, to prop up authoritarian allies.
Nonetheless, I completely agree with an element of your argument, which is that there is shift in the global balance of power away from US and European hegemony in the 1990s towards a more multi-polar world, in which the US and Europe are weaker and less influential, China and Russia and other powers are more powerful, pose a significant challenge for democracy. This shift limits the US’ willingness and ability to promote democracy in the global South and almost certainly will lead to some erosion of global democracy. However, it’s important not to overstate the extent of coordination among these states. Despite the substantial geopolitical changes that have been unfavorable to liberal democracy, we have only seen a relatively modest decrease in the number of democracies, namely 5-6 fewer democracies that we had 15 years ago. So, while it’s a real threat, we should be cautious not to overstate it, and the actual consequences of this threat have been surprisingly limited thus far.
“Democracy Promoters Exaggerate the Degree of Autocratization in the World”
Is it possible that the experience of democratic backsliding is different in various contexts? A small change in data might have a more significant local and global impact in certain geographic regions. So, even though the data shows resilience, is it possible that the experience of civilians in everyday life has changed catastrophically?
Steven R. Levitsky: Yes, it is possible. However, the term “catastrophically” may be an overstatement. To persuade me, you would need to provide evidence of catastrophic changes. Nevertheless, it is possible that the situation is worse than the data suggests. I believe we should begin with the data and address my critique of many democracy promoters, particularly V-Dem, in recent years. They have tended to overstate the case. For instance, V-Dem previously classified India as an electoral autocracy. I think they made this change in 2017 or 2019. Before that, they focused on the number of democracies and downplayed per capita figures, i.e., the number of people in the world living under democracy. However, when India shifted to electoral autocracy, V-Dem began emphasizing per capita numbers. Why are they doing that? They’re doing that because they want to highlight and even exaggerate the degree of autocratization in the world. We need to exercise caution and balance when interpreting the data. I’m concerned that there has been an almost rush to declare the world in a democratic recession, with excessive focus on cases of backsliding, which are undoubtedly real. But they’re not the only thing happening in the world. To answer your question, yes, it is possible that the situation may be worse than the data suggests. However, we should approach the data in a serious and balanced manner. Our assessment indicates modest backsliding over the last 15 years, rather than dramatic backsliding.
You suggest that if wealth, education, and urbanization continue to grow, authoritarian vulnerabilities may intensify. However, we have observed a different outcome in both the Russian and Chinese contexts, as well as in regimes supported by them. Could these cases be considered exceptions to the general trend you have discussed?
Steven R. Levitsky: When evaluating regimes, I consider their capacity to monopolize resources and control society. I’ve written a book arguing that regimes born of violent revolution, like China, tend to be very durable. It has also been shown that regimes sustaining high levels of economic growth (while China’s economy has changed, it remains a reasonably strong performer) are likely to survive. Revolutionary regimes overseeing economic growth, such as Vietnam and China, are in relatively good shape in the medium term.
Regimes with abundant energy resources, like oil and gas, as in the case of Russia, are also likely to be in good shape because they can monopolize resources, countering the impact of modernization. In Russia, despite it being a relatively wealthy and a relatively educated country, civil society is incredibly weak due to state control over many resources. Thus, Russia and China are relatively easily explained. Our focus is primarily on countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where urbanization and transitioning into lower-middle-income status are occurring. They are no longer considered poor. Some countries like Burundi and Mali remain very poor. However, countries like Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, and others are experiencing significant modernization, which makes autocratization more difficult.
In Central Europe, Southern Europe, and South America, we see countries graduating into upper-middle-income status with large civil societies, developed private sectors, and robust opposition. This doesn’t make authoritarianism impossible, but it makes it much less likely. In these regions, despite some autocratization, the conditions make it much harder for authoritarian rule to solidify.
We’re seeing in Central Europe, Southern Europe and in South America the graduation of countries into sort of upper middle-income status with large civil societies, developed private sectors and robust opposition that doesn’t make authoritarianism impossible, but it makes it much less likely.
In the cases of South America, Central Europe, and Southern Europe, autocratization is evident primarily in Venezuela, which has abundant oil resources, and Hungary, which is a real outlier. Hungary is a case that theory predicts should not be an autocracy. The fact that the regime doesn’t lock up anybody, doesn’t kill anybody, doesn’t ban anybody and the fact that elections are still competitive suggest that this regime also may not consolidate long-term.
There are valid reasons why China and Russia are authoritarian, and we are not predicting global democratization in the short or medium term. Especially in countries with highly statist economies, impoverished societies, or revolutionary legacies, there are valid reasons to expect stable authoritarianism. However, in much of the world, from the Baltics to Central Europe, South America to parts of East Asia, levels of economic development provide democrats with a fighting chance in many more places than during the beginning of the third wave of democratization.
Lastly, in your famous book “How Democracies Die,” you wrote, “The 1990-2015 period was easily the most democratic quarter-century in world history—partly because Western powers broadly supported democracy. That may now be changing.” Do you still think so? How is that change unfolding?
Steven R. Levitsky: Unfortunately, but inevitably, the Western dominance of the initial third wave period—the extraordinary liberal Western hegemony from the fall of the Berlin Wall or perhaps even the era of Perestroika to the Iraq War, spanning the first decade of the 21st century—that era, the extraordinary liberty of 1989 to 2003 is gone, it is eroding, and will continue to erode. Both the United States and Europe, especially the United States, have accelerated the decline of Western liberalism through their own errors, internal conflicts, and strife. US democracy has become almost dysfunctional, making it extremely difficult to promote or defend liberal democracy globally.
This process of a declining Liberal West, along with its increasing inability and unwillingness to promote democracy, presents a significant challenge in the world. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we can return to the world of 1990 to 2003 when democracy was, in many respects, almost the only game in town. Those days are over, and we now face a much more complex and challenging world.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranks 129th out of 146 countries surveyed. This ranking takes into account factors such as women’s participation in the workforce, access to education and healthcare, involvement in politics, and the prevalence of femicide within the nation. The deliberate targeting of the Istanbul Convention underscores how populist and authoritarian leaders adeptly utilize gender-related discourse to create stigmatization, eventually leading to state-sanctioned discrimination, violence, and oppression.
The parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey were held in May 2023, representing a pivotal moment amid concerns of a democracy in decline, eroding rule of law, and a worsening state of gender equality. On May 14, 2023, President Erdogan secured 49.52 percent of the vote, while his opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu received 44.88 percent. The subsequent runoff election saw Erdogan’s share increase to 52.18 percent, with Kilicdaroglu holding 47.82 percent. The electoral process was marred by numerous controversies, including allegations of interference, leading Turkey to depart from its international legal commitments.
During the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections, the ruling AKP secured 268 seats out of the 600 available in the assembly. Leading the People’s Alliance, the AKP and its coalition partners captured 322 seats in total. Meanwhile, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) under Kilicdaroglu obtained 169 seats, further reinforced by an additional 212 lawmakers from its Nation Alliance coalition. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), running as the Green Left Party (YSP) due to a court closure case, managed to secure 61 seats. While not formally aligned with Kilicdaroglu’s alliance, the HDP strongly opposes Erdogan and provided unwavering support to the CHP leader.
With this background of Turkey’s 2023 elections and the ongoing democratic regression in mind, it is important to underscore the gender-related aspects and consequences of this situation. Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks elucidate: “Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women’s political participation: when women participate in mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy. In other words, fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders—and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist.”
Rasim Ozgur Donmez and Fazilet Ahu Ozmen emphasize in their book that “the Turkish Republic has been rooted in hegemonic masculinity,” where hegemonic masculinity denotes the patriarchal dominance of the mainstream class or ethnic group, as well as the dominance of men over women. Against this backdrop, a critical analysis of the results of the recent pivotal election reveals that the Green Left Party holds the highest proportion of gender representation, boasting 48 percent female deputies among its total seats. Among the 600 parliamentary members, 50 female members were elected from the AKP, 30 from the CHP, 30 from the Green Left Party, 6 from the İYİ Party, 4 from the MHP, and 1 from the TİP, making up slightly over 20 percent of the total with a collective of 121 women MPs.
Nilden Bayazıt, the General Director of the Ben Seçerim (I Elect) Women’s Platform, interprets these results as a reflection of the fact that “political parties generally do not prioritize women’s inclusion in their candidate lists.” Berrin Sönmez, the Spokesperson of the EŞİK platform (Women’s Platform for Equality), concurs, stating that “in a period focused on elections and alliance negotiations that concern women’s rights and lives, candidate lists should have unequivocally favored equal representation.”
Didem Unal, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, underscores that “AKP’s election campaign demonstrated that anti-genderism was a useful rhetorical tool for the party to reinforce populist antagonisms juxtaposing ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ ‘Anti-genderism’ here denotes an ideological and strategic opposition to a broad spectrum of feminist principles and socio-political reforms and a construction of fears and anxieties around gender in the name of protecting ‘national values’.”
In light of these ideas, it becomes evident that not only the discourses during political campaigns but also the more prolonged language and strategies employed by the AKP have set the groundwork for the state’s transition towards increasingly authoritarian actions and policies, alongside perpetuating gender-based inequalities and injustices. The oscillation between prohibition and subsequent allowance of headscarves in public positions serves as an illustration of how Turkey’s political history, marked by its gendered nature, is further highlighted by a security-oriented perspective. This perspective manifests through matters linked to women, attributing distinct significance and connotations to their roles, status, and lived experiences.
Amidst the gender-focused discussions and measures of the current conservative ruling party deeply rooted in Islamic principles, the AKP, the decision to lift the ban on headscarves arrived after years of restrictions imposed on their use within state institutions. Nonetheless, the gender-related policies implemented by the party did not result in a genuine expansion of freedoms and rights for women. Instead, these policies exposed persistent patriarchal frameworks within the party’s leadership, projecting the archetypal conservative woman as primarily a mother, homemaker, and caregiver. Consequently, the removal of the ban essentially became insignificant in terms of advancing women’s rights.
Following a September 2010 referendum that curtailed the authority of both the judiciary and the military, while concurrently augmenting President Erdogan’s influence in judge appointments, Turkey has increasingly steered towards an authoritarian form of governance. At present, the Turkish government is employing an Islamist narrative to consolidate its backing among the predominantly conservative populace—comprising the majority of voters—by fomenting public discontent against progressive movements linked to Westernization and democratization. Over the past decade, opposition to women’s perspectives, notably those aligned with feminism, has undergone a pronounced surge. Women’s societal roles have gravitated towards more traditional paradigms, with the government deeply enmeshed in shaping personal choices and behaviors. Significantly, areas such as family size, abortion rights, public displays of female laughter, and even childbirth methods have come under state control, frequently in collaboration with influential figures, including male religious leaders. These discussions have persistently framed women’s roles within the context of traditional and Islamist ideologies. Manifestly, a substantial segment of Turkey’s populace endorses this approach, believing that the country as a notable regional power is countering Western imperialism while upholding Islamic conservatism.
The ruling party and government have consistently disregarded calls for the implementation of gender quotas in the political sphere, and their efforts to address gender-related disparities and discrimination, particularly concerning sexual orientation, have proven insufficient. This ultimately culminated in Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in 2021. As the influence of the AKP government solidified, individuals with diverse ideologies and political stances found themselves subjected to various forms of organized and societal aggression.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranks 129th out of 146 countries surveyed. This ranking takes into account factors such as women’s participation in the workforce, access to education and healthcare, involvement in politics, and the prevalence of femicide within the nation. The deliberate targeting of the Istanbul Convention underscores how populist and authoritarian leaders adeptly utilize gender-related discourse to create stigmatization, eventually leading to state-sanctioned discrimination, violence, and oppression.
In 2022, 334 women lost their lives due to femicide in Turkey, and in 2021, the number was 280. The significant rise in femicide cases is largely attributed to the issue of impunity. This underscores the critical impact of the mindsets, language, and discourses employed by state representatives on women’s tangible engagement in politics and decision-making roles within society. This extends to encompass the actual implementation of laws and actions that influence women’s participation and status.
 Dönmez, & Özmen, F. A. (2013). Gendered identities criticizing patriarchy in Turkey. Lexington Books.
The intertwined dynamics of the ‘patriarchal trifecta’—forced marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), and so-called honor killings—create a symbiotic relationship, reinforcing each other’s harmful effects. For example, a woman compelled into a marriage against her will not only faces the trauma of forced marriage itself but also a heightened vulnerability to marital abuse due to a lack of communal and societal safeguards. Similarly, a woman subjected to FGM, whether in her youth or later in life, faces an increased likelihood of being coerced into an arranged marriage against her wishes. Her limited social agency and societal constraints make it difficult for her to resist such pressure.
As researchers, especially on topics related to gender studies and cultural analysis, we must constantly decide the degree to which our investigations will inform and/or transform the world we are studying. Considering this, I have decided to investigate issues surrounding Kurdish women which are both personally and professionally important to me.
My research, which is connected to my Marie Curie Fellowship and ongoing, looks at the status of women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), or what could equally be defined as Southern Kurdistan or Bashur. The more specific focus of my exploration, connected to this issue of women in the KRI, investigates how gender equality and gender-based violence (GBV) – such as honor killings, female genital mutilation (FGM), and marital or familial violence – form an intertwined relationship. Which is not just true for the KRI, but everywhere in the world. As these specific assaults on women, seem to go hand-in-hand with places that lack institutional protections and structural barriers to lessen their occurrence.
As part of my postdoctoral fellowship research, I have begun exploring what I deem to be the ‘patriarchal trifecta’ of forced marriages, FGM, and so-called honor killings – which should more accurately be called “misogynistic murder,” but for the purposes of this topic I will utilize the commonly accepted term. It seems this trifecta forms a symbiotic relationship, in which they reinforce one another.
So, for instance, a woman who is forced into a marriage against her will, is more likely to also lack the communal or societal protections to ensure that she is then not abused by her husband, so in some of these situations there is a correlation, if not an outright causation – which is up to us as scholars to seek out.
Moreover, a woman who experiences FGM either in her youth or later years is also disproportionately likely to be forced into an arranged marriage against her will and lack the social agency or societal flexibility to refuse. Likewise, in the case of honor killings, a woman who is murdered by her father or brothers, is also more likely to both have had FGM carried out on her or be in a situation where she is likely to be placed into arranged or forced marriage.
I believe understanding this trifecta of oppression against women globally, but in particular in the KRI regarding women, is of utmost and critical importance. My research thus far aims to do that, and by its full completion, will hopefully have achieved this goal.
To this point, my literature review and interviews I have conducted so far paint a picture on the topic which is nuanced and contains both positive developments and work that still needs to be done. For instance, it is important when analyzing the state of women in the KRI, to understand it in the context of the region historically, and at the present time. Often times, I believe researchers, particularly in or from the West, arrive in “exotic” new environments, and expect that all of the cultural norms they are used to are universal.
These presumptions then also usually fuel the foreign NGOs and institutions that have considerable funding but tie those resources to the quote “natives” fixing their outdated ways of living. So, while these drives to increase human rights globally can have positive gains, they can also begin to resemble the colonial ethnographies of the past, where Europeans showed up to observe and then speak for those they observed, while critiquing from a place of privilege.
In my case, as a woman from the KRI, I am not investigating a foreign place that I do not understand, but my own community, and I am able to do so with the understanding of the many overlapping cultural complexities that inform these phenomena. For instance, my early investigations have shown the role that religion, tribe, political persuasion, and rural versus urban geography can play in these issues. In this, there seems to be a discrepancy in the prevalence of this trifecta, based on if the individuals live in the main urban centers of the KRI – Hewler (Erbil) and Slemani (Sulaymaniyah) or if they derive from a village or smaller city.
I am also looking at the role that faith plays and if there is a difference in how religious a woman’s family is. This in turn, is connected to the role that upbringing can sometimes be fate, so I investigate how much formal education a woman has had and if she is allowed to work outside of the home. As again, there seem to be certain factors that begin to appear so frequently together, that they appear to form the words of a song. And what my research on these issues has shown me thus far is revealing. But as with any research, each ‘answer’ only begets another question.
For example, it seems that the constraints of religious conservatism are blunted by women gaining access to formal education, but is this really a case that more open-minded families are likely to allow their daughters to get education in the first place? Or is economic class connected, as wealth seems to have a similar progressive effect, and wealthy families are also more likely to allow their daughters to seek formal education? The tangled web of causality it seems is never fully discovered and I acknowledge that no research is ever fully complete – but blocks built atop one another.
You also cannot study women’s equality in the KRI, without looking into the governmental policies there. So, for example, there have certainly been some gains for women in the KRI based on laws passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since their de facto autonomy was established in 2003. These gains are particularly present when compared to the rest of Iraq, which has actually been backsliding on women’s rights, since Baathism ended. Which is ironic, as Saddam’s rule was particularly brutal and oppressive for Kurds and especially women, but overall, the Arab women of Iraq, have seen their personal freedoms decrease in many ways under the new less-secular post-Saddam regimes.
In contrast, the KRG governing the KRI for instance, has made some legal gains and set in place protections on the recommendation of the UN and other world bodies, for several reasons. The most generous answer would be that it is because they are the right thing to do and the majority of men in society are ready for such progress. And the strategic or perhaps cynical answer would be that they are the prescriptions demanded from the international bodies that I mentioned earlier, who give their resources to the KRI and then uphold the place as a quote beacon of women’s rights in the Middle East.
The geopolitical motivation for upholding the KRI in this way, also serves Western interests as it can potentially justify Western intervention in other places, who still do not guarantee their women full freedoms. But that is more an aside and would be a research study in itself.
However, my research thus far also displays worrying trends. For instance, the other side of this beacon of equality argument, is that the KRI still features cases of women desperately self-immolating and far too many honor killings or presumed honor killings which can often be reported as suspected suicides. The methods of violence deployed against women, either from their husbands, scorned men wishing to marry them, or their fathers or brothers to protect the family’s name before the community, often are brutal methods of shooting, suffocation, or stabbing. You also have cases of suspicious burning, which are reported as suicides, but often could be murders set up to appear as such.
What my research so far also displays to me, is that this gender-based violence, and these honor killings are based on a range of personal beliefs from the men committing the violence. For instance, I am interested in the views of men who hear of honor killings and whether they agree that it can ever be justified. Because a man might say he theoretically does not agree with a stranger being honor killed but would support such a reality if their sister carried out certain sexual acts, which they deem to be an attack on their entire family’s dignity.
Also, the views of women on the periphery are crucial, so I look at the views of women on honor killings, and whether they become accomplices, as you can sometimes see in the case of mothers or aunts, who fail to push back against the issue, or lack the freedom and protections to ally with the victims of it.
In the same way that historically a colonized people would always have members of the population who would collaborate with their oppressors, in the case of gender this is also a possibility. That is of course not to blame women, because those who lack structural power, will often do what they deem necessary for short term survival.
This trifecta is also upheld by a combination of variables, including beliefs that are justified as “tradition” or “our culture”, as if denying women their full rights is in itself an act of cultural preservation. This dishonest claim can be particularly potent, because Kurds historically have had their language and cultural rights banned by repressive states, so by packaging patriarchal control as inherent to “Kurdishness,” it makes freeing these women a betrayal against an identity that many men are proud of and trying to preserve.
Of course, there are other variables as well. Such as social class and economics. It seems that since poverty does not allow for many material comforts, people will seek out to at least own and hold on to their family “reputation” and “good name.” Again, like with the argument that it is cultural, since even men in the KRI who own relatively very little, take solace in the fact that they supposedly possess some invisible “honor.” As a result, it can be difficult to ask a rural impoverished family of men who own nothing, to give up the only thing of value that they believe they possess.
There are also philosophical questions at the heart of these issues. Such as the idea of “freedom” and importance of “love.” Both concepts can be complicated and overlapping. For instance, many men in the KRI will agree with that idea that Kurds should be free from occupation by the Iraqi State, and even get angry with the idea of the Baghdad government mistreating women. But some of those same men will then defend Kurdish wives being occupied inside of their own home, or Kurdish sisters having their dating life being policed by their brothers. This is why the idea and Kurdish slogan of Jin, Jiyan, Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom) in neighboring Iran and Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan) I believe has been so potent of a concept, is it addresses this paradox.
And to the idea of love, my research is also interested in whether women who enter arranged or forced marriages loved their husbands at the time of marriage or love them now. Although this may seem like a basic idea, I feel it is fundamental. Because if you remove the idea of love from these marriages, then they often become either desperate economic arrangements to survive, or agreements between fathers and perhaps even mothers, to essentially barter off their daughters. In some ways, the perception or idea of freedom is also tied to the issue of FGM as well. As some of the reasoning behind FGM can be the belief of men that a woman without FGM would be overly lustful and that she cannot handle the responsibility of such freedom.
As you can see, there are many variables to consider with such a large topic. But it is my hope that by the completion of my fellowship research, that I will have a fuller picture of how all these issues tie together in the KRI. With the hope being that there may also be some universal issues that would be applicable to the outside world as well. Because women cannot have life and freedom – jiyan and azadi – if they are preventing from controlling their own bodies or romantic lives.
(*) Dr Shilan Fuad Hussain is currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow and a consultant on gender related issues and society. Previously, she was a Visiting Fellow at the WashingtonKurdish Institute and a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Alongside her research in Middle Eastern and Kurdish Studies, she is an interdisciplinary academic and works on a variety of topics such as cultural production, gender-related issues and society, gender empowerment. Her current work sits at the intersection of sociology and cultural analysis, and its symbiotic relevance to modern society.
Former MEP Irina von Wiese replaces Sir Graham Watson as the honorary president of ECPS. Sir Watson is stepping down after almost 4 years as president.
Sir Graham Watson is stepping down as the honorary president of ECPS to start a new career as an academician in Canada. Irina von Wiese who served as a British MEP in the European Parliament before the Brexit will replace Sir Watson. Watson who has been the founding honorary president of ECPS since 2020 said ECPS has grown to become a well-rooted and respected institution on the European scene. ‘Never in living memory has its work been more needed… Millennial citizens inherit a world in which skies have darkened and the storm clouds swirl. Thus, the work of ECPS is lent extra urgency and importance,’ said Sir Watson. Sir Watson will continue to support ECPS as a member of the Advisory Board.
We are, as ECPS, grateful to Sir Watson for all the work he has done for our think-tank and happy to welcome Irina von Wiese as our new president. Von Wiese who is involved in local politics in Britain and also teaching in France will certainly contribute a lot to the work of ECPS. “It is a great honor to be appointed Honorary President of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). Stepping into Sir Graham Watson’s shoes is not easy, and I owe him a huge Thank You for all his work as ECPS Honorary President during the past years,” said von Wiese. She underlined that the work of ECPS was more relevant than ever adding that national populist leaders rule not just in far flung countries without democratic tradition, but they have risen to power in the heart of Europe, and on its periphery, from Hungary to Turkey, Belarus, and Russia. “From Sweden to France, there is no European country that has been immune from the influence of national populist parties,” said she.
Statement by Sir Graham Watson, FormerHonorary President of ECPS
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to have been able to serve the European Center for Populism Studies as its first Honorary President.
I am pleased to say that during my time in office – thanks largely to the work of the dedicated founders and staff of the Center – the ECPS has grown to become a well-rooted and widely respected institution on the European scene.
Never in living memory has its work been more needed. The continued erosion of democracy and the rule of law in Europe and beyond is of growing concern to those who seek to live in freedom and in peace. Millennial citizens inherit a world in which skies have darkened and the storm clouds swirl. Thus, the work of the European Center for Populism Studies is lent extra urgency and importance.
As I gravitate from the world of active politics to that of academia, I am increasingly conscious of the importance of fact-based research and the fight against ‘fake news.’ It is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that humankind risks entering a new dark age. Thus, I impress upon my successors the need to redouble their efforts. If we can muster the courage and the determination – the guts and the grit – we may yet ensure that the bloody wars and dictatorships of the 20th century are succeeded by a 21st century in which the good will, compassion and common humanity of concerned citizens can be harnessed to the creation of a more just, democratic, and happier global demos.
I am pleased that you have chosen a person of the caliber of Irina von Wiese to succeed me. I am sure that together you will go on to achieve even greater impact.
Statement by Irina von Wiese, Honorary President of ECPS
It is a great honour to be appointed Honorary President of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). Stepping into Sir Graham Watson’s shoes is not easy, and I owe him a huge Thank You for all his work as ECPS Honorary President during the past years, as well as his personal friendship and support during my time at the European Parliament. Graham will continue to advise the ECPS and provide his deep well of experience and wisdom to the Center.
Sadly, the work of the ECPS today is more relevant than ever. National populist leaders rule not just in far flung countries without democratic tradition: they have risen to power in the heart of Europe, and on its periphery, from Hungary to Turkey, Belarus, and Russia. Many of these leaders emerged from democratic elections and continue to use the semblance of democracy as legitimization for their autocratic regimes.
Where populists haven’t quite grasped power, they have put noticeable pressure on governments. From Sweden to France, there is no European country that has been immune from the influence of national populist parties.
In 2023, the ground is fertile for populists: perceived or real socio-economic decline, political polarization and the omnipresence of increasingly sophisticated disinformation combine to instill a sense of disenfranchisement. Migrants, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT people, and vaguely defined ‘metropolitan elites’ serve as the usual scapegoats in this quest for power. In my own country, the United Kingdom, the divisive Brexit referendum exacerbated these threats.
The war of aggression unleashed by Vladimir Putin against Ukraine has brought into focus where this slippery slope can lead. On paper, Putin was elected, but in absence of resilient democratic structures, his stronghold over the Russian people allows him to rule as a dictator. As happens so often, journalists became the first victims of his quest to dismantle democracy. Once the free press was shut down, they coast was clear to eradicate any opposition and brainwash the population through a steady stream of disinformation. Without paving the way in his own country, Putin would not have been able to start and sustain his war against Ukraine.
It is time to fight back.
The ECPS, based in the heart of Europe, has gathered a group of world experts to advise policymakers, support human rights defenders, inform the public and teach young people about the threats of populism around the globe. It is unique in its role building a bridge between academia and policy, theory and practice. To fight toxic populism, we need to reach people, and give them access to the most efficient antidote: knowledge.
In this crucial time for the future of Europe, it is more important than ever to understand the roots and evolution of populism. The educational and analytical work undertaken by the ECPS is an invaluable resource. It is my privilege as Honorary President of the Center to support and enable this work going forward.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s populist ideology, anchored in the notion that he embodies the genuine and morally upright voice of the Jewish people in Israel, fuels his resolve to confront institutions that hinder his government’s agenda. From his perspective, entities such as the judiciary that intervene and obstruct the realization of the people’s will become subjects of his critique and endeavors to undermine their autonomy. While his recent declaration of a “pause” on judicial reform may be momentary, it implies that he could recommence his endeavors to restrict judicial independence in the future.
On March 27, 2023, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel made an announcement stating that the government would temporarily halt its plans to reform the country’s judiciary. This decision came after a series of escalating anger and protests against the proposed reforms, which have been widely criticized as an attack on the principles of the separation of powers and the rule of law.
The proposed legislation, which was introduced by the Likud Party in January 2023, aimed to grant greater control over the judiciary to politicians in the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset. If implemented, this legislation would have allowed a majority in the Knesset to overturn decisions made by the Supreme Court on constitutional matters. Additionally, it sought to increase the government’s authority in appointing judges, thus undermining the independence of the judiciary.
Netanyahu and Yariv Levin, the Deputy Leader of Likud and the Justice Minister, defended the proposed judiciary reforms, arguing that increased government control over the judiciary is necessary because Israeli judges allegedly disregard the will of the people and obstruct the legislative efforts of elected officials. Levin further asserted that the judiciary is undemocratic, stating, “We go to the polls and vote, choose, but time after time, people who we didn’t elect decide for us.” In essence, Levin believes that Israeli judges wield excessive power, and Likud’s objective is to curtail this power and restore it to the hands of “the people.” They argue that the judiciary’s perceived overreach interferes with the democratic process, where elected officials should have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the citizens.
If Likud’s plan to diminish the power of the judiciary is unpopular with voters and has engendered a backlash in the form of mass protests and claims that Netanyahu is tearing up the very fabric of Israel’s constitution and pushing Israel toward “civil war”, why is Netanyahu so adamant that the legislation should, at least in some form, be passed? Some commentators have suggested that Netanyahu’s primary motivation is self-preservation, and a desire to avoid being convicted on corruption charges based on claims he accepted bribes and participated in other forms of criminal conduct. There is likely some truth to this claim. Indeed, Likud has already passed a law preventing the judiciary from declaring Prime Ministers unfit for office. However, Netanyahu is far from the only populist who has sought to diminish the power of the judiciary and centralize power around himself. Indeed, following an election victory, and to cement themselves in power and continue to present themselves as fighting ‘elites’ despite themselves being in government, populists often seek to attack the independence of state institutions, which they accuse of thwarting the will of ‘the people.’
The far-left populist government in Venezuela has also moved to eliminate judicial independence in the name of pursuing a socialist revolution that would ultimately give power to ‘the people’. Hugo Chavez began the process of stacking the Supreme Court with supporters of his regime and suspending unsympathetic judges, a trend continued by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, whose policies, according to an Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have left “the independence of the justice system …considerably undermined.” Moreover, according to Human Rights Watch, Venezuelan “judicial authorities have participated or been complicit in …abuses”, including “extrajudicial executions and short-term forced disappearances”, crimes enabled by the “lack of judicial independence”.
Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, the concept of a truly independent judiciary has been elusive. However, under the leadership of populist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), attempts to diminish the already limited independence of the judiciary have become more pronounced.
One significant event that provided an opportunity for Erdogan and the AKP to assert control over the judiciary was the mysterious coup attempt in 2016, which targeted their government. Taking advantage of the situation, the AKP took steps to remove judges who were perceived as unsympathetic to their agenda. Approximately 4,000 judges who were believed to be aligned with anti-AKP factions within Turkish society were dismissed from their positions following the coup attempt. Simultaneously, the AKP utilized its power to appoint judges who were supportive of the party. This led to a significant influx of pro-AKP judges, with approximately 9,323 new judges and prosecutors recruited between the failed coup and the end of 2020, leading to a bizarre situation in which “at least 45% of Turkey’s roughly 21,000 judges and prosecutors have three years of experience or less”.
This trend has raised concerns about the independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary. These actions have further eroded the separation of powers and the checks and balances necessary for a functioning democracy. The rapid appointment of inexperienced judges has fuelled scepticism about their ability to uphold the rule of law and ensure fair and impartial judicial proceedings.
The AKP has since used its control over the judiciary to abuse the judicial system, using it to persecute opponents, often accusing them of terrorism. Indeed, the decline of judicial independence in Turkey has led, according to a Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights report, to “unprecedented levels of disregard for even the most basic principles of law, such as the presumption of innocence, no punishment without crime and non-retroactivity of offences, or not being judged for the same facts again.” The Turkish government defended its actions by claiming that the people removed from the judiciary and those otherwise persecuted “are affiliated with FETO, a terrorist organisation that has infiltrated the civil service over the years”, suggesting that the government was merely protecting the Turkish people from criminal wrongdoers.
The attacks on judicial independence in Turkey continue to this day and are perpetrated not merely by the AKP, but also by its allies. For example, in March 2023, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli – whose party is a junior member of the coalition government led by the AKP, attacked Turkey’s constitutional court for ruling that the government’s freezing of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s bank accounts was unconstitutional. Bahçeli responded to the decision by calling the court “the backyard of the separatist terrorist organization” and claiming it “is not the court of the Turkish nation” insofar as its decision failed to represent the desires of the Turkish people.
Of course, it is not only populist governments that seek to diminish or eliminate judicial independence. Autocratic regimes of various ideologies often desire control over the courts, while even liberal democracies that emphasize the separation of powers may encounter challenges with governments attempting to influence the judiciary.
A notable example is the United States, where the Supreme Court has long been a political battleground between Republicans and Democrats. The Court has become a focal point for key cultural and social debates, including issues like affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and abortion. During election campaigns, both political parties pledge to appoint justices who align with their party’s ideology, effectively undermining the independence of the judiciary and turning the Supreme Court into a politicized institution.
In many other countries, governments attempt to “pack” the courts with judges who align with their political agenda or take steps to weaken the independence of the judiciary. These actions occur in both autocratic and democratic contexts, reflecting a broader trend where governments seek to consolidate power and influence over key institutions, including the judiciary.
Such attempts to undermine judicial independence have far-reaching implications for the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, and the overall health of democratic systems. They raise concerns about the impartiality of court decisions and the potential for politicization of justice.
However, while many different kinds of governments may seek to diminish the independence of the judiciary, populists differ from non-populists in two important ways. First, populists often argue against judicial independence by asserting that a powerful and independent judiciary can hinder the “will of the people.” Populists generally believe that democracy does not solely rely on the right to vote or the protection of minority rights and dissenting voices. Instead, they argue that the majority group, which they perceive as the authentic and morally virtuous people, should hold all power. This can take the form of direct democracy, where decisions are made through plebiscites and referenda, or through a political party and a single leader who claims to understand the will of the people. Populists view judges as an undemocratic group that should be entirely stripped of power if they intervene to strike down government legislation. Populists tend to view judges as obstructing the populist agenda and impeding their ability to enact policies that align with their vision of the “people’s will.” They often criticize judges for being detached from popular sentiment and accuse them of imposing their own biases and ideologies on the legislative process. Populists also argue that the judiciary should not possess the authority to overturn decisions made by elected officials, as they consider it an affront to the principle of majority rule.
Second, once populists have succeeded in winning an election, and especially after winning successive elections, they may find it difficult to portray themselves as fighting against a governing ‘elite’ in the name of ‘the people.’ After winning elections and governing for a significant duration, populists can find it challenging to maintain the image of being outsiders fighting against a governing “elite” on behalf of the people. As they become part of the establishment themselves, it becomes necessary for them to identify new “elites” to position themselves against in order to sustain their populist rhetoric and maintain their appeal as champions of the people.
In this context, the judiciary often becomes a target for populists. Judges, who typically uphold the principles of separation of powers, judicial independence, and the rule of law, are likely to resist populist attempts to bypass legal procedures and override constitutional protections. Being highly educated professionals with a commitment to legal principles, judges may not align with populist parties or support their legislative agenda. Populists and their supporters often perceive judges as part of a cultural “elite” that they view as immoral and disloyal to the ordinary people.
This portrayal of the judiciary as an enemy of the people serves the populist narrative by allowing them to position themselves as the defenders of the “real people” against an alleged “corrupt elite.” By framing the judiciary as part of the elite and presenting themselves as the voices of the people, populists can maintain their outsider status and continue their fight to reclaim power on behalf of their supporters.
For Benjamin Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister having served in the position for fifteen years, and who is the most significant politician of his generation, the fight to reform Israel’s judiciary – despite its dangers to Israel and the popularity of the Likud led government – thus serves an important purpose. It is no longer easy for Netanyahu to present himself as a populist outsider, having marginalized all left-wing opposition – which Netanyahu and Likud have long portrayed as too sympathetic and indulgent towards the Palestinians – and having served as Prime Minister for almost the entirety of the post-2009 period.
Pursuing judicial reform helps Netanyahu present himself as a populist fighter struggling against Israel’s unelected ‘elites’ in the name of the people, whom he seeks to protect from outside and internal forces that seek to destroy the Jewish state. Moreover, Likud’s decision to empower religious courts while attacking the independence of the secular courts is a demonstration of their commitment to de-secularizing Israel, and in a sense to create an alternative system of justice to the ‘elite’ dominated secular judiciary. It is also the logical outcome of his populist ideology and belief that he represents the voice of the authentic and morally good Jewish people of Israel. That rigid populist logic demands that Netanyahu attack bodies and institutions that impede his government’s agenda and which, by doing so, also prevents the people from exercising their will. Thus, Netanyahu’s ‘pause’ on judicial reform may prove to be just that, a pause before he again attempts to diminish judicial independence and the ability of judges to thwart the will of ‘the people’.
It is evident that populist politicians, even if they come to power through free elections, deviate from the same path when they stay in power for an extended period and transform the regime. Turkish President Erdogan’s prolonged tenure in Turkey allowed him to skillfully reshape the political regime into a one-person rule. By monopolizing the achievements of his ancestors and emphasizing religious values in opposition to ultra-secularist elites, whom he portrayed as foreign puppets and defenders of the oppressive status quo that insulted the way of life of ordinary citizens, Erdogan successfully created a deep polarization in society to maintain his grip on power.
In my Project Syndicate piece titled “Erdogan’s Success Story” (June 14, 2011), I provided a positive assessment of Erdogan’s remarkable economic achievements over the past decade, highlighting Turkey’s expected entry into higher-income country status during his third term. However, I concluded the article by posing the question: “How will Turkey utilize its rapidly growing economic power?”
In a notable departure from the initial period (2003-2011) when Erdogan strengthened his position and reformed the regime, he veered away from the essential factors that contributed to his success. The period following the 2011 election victory witnessed a shift towards a process of power intoxication, culminating in the complete consolidation of the presidential government system (PGS) in 2018. This marked a departure from the so-called “orthodoxy,” replaced by a more arbitrary approach characterized by learning by doing and trial-and-error, which Erdogan referred to as “heterodoxy.” Although this era resulted in unprecedented economic and political turmoil, Erdogan’s election for a third term as president raises the question of why a populist government that initially came to power amidst an economic crisis did not encounter more significant challenges.
However, empirical evidence suggests that populists often come to power through relatively “free,” if not entirely “fair,” elections, yet only a few of them are consistently able to exit power. This usually occurs through being voted out of office, primarily if they manage to stay in control long enough to transform the system into a more authoritarian one. Consequently, the modes of departure often involve scandals, impeachment or resignations, constitutional crises, refusals to step down, coups, suicides, or tragic accidents. The recent elections in Turkey have demonstrated that in cases of democratic backsliding, an economic crisis alone is a necessary but insufficient condition for an authoritarian leader to change course. The positive case of successfully defeating an authoritarian populist in Brazil in March 2013 highlights that the sufficiency condition lies in the opposition’s ability to employ and manage various factors more effectively than the government, even when the latter abuses state power.
Erdogan as a Mastermind of Populism
Engaging in debates about the fairness or fraudulence of Erdogan’s election victory at this stage does not provide significant insights. As highlighted by Funke et al., when populists manage to remain in power for a decade or longer, they often shape their country’s political destiny in negative ways. After Erdogan’s prolonged tenure, Turkey has regressed from being considered a “free” country, as indicated by the Freedom House Index of 2023, and the elections can no longer be deemed fair. In a country like Turkey, where the general election results show that the opposition party (Republican People’s Party, CHP – 25%) consistently lags behind the ruling party (Justice and Development Party, AKP – 35% on May 14, 2023) by approximately 10 percentage points for nearly 21 years, the transfer of power appears unlikely, regardless of the coalition formed.
While the definition of populism may vary, as the Pope declared, it is commonly viewed as an “evil” that tends to lead to undesirable outcomes. Erdogan’s brand of populism aligns perfectly with a Machiavellian approach, where any means or methods to secure victory are deemed permissible or legitimate. Engaging in a political game with a leader like Erdogan, who does not hesitate to employ divisive tactics and polarize society through the creation of antagonistic groups such as “us vs. them,” “the people (ordinary, virtuous citizens) vs. the elite (pro-statuesque, corrupt, self-serving),” “true believers vs. infidels,” and “nationalists vs. traitors,” is a recipe for a nightmare scenario. He consistently invents and substitutes (foreign or domestic) enemies, identifies (internal or external) scapegoats, stokes security concerns within society, and perpetuates a state of conflict to solidify his hold on power.
Populism, with its rhetoric in defense of the rights of the “innocent and silent majority” against the perceived beneficiaries of an establishment or elite, implies that political power should not be held by economic, financial, intellectual, or political elites, but by a homogenous and virtuous “people.” This perspective, as highlighted by Arnesen and Peters, draws from Norris (2018) and encourages the emergence of a charismatic leader who presents themselves as an outsider to the establishment and claims to understand the “true desires” of the people, representing their voice and serving their interests. Consequently, this discourse undermines the significance of “mediating institutions,” particularly in the countries dominated by a paternalistic or patrimonial culture like Turkey. As a result, modern governance institutions, norms, and values, such as the division of labor and expertise, lose their relevance. Merit is increasingly replaced by loyalty and militant advocacy, and professional, autonomous specialized institutions are either weakened or filled with supporters. Erdogan’s era exemplifies the harm inflicted upon institutions and the economy as populists remain in power. It is important to note that Erdogan’s “populism” is not a learned, an acquired or imported ideology but an original synthesis deeply connected to geography, culture, history, and the cult of his leadership personality.
Several factors play a decisive role in Erdogan’s populist discourse:
A multipolar world in power transition without an omnipotent hegemonic power dictating its unilateral will to the “rest.”
Geopolitics, which can be negotiated and marketed in such a world, just like the geography of Turkey. A situation that brings both high risk and return.
A majority population whose “memory” has been manipulated and updated with an older version of the software, ancestors, and religion being the two strategic tools.
In such a geostrategic location of great power rivalries, Erdogan’s situation can be likened to a person who owns few rooms but several keys to open them. Obviously, it is almost impossible to find the right key and open the door in time always quickly. But he doesn’t waste time opening the door; either he breaks it in an emergency or uses the only lock in this geography to open all the doors with a magical capacity; culture! In that regard, Erdogan can be called the “inventor of populism” in the 21st century when it comes to the creation and exploitation of a nostalgic “populist heartland” that corresponds to a retrospectively imagined utopia built on an abandoned but undead human based past.
As Yilmaz and Morieson put,“the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.” Keeping society intact with his constantly renewed agenda, Erdogan’s emotional populism allows him to employ the elements of religion-history-culture and friends-foes antagonism.
An additional defining trait, and perhaps surprising to some, is Erdogan’s religious belief, encapsulated by the motto “After you have done all you can, leave the rest to God and trust it.” This philosophy stems from the recognition that in the face of complex and ever-changing circumstances, risks are amplified by deteriorating institutions and declining human capital. Such challenges reflect the vulnerability of the “one-man system,” where even an omnipotent dictator cannot single-handedly handle significant challenges. In such situations, prayer becomes the only recourse, driven by the conviction that “the new day will come with new hopes or opportunities!”
Erdogan’s approach to economic management serves as a field where his populism is exemplified through the stylized characteristics outlined above.
The Transformation of Turkey’s Economy: From Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy
In countries with strong institutions, an orthodox economy signifies a market that operates based on its internal dynamism, guided by market-friendly rules that address potential market failures. Conversely, in a country dominated by authoritarian populism, a heterodox economy implies arbitrariness and uncertainty. Both of these approaches were tested and experienced in Turkey from 2003 to 2023. In this article, Erdogan’s economic management can be examined within three distinct periods: the first period (2003-2011) characterized by the application of good governance principles to a reasonable extent, the second period (2011-2018) marked by a turbulent transition to a completely different regime, and finally, the consolidation of the authoritarian PGS since 2018.
In the following discussion, I will summarize the key achievements and highlight unresolved problems that have spiraled out of control, particularly with the consolidation of the single-man regime under the PGS.
During the first period, the orthodox approach primarily involved:
(i) the establishment of quality institutions such as central bank autonomy and the rule of law,
(ii) fostering peaceful coexistence and regional relations through the “zero problems with neighbors” policy, and
(iii) pursuing integration with the EU, the global community, and global governance institutions.
Except for the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, the first period witnessed domestic reforms, solid institutional capacity, and comparable long-term growth performance to similar countries. The economy expanded by an average of around 5.8 percent, as depicted in Figure 1, although with a visible loss of momentum. By 2013, national income surpassed the trillion-dollar threshold, and per capita GDP reached $12,500, propelling Turkey to the status of an “upper middle-income country” for the first time.
Figure.1 Economic Growth in Turkey (2003-2022)
i) According to Acemoglu and Üçer, a notable development during this period was the dominance of overall productivity growth over factor inputs, marking a significant shift. Additionally, the implementation of monetary and fiscal discipline contributed to a decrease in inflation from 55% in 2002 to single-digit figures by 2005.
ii) In terms of financing economic growth, there was a notable increase in capital inflows across all categories and terms, which facilitated a smooth expansion. Furthermore, thanks to fiscal and monetary discipline, interest rates experienced a significant decline across all categories and terms. This period also witnessed a reduction in the budget deficit and a decrease in the share of interest burden on the budget.
iii) According to World Bank data, there was a striking improvement in income distribution during this period. This was evident in the decrease of the Gini Coefficient from 0.45 in 2005 to 0.38 by 2007, indicating a more equitable distribution of income.
On the downside, despite positive progress in leading economic indicators and relative macroeconomic stabilization, the following aspect remained fragile, with long-term implications:
i) While the population increased from nearly 65 million to 85 million as of 2023, primarily due to the influx of millions of unorganized refugees, GDP receded to nearly 800 billion dollars after 2019. As a result, per capita GDP also declined by 8000-9000 dollars, indicating Turkey’s middle-income trap status as of 2022.
ii) Turkey’s potential for growth did not improve, primarily due to a decline in productivity growth resulting from the discontinuation of reforms after losing external anchors, such as Turkey’s full membership negotiations process with the EU.
iii) The halted structural transition led to the persistence of a growth model based on classical low-value-added, capital-labor intensive industries. Moreover, the share of upper-middle-income technology in production and exports remained stagnant at around 2.5% until 2022, showing no improvement over nearly two decades. It is worth noting that countries like South Korea and China achieved a share of 35% at a similar development level.
iv) Reflecting the insufficiency of national savings and structural weaknesses, Turkey’s reliance on imports and capital inflows for growth persisted. As a result, each period of economic growth led to a significant increase in the current account deficit, which reached approximately 5-6 percent of GDP in 2022.
In his third term, which began in June 2011, Erdogan exhibited an increasing authoritarian tendency, reflecting a sense of power intoxication. Unfortunately, this period saw a decline in the gains that had been achieved. The process was initiated by the corruption operations on December 17-25, 2013, and further exacerbated by the self-orchestrated coup attempt by “the team Erdogan” on July 15, 2016. It culminated in a complete overhaul of the system in 2018, leading to a severe economic downturn referred to as a “free fall.”
Throughout the years, Erdogan systematically politicized and undermined the independence of key judicial institutions, including the Council of State, Court of Cassation, Court of Accounts, and the Constitutional Court. He also exerted control over institutions such as the Central Bank, Statistical Institute, Competition Authority, and banking supervision and regulation bodies. This process resulted in a loss of control over inflation, unemployment, domestic and foreign deficits, and the accumulation of national debt. Official figures indicate that annual inflation reached 86% in 2022, significantly higher than the global average rate of less than 8%. These macroeconomic imbalances were primarily causedby the excessively low policy rate pressure imposed on the Central Bank of Turkey and excessive monetary expansion, which became rapidly unsustainable. Moreover, these policies enabled Erdogan-backed speculators to generate exorbitant profits.
Then Why and How Erdogan Wins: A Hate and Hope Paradigm
In a country the size of Turkey, lacking abundant natural resources, it is impossible to conceal economic facts and failures from the public and international community for an extended period. Manipulating data through Soviet-style fabricated politburo methods or exerting strict militant control over autonomous policy-making authorities like the statistical institute is ineffective. This is because the impact of these developments is directly felt in people’s daily lives.
This finding aligns with the overall understanding that populist economic policies have a short lifespan and are not sustainable. Furthermore, it predicts that such a government either loses power or transitions into complete authoritarianism. Unfortunately, Turkey currently teeters on the brink of such a development following the May 2023 elections.
Does Erdogan’s continued stay in power, particularly with the main opposition party CHP trailing the ruling party by almost 10 points, imply that economic factors have lost importance in authoritarian regimes during elections? While the literature suggests that populist parties often come to power after a macroeconomic crisis, the reverse is not necessarily true. These elections demonstrated that an economic crisis is necessary but insufficient to dislodge an authoritarian government. It also indicates that Erdogan skillfully constructed an ‘uneven playing field’ and relied on a dependent electoral majority. The opposition made every effort to win the rigged game, even adopting the populist-ethnonationalism strategies of its adversary, but ultimately failed. In addition to Erdogan’s “success” in providing livelihood security to a significant portion of the electorate, he also stoked security concerns and fear of a return of the old status quo elites, known as “White Turks,” who previously threatened and humiliated the lifestyle of ordinary citizens.
The most crucial factor that neutralized or balanced the devastating economic crisis, as indicated in Table 1, is the extensive and effective use of the “Welfare regime.” Despite Turkey’s unfavorable rankings in all categories compared to similar authoritarian populist countries like Argentina and Brazil, it excelled in implementing widespread social support programs, including those targeting the most vulnerable families. Furthermore, these measures were presented skillfully within the framework of culture and religion, yielding profound political consequences. Culture matters. In a region where the notion of citizenship demanding justice and the rule of law as a public good has remained premature for centuries due to the culture of patrimonialism, citizens perceived “social support” not as a constitutional guarantee but as a benevolent offering from the Sultan. Their “loyalty” was consequently secured through a minimum level of economic security, protecting those who felt neglected and left behind.
Table.1 Governance in Selected Populist/Authoritarian Countries
The second decisive factor is the utilization of immigrants as a source of cheap labor and a voting reserve for the ruling AKP. Despite having to work informally in low-wage sectors without social security protection, Erdogan adeptly leveraged foreign funds, primarily from the EU, to compensate for their losses, including providing social protection. In the midst of a deteriorating economic environment, the opposition’s discourse of repatriating immigrants did not resonate, particularly among small and medium-sized companies, due to this practice that alleviates labor costs for millions of refugees and grants a comparative advantage to low value-added sectors.
In addition to financial support, Erdogan fostered a strong emotional connection and sense of belonging among the immigrants by invoking a highly susceptible concept from religious literature known as “ummah” or “Ansar brotherhood.” Moreover, he transformed this imaginary notion into tangible expectations that shape the minds of millions of people. Depicting a mythical “global land of brotherhood” based on religious commonalities and historical memories, Erdogan conveys the message: “Just like our esteemed ancestors, it is time to reclaim our history as the worldwide Muslim diaspora eagerly looks to us as protectors.” As a result, sympathy towards Erdogan among the average person on the streets of any Muslim country may be higher than in Turkey itself.
While these “pull factors” served their economic purpose, Erdogan also strategically employed “push elements” in his rhetoric. Believing in the power of media under his control and the limited memory of the people, Erdogan not only took credit for past successes but also shifted blame for past failures onto present-day politicians who were not in power at the time and never governed Turkey. In a country with low levels of political, religious, and economic literacy, he manipulated the decision-making capacity of the electorate through the media he seized. The production of manipulated statistics, inventions, and innovations within this context instilled a sense of pride and superiority in a society yearning for a return to the glory days of the past.
Therefore, it is evident that populist politicians, even if they come to power through free elections, deviate from the same path when they stay in power for an extended period and transform the regime. Erdogan’s prolonged tenure allowed him to skillfully reshape the political regime into a one-person rule.
By capitalizing on and monopolizing the achievements of his ancestors and emphasizing religious values in opposition to ultra-secularist elites, whom he portrayed as foreign puppets and defenders of the oppressive status quo which oppressed and insulted the life patterns of ordinary citizens, Erdogan successfully created a significant divide that was crucial for maintaining control.
To secure the loyalty of the people, with whom he had “connected with heart and imagination,” particularly those who were likely victims of economic difficulties, Erdogan employed a combination of cultural and economic transactional policies. He not only provided various economic benefits but also manipulated them by instilling fear of losing their privileges and fostering a sense of national security, sovereignty, and even independence. When one considers the opposition parties’ leadership, policy quality, and communication skills with the public, it becomes clear that Erdogan would not be replaced with the configuration of such a coalition.
While a new term for Erdogan will bring more challenges, Turkey will remain a crucial interlocutor for the EU on many issues, including migration, energy, and regional security, particularly against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Despite EU has clearly determined that Turkey under Islamist populist Erdogan has been less democratic and more authoritarian, the Union falls short of making serious warnings in this regard.
Turkey’s Islamist-populist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan beat his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the chairman of the main opposition party CHP and the candidate of six-party opposition bloc in the elections held on Sunday. Despite the twin earthquakes that killed more than 50.000 people in early February, a looming economic crisis, and the deepening polarization, Erdogan managed to secure another five years at the helm of Turkey. Seemingly, his Islamist populism entrenched with authoritarianism paid off at the ballot box and enabled him to enter the third decade of his rule which means he will be ruling Turkey for a quarter of a century. While he received 52 percent of the vote, his challenger Kilicdaroglu got 48 percent.
The Turkish Parliament, whose members were elected in the first round of the vote on May 14, 2023, is deemed to be the most conservative-nationalist House in the hundred years of the Republic. Combined with increasingly authoritarian regime of Erdogan, the future does not bode well for almost half of the population who voted for the opposition. As BBC put it ‘the strategic NATO nation’ had chosen its path, most voters opting for a seasoned autocrat rather than an untested democrat in the form of Kilicdaroglu. While Kilicdaroglu stressed the need to revitalize the relations with the European Union (EU) – which is frozen for almost a decade – and revise the migrants deal that was agreed in 2016, Erdogan barely mentioned the EU in his election campaign. For Erdogan, the relationship with Brussels is run on a transactional basis.
For the first round of elections of May 14, the joint observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) found that the legal framework did not fully provide a basis for holding democratic elections. Frank Schwabe, head of the PACE delegation, underlined that Turkey did not fulfil the basic principles for holding a democratic election. “Key political and social figures are in prison even after judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, media freedom is severely restricted and there is a climate of self-censorship. Turkey is a long way from creating fair election campaign conditions,” said he. For the second round, Schwabe reiterated his position that the second round also took place in an environment that in many ways did not provide the conditions for holding democratic elections. Selahattin Demirtas, the former leader of the second largest opposition party, pro-Kurdish HDP is still in jail despite the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that he should be freed with immediate effect.
“What happens in Turkey in terms of its democracy and in terms of its place in the region has a huge impact on Europe, on Asia, and of course on all of the global issues that we’re all grappling with. So, it is really important,” said she. And the Economist, the British weekly announced on its cover that the Turkish election was the most important of 2023. “Most important, in an era when strongman rule is on the rise, from Hungary to India, the peaceful ejection of Mr Erdogan would show democrats everywhere that strongmen can be beaten,” wrote the weekly. There was hope if Erdogan could be defeated at the ballot box, it would send a message to all the populist authoritarian regimes across the globe.
Although it was not unexpected that Erdogan would use a populist discourse to demonize his opponents, what is surprising was Kilicdaroglu’s embrace of populist rhetoric right after it became obvious that the presidential election would go to a run-off on May 28. Kilicdaroglu who lost the first round of presidential elections by almost 5 percent of the vote immediately changed his course and employing an ethnonationalist strain, swerved right. He promised to send home millions of Syrian refugees and doubled down the nationalist tone in his rhetoric. According to an Al Monitor/Premise poll which was conducted between May 19-23 across Turkey, 71 percent of the respondents favored an imminent return of refugees. The economy and refugees stood out as the top two issues that the respondents deemed challenges for the country. To win the nationalist votes, Kilicdaroglu signed a protocol with the leader of the far-right Victory Party, Umit Ozdag. Ozdag proclaimed the return of the refugees as the number one priority for his party. The protocol promised to return all of the refugees within a year. Right after the first round of elections, Kilicdaroglu claimed Erdogan had brought 10 million refugees to the country and that number would increase if he would remain in power. Adopting a fearmongering style, Kilicdaroglu implied that ‘our daughters’ would not be able to go around safely if the Syrian and other refugees would stay in Turkey.
While Kilicdaroglu was busy in forming alliances with the far-right parties, Erdogan, too, was seeking to enlist the support of religious populist and far-right parties. Erdogan who won five parliamentary elections, two presidential polls and three referendums, this time around, felt he could be beaten by the opposition. Thus, he agreed to create an alliance with the Islamist New Welfare Party and the Kurdish Islamist Huda-Par (Free Cause Party). Huda-Par is essentially the political projection of Kurdish Hizbullah, an Islamist organization, unrelated to Lebanese Hezbollah, known for its gruesome murders in the 1990s. These two parties have declared that they want Turkey to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and the repeal of the Law 6284 which basically provides protection for women against violence. Moreover, Erdogan went ahead to court far-right leader Sinan Ogan campaigning heavily on terrorism. In the large meetings which hosted tens of thousands of people, he showed fake videos that falsely implied his opponent Kilicdaroglu had links with outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Besides politics, Erdogan has successfully pursued a populist political ideology together with cultural populism. Erdogan’s authoritarianism is more than ballot box as he employs television and music, monuments and memorials that have been prime levers of a political project, a campaign of cultural ressentiment and national rebirth. As the New York Times reported it, this cultural metamorphosis reoriented national culture and promoted a nostalgic revival of the Ottoman past ‘sometimes in grand style sometimes as pure kitsch.’.
What Next With EU?
While a new term for Erdogan will bring more challenges, Turkey will remain a crucial interlocutor for the EU on many issues, including migration, energy, and regional security, particularly against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Turkey has applied EU back in 1959, was declared candidate in 1999 and started accession talks in October 2005. It is the longest history of a candidate country ever. It has been 18 years since the accession talks started however barely16 chapters out of 35 have been opened and only one chapter has been provisionally closed. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel together with the Greek Cypriots have been instrumental in blocking the accession talks. Erdogan’s authoritarian populist streak has also been pivotal in European Council’s decision to freeze accession talks in 2018. This is due to Ankara backtracking on democracy and civil liberties, particularly following the 2016 coup attempt (whose details are still murky), and tensions over developments in Turkish foreign policy. Included were Ankara’s naval operations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, as well as Ankara’s Syria policy and Cyprus. In 2018, after a similar decision by the European Parliament, the EU froze the accession negotiations, although they were already comatose.
‘The EU’s serious concerns on the continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary have not been addressed. There was further backsliding in many areas,’ said the European Commission country report of 2022. On most democracy indexes, Turkey has gone down dramatically. According to World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in the beginning of May, Turkey together with Tajikistan and India dropped from being in a “problematic situation” into the lowest category and now ranks 165 out of 180. “Turkey jails more journalists than any other democracy,” said RSF. After Erdogan’s win of the presidential election, it will not be surprising if he tightens his grip on fundamental freedoms and on freedom of expression, in particular.
The relations between Turkey and EU have been transactional since almost 2013 when Erdogan embraced authoritarianism after a huge corruption scandal erupted implicating his son and several of his ministers. One of the milestones of this relationship has been the refugee deal of 2016 according to which Turkey would prevent the crossings of migrants to EU.
EU, without committing itself to any form of membership talks has openly called for ties based on mutual benefit. “The EU and Türkiye continued high-level engagement in areas of common interest such as climate, health or migration and security. This was in line with the EU’s offer to support a more positive dynamic in EU-Türkiye relations, expressing readiness to engage with Türkiye in a phased, proportionate, and reversible manner in a number of areas of common interest, subject to the conditions set out by the European Council. On energy, Türkiye continues to be an important and reliable transit country for the EU,’ said the country report of 2022. On the refugee deal, the EU has commended Turkey for hosting more than 3.5 million people.
EU has clearly determined that Turkey under Erdogan has been less democratic and more authoritarian, however, Brussels falls short of making serious warnings in this regard. “There are serious deficiencies in the functioning of Türkiye’s democratic institutions. During the reporting period, democratic backsliding continued. Structural deficiencies in the presidential system remained in place. Key recommendations from the Council of Europe and its bodies have yet to be addressed. Parliament continued to lack the necessary means to hold the government accountable. The constitutional architecture continued to centralize powers at the level of the Presidency without ensuring the sound and effective separation of powers between the executive, legislative and the judiciary. In the absence of an effective checks and balances mechanism, the democratic accountability of the executive branch continues to be limited to elections,’ remarked the country report.
This transactional nature of the relationship has been confirmed by the messages of EU leaders in the wake of the presidential elections. While the foreign policy chief Josep Borrell congratulated Erdogan and called for the continuation of relations based on mutual interest, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has invited Erdogan to Berlin without mentioning the serious backsliding on fundamental freedoms.
The world order has been rapidly shifting from a unipolar to a multipolar one. The battle over Europe’s future and the emerging new security architecture will have major implications for the EU and Turkey. As a major security, political and economic actor, Turkey will have a vital role in the future of EU. Thus, Brussels should craft a clear strategy to address dramatic deterioration of fundamental freedoms on the one hand and deepen relations with a view to revitalize the accession process, on the other.