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

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

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

By Junhyoung Lee

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

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

Populism: The Two-Edged Blade

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

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

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

Nationalism and Its Diverse Implications

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

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

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

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

Xenophobia: A Nascent Theme in the Electoral Discourse

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

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

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

The Aftermath: Implications for Yoon’s Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards the Fall of ‘Erdoganism’ in Turkey

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

By Ibrahim Ozturk

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

Tactical Commitment to Democracy Between 2003-2011

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

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

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

Corruption Economy and Return to Authoritarian Agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragedy of Patronage in A Low Productivity Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Shutterstock.

Chega Emerges as the Elephant in the Room: What’s Next?

Chega, a populist radical right-wing party known for its anti-systemic, morally conservative, and securitarian rhetoric, secured 48 MPs, solidifying its position as the most influential third force ever in the Parliament. This marks a substantial transformation in Portuguese politics. Despite warnings from the Left about the imminent threat of fascism, voters persist in seeking straightforward solutions and placing blame on elites and immigrants. Now, the pivotal question arises: “Will the Democratic Alliance break its cordon sanitaire with Chega?”

By João Ferreira Dias

Portuguese legislative elections have ushered in a new era in parliament, potentially marking the end of the historical bipartisanship between the Socialist Party (PS) and the Social-Democratic (PSD) side. While failing to secure a majority, the Democratic Alliance (AD) emerged as the electoral victor on March 10. Led by the PSD with the participation of CDS (the democratic-Christians) and PPM (the monarchic party), the AD capitalized on widespread dissatisfaction stemming from the Socialist Party’s eight-year tenure marred by numerous scandals and political turmoil.

Initially positioned advantageously, the AD sought to harness widespread dissatisfaction for electoral success. However, as we know, championing dissatisfaction is often the terrain of radical right-wing populist parties (as summarized by Kaltwasser et al., 2017). Despite this, the AD encountered significant hurdles: lingering memories of austerity measures imposed by the troika, which had become internalized as ideology, were deeply felt by pensioners and public sector workers—key segments of Portugal’s electorate. Additionally, the leader faced challenges in rallying public support. Despite vulnerabilities within the Socialist Party, exacerbated by a leadership change following murky allegations of corruption involving Prime Minister António Costa, the AD’s victory remained tenuous, narrowly avoiding a stalemate.

The Portuguese parliament consists of 230 members, requiring 116 MPs for a majority. With 99 percent of the votes counted (pending results from 31 consulates), the AD secured 79 MPs, while the Socialists claimed 76. Meanwhile, Chega, a populist radical right-wing party, obtained 48 MPs, establishing itself as the most formidable third force ever in the Parliament. This signals a significant shift in Portuguese politics.

Chega is a quintessential populist radical right party known for its anti-systemic, morally conservative, and securitarian rhetoric (see Marchi 2020, 2022), coupled with fluid economic ideas, as suggested by feedback from its potential electors. However, its illiberal positions and involvement in culture wars, such as its opposition to the so-called “gender ideology” and stance on immigration control, have led to substantial public disapproval of the Chega party.

In the 2022 elections, the Socialist Party (PS) secured an absolute majority, partly because the then-leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) was ambiguous about potential collaborations with Chega. Consequently, the current PSD leader, Luís Montenegro, felt compelled to state unequivocally that he would never form alliances with Chega. This clear stance was crucial to reassure the moderate electorate and ensure their confidence in voting for the Democratic Alliance (AD). At this juncture, any negotiation with Chega would be perceived as a betrayal to the center and center-right voters who supported the AD based on a firm “no means no” commitment. Nevertheless, Chega’s leader, André Ventura, has advocated for an outright majority of the right altogether, applying pressure on AD to negotiate and, ultimately, gain a position in a future government, which is his fundamental ambition.

Chega’s success can be attributed to multiple factors, including a culture that craves a messianic leader, as outlined by Ferreira Dias (2022). Additionally, widespread political disengagement among the population, coupled with significant political illiteracy, has played a role. Moreover, feelings of neglect among rural communities, demographic shifts marked by a rapid increase in immigrants in previously unaffected areas, and a perception of corruption among political elites have contributed to Chega’s rise. These phenomena are not unique to Portugal but are common hallmarks of populist movements worldwide.

The 22-catch question is: Will the Democratic Alliance abandon its cordon sanitaire of Chega? Despite Chega’s populist aspirations, its leader, André Ventura, has expressed readiness to form a government with the DA. This lends credence to the view, shared by many including myself, that Chega was primarily a vehicle for gaining swift access to power. As mentioned, Luís Montenegro, leader of the DA, has firmly rejected any alliances with Chega. However, the practicalities of governance could potentially challenge this principled stance. If such negotiations become necessary, we might witness Luís Montenegro being replaced by a new leader willing to engage in discussions with Chega.

Just as André Ventura intended, Chega (or rather, he himself) has become a crucial player in the national political landscape and has the potential to disrupt the entire system. The ability of the Portuguese Right to function cohesively without Chega is dwindling, as it now primarily relies on the Democratic Alliance (DA), with the Liberal Initiative as the only other significant force, commanding just eight seats in parliament. Despite Montenegro’s best efforts, breaking free from Chega’s influence appears increasingly challenging. It’s likely that André Ventura’s party will allow government programs to pass, preferring to evade responsibility for any national political deadlock in order to gain political leverage in future elections, potentially bolstering its parliamentary presence to around 70/80 MPs and positioning itself for a shot at forming a government.

It appears evident that the Left’s narrative of “fascism is coming” has failed to resonate. Instead, people continue to gravitate toward simplistic solutions and identifiable scapegoats, such as elites and immigrants. This trend is not confined to Portugal but reflects a global phenomenon, highlighting a troubling divergence between democracy and liberalism, which resonates particularly with the younger generation. The strain on the system is further exacerbated by excessive bureaucracy, a sense of detachment from decision-making processes, a perception that legislators do not adequately represent the people’s interests, widespread distrust due to corruption, and a fading collective memory of the authoritarian regimes of the 20th century (Mounk, 2018).


References

Ferreira Dias, J. (2022). “Political Messianism in Portugal, the Case of André Ventura.” Slovenská politologická revue, 22(1), 79-107. 

Kaltwasser, C. R.; Taggart, P.; Espejo, P. O. & Ostiguy, P. (2017). “Populism: An Overview of the Concept and the State of the Art.” In: Kaltwasser, C. R., Taggart, P. A., Espejo, P. O. and Ostiguy, P. eds. The Oxford Handbook of Populism. pp. 1-24. Marchi, R. (2020). A nova direita anti-sistema-O caso do Chega. Leya. Marchi, R. (2022). Portugal y la derecha radical: otra «excepción» que cae. Nueva Sociedad, (300), 14-24.

Mounk, Y. (2018). “The people vs. democracy: Why our freedom is in danger and how to save it.” In: The People vs. Democracy. Harvard University Press.

Motorcyclist passes the banner of Presidential Candidate Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka in Sleman, Yogyakarta, Indonesia on January 18, 2024. Photo: Angga Budhiyanto.

The Changing Populist Performances of Prabowo Subianto: Indonesia’s Incoming President

Prabowo Subianto Joyohadikusumo is the anticipated victor of the 2024 Indonesian presidential election, boasting a political career spanning more than three decades in the country. Over the course of the past decade alone, Prabowo has undergone significant shifts in ideological stances, rhetorical appeals, and electoral strategies. He has transformed from an ultra-nationalist, chauvinist, and Islamist populist into a technocratic figure with a more approachable demeanor, strategically forming and changing alliances in his efforts to secure electoral success.

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Hasnan Bachtiar, Chloe Smith & Kainat Shakil

Following Indonesia’s tumultuous transition to independence, the early period of the country’s history, which has been called the years of “Guided Democracy,” was led by two successive authoritarian regimes (Barton et al, 2021a; 2021b). It was during this period that Indonesia’s new leader cut his teeth in his former role as a general of the special forces (Kopassus). Prabowo Subianto Joyohadikusumo has emerged as a pivotal figure in contemporary Indonesian electoral politics. Simply known as Prabowo, he is a highly controversial former military officer with a past tarnished by a legacy of human rights abuses, the son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, and a prominent political actor and Presidential candidate over the past decade. 

Since 2009, Prabowo has consistently participated in general elections, engaging in consecutive races during each electoral cycle (2009, 2014, 2019 and 2024) and ultimately achieving victory in the most recent elections. Throughout the years, his image, stances, and narratives have undergone notable transformations, showcasing a fascinating political fluidity and adaptivity.

Prabowo’s journey includes experiencing defeat as a vice presidential candidate alongside Megawati and against retired four-star general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009. Their ticket received only 26.79% of the total votes, while other candidates received 12.41% and 60.08% respectively (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2009). 

Subsequently, he faced defeat twice in presidential elections against the popular technocrat Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in 2014 and 2019. In 2014, Prabowo-Hatta Rajasa received 46.85% of the total votes, while Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla garnered 53.15% (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2014). Similarly, in 2019, Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin secured 55.32% of the votes compared to Prabowo-Sandiaga Uno’s 44.68% (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2019).

However, in the latest demonstration of realpolitik, Prabowo has refined and redefined his political messaging, ultimately claiming victory. He formed an alliance with his former opposition in the 2024 elections by choosing Jokowi’s son as his running mate, a strategic move that secured his electoral triumph.

In past election campaigns, Prabowo was noted for exhibiting ultra-nationalist, strongly chauvinist, and Islamist populist characteristics, as observed by Yilmaz et al. (2024). However, in the recent election, Prabowo has transformed, re-emerging as a distinctly technocratic figure while still retaining some classic populist tendencies. This shift in his political persona reflects significant strategic considerations, intending to further his quest for power.

Specifically, Prabowo now presents himself as the guardian of the people’s volonté générale (general will) and employs popular communication strategies that effectively engage Indonesia’s youth. It has also been noted that his campaigning involved simplifying complex political problems and their solutions – such as his focus on a program for free lunches and milk to tackle malnutrition and food scarcity – a program that has been criticized for being unrealistic (Susilo & Prana, 2024).

Prabowo’s campaigning in 2024 also marked a notable departure from the more antagonistic aspects of populism. Particularly significant was his abandonment of chauvinistic messaging, which had previously fueled religious-based hostilities, incited outrage against minorities, directed blame against foreign powers, and scapegoated oligarchic elites to appeal to voters (Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021).

In this campaign, Prabowo refrained from emphasizing ideological issues that deepen social polarization (Yilmaz, 2023) and steered clear of his past narratives and rhetoric against Western neo-liberalism and the perceived greed of Chinese corporations (Hadiz, 2017; Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Additionally, he distanced himself from religious right-wing groups, notably the civilizational populist Defenders Front of Islam (FPI), with whom he had previously aligned himself in varying capacities during the 2019 election (Yilmaz et al., 2022).

Prabowo and his political campaign team also used digital culture and technologies to both appeal to Indonesia’s youth and shake off his formerly aggressive and militant reputation. This involved various strategies including rebranding to reflect a more modern and approachable vibe, engagement through social media, utilizing platforms popular among youth, and creating appealing content.

Prabowo has been newly portrayed as an adorable, friendly grandpa (gemoy). This rebranding exercise has been particularly effective among online and youth communities – Prabowo is represented in digital spaces with a cartoon photo generated by Artificial Intelligence (AI) (Citizen Digital, 2024), and has become known for dancing the Korean Oppa style to disco music and the super hit song “Oke Gas” by the famous rapper, Richard Jersey (Jersey, 2024)

“More than half of Indonesia’s 204 million voters are millennials or younger” and Prabowo’s use of social media has proved immensely popular amongst these voters (Economist, 2024). This is a strong strategic move and reflects an understanding of the type of leader Indonesian youth are looking for. While various definitions contest what is the ‘ideal’ or ‘the hegemon’ masculinity, there is a clear indication that amongst Indonesian millennials and Gen-Zs, the traditional ideal of a ‘strongman,’ as Prabowo was formerly and widely known as being, does not attract their support. Prabowo’s sensitivity to this change led him to modify his masculinity to become more acceptable in society. Being a dancing, friendly older man has gained him the acceptance of youth – unlike the highly composed military man or conservative religious figure he has occupied in past election campaigns.  

There are several other explanations which can account for his change of tactics. First, he learned from his defeats in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections. In both political battles, he operationalized a populist performance, presenting himself as a charismatic leader who was pro-indigenous, defending Islam in Indonesia, and standing up against a) the corrupt and Westernized elite, and b) foreign powers and influence (Mietzner, 2020). Furthermore, in both unsuccessful campaigns, Prabowo proved eager to win the support of various nativist, racist, and hardline groups. For instance, in 2017, hoping to gain Islamist support in the elections two years later, he eagerly supported Anies Baswedan in the quest to defeat Ahok (Basuki Tjahaya Purnama), the incumbent Chinese and Christian governor of Jakarta, in the lead-up to the gubernatorial election. In the process, he went as far as encouraging a severe and dramatic process of minority criminalization and discrimination (Bachtiar, 2023). However, despite receiving the support of civilizational populist leader Rizieq Shihab, the FPI, and other Islamist groups, it did not win the votes he needed, and Prabowo likely realized he needed a new political strategy to win the 2024 election.  

While he did not otherize minority groups or form an alliance with hardline Islamists in the current elections, Prabowo continued to cast ‘Europe’ as an enemy. For instance, late last year while election campaigning, he accused Europe of treating Indonesia ‘unfairly’ when discussing exports of goods such as palm oil to the EU market (Yuniar, 2023). Narratives vilifying Europe have been a regular fixture in Prabowo’s political discourse, particularly in discussions surrounding national sovereignty and international relations. This reflects Indonesia’s troubled history with colonial powers from Europe, particularly the Dutch colonizers. Although Europe has been consistently positioned as an enemy elite, Prabowo’s messaging about China and the United States has shifted according to different political tides (Reuters, 2023). 

Second, while the amplification of Islamist identity politics and civilizational populism significantly intensified the people’s emotions and populist demands (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023), it also inspired a wave of resistance from the silent majority: pluralist Muslims. Identity politics succeeded in forming cross-class alliances – evident in the mass rallies against Ahok – but they also provoked resentment, including from leaders of the consequential mainstream Islamic organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. Both organizations maintain a sharp focus on diversity and national integration (Burhani, 2018; Bruinessen, 2021). By not appealing to – and actively repelling – the pluralist and mainstream Muslims, Prabowo learnt in hindsight that his chances of success had been considerably hindered. 

Third, Prabowo went through the important process of becoming a technocrat when he agreed to join the Jokowi cabinet and accepted the role of Indonesia’s Defense Minister. In this context, he built his image as a big-hearted knight with a more inclusive outlook. In taking this role, and in refashioning his political branding, he betrayed his coalition with the civilizational populist group, the FPI, who were consequently banned by Jokowi, leading to their dissolution (Power, 2018). 

Prabowo’s closer affinity with Jokowi also allowed him to enact another key strategy in his 2024 campaign: Winning Jokowi’s support and endorsement. This was partly achieved by his decision to make Jokowi’s son, Gibran Rakabuming, the vice-presidential candidate – a decision which required manipulation of the law and the Constitutional Court (Wilson, 2024). In favorable circumstances for Probowo, Jokowi had come to a head with Megawati, Soekarno’s daughter, in the camp of his party in power (the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle – PDIP). Megawati had insulted Jokowi when she suggested he should submit to party leadership (as a worker/petugas partai), despite his status as President of Indonesia. As a result, Jokowi withdrew his support for Ganjar Pranowo, the governor of Central Java, who had been endorsed by the PDIP as its presidential candidate (Bachtiar, 2023). Aware of Jokowi’s popularity, particularly because of his strong economic performance, Prabowo keenly promoted himself as the candidate who would carry on this legacy (Strangio, 2024).

In conclusion, Prabowo’s transformations throughout various presidential elections have been remarkable. From 2014 to 2024, he has undergone a significant evolution in his public image, shifting from a classical populist ‘strongman’ with authoritarian tendencies and polarizing rhetoric to adopting an ultra-conservative and pious Islamist persona, and most recently, presenting himself as a soft, affable grandpa who engages with youth through TikTok dances and photos with his cats.

Even though he has outwardly shed the more hardened and aggressive parts of his persona, Prabowo’s experience in military leadership will have still played a central role; some voters are still likely drawn to an assertive style of leadership and see him as a proficient leader who can effectively attend to the welfare of everyday Indonesians (Gilang & Almubaroq, 2022), while younger voters might have felt a connection with the softer and approachable ‘grandpa’ figure they saw on the internet (The Economist, 2024). 

Throughout this journey, Prabowo has continually renewed and adjusted his policy promises, political allegiances, public image, and the support bases he appeals to. Concerns remain about the authenticity of Prabowo’s shift in rhetorical and ideological messaging, and what lies underneath Prabowo’s successful attempt at gaining power and control in Indonesia. How far removed is this softer and more inclusive gemoy character from the strong and masculine, ultra-nationalist and chauvinist described by scholars previously (Hadiz, 2017; Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021)? After all, it was only recently that American Indonesianist, Slater argued Prabowo is “the sort of ethnonationalist, polarizing, strongman who would scapegoat minorities and ride roughshod to power, as other world leaders recently had” (Slater, 2023: 103-104). These concerns were also highlighted by The Guardian writers, who claimed that Prabowo’s victory in 2024 was a sign that “winter is coming” for Indonesian democracy (Ratcliffe & Richaldo, 2024). Similarly, Kurlantzick (2024) argues that democracy is truly lost with Prabowo’s victory.

The question also arises whether the current ‘happy grandpa’ persona will eventually revert to the iron-fisted strongman? While his pattern of changing ideologies and political messaging may suggest such a possibility, Prabowo has demonstrated patience and tactical acumen as a populist leader. He adapts to the expectations of voters, which are shaped by constantly changing socio-political trends. Therefore, while a metamorphosis back to his former persona cannot be ruled out, Prabowo’s ability to navigate shifting political landscapes makes his future trajectory uncertain yet intriguing.


 

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


References

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Bachtiar, Hasnan. (2023). “Indonesian Islamist populism and Anies Baswedan.” Populism& Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 9, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0025

Barton, G.; I. Yilmaz and N. Morieson. (2021a). “Authoritarianism, Democracy, Islamic Movements and Contestations of Islamic Religious Ideas in Indonesia.” Religions. 2021, 12, 641. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12080641

Barton, G.; I. Yilmaz and N. Morieson. (2021b). “Religious and Pro-Violence Populism in Indonesia: The Rise and Fall of a Far-Right Islamist Civilisationist Movement.” Religions12(6), 397. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12060397

Bruinessen, M. V. (2021). “Traditionalist Muslims and Populism in Indonesia and Turkey.” Tashwirul Afkar, 40(2), pp. 1-27.

Burhani, A. N. (2018). “Plural Islam and Contestation of Religious Authority in Indonesia.” In: N. Saat, ed. Islam in Southeast Asia Negotiating Modernity. Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, pp. 140-163.

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Hadiz, V. R. (2017). “Indonesia’s year of democratic setbacks: Towards a new phase of deepening illiberalism?” Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies, 53(3), pp. 261-278.

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The Jakarta Post. (2023.) “Prabowo criticises EU on deforestation, palm oil ban.” The Jakarta Post. 14 November 2023, https://www.thejakartapost.com/indonesia/2023/11/14/prabowo-criticises-eu-on-deforestation-palm-oil-ban.html (accessed on March 4, 2024).

Wilson, I. (2024). An Election to End All Elections? https://fulcrum.sg/an-election-to-end-all-elections/ (accessed on March 4, 2024).

Yilmaz, I. (2023). Civilizational Populism in Democratic Nation-States. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yilmaz, I. & Barton, G. (2021). “Political Mobilisation of Religious, Chauvinist, and Technocratic Populists in Indonesia and Their Activities in Cyberspace.” Religions, 12(10), p. 822.

Yilmaz, I. & Morieson, N. (2023). Religions and the Global Rise of Civilizational Populism. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yilmaz, I.; Morieson, N. & Bachtiar, H. (2022). “Civilizational Populism in Indonesia: The Case of Front Pembela Islam (FPI).” Religions, 13(12), p. 1208.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Triwibowo, Whisnu; Bachtiar, Hasnan & Barton, Greg. (2024). “Competing Populisms, Digital Technologies and the 2024 Elections in Indonesia.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 2, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0029

Yuniar, W. R. (2023, November 14). “Indone sia’s Prabowo slams West for double standards, lack of moral leadership: ‘we don’t really need Europe’.” SCMP. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3241398/indonesias-prabowo-slams-west-double-standards-lack-moral-leadership-we-dont-really-need-europe (accessed on March 4, 2024).

Photo: Shutterstock.

Revealing the Intricacies of Gendered Islamophobia and Populism through the Lens of Transnational Feminist Endeavors

As transnational feminist scholars and activists, it becomes imperative for us to intervene in feminist epistemologies by carefully discerning the nuances among the concepts of anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobia. An essential focus lies in understanding the ongoing transformation of the new transnational anti-Islamic movement from ethnic-based nationalism and oppressive authoritarianism towards a liberal standpoint that advocates equality, justice, and democratic values. This involves active participation in knowledge production through the experiences and agency of the complex subjects central to debates: Muslim immigrant women.

By Hafza Girdap

Societal perceptions in the Global North often oversimplify and stereotype immigrant women from the Global South, particularly focusing on Muslim immigrant women. This tendency is magnified within transnational feminist studies and civil society works, where categorization frequently portrays these women as a homogeneous group, primarily depicting them as victimized bodies.

The exclusive emphasis on rights, coupled with the need to consider global governance frameworks linked to class privilege and education, impedes a comprehensive understanding of this complex issue. A significant challenge faced by transnational feminist work is its struggle to transcend established affiliations such as nationality, ethnicity, race, and religion.

Recent research and activism on racism and Islamophobia, while valuable, fall short without a nuanced gender analysis. Existing approaches either overly prioritize gender or disproportionately underscore race and religion, neglecting the intricate and intersectional impact of these factors on the everyday experiences of Muslim women and women from the Global South. Addressing this gap necessitates treating these women as ‘complex subjects’ and meticulously examining their identity formation within diverse circumstances, thereby accentuating their diversities across multiple temporal and spatial signifiers.

Clarification of Some Crucial Terms

In this particular context, it becomes essential to elucidate terms like Islamophobia, anti-Islam, and anti-Muslim, given the influential role of framing and mobilization in identity politics. Islamophobia is defined as an irrational, emotional fear, while anti-Islam signifies a theoretical shift from reaction to action, aligning with the prevalent agency-oriented perspective in social movement analysis (Berntzen, 2019).

The incorporation of liberal viewpoints that depict Islam as a threat to Western civilization and as an ideology incompatible with democratic and progressive values provides justification and legitimacy for the transnational mobilization of far-right groups. Central to the discourses of this liberal far-right are discussions surrounding women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and their alignment with Islamic traditions. Termed an “ideological duality” (Berntzen, 2019), the anti-Islamic far-right espouses a semi-liberal worldview and approach towards Islam, portraying it as incongruent with modernity, human rights, and liberal principles. 

Identity Formation and Intersectionality

Stuart Hall’s (1990) concept of identity as an ongoing process significantly shapes the (de)construction of identity. As a Muslim immigrant woman scholar and activist, I consistently underscore the impact of various elements within the identity process, focusing on the experiences of exploring (Muslim) immigrant women as they navigate self-discovery and re-identification within the realms of interaction, adaptation, and religion.

The concept of “cultural identity” and its intersection with politics, gender, ethnicity, and race gains particular significance in this context. Understanding identity formation necessitates the consideration of both origin and resettlement spaces, along with the influence of temporal and spatial factors.

Extending racialization theories, particularly focusing on the experiences of Muslim women, becomes imperative. This involves scrutinizing the impact of contextual factors on the reidentification experiences of Muslim immigrant women, intending to challenge prevailing paradigms such as whiteness and populism, evident in far-right, far-left, and even liberal politics.

This analysis explores the nuanced ways in which Muslim and non-Western women grapple with otherness and double-marginalization at the intersections of gender, race, class, and religion, both as migrants in Western contexts and as local women in their homelands.

Transnational Feminism and Analytical Tools

Scholarly work, grassroots activities, and political mobilization must meticulously consider the push factors for migration and subsequent reidentification experiences of these women. Addressing hegemonic masculinity in their homelands and its impact on citizenship discourse, with a focus on heteronormative requirements, adds depth to the understanding of challenges faced by Muslim women.

Transnational feminism emerges as a pivotal analytical tool in comprehending the construction, reconstruction, and deconstruction of identities among immigrant women. It is imperative to critically examine terms like “Third World Women” and “women of the Global South” to highlight the complexities and pitfalls of homogenizing diverse groups. An intersectional analysis becomes necessary, considering historical, regional, ethnic, racial, and religious factors.

Knowledge Production and Counter-Hegemonic Discourse

In light of these considerations, knowledge production becomes a critical practice aimed at dismantling prevailing knowledge frameworks dominated by Western perspectives. This strategic approach is essential to challenge Islamophobic populist discourses impacting particularly Muslim immigrant women.

As the term ‘Global South’ transcends a metaphor, encompassing narratives of colonialism, neo-imperialism, and ongoing disparities, scholars and activists must continue developing concepts and practices of solidarity drawn from experiences in the Global South. Emphasizing the importance of recognizing diverse experiences, challenging binary constructions of identities, and engaging in transnational alliances is crucial. Grewal and Kaplan’s (1994) idea of a “politics of location,” delving into the tension between temporal and spatial theories of subjectivity, provides a valuable framework. Discourses and language use, aligned with Bell Hooks’ (1989) concept of a “dialectical space,” prove instrumental in dismantling binaries and discriminations.

Resistance and Counter-Hegemonic Discourse

Such an understanding underscores the potential of resistance through the creation of spaces that facilitate the transformation of the current reality. It also highlights the importance of challenging enduring colonial and discursive homogenization through counter-hegemonic discourse. Research and civil society engagements contribute to the generation of diverse perspectives and epistemologies, particularly through the experiences and agency of Muslim immigrant women.

In conclusion, attention to the emotional impact of activism on immigrant women and the potential for reduced emotional distress when actively advocating for equality is essential. The ability to reconceive culture and religion as spaces that allow reasoned, autonomous, and democratic participation, aligning with the approach of exploring reidentification experiences “on them, by them,” becomes pivotal in transnational feminist work challenging any forms of (gendered) populism. This includes far-right, far-left in Western contexts, as well as authoritarian, Islamist populism in the Global South. Contextual factors in origin and resettlement spaces play a crucial role in adaptation and integration processes, influencing the manifestation of identities.

Highlighting the transnational impact of the growth of the far-right and an anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America, an anti-Islamic activism of pioneering movements and political parties in Europe is conducted through hypocritical discourses and acts by far-right politicians and activists who portray themselves as liberals. This is done to avoid stigmatization by using certain discourses of human rights as proxies to exploit anti-Islamic agendas. Women’s and gender-based rights are conveniently claimed by these politicians and other social actors, for instance, to “denigrate Muslimness.” 

Thus, a significant shift is observed within the approach of populist rhetoric, particularly of the far-right, towards Islam and Muslims. This is actually a shift from authoritarian and ethnocentric to a modern, liberal, and transnational anti-Islamic activism. In other words, the far-right takes on a liberal attitude and appearance through a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality, animal rights, and the preservation of Christian and Jewish heritage (Berntzen, 2019).

By framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology posing a threat to Western civilization, the far-right appears to shift from its traditional, radical, and authoritarian stance to a more liberal, modern, and rights-based strategy. This strategy places a greater emphasis on the ideology (Islam) rather than the individuals (identities). 

Consequently, as transnational feminist scholars and activists, it becomes imperative for us to intervene in feminist epistemologies by carefully discerning the nuances among the concepts of anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobia. An essential focus lies in understanding the ongoing transformation of the new transnational anti-Islamic movement from ethnic-based nationalism and oppressive authoritarianism towards a liberal standpoint that advocates equality, justice, and democratic values. This involves active participation in knowledge production through the experiences and agency of the complex subjects central to debates: Muslim immigrant women.


References

Berntzen, L. (2019). Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century. Routledge.

Hall, S. (1990). “Cultural identity and diaspora.” In: J. Rutherford (Ed.) Identity: Community, culture, difference (pp. 222-237). Lawrence & Wishart.

Hooks, Bell. (1989). “Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media36, 15–23.

Grewal, I. and Kaplan, C. (Eds.) (1994). Scattered hegemonies: Postmodernity and transnational feminist practices. University of Minnesota Press.

Ultra-right-wing Argentine politician Javier Milei during the PASO elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 13, 2023. Photo: Facundo Florit.

Populism in 2023: The Year in Review

In 2023, populism continued to shape the electoral landscape worldwide, notably in Europe but also in East Asia and Latin America. And it is clear that 2023 did not see the outright resurgence of populism worldwide as some had predicted but instead produced another year of mixed results, with critical successes and also major setbacks for populists at the ballot box.

By Simon P. Watmough*

As 2023 draws to a rapid close, it is time to review the year in populism. With key electoral contests scheduled throughout the year, observers were keen at the outset to see whether and how populist movements might fare electorally after the“mixed bag” of 2022, which saw populists rewarded (think Georgia Meloni’s stunning win in Italian parliamentary elections at the helm of the neo-Fascist Fratelli d’Italia and Viktor Orbán’s success in achieving a fourth consecutive term for Fidesz in Hungary) but also rebuked (most obviously in the outgoing administration of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in January and the decisive defeat of Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election in April).

In 2023, populism continued to shape the electoral landscape worldwide, notably in Europe but also in East Asia and Latin America. And it is clear that 2023 did not see the outright resurgence of populism worldwide as some had predicted but instead produced another year of mixed results, with critical successes and also major setbacks for populists at the ballot box.

In this commentary, I review the scorecard for populism globally in 2023. Looking back over the last twelve months, I detail the performance of populist parties and leaders, their electoral successes and failures and the significant political events of the year as they relate to populism. After surveying the major electoral events of the year, I offer some critical insights into their implications, in particular, with a view to the year ahead in 2024. Indeed, some have dubbed 2024 the “Year of Elections”, as it will be the biggest ballot year in world history, with some 2 billion voters going to the polls across the globe.

Key Wins and Losses

Populism globally in 2023 was characterized by a series of regional wins and losses, most notably in Europe in the first half of the year. The second half of 2023 saw notable gains for populist parties, culminating in Geert Wilders’ shock landslide win in the Dutch general elections in November.

A Win for Pluralism in the Czech Republic and for Populism in Slovakia

The year began with a decisive win for pluralism in the Czech Republic when retired NATO general Petr Pavel took 58% of the vote against Andrej Babiš, a billionaire industrialist, former prime minister and populist firebrand, in the second round of the presidential election on 27–28 January. The first round in mid-January had been much closer, with Pavel — who ran on a pro-Western, pro-European Union (EU) and pro-Ukrainian platform — taking 35.4 % of the popular vote, just ahead of Babiš (34.99 %). Babiš, who was facing criminal charges for corruption at the time of the election, led a divisive campaign featuring strong populist rhetoric and deep scepticism about the EU and Western support for Ukraine on the eve of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. In a strong signal of the strength of Czech pluralism, voter turnout in the second round was high at over 70 % (up from 68 % in the first round).

In neighbouring Slovakia, the pendulum had swung the other way by the middle of the year. In late September, disgraced two-time former prime minister Robert Fico — who had resigned from office in March 2018 after widespread protests following his being implicated in the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak — led his left-populist but socially conservative SMER (Direction–Social Democracy) to a surprise first position in parliamentary elections. With the issue of support for Ukraine high on the agenda (Fico declared he would end arms shipments to Slovakia’s embattled neighbour), fears rose in Brussels and Washington that a Fico victory would challenge the European consensus and embolden the camp of pro-Putin leaders in Europe led by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. In a highly fractured party system, SMER took 22.9% of the vote and 42 seats in Slovakia’s 150-seat National Council. As head of the largest party, Fico was commissioned to form a government, and after much wrangling, President Čaputová swore him in as prime minister on 25 October in a government that included the ultranationalist Slovak National Party.

Estonia and Finland

In the northern Baltics region, as well, 2023 was characterized by a pendulum swing. In parliamentary elections held on 5 March in Estonia, incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’s Reform Party increased its numbers. True to form, the far-right populist anti-immigrant Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) ran a highly divisive campaign focused on language politics, uncompromising border control, anti-immigration and opposition to further refugees from Ukraine. Under its new leader, Martin Helme, the party actually lost support but still came in second due to the collapse of the Centre Party, which had been caught up in a corruption scandal. Over half of ballots in the 2023 elections were cast online, and Helme cited supposed “anomalies and technical errors in the e-voting process” in his unsuccessful petition to Estonia’s Supreme Court to annul the results. In the end, Kallas returned to government at the head of a centrist coalition.

In neighbouring Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin was unable to head off a challenge led by the far-right nationalist Finns party (formerly the True Finns), who campaigned on a predictably anti-immigration and anti-EU platform and — like EKRE in Estonia — sought to make the climate transition a point of difference (challenging the Marin government’s carbon neutrality targets). Actually, in a campaign fought mostly on economic policy terrain, Marin’s own Social Democratic Party picked up three seats, while the Finns gained seven to take 46 seats, its strongest showing since the party was founded in 1995. Still, the Finns’ win came mainly at the expense of Marin’s far-left coalition partner, Left Alliance, whose vote share plummeted. After Marin and the other leftist parties ruled out forming a government with a party they described as “openly racist”, Petteri Orpo, leader of the victorious centre-right National Coalition, reached out to the Finns, the Swedish People’s Party, and the Christian Democrats to form a narrow majority government. In 2015–2019, the Finns were part of a coalition government — although mired in almost constant controversy and party splits — and already in June and July 2023, Finns’ ministers were courting media scandal for various anti-immigration remarks and harassment of journalists.

Unlikely Twins: Turkey and Thailand

Duncan McCargo and Ayşe Zarakol have famously dubbed Turkey and Thailand “unlikely twins” since — despite many obvious differences — they share histories as long-established nations that escaped direct colonization, allowing them the space to shape national modernization largely on their own terms, evolving very distinct “hybrid” forms of “tutelary democracy” as a result. In 2023, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Thailand’s Pheu Thai — two national–populist outfits formed in the early 2000s against a backdrop of economic and political crisis and helmed by “anti-establishment outsiders” with natural populist appeal — again faced the voters.

With parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey scheduled for May 2023, many hoped that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s time was up after nearly two decades in power and an economy in serious trouble (not to mention his government’s initial poor handling of severe earthquakes in the southeast at the start of the year). Observers were especially keen to know whether the six-party coalition ranged against Erdoğan — the Nation Alliance, including the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) headed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu — would fare better than the “United for Hungary” coalition against Viktor Orbán in Hungary in 2022. Alas, the Nation Alliance shared the same fate, failing to put forward a convincing campaign (coalition members bickered constantly) and Kılıçdaroğlu, while much-respected, seemed to lack Erdoğan’s legendary vim and vigour on the campaign trail. While Erdoğan narrowly failed to secure a majority in the first round (winning 49.5 % of the popular vote), he won a convincing second-round win against Kılıçdaroğlu to earn a third term in the presidential office, the first candidate to do so since the 1950s.

Thais also returned to the polls in May 2023 for the first truly free and fair elections since the Thai military coup of 2014 ousted the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, head of the populist Pheu Thai party and sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself ousted in a military coup and sent into exile in 2006. Thailand was primed for a populist revival after years of stagnant military rule, and the 2023 campaign was fought on issues of progressive reform and a complete restoration of democracy. Pheu Thai and the progressive Move Forward party cornered the reformist, pro-democracy vote. In a fragmented field of over 60 parties vying for voter support, Move Forward — whose program was dominated by appeals to younger urban voters — took a whopping 151 seats out of 500 in Thailand’s House of Representatives (up from 81 in 2019) and pipped Pheu Thai — which ran a classic rural populist campaign that featured giveaways and promises to the poor and elderly, including an innovative proposal to provide Thais aged over 16 with a 10,000 baht (US$287, €263) “digital wallet” to purchase essential items — to the post (38 % of the vote to Pheu Thai’s 29 %). Initially, Move Forward and Pheu Thai joined forces at the helm of a governing alliance that signed a memorandum of understanding a week after the election. However, talks broke down over the summer, and Pheu Thai began negotiations with the military-backed parties to head an alternative coalition without Move Forward. And when Thaksin announced he would return to Thailand and hand himself in to serve jail time, it was clear that a deal had been struck between Pheu Thai and the palace–military establishment. Over three months after the elections, on 22 August, the same day Thaksin returned to hand himself in to authorities, the king appointed Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin as prime minister.

Two Big Blows Struck for Pluralism: Spain and Poland

Two key elections during the year proved populists can be defeated at the ballot box. In July, Spain’s socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, fended off an electoral assault from the right headed by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and Spain’s far-right populist Vox party. The PP underperformed expectations even as it won the largest number of seats. Quite unexpectedly, Vox’s vote share plummeted, ensuring that the PP had no viable partner to form a majority coalition even with its plurality. As a result, King Filipe commissioned Sánchez to form a new government, and he was sworn in for a second term in September 2023. The ballot box defeat of the far-right, anti-immigration Vox — which had surged in the 2019 elections and again ran a campaign focused on anti-immigration, rolling back hard-fought rights for women (including on abortion) and the LGBTQ+ community, limiting the power of autonomous communities, as well as curtailing Spain’s international climate commitments — proved that despite their frustration with the ruling left-wing government, Spanish voters have no stomach for the kind of virulent anti-immigrant and anti-progressive agenda Vox advances.

October saw the resounding victory of Donald Tusk’s “coalition of coalitions” led by his “Civic Coalition” (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO) against the ruling national–populist Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PIS) government — a continuous thorn in the side of Brussels and Berlin — which was defeated after eight years in power. As I wrote in an ECPS commentary earlier this month, Tusk’s victory was simultaneously a win for Polish pluralism and democracy (voter turnout, especially among the young as well as Poles living abroad, broke all records) and for Europe, especially ahead of European Parliament elections in July 2024: “PiS’s defeat represents a clear win for Polish democracy, for pluralism writ large, and for Europe”. This conclusion holds even in the light of Geert Wilders’ shock victory in the Dutch elections in November (see below).

An Indian Summer for National Populists?

The autumn also saw several key ballot box events that confirmed the enduring strength of national populism worldwide.

Elections in the German states of Bavaria and Hesse on 8 October saw a surge in voter support for the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), with the party coming in second in Hesse and third in Bavaria, mainly at the expense of left-wing parties. These results indicated a growing “normalization” of the party among the electorate and fears that Germany’s far-right “firewall”, which sees the major parties refusing to work or vote with the AfD, may not hold ahead of federal elections scheduled for 2025.

October also saw a decisive defeat of the Voice Referendum in Australia, a proposal by the centre-left government of Anthony Albanese to establish constitutional recognition for Australia’s indigenous peoples for the first time and a related advisory body — the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament — to inform the legislature and executive on the impact of government policy on policies affecting Australia’s indigenous communities, who represent the oldest continuously existing culture on earth. The failure of the referendum indicates in no uncertain terms the thriving of Australia’s far-right populist “sovereign citizen movement” and its attendant social media ecosystem — made up primarily of far-right politicians and media commentators and internet trolls who spread mis- and disinformation, not to mention absurd conspiracy theories, about the referendum on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but also messaging services like Telegram and WhatsApp. This campaign highlights that despite the Labor Party’s decisive May 2022 defeat of the incumbent centre-right Liberal–National Party coalition — dominated since 2010 by avowed right-wing populists — the underlying infrastructure for far-right populist mobilization in Australia remains alive and well.

State elections in India at the end of the following month also signal growing support for Narendra Modi’s right-wing national–populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. Modi — an avowed national populist who stands accused of abetting anti-Muslim riots that killed thousands when he served as first minister of his native Gujarat in the early 2000s — was buoyed by wins for the BJP in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and the prominent state of Rajasthan across November, which seem to show his mix of Hindutva (Hindu chauvinism) ideology and anti-Muslim policies at home and nationalist foreign policy abroad is working ahead of general elections set for mid-2024 that seem likely to secure him a third term in office. Since the BJP first returned to power nationally in 2014, Modi has overseen a steady centralization of power in India and democratic backsliding that have seen observers increasingly concerned about the rule of law and pluralism in the world’s largest democracy.

November Surprise: Shock Victories for Milei and Wilders

No sooner had policymakers in Berlin, Brussels and Washington let out an audible sigh of relief at Donald Tusk’s decisive win in Poland in October than the map of populism was again scrambled with shock wins in late November for Javier Milei in the second round of the Argentinian presidential election and for Geert Wilders PVV in Dutch elections.

Let’s begin with the ultra-right libertarian Milei, an economist whose only political experience before the national elections was as a one-term member of the Chamber of Deputies from Buenos Aires. In the first round in October, the leftist candidate Sergio Massa pulled out an unexpected win (taking 36 % of the vote to Milei’s 30 %), leading some to contend that the threat from the flamboyant and mercurial Milei — who ran on a platform of laissez-faire economics and radical deregulation (he had previously described himself as an “anarcho-capitalist”, including a controversial proposal to dollarize the Argentinian economy and abolish the central bank — was overdone. But in the second round on 19 November, Milei, who paradoxically marries ultra-libertarian positions on questions of drug policy, guns, prostitution, and LGBTQ+ issues and a fervent opposition to abortion and euthanasia, won a resounding 55% of the popular vote. With protests against his sweeping, radical agenda already growing, led by the country’s voluble trade union movement, only time will tell how a president who cuts entirely against the grain of Argentina’s long-standing Peronist tradition will fare, especially given his limited support in the national legislature.

The shock of the year, however, came with the victory of Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam and anti-immigration Party of Freedom (PVV) in the Dutch elections on 22 November, which were fought mainly on issues of immigration and the economy and, worryingly, with several violent incidents against the far-right Thierry Baudet, came after a feud over refugee policy brought down the fourth government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. In “one of the biggest political upsets in Dutch politics since World War II”, the PVV took 37 seats in the 150-seat parliament and now — as the largest party in the legislature for the first time — is in prime position to head a coalition government. Wilders — a firebrand’s firebrand who has been a feature of Dutch politics for decades but always from the sidelines — ran an openly racist campaign focused on banning new mosques, ending immigration to the Netherlands, leaving the EU and imposing harsh assimilationist policies on migrants already settled in the country.

Given his avowedly Christian nationalist (“I don’t hate Muslims. I hate Islam”) and anti-immigrant positions, the PVV victory triggered shockwaves across the political landscape in the Netherlands and Europe, with many seeing it as a harbinger of an ascendant far-right in Europe or even a return to fascism. Still, negotiations to form a government in the Netherlands are generally tortuous and always result in a moderation of partners’ positions. In the end, much of the PVV agenda is unconstitutional and will never be implemented. Moreover, if Wilders wishes to be part of a governing coalition, let alone prime minister, he will have no choice but to moderate his positions, something he has already pledged to do. As of the end of 2023, Only one other party with a significant number of seats has committed to a formal agreement with the PVV, and the likely long-drawn-out negotiations may not even result in the party being in government. Still, with the PVV taking nearly 25 % of the popular vote, it would be foolhardy to ignore the signal sent by Dutch voters in the November elections that they want to see an end to “business as usual”.

Implications: Looking ahead to 2024

As mentioned at the top, 2024 is shaping up to be the biggest ballot year in human history, with over 2 billion voters heading to the polls, including nearly 1 billion registered voters in India alone, where national elections will be held in April and May of 2024. Other key national elections will be held in Indonesia and Pakistan (February), Portugal (March), South Korea (April), the European Parliament and Mexico (June), South Africa (mid-year), the United Kingdom (likely late in the year) and the United States (November), to name just a few. Populism will be on the ballot of most, if not all, of these critical electoral contests.

We may gather the key implications into four key categories. The first concerns crises and breakdowns in the social contract. Elections in Finland, Slovakia, Argentina, and the Netherlands have shown that voters are turning to populist parties out of frustration with the failure of incumbent governments to address pressing social and economic concerns, including cost of living pressures. Take housing, for example. While the Dutch election was cast in terms of debates about immigration, rising urban densities and overcrowding and attendant shortages of affordable housing proved to be at the root of much of the electorate’s concerns.

The second implication is that populist politics has become the “new normal” in many countries and that subnational (state and municipal) elections and referendums can also be subject to populist pressures. The Voice Referendum in Australia showed that the “far-right media infrastructure” is still in place for populists to use as a mobilizing tool to spread mis- and disinformation. State elections in India and Germany in late 2023, in which populists saw a surge of support, send a dangerous signal ahead of national elections in those countries in the middle of 2024.

Third, in the EU populists are on the march ahead of European elections in June 2024. Fears are growing that a surge in anti-immigration politics and Euroscepticism off the back of Wilders’ shock win in late 2023 (and notwithstanding Poland’s return to the pluralist camp). Beyond the success of Robert Fico in Slovakia and the AfD at the state level in Germany, populists have no doubt been buoyed by gains in Italy, Hungary and Sweden in 2022.

Finally — and on a positive note — the stunning results in Spain and Poland tell us that voters in large democracies are put off by the most virulent anti-immigration and xenophobic appeals and that populists can be beaten decisively at the ballot box, especially when the opposition is united and has access to media and ensures “a savvy campaign platform that rallies … natural supporters while also allowing [for appeals] to the base of support of the populists.


 

(*) Simon P. Watmough is a researcher based in Leipzig in Germany and a non-resident research fellow in the research program on authoritarianism at ECPS. Dr. Watmough’s research interests sit at the intersection of global and comparative politics and include varieties of post-authoritarian states, the political sociology of the state, the role of the military in regime change, and the foreign policy of post-authoritarian states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently writing a book on the global history of populism.

Far-right Golden Dawn party supporters attend the main pre-election rally outside the party's headquarters in Thessaloniki, Greece on June 15, 2014. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Populism and Incompetence in Updating the ‘System’

Why do many societies suddenly exhibit xenophobic and anti-systemic tendencies? Persuading those with phobic views is essential, and if persuasion fails, it indicates a failure in addressing the underlying issues. The examples illustrate that populism thrives in environments where social problems remain unresolved or experience significant delays due to incompetence or bureaucratic practices. Instead of efficiently solving problems, responsible agents often opt for the easier route of criticizing populist approaches, which proves to be ineffective.

By Hercules Millas

The rise of populist discourses in recent decades, posing a threat to democratic regimes and fostering contempt for fundamental institutions, particularly the judiciary system in this context, is often linked to the failure of some states to address the everyday needs of their citizens. The expectation is that citizens should uphold and adhere to democratically established laws and the constitution of their country, resisting the demagoguery of populist leaders. However, a fundamental shift is required and at this point what is needed is to put the horse in front of the cart: laws and constitutions should be designed to earn respect and compliance by serving as effective tools for problem-solving rather than mere principles to be upheld out of propriety. Without this transformation, the proliferation of populism is likely to persist, eroding trust in institutions such as justice and law over the long term.

As an introduction, a case in Greece serves as an enlightening example to illustrate the challenges associated with illegal property occupation, particularly concerning second homes. The issue of squatting transcends national boundaries and is prevalent in both developed and developing countries. Effectively addressing this phenomenon is consistently complex, expensive, and time-consuming. While, in theory, the unauthorized occupation of another person’s property is considered illegal, practical deterrents and punitive measures often fall short. Squatters, armed with manuals, often sourced from the internet, employ strategies to prolong their stay in properties against the will of the rightful owners.

The state security forces, upon receiving complaints related to illegal property occupation, typically restrict their involvement to referring the cases to the appropriate court. This approach results in significant delays in restoring possession. Often exceeding a year, the process is prolonged due to the occupiers’ utilization of various procedural delaying tactics, such as presenting false rental contracts, filing harassment complaints against owners, lodging appeals, and more. In Greece, in particular, the retrieval of access to one’s property can span several years, during which the property is usually found vandalized and looted.

A potential “solution” to the problem gained attention in Greece when the far-right racist organization Golden Dawn took action in 2009. It is important to note that this organization has since been dissolved, and its leaders are incarcerated for their involvement in murders and actions reminiscent of Nazi ideology. However, for a period, its members effectively assisted property owners grappling with squatting issues. The process was straightforward: applying to the organization was sufficient. Within a few days, the property would be returned to the owners, sometimes even cleaned, and painted. Golden Dawn employed a simple method: threatening squatters with physical harm and more severe consequences.

In similar cases, citizens faced a dilemma: to remain law-abiding and watch their homes from a distance or to circumvent the law and reclaim their houses with the help of Golden Dawn. Most Greeks trust the state and its law-enforcing mechanisms expecting that they will be protected against outlaws and criminals. But on this issue of squatters they see that Golden Dawn was more efficient. The crucial point is this: The collaboration of the owner of the house with the criminal organization is not perceived by many as something against humane behavior or against established law and order. This perception stems from the frustration with the slow administration of justice by state mechanisms, including local police and the court. Although the state condemns squatters and recognizes the property rights of owners, the prolonged legal processes make citizens feel abandoned and unprotected. The populist promises of Golden Dawn-type entities, advocating for quick solutions by bypassing the law and established order, resonate as sensible and promising to many voters.

Naturally, this example is extreme, involving a criminal organization resorting to bullying and force. Despite ignoring potential justifications of the squatters in this case, it serves the purpose of illustrating how populist promises may seem more practical, sensible, and useful to many. The counterargument, suggesting that such “solutions” herald the end of democratic regimes and foster anarchy and authoritarianism, lacks persuasiveness for individuals desperately fighting for rights acknowledged by all but unsecured by the existing administration. The notion of a potentially dangerous rise in anarchy does not resonate as sensible to citizens already experiencing anarchic treatment, such as by squatters, in an environment where protection is lacking. In these conditions, an anti-systemic stance or understanding gradually gains supporters.

The argument that a democratic regime is “slow” in addressing similar social problems, and that this is the price societies pay for maintaining a lawful and orderly milieu, can be perceived as resigned acceptance, saying, “Sorry, there is nothing to be done!” While it’s true that time-consuming and exhausting bureaucratic procedures aim to prevent injustice or harm, the concern that expedited processes may lead to injustice contributes to a mood conducive to populism. Populist leaders claim to transcend unnecessary obstacles, presenting themselves as “practical” and “pragmatic.” They don’t waste time on trivial “details” such as courts, appeals, constitutions, and the like. This narrative aligns well with the image of a “single” man, a strong, determined, and daring leader.

There are several areas where democratic governments struggle to address problems promptly and take decisive measures. Issues such as illegal immigration, terrorism, general security and anarchy, inflation, unemployment, and police force bullying are among these challenges. While some of these problems are inherently complex, some fears and demands expressed by the public are often considered unwarranted phobias and unjustified whims. I will delve further into the topic of immigration.

In recent decades, there has been a surge in population movements from developing countries to developed ones, particularly towards the United States and the European Union. This trend was not at all notable prior the Industrial Revolution, as global disparities in welfare standards were not as stark as they are today. The factors driving immigration, besides economic considerations, include a) increased access to information about new opportunities, b) greater ease of travel compared to the past, c) improved living standards in developing countries, enabling the “middle classes” to afford the costly journey to their desired destination, and d) the capacity of host countries to accommodate and absorb newcomers either as cheap labor or as immigrants with limited prospects of repatriation. The net result is a growing influx of economic migrants to these “wealthy” countries.

However, it is evident that this trend presents a considerable challenge. The “poor” countries of Asia and Africa make up roughly 70 percent of the world population. Even if only 1 percent of the potential immigrants were to seek relocation, it would amount to sixty million people, and the 10 percent nearly equals the combined population of the USA and the EU. Moreover, only 19 percent of illegal immigrants were repatriated in recent years (See: Migration Information Source, ‘Recalcitrant’ and ‘Uncooperative’). The legal frameworks governing immigration were established at a time when the issue of illegal economic immigration was not as prominent. (It’s important to note that the refugee issue is a distinct economic, political, and ethical matter, which will not be addressed here.)

The issue of illegal economic immigration has created a strained social atmosphere within the EU, and this will be the focus of my discussion. The unrest is complex and multifaceted: some perceive an intrusion of “foreigners” threatening the social and national composition, as well as the unity of their country; others express their fear that their jobs are jeopardized; and still others emphasize the costs incurred by the country in trying to accommodate the newcomers. There are also those who dismiss these views as irrelevant, nationalistic, or even racist, opting to approach the entire issue from a humanitarian standpoint.

Eventually, in December 2023, the European Parliament and the Council reached an agreement on the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum of the EU,” initially proposed in December 2020. This new pact is aimed at managing and normalizing migration for the long term, ensuring a more rapid and effective response to future crises, including the instrumentalization of migrants. It took the EU three years to reach a consensus on measures that may seem self-evident. Understandably, the EU needed additional time to identify the problems and propose new measures. The implementation of these measures is expected to take further years, highlighting the lengthy process involved in recognizing and addressing complex issues. During those years of “dormancy,” populist attacks on the existing “system” resonated as logical and appealing. Tensions within the EU were escalating, providing a fertile ground for populist narratives. Populist leaders skillfully exploited the delays, criticizing and condemning the perceived inefficiencies of the “system.” They advocated for pragmatic, efficient, and strong single leaders as an alternative and their complaints found hospitable ears.Unfortunately, the New Pact on Migration of the EU arrived belatedly, contributing to the populist narrative of systemic failure.

The issue of populism cannot be solely framed within the dichotomy of good or bad, right or wrong, useful or harmful and legal or illegal. This complexity arises from its connection to popular perceptions and aspirations. In a democratic society, determinations of what is right, ethical, wrong, or unethical are not dictated by experts or authorities, as in authoritarian regimes. Instead, these categories of right/wrong and the related laws are relative and shaped by the democratic process—through votes, elections, and decisions made by elected bodies. Constitutions or internationally recognized principles like human rights may act as a “safety valve.” Still, even these are neither “holy” in the sense that they may not be changed, nor established in the absence of some kind of social and communal consensus.  

To fight populism solely based on “humanitarian principles, ethics, laws,” without considering the perceptions and wishes of the citizens, is counterproductive. The priorities lie with the needs and understanding of the voters, which should take precedence over abstract principles and laws. It’s essential to recognize whose principles are being referred to if they are not reflective of the people’s. Haughtiness and great trust to one’s convictions do not constitute a democratic approach to problems. The “worried” citizens do not change their minds when they are accused and confronted as racists, xenophobic and as being “wrong in their judgments.” On the contrary, they feel that the populist leaders who are called “racists” are closer to them, since they share their worries. 

Populist leaders leverage their arguments by addressing the immediate needs and demands of the masses, which may sometimes be influenced by undemocratic or racist perspectives. However, these concerns should not be dismissed outright. It is crucial to comprehend, address, and confront them, not on theoretical grounds, but by actively solving problems, dispelling fears, and curing phobias. To ignore and disregard offhandedly phobias, prejudices, stereotypes, xenophobic tendencies and similar manifestations of a section of a community, calling names and by assigning negative characterizations stops short of understanding what is going on. Labels at best describe situations but don’t explain what happens and why they occur. The undemocratic tendencies are not to be cured by psychoanalysis and/or by philosophizing on ethics.  They may be superseded when the conjuncture which creates them vanishes.

The main point of my argumentation can be succinctly summarized: Why do many societies suddenly exhibit xenophobic and anti-systemic tendencies? Persuading those with phobic views is essential, and if persuasion fails, it indicates a failure in addressing the underlying issues. The examples provided illustrate that populism thrives in environments where social problems remain unresolved or experience significant delays due to incompetence or bureaucratic practices. Instead of efficiently solving problems, responsible agents often opt for the easier route of criticizing populist approaches, which proves to be ineffective. The relevant procedures – which were decided in the past for societies that faced different problems – should be expedited, if needed risking some harm that may incur to some. Delays involve much more serious harm to many. 

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

Eight Years of Populist Rule in Poland Comes to an End

Unlike in Hungary and Türkiye, where opposition blocs failed to defeat long-term populists in power, the loosely aligned opposition “coalition of coalitions” in Poland rose to the task. Elites in Brussels and national capitals can rightly breathe a sigh of relief at Poland’s return to the camp of “regular politics.” PiS’s defeat represents a clear win for Polish democracy, for pluralism writ large, and for Europe. Nonetheless, we should not overread the outcome — Poland’s populists are certainly down but far from out. 

By Simon P. Watmough*

After eight years in power, Poland’s national-populist Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) has left office. On Wednesday, 13 December 2023, following more than eight weeks of delay tactics, Poland’s president, Andrej Duda — first elected in 2015 with PiS’s backing — finally appointed Donald Tusk as head of an incoming coalition government made up of his center-right Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO), the centrist Third Way (Trzecia Droga), and the New Left (Lewica). Tusk now returns to the post of prime minister, which he first held between 2007 and 2014.

Throwing more than a little shade on the outgoing government during remarks as his government was sworn in, Tusk vowed“Allegiance to the provisions of the constitution will be the trademark of this new team, this new government.”

The three coalition partners took 53.7% of the vote and a comfortable majority (248 seats in the 460-seat Sejm) in elections held on 15 October. On 10 November, the parties inked a coalition deal signaling their readiness to assume government immediately. But despite calls for a speedy transition in the national interest, President Duda chose to drag the government formation process out to its constitutional limit. While it had no chance of success — PiS took the largest vote share (35.4%) and won the most seats overall, but it failed to win a majority and was never in a position to form a government — the president gave PiS’s caretaker prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki the first shot at forming a government. Duda’s foot-dragging portends the kinds of challenges an incoming Tusk government will likely face as it seeks to reverse eight years of democratic backsliding.

The question now is what the PiS defeat means for the future of populism in Poland — and, indeed, Europe more broadly. This commentary argues that PiS’s defeat represents a clear win for Polish democracy, for pluralism writ large, and for Europe. Nonetheless, we should not overread the outcome — Poland’s populists are certainly down but far from out. Getting down to causes and conditions — that is, dealing with the underlying structural factors that have given rise to populism in the first place — will be essential if Poland is to remain in the pluralist camp.

The Most Divisive Government in Polish History

Commentators have described the 2023 parliamentary campaign as the most divisive and hardest-fought electoral campaign in Polish history. PiS was seeking an unprecedented third term in office, promising to complete its national-populist agenda of defending traditional Polish values against perceived threats and “cleansing” the state and society of leftists and “foreign influences,” including so-called “LGBT ideology.”

A third PiS term would almost certainly have seen Poland follow Hungary’s slide into outright “competitive authoritarianism,” an outcome that might have put the entire European project in jeopardy. On returning to power in 2015, PiS head Jarosław Kaczyński held up Fidesz — in power since 2010 — as the model the party would adopt in government.

Indeed, from confronting Brussels to subverting media freedom and stifling minority rights in the name of “traditional” national values, PiS has hued close to the Fidesz line. For example, like Fidesz, it engaged in political hiring and firing on a massive scale, placing thousands of party loyalists in every state institution — including the public broadcaster, which devolved into little more than a party mouthpiece during the campaign — but also the civil service and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Infamously, the party also brought sweeping changes to how judges are appointed, giving the political majority greater control over the judiciary and sparking a “rule of law crisis” with the EU. The European Court of Justice initiated legal proceedings against Poland for these breaches of the rule of law.

Attacks on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights — including the declaration of “LGBT-free zones” by some PiS-led municipal governments — were widely condemned by human rights groups and the international community. As a result, Poland’s Freedom House “democracy score” has fallen steadily since 2015, and the country has fallen from 18th in Reporters Without Borders’ global media freedom rankings in 2015 to 58th today.

During the campaign, PiS pulled every move in the populist playbook. PiS used its dominance of public media to target prominent Poles with any “foreign” connection, including Tusk himself (he has German ancestry). Casting him as a “German agent” deliberately invoked images of the Nazi occupation of Poland during the Second World War. This chimed with PiS’s general tendency to cast internal enemies as conspiring with the external Other to do the country in. PiS also directed government agencies and SOEs to promote the party’s electoral message, thus redirecting their advertising budgets toward campaigns that supported PiS’s agenda, effectively leveraging public resources for party gain.

The opposition parties met this onslaught with a campaign focused on the economy, the rule of law and Poland’s future in Europe. KO and Third Way, in particular, campaigned tirelessly in rural areas and Poland’s less prosperous urban areas. This went a long way to mitigating the perception in the mind of some voters that Tusk and his party are “aloof” liberal elites with little concern for “real Poles.”

A Win for Pluralism …

The biggest winner in PiS’s defeat is Polish democracy. Voter turnout broke all records, with 74.4% of Poles casting a ballot (compared to 69% in 2019). The rise in youth turnout was more impressive still, rising from 46% last time to 69%. The Polish diaspora, which generally disfavors PiS, also turned out en masse, with over half a million Poles living abroad registering to vote (nearly double that in 2019). The immense turnout necessitated a 70% increase in overseas electoral commissions to manage the volume​.

Secondly, it is now clear that PiS’s claim to represent “the people” is a dead letter. This much was already apparent in early 2021 when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Poles poured onto the streets to demonstrate against a near-total ban on abortion that went into effect after a ruling from the Constitutional Tribunal, which PiS has stacked with friendly judgesSuch mass mobilization of “the people” against PiS was clearly in evidence during the campaign, with Tusk headlining a public demonstration of half a million people in Warsaw in July and another that was reportedly attended by a million Poles two weeks before the 15 October polls.

Crucially, we’ve learned that governance matters and that voters will punish populist governments that fail to deliver, engage in corruption, and push the policy and ideological envelopes too far. Beyond rampant corruption and cronyism, PiS has appeared incapable of handling basic policy. The government’s disastrous fumbling of the summer “grain imports” crisis (Romania’s government has deftly handled the same issue) and Prime Minister Morawiecki’s ham-fisted announcement that Poland would stop arms shipments to Ukraine (in fact, they continue) managed to simultaneously alienate farmers (and annoy Kyiv) and paint a picture of a government out of its depth.

As Polish political scientist Sławomir Sierakowski noted in September: “For Kaczyński and the PiS government, transferring cash is easy; but anything more complicated than that is beyond their capacity. That is why queues for doctors are twice as long as in the past, and why court cases take twice as long.”

… and for Europe

PiS’s defeat is also great news for the EU. Brussels (and, for good measure, Berlin) has long served as a useful foil for a national-populist outfit bent on emphasizing “cultural threats” to Polish sovereignty from hostile neighbors. Tusk is a Brussels brahmin, having served as president of the European Council between 2014 and 2019 and then head of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament (EP) until his return to Polish politics in 2021. Ahead of plans to attend EU summits this week on 13–14 December, Tusk declared Poland would “regain its position as a leader in the European Union.”

Crucially, Poland will no longer play a spoiler role in the institutions. Tusk’s coalition is committed to abiding by EU law, not least to unlock the €35.4 billion in frozen EU recovery funds as quickly as possible. Poland’s “return to Europe” will strengthen the EPP and reduce the sway of the sovereigntist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), home to many of Europe’s national-populist parties in the EP. With European elections scheduled for mid-2024, the result in Poland will be a welcome shot in the arm for centrists who have been fighting something of a rearguard action against populists across the continent.

Polish Populism: Down, but Not Out

Still, we should not overread the results. A KO-led government will face several challenges that PiS will be primed to exploit in opposition. While the coalition agreement pledges to reverse the near-total ban on abortion that sparked the aforementioned mass protests in 2021, the parties remain divided on the issue. In any event, any legislation loosening abortion access will likely face a veto from President Duda, which the coalition lacks the numbers to override despite its parliamentary majority. Other lightning rod issues will be recognizing same-sex unions (short of marriage), social policy (Lewica will push for major reforms) and support for farmers (the Polish People’s Party, an agrarian outfit, is part of the Third Way coalition).

Moreover, reversing eight years of democratic backsliding will prove a tougher challenge than some have predicted. Expectations are sky high, and with a daunting to-do list, the new government may struggle to meet the moment. The young voters who came out to vote for the coalition parties in droves will be impatient for change, and Tusk will be under pressure to quickly remove PiS loyalists from the media and judiciary. Yet in doing so, Tusk must be careful not to stoop to the same “decisionist” tactics of PiS, which saw the party bypass the law to make political appointments.

The Constitutional Tribunal is already showing signs of obstruction. In rulings this week, it has declared that proposed judicial reforms needed to unlock EU funds would be unconstitutional.

More importantly, PiS is now back on what is, in some ways, more familiar territory. Opposition is, in some respects, the “natural habitat” of populists since lobbing grenades at “ruling elites” is much more straightforward from outside the corridors of power. Those in any doubt about this should recall the relentless “post-truth” campaign Jarosław Kaczyński ran against Tusk after the Smolensk plane disaster in 2010, in which the forces of PiS’s networks in civil society and the Catholic media spread misinformation and conspiracy theories. And, while Mr. Tusk has worked hard to shed his image as an out-of-touch liberal with a haughty contempt for PiS’s conservative base, the resentment lingers in some quarters, something PiS is certain to exploit

Conclusion

Unlike in Hungary and Türkiye, where opposition blocs failed to defeat long-term populists in power, the loosely aligned opposition “coalition of coalitions” in Poland rose to the task. Elites in Brussels and national capitals can rightly breathe a sigh of relief at Poland’s return to the camp of “regular politics.”

But equally, policymakers must not learn the wrong lessons. Yes — governance matters, and voters will punish populists in power that cannot deliver. But the European social model remains broken, leaving plenty of scope for populists of the left and the right to exploit very real grievances and the perceived out-of-touchness of policy elites for electoral gain, something Geert Wilders’ shock victory in the Dutch elections last month makes all too clear.

Policymakers in Poland and elsewhere are on notice: both the style and the substance of policy must meet voters where they are at. The impending green transition and the need to address workforce gaps and demographic issues are vital and unavoidable policy moves. But if these policies are communicated ineffectively, and the cost of implementation falls most heavily on those least able to afford it, the forces of populism will have their opening.


(*) Simon P. Watmough is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leipzig in Germany and a non-resident research fellow in the research program on authoritarianism at ECPS. Dr. Watmough’s research interests sit at the intersection of global and comparative politics and include varieties of post-authoritarian states, the political sociology of the state, the role of the military in regime change, and the foreign policy of post-authoritarian states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently writing a book on the global history of populism.

Ultra-right-wing Argentine politician Javier Milei during the PASO elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 13, 2023. Photo: Facundo Florit.

Javier Milei’s Victory: A New Chapter for Right-Wing Populism in Argentina?

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.

Turkish women protest against violence towards women. A woman carries a banner that reads "Stop violence, abuse, rape" during a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey on April 4, 2015. Photo: Deniz Toprak.

Unmasking Gender (In)Equality: Turkey’s Post-2023 Election Landscape

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.

By Hafza Girdap

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.

As a member state of NATO, Turkey currently witnesses the incarceration of prominent political and social figures, severe restrictions on media freedom, and the persistence of self-censorship, despite judgments from the European Court of Human Rights. Criticism at home and substantial reports from international and intergovernmental organizations collectively assert that Erdogan’s government has stifled dissent, eroded civil and human rights, and exerted control over the judiciary and other state institutions, leading the country towards both democratic and economic repercussions. In the face of an economic crisis spurred by Erdogan’s unconventional economic strategies, the Turkish lira has plummeted to record lows against the dollar. Additionally, Turkey, under Erdogan’s leadership, has showcased its military influence in the Middle East and beyond, forged closer ties with Russia, and experienced increasingly strained relations with the European Union and the United States.

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. [1] 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.


[1] Dönmez, & Özmen, F. A. (2013). Gendered identities criticizing patriarchy in Turkey. Lexington Books.