Prime Minister Narendra Modi is showing victory sign with both hand to supporters at Bharatiya Janata Party office amid the results of the Indian General Elections 2024 in New Delhi, India on June 4 2024. Photo: PradeepGaurs.

The 2024 General Election and the Future of Authoritarian Populism in India 

The 2024 election was the least free and fair election in India’s history. Just days after India’s nationalist-populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed a government for the third time, Delhi’s BJP Lieutenant Governor, V.K. Saxena, proceeded to charge the writer Arundhati Roy, a fierce critic of Modi, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) 2019 for a speech she gave in 2010. The already draconian law was amended in 2019 to allow the government more extraordinary powers to designate individuals and organizations as terrorists without a formal judicial process. BJP leaders accused Roy of being a traitor backed by the Congress party. This strongly indicates that some version of authoritarian populism, with its attacks on dissent, undermining of institutions, and social polarization, will likely continue to shape governance under the new government.

By Priya Chacko* and Kanchan Pandey** 

Introduction: India’s Unfree and Unfair 2024 Election 

India’s nationalist-populist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has formed government for the third time. The 2024 election was the least free and fair election in India’s history. For much of its history as an independent state, India has been an electoral democracy, defying the ‘Lipset hypothesis’ that democratic institutions and cultures usually only thrive in affluent societies. Barring a period of Emergency rule in the 1970s when elections were suspended, India has met the threshold for free and fair elections. Its voter turnout has typically been high at around 70%, and a complex electoral structure involving phased voting, a Model Code of Conduct (MCC), travelling electoral and security officials seek to reach all voters, and electronic voting has been put in place to prevent fraud. Since 2018, however, there has been a steep decline in the quality of India’s electoral democracy. The V-Dem Institute now regards India as an electoral autocracywithout sufficient freedoms and safeguards to ensure free and fair elections. 

The BJP went to the polls supported by a pro-government mainstream media and with vastly more resources than other parties. This was thanks to an opaque electoral financing system it introduced, which was belatedly declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in February. Opposition leaders allege the Modi government is misusing state agencies to target them on charges of money laundering and tax violations. Before the election, two prominent opposition Chief Ministers, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), were arrested on charges of corruption.

However, even though Modi is embarking upon a third term, and despite the lack of a level electoral playing field, his party has been denied a majority for the first time in a decade. To continue to govern, he must rely on two veteran regional leaders who are a part of the NDA, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) (JD) and Chandrababu Naidu of the Telegu Desam Party (TDP). 

In this article, we discuss India’s decade-long descent into authoritarian populism – following its praxis and its traces in the 2024 campaign discourse. We probe into the increasingly authoritarian character of India’s state under Modi, which includes the growing prevalence of Islamophobic rhetoric, the suffocation of dissent, the curbing of critical spaces, and the capture of institutions by the Sangh Parivar or Hindutva movement. We conclude with a discussion on the limits and the future of India’s authoritarian populism following the election results.

Decade of Authoritarian Populist Rule 

In the last decade, the Modi government has used nationalist-populist discourses and strategies to legitimise and facilitate increasingly authoritarian and exclusionary forms of governance. The government has promoted discourses and policies aimed at marginalising and stigmatising India’s Muslim population and propagating Hindu upper-caste social norms, exposing the most vulnerable groups, Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis, to vigilante violence. Its economic policies favoured the private sector and trickle-down economic growth, increasing economic inequality. It has enabled institutional disintermediation, concentrating power in the executive and eroding institutional independence and federalism. It grew increasingly intolerant of dissent, using laws against sedition, defamation and anti-terrorism as well as tax and corruption investigations to jail and intimidate journalists, activists and political opponents. India was always a flawed democracywith draconian laws applied particularly to restive regions with large numbers of minorities, inadequate public goods, overly centralised governance structures and a Hindu bias in its Constitution. However, the Modi government’s inherently authoritarian nationalist-populist politics of Hindutva has intensified these pre-existing illiberal and anti-democratic features of governance.

Hindutva is an organicist nationalism that draws on religious concepts from ancient texts from the Vedic era (1500-500 BCE) to construct India as a living organism. Hindutva ideologues like Deendayal Upadhyaya and M.S. Golwalkar conceptualised India as Virat Purusha (Cosmic Man) –  with a Hindu soul (chitti) and limbs that are analogous to the caste order of Brahmins (head), Kshatriyas (arms), Vaishyas (abdomen) and Shudras (legs). This organic national unity underpinned by the caste order is seen as threatened by religious, political, caste and class conflict. To create a unified Hindu nation and stigmatise dissent, Hindutva leaders have utilised populist political strategies to construct an aspirational Hindu people, privileging upper caste forms of Hinduism while encouraging caste pride to secure acceptance for an unequal status quo. These Hindu ‘people’ were pitted against ‘anti-national’ secular, liberal-left elite and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, who are characterised as dangerous and disloyal because they adhere to foreign religions and ideologies. In the past decade, so-called elites – opposition leaders, university students, activists, intellectuals, bureaucrats, independent journalists – were accused of being anti-national, corrupt and ‘appeasing’ Muslims who were posed as threats to the Hindu people in various ways. Modi fashioned himself as a representative of God with divine origins who embodied the common people and was sent to rescue the poor and restore India’s (Hindu) civilisational greatness.

Such discourses framed the government’s policies and its institutional capture. For instance, the government’s welfare policies, consisting of small cash transfers, small loans, food rations, and subsidies for private goods like toilets and insurance, have been communicated as superior to previous programs, which were constrained in their delivery by elite corruption and as  ‘guarantees’ of a better life from Modi. Yet their limited nature means the considerable onus is placed on personal duty to pursue ‘empowerment’ through market participation, which is consistent with Hindutva’s emphasis on swadharma (own duty) for the upholding of social order rather than transformation. Nationalist-populist discourses underpinned the introduction of policies targeting and stigmatising Muslims, such as curtailing interreligious marriage –  on the grounds they often involve religious conversion and the coercion or tricking of Hindu women by Muslim men – and the promotion of Hindu upper caste behavioural norms, for instance, banning beef production and consumption. Both religious conversion (termed ‘love jihad’) and beef production, the BJP claimed, permitted establishment elites to cultivate Muslim ‘vote banks.’ Liberal universities were targeted as full of ‘anti-national’ elites, and their administrations were filled with pro-government leaders. Courts increasingly favoured the executive, including by adopting its rhetoric. The mainstream media became increasingly uncritical of the government, while the independent media were subject to censorship, defamation charges and tax investigations to stifle their dissent.

Authoritarian Populism and the 2024 Election Campaign

People wait in queues to cast votes at a polling station during the 3rd phase of Lok Sabha polls, in Guwahati, India on May 7, 2024. Photo: Hafiz Ahmed.

Authoritarian populism also framed the 2024 election campaign. In the lead-up to the election, the largest party of INDIA block, the Congress, which the BJP alleges is led by corrupt elites, accused the government of instigating the income tax department to freeze its accounts for late tax filings, leaving it unable to effectively campaign.

Modi’s initial campaigning revolved around his welfare ‘guarantees’ for improving the lives of the poor and the building of a temple marking the birthplace of the god Rama on the site of a mosque demolished by Hindutva activists in 1992. This campaigning emphasised aspirational nationalist-populism, tinged with anti-Muslim resentment. Modi has sought to represent himself as an aspirational leader, leaving the espousal of anti-Muslim rhetoric to colleagues like Amit Shah, vigilante groups and his supporters. During the inauguration of the Ram Temple in January, for instance, while Modi declared the temple a symbol of religious unity, his supporters filled public spaces, both virtual and physical, with anti-Muslim rhetoric

As the campaign wore on, however – perhaps due to low voter turnout and negative internal polling – Modi resorted to explicitly Islamophobic and anti-elite rhetoric. Modi declared the Congress Party manifesto as having an “imprint of Muslim League” (The party often blamed for the partition of India in 1947). He also accused the Congress Party, which pledged to of wanting to snatch away affirmative action benefits of lower castes to satisfy the ‘Muslim vote bank.’ In the state of Bengal, ruled by prominent regional party and Congress ally Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee, the Prime Minister evoked the fears of infiltrators (implicitly Muslims) snatching away resources of the Hindu people of Bengal. He also alleged the Congress’s emphasis on redistribution meant that it wanted to snatch away the mangal sutras  (an ornament worn by married Hindu women) and buffalos of Hindus to give to Muslims. The Election Commission failed to adequately enforce the Model Code of Conduct with respect to these comments.

In several fawning interviews with pro-government legacy media channels, Modi sought to respond to charges that he is cultivating a dictatorship by invoking a victimised ‘common man’ persona. In one such interview, he said, “People used to slap me if they feel they have been given cold tea, so I am accustomed to accusations and harassments. As I am a common man, I know these people in higher echelons of society abuse the common man.” Though social media and especially YouTube emerged as a site of alternative and critical news coverage, it was also targeted with censorship

During the long seven phases of polling, numerous reports of voter suppression and intimidation emerged. In Uttar Pradesh’s Muslim-dominated constituency of Sambhal, Muslim voters were beaten up, their voter IDs snatched, effectively barred from voting. BJP officials were caught on camera bribing the polling officials to intimidate Muslim voters. The election commission stayed silent on most accounts of polling irregularities, and also delayed voter turnout data for first two phases of polling raising questions on the sanctity of voting process. 

The Limits of Authoritarian Populism

Modi had begun his election campaign proclaiming his intention to win more than 400 seats and media pollsters predicted him to win by a substantial margin. However, signs of discontent were visible. A pre-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) from mid-March to early April showed significant voter discontent about inflation and unemployment. While 44% of respondents want the government to return to power, a sizeable 39% did not want the government to be re-elected. Interviews by independent media organisations with voters during the campaign reflected this discontent. There is visible distress in India’s rural economy, where wages have been stagnant for the past ten years. Rural growth rates were on the decline even before Modi took office, but they have only worsened since then, contrary to his promises. The “Ache Din (Good days)” rhetoric has fallen deaf after ten years. Reports also indicated a lack of enthusiasm among BJP party workers, who have been important vote mobilisers in previous elections and strong campaigning by the opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). 

Taking advantage of repeated claims by BJP leaders about needing to change the Constitution, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s speeches highlighted a commitment to protecting the Constitution, addressing caste-based injustice by undertaking a caste census to reveal the extent of disadvantage and the concentration of wealth. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Lalu Prasad Yadav, an important ally of the INDIA block, warned the BJP intended to change the Constitution to end caste-based affirmative action. Though this was denied by Modi, the allegation was plausible given that BJP leadersoften spoke of the need to change the Constitution and seemed to strike a chord with voters. Caste presents a dilemma for Modi’s Hindutva politics, which is dominated by upper-caste leaders and valorises upper-caste Hindu practices and behaviour while relying on support from the lower-caste majority to win elections. The BJP has sought to ameliorate this tension by promoting welfare schemes. In the lead-up to the election, Modi, who often emphasises his lower caste background, claimed to have replaced traditional forms of caste stratification with four castes of welfare ‘beneficiaries’ – women, farmers, youth and the poor. However, the government’s welfare schemes only compensate for the stagnation of incomes and the lack of jobs. Its spending on health and education, which could have transformative effects on social mobility, has languished

Ultimately, the BJP was reduced to 240 seats, the NDA won 293 seats, and INDIA performed much better than pollsters had predicted, winning 232 seats. Modi’s victory margin in his seat of Varanasi dropped to about 150,000 votes from 500,000 in 2019, and a post-poll survey indicated stagnation in his popularity. The BJP lost one-third of its rural seats. The Congress Party almost doubled its tally, winning 99 seats and made gains in Rajasthan, Haryana and Maharashtra, taking advantage of discontent among rural voters and particular caste communities like Jats and Rajputs. The Samajwadi Party (SP), a regional party, won 37 seats and made a comeback in Uttar Pradesh. The SP previously dominated Uttar Pradesh politics by fashioning a voter base of lower caste ‘Other Backward Class’ (OBC) Yadavs and Muslims. This politics, however, generated resentment among non-Yadav and Dalit voters, which the BJP exploited to make gains in the state in the 2014 national election and win the state election in 2017. In this election, the SP fashioned a new broader caste coalition, including Dalit and non-Yadav OBC candidates. Other important parties in the INDIA bloc, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)  as well as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), also made sweeping regional gains in their respective states of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, respectively. 

The euphoria over the Ram temple did not result in votes, with the BJP even losing the seat of Faizabad, where the Ram temple is located, to a Dalit candidate, Awadhesh Prasad, of the SP, who may have benefitted from discontent over the construction process which displaced and dispossessed poor residents and the failure of promised jobs to materialise. 

The CSDS post-poll survey revealed that 69% of voters decided who to vote for during the campaign or shortly before voting. Hence, Modi’s anti-Muslim campaign statements may have backfired, encouraging a consolidation of Muslim voters (92%) for INDIA in Uttar Pradesh, where they constitute 20% of the population, and increasing concerns among voters about communal conflict. Modi lost in 20 of the 22 constituencies where he made anti-Muslim speeches. While in the CSDS pre-poll survey, 3% of voters listed communalism and religious conflict as the most disliked aspect of the government’s performance issues, in its post-poll survey, this rose to a total of 9% of voters.

The lessons from the 2024 election are that regional political parties and caste politics remain potent forces in Indian politics and that even when elections are unfree and unfair, opposition parties can dent the dominance of ruling parties by presenting a united front and sticking to a consistent message reflecting specific issues of voter discontent. 

Conclusion: The Future of Authoritarian Populism 

Mira Bortakhur Goswami congress party candidate of Guwahati constituency during door to door election campaign ahead of Lok Sabha Election 2024 in Guwahati, India on April 7, 2024. Photo: Dasarath Deka.

While the BJP now needs coalition partners to govern, it remains India’s dominant political party, losing only one per centof its vote share. Moreover, it has made inroads in new regions and retains its broad-based caste and class voter coalition. It swept the state of Odisha, taking advantage of high anti-incumbency against the 20-year-old state government of the regional Biju Janata Dal led by Naveen Patnaik. It consolidated its presence in Madya Pradesh and Gujarat, where no strong regional opposition exists. It increased its vote share in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and won its first seat in Kerala, where it won support from upper caste and OBC voters in particular. 

While there was a significant rise in the youth vote share for the Congress’s allies, and the BJP’s support has declined among the older voters, it has kept its lure among young voters (below 25 years), with 39% of young voters supporting it, despite high unemployment and irregularities in the selection process of public sector jobs. Modi’s ‘development man’ image, associated with a higher standard of living and its social media outreach, might be the reason for the voting pattern among youngsters. 

Among women voters, we see a marginal increase in the vote share of Congress and allies, with a 2% increase for Congress and a 5% increase for its allies. Both the INDIA bloc and NDA centred their campaign on wooing women voters through welfare schemes. Meanwhile, the women’s vote share has remained stagnant for NDA. While the BJP claimed that the Lakhpati Didi scheme has successfully curbed unemployment by creating 10 million Lakhpati Didi, grounds reports by independent media organisations showed a rather grim image of the implementation. Survey trends suggest that women vote for immediate improvement in household conditions, which has been showing stagnation in recent years. In states such as Odisha and Chhattisgarh, a reverse trend has also been observed, where women voters have pushed the BJP’s victory, though this may reflect broader factors like high anti-incumbency in the former and a lack of regional party alternatives in the latter.

Upper castes remain a reliable vote bank for the BJP. It has also made noticeable inroads among the Adivasi voters, broadening its caste network of voters with few deviations. It is the other backward castes (OBC) and Dalits who more significantly stand opposed to BJP’s financial and political governance. It also needs to be mentioned that though the Muslim vote has aggregated against the BJP, 10% of Muslims voted for BJP in 2024. 

Recent allotments of portfolios show that ministers and officials at the forefront of the authoritarian populist agenda, such as Amit Shah, whose Home Affairs ministry is responsible for discriminatory citizenship laws and drives the intimidation of civil society, continue to occupy positions of power. Only 26 Muslim legislators are part of the 18th Lok Sabha, the second lowest ever in the lower house. For the first time, the Indian cabinet does not have any Muslim representatives. 

Moreover, in the past ten years, many aspects of the Hindutva agenda have become mainstream. Opposition parties have been shying away from openly appealing to Muslims for fear of being labelled appeasers and anti-Hindu. Both pre-poll and post-poll surveys show that the building of the Ram temple, a core Hindutva issue, has been popular with voters and that Modi still remains India’s most popular leader. 

Much focus has been given to the coalition aspect of the new government, but it remains to be seen whether regional parties in the NDA will hinder the BJP’s governance. Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar consider Muslim voters partof their electoral coalition; both have previously criticised the BJP for its authoritarian governance. However, both also have their own agendas that require support from the BJP and the central government. Naidu intends to revive his Amravati capital city project for Andhra Pradesh, which has been a long-standing issue since the state’s bifurcation in 2014. The cost of building a smart city has been increasing, and it will need the central government’s financial support. Although the NDA won the most seats in the state of Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s party, the JD(U), lost its vote share to the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a regional caste-based party, which commanded the highest vote share as a single party. Nitish Kumar needs greater national government assistance to appeal to voters for the upcoming 2025 state legislative election and may downplay issues on which he diverges from the BJP. Additionally, both Naidu and Kumar want special category status for their respective states, which will perhaps make them more amenable to the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. 

Just days after the new government was sworn in, Delhi’s BJP Lieutenant Governor, V.K. Saxena, proceeded to charge the writer Arundhati Roy, Modi’s fierce critic, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) 2019 for a speech she gave in 2010. The already draconian law was amended in 2019 to allow the government more extraordinary powers to designate individuals/organisations as terrorists without a formal judicial process. BJP leaders accused Roy of being a traitor backed by the Congress party. This is a strong indication that some version of authoritarian populism, with its attacks on dissent, undermining institutions and social polarisation, will likely continue to shape governance under the new government.


 

(*) Dr. Priya Chacko is an Associate Professor of International Politics | Department of Politics and International Relations, School of Social Sciences at the Faculty of Arts, Business, Law and Economics at the University of Adelaide. She is also co-editor of South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies and Steering Committee Member of Open Society University Network Forum on Democracy and Development.

(**) Kanchan Pandey is a PhD student at Deakin University.

Peter Magyar, a popular opposition politician of celebrity status meeting the press at the site of a soccer arena and miniature train station in Viktor Orban's village in Felcsut, Hungary. on May 24, 2024. Photo: Blue Corner Studio.

Shifting Political Landscapes: The Rise and Fall of Opposition Parties Amidst Fidesz’s Dominance in Hungary

The EP election results in Hungary indicate interesting dynamics. The governing Fidesz party achieved a somewhat pyrrhic victory. Although it won 44.82% of the votes, making it the winner, this result is the worst the party has ever achieved in its EP election history. The big winner of the EP election is Magyar’s Tisza party, which received 29.6% of the votes and may send seven representatives to the EP. Given that the party practically did not exist in the minds of voters a few months prior, becoming the largest opposition party was a significant success. A big question now is, in which faction of the EP will the Hungarian parties find their political home?

By Robert Csehi* 

For the first time in history, the European Parliamentary elections in Hungary were held simultaneously with local municipal elections. This dual campaign posed a unique challenge for political actors, as they had to address both local and European issues in their messages. However, in this summary, I will focus solely on the results of the European Parliamentary election.

The governing party, Fidesz, in coalition with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), launched its European Parliament campaign in late April and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán encapsulated the party’s core message with the slogan: ‘no migration, no gender, no war.’ This slogan was supposed to reflect an antagonistic relationship between the position of Fidesz and that of ‘Brussels.’ Orbán claimed to stop illegal migration into Hungary despite the EU’s alleged liberal policies and called for resistance against ‘gender ideology’ in the name of safeguarding Hungarian children against the alleged LGBTQ+ propaganda. While these two elements featured in the social media messages of the governing party in the beginning, the third message, ‘no war,’ gained ever-increasing attention in Orbán’s campaign and ultimately eclipsed the other two. 

Orbán, relying on a populist discourse, crafted an artificial cleavage between the ‘pro-peace’ (Fidesz) and ‘pro-war’ (practically everybody else) political actors. He and his party used this differentiation not only domestically but also extended it to the European political scene, claiming that most European leaders were suffering from ‘war psychosis.’ He appealed to the most basic fears of the population, constantly portraying the European Parliamentary elections as a decisive battle between war and peace, life and death. The party messages often featured European politicians, from Emmanuel Macron and Manfred Weber to Ursula von der Leyen, as war propagators, along with their alleged domestic alliances with relevant opposition figures like former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, MEPs Klára Dobrev, Anna Donáth, and Katalin Cseh, and new political actor Péter Magyar. Interestingly, the social media campaign of the governing party never mentioned Russia as responsible for the war in Ukraine but rather blamed European actors and NATO for escalating the conflict by supporting Ukraine with money and weapons. Throughout the campaign, it was unclear what Orbán and his party meant by ‘peace’ and how they intended to achieve it once their candidates appeared in the European Parliament.

The greatest challenger to Fidesz and Orbán proved to be a completely new political actor, Péter Magyar, and his party, Tisza (Respect and Freedom). Magyar, a former bureaucrat and the ex-husband of Orbán’s former Justice Minister, Judit Varga, gained attention following a political scandal. This scandal arose after the former Hungarian President Katalin Novák and Varga granted clemency to a convicted paedophile accomplice, with Varga supposed to lead Fidesz’s EP list.

Magyar’s EU program remained somewhat vague during the election campaign. However, it was known that he wanted Hungary to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, aimed to gain access to the suspended EU funds for Hungary, and supported a strong Europe of strong nations rather than a European federation. He consistently blamed the government for making Hungary the second most corrupt and second-poorest country in the EU despite the substantial funds received from the union since 2004. As a newcomer, the Tisza party did not invest much in online campaigns but relied on Magyar’s countrywide tour and his social media platform.

The leftist-environmentalist coalition (DK-MSZP-P) led by Klára Dobrev campaigned with a federalist view of Europe, claiming to be the most Europeanist party in Hungary, and focused on European wages, pensions, and welfare. The liberal Momentum built its EP campaign around the two MEPs, Anna Donáth and Katalin Cseh, highlighting their contributions. They claimed to have played a role in the suspension of EU funds to Hungary to limit corruption but also stressed that, thanks to them, Hungarian SMEs, CSOs, and municipalities can now apply for more EU funds directly, bypassing the corrupt channels of the Hungarian government. They also contributed to the Media Freedom Act, which combats political interference in editorial decisions. 

Finally, the radical right party, Our Homeland, campaigned with negative messages about the EU. László Toroczkai blamed the EU for its undemocratic nature, globalist agenda, and corrupt dealings.

The EP election results indicate interesting dynamics. Fidesz has achieved a somewhat pyrrhic victory. Although it won 44.82% of the votes, making them the winners, this result is the worst the party has ever achieved in its EP election history. Pro-government commentators are quick to highlight that the party received over two million votes, more than it ever received before, thanks to the higher-than-average turnout due to the double election. However, this does not change the fact that the governing party-coalition has lost two mandates in the EP and will send 11 representatives this time.

It is also noteworthy that Orbán promised to achieve a mobilization record and pushed the campaign to the extreme by appealing to the electorate’s greatest fears, equating the election with a choice between life or death, war and peace. Additionally, the governing party spent an enormous amount of money on the campaign, both online and offline, compared to its main challenger, Magyar’s Tisza party. Overall, support for Fidesz has decreased, and it is not yet clear how Orbán will manage the situation with looming economic and acute political challenges. Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the strength of Fidesz.

The big winner of the EP election is Magyar’s Tisza party, which received 29.6% of the votes and may send seven representatives to the EP. Given that the party practically did not exist in the minds of voters a few months prior, becoming the largest opposition party was a great success. Although about 10% of Tisza supporters came from Fidesz, according to surveys, the party had a more devastating impact on the existing opposition parties. 

The leftist-environmentalist coalition (DK-MSZP-P) managed to secure only two seats, compared to their previous five (DK: 4, MSZP-P: 1). In the 2019 EP election, DK received 16.05% of the votes, whereas now the coalition managed only 8.03%. While the leftist coalition survived Tisza’s challenge, the liberal Momentum did not. The party received only 3.7% of the votes, losing its two mandates in the EP. 

Another winner of the election was the radical Our Homeland party (Jobbik), which secured one seat in the EP with a vote share of 6.71%. However, this should not be overestimated, given that Jobbik, the previously far-right party, also had one representative in the EP during its last term. While eleven parties competed for mandates, in the end, only four parties (or party coalitions) will represent the Hungarian people in the EP.

A big question is, in which faction of the EP will these parties find their political home? It is clear that the leftist-environmentalist coalition will continue within the S&D faction. Magyar recently met with Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party (EPP), and both seemed pleased with the prospect of joining political forces. As a result, KDNP, Fidesz’s coalition partner which remained in the EPP after Fidesz left the center-right bloc in 2021, announced they will also leave the EPP. The governing parties appear to strive to join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group led by Italy’s Georgia Meloni, despite potential friction over certain policies. For instance, Meloni, Kaczynski, and smaller Finnish, Latvian, and Lithuanian members within the ECR have diametrically opposed views on the Ukraine war and voted overwhelmingly for financial assistance to Ukraine. The Identity and Democracy (ID) faction, with Le Pen and Salvini, voted against this measure, but other policies seem to keep Orbán away from this faction.

The far-right Our Homeland party planned to create a new faction with Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), whose leader visited Hungarian counterpart László Torockai before the election. However, AfD officials have already signaled their aim to return to the ID faction. If Torockai decides to join this faction as well, it is questionable whether Fidesz MEPs would then join. This situation illustrates how far Fidesz has drifted from its center-right position on European matters. Consequently, it is unlikely that Fidesz will tone down its Eurosceptic populist voice in the coming years.

(*) Dr. Robert Csehi is an Assistant Professor at Corvinus University of Budapest.

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

The Populist Radical Right in the New European Parliament

The 2024 European Parliament elections have justified fears of the rise of the populist radical right (PRR) and a potential shift towards more right-wing policies over the next five years. While pro-European parties will still maintain a majority in the new parliament, the populist radical right has registered significant gains, however with varied performances across countries and regions.

By Emilia Zankina & Gilles Ivaldi

The 2024 European Parliament elections have justified fears of the rise of the populist radical right (PRR) and a potential shift to more right-wing policies over the next five years. While pro-European parties will still maintain a majority in the new parliament, the populist radical right has registered significant gains, however with varied performances across countries and regions.

A Good Day for the Populist Radical Right

Overall, populist radical right forces have won nearly 180 seats, making up 25% of all seats in the new European parliament. The largest contingents come mainly from France’s Rassemblement National (National Rally, RN), Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), the Polish Law and Justice (PiS), the German AfD and Hungary’s Fidesz. These five parties alone account for more than half of all far-right elected representatives.

Notwithstanding such magnifying effects, these results reflect the electoral consolidation and increasingly the mainstreaming of those parties across Europe. The current popularity of the populist radical right is rooted in the multiple crises to which EU citizens have been exposed since 2008 – the financial crisis, the 2015 refugee crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and now the war in Ukraine and cost of living.

Ironically, some of the largest gains have come from the EU founding countries. Most striking is the win of National Rally (RN) in France with over double the votes of President Macron’s coalition. As a result, Marcon called snap parliamentary elections in an attempt to reaffirm a pro-European majority – a risky strategy that is already bringing political chaos that analysts compare to madcap reality TV– strikingly resembling David Cameron’s political gamble on Brexit 10 years ago.

In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has come in second ahead of Chancellor Scholz’s social democrats. The Christian Democrats have registered a decisive victory, but at a cost of shifting their rhetoric to the right, especially on topics such as migration. 

As expected, Brothers of Italy registered a resounding victory, cementing prime-minister Giorgia Meloni’s position at home and making her a key player at the European level, a few days before hosting the G7 summit. While she has upheld a firm pro-European position on security and foreign policy matters, she has been critical of EU’s policies on climate, migration, and social issues.

Following the formation of a new coalition government, Geert Wilders Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands also placed second, just 4% behind the leading Green and Labor party. The Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) was the winner in the elections with a slight advantage over the Christian Democrats. Austria and the Netherlands have for long been a fertile ground for the populist radical right who have enjoyed not only representation in parliament, but also in government.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán gained the most votes in a system that is ever less democratic, though, his Fidesz party showed the worst ever results in a European parliament election. Orban’s dominance was challenged by a former party member who ran on an anti-corruption platform. Péter Magyar’s Tisza party scored almost 30%, giving hope for democracy in Hungary. More to the right, Fidesz was also challenged by the rise of Our Homeland Movement (MHM) about 7% of the vote.

In Poland, the fragile government majority managed to maintain its upper hand over the Law and Justice party (PiS) which has systematically eroded democratic institutions over the past decade. Such good news notwithstanding, PiS will be sending a solid 20 MEPs to the European parliament, making it the second largest member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) after Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (24 seats).

In addition to these big wins, we witnessed a surge in the representation of smaller populist radical right parties across Europe. The Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) came second (although far behind the leading pro-European grand coalition), as did the Latvian National Alliance and the Cypriot National Popular Front. The Slovak Republica and the Croat Homeland Movement came third, as did the Spanish VOX and the Portuguese Chega. In Bulgaria the Revival party surpassed the social democrats – the oldest party in the country, and the Swedish Democrats (SD) gained an additional seat. 

Together these parties could shift the European Parliament further to the right. The saving grace for the pro-European majority is that they are not united and split across three groups in the European parliament – the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) led by Meloni and the Polish PiS, the Identity and Democracy (ID) around Le Pen and Wilders, and the non-attached. Orbán, whose party was expelled from the European People’s Party (EPP), has urged Le Pen (ID) and Meloni (ECR) to join forces with his non-attached Fidesz party and form what would be the second largest group in the European parliament. The dynamics and negotiations in the coming weeks among these populist radical right actors will determine their overall leverage and likely impact on policy matters.

A Real Threat or Politics as Usual

The clear winner of the elections is the European People’s Party (EPP), which gained 12 seats for a total of 190. The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) secured 136 seats, only a few seats below their representation in the previous parliament. The big losers of the election are the liberals with Renew Europe losing 22 seats and the Greens who lost 20 seats. Still this gives the pro-European parties a majority of over 400 seats in the new 720-seat parliament.

Despite such majority, the populist radical right is likely to have greater influence over key policy matters. Although divided over security questions, economics, and the war in Ukraine, populist radical right parties are much more united in their positions on climate change, migration, and enlargement. While Ursula von der Leyen speaking on behalf of the EPP vowed to create “a bastion against the extremes,” it remains to be seen whether the EPP will seek support from the radical right on certain policy matters and whether we might notice an overall shift to the right in the European Parliament’s agenda.

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

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

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

By Hugo Marcos-Marne*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nicholas Morieson

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

The Decline of the Ruling African National Congress

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

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

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

MK 

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

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

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

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

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

The Economic Freedom Fighters

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

What after Populism? Analyzing General Elections in India, 2024

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

By Ajay Gudavarthy* 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


References

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

Mohan, Archis (2024). (92 Of 102 Seats in First Phase Saw Voter Turnout Drop.” Rediff. May 1, 2024. https://www.rediff.com/news/report/india-votes-2024-92-of-102-seats-in-first-phase-saw-voter-turnout-drop/20240501.htm (accessed on May 16, 2024).

Rama, Bijapurkar. (2024). “Does Young India Care About Elections 2024?” Rediff. May 4, 2024. https://www.rediff.com/news/column/india-votes-2024-does-young-india-care-about-elections-2024/20240504.htm(accessed on May 16, 2024).

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

Ventotene Manifesto, Europe, and Federalist Liberalism Today

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

By Amedeo Gasparini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

References

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Coudenhove-Kalergi, Richard Nicolaus. (1997 [1923]). Pan-Europa. Un grande progetto per l’Europa unita. Rimini: Il Cerchio Iniziative Editoriali.

D’Auria, Matthew. (2011). “The Ventotene manifesto: The crisis of the nation state and the political identity of Europe.” In: Spiering, Menno; Wintle, Michael (Ed.). European identity and the second world war. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Font, Nuria; Pérez-Durán, Ixchel. (2022). “Legislative Transparency in the European Parliament: Disclosing Legislators’ Meetings with Interest Groups.” Journal of Comon Market Studies. Volume 61, Issue 2, pp. 379-296, 10.1111/jcms.13371.

Glockner, Iris; Rittberger, Berthold. (2012). “The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and European Defence Community (EDC) Treaties.” In: Laursen, Fin (Ed.). Designing the European Union. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

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

Schimmelfennig, Frank; Leuffen, Dirk; De Vries, Caterine. E. (2023). “Differentiated integration in the European Union: Institutional effects, public opinion, and alternative flexibility arrangements.” European Union Politics. Volume 24, Issue 1, pp. 3-20, DOI: 10.1177/14651165221119083.

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

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

Vayssière, Bertrand. (2005). “Le manifeste de Ventotene (1941) : acte de naissance du fédéralisme européen.” Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains. Volume 217, Issue 1, pp. 69-76, DOI: 10.3917/gmcc.217.0069.

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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.