Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meet in Brussels, Belgium on November 03, 2022. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Professor Wiesner: Von Der Leyen and EPP Are Playing a Dangerous Game by Preferring Far-right to Greens

Professor Claudia Wiesner voices her concerns regarding the troubling trend of the European People’s Party (EPP) and Ursula von der Leyen, showing a preference for collaborating with populist far-right groups over the Greens. Professor Wiesner argues that this strategy is fraught with risks for the European Union. She questions the strategic interest behind such alliances, emphasizing, “These parties would not support strong European integration. They favor a weaker Europe, whereas the Greens support a stronger Europe. It would be in the interest of a strong European Commission to align with parties favoring a stronger European Union.” Wiesner further highlights the potential legitimacy crisis the EU might face if it continues down this path.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an intriguing interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Claudia Wiesner, Jean Monnet Chair and Professor for Political Science at Fulda University of Applied Sciences, discussed the concerning trend of the European People’s Party (EPP) and its leader, Ursula von der Leyen, showing a preference for collaborating with far-right groups such as Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia over the Greens. Professor Wiesner argued that this strategy is fraught with risks for the European Union. She questioned the strategic interest behind such alliances, emphasizing, “These parties would not support strong European integration. They favor a weaker Europe, whereas the Greens support a stronger Europe. It would be in the interest of a strong European Commission to align with parties favoring a stronger European Union.”

Wiesner further highlighted the potential legitimacy crisis the EU might face if it continues down this path. “If the major faction in the European Parliament collaborates with groups that have previously acted against these principles and the rule of law, it will create a legitimacy problem for the EU,” she warned. She raised critical concerns about how citizens could trust von der Leyen’s commitment to defending democracy when she collaborates with leaders like Meloni, who has been accused of undermining media liberty in Italy, or the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS), known for driving democratic backsliding in Poland.

The issue of coalition-building in the European Parliament is another significant challenge. According to Wiesner, the volatility of majorities necessitates a coalition of at least four political groups, including Conservatives, Social Democrats, Liberals, and Greens, to achieve consensus. However, current debates suggest the possibility of excluding the Greens in favor of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which could further complicate efforts to foster a unified and strong European Union.

Professor Wiesner’s insights underscore the complexities and potential pitfalls of current political maneuvers within the EU. Her critique serves as a stark reminder of the importance of adhering to the EU’s foundational values and the risks involved in straying from these principles for short-term political gains. “If the European Union wants to be credible in defending its values, it needs to defend these values internally as well,” she concluded, highlighting the need for consistency and integrity in EU governance and policymaking.

Dr. Claudia Wiesner, Jean Monnet Chair and Professor for Political Science at Fulda University of Applied Sciences.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Claudia Wiesner with some edits.

Rising Populist Parties Seek to Redefine European Identity or Values

How do you define European identity? Is there a European identity? What are the problems and contradictions when we try to define a European identity? Has the EU been successful in constructing a European identity?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: This is a difficult question to answer briefly. So, let me start with a yes or no. The answer isn’t strictly no, but it does resemble the “glass half full or half empty” perspective. 

There are elements of European identity. For instance, people identify with the European Union (EU) as a polity, participate in European elections, and the relatively high turnout in the last European Parliament (EP) elections shows that people find the EU politically relevant. Additionally, events like the current football competition in Germany, with participants from all over Europe and coverage by the German tabloid Bild calling Europe a great country, indicate elements and dimensions of European identity. Eurobarometer data shows that EU citizens feel European and believe that membership in the EU is beneficial. These indicators suggest there is something to this concept of European identity.

Early research on European identity often compared it to national identity, a comparison I believe is unattainable. The question isn’t whether people would die for the European Union, as they might for a nation-state. We must recognize that identification with the EU differs from identification with a nation-state. European identity is a dual identity; people might say, “I’m a German and a European,” or even, “I’m from Frankfurt, I’m German, and I’m European.”

In conclusion, the answer is complex. Despite this complexity, there is a certain degree of European identity.

How does the rise of populist movements within the EU challenge the formation of a cohesive European identity, and what strategies can be employed to mitigate these challenges while promoting democratic values?

Row of EU Flags in front of the European Union Commission building in Brussels. Photo: VanderWolf Images.

Professor Claudia Wiesner: You mentioned three key points here: the rise of populism, European identity and the defense of democratic values. The rise of populism has multiple causes and is a significant field of research, with contributions from many colleagues. There are various triggers for the rise of populism, including social inequality, dissatisfaction with the government, a surge of nationalism and an anti-migration stance.

The success of populist parties and actors generally mobilizes a feeling of “us versus them,” often articulated in nationalist terms. I am currently leading a work package in a Horizon project on resilient social contracts and we recently finished data collection on the European elections. We collected TikTok videos, revealing how populist arguments work. In Germany, a strong right-wing extremist/populist party uses mobilization to emphasize this “us versus them” narrative. In their rhetoric, “us” represents the hardworking German citizens, the taxpayers, and the average citizen, while “them” includes governmental allies portrayed as incompetent or corrupt, and sometimes the European Union.

Interestingly, the “others” are no longer other nations, like the French, the Greeks, or the Belgians, but everyone who doesn’t fit into a right-wing populist worldview. This conflict is not necessarily against European identity but is about defining a different European identity. This is where values come into play. The European Union’s values, outlined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, include liberal representative democracy, freedom, the rule of law, human rights and equality between men and women.

Right-wing extremists or populists criticize these values to some extent but mainly attempt to reformulate them. They might say, for instance, that they support democracy, but it should be democracy as they define it. Or they might claim to support equality between men and women but insist on traditional gender roles, arguing that women staying at home to care for children is natural and doesn’t mean inequality.

Therefore, rising populist parties do not necessarily oppose European identity or values but seek to redefine them, arguing that current practices are not in favor of the good citizens or hardworking people and need reformation.

They would add that this perspective doesn’t mean treating women and men unequally but recognizing their differences. So, rising populist parties wouldn’t explicitly state that they are against European identity or values. Instead, they would seek to redefine these values, arguing that their current enactment is not beneficial for good citizens or hardworking people and thus needs reformation.

Viktor Orban Engages in Conceptual Politics

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission arrives for a EU Summit, at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on June 30, 2023. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

In the light of your article titled “Actors, concepts, controversies: the conceptual politics of European integration,” how do the conceptual politics of European integration influence the formation of a European identity, especially in the context of increasing populism across member states?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: Conceptual politics is a well-established concept and a significant research focus. It provides a way of looking at and analyzing phenomena in the political realm. Conceptual politics involves being sensitive to how people frame, use, describe and contest political concepts.

For example, the reinterpretation of European values, such as democracy within the European Union, is a case of conceptual politics. It involves the EU claiming certain meanings for concepts like democracy, while others, such as Victor Orban, argue that these concepts should mean something else.

Orban is a case in point. The European Court of Justice has numerous rule of law cases and infringement procedures against Hungary based on the values outlined in Article 2 of the EU Treaty. The Court has ruled against Hungary in many of these cases, questioning Hungary’s adherence to these values.

Orban engages in conceptual politics by claiming he is not against democracy but upholds it more robustly than the EU bureaucrats. He redefines democracy, coining the term “illiberal democracy,” suggesting this is the true form of democracy. Whether he personally believes this or not, his actions exemplify conceptual politics by presenting an alternative idea of democracy. This contestation around the concept of democracy is a common feature in current populism.

In what ways do populist movements challenge the existing conceptual frameworks of EU integration, and how does this affect the EU’s ability to foster a cohesive European identity? Could you please elaborate on the role historical narratives and past conceptual controversies play in shaping current debates on identity and populism within the EU?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: I think it’s okay if we leave out the historical context for a moment and start with a concrete example. I just read about the debate regarding the alignments and collaborations in the next European Parliament. Specifically, there is a discussion on whether the European People’s Party (EPP), the classical Conservatives, will collaborate with the right-wing populists or the very conservative fringe of the Conservatives, such as the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which includes the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia. Broadly speaking, they can be classified somewhere between very conservative and right-wing populist.

The European Conservatives and Reformists, along with the even more right-wing Identity and Democracy (ID) group, have voted jointly with the European People’s Party on issues like the NextGenerationEU and REPowerEU, the two main policy packages currently in focus. This suggests the emergence of a de facto coalition between the classical conservatives and right-wing populists when it comes to energy policy. They have voted against harsh climate conditions and measures for energy transformation.

There is also a debate on whether all these measures against climate change are necessary. Right-wing populists often argue against climate change measures, pointing out the economic challenges of restructuring industries. These arguments are evident in the ongoing debates.

The challenge for the European Union is clear: the Commission, led prominently by Ursula von der Leyen, has put forward the idea that the EU needs to become the leading world region in climate protection. To achieve this, the EU must change the way its economy is organized, promoting more green industries. This approach faces opposition, especially from the German car industry, which will need to undergo significant changes. Interestingly, this opposition comes from within von der Leyen’s own camp. The European People’s Party wants to dilute this goal, mixing classical populist arguments against climate protection.

I would say it’s a very new cleavage around climate change and climate protection that we see at work here. This cleavage and the debates around it obviously impact the EU and its policies because the EU has promoted this goal and it has been concluded. However, when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, the laws that follow from it, we see a watering down in the European Parliament.

No Tension between National and European Identities

How do the conceptual politics of EU integration address the issues raised by populist rhetoric, especially regarding sovereignty and national identity and what role do these politics play in either exacerbating or alleviating the tensions between national and European identities?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: The interesting thing is that I don’t see many tensions between national and European identities at the moment. Interestingly, not even Marine Le Pen or Giorgia Meloni want to leave the European Union. Viktor Orbán doesn’t want to leave the European Union either, as it is too beneficial.

What we see is that political actors like these tend to say “Hungary first,” “France first,” or “Italy first.” It’s not exactly placing national identity against European identity but rather establishing a priority, saying “Italy first” and then the European Union or “Italy first” meaning Italy needs to lead the European Union.

For instance, Giorgia Meloni would make strong claims for a restrictive migration policy, advocating that the European Union should adopt a policy modeled after Italy’s approach. This is essentially an Italian model, driven by Meloni as the current leader of Italy, suggesting the EU should adopt policies reflecting Italy’s stance.

So, the conceptual politics here don’t create an opposition but rather establish priorities, implying that national identity and interests come first, followed by European interests.

Regarding historical parallels, this prioritization of national identity over European interests is not new. It has been a recurring theme ever since European integration began.

If the EU Wants to Be Credible, It Should Defend Its Values Internally as Well

How would you assess the recent European Parliament elections compared to former elections of EP? Do the results of the EP elections point to a serious crisis of the EU in terms of legitimation?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: Yes and no.

On one hand, we have a very high turnout with many people genuinely interested in European Parliament elections. There isn’t a majority of anti-EU voices in the European Parliament. The estimates regarding the outcome of the European Parliament election were initially much more critical for the Democratic camp. For instance, prognoses predicted a higher percentage for Identity and Democracy than what they actually achieved. So, we have a pro-European majority in the European Parliament, composed of a multi-party coalition.

Given the volatility of majorities in the European Parliament, it is necessary to have four political groups in this majority, which raises difficulties in finding consensus. This coalition would need to bring together Conservatives, Social Democrats, Liberals, and Greens under one common roof. Alternatively, the current debate suggests excluding the Greens in favor of the European Conservatives and Reformists.

This brings me to the challenges these parliamentary elections present. It’s a dangerous game, seemingly still pursued by von der Leyen and the European People’s Party, which shows strong sympathies for collaborating with Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia rather than with the Greens. I struggle to understand the strategic interest behind this, as these parties would not support strong European integration. They favor a weaker Europe, whereas the Greens support a stronger Europe. It would be in the interest of a strong European Commission to align with parties favoring a stronger European Union.

Additionally, the European Union is based on the principles outlined in Article 2 and there are existing rule of law conflicts. If the major faction in the European Parliament collaborates with groups that have previously acted against these principles and the rule of law, it will create a legitimacy problem for the EU. How can citizens trust von der Leyen’s commitment to defending democracy when she collaborates with Giorgia Meloni, who is undermining media liberty in Italy or with Polish PiS, which has driven democratic backsliding in Poland?

Obviously, this idea of defending the rule of law might even appear as a lie. People recognize this issue. I have been in many public discussions and it’s something that even average citizens—not just EU scholars—realize: there is a problem. My point is that if the European Union wants to be credible in defending its values, it needs to defend these values internally as well.

In your book “Politicisation, Democratization and the European Identity,” you argue that the EU appears as a kind of defective democracy. Where do these deficiencies stem from and how can they be fixed? What can be done to reduce democratic deficiency of the EU?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: This is a crucial question. The concept of a “defective democracy” doesn’t originate from EU research but from political science research on the quality of democracy. It refers to a system that falls between fully fledged representative democracies and autocracies. A defective democracy lacks some of the criteria of a fully functioning liberal representative democracy.

An EU politician famously stated that if the EU were to apply for membership, it would have to decline because it doesn’t meet its own rule of law standards. There’s a long-standing debate on the democratic deficit in the European Union, with many criticisms still valid.

My main point at the moment is the lack of transparency and accountability within the European Union (EU). The EU is too complicated and complex, which is a recurring issue. Citizens often don’t understand what’s going on, leading to a legitimacy problem. How can a political system be considered legitimate if people don’t understand how it works? Additionally, this complexity creates an accountability problem because it’s unclear who is responsible for decisions. To support this, I need several research projects that examine citizen views on the European Union.

Brussels, as a political hub, houses many actors, making it challenging to identify who exactly makes decisions. There’s also a transparency deficit, with many political decisions made behind closed doors during negotiations. This lack of visibility makes it difficult for citizens to oversee EU decisions.

One main point is the need to increase transparency and accountability in the EU. This isn’t just about formal accountability but about visible transparency that citizens can perceive. People feel that if they wanted to hold someone accountable, they wouldn’t know where to start.

The remedy would be treaty reform, which is an optimistic perspective at present and fostering more public reasoning and debates within EU institutions.

Critics: “EU Does Not Adhere to Its Own Ideals”

In your article, “The War Against Ukraine, the Changing World Order and the Conflict Between Democracy and Autocracy,” you argue that a world structured around a maximum of two hegemonic great powers has been successively replaced by a world order in which several poles of larger and smaller states confront and compete with each other—politically, territorially, economically, militarily and ideologically. For the EU, this means that its previous global political strategy, which focused strongly on ‘change through trade’ and its role as a ‘normative power Europe,’ no longer looks promising. In this multi-order world, what should EU do to regain its clout and stay relevant?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: In the lecture series that I conduct every winter term, I invite politicians and academics to discuss various topics with my students. About a year ago, we had a Green MEP from Germany who remarked that the European Union must decide whether it wants to “sit at the table or be on the menu.” While this is a harsh way of putting it, the point is significant.

The EU has lost importance, economic power and ideological influence in the world and there isn’t an easy solution to regain it. This challenge encompasses ideological, economic and geopolitical battles. If the EU wants to regain influence, it needs to be attractive and convincing across all these policy fields.

I think this is quite a challenge without an easy answer. A key issue is credibility. Many students from the Global South at my university are strongly critical of the EU. Interestingly, even my German and other European students share this critical view, believing the EU lacks credibility in its defense of democracy and human rights.

When discussing the EU’s role in non-EU countries, former developing countries and the Global South, there is significant criticism and dissatisfaction with the EU’s actions. They argue that the EU does not adhere to its own ideals and is unconvincing in its efforts.

To regain confidence, the EU needs to address this issue. They must work diligently to appear convincing and uphold their promises.

In the same article, you argue that there are several signs that liberal democracy is under threat, not only from outside the EU, but from within the EU itself. What does the recent EP elections tell us about the internal challenges of EU against the liberal democratic order?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: I believe I made my point quite strongly. One internal challenge is the democratic backsliding in several EU member states. Today, I read about a new law passed in Slovakia that restricts media freedom. They dissolved the public TV station and created a new one to replace journalists who did not report favorably on the government. This is similar to what we’ve seen in Hungary and Poland. Interestingly, the government in Slovakia is of a different political color than those in Poland or Hungary.

The European Commission addresses these issues through rule of law reports and, if necessary, infringement procedures, with the Court of Justice of the European Union stepping in. This highlights why the EU and any incoming European Commission and Commission President need to be highly attentive in this area.

In Germany, there is currently a debate about maintaining a “firewall” against right-wing extremists, emphasizing that conservative parties should not collaborate with them. This principle is crucial for the European Union. Right-wing populists, such as Giorgia Meloni in Italy, often limit media freedom and pose significant internal challenges to democracy in the EU.

If centrist politicians, including the European People’s Party (EPP), disregard this firewall and collaborate with right-wing extremists, it becomes more than a matter of political color. It supports democratic backsliding and strengthens the internal threats to democracy in the EU, which is very dangerous for anyone who supports liberal democracy.

Possible Implications of a Probable Le Pen Victory

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella are seen at the end of a polical meeting in Marseille for Rassemblement National party on March 3, 2024. Photo: Obatala-photography.

How do you think a likely victory of Le Pen in France would change the EU and EP in particular?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: A likely victory of Le Pen in France would not change the European Parliament immediately because it has just been elected, and its composition is set. Le Pen’s potential victory wouldn’t affect this.

I’m not certain about a likely victory for Le Pen except for the next Presidential elections in France, which are in three years. The next parliamentary elections in France are more uncertain.

I, along with many French commentators, don’t understand why Emmanuel Macron called for snap elections. It seemed like a bad moment for his party, which performed poorly in the EP elections, especially when right-wing extremists in France are strong.

Interestingly, the left in France united very quickly, within four days, forming joint lists and joint candidacies. This sets up an intriguing opposition between Le Pen, Jordan Bardella and the “Nouvelle Union Populaire.” We might see a victory for the left or the extreme right, but it’s unlikely we’ll see a strong showing from Macron’s camp.

If we look at the election results in France, they are not very strong in the French Parliament because the French Parliament is elected through a majority voting system based on constituencies. This means that to win a seat in the National Assembly, you need to win a constituency. Even in this scenario, it’s going to be difficult for Rassemblement National (RN) to win a majority of the constituencies because they are alone. They don’t have many experienced partners with them, except probably the party of Éric Zemmour. So, really, we’ll have to see because there is a right-wing extremist potential of between 35 and 50% in France. Yes, but you need to realize it in every constituency. And I’m not 100% sure this will be the case, so I wouldn’t set my thoughts entirely on a victory of the right-wing extremists.

But, if they win, there would be a Prime Minister from Rassemblement National. I think it wouldn’t be Le Pen, it would be Jordan Bardella, so, the young president of Rassemblement National. It would mean that there would be another right-wing populist government in Europe, in a big founding member state along with Italy. So, probably they would work very well together.

Interestingly, what we see is that collaboration in the European Union has a kind of moderating influence even on those right-wing populists. So, as long as there is no right-wing populist majority in the Council, there wouldn’t be such a massive effect. There would be some effect, but it would be moderated, especially because there is no right-wing majority in the European Parliament.

Dr. Othon Anastasakis is the Director of the European Studies Centre and South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX) at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.

Dr. Anastasakis: Biggest Risk in the EU is Far-right Parties Deciding to Unite in the EP

From a historical perspective, Dr. Othon Anastasakis acknowledged that the rise of far-right parties in the European elections does not represent a significant rupture from the past. The mainstream political context still dominates European politics, which he finds reassuring. However, he sees two main risks for the future: the unification of far-right parties within the European Parliament and the potential alliance of center-right parties with far-right elements, which could normalize extremist rhetoric.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Following the European Parliament elections, Dr. Othon Anastasakis gave an interview to ECPS, discussing the risks confronting the European Union and European liberal democracies. Dr. Anastasakis, the Director of the European Studies Centre and South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX) at St Antony’s College, Oxford University, stated, “What I see in Europe today is a process of securitization and the geopoliticization of the European Union. This shift is largely a response to the wars in neighboring regions, especially Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the face of these realities and a multipolar global environment, there is a turn towards a defense-oriented agenda.” He emphasized that this process of geopoliticization is shaping the EU’s future direction.

Dr. Anastasakis underscored the significant risk to the EU’s normative agenda, noting that the EU, as a democratic club, shares specific values, rules, and procedures. He expressed concern that as the EU faces increased geopolitical and security challenges, it may struggle to maintain its commitment to these normative values, particularly in external relations, trade, and foreign policy decisions. He highlighted the risk that the EU might compromise its democratic credentials to bring in countries that may not yet be ready for membership.

Another risk Dr. Anastasakis highlighted is the potential for far-right parties in Europe to unite within the European Parliament to create obstacles on issues such as migration and climate change. He also pointed out the risk that center-right parties, particularly those in the Christian Democrat bloc, might be tempted to ally with far-right parties on certain issues or adopt parts of their discourse, leading to the mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric. He noted that this has already been observed in the field of migration, where mainstream parties are often influenced by far-right narratives.

However, from a historical perspective, Dr. Anastasakis acknowledged that the rise of far-right parties in the European elections does not represent a significant rupture from the past. The mainstream political context still dominates European politics, which he finds reassuring.  Overall, Dr. Anastasakis cautioned that while the current situation does not mirror the catastrophic rise of far-right movements in the early 20th century, it poses significant challenges that require vigilant attention to safeguard the EU’s democratic values and stability.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Dr. Othon Anastasakis with some edits.

Populism and the Far-Right Are Broad Umbrella Concepts

How do you see the historical evolution of populism and far-right movements in Europe influencing current political landscapes, particularly in the context of the recent European Parliament elections?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Populism and the far right are two broad umbrella concepts that encompass a wide variety of parties and formations. Due to their broad nature, they are understood in different ways and include many different far-right parties and movements. This makes it very challenging to group them together or understand them as a single entity.

Far-right parties themselves are not united as a whole. Their intrinsic nationalism means they have very specific goals related to their own nation-states. When observed collectively, especially in contemporary Western and European politics, they can be highly disruptive and reactionary to mainstream democratic politics, which has been the norm in Europe for the past eight decades or so.

Far-right politics are also evolving, often softening their positions when they are close to power. As long as nationalism and the nation-state remain central in international politics, far-right parties will continue to advocate their extreme nationalistic, racist and populist discourse. They are particularly influential during times of low economic growth and increasing economic inequality, as they find audiences receptive to their messages.

Finally, when democratic leadership is weak or lacks determination, it creates an environment where far-right parties can infiltrate, penetrate and promote their ideas.

What happened in the European Parliament elections regarding populism and the far-right? Is this a watershed moment in European history?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: I wouldn’t call it a watershed moment. Yes, there was an expectation and a lot of publicity about the rise of far-right politics during these European elections. However, the outcomes showed no massive change overall. While there was some rise of far-right parties in various national European settings, the Christian Democrats managed to increase their position in the Parliament, the Liberals lost somewhat, and the Social Democrats remained more or less the same. Mainstream parties maintained their numbers and power within the European Parliament.

That said, what we did see was significant: the rise of the far right in two particularly influential countries in Europe. In France, the far right gained ground, impacting national politics and leading to immediate elections under Macron. Similarly, in Germany, the AfD’s rise weakened the Social Democratic Party. These developments in France and Germany, which are often pivotal in shaping European politics, are more indicative of the rise of the far right than the overall European Parliament spectrum.

One Lesson from History Is the Danger of Appeasement

Poster of Vladimir Putin looking like Hitler in a demonstration against the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in Valencia, Spain on February 27, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

Considering the rise of far-right parties across Europe as proved once again by EP elections, can we draw parallels with similar movements in the early 20th century? What historical lessons should we keep in mind to understand and address these modern developments?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: First, let me say that history never repeats itself in exactly the same way, which is important to keep in mind. We never encounter identical circumstances that produce the same outcomes repeatedly. However, understanding what happened in the past helps us comprehend why the present has unfolded as it has.

Given that history doesn’t repeat itself precisely, we can still draw valuable lessons from it. One common question we face today is whether we are seeing a repeat of the 1930s with the rise of the far right, and to what extent. The 1930s were unique in European history due to the circumstances that led to the rise of many fascist parties, especially the Nazi party in Germany.

One lesson from history is the danger of appeasement during moments of aggressive behavior. The 1938 appeasement of Hitler serves as a lesson not to follow a similar path with someone like Putin, who has invaded Ukraine. Negotiating with aggressive behavior can lead to further territorial ambitions.

Another lesson is that persistent economic inequality, especially during times of economic crisis, can bolster the strength of far-right parties. This was evident in the 1930s following the 1929 economic crisis. These historical insights remind us to address economic disparities and avoid appeasement to prevent similar political outcomes today.

In your 2001 article “Post-communist extremism in Eastern Europe: The nature of the phenomenon,” you discussed the emergence of far-right parties in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Hungary, years before the governments of Kaczynski and Victor Orbán. Do you think the dynamics that led to the rise of far-right parties have changed in Eastern Europe? What patterns can you identify?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: First, let me say that while far-right politics is a wider European phenomenon, it is not exclusively a Central European issue. In my reading of the European continent, three main factors may create divergences between Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

First, there is the Communist legacy. This long and totalitarian history has created circumstances that can sometimes lend themselves to a lingering appeal of authoritarianism. The Communist legacy remains a significant point of reference in these regions.

Second, we must consider the legacy of empires versus those who were colonized. When discussing post-Empire Europe, we often assume all countries were colonizers, which is not the case. Western European countries like Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands had overseas empires. In contrast, many Eastern European countries, from Poland down to Greece, were part of empires. This division affects the development of politics, particularly nationalistic politics.

Third, connected to the second point, is the division between civic and ethnic nationalism. The understanding of national development and the way citizens are embedded within this context vary significantly. In Western Europe, there is often a more civic understanding of nationalism, whereas, in Eastern Europe, there is a longer historical experience of ethnic nationalism. This influences how far-right nationalism behaves and forms its ideology in these regions.

How has the narrative and strategy of far-right parties evolved from the post-communist era in Eastern Europe to the present day? Are there historical factors that continue to play a significant role in their resurgence?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Even in Eastern Europe, where we can roughly divide nationalism into civic versus ethnic types, history plays a very important role in the development of far-right parties and politics in general. The national experiences of these countries significantly impact how their politics evolve.

For example, Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became a nation-state after World War I, leaving many ethnic Hungarians outside its borders. This created a unique brand of Hungarian nationalism. In contrast, Poland, which also faces issues with the rule of law similar to Hungary, has a different historical background. Poland, often caught between Russia and Germany, has experienced its territory being divided and annexed by these powers. This historical context results in a far-right experience that can be either anti-German or very much anti-Russian.

Thus, the historical experiences of these countries influence how far-right parties develop and form their own versions of nationalism.

Meloni Is Not Mussolini, the AfD Is Not Comparable to Hitler’s Germany

Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, speaks at the Atreju convention in Rome, Italy on December 16, 2023. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

In the same article, you discuss four theses about the rise of far-right extremism, one of which is the revival of the fascist era. With the rise of Giorgia Meloni in Italy and her party, Brothers of Italy, and the rise of the AfD in Germany, do you see a revival of the fascist era?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Not in the way that it happened in the 1930s. As I mentioned earlier, history doesn’t repeat itself exactly. There are lessons to be learned, but the context is always different. In the 1930s, the aftermath of World War I played a significant role. The experience of being winners or losers, especially in Germany’s case, where it was a clear loser, defined how the country developed during the turbulent interwar period. This era saw the testing and eventual failure of liberal politics, leading to the authoritarian regimes of the 1930s.

Today, the background is very different. We have the European Union, which provides a unique context of political and economic integration among its member countries. Any attempt by far-right parties or anti-European, protectionist forces to gain power would first have to involve dismantling the EU, which is not an easy task.

In this sense, we are in a different historical moment. Meloni is not Mussolini, and the AfD is not comparable to Hitler’s Germany. However, these parties do contain elements that make them susceptible to fascist ideas, language, and rhetoric.

One important and common issue that enables these parties to develop their discourses is migration. Unlike in the 1930s, today’s migration context has been developing for a few decades, but under conditions of crisis, it becomes a significant scapegoat. Migration is an issue that many far-right parties across Europe use to their advantage.

In your article “Europeanization of the Balkans,” you underline how the EU membership process has transformed Balkan countries in terms of consolidating democracy and the rule of law. When you consider the surge of far-right populism in Western Europe, can we talk about the Balkanization of Europe?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Overall, I don’t use the term “Balkanization” because I think it’s a stereotypical and simplistic way of understanding a region. It doesn’t accurately reflect the true complexity of the area. My thesis back then was that the conditionality imposed by the European Union, particularly in the political context, was crucial. This conditionality made the countries accept and adopt certain norms required for EU membership. In this sense, Europeanization—a much broader concept—was able to take root in those countries.

What I see in Europe today is not Balkanization, but a process of securitization and the geopoliticization of the European Union. This shift is largely a response to the wars in neighboring regions, especially Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the face of these realities and a multipolar global environment, there is a turn towards a defense-oriented agenda. This shift could change the nature and spirit of the EU, moving it beyond its historical focus on economic integration and soft power.

One significant risk I see is the potential impact on the EU’s normative agenda. The EU is a democratic club, a group of countries that share specific values, rules and procedures. As the EU faces increased geopolitical and security challenges, it may struggle to maintain its commitment to these normative values. This concern is particularly relevant in its external relations, trade and foreign policy decisions. Even with the enlargement agenda, there is a risk that the EU may compromise some of its democratic credentials to bring in countries that may not yet be ready for membership.

So, while I do not fear Balkanization, I do see a process of geopoliticization that is shaping the future direction of the European Union.

In your doctoral thesis “Authoritarianism in 20th Century Greece,” you examine the authoritarian ideology and educational policy of two dictatorial regimes in 20th century Greece: the Metaxas dictatorship of 1936-1941 (the 4th of August regime) and the military junta of 1967-1974 (the 21st of April regime). What interactions do you observe between these two periods and the rise of Golden Dawn in the 2010s and the Greek Solution party now?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Dictatorships, particularly in the Greek context, belong to the past and do not present themselves as viable alternatives for political power and governance after the transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1974. The periods of the 1930s and 1960s were different as the military was a significant force in Greek politics. During political or party crises, the military often positioned itself as an alternative, intervening in politics multiple times. For instance, Metaxas, a military man, managed to influence politics in the interwar years, and the colonels in 1967 abruptly halted the democratic process.

The rise of far-right parties like Golden Dawn in Greece is not reminiscent of those military interventions. Golden Dawn, which gained prominence during the severe economic crisis in Greece, is also a criminal organization and most of its members are now imprisoned, rendering it unable to operate as a political party. Other nationalistic and far-right parties, such as the Greek Solution, exist but are often not sustainable. Over the past three decades, we have seen how some far-right parties have managed to raise their percentages. For instance, the Orthodox Popular Rally led by Georgios Karatzaferis in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the Independent Greeks, who cooperated with Syriza during the mid-2010s crisis. These far-right parties experienced a rise but eventually descended, demonstrating a pattern of emergence and decline.

These parties tend to be disruptive, reactionary and extremely nationalistic. They often gain support during times of political crisis or when mainstream parties struggle to address issues. This pattern of rise and fall is evident in the Greek Solution and two other extreme nationalist parties that secured seats in recent elections. The fact that these three far-right parties collectively garnered around 18-19% of the vote is concerning, indicating a particular situation in the Greek political context.

Populism and Populist Leaders Will Continue to Exist

In your research on authoritarian regimes in Greece, what historical patterns do you see re-emerging in contemporary European politics? What impact do you think, as an historian, the resurgence of far-right populism will have on the future of European integration and the EU’s democratic values? Are we witnessing a cyclical pattern of populist surges similar to previous historical periods?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: Populism and populist leaders will continue to exist, whether they are on the far-right, far-left or somewhere in between. Populism, as a broad umbrella term, encompasses various parties and movements, making it an enduring feature of the political landscape. A specific example of this is Brexit, which was a significant populist moment in Europe. Brexit challenged the European edifice as the UK, driven by populist sentiments, decided to leave the EU. This move was representative of both Euroscepticism and Europhobia.

Brexit demonstrates both the potential and the drawbacks of populism. On one hand, it successfully led a country out of the EU, showcasing populism’s power. On the other hand, it highlighted the immense challenges and turbulence associated with such a move. This experience serves as a lesson to other Eurosceptic parties that exiting the EU is not a straightforward endeavor.

Today’s far-right parties, which are often very Eurosceptic and reactionary, face a dual challenge. They must navigate their national political landscapes, creating an environment of opposition to their own elites while also dealing with the supranational context of Europe. They are limited in how reactionary they can be because pushing too hard against the EU could lead to their countries leaving the union, something that most populations do not desire. This tension makes it difficult for far-right parties to fully adopt their reactionary, nationalistic and racist rhetoric.

From a historical perspective, how concerned are you about the rise of far-right parties in the European elections? Many pundits argue that the center-right and center-left have held strong, and there is not much to worry about. Do you agree with these pundits?

Dr. Othon Anastasakis: I agree that this is not a significant rupture from the past. We haven’t seen a massive surge that could radically change the landscape. The mainstream context still dominates European politics, which is reassuring. However, I see two risks for the future.

The first risk is whether far-right parties in Europe will decide to unite within the European Parliament to create obstacles on issues such as migration or climate change. While it’s challenging for them to achieve unity, it is not entirely out of the question.

The second risk involves the extent to which center-right parties, particularly those in the Christian Democrat bloc, might be tempted to ally with far-right parties on certain issues or adopt parts of their discourse. This could lead to the mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric. We have already seen this in the field of migration, where mainstream parties are often influenced by far-right narratives.

A notable example is the European People’s Party (EPP), which for many years included Hungary’s Fidesz party. Although they eventually decided to expel Viktor Orbán’s party, they tolerated his presence for some time to maintain their numbers and votes. This indicates a potential risk where center-right parties might seek alliances with far-right parties to further their own interests.

Dr. Rodrigo Castro Cornejo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Associate Director of the UMass-Lowell Center for Public Opinion.

Professor Cornejo: Sheinbaum’s Democratic Background Contrasts with Her Actions That Erode Mexican Democracy

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo says Claudia Sheinbaum’s government in Mexico is set to begin in October, and it will be a period of significant interest as both the current president and the president-elect navigate this transition. He noted that Sheinbaum has a democratic trajectory, having worked as a scholar and scientist before joining López Obrador’s movement and stated that “Given her background, one might expect her government not to pose a threat to democracy. However, recent signs indicate she supports measures that could further erode Mexican democracy. We will need to wait until her government starts to see if these policies are implemented.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

General elections were held in Mexico on June 2, 2024, marking a significant moment in the nation’s political landscape. Voters elected a new president to serve a six-year term, alongside all 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies and all 128 members of the Senate. The election saw Claudia Sheinbaum, a member of the left-wing National Regeneration Movement (Morena), secure the presidency. This result underscores a continuity in the political direction established by the outgoing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO).

In an insightful interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Rodrigo Castro Cornejo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Associate Director of the UMass-Lowell Center for Public Opinion, discussed Sheinbaum’s political trajectory and the implications of her victory. Professor Cornejo highlighted that Sheinbaum actively supported López Obrador’s transformation agenda throughout her campaign, aligning herself closely with his policies. This raised questions about whether she would carve out her own positions once in office or continue on the path set by her predecessor.

Professor Cornejo pointed out that Sheinbaum recently reiterated her support for controversial reforms, such as electing judges by popular vote, which suggests a continuation of policies that may weaken checks and balances. This stance has raised concerns about potential democratic erosion under her administration.

Sheinbaum’s government is set to begin in October, and it will be a period of significant interest as both the current president and the president-elect navigate this transition. Professor Cornejo noted that Sheinbaum has a democratic trajectory, having worked as a scholar and scientist before joining López Obrador’s movement and stated that “Given her background, one might expect her government not to pose a threat to democracy. However, recent signs indicate she supports measures that could further erode Mexican democracy. We will need to wait until her government starts to see if these policies are implemented.”

As we delve into this interview, Professor Cornejo sheds light on the historical development of populist movements in Mexico, the impact of populist rhetoric on voter behavior, and the potential long-term implications for Mexican society and governance. Join us as we explore these critical issues and gain a deeper understanding of the current political dynamics in Mexico.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo with some edits.

Populism in Mexico Is Essentially Embodied by AMLO

Thank you very much, Professor Cornejo, for joining our interview series. Let me start with the first question. Can you provide an overview of the historical development of populist movements in Mexico? How have these movements evolved over the past few decades? Especially, how do left-wing and right-wing populism manifest differently in Mexico, and what are the unique characteristics and strategies of each within the Mexican political context?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s an interesting moment in Mexican politics because there was a presidential election just a few days ago. Populism in Mexico is essentially embodied by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the current president. He first ran for the presidency in 2006, then in 2012, and finally won in 2018. Throughout his campaigns, he has consistently divided Mexican society in a populist manner, framing the former mainstream political parties as a corrupt elite and his movement, The National Regeneration Movement (Morena), as the representative of the “good” people.

Mexico experienced a non-democratic hegemonic regime from the 1930s until 2000, eventually transitioning to democracy in 2000. López Obrador was always critical of this transition, not because he opposed democracy, but because he believed it wasn’t a true democracy—it was a neoliberal democracy that served only a few people and political parties. He was especially critical of the neoliberal reforms approved between 2012 and 2015 and the massive corruption scandals during the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government of that period. These events significantly boosted his political career, allowing him to tap into the public’s anger and ultimately win the presidency in 2018 with more than 50% of the vote, a historic achievement in Mexico.

In 2024, López Obrador couldn’t campaign for re-election as it is constitutionally banned in Mexico. However, his loyal ally, Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City, won the presidential election with almost 60% of the vote. She campaigned on continuing the policies and direction set by López Obrador over the past six years.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexican President and Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City Governor, in an event in judiciary city in Mexico on September 4, 2019. Photo: Octavio Hoyos.

What has been the impact of populist rhetoric and strategies on recent Mexican elections? How have populist leaders and their discourses influenced voter behavior? What are the long-term implications of these policies and discourses on Mexican society and governance?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: I think populism, especially in the last decade and most notably in the past six years, has played a significant role in Mexican politics. It has influenced day-to-day politics and voter behavior. In some of my studies, I found that affective polarization, particularly negative partisanship against the PRI, is a main driver of voting behavior. People are making decisions at election time not necessarily based on the future but on their independent judgment, particularly against the PRI, which is perceived as a highly corrupt government. Even though the PRI has not governed in the past six years, they are still being punished for their previous performance.

López Obrador has been very strategic about this. He holds daily press conferences, sometimes for up to two hours every morning, where he frequently criticizes the PRI government of six, twelve, or even eighteen years ago. He rarely discusses the current policies of his own government, focusing instead on the past. This strategy has been very useful for him, allowing him to divert attention from current issues such as public insecurity, drug cartel-related violence, and his government’s poor handling of the pandemic. Mexico had one of the worst excess death rates during the pandemic, but López Obrador kept talking about the past rather than addressing current problems.

People are not evaluating his actual performance; instead, they are looking at the past and his rhetoric. This populist rhetoric has been very important for his government.

Affective Polarization and Negative Partisanship Are Significant Factors Driving Voter Behavior

In your article titled “The AMLO Voter: Affective Polarization and the Rise of the Left in Mexico,” you suggest that affective polarization played a crucial role in López Obrador’s victory in the 2018 presidential election. Can you elaborate on how the use of populist rhetoric contributed to this affective polarization in Mexican politics and influenced voter behavior in recent elections and contributed to the electoral success of Claudia Sheinbaum?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: Yeah, it’s interesting. Normally, you would expect a lot of retrospective voting, especially given the huge corruption scandals, the struggling economy before 2018, and the ongoing public insecurity in Mexico. You’d think these issues would dominate voters’ decisions. But when I analyzed the data, I found that while people do consider retrospective assessments, the influence of party identification and, more importantly, affective polarization, is much stronger.

When you control for these factors, you see that traditional variables influencing voting behavior are less significant. People assess the economy, corruption, and public insecurity through the lens of their party loyalties and biases. My research shows that negative partisanship against the established political parties, particularly the PRI, was a main driver of López Obrador’s victory in 2018. Another significant factor was the perception that the National Action Party (PAN) and PRI were essentially the same, especially after they approved several neoliberal legislative reforms before his victory. This convergence in their policies helped López Obrador by making them seem indistinguishable to voters.

These elements—economic struggles, political scandals, and the perceived similarity between the PAN and PRI—were very advantageous for López Obrador in 2018. Although I don’t have data for the most recent election, it’s likely that affective polarization and negative partisanship against the PAN and PRI continue to be significant factors driving voter behavior, potentially contributing to Claudia Sheinbaum’s success as well.

Your article titled “Who Believes in Fraud in the 2006 Mexican Presidential Election? Election Denialism, Partisan Motivated Reasoning, and Affective Polarization,” emphasizes the role of affective polarization in sustaining the belief in electoral fraud during the 2006 Mexican presidential election. Could you elaborate on how affective polarization interacts with partisan identification to reinforce these misperceptions over time and in recent elections?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s an interesting moment in Mexican politics, particularly since the 2006 presidential election when López Obrador first ran for the presidency. Despite a lack of substantial evidence, he claimed he lost due to electoral fraud. This allegation became a political myth that fueled his movement. At that time, he was part of the PRD, Mexico’s traditional leftist party. Eventually, he founded his own party, Morena.

López Obrador’s narrative has been particularly effective during these years, framing the PAN and PRI as not only neoliberal and corrupt but also responsible for creating widespread poverty in Mexico. He has also perpetuated the myth that the presidency was stolen from him in 2006, which has been a powerful tool for mobilizing support.

In his second presidential campaign in 2012, his claims of fraud were less successful since he lost by a wider margin (more than 5% of the vote) compared to the less than 1% margin in 2006. However, this narrative continued to shape his populist rhetoric, activating grievances among the electorate not just about the economy and corruption but also about the perceived injustice of the stolen presidency.

This strategy of targeting and activating grievances has been central to his success, particularly in the 2018 presidential election and in the most recent elections. By constructing an in-group against the PAN and PRI, López Obrador has effectively used populist rhetoric to galvanize support for himself and his party, Morena.

People Fail to Hold Their Own Party Leaders Accountable

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador during an Indigenous ceremony as part of ceremony of the takeover as the new President of Mexico on December 1, 2018 in Mexico City. Photo: Carlos Tischler.

Your 2023 study finds that emotions, particularly anger, significantly influence how voters perceive corruption involving their co-partisan candidates. How can political campaigns either mitigate or exploit these emotional responses to influence voter behavior, and what are the broader implications for political accountability in Mexico?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s interesting because anger is a main driver of political behavior. When people feel aggravated by issues like corruption, which was rampant during the years before López Obrador, they become angry. López Obrador capitalized on this anger, blaming mainstream political parties for the country’s structural problems, particularly corruption. This strategy led people to react against these scandals and support López Obrador as a way to punish corruption.

However, my research shows a problem with accountability. While people may be angry and willing to punish opposition parties for corruption, they are less likely to do the same when it comes to corruption within López Obrador’s Morena party. In experiments where I manipulated the source of a corruption scandal, participants were less likely to punish the scandal if it involved their own party’s politicians. This has been evident over the last six years in Mexico. Despite numerous corruption scandals within his government, including those involving his own family, López Obrador’s approval ratings have remained remarkably stable around 60%, which is very high for a Latin American democracy.

This stability persists despite ongoing violence, economic struggles, and a poor pandemic response. The issue is that in a world of affective polarization combined with populist rhetoric, people are likely to overlook the flaws within their own party. They use partisan bias as a shield, becoming immune to scandals, and fail to hold their co-partisan leaders accountable.

Your article titled “How Do Campaigns Matter? Independents, Political Information, and the Enlightening Role of Campaigns in Mexico,” discusses how campaigns help voters align with candidates that match their underlying political predispositions. How do populist candidates in Mexico leverage campaign strategies to appeal to independents and low-information voters, and what role does populist rhetoric play in shaping these voters’ political alignments?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s interesting because in Mexico, over the last 20 years, around 50% to 60% of people have shown strong party identification, which is quite high for Latin America. Typically, about a third to 40% of the electorate is independent, varying by election. This independent group is what politicians aim to target. For instance, in 2006 and 2012, when López Obrador lost the presidential elections, he did not win the independent vote. During those campaigns, the PAN and PRI successfully portrayed him as a threat to Mexican democracy and the economy, suggesting that if he won, both would collapse.

However, by 2018, due to the poor performance and numerous scandals of the mainstream parties, López Obrador was able to win the independent vote for the first time. Independents are generally more responsive to current political events than partisans, who view everything through their partisan biases. When independents see corruption scandals or poor economic performance, they react accordingly, which was beneficial for López Obrador in 2018.

The 2024 campaign has been one of the most stable in recent history regarding polling. Claudia Sheinbaum started with about 50% support, while the opposition candidate from PAN and PRI, Bertha Xóchitl Gálvez Ruiz, had around 30%. This remained largely unchanged over the three months of the campaign, reflecting the highly polarized and partisan nature of Mexican politics today. With a high level of party identification, people’s political orientations and voting intentions did not shift much during the campaign.

López Obrador’s influence remains strong, with Morena winning the independent vote once again. However, these so-called independents are less independent than in previous campaigns, likely due to the successful positioning of Morena under López Obrador’s leadership in Mexican politics.

The study suggests that political campaigns serve an enlightening role, particularly for independents. How does this enlightenment process impact the support for populist candidates who often rely on broad, anti-establishment messages? Do these campaigns reinforce or weaken the appeal of populist rhetoric as election day approaches?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: Exactly. This last presidential campaign differed from previous ones because this time, Morena was the party in government, with Claudia Sheinbaum and López Obrador having completed six years of leadership. They couldn’t solely rely on stirring anger against the PAN and PRI, although they did so successfully. Instead, they also focused on promoting their achievements.

A significant part of Sheinbaum’s rhetoric was about the better economy under their administration. They emphasized that they represented the people, a theme that was very common in their political communication. They highlighted the creation of social programs, increases in the minimum wage, and other economic improvements as contrasts to the previous neoliberal policies of the PAN and PRI.

However, they also had to downplay the criticisms regarding democratic erosion. The opposition parties, particularly the PAN and PRI, accused them of trying to capture the Supreme Court, eroding democracy, and undermining electoral authorities. Despite these criticisms, Sheinbaum’s campaign focused on the positive changes over the last six years and continued to activate anger against the mainstream political parties.

Overall, the strategy was to highlight their accomplishments while maintaining the narrative that the PAN and PRI were responsible for past issues, ensuring voters remained focused on the supposed improvements and continued to distrust the previous governments.

Most People Endorsed “Reforms” That Ultimately Undermined Democracy in Mexico

Your study titled “Do (Perceptions of) Electoral Polling Affect the Vote? Campaign Effects, Partisan Bias, and Strategic Voting in Mexico” highlights the role of partisan bias in shaping voter perceptions of electoral polling information. From a populism perspective, how do populist leaders in Mexico exploit or reinforce these biases to galvanize their base, and what impact does this have on strategic voting behavior among their supporters?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: In the last few years of López Obrador’s government, he has consistently emphasized his mandate. Almost weekly, if not daily, he has highlighted that he won over 50% of the vote, claiming a majority of the electorate’s support. He often cited high presidential approval ratings, with some surveys showing nearly 80% approval, though the average was closer to 60%. He used these numbers in his daily press conferences to argue that he represented the people and had a mandate to pursue his policies.

From a political perspective, high approval ratings can indeed help push through economic and political reforms by pressuring opposition parties. However, this rhetoric also extended to justifying actions that eroded democratic institutions. For example, he argued that the Supreme Court was obstructing his administration and therefore needed reform. Similarly, he claimed that the electoral authority was not fair to his government, justifying attempts to weaken its independence.

Over the past few years, López Obrador sought constitutional reforms to undermine the independence of electoral authorities and to exert control over the Supreme Court. He justified these actions by citing his electoral victory and high approval ratings, claiming democratic legitimacy. However, this has been problematic as it has actively eroded democratic norms and institutions in Mexico.

Due to the partisan bias we discussed earlier, many people supported these measures, believing that the Supreme Court and electoral authorities were indeed obstructing the government. This significant portion of public opinion endorsed reforms that ultimately undermined democracy in Mexico.

Your article titled “Anti-Democratic Attitudes, the Winner-Loser Gap, and the Rise of the Left in Mexico,” indicates that López Obrador’s supporters showed increased satisfaction with democracy after his victory, yet also exhibited a willingness to support anti-democratic interventions. How do populist leaders like López Obrador reconcile or exploit this apparent contradiction between promoting satisfaction with democracy while simultaneously undermining democratic norms and institutions?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s interesting because, normally, you would expect that voters whose party won the last presidential election would be more satisfied with democracy. This expectation was met in the 2018 presidential election, where López Obrador’s partisans were very happy about his victory and their satisfaction with democracy increased significantly.

However, these same voters were also the most likely to endorse measures that could actively erode democracy. The question is why. From López Obrador’s perspective, he would argue that these measures are not about undermining democracy but about creating a true democracy that represents the people. He portrays the judiciary and the Supreme Court as corrupt entities that do not represent the public.

One of the proposed reforms, likely to be discussed in Congress in September, involves having judges in Mexico, including those on the Supreme Court, elected by popular vote. The argument is that this will ensure judges represent the people. However, this could politicize the judiciary further, making judges more responsive to political interests rather than the public.

So, how do people reconcile these two views? Partisan bias plays a significant role. Supporters of López Obrador trust his discourses and narratives. Additionally, if democracy hasn’t brought tangible benefits, measures that claim to ensure representation, such as electing judges, can seem appealing to the public. Thus, these kinds of reforms might gain support among the public, even if they undermine democratic norms.

Sheinnbaum’s Government May Not Pose a Threat to Democracy

Claudia Sheinbaum, candidate for the presidency of Mexico, celebrates at Zocalo square the significant advantage that makes her the virtual winner in Mexico City, Mexico on June 2, 2024. Photo: Paola Garcia.

During the campaign, Claudia Sheinbaum backed many of Obrador’s most contentious policies, including a slate of constitutional changes that critics say would severely undermine democratic checks and balances. Do you think she would continue the populist streak Obrador started?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: I think so. That was always one of the questions. During the campaign, Claudia Sheinbaum actively campaigned for the continuity of López Obrador’s transformation agenda, as he often refers to his government’s efforts to transform Mexican politics. She consistently supported continuing his policies.

The question was whether she was being strategic during the campaign, appearing to fully support López Obrador but planning to establish her own positions once in office. Recently, she reiterated her support for reforms like the one proposing that judges be elected by popular vote. This suggests a strong likelihood of continuing policies that weaken checks and balances and erode democratic norms.

Her government begins in October, and it will be an interesting period with both the current president and the president-elect in the spotlight. She may strategically maintain her successful political alliance with López Obrador initially, but there is a possibility she will develop her own positions over time.

Sheinbaum has a democratic trajectory, having worked as a scholar and scientist before joining López Obrador’s movement. Given her background, one might expect her government not to pose a threat to democracy. However, recent signs indicate she supports measures that could further erode Mexican democracy. We will need to wait until her government starts to see if these policies are implemented.

How do you think a possible win by Donald Trump in the US could affect populist movements in Mexico and in Latin America? 

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s interesting because López Obrador and Donald Trump had a surprisingly good relationship, despite their differing ideologies—Trump from the right and López Obrador from the left. They found common ground in their populist approaches, albeit to different extents.

This relationship proved functional for both Mexico and the US in recent years. Under both the Trump and Biden administrations, the primary US expectation has been for Mexico to curb immigration from Central America. Mexico has done this, though often in ways that have raised significant human rights concerns. This arrangement has been somewhat successful for the Biden administration, with Mexico acting as a de facto wall between the two countries.

In exchange, it seems that the US has largely overlooked issues of democratic erosion in Mexico. The primary concern for the US has historically been stability over democracy. This was evident even during the 70 years of the hegemonic party regime in Mexico last century. While there has been some interest in promoting democracy, political stability has always been the main priority.

Even if López Obrador didn’t fully respect some NAFTA agreements, these disagreements were eventually negotiated. Ultimately, the most critical issue for both the Trump and Biden administrations has been immigration control. López Obrador’s administration has been astute in not criticizing the US on its democratic standards, focusing instead on maintaining a stable relationship that aligns with their interests.

Demonstration of the Austrian Identitarian Movement organized a demonstration "to defend Europe in Vienna" on June 11, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

Professor Vieten: Individualized Profit and Socialized Risk Fuel Far-Right Populism

Dr. Ulrike M. Vieten points out that the 2008 economic crisis played a significant role in exacerbating people’s anxieties, highlighting that “profit is individualized while risk is socialized.” This economic instability, coupled with the recent pandemic, has deepened the feeling of insecurity across Europe. These socio-economic factors, she argues, have paved the way for the far-right’s rise, as people seek to channel their distress and anger. Drawing parallels with the normalization of far-right ideologies in the early 20th century, Vieten underscores that this historical context is crucial in recognizing how quickly societal values can shift and the dangers of complacency.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

As critical European Parliament elections take place across Europe, Dr. Ulrike M. Vieten, an Assistant Professor in Sociology of Gender, Migration and Racisms, at Queen’s University Belfast, points out that the 2008 economic crisis played a significant role in exacerbating people’s anxieties, referencing German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, by highlighting that “profit is individualized while risk is socialized.” This economic instability, coupled with the recent pandemic, has deepened the feeling of insecurity across Europe, particularly among young people and students who lost their jobs. These socio-economic factors, she argues, have paved the way for the far-right’s rise, as people seek to channel their distress and anger.

In an interview with European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on Friday, Professor Vieten discussed the complex dynamics driving the rise of populist and far-right parties in Europe, one of the most affluent regions globally. Professor Vieten, a historical sociologist, offers valuable insights into the multifaceted factors contributing to this phenomenon. “The emergence of far-right, particularly racist populism, is surprising in such a wealthy continent. In my view, this has to do with the population itself; it is a class issue,” she explains, emphasizing the middle class’s fear of losing social status and the sense of entitlement that fuels these fears.

The professor also underscores the importance of understanding history to grasp the current political landscape. Drawing parallels with the normalization of far-right ideologies in the early 20th century, she notes, “The shocking reality is that within just ten years, a very cosmopolitan, modern, and diverse society like Germany in the late 1920s could suddenly transform into a monocultural, antisemitic, and racist society.” This historical context is crucial in recognizing how quickly societal values can shift and the dangers of complacency.

Addressing the role of migration as a propeller of far-right populism, Professor Vieten explains how the politicization of migration creates divisions and anxieties. She highlights the interconnectedness of the housing crisis and xenophobic sentiments, exacerbated by media and political rhetoric. “The ideologically loaded notion of migration and migrants is something that has developed over the years,” she notes, pointing to the lack of effective strategies to address these issues.

In combating the influence of far-right populism, Professor Vieten advocates for a culture of open-mindedness, solidarity, social justice, and equality. She emphasizes the need for counter-mobilization against authoritarian tendencies and the importance of cultivating anti-racism bystander habits to challenge the normalization of exclusionary ideologies.

Through this interview, Professor Vieten provides a nuanced understanding of the rise of far-right populism in Europe, rooted in historical context and contemporary socio-economic challenges. Her insights call for a concerted effort to address these issues and promote a more inclusive and equitable society.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Ulrike M. Vieten with some edits.

Rise of Populist Far-Right Is a Class Issue

Professor Vietenthank you so very much for joining our interview series. Let me start with the first question. What do you see as the primary factors driving the rise of populist and far-right parties in Europe which is one of the most affluent parts of the planet? Are there common social, economic, or political conditions that are particularly conducive to their growth across different European countries?

Ulrike M. Vieten: This is an interesting question, and I’m glad we can discuss this issue. As you noted, Europe is a wealthy and rich continent, so the emergence of far-right, particularly racist populism, is surprising. In my view, this has to do with the population itself; it is a class issue. Contrary to some prejudices, this issue is primarily about a middle class that increasingly fears losing its social status.

This fear of losing social status is tied to a sense of entitlement that, unfortunately, many European citizens have. The notion of citizenship plays a crucial role here, as it is still largely based on territorial rights. The European Union or Europe as a concept has not promoted or engaged sufficiently with the idea of a common European citizenship that transcends national identities and citizenships.

The rise of the far-right, particularly in the last 10 years, is also connected to the economic crisis of 2008. Many people tend to forget the impact of that crisis. As Habermas noted years ago, profit is individualized while risk is socialized. This means that the cost of living crisis we are currently experiencing is real, with more people losing ground in terms of income and job security.

We must also consider the impact of the pandemic. Some people, such as white-collar workers, academics like myself, or those working in offices, were relatively privileged because we could switch to online work. Although we experienced isolation and related emotional challenges, we were able to continue working. This experience contrasts sharply with that of young people and students who lost their jobs. The widespread feeling of anxiety and insecurity has affected various European countries.

This issue is complex. A journalist in Paris raised the point that there might be significant divisions between different regions of Europe or the European Union. The experiences of Eastern European countries may differ from those of Western, Central, or Scandinavian countries. It’s crucial not to generalize across all countries. Instead, studies and researchers should examine what is happening in different countries to understand what is triggering these feelings and the rise of far-right populism.

Of course, we do have some commonalities, as I mentioned previously in my speeech at the conference in Paris. For example, the housing crisis is a significant issue, not only in Ireland but also in other countries, contributing to the rise of far-right parties, such as in the Netherlands. It’s an issue in Spain as well. Despite these countries’ differences, they share an unfortunate trend of commercializing housing to an extreme extent, often lacking a functional rental market.

I’m originally from Germany, where renting is generally well-regulated, although there are issues in places like Berlin. On average, however, Germany maintains a more balanced rental market, emphasizing the right to decent housing. This level of regulation is absent in countries like the UK and Ireland. I’m focusing on Ireland because it’s part of the European Union, and the situation there illustrates a broader problem. Addressing this housing crisis should be a priority for policymakers.

The current conditions have led to a rise in xenophobic sentiments across various countries, targeting migrants and refugees. This is partly due to a sense of entitlement among long-settled citizens who feel their needs are being neglected while international migrants are accommodated. This growing xenophobia and the housing crisis are interconnected, reflecting deeper societal issues that need urgent attention.

The Temporal Proximity of Shifts Toward the Far-Right Is Shocking

An old published photo of Adolf Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany, in 1934, with enthusiastic locals from the Obersalzberg area. Photo: Andreas Wolochow.

In your speech at the “Do not wake the Dragon,” you often refer to history. Why do you think history is so central in understanding the rise of far-right populism?

Ulrike M. Vieten: I’m a historical sociologist, not just a political sociologist, and, as I mentioned earlier, I come from Germany and was born in the sixties. Therefore, one must come to terms with the impact of national socialism, institutional anti-semitism, and the Holocaust not only on Germany but on Europe as a whole. This historical context is essential for understanding the significance of these events.

In my recent publication with my Australian colleagues, we focus on the normalization of the global far-right. It is absolutely important and central to examine contemporary witnesses of the rise of Hitler’s nationalist socialism and fascism in other countries, such as Italy and Spain. This helps us understand what we refer to as normalizing processes. Fortunately, there is a wealth of knowledge available, including books, archival materials, and documentaries, which is why I emphasize the importance of this historical study.

The shocking reality is that within just ten years, a very cosmopolitan, modern, and diverse society like Germany in the late 1920s could suddenly transform into a monocultural, antisemitic, and racist society. This drastic change is where the mythical figure of the dragon becomes relevant. My argument is that the seeds of such transformation are embedded within liberal democracies and capitalism itself. This transformation often occurs due to a mixture of socioeconomic crises and deliberate manipulation of majority populations, making them believe that a specific group is responsible for their hardships.

Historically, this scapegoating targeted European Jews, who were assimilated into various national identities—German, French, Romanian, Bulgarian, etc. Despite their assimilation, they were singled out as the “other” and blamed for the societal disruptions and economic challenges, particularly those faced by the disadvantaged classes. This process of targeting a minority group as responsible for societal issues has repeated throughout history, highlighting the importance of understanding these mechanisms to prevent future occurrences.

The shocking element is the temporal proximity of these changes. From the late 1920s to the early 1930s—a span of just 10-13 years—Germany transformed rapidly. This serves as a stark reminder of how quickly such shifts can occur, paralleling events unfolding before our eyes today.

We have lived through the 1980s and 90s, a period when multiculturalism, diversity, equality, and inclusion were highly valued. We could not have imagined that within 10-15 years, the discourse would shift so dramatically. This change has significant consequences for the political landscape and the kinds of parties that emerge and gain influence.

Some of these far-right parties, for example, in France, have been established and present for years, so this is not a new phenomenon. The normalization process involves their ideologies becoming respectable and acceptable to a significant minority, not necessarily a numerical majority, but enough to wield considerable influence. This minority can empower these parties to gain parliamentary seats, not just in national elections but also in the European Parliament.

This trend is concerning and underscores the importance of studying history and listening to contemporary witnesses. Many people may not fully comprehend the gravity of the situation because it is human nature to take things for granted until they are lost. As an academic, and for organizations like yours, it is crucial to alert and alarm people about these developments. Understanding the past is essential to grasp the potential implications of current events, and to recognize that the rise of such parties is not entirely new.

It’s not new; it has been done before. It’s not simply a matter of history repeating itself, but the elements are there. So, in response to this concern, I like to cite intellectuals of the Frankfurt School in exile, particularly Adorno and Horkheimer. If these names ring a bell, my favorite quote comes from Max Horkheimer, who wrote in 1939: “Those who do not want to talk about capitalism should be silent about fascism.” In my view, this encapsulates the core of the problem.

Adorno, in the 1960s, gave a very famous lecture in Vienna, which was published in both German and English. He foresaw that the transformations and different stages of capitalism might again lead to feelings of losing social status and the concentration of capital. We are witnessing a further push in modernity and the dynamics of late capitalism, which can exacerbate these issues. This is why understanding history is so crucial.

Migration Has Become Politicized

How do the increasing populist and far-right tendencies in various member states affect the process of European integration and the overall stability of the European Union? Are there specific policy areas (like migration) where their influence is particularly noticeable? Can you please especially explain the role of migration as one of the propellers of far-right populism in Europe?

Ulrike M. Vieten: It goes back to what I mentioned earlier about migration being the main problem, which I believe was staged. I wouldn’t go so far as to directly compare the projection of anxieties and racism toward Jews in the 1930s to the current situation with migrants. However, we do see similar patterns and structures. The ideologically loaded notion of migration and migrants is something that has developed over the years. As someone who has observed this both from within and outside the European Union, I find it very interesting to understand.

Until 2016, before Brexit, there was always a distinction between migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. These distinctions, which are also legal, have somewhat collapsed over time. We are not just talking about migration as an issue; it produces anxieties for the reasons I outlined earlier. For example, if there is a systemic housing catastrophe, as Irish President Michael Daniel Higgins noted two years ago, and no real strategy to resolve it, it becomes easier to blame arriving international protection applicants and refugees who need housing. These individuals have a right to accommodation, while in many countries there are issues not only with homelessness but also with the availability and affordability of housing.

These divisions are often exacerbated by the media and politics, which unfortunately are not helpful here. They often play into the tune of far-right populism by creating boundaries and divisions. Instead of framing the issue as one that affects all people living in a particular country and promoting solidarity, it’s easier to focus on numbers, like saying there are 13,000 refugees coming into the country while there are 10,000 homeless citizens. Even if those 10,000 homeless people can’t vote because they don’t have an address, others perceive the situation as unfair. People might relate more to a fellow citizen than to a refugee or someone from Sudan. This issue intersects strongly with racism, highlighting differences between white and black bodies and is heavily gendered. It becomes a mixture of various complex areas, influencing who is welcomed and allowed to stay.

In my view, migration has become politicized. Emotions and distress are being used to channel anger, rather than being fair or open about capitalist interests. The housing market is commercialized, interest-focused and privatized rather than collective. Some discussions have really gotten out of hand. The media and mainstream politicians have not been helpful, as they often follow the lead of far-right populist politicians and leaders. Efforts to counter this division and the racism it conveys are not very visible, at least in the news I follow, which includes German-speaking and English-speaking media.

Assumption That Younger Generations Would Be More Liberal and Left-Wing Disproved

Demonstrators of the Austrian Identitarian movement form a guard of honor of flags in Vienna, Austria on June 11, 2016. Photo: Johanna Poetsch.

 

 

What strategies are populist and far-right parties using to attract voters ahead of the upcoming EP elections? How are they framing their messages to resonate with a broader audience, and what role does social media play in their campaigns?

Ulrike M. Vieten: I must say this question is a bit beyond my comfort zone, as I’ve been outside the European Union for a few years now. However, from what I understand, various countries have successfully gauged the type of anger and socio-economic upset present in different localities, particularly at the subnational level. They take the frustration and anger of local people seriously. This approach seems more successful, perhaps because a crucial element of populism is its anti-elite stance. Populists argue that the political elite has not listened to people’s concerns and has had 20 years to address these issues but has not done much. This narrative has been a success story for far-right populists, as they can relate to and communicate with people on a very local level, at least pretending to take their concerns seriously.

Regarding social media, I mentioned earlier that the pandemic, in my view, triggered a lot of what’s happening now. Social media’s potential for spreading conspiracy theories and fake news has been exploited, with platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram being used to mobilize people. You might have heard about the incidents in Ireland last year, which were based on false information about the events and the actors involved. The Irish police, Gardaí, were apparently unprepared for the resulting outrage and riots on the streets. Populists are very capable of using social media, which is also a generational issue. We might assume that younger generations would be more liberal and left-wing, but that’s not the case. The landscape is much more fragmented, with movements like the Identitarian movement in France capturing the interests of younger people. This is a significant concern. While I can use social media, I am not able to fully understand its extent or impact. Established parties may not use or understand these tools as effectively, which could be attributed to generational differences.

People in Poorer Urban and Rural Areas Often Feel Abandoned

In your opinion, what measures can mainstream political parties and civil society take to effectively counter the narratives and influence of populist and far-right movements? Are there successful examples of such counterstrategies in recent European political history?

Ulrike M. Vieten: European history sounds grand, but here I refer to the constructive, positive experience of a group called “Hope, Not Hate” based in Ireland. Originally, they started with a different name that more explicitly focused on monitoring far-right activities. They have since shifted their focus to promoting a positive, inclusive vision. Their approach is similar to some strategies used by far-right populists: they engage with local communities, taking their concerns seriously. Instead of immediately stigmatizing those protesting the accommodation of new asylum seekers in previously empty hotels, they engage in dialogue to understand the sources of their anxieties and frustrations. This is hugely important as it addresses feelings and experiences of deprivation in a very tangible sense.

It’s not by chance that in poorer parts of cities or rural areas, people often feel abandoned. These communities, already experiencing significant deprivation, are then confronted with a larger group of people who look different, speak differently, and have different cultures. There is often no encompassing structure to help them manage their fears and learn about these individuals. In some places, volunteers have addressed this by not only offering language training but also organizing shared cooking and socializing activities. This helps break down barriers and the sense of “otherness” that dehumanizes and stigmatizes these groups. Without normal or spontaneous communication, it becomes easy to criminalize and marginalize them. As soon as people target a specific group and that group becomes marginalized, it becomes abstract, making it easier to criminalize them.

What’s happening right now with the illegal Migration Bill is concerning. At another time, I would argue that such a bill would have been considered illegal. Some actions may become legal, but in terms of ethics and a deeper understanding of what law and justice should be, it’s the opposite. This is where historical knowledge is crucial. We must be very aware of how legal systems can be established to criminalize, marginalize, and rationalize the exclusion of others. This is what’s on the agenda now.

Re-election of Trump Expected to Further Normalize Far-Right Ideologies

QAnon Shaman, Jake Angeli is seen as roaming near the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 insurrection which was initiated by Former US President Donald Trump in Washington D.C.. Photo: Johnny Silvercloud

How do you think a possible victory by Donald Trump at the upcoming US elections will affect the normalization of global far-right movements?

Ulrike M. Vieten: My spontaneous answer to this is that it’s already normalized. That’s the problem. This normalization started 10-20 years ago, possibly even after 9/11, with the racialization of Muslim communities. It’s a process where people become accustomed to accepting that a vulnerable group can be stigmatized. For example, in some Continental European countries like Belgium, where you’re based, there’s criminalization of headscarves and targeting of gendered clothing. This normalization process makes it acceptable to criminalize wearing certain types of clothing.

If Trump wins a second term, which I think is very likely, it will only continue a trend he started earlier. It’s almost like a theater of absurdity, where a politician can encourage followers to attack the symbolic buildings of liberal democracy in the United States. He should stand trial for such actions, but instead, the most significant trial he faces seems to be about paying hush money to a sex worker. This shows how far we have come in this process of normalization.

It might be a new stage, and that’s very relevant in terms of international politics. However, it’s not a symptom of a new stage of normalization because the normalization and accommodation of far-right, racist, white superiority, as embodied by Trump, is part of an ongoing process. This process involves machismo, patriarchy, and white superiority. The shocking aspect I mentioned is the widespread polarization in different societies, including the United States, European countriesand Brazil. Social cohesion is gone, and there is no longer a consensus on what democracy, social values, gender equality, or inclusion mean. We now have polarized positions.

Trump’s prominence is partly due to his many white, middle-class, or working-class followers who admire his sexist and racist positions. This admiration of certain identities and claims globally is alarming. Reading history books, we often wonder how people could have admired figures like Hitler. However, what we see now has similarities, including the sexualization of politics, which helps explain why figures like Trump become so successful.

Silencing Dissent Can Lead to Increased Polarization and Fragmentation

Lastly, Professor Vieten, based on your recent article, “Accomplices to Social Exclusion? Analyzing Institutional Processes of Silencing,” how do institutions systematically mobilize silencing as a tool of power, especially given the rise of populist radical right and far-right parties that are socially and politically exclusionary? Can you elaborate on how institutional silencing specifically affects intersections of social class, gender, race, and ethnicity and what the potential effects of these exclusions and silencing might be in the upcoming EP elections?

Ulrike M. Vieten: That’s a very complex question that touches on various dynamics inherent to these problems. I’ll start with the institutional processes of silencing. In opposition to silencing, we could argue that there is a right to free speech. Far-right parties and politicians definitely have the right to express what they think is right and wrong. Likewise, populations who identify with these far-right populist views have the right to tell their stories.

On the other hand, limitations on free speech must align with constitutional rights, values, and respect for others. These limitations are necessary to maintain a balanced discourse. The issue of silencing is not limited to far-right populist parties; it’s more complex. What I’m observing is institutional silencing on controversial issues, which varies by country. For example, discussions about the war in Gaza are handled very differently in Ireland and Spain compared to Germany and France. In some places, expressing critical views about certain politicians or Israeli policies can lead to being labeled as antisemitic. This kind of silencing can lead to increased polarization and fragmentation, making people feel disenfranchised.

Far-right populist parties often capitalize on this feeling of being silenced or marginalized. This can drive people toward these parties as they seek a platform to express their views. This phenomenon isn’t as visible with left-wing parties at the moment, unlike in previous years when left-wing populist parties were stronger in Greece and Spain. This is a macro societal issue that affects the overall political landscape.

Another issue that hits close to home involves institutions like universities, newsrooms and even public spaces like buses or trains. What does it take to speak up and overcome bystander silence? We should cultivate what I would call anti-racism bystander habits. This idea is linked to countering authoritarian characters, harking back to the Frankfurt School’s analysis of how National Socialism emerged and became successful. They identified the authoritarian character as a key factor.

We need counter-mobilization to combat the silencing of different views. Traditions and cultures of communication vary across countries, but there is a universal need for a positive understanding of conflict. Conflict can be constructive if disputes are accepted and people are trained to understand communication dynamics. This is not just about becoming a successful leader but about understanding how communication works and how enriching it can be to listen to different perspectives. Understanding where other views come from is crucial, and this skill is currently lacking. There is much work to be done in this area.

Unfortunately, my final thought on this topic is rooted in my experience as an academic. I began writing about cosmopolitanism in Britain and Germany in 2004-2005 and published on it in 2012. Back then, I thought the idea of cosmopolitanism was beautiful, but it can’t exclude any groups or people from other countries. That was a naïve perspective. Claiming cosmopolitanism as a specific cultural attitude for Europe, Europeans or even worse, European Union Member State citizens, is absolutely ridiculous.

We need to recognize that cosmopolitanism was already visible as potentially being co-opted for middle-class mobility and cosmopolitan interests, rather than embracing its true vision. The vision of cosmopolitanism should be about developing a culture of open-mindedness, solidarity, social justice, and equality—principles that are still not fully realized. Achieving this would require a willingness to share and support local communities. It isn’t something that can be achieved overnight, but it involves unlearning a sense of entitlement developed over centuries and learning to engage with others, with the stranger, to lessen fear and build connections.

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crisis and Populism Are Closely Intertwined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracies Inherently Involve Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Contemporary Mindset Is Inherently Democratic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy Should Be Emotional and About What People Want and Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without Immigration, Aging Societies Are Dead in the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Strong Stance Against Muslim Immigration Creates a Common Cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong Polarization of Politics in Slovakia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Is Challenging to Categorize Fico Definitively

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

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

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

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

Russia Plays Substantial Role in Shaping Debate in Slovakia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sense of Disappointment with Democracy Is Quite Widespread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mainstream Democratic Forces Need to Collaborate Much More Effectively 

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

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

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

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

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

People Have Not Yet Fully Grasped How Dangerous The Situation Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President of the European Commission Should Be Elected Directly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy Is Now Being Undermined by Far-right Forces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Division between Left and Right Has Become So Blurred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example of Meloni Could Normalize the Far-right Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low Participation Rate Could Undermine Legitimacy of European Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modi Has Changed Hindu Nationalism More Than Anybody Else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hinduism and Hindutva Are Distinctly Different

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

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

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

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

Populism Results in Authoritarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muslims in India Are Getting Ghettoized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There Are Affinities between Zionism and Hindutva

Photo: Shutterstock.

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

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

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

After EP Elections We Will See A Different Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candlelight March Movement versus National Flag Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neo-Liberals as a Threat to Democracy

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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