"Woman, life, freedom": London protest draws thousands following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody on January 10, 2022. Photo: Vehbi Koca.

Professor Akbarzadeh: Election Results Confirm Iranian Regime’s Legitimacy at Risk, Potentially Non-existent

Reminding that elections are pivotal in justifying Iranian religious leadership and sustaining political legitimacy, Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh emphasizes that the recent turnout data from Iran’s elections serves as a stark wake-up call for authorities. He argues that the low turnout raised serious concerns for the regime’s legitimacy and underscores that the Iranian regime has come to recognize that its legitimacy is significantly at risk, perhaps even non-existent.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, a distinguished Research Professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University, emphasizes that the recent turnout data from Iran’s elections serves as a stark wake-up call for authorities. He underscores the significance of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s consistent emphasis on the necessity of voter participation to validate the regime’s legitimacy. “Elections are pivotal in justifying Iranian religious leadership. Despite its reluctance to relinquish control, the Supreme Leader has adamantly advocated for the continuation of elections, emphasizing their importance in sustaining political legitimacy,” underlines Professor Akbarzadeh.

Iran witnessed its lowest voter turnout since the 1979 Revolution during the parliamentary elections held on March 1, 2024. Conservative politicians secured a dominant position in Iran’s parliament, maintaining control over the Islamic Consultative Assembly despite a record-low turnout amid widespread boycott calls. These results unfolded against the backdrop of heightened tensions following the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, sparking widespread protests that directly challenged the legitimacy of the regime. Akbarzadeh notes, “The low turnout raised serious concerns. The national figure of 41% is alarming, but it’s even more concerning when considering urban centers. For instance, in Tehran, the turnout was approximately 25%, significantly lower than the national average. Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in Tehran. I think the regime has come to recognize that its legitimacy is significantly at risk, perhaps even non-existent.”

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Akbarzadeh offers a critical analysis of the regime’s response to societal unrest and the evolving dynamics within the women’s empowerment movement against the backdrop of heightened tensions following the death of Mahsa Amini. Despite the regime’s efforts to suppress opposition, particularly in the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s killing, Professor Akbarzadeh pays homage to the resilience of Iranian women who continue to defy oppressive norms and assert their rights.

Moreover, Professor Akbarzadeh highlights the consolidation of power by hardliners within the Iranian government and parliament, signaling a concerning homogenization of power in the hands of conservative circles. He underscores the regime’s increasing detachment from the electorate, fueled by a lack of responsiveness to popular demands and a narrowing space for dissent within the Parliament.

Looking ahead, Professor Akbarzadeh also warns of a turbulent future characterized by an increasingly hardline Iran and the potential return of the Trump administration in the US. He cautions against the uncertainty surrounding US policy towards Iran, particularly in light of past decisions that destabilized diplomatic efforts, such as the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. Against this backdrop, Professor Akbarzadeh emphasizes the need for vigilance and foresight in navigating the complex geopolitical landscape, where the interplay between domestic discontent and international relations shapes the trajectory of Iran’s governance structures.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh with some edits.

The Iranian Regime Presents Itself as a Trailblazer to be Emulated by Muslims

Islamist populism has been a significant force in various political movements worldwide. In the context of theocratic Iran, how does sectarian Islamist populism manifest, and to what extent does it influence public discourse and policymaking?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: If you’re examining populism, populism in Iran revolves around the concept of the Ummah. The Iranian regime has risen to power with the principle of advancing the interests of the Ummah. While the Ummah is a global concept, within the Iranian context, it primarily refers to the Iranian nation. There’s a persistent notion that the Iranian nation, or the Iranian Ummah, will serve as a blueprint for the global Ummah to emulate. Therefore, when analyzing the rhetoric and messages from the Iranian leadership, it becomes evident that the Iranian revolution has paved the way to demonstrate to the global Ummah the necessary steps to establish an Islamic model of governance and justice.

That consistency has indeed been a cornerstone since the inception of the Revolution in 1979, as the notion of Iran leading the way was codified in the Constitution. This principle heavily influences Iranian foreign policy and continues to do so today. For instance, during the Arab Spring a decade ago, it was evident that the popular movements in many countries weren’t centered around Islam or an Islamic model of governance. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, a prominent player in the region, found itself grappling with how to respond effectively, essentially playing catch-up. However, Iran took a different approach, organizing events and conferences to portray the Arab Spring as an Islamic awakening. In their narrative, they depicted the Arab population as awakening to the model provided by Iran finally, positioning Iran as a trailblazer to be emulated. This narrative often revolves around the idea of representing and leading the Ummah globally, shaping Iranian stances on issues ranging from relations with the United States to Israel and events in Palestine.

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, a distinguished Research Professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University.

In the Iranian historical and political context, do differences in populism exist among various actors such as former and current presidents, Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, judiciary and military figures?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: There isn’t a substantial difference among various actors within the Iranian elite. Primarily, they tend to utilize populism in their approach, with the key variance lying between the reformists and the more conservative factions, particularly concerning the religious dimension of populism. Notably, only President Muhammad Khatami sought to distinguish himself by deviating from the prevailing narrative of the Ummah and instead advocating for a dialogue of civilizations, emphasizing mutual learning among peoples. This perspective introduces a civilizational angle, although it does not entirely depart from the Islamic civilization framework. Khatami’s approach represents a nuanced departure from the dominant perspective, allowing for differentiation among various cultures and individuals.

However, with President Ibrahim Raisi assuming office and the Conservatives consolidating power in Iran, there’s been a resurgence of the original four-decade-old perspective on the Islamic Ummah. Iran now positions itself at the forefront of the global Islamic Ummah, portraying itself as the champion of the Muslim nations against the United States and Israel, among other adversaries.

Iran is frequently depicted as a theocratic authoritarian state, where the amalgamation of theocratic principles with sui generis authoritarian governance profoundly shapes both domestic policies and interactions with the international community. Within this framework, the notion of theocratic populism arises as a pivotal aspect of Iran’s political terrain. How does the Iranian government strategically utilize the principles of theocracy in a populist manner to garner popular support domestically and internationally?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: I think this further elaborates on our previous discussion and reinforces prior points. The Islamic Republic portrays itself as the defender of the Muslim Ummah, thereby implicating others as betrayers of this collective identity. Consequently, neighboring states are discredited for their perceived failure to uphold Islam’s interests on a global scale. Iran particularly criticizes Saudi Arabia, its primary regional rival, for allegedly neglecting the Palestinian cause and for entertaining the notion of normalizing relations with Israel through the Abrahamic Accords. This perspective of Iran leading the global Muslim Ummah permeates its actions both regionally and internationally.

Domestically, this perspective enables the leadership to brush aside dissent, opposition to governance, and the interests of women. For instance, women’s rights are often framed as Western imports, lacking indigenous roots or compatibility with the nation’s traditions. This justification is used to enforce compulsory hijab, suppress political opposition, and mandate obedience to Islamic and governmental authorities. The regime dismisses foreign concepts and practices, including women’s rights and individual liberties, to solidify its legitimacy.

The Supreme Leader Has Ultimate Control in Iran

Considering the complex interplay between Islamism, Islamist populism, theocratic populism, and theocratic authoritarianism, what are the main challenges and opportunities for political reform or evolution within Iran, particularly in light of the country’s unique blend of theocratic governance and sui generis electoral politics?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: It’s ironic how Iran boasts about its elections as evidence of the regime’s popularity, citing the participation of citizens at the ballot box. They highlight presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections, conveniently overlooking the meticulously orchestrated nature of these events. In reality, these elections are more of a carefully choreographed spectacle. The Guardian Council holds significant sway, determining candidates’ eligibility based on their allegiance to the Supreme Leader. This has led to absurd scenarios where sitting parliamentarians critical of the conservative faction, possibly aligned with the Reformists, are barred from running for re-election due to doubts about their loyalty to the Supreme Leader.

Elections are pivotal in the justification of Iranian religious leadership. Despite its reluctance to relinquish control, the Supreme Leader has adamantly advocated for the continuation of elections, emphasizing their importance in sustaining political legitimacy. Even during the last parliamentary election, the Supreme Leader urged participation, regardless of agreement with his views, recognizing the significance of electoral engagement in validating the regime. However, these elections are carefully managed to maintain control. While they serve as a facade of legitimacy, ultimate authority lies with the unelected Supreme Leader, who wields power over the armed forces, judiciary, and the composition of the Guardian Council, which in turn determines parliamentary candidates. The supreme leader has ultimate control. This orchestration creates the illusion of choice within an authoritarian framework designed to consolidate control.

Internet Emerges as the Next Battleground for the Regime

How does the Iranian regime utilize advanced IT and digital technologies to extend the reach of its repression and authoritarian digital information strategies both domestically and internationally?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: The Islamic Republic of Iran found itself navigating new territory during the Green Movement of 2009. With Facebook emerging as a primary platform for organizing protests, it became evident that social media, Facebook rather than Twitter, played a central role in coordinating dissent. Observing the potential of the internet as a catalyst for opposition, the regime recognized the danger posed by online mobilization. This awareness was heightened by the events of the Arab Spring and similar movements in the region, where social media was instrumental in galvanizing resistance against authoritarian regimes. The regime perceived online activism as a precursor to physical demonstrations, posing a significant threat to its survival.

They embarked on seeking solutions, studying China and other nations’ approaches. They realized the necessity of gaining control over the internet and social media. Consequently, they heavily invested in developing mechanisms to regulate online activity, drawing inspiration from China’s firewall strategy. This culminated in plans for a national intranet, effectively isolating Iranian internet users from the global web. This poses a significant threat to freedom of expression and access to information within Iran, as it disconnects citizens from the outside world. Once implemented, bypassing such restrictions becomes exceedingly challenging. Despite this, Iranian internet users have demonstrated resourcefulness, employing various methods such as VPNs and satellite connections. Nevertheless, the establishment of such controls remains a formidable obstacle to accessing information for Iranian citizens.

The regime has also advanced its surveillance capabilities with sophisticated technologies like facial recognition, strategically deploying cameras in public spaces to monitor the population closely. This allows the regime to swiftly respond to potential protests by deploying security forces and identifying individuals of interest using facial recognition software. Consequently, the internet has emerged as the next battleground for the regime to assert control and stifle dissent. This ongoing struggle presents significant challenges, and while the regime hasn’t definitively triumphed in securing and manipulating the internet, the risks posed by their efforts are considerable.

Iran Relies on Russia and China to Safeguard Its Interests in International Forums

President Vladimir Putin of Russia and then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Yerevan, Armenia, attending the session of the supreme Eurasian Economic Council on October 1, 2019. Photo: Gevorg Ghazaryan.

It is widely acknowledged that authoritarian regimes engage in extensive and intensive collaboration among themselves. In this context, how does the Iranian regime collaborate with countries such as China, Russia, etc., to expand its capacity to enforce its theocratic authoritarianism?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: Iran’s strategic outlook has indeed turned towards China for technological expertise, particularly in internet control and surveillance, as previously mentioned. Additionally, Iran seeks Chinese investment in its infrastructure, facilitated through China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Iranian economy has long suffered under sanctions, necessitating external investment and access to Chinese technology to mitigate the adverse effects. Consequently, China emerges as a pivotal player in Iran’s quest to address the economic challenges and bolster its armed forces.

Similarly, Russia holds significant importance for Iran, albeit in a different capacity. While Russia’s role may not primarily involve technological transfers, it provides crucial diplomatic and political protection to Iran. This relationship has intensified due to escalating tensions between Russia and the United States, aligning their interests further. Iran actively demonstrates its commitment to and value for Russia, particularly in countering Western influence and Western hegemony. This convergence of interests is evident during the conflict in Ukraine.

Iran has developed its own drone technology, largely indigenous, which has proven highly effective, especially with low-flying drones capable of evading radar detection. These drones, more cost-effective than sophisticated US models, have demonstrated their utility in overwhelming defense systems. Russia, impressed by their performance in hitting Ukraine, has invited Iran to establish a drone manufacturing base in its territory. This exchange represents a transfer of relatively low-tech capabilities from Iran to Russia, underscoring Iran’s desire to maintain close ties with Russia on the global stage.

Iran relies on Russia and China to safeguard its interests in international forums such as the United Nations Security Council, particularly when facing resolutions or sanctions. However, while Iran expects unwavering support, historical precedent suggests that Russia and China carefully weigh their own economic and strategic interests before fully backing Iran. Nevertheless, from Iran’s perspective, maintaining strong relationships with Russia and China is a prudent move, serving its long-term interests in navigating international politics.

Low Turnout in Elections Raised Serious Legitimacy Concerns

Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Hamaney on billboard in Tabriz, Iran on August 11, 2019.

The latest Iranian presidential election and recent parliamentary elections saw a historically low turnout, signaling widespread disillusionment with the Mullah regime among the electorate. To what extent do you perceive the record-low turnout of 41% in the recent elections, which was the first in the aftermath of the killing of Mahsa Amini, as indicative of deeper societal shifts and potential challenges to the legitimacy and future of the current regime in Iran?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: This incident served as a significant wake-up call for the authorities. As previously mentioned, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has consistently emphasized the importance of participation in elections. He has reiterated, “Even if you disagree with me, exercise your right to vote.” For him, voting signifies the legitimacy of the regime regardless of dissenting opinions. Thus, the low turnout raised serious concerns. The cited national figure of 41% is alarming, but it’s even more concerning when considering urban centers. For instance, in Tehran, the turnout was approximately 25%, significantly lower than the national average. Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in Tehran.

This revelation is indeed shocking, though not entirely unexpected given the sentiments expressed during Mahsa Amini’s tragic death while in custody over an alleged hijab violation. The outcry from women in the streets condemning the Supreme Leader and calling for an end to dictatorship was unmistakable. Their demands extended beyond mere choice regarding the hijab; they contested the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic regime as representatives of the nation. Unfortunately, this protest was brutally suppressed, as authoritarian regimes often resort to brute force to maintain control. They deploy soldiers and security forces to quash dissent, resorting to violence, torture, and imprisonment. Regrettably, this ruthless tactic proved effective once again.

I think the regime has come to recognize that its legitimacy is significantly at risk, perhaps even non-existent. The turnout for the election, with only 41% nationwide and 25% in Tehran, serves as another stark reminder and indicates the depth of the regime’s troubles.

Iranian Parliament Tilts Further Towards Hardline Stance within Conservative Camp

In light of the recent legislative elections held on March 1, could you provide an analysis of the historical significance of these elections within the context of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s political evolution and the broader trajectory of its governance structures?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: We’ve already addressed the issue of lack of legitimacy, which remains a significant factor. What this election has underscored is the consolidation of power by the hardliners across all branches of the Iranian government. The judiciary, the Presidency, and the Parliament are now firmly under their control. In the past, there was some level of diversity and dissent within the Parliament, even if it leaned towards conservatism. However, the current composition of the Parliament lacks that diversity. It’s now a predominantly conservative body, indicating a concerning homogenization of power and personnel in Iran.

Now, with that being said, we’re also observing some differentiation within the conservative faction. Conservatives can now even be categorized into pragmatists and hardliners. For instance, take Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who held a prominent position in the previous Parliament. He’s a conservative, not a reformist. However, he’s not gaining traction in this election, even finding himself sidelined. This shift indicates a consolidation of power within the conservative ranks, leaning more towards the hardline stance. So, what does this indicate? It suggests that the regime is further distancing itself from the population, creating an even wider gap between the government and the people. The leadership is increasingly detached from the electorate. 

What does this imply for policy? I believe it has rather dire political implications because of this growing disconnect. They no longer feel compelled to heed popular demands, perhaps even feeling they don’t need to respond due to their increasing isolation. The Parliament has evolved into more of an echo chamber, devoid of internal challenge. With the President, Parliament, and judiciary all aligned with the conservative hardline ideology, it becomes a reinforcing echo chamber for their ideological convictions regarding Iran’s direction and both domestic and international policies.

In the wake of the tragic killing of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, how would you characterize the regime’s response to the perceived erosion of its authority, particularly in relation to its handling of societal discontent, and what insights can we glean from the evolution of the women’s movement regarding advancements in women’s empowerment within Iran?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: In the wake of Masha Amini’s killing and amidst the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, what became evident was that the grip of fear factor was diminishing, losing its sharpness. The fear factor wasn’t enough to disperse the crowds from the streets. The public rallies couldn’t be quelled solely through suppression. I make this statement with some caution because it did take the authorities about a year or so to suppress the popular movement, which they eventually managed to do. As a result, public rallies are no longer commonplace. 

However, I believe this suppression succeeded not merely through brute force, but also due to the absence of organized leadership within the opposition. There was no clear alternative presented to the Islamic Republic. The opposition was fragmented into various groups—leftists, loyalists, liberals, among others—resulting in a lack of a unified voice. Despite everyone being united against the regime, the absence of unity for an alternative significantly weakened the opposition movement. 

However, I also want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the women of Iran for their resilience and courage in standing up for themselves over the years. Even now, on social media, one can witness Iranian women walking in the streets, going shopping, going about their daily lives without wearing the hijab or headscarf, displaying remarkable fearlessness. I believe it’s crucial to recognize their bravery.

A Turbulent Ride Ahead with an Increasingly Hardline Iran and Potential Return of Trump in the US

The Iranian leadership appears confident in the prevailing “saner heads” in Washington, leading them to continue grandstanding and goading the United States in the absence of a nuclear deal. With the upcoming elections and possible return of Donald Trump to power in the US, how do you anticipate the shifting political landscape might affect Iran’s strategy and its relationship with the West?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: Iran has mastered the art of brinkmanship. Throughout various negotiations, particularly in the realm of nuclear talks, Iran has consistently pushed to the brink, aiming to extract maximum concessions from its partners, including the United States and Europe. Remarkably, this strategy has proven effective because its interlocutors have generally been rational actors. Iran has engaged with different administrations, finding success because the responses from US administrations have been rational, as have those from European counterparts.

With the possibility of Donald Trump returning to office, it’s uncertain whether the Administration in Washington would act rationally. There’s a strong likelihood of irrational behavior. In fact, the reality of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, despite years of negotiation and its proven effectiveness for around two and a half years, underscores this concern. The Trump Administration opted to pull out with the promise of securing a better deal, which never materialized. This decision destabilized the nuclear deal and set us on a path of heightened tension and uncertainty. Consequently, with the potential return of Trump to office, we are facing an extremely uncertain future. With conservative hardliners in power in Iran and an unpredictable US administration, we’re in for a turbulent ride. Predicting what will happen next becomes exceedingly difficult in such a volatile scenario.

Professor Luke March, Personal Chair of Post-Soviet and Comparative Politics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

Professor Luke March: Russian Elections to be Another Milestone in Consolidation of Putin’s Authoritarian Rule

Professor Luke March, from the University of Edinburgh, underscores that any surprises or intrigues in the upcoming Russian presidential elections are minor curiosities rather than significant events. He argues that these elections will further consolidate Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule, possibly securing up to 80% of the vote. According to March, Putin’s underlying message is clear: his dominance remains unassailable in the foreseeable future; any attempt at opposition will be swiftly quashed. March emphasizes his expectation that this pattern will persist without significant deviation.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Luke March, holding a Personal Chair of Post-Soviet and Comparative Politics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, emphasizes that any surprises or intrigues in the upcoming Russian presidential elections are more akin to minor curiosities rather than significant events. He argues that this election will serve as another milestone in the consolidation of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule, potentially securing as much as 80% of the vote.

The presidential election in Russia is scheduled to take place from March 15-17, 2024, marking the eighth such election in the country’s history. The winner is set to be inaugurated on May 7, 2024. In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) prior to the election, Professor March commented, “Should Putin secure 80% or 85% of the vote, it wouldn’t be unexpected, as it effectively leaves no space for opposition. Once again, these elections are poised to reinforce Putin’s status as a central figure and patron of the elite. The message he seeks to convey is one of unchallengeable authority in the foreseeable future; while individuals may attempt to challenge him, they will inevitably face suppression. I foresee no significant deviation from this established pattern.”

By delving into the Kremlin’s tactics in manipulating the opposition, both systemic and non-systemic, Professor March draw attention to the marginalization of dissenting voices, the crackdown on protests, and the co-option of certain figures to maintain control over the political landscape. March addressed the complexities surrounding the conceptualization of Putin’s politics, particularly the existence of a coherent ‘Putinism’ and its ideological syncretism. He highlighted Putin’s employment of paradigmatic pluralism to bridge various ideologies, ultimately fostering a sense of cohesion within his regime.

Assessing the role of populism and nationalism within Putin’s regime, both domestically and internationally, Prof. March discussed how Putin strategically employs populist rhetoric and nationalist sentiments to garner support and suppress dissent, particularly in the context of events like the invasion of Ukraine. However, March acknowledged the vulnerabilities within the Russian political system, such as economic challenges, casualties in warfare, and inflation. Despite these pressures, he noted that current measures are aimed at ensuring that no political entity can capitalize on these grievances, highlighting the Kremlin’s success in maintaining control thus far.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Luke March with some edits.

Putin Tends to Employ Populism in External Contexts

How do you see the complexities surrounding the conceptualization of Putin’s politics, particularly regarding the existence of a coherent ‘Putinism’ and its ideological syncretism? Does populism play a role in Putin’s regime, particularly in light of its presence within Russian politics and state media environment? What are the main weaknesses and challenges encountered when attempting to classify Putin as either an elitist or a populist leader?

Luke March: Putin employs a form of paradigmatic pluralism in an effort to bridge various ideologies, aiming to foster a sense of cohesion within his regime. However, there exists a notable dichotomy between Putin himself and the overarching ideology of Putinism, which has evolved into an increasingly monolithic entity. While Putin embodies certain principles, they are subject to interpretation by the media and various politicians. This inherent flexibility allows for creative interpretation within certain boundaries, as long as the fundamental nature of the state is not challenged.

This approach presents challenges, as the regime embraces a diverse range of ideologies, albeit with a growing coherence around right-wing nationalism. Populism also plays a significant role, utilized more prominently by opposition figures and the media rather than by Putin personally. Furthermore, Putin tends to employ populism more frequently in external contexts rather than domestically.

One fundamental challenge lies in grasping the implicit rules governing Russian politics, which have become increasingly elusive and difficult to research. This difficulty stems from the tight control exerted over politics, particularly by the security services, despite the facade of diverse ideologies. Any discussion of these ideologies must acknowledge the reality of mounting state control.

When analyzing how Putin utilizes specific ideologies, it’s crucial to consider his leadership within a controlled state apparatus, backed by increasingly repressive measures. Despite espousing rhetoric that may seem populist, such as emphasizing the importance of the Russian people and their values, Putin simultaneously employs coded language emphasizing loyalty, respect for national interests and unity around state objectives. This duality underscores a reciprocal relationship where the state serves the people, but the people are also expected to serve the state.

The characterization of Putin’s approach as merely elitist falls short of capturing its full complexity. While there is an elitist aspect, it differs from historical models like the Bolshevik period, where the party claimed a leading role. Instead, Putin’s elitism operates more subtly, emphasizing the state as the unifier of both elite and populace, with obedience to the elite representing obedience to the state. These messages, conveyed through both overt and coded means, allow authorities to maneuver and adapt as needed. Populism, when applied to Putin’s regime, fails to fully encapsulate this nuanced dynamic, as it operates in distinct ways within the Russian context.

Putin Allows Others to Depict Him as a Superman

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a virtual interview from Moscow with news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) on June 5, 2021, addressed a number of pressing issues. Photo: Nick Raille.

In terms of leadership style, Putin has usually been described as exhibiting a “bad boy” populist persona. How does this persona align with or diverge from traditional populist leadership styles, and what are its implications for understanding his political strategy? Moreover, how does Putin’s leadership fit into charismatic leadership framework, considering his reliance on incumbency advantages, control of mobilization, and aversion to popular spontaneity?

Luke March: It’s a complex element once again. At first glance, Putin shares numerous commonalities with other infamous figures dubbed “bad boys” or disruptive populist leaders such as Trump, Bolsonaro, and others, particularly those on the right-wing spectrum. His persona revolves around a macho, strongman image—someone who can be crude, cracks sexist jokes, and strongly advocates patriarchal politics and superhuman feats. However, this depiction only partially captures Putin’s actions. In the West, we often focus on these facets, sometimes even finding amusement in them, especially in the UK where our view of leadership differs significantly. 

Yet, there’s far more complexity at play. Putin frequently exhibits sober, restrained behavior, akin to a military or business leader, adopting a CEO-like demeanor. While he occasionally indulges in the pomp and ceremony associated with a Tsar-like figure, much of the time he presents himself in a business suit, embodying a less emotive, more calculated style, devoid of the outbursts seen in populist leaders. He can slip into the populist role when necessary, but also assumes a more nuanced persona. It’s crucial to recognize his background as a representative of the security services in the Soviet state. Thus, when he employs macho language and threats, there’s a subtext pointing to his underlying authority and the genuine menace behind his words. Although Putin’s character has evolved over the past couple of decades, the increasing severity of his repressive actions is becoming more apparent.

In terms of charisma, he undeniably exudes a certain charismatic authority, largely rooted in his widespread popularity. Much of this popularity stems from his portrayal as someone above the party system, viewed as essential to the discourse surrounding the creation of the Russian State. However, it’s worth noting that much of this narrative isn’t directly promoted by Putin himself, but rather by individuals acting on his behalf, who assert, “We need Putin, and we can’t envision the Russian State without him.” Even the head of the Russian Orthodox Church has referred to him as “a miracle of God.” This has fostered a sort of mini personality cult around him, despite his tendency to downplay such notions and present himself in a sober, teetotal, and non-drinker persona. He allows others to depict him as a superman, adding further layers of complexity to his image—partially populist, yet encompassing many other facets as well.

The Space for Ideological and Rhetorical Opposition Has Shrunk

Riot police officers detain a participant of an unsanctioned rally urging fair elections at Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow, Russia on August 3, 2019. Photo: Elena Rostunova.

In one of your articles, you discuss the impact of Putin’s intervention in Crimea (and of course intervention in Ukraine now) on the domestic political situation in Russia, particularly regarding the marginalization of non-systemic opposition groups. Could you elaborate on how this crisis has affected the dynamics between the Kremlin and both systemic and non-systemic opposition movements in Russia?

Luke March: In a nutshell, it’s contributed to the crushing of the opposition, erasing any coherent dissenting voices. While individuals remain, they lack the organizational structure to pose a significant challenge. Many prominent figures of the non-systemic opposition have either been forced into exile, imprisoned, or, in tragic cases like Navalny’s, silenced permanently. A significant outcome has been the bolstering of Putin’s popularity. This strategy also succeeded in co-opting Russian nationalist sentiments. Putin has strategically portrayed himself as a nationalist leader, emphasizing his role as a guardian of Russian territories and heritage, positioning himself as a historical figure who is making Russia great again.

He made it exceedingly challenging for people to criticize him, fostering a rally-round-the-flag effect that portrays critics as traitors. This tactic has exacerbated tensions internationally, allowing him to label domestic opposition as traitorous or pro-Western fifth column. Simultaneously, there’s been a conservative shift in Russian politics, with Putin aligning more closely with conservative nationalist ideals. This shift has effectively silenced dissent, bolstered by legal restrictions on opposition that intensified after February 2022, particularly regarding criticism of so-called “military operation.” The space for ideological and rhetorical opposition has shrunk alongside legal avenues, buoying Putin’s popularity while increasing repression. Consequently, genuine opposition voices are scarce, evident in the upcoming elections where systemic opposition refrain from critiquing Putin’s regime.

Putin’s Core Strategy Is Top-Down Control Aimed at Maintaining Authority

In your article “Putin: Populist, Anti-populist, or Pseudo-populist?”, you argue that Putin’s ideology subverts populism, using populist ideas and rhetoric in service of the authoritarian state. Also, you argue against characterizing Putin as substantively populist. Could you elaborate on why you do not see Putin as a populist leader, particularly in terms of his approach to people-centrism, anti-elitism, and popular sovereignty? 

Luke March: On one hand, those elements are present, and Putin can adopt a populist approach when it suits his purposes. On the other hand, while my previous responses touch upon certain aspects, they only scratch the surface of Putin’s comprehensive rhetoric. Ideologies such as statism and conservatism play equally crucial roles. Putin’s aversion to popular mobilization is deeply ingrained, likely stemming from his background as a security service agent in the GDR during the fall of the Berlin Wall. This suspicion extends beyond just the elite to encompass all forms of mass mobilization.

So where does he incorporate elements of populism? They seem rather disconnected. When he focuses on people’s centrism, it doesn’t necessarily align with anti-elitism. When he does emphasize anti-elitism, it’s often rooted in historical references, such as his rhetoric regarding Ukraine, where he highlights how the Bolsheviks drew up Ukraine against the wishes of the Russian people. However, his critique extends beyond internal elites to include Ukrainian and Western elites. Yet, this critique of Western elites doesn’t seem to be tied to a broader vision of popular sovereignty. So, these elements aren’t interwoven in the fundamental way one might expect from a populist leader. He doesn’t consistently advocate for people’s power everywhere. While he may speak vaguely about fighting for the underdog globally and criticize Western elites, it’s more of a horizontal critique against outsiders rather than a vertical critique advocating for the people against the elite.

That’s also evident in his approach to the situation in Ukraine, where he criticizes what he terms the “coup” but doesn’t advocate for empowering the Ukrainian people in response to the power shift. Instead, he calls for Ukrainians to seek protection from the West by aligning with the Russian people. Thus, his use of populism serves more as an anti-Western critique rather than a genuine appeal to populism. While there may be individuals within the Kremlin who employ a more populist rhetoric, Putin’s core strategy revolves around top-down control and centralization, aimed at maintaining authority rather than empowering the people.

You discuss the concept of “official nationality” in Russia, emphasizing its moderate conservatism and promotion of civic nationalism. How does the Kremlin balance the promotion of this ideology with the need to control more extreme forms of nationalism, particularly those that may challenge its authority? Can you elaborate on how the Kremlin strategically employs nationalism to garner support and suppress dissent, and how effective has this approach been in preserving elite power?

Luke March: It’s a delicate balance that they have often shifted between. When examining the rhetoric coming from the Kremlin, particularly figures like Foreign Minister Lavrov and those surrounding Putin, it has typically been characterized as sober, realist, and rooted in state interests, at least until the past decade. However, over time, this balance has become more porous, especially with the onset of the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin has increasingly drawn upon a domestic nationalist consensus. About 15 years ago, Putin may have been more inclined towards a pro-European stance, perhaps critical of the US. However, in the last decade, his rhetoric has shifted significantly towards anti-Western sentiment, coupled with critiques of Western liberalism and so-called “woke politics.”

To a certain extent, I believe the official stance on nationality has grown increasingly nationalistic, with Putin aligning himself with some domestic nationalists, such as Alexander Dugin, who were previously viewed as extremists. Their ideologies have now permeated into the mainstream, particularly evident within the media landscape and amidst the ongoing conflict. Many commentators on Russian television espouse overtly nationalistic views, including discussions about the potential obliteration of Ukraine as a nation. Comparatively, Putin’s rhetoric appears more measured, often emphasizing the pursuit of peace deals. However, the Kremlin’s allowance for nationalist voices to dominate the political discourse underscores a shift towards framing official nationality as a clash of civilizations between Russia and the West. While it may still retain some semblance of moderation, this stance has undeniably veered towards extremism over time.

Rather Than Crudely Rigging Elections, Kremlin Prefers to Shape Electorate’s Choices in Advance

In one of your articles, you draw parallels between the dystopian depiction of political control in “The Hunger Games” and the situation in Russia, where opposition parties are manipulated to reinforce the Kremlin’s authority. How do these manipulations manifest in the political landscape, and what strategies does the Kremlin employ to maintain control over opposition activities? Furthermore, what factors could undermine Putin’s support in the long term, and how might the opposition capitalize on the systemic vulnerabilities to challenge Putin’s regime?

Luke March: There exists a complex network of control within the party system, often channeled through figures like Sergei Kiriyenko and the Presidential administration, previously led by Vladislav Surkov. Understanding this network is exceptionally challenging, given its informal nature, relying heavily on circumstantial accounts from Russian political scientists and media sources, which are not as transparent as they once were. The significant caveat in addressing this issue is that ultimately, the full extent of this control remains elusive and uncertain.

However, information occasionally seeps out, as was the case a couple of weeks ago when a consortium of Western media released a report called “Kremlin Leaks.” This report detailed the informal methods through which the Kremlin channels funds into propaganda, media, and education spheres, as well as its strategies concerning the opposition. Rather than overtly and crudely rigging elections, the Kremlin prefers to shape the electorate’s choices in advance. This is not to suggest that Putin couldn’t win a free and fair election, but such an election would have a vastly different dynamic. To control the narrative, pressure is exerted on political parties to pre-select candidates aligned with the Kremlin’s interests. A notable example is the case of the Communists in the 2018 election, who fielded a businessman named Pavel Grudinin, garnering 11% of the vote. While not particularly impressive, Grudinin began gaining traction as a national-scale political figure and potential future leader of the Communist Party. However, through various subterfuges, including attacks on his business and family disputes, he was eventually ousted from politics. This illustrates one of the ways in which such manipulation occurs.

As I’ve mentioned, there’s been a significant increase in regulation and restrictions on street protests, especially regarding demonstrations concerning the war. This is one aspect. Additionally, the Kremlin’s message, exemplified by the assassination of Navalny, serves to delineate the boundaries of what can be achieved. Consequently, opposition politicians and protestors who persist must display immense bravery and commitment. Many politicians opt for self-censorship or refrain from challenging fundamental issues altogether. For a considerable duration, no opposition figure of substantial influence has dared to criticize Russian foreign policy in a fundamental manner. For instance, during the original annexation of Crimea, the Russian Parliament approved it with a vote of 449 to 1, with the lone dissenting voice being Ilya Ponomarev, who had to flee into exile in Ukraine. This prevailing trend, facilitated through both formal and informal means, underscores the extreme difficulty faced by the opposition in expressing dissent.

Russia Has Positioned Itself as a ‘Muslim Power’

The CEO of Rostec Corporation Sergey Chemezov, President Vladimir Putin and head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov at the International Aviation and Space salon MAKS-2015 in Zhukovsky, Russia on August 25, 2015. Photo: Shutterstock.

Referring to one of your surveys, how do Russian policy-making and academic elites conceptualize the idea of ‘radicalization’ within the context of Islam, and what are the key factors they identify as contributing to this phenomenon? How does Russia’s approach to combating radicalization domestically influence its foreign policy towards the Muslim world?

Luke March: The concept of radicalization finds more resonance in Western and UK circles than in Russia, although it has been referenced to some extent. However, over time, the notion of radicalization has often been overshadowed by that of extremism, which has been wielded rather heavy-handedly to suppress alternative or inconvenient viewpoints contrary to the state’s narrative. State policymakers in Russia have typically categorized Islam into what they perceive as traditional, domestic Islam, and the more radical or extremist variant, often associated with foreign influences. This distinction aligns with the broader trend of re-traditionalization and reconservatism in Russian politics, where the state favors a plurality of traditions as long as they are domestically rooted. Consequently, there’s been a concerted effort to support domestic Islamic leaders and restrict foreign engagements, particularly with countries like Saudi Arabia, in efforts to combat what is perceived as Wahhabism.

On another note, regarding the critique of radicalization processes, the Russian discourse on Islam tends to emphasize socioeconomic factors such as poverty and youth unemployment as primary drivers of Islamic radicalization, rather than delving into the political motivations behind the rise of more radical forms of Islam. This stands in contrast to Western perspectives, which often highlight issues of corruption, governance, and centralization, and acknowledge Islam as an ideology of opposition through which disaffected youth express radical dissent against the state. From the official Russian standpoint, such political aspects are often avoided or considered taboo. Instead, their focus lies on addressing poverty, youth unemployment, and implementing policies aimed at bolstering socioeconomic conditions, typically through investment in regions to mitigate vulnerability to radicalization. This approach underscores the significance of socioeconomic improvement as a crucial aspect of addressing the issue.

Simultaneously, there are policies of co-option, involving the allocation of funds and support to loyalist supporters. The prime example of this strategy is evident in Chechnya, where Ramzan Kadyrov champions a syncretic form of domestic Islam, albeit one with questionable historical roots. Nevertheless, Kadyrov is perceived as successfully co-opting elements within the region. In terms of foreign policy, Russia has positioned itself as a Muslim power and a friend to the Arab world, particularly after addressing issues in Chechnya and positioning it as a genuine home to Muslims. This shift can also be seen as part of a broader pivot away from Western politics towards a more multipolar approach. As domestic control strengthens, Russia becomes increasingly comfortable presenting itself as a friendly ally to the Arab world.

Russia’s Relations with External Forces Appear More Opportunistic

There’s a widely observed trend of support from Putin’s Russia towards populist, extreme-right-wing parties globally. How do you explain this relationship, and what factors drive Putin to support these parties? Are these connections primarily ideational or opportunistic in nature? Moreover, how has this relationship been influenced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Luke March: Overall, Russia’s relations with external forces appear more opportunistic than driven by any consistent ideology. It forms alliances with various groups and individuals for a multitude of reasons, spanning from the radical left to mainstream politicians. Essentially, Russia adapts its messaging to cater to the desires and interests of its audience. However, with the populist right, there’s a discernible ideological component, which has strengthened over time, reflecting Putin’s domestic conservatism. This ideology centers around traditional values, family, church, and robust leadership. In terms of common enemies, the populist right aligns against American hegemony, postmodern liberalism, and views the EU as a supranational actor. This amalgamation of opportunism and ideology is particularly evident in the relationship between Russia and the radical right, where ties are often stronger compared to the radical left. While both may share anti-American and anti-imperialist sentiments, the radical left tends to be more critical of Russia’s domestic model. Conversely, many in the radical right perceive Putin as a symbol of strong, masculine leadership.

The Ukraine war has undoubtedly complicated matters, particularly within Western Europe, making overt support for Russia somewhat taboo. As a result, the stance of the radical right in Europe towards Russia has become geographically divided. For instance, the Finns Party has never been pro-Putin, and now others like the French National Rally have had to reassess their pro-Putin positions, taking a step back and re-evaluating their stance. However, these dynamics are still very much in flux. The war in Ukraine is far from over, and its outcome remains uncertain. This uncertainty means that final alignments are far from settled.

As events unfold, those who have been cautious about openly supporting Putin may gradually shift back towards that position. They may support peace deals while implicitly or explicitly criticizing Western policies such as arming Ukraine and imposing sanctions. Moreover, if Trump secures victory in November, it could significantly bolster the populist right, especially if he follows through on his anti-NATO policies and reduces support for Ukraine. In such a scenario, the radical right may realign towards Russia and begin echoing certain talking points. Overall, these dynamics are still very much in motion and subject to change.

Death of Navalny Sends Message: ‘Imprisonment Is Not the Ultimate Punishment”

People mourn for Alexei Navalny in Budapest, Hungary on February 16, 2024. Photo: Alexey Gorovoi.

What is your interpretation of the recent death of Alexei Navalny in prison, and how does it reflect on the nature of Putin’s regime?

Luke March: There remains a significant amount that we are uncertain about and may never fully understand. The circumstances surrounding Navalny’s death, for instance, remain shrouded in mystery. We cannot definitively determine whether it was orchestrated by someone high up, possibly even Putin himself, or if it resulted from sustained maltreatment during his time in prison, where he faced increasingly harsh conditions endangering his health.

There’s speculation circulating, although its veracity is uncertain, suggesting that Navalny was due for a prisoner exchange, which may have served as a catalyst for his demise. It’s suggested that individuals within the Kremlin deemed such an exchange untenable and thus opted to remove him from the equation. However, these are merely speculative theories, and the truth remains elusive.

However, I believe Navalny’s fate serves as a pivotal indication of the evolving landscape of Russian politics. Just a little over a decade ago, Navalny enjoyed relatively unrestricted freedom to voice his ideas. While he lacked access to state-controlled media, he operated within certain boundaries. Despite occasional arrests or warnings, he even ran in the Moscow mayoral elections in 2013, securing a notable 29% of the vote. At that time, the Kremlin likely perceived him as manageable, perhaps even co-optable, with little cause for concern.

As time progressed, the political climate in Russia grew increasingly restrictive. Navalny was barred from running in the 2018 elections, and he became the target of an assassination attempt, ultimately leading to his imprisonment. This trajectory reflects a trend towards heightened repression and a diminishing tolerance for even limited opposition. While it’s difficult to gauge the extent of Navalny’s potential threat, he never achieved widespread popularity or won a significant election. His influence remained largely potential rather than realized.

By arresting and ultimately leading to Navalny’s death, the Russian government not only displayed its repressive tendencies but also conveyed a message of despair. Navalny, despite his somewhat controversial politics, symbolized a defiance against the Kremlin, a belief that one could stand up to it and even ridicule it without dire consequences. His focus on critical issues like corruption challenged the status quo. However, his demise crushes this sense of hope, suggesting that opposition carries severe consequences. It underscores the message that imprisonment is not the ultimate punishment; there are worse fates awaiting dissenters.

This harsh crackdown also sends a clear message to the West: “We don’t care about your opinions. We disregard Nobel prizes, prominent opposition figures, and any other forms of international recognition.”

Some people have suggested that Navalny’s fate indicates Putin’s fear of him. However, I disagree. Putin likely viewed Navalny as an irritant, with those around him perhaps considering him a potential threat if left unchecked. Personally, Putin likely saw Navalny as someone to be crushed without much concern. This illustrates the impunity of power within the Russian political landscape. As seen throughout my earlier responses, a key trend in Russian politics over the past decade and a half has been the increasing dominance of state power and the utilization of state violence.

Elections Serve to Reinforce Putin’s Position

Regarding the upcoming Russian presidential elections next week, do you anticipate any surprises, or do you view it as another milestone in the consolidation of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule?

Luke March: It’s definitely the latter. It seems that any surprises or intrigues in this election are more like minor curiosities rather than significant events. One potential point of interest could be whether the Liberal candidate, Vladislav Davankov, manages to secure second place ahead of the Communists. However, even if this were to happen, it’s likely to represent only a small percentage, perhaps 7, 8, or 9 percent, if even that much. This election appears to be even less competitive than the previous one, which featured three candidates alongside Putin, compared to eight candidates six years ago. None of the candidates seem to advocate for anything particularly substantive. For instance, the Communists have nominated a secondary candidate who also ran 20 years ago and was considered weak even then. Moreover, there are concerns about the fairness of the election process, with indications that it’s pre-rigged. The Kremlin appears to be increasingly relying on Internet and electronic voting methods, which lack proper scrutiny, thereby enabling it to achieve the desired outcome. There’s speculation that Putin could secure as much as 80% of the vote, with purported leaks from within the Kremlin supporting this notion.

If Putin were to secure 80% or 85% of the vote, it wouldn’t come as a surprise, as it leaves virtually no room for opposition. Once again, these elections serve to reinforce Putin’s position as a pivotal figure and patron of the elite. The underlying message he aims to convey is that he is not challengeable in the foreseeable future; while individuals may challenge him, they will inevitably be suppressed. I anticipate no significant deviation from this pattern. Regarding your earlier query about potential weaknesses in the future, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the Russian political system faces vulnerabilities stemming from economic challenges, casualties in warfare, inflation, and other pressures, all of which are unpredictable. However, current measures are aimed at ensuring that no political entity can capitalize on these grievances. Thus far, the Kremlin has been largely successful in this endeavor.

Dr. Tatsiana Kulakevich, an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida's School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies and a research fellow and affiliated faculty at the USF Institute for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies.

Tatsiana Kulakevich: Belarusian People Await a Window of Opportunity to Usher in a New Regime

Dr. Tatsiana Kulakevich underscores the resilience of the Belarusian protest movement amidst systematic repression and violence. Despite recent parliamentary elections failing to incite significant dissent, she suggests that future electoral events, especially presidential elections, could ignite substantial change. Despite the challenges ahead, the Belarusian people remain hopeful for a window of opportunity to usher in a new regime and reclaim their rights and freedoms. Kulakevich also draws attention to the plight of political prisoners in Belarus, whose uncertain fate mirrors Navalny’s tragic end.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous post-Soviet countries have struggled to establish and consolidate liberal democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights and freedoms. After two and a half decades, a concerning trend toward populism, authoritarianism, and autocracy has emerged among several of these nations, with some, such as Belarus, never having experienced a functioning democracy. Giving an exclusive interview to European Center for Populism Studies, Dr. Tatsiana Kulakevich, an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies and a research fellow and affiliated faculty at the USF Institute for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies, sheds light on the underlying causes of these failures and their implications for Belarus.

Kulakevich begins by addressing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent expectations of reform and democratization among former Soviet Republics. However, disillusionment soon followed as many countries experienced kleptocracy and oligarchic rule. The global financial crisis of 2008 further eroded confidence in liberal democracy, leading to the rise of populist leaders who capitalized on public discontent.

Belarus, under the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko, stands out amidst this backdrop. Kulakevich emphasizes the regime’s shift towards “Sultanism,” characterized by the consolidation of power in the hands of one man. However, to her, unlike traditional totalitarian regimes, Belarus lacks a unifying ideology, instead revolving around the arbitrary exercise of power.

Dr. Kulakevich underscores the resilience of the Belarusian protest movement amidst systematic repression and violence. Although recent parliamentary elections on February 25 did not evoke significant dissent, she notes that future electoral events, particularly presidential elections, could catalyze meaningful change. Despite the formidable challenges ahead, Dr. Kulakevich emphasizes that the Belarusian people remain hopeful for a window of opportunity to usher in a new regime and reclaim their rights and freedoms.

Dr. Kulakevich said the murder of Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition figure, casts a grim shadow over Belarusian dissidents. Kulakevich highlights the plight of political prisoners in Belarus, whose uncertain fate echoes Navalny’s tragic end. The regime’s ruthless tactics, exemplified by Navalny’s assassination attempt, resonate with Belarusian dissidents, who face similar threats to their lives and freedoms.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Dr. Tatsiana Kulakevich with some edits.

Disappointments in Anticipated Changes Led to Rise of Populism in Eastern Europe

After nearly three and a half decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous post-Soviet countries continue to struggle with consolidating liberal democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights and freedoms. Many of these nations have experienced a recent trend toward populism, authoritarianism, and autocracy. What are the underlying and shared causes of these failures?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: I would start with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the definition of Eastern Europe. Some countries experiencing a shift towards right-wing politics, such as Poland and Hungary, are often categorized as Eastern Europe by the United Nations, although some prefer to be called Central Europe. These countries, numbering around 10, are situated close to the former Soviet Union, with some being members of the European Union and others not.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, people in the former Soviet Republics had high expectations. However, many experienced kleptocracy and oligarchic rule, including Russia, Moldova, and Ukraine, as well as certain European Union countries that were not yet members at that time. Upon joining the European Union in the 2000s, there was an expectation of economic reform and a reduction in kleptocracy. However, the reality fell short of expectations, and kleptocracy persisted, leading to a second disappointment.

Furthermore, the global financial crisis of 2008 further eroded confidence in liberal democracy, prompting some to seek alternative solutions. This disillusionment paved the way for populist leaders who offered different promises, resonating with the discontented populace. Ultimately, historical disappointments in anticipated changes have gradually led to the rise of populist politics in these regions.

After the Protests of 2020, Belarus Shifted towards Sultanism

We are witnessing a resurgence of populism in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, while Belarus solidifies its authoritarian rule under a one-man regime. What are the fundamental differences between the experiences of Eastern European countries and Belarus in terms of populism, and are there any notable similarities? How has the war in Ukraine impacted the consolidation of the authoritarian regime in Belarus?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: Here, it’s important to make a clear distinction between European Union members and post-Soviet Republics that are not part of the EU. While European Union countries may be experiencing a decline in certain values, they still maintain democratic structures. It’s crucial to recognize that democracy is not a one-size-fits-all concept; there are varying degrees of democracy among nations, as indicated by different democracy rankings.

European Union countries, despite any decline, continue to uphold democratic principles. On the other hand, countries like Belarus, and Moldova and Ukraine, which aspire to EU membership, are on a different trajectory. While they may be EU candidates, they are not yet EU members and thus have different processes and challenges to contend with.

When discussing Belarus, it’s evident that the country is under an authoritarian regime, which has only strengthened following the crackdown on the 2020 protests, the largest in Belarusian history. Presently, Belarus seems to be veering towards a form of Sultanism, characterized by the consolidation of power in the hands of one individual. Some may refer to the Belarusian regime as “new totalitarian,” but I hesitate to categorize it as such. Unlike traditional totalitarian regimes, Belarus lacks a unifying ideology and widespread mobilization of the populace. Instead, politics in Belarus revolve around a single individual, akin to a Sultan. Such a system doesn’t necessarily rely on a coherent ideology but rather on arbitrary exercises of power. Therefore, while Belarus can be classified as an authoritarian regime, labeling it as totalitarian may not capture all its nuances.

In Belarus, the shift towards Sultanism began to manifest after the protests of 2020, when Lukashenko’s previous balancing act became untenable due to opposition pressure and the closing of doors to the European Union. With limited options and a desire to cling to power, Lukashenko aligned himself more closely with his ally Vladimir Putin. It became apparent that Lukashenko had little choice but to acquiesce to Putin’s demands, allowing Russian military presence and missile launches from Belarusian territory. The crackdown initiated in 2020 has persisted and intensified, rather than commencing in 2022.

Given the erosion of the so-called pillars of Lukashenko’s populism—his alleged proximity to the people, his self-portrayal as a guarantor of peace, and promise of economic and political stability—what internal and external factors contributed to this erosion?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: The erosion of Lukashenko’s populist regime accelerated after 2020, particularly undermining his image as a guarantor of stability. The imposition of numerous sanctions post-2020, exacerbated by Belarus’s involvement in the war, further destabilized the economy and shattered the illusion of economic stability. The brutal suppression of the 2020 protests, documented by the United Nations with reports of violence including rape with batons and deaths, tarnished Lukashenko’s perceived proximity to the people, eroding trust and fueling disappointment. With nearly 1500 political prisoners, the regime’s repression has intensified. Moreover, Lukashenko’s claim as a guarantor of peace disintegrated following Belarus’s complicity in allowing Russian missile launches from its territory during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, rendering the country a co-aggressor in the war.

Pervasive Atmosphere of Fear Prevents Meaningful Dissent 

Alexander Lukashenko’s main election rival was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in the 2020 election in Belarus. People attend a pre-election meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on September 7, 2020. Photo: Shutterstock.

In your presentation at an ECPS panel last year, you noted Lukashenko’s success in creating an image of the political elite as working for the people. How has this perception evolved among Belarusian citizens, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which brought about economic and security challenges?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: People witnessed the true nature of the Lukashenko regime and became disillusioned, realizing they had been misled on multiple fronts. For instance, during the 2020 presidential election, people wore white bracelets as a symbol of support for the opposition candidate, Svyatlana Tsihanouskaya. They observed each other at polling stations, noting the widespread presence of these bracelets. When Lukashenko claimed an implausible 80% victory while allocating only 10% to Tsihanouskaya, it was a blatant manipulation that many found incredulous. Reflecting on this, one might speculate that if Lukashenko had claimed a more plausible 60%, the situation might have unfolded differently, but this is not to defend the regime; rather, it’s a facetious assessment.

This pivotal moment exposed the regime’s deceit, galvanizing people to protest even before the brutal crackdown ensued. They rallied around symbols like the historic opposition colors of white, red, and white, distinct from the regime’s associations with bloodshed and the official red and green flag. This newfound solidarity formed the basis of a new imagined community, which resonated deeply with those seeking change.

Once people have witnessed such truths, they cannot simply forget or unsee them. Since the regime’s efforts to suppress dissent and stifle civil society, individuals who oppose the regime within Belarus live in constant fear. The regime’s reach extends to monitoring social media activity and intercepting individuals at the border. This pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation prevents meaningful dissent, as people are acutely aware of the potential consequences of speaking out.

Lukashenko’s Regime Does Not Fully Exercise Sovereignty

You argue that Russia unofficially controls Belarus, which has significantly influenced Lukashenko’s alignment with Putin’s interests. Could you elaborate on how this control manifests in Belarusian governance and decision-making processes, particularly in matters concerning pro-Putin foreign policy and military cooperation with Russia?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: In this context, it’s crucial to recall the concept of sovereignty as defined in political science: the monopoly of violence within specific borders. Lukashenko’s regime does not fully exercise sovereignty throughout Belarus, lacking complete control over the use of force within its borders. When we refer to violence here, we’re not discussing crime, but rather the authority of police and military to maintain order and security within a territory.

If you look at Ukraine, Ukraine doesn’t have complete sovereignty because the Russian forces are on Ukrainian territory. Similar situation is happening in Belarus but in a different aspect. While the Ukrainians are paying for their sovereignty with blood, Belarusian sovereignty has been challenged peacefully by moving Russian forces on the Belarussian territory. The trainings are happening, and I hear that Russian military officers have been in control of some army units.

Another aspect of this challenge to sovereignty is the presence of tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil, which are under Russian control. While these weapons are not owned by Belarus, their presence directly challenges Belarus’ monopoly of violence within its borders. This gradual erosion of sovereignty occurs quietly but significantly, posing a threat to the Belarusian people who are not aligned with the regime.

Hence, it’s crucial to recognize that Belarus, too, faces a threat, as its people are not necessarily aligned with the Belarusian regime. While the conflict unfolds on Ukrainian soil, Belarus finds itself under a similar, albeit quieter, threat of gradual erosion of its sovereignty.

In your article “Anti-authoritarian learning: Prospects for democratization in Belarus based on a study of Polish Solidarity,” you explore the anti-Lukashenko protest movement in Belarus through a comparative lens with the Solidarity movement in Poland. Why do you believe the anti-Lukashenko democracy movement has not achieved success comparable to the Solidarity movement in Poland? What are the primary differences and similarities between the two movements?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: In this article, we discussed the four stages that social movements undergo to succeed or falter. In Belarus, however, the movement did not achieve the bureaucratization phase, which is crucial for its progression. The movement must initiate with people seeing each other, symbolizing its inception. Subsequently, as people continue to unite, the movement begins to bureaucratize, ultimately culminating in either success or failure.

In Belarus, we witnessed the initial two stages unfold. A significant number of people, approximately half a million, gathered to protest during weekends, demonstrating a collective realization that they are not alone in their desire for change. However, the third stage, bureaucratization, which entails the emergence of leadership, faced challenges. Bureaucratization primarily occurred outside the country’s borders, presenting difficulties as it was forced into exile.

Comparatively, in Poland, bureaucratization occurred internally, albeit amidst regime suppression, signifying a contrasting dynamic. Although the process of bureaucratization did occur in Belarus, its efficacy was hindered by external factors, resulting in minimal progress. It’s essential to acknowledge that successful movements, such as Polish Solidarity, often require significant time to achieve their goals. The Polish example illustrates that it took eight years and persisted until the collapse of the Soviet Union for success to be realized.

Despite the challenges, there is hope that a similar solidarity movement is brewing in Belarus, albeit underground. Viewing these processes positively is crucial, recognizing the existence of the movement and its leadership. The Belarusian people and opposition await a potential window of opportunity, which, if seized, could usher in a new regime.

The Upcoming Presidential Elections Could Serve as Catalysts for Opposition

Peaceful protests on Niezaliežnasci street in Minsk. People rallying and marching towards Independence Avenue in Minsk, Belarus on August 23, 2020. Photo: Shutterstock.

In the same article, you assert that “the 2020 presidential election generated the largest protests in the history of independent Belarus. Masses of Belarusian citizens took to the streets to protest what they considered to be a corrupt and fraudulent election.” However, in the recent elections on February 25, characterized by the Council of Europe as a “travesty of democracy,” there were not many public demonstrations. Why do you think Belarusians did not mobilize to protest the fraudulent elections this time around? Has the demand for change in Belarus been killed by systematic repression and violence? Or how do you assess the state of resilience and determination of the protest movement in the face of such adversity?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: It’s important to differentiate between the parliamentary and presidential elections in Belarus. Parliamentary elections typically don’t elicit significant public outcry or protest; historically, the turnout for dissent is minimal, often involving only a handful of individuals or none at all. This lack of mobilization is unsurprising given that parliamentary candidates are often regime-appointed, with little chance of electoral success for opposition candidates. People in Belarus have lost faith in the prospect of meaningful change through these elections due to pervasive fear and skepticism. The fear of imprisonment or reprisal discourages many from participating in dissent, especially when they perceive the current electoral cycle as lacking in critical opportunities for change. The next presidential election is likely to be the focal point for more substantial protest, especially considering President Lukashenko’s indication of running again. Therefore, while the recent parliamentary elections may not have spurred significant protest, future electoral events could serve as catalysts for more meaningful dissent.

What is the significance of parliamentary and local elections held on Feb. 25 in Belarus? What do the elections tell us about the nature of the regime in the country?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: Historically, these elections have failed to provoke dissent or resentment among the populace because people perceive little opportunity for meaningful change. The prevailing fear within the country suppresses protest during parliamentary elections, underscoring the belief that President Lukashenko remains firmly entrenched in power and is willing to crack down on any signs of dissent.

Opposition Closed the Door on Lukashenko’s Balancing Act

Illustration

What role does Putin’s Russia play in the consolidation of Lukashenko’s regime and the suppression of popular dissent? How has this suppression in Belarus affected the support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: Let’s delve into the events of 2020, when Lukashenko’s regime was known for its balancing act. This approach involved seeking financial support from either Russia or the European Union depending on the circumstances. For instance, if Putin withheld funds or made unfavorable demands, Lukashenko would turn to the European Union, often promising to release political prisoners in exchange for financial assistance. They were deeply entrenched in their relationships, and this strategy proved effective for decades. 

However, everything changed after 2020 when Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya emerged and sought refuge in the European Union, specifically Lithuania. Tsikhanouskaya’s lobbying efforts with leaders in the European Union and the United States effectively closed the door on Lukashenko’s previous balancing act. Consequently, Lukashenko found himself heavily reliant on Putin’s support. Let’s turn our attention to Russia and the onset of the protests. 

In 2020, we witnessed a two-week period of inaction by the Lukashenko regime. During this time, there was a noticeable absence of activity, with people peacefully protesting. Despite the confusion apparent within Lukashenko’s regime, he remained passive, even seen riding with a rifle but making no significant moves. Then, suddenly, there was a sharp escalation, depicted graphically as a sudden crackdown. The question arises: why?

The answer lies in Lukashenko’s newfound confidence, gained through promises of financial and political support from Putin. This support emboldened him to quash the protests decisively. It’s as if Putin whispered, “Enough is enough, Alexander,” signaling the end of the two-week grace period. From then on, Lukashenko relied heavily on Putin to maintain his grip on power, trading sovereignty for political survival. Putin, in turn, kept Lukashenko in his pocket, utilizing Belarus for strategic purposes such as missile launches and nuclear deployments.

While Putin holds considerable sway, Lukashenko maintains a semblance of autonomy, albeit within the confines of Putin’s influence. He navigates a delicate balance, ensuring his own rule while serving Putin’s interests in Belarus. Thus, while Putin remains in power, Lukashenko recognizes the necessity of compliance while preserving his own domain, however limited it may be.

Lukashenko Continues to Suppress Dissent Thanks to Russia’s Support

(L-R) Iran President Hassan Rouhan, Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the session of the supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Yerevan, Armania on October 1, 2019. Photo: Asatur Yesayants.

Belarus’ strategic significance for Russia in the context of the Ukraine war is underscored by its long border with Ukraine and its role as a staging ground for Russian military operations. Considering this, what are the potential long-term implications of Belarus’ cooperation with Russia on regional security dynamics and the broader geopolitical landscape in Eastern Europe?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: Belarus appears poised to remain in its current state, with hopes pinned on a favorable outcome for Ukraine. Should Ukraine find itself mired in a frozen conflict or an unfavorable peace agreement, it’s unlikely they will willingly accept it. Any peace accord would likely be imposed rather than voluntary. Thus, the anticipation rests on the United States to provide crucial foreign and financial aid to Ukraine, potentially opening a window for change in Belarus. If Ukraine emerges victorious and triggers shifts within the Russian government, Belarusian opposition forces may find an opportunity for change. However, absent such developments, the outlook for change appears grim. Lukashenko maintains the support of Russia and continues his crackdown on dissent, with reports indicating an escalation in repression, including fatalities in Belarusian prisons. Unfortunately, there seems to be little prospect for improvement at present.

The presence of Russian troops in Transnistria presents a significant obstacle to Moldova’s territorial control, a crucial condition for EU membership. How do you foresee Moldova addressing this issue as part of its EU accession process? 

Tatsiana Kulakevich: In this case, Moldova finds itself in a fortuitous position. While Belarus grapples with challenges to its sovereignty and Ukraine fiercely defends its own, Moldova could have easily been the next target had Russian forces advanced into Transnistria. Moldova lacks a strong military presence to resist such aggression.

The aspiration in Moldova is to align with the European Union, a path that includes Transnistria. Despite the presence of Russian troops in Moldova, the hope remains alive. However, understanding the context is crucial. Even before 2014, prior to Russia’s conspicuous intervention in Ukraine, a murky situation existed along the border with Transnistria and Ukraine, characterized by arms smuggling.

Following the events of 2014, Ukraine bolstered its border control, recognizing Russia as an adversary. With Russian soldiers stationed in Transnistria, Ukraine tightened its grip on the border, impeding movement into Transnistria through its territory. Moldova’s capital also intensified its vigilance over these activities.

Russian soldiers traverse into Transnistria, officially Moldovan territory, including through Moldova’s airports, under watchful eyes. Moldova’s stance is clear: why permit further incursions of soldiers into its territory, even if destined for Transnistria, where they’ve been stationed since 1992. Consequently, accessing Transnistria via Ukraine has become increasingly challenging for Russian officers.

Given that the frozen conflict in Transnistria has persisted since the early 1990s, specifically since 1992, the original Russian soldiers involved have long been replaced. The current soldiers are often descendants of those initial officers, hailing not necessarily from Russia but predominantly from Transnistria itself. For them, Transnistria is their homeland, not Russia; hence, their loyalties are complex, tethered not solely to Russia but also to their own land.

This complexity plays into Moldova’s favor to some extent. These soldiers may prioritize the interests of Transnistria over those of Russia. For Transnistria, ties with Russia have been beneficial, offering retirement benefits and subsidized gas. Meanwhile, Moldova has cultivated strong trade relations with the European Union, particularly through its close cultural affinity with Romania. Consequently, Transnistria finds itself in a position where it benefits from both Russia and Moldova yet leans more towards the EU due to the advantages gained through Moldova’s EU agreements. This dynamic underscore Moldova’s desire to integrate Transnistria, despite the challenges involved. Russia’s persistent influence and disturbance in Transnistria complicates this goal, as it continues to support disruptions in the region, thereby hindering Moldova’s aspirations for stability and unity.

Navalny’s Death Sparked Awareness of Political Prisoners in Belarus

People mourn for Alexei Navalny in Budapest, Hungary on February 16, 2024. Photo: Alexey Gorovoi.

Lastly, today (on Friday) Alexei Navalny’s funeral was held in Moscow. Does the death of Navalny say anything to dissidents in Belarus?

Tatsiana Kulakevich: Yes, indeed, we mustn’t forget. That’s the first thing Belarus compels us to consider, especially after Navalny’s death sparked awareness of the numerous political prisoners in Belarus. Among them are relatives and opposition figures, unheard of for almost a year, or even longer. Their uncertain fate is alarming. We’re not talking about just one person; it’s a matter of concern for many. Navalyn is a big name in Russia. Belarus is no stranger to such cases; there are several prominent names whose fates remain uncertain. It is crucial to emphasize the severity of the situation in Belarus, particularly regarding political prisoners. While overshadowed by the Ukrainian conflict due to its smaller scale and lack of direct bloodshed, Belarus suffers its own form of anguish through the erosion of its citizens’ freedoms.

A few days ago, we received news of yet another political prisoner’s death. His name was somewhat elusive, not quite fully captured, but his passing marks the fifth such tragedy within Belarusian prisons. It’s a grim reality we’re confronting. Reflecting on the demise of Navalny, personally, I found it not entirely surprising. After all, the regime had attempted on his life previously. So, in a sense, they simply finished what they started. It’s a ruthless strategic move, reminiscent of how they dealt with Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, illustrating that traitors meet their demise. However, Belarus has its own harrowing story, particularly concerning its treatment of political prisoners. The details remain obscured at this point, leaving much to be uncovered.

Professor Vedi Hadiz, Director and Professor of Asian Studies at the Asia Institute, and Assistant Deputy Vice-Chancellor International at the University of Melbourne.

Professor Vedi Hadiz: Prabowo’s Election Heralds a New Level of Danger for Indonesian Democracy

Emphasizing the pressing challenges confronting Indonesian democracy, Professor Hadiz stressed, “The current concern with Prabowo’s election lies in his deep ties to the oligarchy.” He highlighted Prabowo’s track record of human rights violations and his family’s (his brother) involvement in questionable economic activities, resulting in outstanding debts to the state. Additionally, Prabowo’s disregard for democratic processes, principles, and human rights was underscored. Acknowledging Indonesia’s enduring struggle with its oligarchic tendencies, Professor Hadiz warned that Prabowo’s election heralds a new level of danger for Indonesian democracy.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Amidst the global rise of populist movements, Indonesia emerges as a captivating case study, where the intricate interplay between populism, democracy, and Islamism unfolds amidst socio-economic transformations and political contests. The recent electoral triumph of Prabowo Subianto has ignited fervent discussions regarding the trajectory of democracy in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Vedi Hadiz, Director and Professor of Asian Studies at the Asia Institute, and Assistant Deputy Vice-Chancellor International at the University of Melbourne, provides insights into the nuanced dynamics of populism, Islamism, and democracy in Indonesia.

Professor Hadiz underscores the prevailing notion that Indonesia is often lauded as a model of successful democratic transformation, a reputation he acknowledges as, in many respects, well-deserved. However, he also draws attention to the darker realities overshadowing Indonesia’s democratic journey. Despite its strides towards democracy, Indonesia has long grappled with deep-rooted issues such as corruption and significant flaws, casting a shadow over its democratic credentials.

Moreover, Professor Hadiz highlights a pressing concern regarding the entrenchment of oligarchic power structures and the erosion of democratic norms, particularly under Prabowo’s possible leadership. He emphasizes that the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups have consistently faced limitations within the Indonesian context. Crucially, Indonesia remains under the sway of what he terms an oligarchy—an alliance between the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie elite. This oligarchy wields influence over virtually all major political parties and exerts dominance over key state institutions and mass organizations, shaping the trajectory of Indonesian politics and governance.

Highlighting the imminent challenges facing Indonesian democracy, Professor Hadiz emphasized, “The current concern with Prabowo’s election lies in his deep ties to the oligarchy.” As the former son-in-law of Suharto, the former dictator, Prabowo epitomizes the entrenched habits of the oligarchy that democratic reforms aimed to mitigate. Professor Hadiz pointed out Prabowo’s history of human rights violations and his family’s (his brother) involvement in questionable economic activities, which have left outstanding debts to the state due to these connections. Furthermore, Prabowo has displayed scant regard for democratic processes, principles, and human rights.

While acknowledging Indonesia’s longstanding struggle with its oligarchic nature, Professor Hadiz warned that Prabowo’s election heralds a new level of danger for Indonesian democracy, amplifying concerns about its future trajectory.

By unpacking the concept of populism and Islamic populism within the Indonesian context, Professor Hadiz also emphasizes its class dimensions and nuanced manifestations in the archipelago. Professor Hadiz elucidates how populism intersects with Islamism, shedding light on the distinctive features of Islamic populism and its historical evolution in Indonesia. Drawing parallels with other Muslim-majority countries, particularly Turkey and Egypt, he navigates through the intricate tapestry of socio-political forces shaping Islamic populism across diverse contexts.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Vedi Hadiz with some edits.

Islamic Populism Replaces “the People” with “the Ummah”

How do you define populism (or Islamist populism) within the context of Indonesia and the broader Islamic world, and what are its distinguishing features compared to other forms of populism? Can you discuss the relationship between Islamist populism and illiberalism & authoritarianism in Indonesia, particularly how these dynamics intersect and influence each other within the political landscape?

Vedi Hadiz: First of all, let’s delve into populism in a broad sense, followed by a discussion on populism within Indonesia, specifically Islamic populism, and its correlation with various forms of illiberalism. At its core, populism can be succinctly defined as a political inclination that frames societal dynamics as a struggle between the elites and the masses, portraying the elite as corrupt, exploitative, rapacious, or culturally detached, while depicting the people as inherently good and virtuous. However, this definition merely scratches the surface, and it’s crucial to acknowledge the contextual nuances inherent in contemporary populisms worldwide. In my analysis, I argue that all contemporary populisms in the world invariably stem from the socio-economic and political repercussions of neoliberal globalization, manifesting differently across diverse societies and impacting domestic social structures in various ways.

The second proposition I advance is that populism contains a class dimension, a facet often overlooked in scholarly discourse. Specifically, within the contemporary framework of neoliberal globalization, populism reflects varying class alliances in different contexts. I posit that these alliances are products of social and historical circumstances intersecting with globalization, resulting in asymmetrical class compositions. For instance, in some contexts, populism may represent the interests of segments of the bourgeoisie, middle class, working class, or peasantry, with power dynamics skewed towards particular classes or class relationships. The asymmetry arises because the driving force within these populist alliances can stem from a specific class or a complex interplay between different classes, where power and influence are not distributed equitably.

In Indonesian populism, there exists an alliance among the classes I mentioned, predominantly comprising individuals from the middle and lower middle classes. These are people with aspirations for upward social mobility yet find themselves hindered by the structures shaped by neoliberal globalization, resulting in widespread social inequalities evident in major economies globally. However, in some instances, such as in America, populist movements receive backing from sections of big business. Nevertheless, the primary social agents driving these movements are often from the lower middle class, whose socio-economic aspirations remain unfulfilled amidst processes of social and economic development. Similarly, aspirations of the lower classes are impeded, albeit with less organization and access to socio-economic and political resources compared to the educated middle classes.

Returning to Indonesia, and focusing directly on the concept of Islamic populism, it presents a distinct form of populism where the notion of “the people” is replaced by the idea of the Ummah, the community of believers. Despite globalization, this concept becomes increasingly nationally defined, as the struggles of the Ummah are framed within national borders. The social agents of Islamic populism in Indonesia typically represent the lower middle classes, whose social mobility has been impeded despite education and efforts at advancement. These individuals articulate their grievances through the lens of social justice, drawing upon Islamic cultural resources rather than liberal or leftist ideologies.

The distinction between Indonesian and Turkish Islamic populism lies in their class dynamics. Indonesian Islamic populism primarily emerges from the middle class, unable to establish alliances with segments of the big bourgeoisie. In contrast, Turkish Islamic populism has been fueled by the Anatolian bourgeoisie—a group of businesses from the provinces challenging the traditional Kemalist elite. This alliance offers resources to uplift the poor, including urban populations, by leveraging the organizational capacity of the middle class and financial backing to implement social welfare initiatives.

Whereas in Indonesia, the challenge arises from the fact that the big bourgeoisie is predominantly ethnically Chinese and not considered part of the Ummah. Consequently, the formation of alliances akin to those in Turkey is considerably restricted. This limitation significantly hampers the ability of the social agents of Islamic populism, primarily concentrated in the urban lower middle class, to uplift the lower classes through initiatives such as social welfare and education. These constraints underscore the broader issue of responses to social inequality and competition stemming from neoliberal globalization in Asia.

Populisms vary in manifestation and expression due to socio-historical disparities and the availability of cultural resources. For instance, in Muslim-majority countries, particularly where the left is either absent or weak, Islam often serves as the framework for political discourse, allowing ideas about social justice to be articulated within an Islamic context. Conversely, in countries like Brazil where Islam does not play a significant role in shaping political discourse, alternative cultural resources are sought to frame a language that can foster the cross-class alliances previously mentioned.

Islamist Populists in Indonesia Are Not Entirely Anti-Democratic

What are the key characteristics of Islamist populist movements in Indonesia since the 1960s, and how have they interacted with democracy in the post-Suharto era? Can you provide a historical overview of the relationship between populism and Islamism in Indonesia, and explain their impact on governance, societal dynamics, political mobilization, policymaking, social cohesion, and identity politics?

Vedi Hadiz: I draw a distinction between what I term as older forms of Islamic populism and newer forms of Islamic populism. The former tends to be rooted in the petty bourgeoisie, traditional traders and small landowners. In contrast, modern Islamic populism is centered around the urban lower middle class and the educated middle class, whose aspirations have been thwarted despite promises of modernity. Unlike the 1960s, Islamic populism in Asia is no longer primarily fueled by these traditional traders and small landowners, but rather by a new segment of society emerging from the modernization process—the urban middle and lower middle classes. Consequently, their aspirations and motivations differ as well.

In older forms of Islamic populism, there typically exists a suspicion of capitalism, rooted in its association with foreign dominance through colonialism and imperialism. However, in newer forms, attitudes toward capitalism can vary. On one hand, there may be strong anti-foreign sentiments, particularly in Indonesia, where anti-Chinese sentiments arise due to the perception of ethnic Chinese control over big business. On the other hand, there’s an acknowledgment that capitalism can offer avenues for upward social mobility, leading to a willingness to compromise with it. This perspective is influenced by examples such as Turkey, where capitalism facilitated upward mobility and access to state power for social agents previously marginalized under Kemalist rule. In Indonesia, however, such outcomes have been limited, if not entirely absent, highlighting a key distinction between old and new Islamic populism.

In Indonesia, the relationship between this new Islamic populism and democracy is also a bit complex. On one hand, some social agents argue that democracy is incompatible with Islam due to the concept of a Caliphate. However, others recognize that, alongside opportunities within the market, democracy offers avenues for upward social mobility and access to state power. Consequently, there are Islamic populists who establish political parties and engage in democratic competition. They are not entirely anti-democratic; in fact, they show sympathy towards democratic mechanisms, acknowledging instances where democracy has facilitated upward social mobility and enabled control over certain aspects of the state.

Islamic Populists in Indonesia Lack Material Resources to Secure Votes of Poor

Former Minister of Defense and winner of the February 14, 2024, Presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, pictured at the 77th-anniversary celebration of the Indonesian Air Force in Jakarta on April 9, 2023. Photo: Donny Hery.

How do you assess the role of populist rhetoric and strategies in the recent Indonesian elections, particularly regarding Prabowo Subianto’s victory? What factors contributed to his success, and how significant was the influence of populism in shaping voter preferences? 

Vedi Hadiz: This case is intriguing because in the previous elections of 2014 and 2019, there was significant mobilization of popular sentiment from both nationalist and Islamist factions. However, in the 2024 election, the rhetoric was notably restrained. This shift occurred partly because Prabowo, the candidate, abandoned his previous allies within the Islamic populist community in favor of aligning with status nationalists who wield control over the state bureaucracy. This strategic move stemmed from the Islamic populists’ inability to provide Prabowo with the necessary material resources to secure the votes of the poor.

Consequently, there was a concerted effort to distribute social aid such as food and rice to the poor, orchestrated by the state machinery, to portray Prabowo as a nationalist populist. Notably, Anies Baswedan, a former ally of the Islamists, failed to mount an effective Islamic populist challenge against this state bureaucratic-led mobilization effort. Such activation would have necessitated alliances with specific state social agents, including the military and local government, which were mobilized in favor of Prabowo. This highlights the limited influence of Islamic populism in Indonesia compared to Turkey, where its upward and downward connections are stronger.

In Indonesia, Islamic populism requires alliances with particular state social agents to be effective. However, in this instance, those alliances were directed away from Islamic populists toward a more nationalist-oriented form of populism exploited by the winning candidate, General Prabowo.

What implications does Prabowo Subianto’s recent electoral victory have for democracy in Indonesia? Are there concerns regarding the consolidation of populist leadership and its impact on democratic institutions and processes, and how might this victory influence societal divisions, governance structures, and the overall political landscape in the country?  

Vedi Hadiz: Indonesia is often hailed as a successful example of democratic transformation, and in many ways that reputation is well deserved. However, it’s crucial to recognize that Indonesia’s democracy has long been plagued by corruption and significant flaws. The rights of minorities and vulnerable groups have been consistently limited. Additionally, Indonesia remains under the control of what I’ve termed an oligarchy—a coalition between the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy and the upper echelons of bourgeoisie. This oligarchy was established during the authoritarian era under Suharto, and despite democratization efforts since 1998, it has persisted and entrenched itself within Indonesia’s democratic and governance institutions. Today, this oligarchy holds sway over virtually all major political parties and dominates key state institutions, mass organizations and so on. Thus, Indonesian democracy has always been characterized by oligarchic domination.

The current concern with Prabowo’s election lies in his deep ties to the oligarchy. As the former son-in-law of Suharto, the former dictator, he epitomizes the entrenched habits of the oligarchy that democratic reforms aimed to mitigate. This includes a history of human rights violations and his family’s (his brother) involvement in questionable economic activities, with outstanding debts to the state due to these connections. Moreover, Prabowo has shown scant regard for democratic processes, principles and human rights. While Indonesian democracy has long grappled with its oligarchic nature, the Prabowo’s election adds a new level of danger.

Indonesian Democrats Should Worry Whether Substantive Democracy Will Endure

The New York Times ran a story right after the elections claiming that ‘Prabowo Subianto’ victory has cast doubts on the future of one of the world’s most vibrant democracies.’ And added that: ‘The era of liberty that followed the ouster of Suharto, critics say, could now be under threat with Mr. Prabowo’s ascent to power.’ Let me ask you bluntly is the biggest Muslim democracy and the third largest democracy in the world in danger?

Vedi Hadiz: The reality is that many rights have regressed over the past decade, signaling a troubling trend. What Prabowo’s rise to power signifies, in my opinion, is an acceleration of this regression—a further erosion of rights and a deepening crisis for Indonesian democracy. It’s reasonable for supporters of democracy in Indonesia to worry whether substantive democracy will endure beyond the mere act of holding elections.

With Subianto in power with nationalist populism and Islamism, are we going to witness a replay of Narendra Modi in India or Donald Trump in US meaning the era of liberal democracy has ended?

Vedi Hadiz: First and foremost, it’s essential not to romanticize Indonesia’s recent past in terms of liberal democracy, as there have never been strong liberal democratic or social democratic parties. The major political forces in Indonesia have typically been nationalist or Islamic nationalist in nature. Thus, Indonesia has never experienced a liberalized democracy that could be dismantled. Instead, what Prabowo’s potential ascension represents is a significant setback. It threatens to extinguish the impulses within Indonesian society that have historically sought to counter the illiberal tendencies of the oligarchy and advocate for the expansion of rights across society despite oligarchic dominance.

Ultimately, Prabowo’s rise would likely signify the oligarchy’s near-total control over Indonesian democracy. This would stifle challenges aimed at securing and broadening rights, achieving greater social equality, and expanding access to power and economic resources.

Preemptive Adoption of Islamic Rhetoric Contributes to Illiberalism in Indonesia

DKI Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan with residents of Kampung Akuarium in Jakarta, Indonesia on April 14 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

In your article ‘No Turkish delight: the impasse of Islamic party politics in Indonesia,’ you compare the cases of AKP (The Justice and Development Party) and PKS (The Prosperous Justice Party – Partai Keadilan Sejahtera). Where did PKS fail to achieve where AKP in Turkey succeeded? What results does this comparison between AKP and PKS yield in terms of populisms the respective parties employed?

Vedi Hadiz: It’s evident in Turkish elections that the AKP consistently emerges victorious, while the PKS tends to suffer defeats, including in its support for presidential candidates. This underscores what I mentioned earlier: Islamic populism in Indonesia, although present, has not developed to the extent seen in Turkey. Consequently, it relies on alliances and compromises to exert influence, yet remains largely outside the core of power. However, this doesn’t mean it lacks influence altogether. On the contrary, forces outside Islamic networks often adopt Islamic rhetoric preemptively, as seen in recent legislation incorporating moralistic concerns advocated by Islamists regarding sexual relations.

This preemptive adoption of Islamic rhetoric serves to preempt Islamist forces from using such issues to attack those in power. Yet, despite their electoral losses, the mainstreaming of their ideas contributes to the illiberalism of Indonesian democracy. This is because many of these ideas lean towards the illiberal end of the spectrum, further shaping the political landscape even in their absence from power.

Alright. And the lastly, Professor, how does the phenomenon of Islamist populism in Indonesia compare and contrast with similar movements in other Muslim-majority countries, and what insights can be drawn from these comparative analyses? What are the similarities and differences especially between Islamist populism in Indonesia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region?

Vedi Hadiz: These phenomena have a long historical trajectory, traceable back to at least the early 20th century. However, in the past, they were dominated by older forms of populism, which have since evolved into more modern iterations. This trend is evident in the MENA region as well. For instance, in Egypt, supporters of the now-defunct Muslim Brotherhood included professionals such as doctors, engineers, and lawyers, marking a departure from the provincial figures of the 1950s. Similarly, in Turkey, Islamic populism encompasses a diverse range of individuals. While the social transformations brought about by capitalist development and globalization have impacted the MENA region in a similar manner, the specific histories and interactions with neoliberal globalization have resulted in distinct manifestations in each country.

In Turkey, Islamic populism has largely dominated both the state and a significant portion of civil society. In contrast, in Egypt, Islamic populism once held sway over civil society but failed to extend its influence on the state. In Indonesia, Islamic populism has thus far been unable to exert dominance over either the state or civil society.

PTI supporter at Jinnah Cricket Stadium during a political rally of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan on March 23, 2012 in Sialkot, Pakistan. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer.

Professor Yasmeen: Radical Islamists and Islamist Populists Employ Similar Tactics, Albeit with Different Objectives

Drawing a comparison between radical Islamism and Islamist populism, Professor Samina Yasmeen emphasized the parallel communication styles utilized by both radical and populist Islamists, highlighting their reliance on simplicity and Islamic references to connect with the populace. However, she pointed out that while radical Islamists aim for a fundamental alteration of the state, populist Islamists, exemplified by figures such as Imran Khan, prioritize the establishment of a “well-governed state.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Samina Yasmeen, the Director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, delves into the complex landscape of Pakistani politics, exploring the roots of populism and its intersection with Islamism. 

While a coalition consisting of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has agreed to form the next government of Pakistan, thereby preventing the party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan from assuming power despite garnering the most votes in the election, Professor Yasmeen has pointed out that populist Islamism shares certain techniques with radical Islamism in many respects. When asked to differentiate between radical Islamism and Islamist populism, Professor Yasmeen highlighted the parallel communication styles employed by radical and populist Islamists, underscoring their use of simplicity and Islamic references to resonate with the populace. According to her, while radical Islamists seek a fundamental alteration of the state, populist Islamists, exemplified by figures such as Imran Khan, prioritize the establishment of a well-governed state.

Professor Yasmeen begins by shedding light on the historical antecedence and foundational underpinnings of populism in Pakistan, emphasizing the significant influence of the public’s inclination towards charismatic personalities. She attributes the prevalence of populism to the prevailing low level of literacy, creating a susceptibility to external influences and reinforcing the importance of oral transmission in shaping political narratives.

Drawing on historical examples, particularly the emergence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in the 1960s, Yasmeen underscores the role of illiteracy and emotional connections in fueling populist movements. She then transitions to the contemporary political landscape, highlighting the disillusionment of a population that feels unheard and a deep connection between populist leaders like Imran Khan and the public.

The interview further delves into the strategies employed by Islamist parties to resonate with the public, with a particular focus on Imran Khan’s use of religious narratives and references. Yasmeen explores the influence of Imran Khan’s populist agenda on elections and his unprecedented success without military backing, analyzing the impact of his narrative on public sentiment.

Discussing the challenges posed by Islamist populism to democratic values, Professor Yasmeen raises concerns about the potential for closed-mindedness and a lack of critical thinking among supporters. She highlights the importance of guiding populist appeal towards constructive messages and fostering a genuine democratic spirit to ensure long-term stability.

Finally, the interview touches on the impact of Islamist populism on the rights and representation of religious minorities in Pakistan. Professor Yasmeen acknowledges the indirect consequences of Islamization, contributing to an atmosphere that may alienate minority communities. She emphasizes the need for a nuanced understanding of the complex relationship between Islamization, democracy, and minority rights.

In addressing the external influence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-Islam stance on Islamist populism in Pakistan, Professor Yasmeen notes the shaping of negative perceptions about India’s Hindu-centric policies but emphasizes the overarching focus on internal challenges within Pakistan.

Throughout the interview, Professor Samina Yasmeen provides a comprehensive analysis of the intricate interplay between populism, Islamism, and democratic values in the context of Pakistani politics, offering valuable insights into the historical, contemporary, and geopolitical dimensions of these complex dynamics.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Samina Yasmeen with some edits.

Illiteracy Coupled with Emotional Responses Fuels Populism in Pakistan

What is the historical antecedence and foundational underpinnings of populism in Pakistan, and what are the principal factors contributing to the discerned state of political immaturity?

Samina Yasmeen: First of all, populism in Pakistan is significantly influenced by the public’s inclination to gravitate towards certain personalities and follow them. As these individuals gain recognition for offering something appealing, they evolve into populist leaders garnering widespread followership. However, a crucial factor contributing to this phenomenon, especially in contemporary Pakistan, is the prevailing low level of literacy.

In a society where a purported 40% of the population is considered literate but may possess only basic reading and writing skills, susceptibility to external influences becomes pronounced. The oral transmission of ideas gains prominence in such a scenario. This tendency is further exacerbated when populist leaders strategically align themselves with the public’s perspective, utilizing easily understandable terminologies. While their aim may be to engage in meaningful discussions and influence public opinion, the outcome often creates an environment where imagery, emotive rhetoric, and opinion-based communication take precedence over fact-based discourse. In essence, the conditions created by the combination of limited literacy and effective communication strategies make populism a viable and prevalent phenomenon in Pakistan.

Acknowledging this, populism often arises due to circumstances where individuals feel compelled to rally around a specific personality, and concurrently, other influential figures are willing to endorse this inclination. A pertinent example from the 1960s is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s establishment of Pakistan’s People’s Party. Despite his falling out with President Ayub Khan, Bhutto maintained a favorable relationship with the military. As the demand for an independent East Pakistan grew, the military sided with Bhutto, enabling him to mobilize support from specific factions.

Bhutto adeptly engaged with these factions, securing their support, and effectively conveyed his ideas. The question arises: why did people embrace his narrative? The answer involves the role of illiteracy or insufficient literacy, coupled with an emotional element. In situations where individuals feel unheard or perceive institutions as unresponsive to criticism, populist leaders become iconic voices for their sentiments. This emotional connection transcends literacy barriers, contributing to the emergence and popularity of populist figures.

So, delving into history, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s rallies were monumental, capturing the essence of people deeply swayed and influenced by his ideas. The scale was such that attendees, moved by these ideals, willingly donated their jewelry and resources. This phenomenon continues in contemporary Pakistan, where Imran Khan operates within a similar context, fostering a profound connection with the populace.

In the present, we witness a population that believes their voices have been disregarded, their basic needs unmet, and an acute sense that a populist leader provides a voice to their sentiments. Concurrently, both within Pakistan and abroad, there are groups that not only accept this idea but actively support endeavors, such as those of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Their aim is to ensure that the articulated demands resonate widely and gain popular traction.

Imran Khan Is Perceived as a Genuine Islamist

Enthusiastic Youth going towards the venue Minar-e-Pakistan to attend Imran Khan’s political rally on October 30, 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

How would you define and differentiate between Islamism (or radical Islamism) and Islamist populism in the context of Pakistani politics? Are there specific characteristics that distinguish Islamist populism in Pakistan from broader Islamist movements?

Samina Yasmeen: If I can delve deeper into the realm of Islamist populism in Pakistan, as it aligns with my area of expertise, it’s essential to recognize its longstanding history. This trajectory can be traced back to the very foundation of Pakistan, rooted in the demand for a state created for Muslims. The very name “Pakistan,” meaning “the land of the pure,” embodies an inherent Islamic connotation, derived from combining the initial alphabets of different expected provinces.

Initially, the demand for Pakistan reflected elements of Islamism, and one could argue whether it leaned towards a more progressive or conservative interpretation. However, once Pakistan was established, Islamist groups that actively supported its creation began to assert their vision of Islam, aiming to translate it into reality. This marked the emergence of Islamism in the country.

In its early stages, figures like Maulana Maududi utilized Islamic knowledge to conceptualize and define the idea of an Islamic state. However, as time progressed, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, Islamism in Pakistan underwent a transformation, evolving into a more radical form. In my perspective, these shifts present intriguing parallels that merit closer examination.

Radical Islamists pursue a distinct agenda, aiming to alter the fundamental nature of the state and reshape the global landscape, with the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state in Pakistan. In contrast, populist Islamists in Pakistan, exemplified by groups like PTI or figures like Imran Khan, may not share the same explicit agenda, but their approach bears striking similarities.

Both radical and populist Islamists employ a communication style characterized by simplicity, utilizing straightforward language and expressions. They draw upon Islamic ideas, often quoting verses from the Quran or Hadith, repeating them persistently until acceptance solidifies among the populace. This rhetoric is then seamlessly connected to the everyday lives of the people.

Taking the example of groups like Jamat-ud-Dawa or Lashkar-e-Taiba, their initial foray into public discourse involved picking up Quranic verses and Hadith, conveying what Islam expects, including engagement in jihad. Gradually, this narrative expanded to assert that Pakistan’s existing condition is a consequence of its adherence to a Westernized system, weaving in Islamic references and principles to fortify their arguments. This typifies the approach of a radical Islamist.

Populist Islamists employ a similar strategy, though distinct from radical Islamists, using concise phrases that emphasize their Islamic identity. Unlike the extensive repetition of Quranic verses or Hadith, they rely on smaller phrases to continuously reinforce their connection to Islamic principles.

An illustrative example is found in Imran Khan’s communication style. He often begins by invoking the phrase “Iyyake nabudu ve iyyake nastain.” While this phrase, translating to “We worship You, and we seek Your guidance,” is a recognizable part of Sura Fatiha, the repetition of it in his speeches fosters an association between this specific section of Sura Fatiha and Imran Khan’s persona or worldview. This technique effectively serves to remind people of his Islamic orientation.

This practice serves to convey a powerful message: Imran Khan is perceived as a genuine Islamist, a devout Muslim who not only relies on his personal capacity but also recognizes a higher power, seeking guidance from it. This strategic use of religious phrases, such as beginning speeches with “Iyyake nabudu ve iyyake nastain,” effectively contributes to the framework of populist Islamism in Pakistan.

In this particular context, where people widely identify themselves with the notion of an Islamic or Muslim state, despite the presence of non-Muslims, the majority of the populace interprets such gestures positively. When Imran Khan consistently incorporates phrases like “Iyyake nabudu ve iyyake nastain” into his discourse, it reinforces the perception that he is the right kind of Muslim leader they seek for the country. This alignment with Islamic expressions enhances his credibility and resonance among the population, contributing to the narrative of populist Islamism.

I believe that if you examine the trajectory of my thoughts, you’ll find that populist Islamism in Pakistan shares certain techniques with radical Islamism in many respects. However, the ultimate objectives differ; it’s not centered on jihad but rather the establishment of a well-governed state. One could argue that even jihadists, to some extent, discuss the concept of a ‘good state,’ although their perspective differs from that of populist Islamists. While there is a similarity in their approaches, the outcomes are distinct.

Many Islamist parties in Pakistan claim to represent the voice and will of the people. What populist appeals or strategies do these parties employ to resonate with the public, and how do they incorporate religious narratives into their populist discourse? Do you believe that these dynamics played a role in Imran Khan’s electoral success, despite his imprisonment and recent charges on four accounts?

Samina Yasmeen: I believe what I’ve been discussing aligns precisely with your inquiry. Throughout Pakistan’s history, Islamist parties, not only in the present but also in the past, have consistently employed a technique rooted in Islamic principles. They often draw upon Islamic injunctions, referencing the Quran or Hadith, to position themselves as capable of articulating the issues in Pakistan, the role religion can play, and how they can bring about change. This approach is evident across all Islamist parties, whether they are extremely conservative, moderately conservative, or even those that may not be considered conservative. This includes the somewhat progressive populist movement, such as the Islamist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The reference to justice in the very name of PTI, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, underscores the party’s departure from Western democratic ideals and its alignment with Islamic concepts of justice. This nomenclature serves as a starting point, capturing the attention of the populace and signaling that the party operates within the framework of Islamic justice rather than Western democratic principles.

Furthermore, I highlighted earlier how Imran Khan’s use of “Iyyake nabudu ve iyyake nastain” becomes a key element in communicating the party’s identity. This Quranic reference serves as the cornerstone of any discussion initiated by the populist leader. However, it’s essential to note that this is not where the ideological framework concludes.

Examining Imran Khan’s tenure as Prime Minister and his actions afterward, particularly during his time in office, sheds light on his distinctive approach. His emphasis on the vision of establishing a Riyasat-e Medina, akin to the initial Islamic state in Medina, served to differentiate him from his predecessors. Imran Khan stood apart from leaders like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who aspired to create an Islamic Socialist state, and General Zia Ul-Haq, whose vision of an Islamic state leaned towards conservatism and didn’t universally ensure justice.

Imran Khan, on the other hand, articulated a desire for a Riyasat-e Medina in Pakistan—a model that reflected the principles of justice, equality, and international standing inherent in the Islamic foundation of the nation. During his term as Prime Minister, his frequent references to Riyasat-e Medina, in my evaluation, significantly contributed to his identity as a populist leader and populist Prime Minister. And then, he is ousted from power.

A noteworthy shift lies in Imran Khan’s consistent use of Quranic references and his pursuit of Riyasat-e Medina. Those collaborating with external or internal forces are perceived as steering Pakistan away from this righteous path. During this process, Khan not only invokes Quranic verses but also underscores how Islam functioned in South Asia, emphasizing its historical dominance through the Mughal Empire. The empire’s decline, attributed to internal dissent and hypocrisy, becomes a poignant lesson.

Imran Khan builds on the entirety of South Asian and Islamic history, with a crucial focus on the history of the Islamic state in Medina. This highlights a general pattern among Islamists, but when it comes to figures like Imran Khan and PTI, the process is the same. While there are similarities, the distinctive element lies in the communication of these parallels, notably utilizing social media more extensively.

Imran Khan Has Cultivated an Image Akin to a Cult Personality

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

You characterize Imran Khan as a populist leader. What impact did his populist agenda have on the elections and his success? Meanwhile, Imran Khan’s electoral triumph marks a significant milestone in Pakistani politics. It represents the first instance in the nation’s history where a politician secured victory without the backing of the influential military. How would you interpret and explain this unprecedented development?

Samina Yasmeen: When I say Imran Khan is a populist leader, it’s not a novel assertion. What I want to emphasize is that Khan’s image as someone worthy of emulation didn’t originate with his tenure as the Prime Minister but began when he assumed the role of captain for Pakistan’s cricket team. The foundation solidified with the significant achievement of winning the Cricket World Cup in 1992, a moment of immense pride for a cricket-centric nation like Pakistan.

The charismatic aura around Imran Khan was not solely a result of his cricketing prowess; it extended to his personal life. His appeal transcended boundaries, evident in Lady Diana’s visit to Pakistan on his account and his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, a wealthy Western, British woman. Imran Khan’s ability to engage with international figures on equal footing further contributed to this enduring image. This notion was ingrained long before his political career took off.

Upon entering the political arena, it’s crucial to acknowledge that initially, Imran Khan did not enjoy widespread popularity as a politician. In fact, there was a time when he secured only one seat in the Parliament. However, a significant shift occurred when the institutions that either gave rise to PTI or supported its inception began backing him.

Imran Khan’s appeal gained momentum as he received support from influential backers, including individuals associated with the military and retired officials. These entities saw PTI as a potential third force, distinct from the established political parties like PMLN, PML, and PPP, which were perceived as failing to address the people’s needs. Imran Khan’s emergence on the political stage marked a turning point, and he gradually garnered traction as a populist leader.

Credit must be given to Imran Khan for the 2013 elections when PTI garnered enough votes to form a government. During this period, he introduced commendable ideas, such as the health card, although there were some implementation issues. Overall, the concepts resonated with the impoverished, creating a perception that he genuinely cared about their well-being.

However, in 2018, when he began implementing these ideas, the party faced challenges due to a lack of sufficient capacity and experience in managing the economy. Consequently, a noticeable downward trend emerged. While it could be argued that pre-existing factors contributed to this decline, it worsened during his tenure.

What intrigues me is the rapid surge in Imran Khan’s popularity and his ability to assert himself as a populist leader the moment the possibility of a vote of no confidence became evident. This phenomenon can be attributed to a combination of factors I initially outlined. In Pakistan, where rising prices prevail and a pervasive sense of being unheard is felt, people began perceiving Imran Khan as their chosen representative, even in their discontent. There’s a prevailing sentiment that decisions about political structures are made externally, outside the democratic space.

Imran Khan effectively capitalized on this sentiment through his narrative. As mentioned earlier, he employed terminology, introduced ideas, and communicated in a way that resonated with ordinary people, especially the youth. While this approach may have temporarily fueled a collective expression of frustration, there is concern that, in the long term, it may impede Pakistan’s progress by not encouraging increased productivity or responsibility. Imran Khan’s success in channeling and amplifying public anger underscores the reality that a leader can emerge when there is widespread discontent, and someone can effectively articulate that discontent. So, Imran Khan’s populist appeal surged after his removal from office due to his narrative. 

Another crucial aspect, from my perspective, is that the previous PMLN government and the military might not have fully grasped the extent to which granting Imran Khan an open platform would bolster his ability to mobilize support. They permitted him to conduct rallies consistently, allowing him to reach a wide audience. The PTI’s adept use of social media further amplified his message, disseminating it through both digital channels and oral transmissions. This strategic communication approach played a significant role in transforming Imran Khan into a larger-than-life personality.

Even during his incarceration, he, as you pointed out, successfully altered the political landscape contrary to the preferences of the military or the establishment. Initially, many, including myself, anticipated a coalition government, with the primary choices being PMLN and PPP. Other parties, including PTI, were expected to secure only a few seats. However, the allocation of multiple electoral symbols to PTI suggested that it might not form a cohesive party. There was a prevailing belief that PTI wouldn’t come to power, especially given the numerous legal cases and verdicts delivered just days before the elections. These legal developments sent a clear message that Imran Khan was not welcome in the political arena.

Now, consider this perspective from both the younger generation and those who are not young. What does it signify? Economic conditions worsened further during the 16 months of the PML-N government, leading to widespread suffering. Imran Khan’s narrative, asserting that those who removed him collaborated with external powers and certain sections of the military, resonated strongly with the public. This narrative shaped a perception that Imran was on the right side, while the other side was on the wrong.

Imran Khan has cultivated an image of someone worthy of followership, akin to a cult personality. People genuinely like and trust him. It may be challenging to rationalize, but the upheaval from the pre-election structure to the current state can be explained by the deep trust people have in Imran Khan. Some express this trust to the extent of stating, “if he asks us to lay down our lives, we’ll do that.”

However, the significant support for Imran Khan’s PTI, securing numerous independent seats, should not be solely interpreted as unequivocal approval for Imran Khan. It also reflects a protest vote, fueled by dissatisfaction with the crackdown initiated after the events of May 9th last year. While there have been stories circulating, their accuracy may be questionable, suggesting that law enforcement agencies, particularly the military, have targeted anyone associated with PTI. The image of widespread suppression has influenced public sentiment. 

Additionally, there is discontent with PML-N, as people question the perpetuation of dynastic politics. These three factors—unwavering support for Imran, resentment towards military intervention, and frustration with Nawaz Sharif and the PPP for adhering to dynastic politics—all contributed to PTI-supported candidates securing a prominent position. It is evident that Imran Khan’s message, rather than just PTI’s messaging, holds value and resonates with a significant portion of the electorate.

Lack of Critical Thinking and Close-Mindedness Pose a Threat to Democracy

To what extent does Islamist populism, predominantly but not exclusively embodied by Imran Khan, present challenges to democratic values and institutions in Pakistan? Can you identify instances where Islamist populist movements have either bolstered or undermined the democratic process?

Samina Yasmeen: Allow me to refocus on Pakistan, a subject that has consumed much of my attention in recent months. My insights lean towards a more nuanced contribution, honing in on specific aspects rather than broad generalizations. It’s conceivable that others may possess a more comprehensive understanding of the broader context.

Imran Khan’s adept use of populist narratives stands out prominently. His resonance with a significant portion of the youth, as well as individuals beyond the younger demographic, underscores a genuine yearning for a transformative leader who can navigate Pakistan through its current challenges. This widespread acceptance grants him considerable influence. However, the concern lies in whether this influence could potentially undermine democratic norms, as I previously mentioned.

He possesses a certain appeal, which has manifested in various forms over time. However, it is crucial to guide this appeal towards a constructive message for your followers. Encourage them to proclaim, “We are dedicated to the betterment of Pakistan. Our struggle is for a fair and just nation, but achieving this requires every capable citizen to fulfill their responsibilities and strive to be the most productive human beings possible.” Without conveying this message, the risk is promoting mere anger and reactionary responses to perceived adversaries, “the other.” From my perspective, the impact is notably positive when this guidance is provided.

The negative impact that I anticipate in facing these challenges is the tendency to shift the younger generation into a space where they become unwilling to consider alternative arguments. This phenomenon mirrors the divisive political landscape observed in the United States, exemplified by the contrast between Donald Trump and the Democratic representatives. Similarly, I believe that this environment, fostered by certain leaders, encourages the denigration of others, sometimes in ways that are quite embarrassing. Furthermore, there is a lack of responsibility for steering Pakistan in the right direction, beyond merely opposing whatever is in place.

This challenge lies in the fact that it fails to cultivate a genuine democratic spirit; instead, it fosters anger that contributes to long-term instability rather than stability. When I inquire about the reasons behind supporting Imran Khan, the responses often lack a solid rationale, as individuals seem to echo ideas fed to them directly through social media or oral transmission. They unquestioningly adopt these beliefs without critically examining them. This lack of critical thinking and openness to alternative explanations poses a threat to democracy.

In conversations with supporters, the explanations for backing Imran Khan often lack depth, with many simply stating, “because he says so.” However, probing further reveals a dearth of substantive reasoning. It appears that individuals adopt ideas disseminated by Imran Khan without allowing room for independent thought. When a society closes itself off to considering alternative perspectives and collaborating for the greater good, the democratic foundation weakens. This closed-mindedness poses a significant challenge to the democratic fabric of the nation.

On a positive note, the substantial recognition from the public, for whatever reasons, serves as a clear message to the military and all those involved in building structures that cater only to a specific group. It serves as a wakeup call, emphasizing the importance of involving the public in decision-making processes.

Acknowledging that Imran Khan himself has benefited from this system, it’s crucial to accept it and move forward. Despite this, with the aid of his populist narrative, he has successfully created space for 90 plus candidates to be elected independently, even in the absence of a unifying symbol. This doesn’t necessarily weaken democracy but prompts a reflection on whether those constructing these structures bear a responsibility to consider perspectives beyond their own.

The challenge is to question if it’s time for those shaping the nation’s future to engage with the public and broaden their understanding of what Pakistan truly needs. This, in essence, conveys a positive message for democracy.

Islamization Has Become Ingrained in Pakistan’s Identity

Considering Pakistan’s diverse religious landscape, how do Islamist populist movements impact the rights and representation of religious minorities? Are there notable instances where the rise of Islamist populism has influenced policies related to minority communities?

Samina Yasmeen: In my perspective, the impact is not direct, especially when focusing on figures like Imran Khan. However, the broader trend of Islamism or Islamisation in Pakistan, prevalent since its inception and particularly intensified since the 1970s, has created an atmosphere that promotes the notion of Pakistan as a Muslim or Islamic state, sometimes to the exclusion of the minority communities you mentioned. The consequence is a situation where the identity of “we, the Pakistanis” is articulated, inadvertently excludes non-Muslims. This dynamic contributes to a sense among non-Muslims that they are not fully part of the national fabric or project. Thus, one notable negative consequence of Islamization lies in its potential to alienate minority communities.

However, there is other problem associated with Islamization in a country with a low level of literacy. The understanding of “what do Islamic teachings really mean?” becomes subject to the interpretations provided by those articulating them. Essentially, the meanings of religious texts are not derived from their inherent essence but rather from what the communicators or prevailing narratives convey. As observed by me and echoed by many scholars, this trend has led to a reluctance to acknowledge the rights of minorities. Additionally, it has introduced elements of irrationality into religious practices. Anyone can assert, “This is unIslamic, and it shouldn’t be done.” Consequently, if you are a Muslim, you might face threats; however, even simple words or expressions from non-Muslims can be labeled as blasphemous, leading to instances of mob lynching without due consideration, resulting in loss of life. This represents a profoundly negative threat to Pakistan.

Once again, I want to clarify that I’m not implying that all Islamists occupy a particular mindset. The Council for Islamic Ideology, responsible for examining legislation referred to them, has, on occasions, used Islamic teachings to foster a more inclusive environment for minorities. Similarly, various governments, including Imran Khan’s administration, deserve credit for their efforts in engaging with minority communities. However, it’s crucial to differentiate between these positive steps and the overarching space in which Islamization has become ingrained in Pakistan’s identity. This dominant space has the potential to create challenges for non-Muslim minorities, and it requires attention. Perhaps, using his populist narrative, Imran Khan can play a role in raising awareness about this issue among the public.

Pakistan Lost Ground to India Even in Muslim Countries

Indian PM Narendra Modi has recently opened a Hindu temple on the ruins of Babri Masjid and he is pursuing an anti-Muslim rhetoric according to his critics. How has Modi’s anti-Islam stance impacted Islamist Populism in Pakistan?

Samina Yasmeen: It has had a significant impact in shaping the perception of India among Pakistanis, reinforcing the notion that it is predominantly a Hindu state despite its sizable Muslim population. There’s a growing recognition that Prime Minister Modi is intent on erasing the Muslim identity from Indian history, a sentiment particularly evident when media outlets report any critical developments related to Modi.

However, the question arises: does this influence Islamist sentiments within Pakistan? The answer is uncertain. While Iran might exploit these developments, especially after the revocation of Article 370 and the removal of special status in Kashmir, along with the controversial events surrounding the Babri Masjid and the construction of a temple, the focus of the Pakistani system seems more directed inward. The current internal challenges have led to a limited external reaction, with the emphasis on India doing what is expected of Modi rather than a forceful response.

A noteworthy development is Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration of the largest Hindu temple in the United Arab Emirates, marking India’s apparent ability to extend its influence beyond the subcontinent into the Middle East, even in religious spheres. This creates a perception that India has the capability to project its influence globally, whereas Pakistan, despite being a Muslim state, seems to have lost its historical standing in the Middle East. The weakening of Pakistan’s presence and status in Middle Eastern countries may be attributed to India’s economic prowess and its ability to translate that into religious influence beyond its borders.

Nevertheless, the colossal internal challenges faced by Pakistan currently take precedence. External developments may momentarily capture attention, but they don’t linger on the radar for long, given the magnitude of domestic issues.

Dr. Ann-Cathrine Jungar, Associate Professor of Political Science at Södertörn University in Stockholm. Photo: Anna Hartwig.

Dr. Ann-Cathrine Jungar: Populists May Serve as Correctives, Amplifying Voices Underrepresented in Mainstream Politics

Emphasizing that populist parties act as platforms for citizens with more critical perspectives, Professor Ann-Cathrine Jungar argues that these parties can serve as correctives for democracies, amplifying voices underrepresented in mainstream politics, even though not all their proposals may receive universal endorsement. While acknowledging that some supporters of populist parties may hold xenophobic views, she highlights the importance of distinguishing between exclusionary and inclusionary populism. Dr. Jungar notes that populist radical right parties typically fall into the exclusionary category due to their critical stance towards liberal democracy.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Ann-Cathrine Jungar, Associate Professor of Political Science at Södertörn University in Stockholm, explores the intricate dynamics of populism in the Nordic region, focusing on Sweden and the rise of the Sweden Democrats. Dr. Jungar delves into the nuanced nature of populism, distinguishing between exclusionary and inclusionary forms, and highlighting the role populist parties play in amplifying the voices of citizens with critical perspectives.

Dr. Jungar argues that while populist parties, such as the Sweden Democrats, may garner support from individuals with xenophobic views, their voter base is diverse, and these parties can act as correctives in mainstream politics. She emphasizes the importance of understanding the distinctions between different populist movements, particularly in the context of radical right parties that often adopt a critical stance towards liberal democracy.

The interview addresses the specific case of the Sweden Democrats and their journey from isolation to becoming a significant force in Swedish politics. Dr. Jungar provides insights into the failures of the “cordon sanitaire” strategy, examining the complexities of government formation, shifting party dynamics, and the impact of the 2015 migration crisis on mainstream parties’ positions.

Furthermore, Dr. Jungar reflects on her upcoming book, which focuses on the Nordic radical right, tracing the historical development of populist movements in the region. She explores the ideological shifts within these parties, their approach to migration, and the impact of changing voter perspectives on the political landscape.

The discussion extends to the Finns Party in Finland, analyzing its performance in the presidential elections and its evolving positions on NATO membership and foreign policy. Dr. Jungar provides a nuanced assessment, considering the party’s role in Finnish politics and the implications of its leader’s background marked by hate speech convictions.

Dr. Jungar also shares her perspective on the global decline of democracy and the potential challenges facing Sweden’s democratic system. While acknowledging concerns about the populist right, she assesses the current state of democracy in Sweden, highlighting the enduring support for democratic values in the Nordic states.

The interview concludes with a discussion on the influence of right-wing radical parties in the European Parliament, anticipating their impact on decision-making processes and collaborations. Dr. Jungar also offers insights into the potential challenges arising from global political collaboration among right-wing radical parties, particularly in the context of the potential return of Donald Trump to power.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Ann-Cathrine Jungar with some edits.

Mainstream Parties Have Adapted to the Sweden Democrats’ Positions

Why did the “cordon sanitaire” fail regarding the Sweden Democrats, whereas it was successful in the initial years of SD’s formation?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: The isolation was implemented when the Sweden Democrats achieved electoral success in 2010. The Prime Minister and conservative politicians firmly declared that the Sweden Democrats should not influence policymaking, especially on migration. Other parties followed suit at that time. Then, the party secured 5.7 percent of the vote despite not being a relevant party for government formation, the previous majority conservative government, with a parliamentary majority from 2006 to 2010, could still control the plurality of seats and form a viable minority government. In Scandinavia we have had a lot of minority governments, and the isolation was not costly during this period.

However, in 2014 and 2018, the process of government formation became increasingly complex, signaling the gradual dissolution of isolation. The heightened intricacy in the creation of the government marked a shift, making the isolation less sustainable. In 2014, the SD garnered almost 13 percent of the votes, followed by a rise to 17 percent in 2018. By 2022, it had become the second-largest party, trailing only the Social Democratic party.

Unless the right-wing parties—the Conservative party, Moderates, the Liberals, and the Christian Democrats—were willing to collaborate with the Social Democrats, a noteworthy departure from the prevailing bloc politics, creating a viable government would be challenging. Swedish politics traditionally revolved around blocs, with the right pitted against the left concerning socio-economic policies. For a functional government, a cross-block coalition would have been necessary, introducing a complex dynamic. However, such a coalition would have been politically costly, as it would require substantial compromises on various issues and risked backlash from voters engaged in inter-party competition.

Ultimately, research indicates that isolationist pacts tend to unravel when center-right parties, particularly those desiring cabinet positions, grow weary of remaining in opposition and are unwilling to engage in cross-block coalitions. In the case of Sweden, this dynamic has presented a challenging situation, especially considering the strength of the pact against the Sweden Democrats. This pact was robustly formulated, with other parties characterizing the Sweden Democrats as having extremist roots, initially being a neo-Nazi party associated with skinheads. Over time, the Sweden Democrats underwent transformation, but the persistence of radical immigration policies further strained their compatibility with other parties’ stances on migration.

Following the 2015 migration crisis, mainstream parties, including the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, underwent significant shifts in their immigration policies, adopting a more restrictive stance. Notably, it was the Social Democrats, in coalition with the Green party, that implemented border controls in 2015. This marked a departure from the previous system of permanent residence permits, replaced instead by temporary measures along with various restrictions. Over time, these measures were extended and evolved into more stringent legislation within the Swedish context.

The second argument lacks substantial merit, as other parties adjusted to SD positions, albeit without embracing radicalism or employing the same level of nationalist rhetoric regarding the importance of a nationally homogeneous population. Instead, they began framing their immigration policies in a similar vein. Concerns about criminality attributed to immigration and threats against specific welfare institutions, rather than the broader welfare state, became common narratives. This aligning of perspectives with the Sweden Democrats indicates a mainstreaming of their policies and framing on migration.

However, exceptions exist within the left-wing spectrum, specifically with the Green Party and the Left Party, which have not fully embraced or adapted to this discourse. Consequently, the pact’s failure or demise can be attributed to the increasing cost of excluding the radical right party. In such cases, the pragmatic approach became one of inclusion, thus influencing the dynamics of the political equation.

As for the second aspect, the isolation did achieve success in keeping the Sweden Democrats out of the direct governance, but they now play a crucial support role and wielding significant influence. Regrettably, this isolation did not hinder the party’s electoral growth, and it even provided an opportunity for strategic positioning and potential blackmailing. During this period of adaptation, the Sweden Democrats managed to establish themselves as the primary voice on migration policy.

Post-2010, a discernible pattern emerged where other parties shifted towards more liberal positions on immigration policies, prompted by the isolation strategy. Remarkably, the Sweden Democrats remained the sole party advocating for more restrictive integration policies. In recent years, a diverse array of immigration policy positions has emerged among Swedish parties. The efficacy of the isolation strategy remains ambiguous – it neither unequivocally succeeded nor failed. Nevertheless, the Sweden Democrats currently possess issue ownership on matters related to migration. Voters perceive them as the most credible party on migration policies and, notably, criminal policies intertwined with immigration-related concerns.

Populist Parties Have Undergone Transformations That Mirror Trends

Sweden Democrats’ Square Meeting in Umeå. Jimmie Åkesson speaks to the people on the city square where opposition left-wingers have formed a chain and protest in Umeå, Sweden on August 14, 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

How do you explain the success of populist parties in the ‘North’ namely the Danish People’s Party, Sweden Democrats, the (true) Finns and the Progress Party of Norway?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: I am currently finalizing a book set to be published by Routledge later this year, focusing on the Nordic radical right. The introductory section of the book highlights the longstanding presence of populist movements in the Nordic region. The initial wave included agrarian populist parties in Finland, as well as tax-based protest parties like the Progress Parties in Norway and Denmark, where the populism was predominantly linked to socioeconomic issues.

The narrative then shifts to the emergence of the second generation of populist parties, notably the Sweden Democrats, founded in 1988. This generation witnessed the transformation of old populist parties, such as the agrarian populist party in Finland evolving into the Finns Party, and the Danish Progress Party giving rise to splinter groups in 1995, all of which adopted Euroscepticism. Importantly, the Danish People’s Party incorporated an anti-immigration stance from its inception, while the Finns Party adopted this position a bit later.

The pivotal moment for the Finns Party occurred in 2008-2009 when they secured their first seats in the European Parliament. Subsequently, in 2011, they experienced a significant electoral triumph, quintupling their vote share from 4% to an impressive 19%.

The Progress Party also shifted its focus to immigration in 1990. These parties have undergone transformations that mirror trends seen in other European political entities, where migration and the EU became pivotal issues. While they have always maintained populist tendencies, a distinguishing factor in Nordic parties is the presence of proportional representation systems. Although Sweden has a higher electoral threshold at 4% compared to other Nordic countries, this alone does not explain the delayed parliamentary breakthrough of the Sweden Democrats.

The ideological legacy of the Sweden Democrats, originating in extremist environments, played a significant role in hindering their legitimacy as a viable party for voters. In contrast, other parties had a reputational shield, often citing their populist nature, and could point to historical precedents such as the predecessor of the Finns Party being in government in the 1980s, and the Progress Parties having different historical roots, which facilitated their electoral breakthroughs.

Examining the Nordic countries’ approach to migration, particularly Sweden, known for hosting one of the highest numbers of migrants, reveals a responsive electorate. The labor migration of the sixties and seventies, along with subsequent forms of migration in Denmark and Norway, shaped the voters’ perspectives. Additionally, growing distrust towards mainstream parties has contributed to the changing political landscape in the region.

Party identification has witnessed a decline, particularly notable in the Swedish case where traditional strong ties between labor voters and the Social Democratic Party weakened significantly over the last 10-15 years, contributing to the breakthrough of other political factions. While there may not be anything inherently unique about the Nordic countries regarding why this shift occurred, there are distinctive characteristics in how these successful parties operate and how they differ from other radical right parties in Europe, especially in their approach to the welfare state.

Despite their general support for the welfare state, observed through various welfare surveys, these Nordic radical right parties frame immigration as a potential threat to the universal Nordic welfare state, which is based on residence. Simultaneously, they have incorporated certain Nordic characteristics into their identity, emphasizing gender equality in terms of socioeconomic factors such as parental childcare and female employment. However, they maintain opposition, to some extent, to LGBTQ rights, not only concerning female and homo-nationalist issues but also encompassing more comprehensive topics like supporting same-sex marriage and adoption rights for gay individuals.

These stances highlight a paradox where these parties, rooted in more secular beliefs prevalent in the Nordic region, particularly in Sweden and Norway, express less acceptance in Finland and Denmark. The latter two countries exhibit comparatively more conservative attitudes in these areas compared to the former. 

What is your assessment of the Finns Party’s performance in Finnish Presidential Elections? How has it performed in the elections compared to other populist parties in the ‘North’?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: Except for Iceland, Finland is the sole Nordic country with a presidential system featuring two rounds of voting. In the recent elections, Jussi Halla-aho

secured 19% of the votes, an outcome that was largely anticipated. Despite the Finns Party’s shift toward accepting NATO membership, a change prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they remain staunchly opposed to Putin. Unlike certain right-wing parties in Austria, Germany, or France, there is no disagreement on foreign policy and how Finland should respond.

However, as a radical right-wing party aligned with a more nationalist faction, the Finns Party has assumed a prominent role, particularly after the leader, with a background marked by hate speech convictions. This may raise concerns about his suitability as a representative for the entire country.

In the Finnish context, it holds significance for all parties to field their own presidential candidates to assert visibility and convey their policies, particularly in preparation for municipal and national elections. Notably, the Finns Party had a vigorous campaign during the parliamentary elections last year, targeting a younger demographic. Their leader utilized platforms like TikTok, emphasizing a strong presence on social media, especially among the youth branch of True Finns, to engage with and appeal to the younger population.

Populism Poses Potential Threat to Democracy

Krossa rasismen (fight racism) message on sign during demonstration in Orebro city, Sweden on May 1, 2013.

In your 2023 article for Svenska Dagbladet, you note the global decline of democracy and delve into the potential challenges facing Sweden’s democratic system. What key factors do you identify as having the most significant impact on democracy in Sweden? Additionally, how would you evaluate the risk of a democratic breakdown in Sweden in comparison to the global landscape?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: Populism poses a potential threat to democracy, contingent on the strength of democratic institutions within each country. In the case of Sweden, I don’t perceive an immediate threat to democracy due to the Sweden Democrats’ (SD) role as a support party. While their proposed legislation, particularly concerning migration, may not align seamlessly with constitutional law, regulations, or international agreements Sweden has endorsed, the SD does not exhibit an inherently anti-democratic stance. This contrasts with situations in the United States where representatives for Trump or elements of the alt-right have actively questioned the legitimacy of democracy.

For instance, the SD’s emphasis on saving public funds by targeting public broadcasting companies raises questions about its impact on democracy. While acknowledging the importance of public television and radio in Sweden, the SD’s focus on cost-cutting may not necessarily jeopardize the core functions of public broadcasting. Their engagement in cultural politics, particularly concerning what type of cultural politics should be pursued, is another aspect. They express concern about supporting cultural politics aligned with the state or Swedish identity. Whether this stance is inherently democratic or not remains a question open to debate.

Of course, the Sweden Democrats are anti-liberal, challenging left-wing liberal ideas, particularly in media and traditions. However, I don’t perceive an immediate threat to Sweden’s well-functioning state. Instances of threats towards politicians are more prevalent among extreme right groups and movements in Sweden that resort to violence, seeking an alternative system to replace the democratic one.

While debates circulate about safeguarding certain aspects, such as the ease with which the Constitution in Sweden can be changed, there are various checks and balances within the system. The political landscape also features a broad range of policy alternatives, potentially contributing to what may be termed as polarization. Whether this polarization poses a democratic threat remains uncertain, but it is crucial to acknowledge the enduring support for democracy in the Nordic states, including Sweden.

Notably, trust in societies, historically high in the Nordic states and Sweden, is on the decline. This decreasing trust may be associated with the complex situations surrounding criminality and ongoing war around. However, it remains challenging to pinpoint a specific radical right party as the sole threat to democracy and communities in such a nuanced context.

Given your research focus on right-wing radical parties, how do you assess the influence of parties such as the Sweden Democrats on the core tenets of democracy, particularly in relation to their stances on migration, integration, and law enforcement? How have SD’s role in Swedish politics and their positions affected the political landscape in Sweden?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: As mentioned earlier, this is the new mainstream and this perspective has become pervasive, with other parties aligning themselves closely, if not entirely, with these positions. The shift in adaptation began after the refugee crisis in 2015, with the government responding to 160,000 asylum seekers arriving in Sweden by the autumn of that year. In response, a temporary law was promptly formulated, leading to modifications in policy positions on migration, integration, and criminal policy by various parties, all trending towards more restrictive measures.

Initially, Denmark held the most restrictive positions among the Nordic countries, but now there is a striking similarity in immigration policies across the region. In collaboration with research colleague Jonas Hinnfors, I’ve authored a report covering the restrictive turn in immigration policies in the Nordic region over the last two decades. There is a prevailing perception among political parties that adopting more liberal migration policies, particularly on integration, might act as a pull factor. Consequently, there has been a race to the bottom, resulting in a convergence of migration policies across the Nordic countries.

The narrative framing immigration as a problem, tied to concerns about criminality and threats to welfare states, has become a pervasive theme in the Nordic countries. The Social Democratic Party, recognizing a perceived failure in their immigration policies, released a report before Christmas acknowledging a mistake in formulating policies that were deemed too liberal. In a recent debate, party leader Magdalena Andersson asserted that the Social Democratic Party has always been in favor of restrictive and responsible immigration policies. While similar debates have occurred cyclically in the past, such as during the collapse of Yugoslavia, the present discourse reflects a broader consensus on the necessity for adopting more restrictive immigration policies. 

The underlying issue often cited is labor migration, where Sweden has a surplus of unemployed labor for various reasons. Efforts to balance this situation include adjusting asylum-seeking and family reunification policies and introducing more stringent integration requirements such as language tests, kids have to go kindergarten and societal education. There is a growing consensus among political parties on these issues, with only the left-wing party, the Green Party, and the Center Party maintaining more liberal positions. The rest have shifted in the direction of greater restrictions.

Populist Radical Right Parties Are Commonly Exclusionary

In the Svenska Dagbladet article, you discuss right-wing populist parties portraying themselves as democracy saviors. What is your perspective on this claim? Are there instances where such parties have genuinely strengthened democracy? Populism is often negatively charged. How do you see the interplay between populism and democracy, and can populism serve as a democratic reset?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: This debate revolves around whether populism, illiberalism, prejudice against migration, and hate speech from radical right-wing parties pose a potential threat to democracy, potentially infringing on basic human rights and questioning certain democratic institutions. These parties often adopt a critical stance towards liberal democracy, promoting their own interpretation of the democratic process. It is important to distinguish between exclusionary and inclusionary populism, with radical right parties commonly falling into the exclusionary category.

In the Nordic countries, particularly Finland and Sweden, where my expertise lies, radical right-wing parties have served as a platform for citizens expressing anti-immigration attitudes. This dynamic has played a role in enhancing political representation, addressing a gap in political discourse and providing a voice for those whose perspectives were not adequately addressed by mainstream parties.

For example, before the emergence of the Finns Party, there was no political entity distinctly voicing skeptical positions during the European Monetary Union (EMU) discussions. In the case of Finland, when the country joined the EMU, there was a five-party coalition, all favoring membership without much criticism—a process largely driven by elites. Populism has stimulated debate and mobilized issues that were not adequately addressed by mainstream parties. The parties in question have responded to a demand for skepticism, particularly during events like the euro crisis and the migration crisis, providing a platform for citizens with more critical views.

While acknowledging that some voters for these parties may hold xenophobic views, it’s essential to recognize that their support base is diverse. Studies on support for democracy, political satisfaction, and perceived influence on political decisions reveal that voters dissatisfied and less trusting of democracy and politicians often find increased support when these parties enter parliament or play a role in supporting the government. In this sense, these parties can act as correctives, amplifying voices that feel underrepresented in mainstream politics, even though not all their proposals may be universally endorsed.

Dynamics of the European Parliament Will Undergo a Change

European Parliament offices and European flags in Brussels, Belgium on July 20, 2020. Photo: Lena Wurm.

There is concern that populist right-wing radical parties may secure a quarter of the mandates in the upcoming EU election. How do you anticipate this impacting the political landscape within the EU?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: The dynamics of the European Parliament will undergo a shift, contingent on how the parliamentary groups, particularly the Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), are formed. In the Member States, we’ve observed center-right parties cooperating with the radical right, and the question arises whether a similar pattern will emerge in the European Parliament. This could manifest as the European People’s Party (EPP) cooperating with ECR but not with ID, or potentially a collaboration between ECR and ID.

The nature of these dynamics will significantly impact their influence and decision-making within the European Parliament. While it’s expected that their influence will grow, the extent of this progress will hinge on the interplay between these groups. Additionally, radical right parties hold considerable influence in the Council of Ministers due to their participation in various national governments, such as Italy, Finland, and support party in Sweden, and Eastern European nations. The changing dynamics in the European Parliament and the European Union have already become apparent, but the presence of radical right parties will bring a different dynamic, particularly during decision-making procedures and collaborations.

How do you assess the potential impact of global political collaboration among right-wing radical parties, especially in light of the potential return of Donald Trump to power in the upcoming fall? What could be the nature of populist political challenges globally in the wake of a second Trump mandate in the US?

Ann-Cathrine Jungar: We are aware that the European radical right is divided over Russia, creating a potential line of division between Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Last year, the Finns Party transitioned from ID to ECR after parliamentary elections, driven in part by this division. The Finns Party’s closest international ally is the Sweden Democrats, who have cultivated links with the United States, particularly with Republican think tanks and organizations, aligning closely with Trump supporters.

Trump’s radicalization and his stance towards Russia pose challenges for European right-wing parties in taking a clear position in favor of Trump. The Sweden Democrats, among other Nordic radical right parties, have established connections and learned from these links. However, it remains problematic for the leadership, as evidenced by the Nordic parties condemning anti-democratic practices, including questioning electoral institutions.

When you attend a Sweden Democratic meeting or any Nordic Radical right party gathering, you’ll encounter individuals expressing favorable sentiments towards Trump. There is a grassroots appeal, a sentiment that resonates with a certain demographic. However, it becomes problematic for the leadership. It wouldn’t be accurate to claim an immediate and close connection. The Nordic parties, collectively, have taken a stand against anti-democratic tendencies, particularly rejecting challenges to electoral institutions and discourse around electoral fraud. This stance has not been an easy pill for these parties to swallow, given their dependence on prevailing circumstances.

The Nordic parties have faced difficulty accepting challenges to democratic norms. The potential support for Trump could pose a divisive issue within these parties, further complicating their internal dynamics. While grassroots sentiment may favor Trump, the leadership may find it challenging to navigate this terrain.

Indeed, the dynamics surrounding Trump’s potential support would vary among different radical right parties. Similar to their varying stances on Russia and Putin, supporting Trump would be impractical for Nordic radical right parties, especially those committed to securing European Union support for Ukraine and its stance against the war. This alignment might be feasible for more extreme right-wing parties, but mainstream parties would find it impossible.

We’ve observed a radical shift in Sweden Democrats’ approach to Ukrainian refugees, contrasting with their prior call for a complete halt to refugee immigration. How do you interpret the ideological adaptability of far-right parties adjusting to current circumstances and cultural distinctions? Can SD be characterized as a civilizationalist populist as well?

Nordic radical right parties, despite their anti-immigration stance, may express support for refugees from Ukraine as part of their geopolitical agenda, which revolves around ensuring European Union backing for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. This backing doesn’t necessarily align with a more inclusive immigration policy but serves their strategic goals within the broader geopolitical context.

Their framing of the question revolves around the perception that refugees from Ukraine are seen as legitimate, fleeing from war, as opposed to what they label as “economic refugees” from the Middle East. Their argument is that Ukrainians are expected to return home when the war concludes, differentiating them from refugees from other parts of the world.

In response to the ongoing crisis, the Swedish Government is preparing a package to help Ukrainians return home when the conflict subsides. There has been a historical lack of support for Ukrainians in Sweden, with restrictions on their access to Swedish education. This may be attributed to integration challenges, including language barriers.

As the situation evolves and the labor shortage becomes apparent, there is a growing recognition of the education and skills of Ukrainian refugees. Civil society organizations and municipalities are stepping in, providing language education and other support to facilitate the integration of Ukrainian refugees.

Professor Albena Azmanova, a distinguished academic in Political and Social Science at the University of Kent.

Professor Azmanova: Key Driver of Populism Is Insecurity Rather Than Inequality

In an exclusive interview, Professor Albena Azmanova emphasizes that the ascent of populist parties finds its roots in widespread economic insecurity rather than mere inequality. She contends that the fear of job loss affects not only the unemployed but also those with stable jobs and good pay, emerging as the primary catalyst for societal insecurity. She critically examines the term ‘populism,’ expressing reservations about its negative connotations, and advocates for a linguistic shift. Azmanova argues that the term “populism” is misleading, diverting attention from the actual transformations in ideological orientations. Instead, she proposes a reframing of the political divide, suggesting the lens of opportunity versus risk, transcending conventional left-right categorizations.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Albena Azmanova, a distinguished academic in Political and Social Science at the University of Kent, underscores that the rise of populist right-wing parties is rooted in widespread economic insecurity rather than mere inequality. The fear of job loss, she contends, affects not only the unemployed but also those with stable jobs and good pay, shaping the primary driver of societal insecurity. 

The interview navigates through key themes from Professor Azmanova’s articles, such as the intersection of precarity, populism, and the prospects for a green democratic transformation. She posits that left populism has the potential to counter right-wing populism by focusing on economic stabilization policies that appeal to a broad spectrum of the population. Delving into the intricacies of populism, precarity, and the evolving global political scenario, Professor Azmanova sheds light on her insightful analyses and research and challenges conventional perspectives and offers a nuanced understanding of the socio-political forces at play. 

In her exploration of the shortcomings in the left’s response to the rise of populism, Professor Azmanova introduces the concept of ‘democratic prejudice’—a tendency to interpret history as a cyclical progression of democracy and crises. She critiques the left’s focus on combatting inequality, urging a shift towards addressing economic insecurity, which she identifies as the real and enduring issue affecting people across classes. Professor Azmanova introduces the term ‘precarity’ to highlight a distinct form of insecurity politically produced by specific policies. According to her, this form of disempowerment goes beyond general unpredictability and significantly affects people’s livelihoods, lives, and cultural spheres. The discussion unveils the societal implications of precarity, impacting the ability to manage diversity, navigate crises, and govern itself.

The interview further explores Professor Azmanova’s proposition in her book, “Capitalism on Edge,” where she contends that the present state of capitalist democracy holds the potential to subvert capitalism itself. She calls for a recognition that insecurity, politically induced by specific policies, can be politically undone, offering hope for a more resilient and equitable future.

Addressing the term ‘populism,’ Professor Azmanova critiques its negative connotations and advocates for a shift in terminology. She argues that the label is misleading, as it obscures the real changes in ideological orientations. Instead, she proposes framing the political divide as opportunity versus risk, transcending traditional left-right distinctions.

Professor Azmanova addresses her concerns about the surge in support for far-right parties in upcoming European Parliament elections but attributes the trend to the refusal of centrist parties to address popular concerns. She emphasizes the need for a responsive and inclusive political approach to navigate the evolving political landscape.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Albena Azmanova with some edits.

Insecurity Significantly Affects and Troubles People

Professor Azmanova, thank you very much for joining our interview. Let me start with the first question: In your analysis in the article published in 2019 and titled “The paradox of emancipation: Populism, democracy and the soul of the Left,” you mention the Left’s struggle to harness anti-establishment energies and channel them into leftist politics despite the fertile ground created by the Great Recession. Could you elaborate on specific shortcomings in the Left’s response to the rise of populism, and how the phenomenon of ‘democratic prejudice’ might be impeding its effectiveness in appealing to voters?

Albena Azmanova: So, Nietzsche’s famous ‘democratic prejudice,’ which I believe is indeed obscuring our vision, hinders us from making an accurate diagnosis of the current time. Let me explain. Nietzsche observed that in the modern West, we have a reflexive tendency to interpret history as the continuous progression of democracy and its subsequent crises. The recurring pattern is evident: democracy advances, encounters a crisis, and our response is to restore it. However, this perspective carries a conservative intuition about history, implying a constant need for repair and a simultaneous backward and forward movement.

I think the left is currently perceiving the damage caused by neoliberalism, which includes the politics of labor market and product liberalization and the opening of economies. This policy package entails deregulation, privatization, and economic liberalization. The left predominantly identifies the damage in terms of heightened inequality, viewing it as an epidemic undermining democracy. Therefore, the response is to combat inequality, which is the typical left reaction. We hear a lot about fighting inequality, and it has even manifested in academic programs such as master’s degrees in equality studies. The approach is to heal our ailing societies by reverting to a policy set reminiscent of the welfare state’s glorious times—inclusive prosperity, less inequality, and numerous inclusionary policies achieved through growth and redistribution. However, this inclination seems to be rooted in a nostalgic instinct to return to the familiar and typical left solutions. This is evident in the frequent use of direct rhetoric involving class struggle and calls to tax the rich.

All these diagnoses and proposed solutions hinder us from grasping the precise changes in the world and the evolution of our societies. Through my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that insecurity, rather than inequality alone, significantly affects and troubles people. While inequality is undoubtedly a problem, the widespread insecurity presents a different and more challenging dimension. To illustrate practically, consider the rise of Trump in the working class in 2016. The states where he gained support, such as Alaska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, and Michigan etc., had experienced the smallest increases in nationwide inequality since 1989. However, these states faced economic challenges due to a lack of stable employment opportunities.

The primary driver of this insecurity is the fear of job loss, which affects not only the unemployed but also those with stable jobs and good pay. This fear has been palpable for years, evident in events like the 2005 Polish plumber mobilization in France against the European Constitution. Workers were driven by the fear that cheaper labor from Eastern Europe would compromise their job security and wages, leading to social dumping. This understanding shapes my perspective on the current situation, emphasizing the need for different policies and solutions aligned with the diagnosis of widespread insecurity.

The Left Must Transcend Traditional Class-based Approaches

In your article titled “Precarity, Populism, and Prospects for a Green Democratic Transformation,” you assert that “left populism would finally be able to eclipse the xenophobic, exclusionary right-wing populism, and offer a constructive alternative to neoliberal capitalism.” Considering the current global trend of a rise in far-right parties not only in Europe but also worldwide, how do you envision the realization of this prophecy?

Albena Azmanova: Unfortunately, it’s not a prophecy in the sense of prediction; it’s an advice. It serves as guidance for the so-called progressive forces to address the real issue affecting people: massive economic insecurity. The right is currently responding to these fears of insecurity, job loss, and loss of livelihood by implementing policies that prioritize physical security. This includes increased crackdowns, increased surveillance, and stricter immigration controls. Although they address these concerns with stabilization policies, it’s important to note that these are not focused on economic stabilization. 

What the left needs to do is focus on economic stabilization policies, emphasizing stability. This approach should aim to appeal to a much broader section of the population than its typical electorate, as economic insecurity affects nearly everyone— not just the working class, professional classes, but also the middle and even upper-middle classes. The traditional class struggle narrative cannot fully capture the diverse concerns of individuals, as seen in the recent protests by farmers and the Yellow Vests movement. Those taking to the streets were not solely the working class; they included property owners and individuals deeply troubled by the challenges in managing their lives under mounting pressures. So, the strategy needs to adapt accordingly, moving beyond the traditional class-based approach.

In the article, you introduce the term ‘precarity.’ Could you provide a clear definition of ‘precarity,’ and elucidate how its dynamics intersect with populism?

Albena Azmanova: That is a very special form of insecurity. I use the term “precarity,” a not-so-pleasant term, to highlight a distinct form of insecurity. It’s not the conventional unpredictability or uncertainty of modern life. Instead, it’s a unique kind of disempowerment that is politically produced. It represents insecurity, but it cannot be equated with general uncertainty. I refer to it as “precarity”—disempowerment rooted in politically produced threats to livelihoods, lives, and cultural life worlds. Nowadays, people are primarily concerned with threats to their livelihoods, their sources of income, as jobs even in conditions of lower unemployment become increasingly insecure. 

Additionally, the pressures on job holders escalate. I understand precarity as an incapacity to cope, rooted in a discrepancy between mounting responsibilities and our capacity to fulfill them. Growing obligations but deficient resources and limited abilities to fulfill them. In academia, for instance, academics are expected to take on more teaching, administrative work, and even student recruitment, for which we are not adequately trained. We’re pressured to publish more, teach more, and engage in tasks for which we lack qualifications simply because it is cost-effective for universities to press workers to do more with less. This misalignment between work pressures and resources creates a massive incapacity to cope. In this context, people with well-paying, seemingly secure good jobs, like doctors and nurses, also experience precarity due to the pressures they face beyond their fully equipped capabilities. Therefore, precarity, understood as politically generated disempowerment, affects not only our material well-being but also the psychological welfare of individuals and operates on a societal level. It hampers society’s ability to manage diversity, handle challenges, navigate crises, and, consequently, govern itself.

I believe this is why the medical crisis with Covid transformed into a social crisis—our public services, particularly healthcare, were underfunded and unable to handle the pressures. The gradual reduction in healthcare funding over the past decades left our hospitals ill-equipped to confront such a crisis. The healthcare sector, as a whole, faced an incapacity to cope due to specific policies redirecting funding. While a lack of capacity to cope is understandable in the face of a natural disaster, our specific vulnerability resulted from the repercussions of neoliberal policies. Driven by the goal of enhancing global economic competitiveness, these policies entailed cutting funding for social services. This approach prioritized economic competitiveness, compromising social infrastructure and resilience in the process.

The Solution Entails Undoing the Politics and Policies Generating Precarity

In your book “Capitalism on Edge,” you assert a straightforward proposition: that the present state of capitalist democracy harbors a discernible potential for subverting capitalism itself. Could you delve deeper into the specifics of this claim? Are we witnessing the culmination of capitalist democracy as it has been understood so far, and what implications does this hold for liberal democracies? 

Albena Azmanova: Two crucial points to consider and understand for a more optimistic perspective amid the prevalent precarity: First, it’s essential to recognize that this insecurity, this precarity, is politically induced by specific policies, often dictated by the imperative for competitiveness in the globally integrated market economy. Since it is politically produced, it can be politically undone. Thus, the solution involves more than just building resilience against general insecurity; it entails undoing the politics and policies generating precarity.

Secondly, as I previously mentioned, precarity affects almost everyone. It’s not exclusive to the working class or the poor. To put it bluntly, even the successful individuals find their lives impacted by these pressures, hindering their ability, what they’re educated to enjoy the life they aspire to—a life of leisure, friendships, and travel—due to fears of job loss and work pressures. This reality forms a substantial societal alliance with a shared interest in combatting precarity and addressing its root causes, including the pressures of competitiveness and, fundamentally, the profit motive, which stands as the primary driver of capitalism. It is crucial to recognize that we have sacrificed too much in the pursuit of profit.

So, my hope lies in this alliance of social forces that transcends traditional classifications—a substantial shift that could occur. However, realizing this potential requires the right political forces and effective leadership to respond to this available opportunity and potential.

People Bear Increasing Responsibilities but Have Diminishing Power 

What factors contribute to the understanding of the peculiar nature of the most recent populist upsurge in particular in Europe?

Albena Azmanova: Populism today possesses a distinct nature, with economic insecurity serving as its primary grievance, even when manifested as xenophobia. This animosity towards foreigners is not cultural, but primarily economic, rooted in the fear of job loss. Addressing this fear offers hope that people may be more receptive to progressive reform ideas. For instance, the farmers’ movement, evident in protests across Europe, highlights economic insecurity as the central grievance. Listening to the farmers reveals concerns about their struggle to cope with mounting regulations from the European Commission and increased competition from cheap imports originating from Ukraine and other parts of the world. These grievances revolve around their incapacity to handle these pressures. 

This connection to populism becomes apparent when individuals, under such pressures, narrow their thinking to the immediate present, diminishing their capacity to plan for the future and reducing their ability to engage in solidarity, as the instinct becomes one of self-preservation. This introversion and loss of future perspective result in a permanent crisis management mode. People, due to precarity, end up supporting leaders who promise quick solutions to their problems, such as stopping immigration and enhancing political and military security. Economic reforms, which take time, often get overlooked in favor of immediate measures. This links populism and precarity.

Therefore, I define populism as precarity—responsibility without power. People bear increasing responsibilities but have diminishing power to fulfill them. The opposite of this, power without responsibility, aligns with autocracy, which is precisely what populist leadership represents. These two concepts are two sides of the same coin. 

You argue that ‘What is being currently demonized in the mainstream media as “populism” can be seen, therefore, not as a transient expression of discontent, but as an expression of broadly shared and lasting anxiety triggered by perceptions of physical insecurity, political disorder, cultural estrangement, and employment insecurity.’ First why do you think ‘populism’ has been demonized in the mainstream media, secondly why do you think it is not transient?

Albena Azmanova: Well, journalists and academics have done us a disservice by creating this negative connotation of populism. Initially, populism was not a negative label. For instance, take the US People’s Party in the late 19th century, known as the Populist Party, was a left-wing agrarian political party with a rather progressive agenda advocating for a gradual income tax, collective bargaining, and a shorter work week. They aimed for federally controlled warehouses, embodying the idea of taking care of the people. Actually, I find it very hypocritical because if populism is equated with making political promises that cannot be fulfilled, look at our centrist parties. They keep promising us to address issues like greening the economy and addressing the ecological crisis, prosperity for all, which everybody knows is not feasible without enormous resources. So, if that is not populism, I don’t know what is. This label is not helpful in identifying the actual problems.

It is not transient because the rise of what we call populism has been around for 30 years, drawing attention with the financial crisis in 2008. However, unconventional parties and anti-establishment protests had already started to rise in the 1990s, a decade marked by economic prosperity but also significant destabilization in our Western societies due to neoliberal policies like privatization and deregulation. My first analysis of this trend was written in 2003, published in 2004, much before the economic meltdown of 2008. I observed how it took the shape of very unorthodox anti-establishment protests that combined elements of both left- and right-wing policies in response to people’s grievances like political disorder, physical insecurity, cultural estrangement, and employment insecurity—issues that cannot be neatly defined as either left or right.

The Term ‘Populism’ Is Misleading

You suggest that we should stop using the lazy and misleading label populism. Why do you think the term populism is misleading? What do you propose instead?

Albena Azmanova: The term “populism” is misleading as it hinders us from understanding the real changes in people’s ideological orientations. For ordinary voters, the traditional left and right labels no longer make much sense. The real divides are not about a regulated versus free market economy or liberal values versus traditionalism. If you look at any of those formations that are forming this insurgency now, they combine the narrative centers around open versus closed economies—whether to embrace or protect against global capitalism. It’s not about state intervention in the economy or the extent of privatization; it’s about protecting our capitalism against global capitalism. On the other side are those who believe in global integrated capitalism because they’re reaping its benefits. I prefer viewing it from the perspective of opportunity versus risk, rather than a traditional left-right divide. The central division in people’s perceptions lies in whether to fear the reforms or the neoliberal policy set or to profit from it. As I mentioned, an increasing number of people find themselves on the losing side of this dynamic.

In terms of cultural values and social agenda, the dichotomy is mixed. On the opportunity side, voters embrace the benefits of the global economy, IT revolution. However, on the risk side, there’s a growing demand for more welfare protection, but specifically for us, not for strangers—referred to as welfare nationalism. Culturally, it takes an opposing stance. For instance, the far-right opposition to Islam justifies itself as a defense of our liberal values, presenting Islam as traditionalist. Thus, we claim to defend women’s rights and homosexual rights. An example is Pim Fortuyn, the first populist leader in the Netherlands, who was a homosexual. Trump, in his criticism of Wall Street and globalists, blends social protection and cultural defense of Western liberal values in an exclusionary manner due to the fears and pressures people are unable to cope with.

Therefore, populism is a lazy term that prevents us from seeing the emerging divide. The traditional left-right divide, which has structured ideological understanding for at least two centuries, is being replaced by a new divide—opportunity versus risk. On the opportunity side, there is a mixture of former left and right values, and on the risk side, there is also a blend of left and right preferences.

How do you define the Ataka party in your native Bulgaria? Is it a populist or a racist party?

Albena Azmanova: Alright, so you’re essentially asking whether we should discard the term “populism” and how we should refer to these parties. Well, many parties labeled as populist in a negative sense are essentially nationalist. They advocate for the welfare state for “us” at the exclusion of “others,” often involving white supremacism. For instance, if we consider Ataka in my native Bulgaria, it is undeniably nationalist, but it also incorporates a left-wing critique of globalization. Despite its clear racist elements, I would prefer to characterize it as nationalist rather than use the term populist.

How concerned are you about a possible explosion of in far-right parties’ support in the upcoming European Parliament elections? 

Albena Azmanova: Well, I’m concerned, of course, but not surprised. I believe the sweeping victory for right-wing parties is a trend that began in the 2004 European elections. The popular support for populist and right-wing parties has been growing. I would blame that on the centrist parties that simply refused to listen to the popular concerns.

Dr. Arjun Appadurai, Emeritus Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University.

Professor Appadurai: Ayodhya Temple Opening Heightens Marginalization of India’s Muslims, Transforming Them into a Second-Class Population

In an exclusive interview, Professor Arjun Appadurai analyzed the inauguration of the Ayodhya Temple by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday. He expressed concerns about the potential rise of Hindu majoritarianism and its impact on India’s significant Muslim population. Appadurai emphasized that the monumental structure, replacing the Babri Masjid, symbolizes a shift towards the marginalization of India’s Muslims, potentially relegating them to a second-class status. Alongside many analysts, Appadurai predicts that Modi is poised to maintain a formidable grip on power in the forthcoming Indian elections in April, unless unexpected shifts in the political landscape occur.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Arjun Appadurai (Emeritus Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University) underscores his concerns that the opening of the Ayodhya Temple under Prime Minister Narendra Modi raises the risks of Hindu majoritarianism on India’s sizable Muslim population, estimated at around 250 million. 

Appadurai highlights the historical challenges faced by this minority, with intensified tensions following the recent construction of the Mega Ram Temple in Ayodhya. This monumental structure, replacing the Babri Masjid, symbolizes a shift towards the marginalization of India’s Muslims, transforming them into a second-class population. Appadurai points to domestic policies that foster insecurity among Muslims and explores the paradox of Modi’s alliances with Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

According to Professor Appadurai, the inauguration of the Ram Temple consolidates Modi’s image as a righteous Hindu king, departing from historical dominance of Muslim monuments in North India. Appadurai also considers the national dimension, questioning the association of a temple with national identity and challenging conventional perceptions.

Professor Appadurai also delves into the intricate web of demagoguery, propaganda, and the socio-psychological factors that shape political landscapes. Appadurai challenges the conventional narrative by questioning the broad categorization of leaders as demagogic, emphasizing the ubiquitous nature of demagoguery in various forms. Central to the discussion is the exploration of “democracy fatigue,” a concept introduced by Appadurai, shedding light on how demagogues tap into disillusionment with liberal democracy. 

The conversation expands to the comparison of the political climates in Trump’s America and Modi’s India, unveiling surprising parallels in their success narratives driven by dissatisfaction with the state and societal shifts. Appadurai further unveils the nuanced dynamics in India, where Modi’s leadership seemingly catalyzes Western-style individualism within a traditionally hierarchical society, challenging standard liberal social theories. The interview provides a thought-provoking analysis of the emotional resonance, historical contexts, and unique factors contributing to the success of demagogic figures in diverse democratic settings.

Professor Appadurai underscores the shifting dynamics between the success of the right and the failure of the left, urging a departure from the conventional hydraulic theory. Appadurai emphasizes the transformation of the concept of “the people” by the right, evolving into a pre-political, quasi-biological entity. This conceptual shift, operating on an emotional rather than analytical level, challenges traditional categorizations and contributes to the erosion of democratic institutions.

The interview also explores the concept of polymorphous populism, linking it to the digitalization of society. Appadurai highlights the significance of social media in facilitating the rapid formation of movements, creating a volatile environment with a lack of enduring entities. He draws attention to the emotional bonding fostered by social media, providing a platform for right-wing leaders like Donald Trump and Modi to strategically bolster their power.

Our interview concludes with Professor Appadurai’s prediction for the upcoming Indian elections in April, expressing a prevailing sentiment that Modi is likely to maintain a strong hold on power unless unforeseen shifts occur.


Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Arjun Appadurai with some edits.

Populist Demagogues Exploits ‘Democracy Fatigue’

In your article, you discuss demagoguery as a socio-psychological phenomenon that taps into the emotions of ordinary people. Could you elaborate on which demagogic claims find emotional resonance among ordinary audiences in the contexts of Donald Trump’s America and Narendra Modi’s India?

Arjun Appadurai: The terms demagoguery and propaganda are frequently used when referring to non-democratic, anti-democratic, autocratic, and authoritarian leaders, often interchangeably. In all these cases, some explanation usually involves their demagogic capacities, rhetoric, and propagandistic skills. However, accepting this entirely has been challenging for me because everyone tends to be somewhat demagogic, and the use of some form of propaganda is widespread. So, the question arises: when do these strategies find fertile ground? When do they resonate? There are numerous answers to this, ranging from broad factors such as the global economy and job loss, which then leads to the projection of job loss onto outsiders. These explanations have been familiar for almost 20 or 30 years.

However, I am attempting to delve deeper into two directions, topics that we can explore further with additional questions. One is what I have termed “democracy fatigue,” the title of an essay I contributed to a collection edited by a German editor and published by German publisher. This essay has been translated into 10 languages, including French and English. Despite its early publication in 2017, at a time when people were just beginning to contemplate this question, it didn’t receive much attention. The central argument in “Democracy Fatigue” is that demagogues and propagandists who succeed are those able to tap into the fatigue with democracy, a sentiment prevalent in many countries, albeit with different historical contexts, leading people to be, colloquially speaking, increasingly disillusioned with liberal democracy.

On the other hand, not unrelated to why some demagogue claims succeed while others may not, is their ability to find a path into the emotional world of listeners, followers, citizens, and ordinary people. This contrasts with more abstract, theoretical, and intellectually grounded arguments that may not resonate as effectively. These are the initial considerations regarding when it works and when it does not.

In your article you argue that US and India are very different but equally propitious terrains for the capture of the anti-democratic psyche. What common factors contributed to the success of Narendra Modi in India and Donald Trump in the US?

Arjun Appadurai: The comparison is intriguing because India has long been acknowledged as the world’s largest democracy, while the United States is hailed as the world’s oldest democracy. Beyond this association, what makes it more compelling is that both nations have a unique and historical commitment to democracy. In India’s case, it has been over 70 years, a substantial period even when compared to the United States, making it not a young democracy anymore. However, in both cases, albeit for different reasons, there exists a sense of disappointment with what democracy has delivered, either at the state level, according to some leaders, or in the emotional lives of ordinary people.

In the United States, this dissatisfaction is reflected in a feeling of downward mobility, a sentiment that “we are not as powerful in the world anymore” at the state level. On the citizen level, particularly among white, lower-middle-class, and working-class individuals, there is a perception that their once elevated status has now diminished. This is central to the concept of “Make America Great Again” (MAGA), where the notion of America being great essentially means that a certain white class was great in America. The sentiment is rooted in a feeling that this specific group was accustomed to being in charge, and now, with the influx of others, there is a sense of decline both nationally and for particular ethnic and class groups.

In India, the narrative is somewhat reversed. It is characterized by aspirational sentiments, as the country is perceived to be gaining more power and prominence, serving as a counterbalance to China, among other factors in the level of state and realpolitik. Modi, along with other factors, has elevated India’s standing significantly on the global stage. This upward trajectory is mirrored in the aspirations of many, despite economic inequalities that have deepened in some respects. Overall wealth has increased, and a considerable number of ordinary and less affluent individuals see themselves progressing. However, frustrations arise when they perceive obstacles impeding their upward mobility, creating a sense of discontent from below driven by aspirations for advancement rather than concerns about decline.

In essence, both scenarios lead to a common destination (both roads end up in Rome), embodying an ambition tempered by the perceived sluggishness of liberal democracy. Therefore, anyone advocating for a strong, authoritative approach, promising immediate results, is likely to find favor. Currently, Modi seems poised to secure his third term in the 2024 elections, and Trump appears to be not only a formidable contender but also potentially victorious.

Your analysis suggests a revolutionized terrain of affect in India, where Modi has allowed the emergence of Western-style individualism within the steeply stratified social order. How does this form of individualism coexist with, and even support, traditional hierarchies? How does Modi use Hindu majoritarianism to challenge social norms and reconcile individualism and hierarchy, deviating from standard liberal social theory?

Arjun Appadurai: The best way to approach this, which is got some counter intuitive qualities. Because if we think of India as a society organized around family caste and kinship, particularly caste, none of them emphasizes the individual. So how can this be reconciled with what I’m saying. I am saying the individual has emerged in India but mainly as a carrier of aspirations to mobility not to revolutionary. This is not a Marxist individual who sees himself as part of working-class struggle and class solidarity. This is people who want to climb up higher than the next one, higher than the next family, one cast above the next. It’s highly competitive individuals. 

On the other side, liberal social theory doesn’t state this always or continuously. There’s a background assumption that what the revolutions in France, England, and the USA, what the great revolutions of the end of eighteenth century, did was to connect a new form of individualism with ideas of equality, justice, education, universalism, etc. What I’m saying is in India you have some kind of individual emerging, but don’t think, therefore, all the other virtues of democracy will come at the same time. That generally explains for me how to see that something new is happening in India. But we should not make the mistake of assuming it comes with all the other entailments. 

The second is that it also accounts for the appeal of Hindu majoritarianism because they’re too a justification. There is a collective justification for this individual mobility because the Hindu majoritarianism doesn’t disturb the ‘cast’. The casts are there in elections, everybody plays to cast candidates, cast electorates, cast interests, and so on. So, in a way this Hindu umbrella is a very successful way of creating a majority in which India historically never existed. So, one of my old scholarly mentors used to say, “India is a land only of minorities.” So, the question is, how do we suddenly get this idea that there’s a majority in a country of thousands of minorities? How did idea of Hindu majority emerged in a country where everybody is thinking about his family and 20 other families and his cast and his region. Suddenly, how do we get this national level formation? Quite an interesting mystery.

Modi Plays the Role of ‘Righteous Hindu King’

Ayodhya Temple in India. Photo: Shutterstock.

 

On Monday, Mr. Modi has opened Ayodhya Temple in India. So, the next question is how does Modi instrumentalize the Muslim minority to reinforce his populist rule, and what role do you foresee for Muslims in India and the consolidation of Hindutva, especially in light of opening of the Ayodhya temple?

Arjun Appadurai: The question surrounding Modi’s brand of Hindu majoritarianism raises concerns about its implications for the sizable Muslim population in India, estimated at around 250 million, a figure comparable to the total populations of many European countries. This substantial minority has faced significant legal, political, and physical pressures, leading to heightened risks, fears, dangers, and instances of violence. The challenges have been persistent over a considerable period, with a notable escalation following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in the early nineties.

The recent developments, particularly the construction of the Mega Ram Temple in Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid once stood, have further intensified tensions. The destruction of the mosque was justified on the grounds that it was built by Muslims on the foundation of a Ram temple. In the present scenario, a vast Ram Temple has been erected, while a small piece of land located miles away has been allocated to the Muslim community for the potential construction of a modest mosque. However, this concession pales in comparison to the grand scale of the Ram Temple.

Now, there is a noticeable shift as the marginalization of India’s Muslims transforms them into a second-class population. This shift is evident in endeavors to bring Kashmir entirely under Indian control and enact various legal changes calculated to foster a heightened sense of insecurity among Muslims, particularly as citizens of India. Paradoxically, despite these domestic policies, Modi has cultivated strong alliances with leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, countries deeply committed to their version of Islam. This raises questions about the diplomatic dynamics, especially when considering the autocratic nature of these regimes. A noteworthy example is the recent visit of Smriti Zubin Irani, a prominent female leader and the education minister, to Mecca, the Holy of Holies. While this has sparked anger among some Hindus, it also presents a perplexing scenario for observers, as a key figure in a Hindu-majority regime is welcomed into the sacred space of Mecca.

These developments signal a departure from the traditional narrative, reminiscent of Israel’s approach, where a nation can exert significant violence against your own Muslim population and still foster friendly relations based on considerations like arms trade, oil, and energy with leaders from the Middle East. 

The inauguration of the colossal Ram Temple this month is a momentous event in Indian politics and society, raising questions about the invited elite attendees, those who have accepted, and those who have declined. However, boycotting this event is exceptionally challenging due to its grandeur. This grand spectacle consolidates one of Modi’s numerous personas—the image of the righteous Hindu king or monarch. This persona is emphasized through his association with major temples, a concept that was not historically significant in North India. Traditionally, this association was more prevalent in South India. However, it has been transposed to Ayodhya, reflecting a departure from the historical dominance of Muslim monuments, including mosques, in North India. The South, in contrast, is abundant with temples. The adoption of this kingship model is particularly noteworthy in Northern India, specifically Uttar Pradesh, where the Hindi-speaking population and figures like Modi, who is of Gujarati descent, have embraced this South Indian-inspired concept.

Certainly, Modi embodies various personas, but one of the prominent ones is that of the righteous Hindu king, aligning himself with the traditional role of Hindu kings. This role is particularly highlighted in the context of the temple narrative. While much attention is directed towards the temple, my colleague, Revati Laul, has astutely drawn attention to a crucial aspect in an article for an Indian web magazine. She raises the question of the national dimension, asking where the idea of a national temple fits into the narrative. Laul provocatively problematizes the term “nationalist” associated with a temple, highlighting the unconventional association of a temple with national identity—a concept that challenges conventional perceptions. But now we have a national temple.

Failure of the Left and the Success of the Right Should Be Analyzed Separately

Why do you think we need to move away from the ‘hydraulic theory’ to understand the success of the right and the failure of the left? You argue that the Right has replaced the idea of Democracy with the People as a pre-political, quasi-biological entity. How does this shift in framing the People contribute to the erosion of democratic institutions, and what are the implications for governance and civic engagement in the context of polymorphous populism?

Arjun Appadurai: This is likely the most recent concept at least for me in the essay on polymorphous populism, where I grapple with the notion that even amid democracy fatigue, the concept of “the people” retains its compelling allure. “The people” is a uniquely complex idea, exceedingly amorphous, and indeed polymorphous. It operates on an affective, limbic level, engaging with emotions and the body rather than analytical thinking. It defies easy categorization as just citizens, a democratic population, a class, or an interest group. It encompasses all of these, but in a preanalytical manner. This is why, despite shifts in political landscapes, leaders across the globe—be it Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, Trump in the United States, or Xi Jinping and Putin—persistently invoke the term “the people.” However, this term is highly polymorphous, resisting confinement to legal frameworks, governance structures, or electoral processes. It introduces a blurring effect necessitating an understanding of how this idea evolves, moving beyond the hydraulic theory. The hydraulic theory posits that when the left fails in certain areas, a vacuum is created, allowing the right to fill it. Conversely, if the right fails, the historical left seizes opportunities at specific points in history. This zero-sum or hydraulic concept oversimplifies the intricate dynamics at play.

I’m trying to say that we need to analyze the failure of the left and the success of the right separately, at least initially, before attempting to establish connections between them. In the short run, let’s not treat them as two sides of the same coin. When explaining the failure of the left or the success of the right, there’s often a tendency to stop there and consider the matter resolved. However, in this argument, I contend that the left has placed excessive emphasis on concepts, theories, and ideas, which, while potentially valid and well-founded, have inherent limitations. I conclude by noting that the right, on the other hand, also possesses historical arguments and ideas but excels in operating at a different, more pragmatic level.

I’m trying to say we have to understand the failure of the left and the success of the right somewhat separately. Maybe eventually we can connect them, but in the short run don’t treat them as two sides of the same coin. The moment you explain the failure of the left, you cannot assume you have accounted for the success of the right. Or if you explain the success of the right, you have to say no more. But I do in the end at least in this argument, saying that the left has continued to put

too much weight on concepts, theories, and ideas which may be really true, which may be well-based, but they have a certain limitation. And I say that the right, of course, has certain arguments about history, the role of the right and national independence. They also have ideas, but they never forget that they have to work at another level. 

While on the left, the instances are relatively few, historical figures such as Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh exemplify an understanding of the socialist or communist vision. Nevertheless, these figures inevitably draw on a portion of the Marxist legacy, making it challenging to disassociate entirely from Marx without rejecting him outright. It is essential to remember that Marx, initially a thinker whose early work focused on Democritus, was not a participant in direct revolutionary actions. His evolution from a scholar to a discontented academic unfolded gradually. He remained a man of words, a characteristic that persists within the left. 

I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but it does mean you leave your flanks open to people who play on some other field.

Digital Realm Fosters Emotional Bonding at a Superficial Level

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former US President Donald Trump met to discuss the betterment of the relations of India and US at Heydrabad House in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. Photo: Madhuram Paliwal.

In your article, you discuss the concept of “polymorphous populism” and its connection to the digitalization of society. Why do you attach so much importance to the social media when explaining polymorphous populism? How do social media and the digital landscape enhance the network of emotions in the context of polymorphous populism, and how has this contributed to the success of right-wing leaders like Trump and Modi?

Arjun Appadurai: There are likely multiple factors contributing to the widespread integration of digital technology in many societies, not limited to the US and Europe but also extending to various regions, such as Turkey and India. In places like India, for instance, mobile phones surpass laptops or computers as the predominant digital instrument, yet the essence remains the same—a swift exchange of information and messages. The pivotal aspect lies in the fact that this digital landscape provides an open platform for anyone to emerge as an influential player and initiate a movement. With just one individual and their message, a movement begins to take shape, and as more people join, it rapidly transforms into a significant force.

In other words, this was never the way in which social or political movements were formed. Historically, movements required public speeches, physical meeting places, offices, and stadiums. Contrastingly, today, a laptop alone can establish a vast network. This shift bears similarities to the concept of flash mobs, where individuals can quickly gather people, even if temporarily, providing the illusion of being part of a substantial movement, regardless of its actual size. This trend contributes to fragmentation, observable in various movements, including the radicalized right, such as ISIS. With minimal resources, anyone can announce the creation of a new group, leading to frequent formations and reshufflings. This dynamic nature, while fostering rapid assembly, also results in volatility, with few enduring entities. Examples include short-lived movements, like those opposing Wall Street, which lacked sustained leadership, structure, or organization, ultimately fading away.

Even more complex examples, like the Arab Spring, illustrate the potential drawbacks of digital movements. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these phenomena, they can create an illusion of permanence, structure, and shared interests that a minor external force can easily dismantle. The digital realm fosters emotional bonding at a superficial level, as it doesn’t require extensive intellectual output. Unlike the need for treatises, Communist Manifestos, or published works like Mein Kampf, a simple message that resonates with a few individuals can quickly give rise to a sense of historic importance, even if fleeting.

The volatility arises from the connection between social media and the emotional landscape. Unlike written and spoken arguments, which demand substance and endurance, a social media rant can attract followers swiftly, providing momentary significance. Some individuals have mastered the art of making these digital expressions more permanent. Notably, figures like Trump and Modi exemplify this approach. Trump’s success lies in his adept use of Twitter, bypassing traditional press conferences and avoiding face-to-face questioning. Similarly, Modi constantly utilizes Twitter as a one-way communication channel, keeping his followers engaged without facing direct accountability. For these figures, social media serves not just as a temporary means but as a permanent strategy to bolster their power.

You mention Louis Dumont’s comparison between the West and India, which points to individualism as the governing ideology of the former and hierarchy as the encompassing ideology of the latter. And you beautifully explain how masterfully Modi and Trump have been able to instrumentalize the ideological context in their respective countries. Against this background, do you think theories originating from the West are explanatory enough to explain the success of populism in Eastern countries? 

Arjun Appadurai: I view Dumont as being intuitively correct. Over the years, like many others, I have criticized him for placing excessive emphasis on caste, and within the study of caste, for overemphasizing hierarchy, and within hierarchy, for overemphasizing religion. This criticism has been ongoing for almost 50 years, dating back to around 1970.

However, despite these critiques, I find something intriguing in Dumont’s original vision, specifically the contrast between individualism and hierarchy at the level of a Weberian ideal type. This is not about empirical description; rather, it’s a kind of ideal typic contrast, acknowledging its inherent limitations as with all ideal typic concepts. Nevertheless, it possesses some virtues.

One noteworthy aspect of Dumont’s perspective is his emphasis on the distinction between hierarchy and status/stratification. Contrary to popular understanding, he stressed that hierarchy should not be conflated with class. While people often mistakenly associate hierarchy with inequality based on material possessions, Dumont argued against such assumptions. For him, hierarchy had a specialized meaning, focusing on the relationship of parts to the whole. It wasn’t primarily about determining who is higher or lower in a social order, but rather understanding the interconnectedness where each part’s significance derives from its relation to the whole. In this way, Dumont proposed a unique and specialized understanding of how hierarchy served as the underlying social principle in India.

On the Western front, I would assert that his narrative of individualism is somewhat more recognizable. It traces the development of the individual from the seventeenth century through the lens of figures like Marx, presenting a relatively straightforward account of the emerging actor in the Western context. This clarity is attributed, in part, to the early influences of market forces and industrial capitalism, shaping a distinct idea of the actor or agent. He employs the term “homo-economicus” to characterize this mode of individual, reflecting the influence of economic considerations on the Western conceptualization of agency.

Today, I revisit this contrast, acknowledging the numerous limitations in suggesting that Modi has discovered a way to liberate or extract a particular kind of individual from the Dumontian hierarchy. In Dumont’s framework, the part gains significance only in relation to the whole, as observed in the context of Dalits who are significant only within the caste system. However, a notable shift has occurred, where individuals, particularly Dalits, are now experiencing a separation from this interconnectedness. They aspire for mobility, harbor individual aspirations, and seek to rise above others. This departure from the traditional part-and-whole dynamic is something Dumont might have viewed as challenging.

On the Indian front, one could argue that Modi has catalyzed this transformation, breaking away from Dumont’s conception. However, it’s crucial to recognize that Modi is not acting in isolation; he is influenced by broader historical forces such as globalization, capitalism, and a specific form of democracy tainted by corruption. While Modi plays a central role, various factors contribute to this societal evolution, making it a complex and multifaceted phenomenon.

On the US front, a significant challenge for any form of socialist politics lies in the widespread aversion among Americans to any socialist vision. There is a prevalent fear that embracing socialism might corrupt their cherished sense of individualism. However, from the political right, we witness the emergence of a collective sentiment embodied in the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The white majority supporting Trump expresses a strong collective identity, portraying a sense of displacement, “we” who have been pushed aside.

In contrast to the traditional American emphasis on individualism—where one might strive to improve individually relative to others—this collective identification signals a departure. It goes beyond the rhetoric of “Help me make me better than the next guy.” Instead, it articulates a shared experience of displacement, a collective “we” feeling. This shift towards collective identification would have been unthinkable in the past. Unfortunately, it doesn’t align with proletarian class or liberatory, emancipatory socialist ideals; rather, it takes a different direction. Despite this, it is noteworthy that it is a collective sentiment, challenging the notion of “each man for himself” and a rejection of participating in any movement.

This nuanced understanding of collective identity, in contrast to individualism, contributes to a deeper comprehension of the differences between Trump and Modi. Despite their apparent dissimilarities, there is an underlying structural similarity—they both break away from established principles in their respective locations.

Modi’s Victory in April Might Signal the End of Genuine Electoral Processes

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the virtual Vesak Global Celebrations on Buddha Purnima in New Delhi on May 26, 2021. Photo: Shutterstock.

The elections in India will be held in April. What is your prediction about the performance of Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?

Arjun Appadurai: Unfortunately, the current outlook suggests that, although unpredictable shifts can occur in politics, many anticipate that Modi maintains a firm grip on power. This conviction, shared by individuals across the political spectrum, is based on various arguments, including those I have presented, and others put forth by different voices. The recent State-level elections, which occurred about six weeks ago, delivered surprises to the opposition. Modi’s triumphs, even in scenarios where his party, the BJP, was expected to face defeat, have spurred extensive postmortems.

Analysts and experts are engaged in a deep examination of the election results, attempting to decipher what went wrong. Questions arise: Is it due to the lack of personal charisma in Rahul Gandhi? Does the dominance of the Nehru family, as a small and longstanding clique, within the Congress and the broader opposition hinder the rise of regional leaders and the infusion of youthful energy? Countless analyses circulate, exploring various facets of the political landscape. However, nearly unanimously, pundits and commentators believe that the 2024 election is Modi’s to lose. This is fine. It is a common way to say that his victory is almost guaranteed. The prevailing sentiment is that unless he takes an unexpected turn or an alliance emerges from the aftermath of the State elections, uniting his numerous opponents, the outcome seems firmly within Modi’s control.

The Indian electoral system operates under its own set of rules and intricacies. In State elections, instances have occurred, such as in Gujarat or Maharashtra, where the total number of votes went against the BJP at the state level, yet the total number of parliamentary seats won by the BJP was in their favor. This phenomenon arises from a somewhat mysterious counting mechanism; it’s not corruption, but a technical nuance akin to the Electoral College system in the US, leading to unconventional outcomes where a party may secure more popular votes but still lose seats.

To address your question directly, despite the hopes of many for a miracle or a shift in a different direction, it currently appears that Modi has a firm grasp on the levers of power. A concern among some is that if he secures victory for a third time, there are fears that it might signal the end of genuine electoral processes. While this assertion might be viewed as extreme, continued electoral success could potentially empower him to establish his influence across various institutions, including the courts and media. He may not even require subsequent victories, as he could solidify his apparatus, leaving a lasting “Modi stamp” on the political landscape. 

Dr. Kai Arzhemier, Professor of Political Science at the University of Mainz, Germany.

Professor Kai Arzheimer: Exposed AfD Meeting Echoes Ideologies of 1930s-1940s, Reminiscent of Plans to Exterminate Jews 

In an exclusive interview, Professor Kai Arzhemier assessed the recent exposure of a meeting involving right-wing extremist AfD politicians and neo-Nazis, where discussions about deporting millions of people with a non-German ethnic background, including citizens, took place. Professor Arzheimer characterize this meeting as echoing the ideologies of the 1930s-1940s, reminiscent of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate Jews. Arzheimer underscores that the meeting adds to the concerns about the AfD’s trajectory over the past few years, aligning with right-wing extremism.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Kai Arzhemier, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Mainz, discussed the evolving landscape of populist radical right movements in Europe, with a specific focus on the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The interview delves into various aspects, including the historical context of Germany’s resistance to right-wing populism, the ideological transformation of the AfD, and its impact on German and European politics.

One of the key highlights is the recent exposure of a meeting involving AfD politicians and neo-Nazis, where discussions about deporting millions of people with a non-German ethnic background, including citizens, took place. Professor Arzheimer framed this meeting as echoing the ideologies of the 1930s-1940s, reminiscent of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate Jews. According to Arzheimer, the meeting adds to the concerns about the AfD’s trajectory over the past few years, aligning with right-wing extremism.

The discussion also touches on the upcoming European Parliament elections and the potential performance of the AfD. Dr. Arzhemier suggests that, based on current polling trends and the historical pattern of European elections with lower turnout, the AfD could replicate the success of Geert Wilders’ party in the Netherlands, securing a robust performance ranging between 20-30 percent of the vote.

There are calls from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to ban the AfD due to the presence of individuals within the party who openly talk about remigrating people based on ethnic criteria. Dr. Arzhemier discusses the arguments both in favor of and against banning the AfD, emphasizing the high legal hurdles involved and the potential risks of the party exploiting such actions to portray themselves as victims of political suppression.

The interview explores Dr. Arzhemier’s research on the impact of ‘place’ on populist radical right sentiment in Germany. He discusses how regional disparities, especially in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), still influence political sentiments. Factors such as authoritarian remnants, low immigration rates and a sense of “place resentment” contribute to increased support for the radical right in these regions.

Dr. Arzhemier reflects on his prediction from five years ago, stating that the rise of a right-wing populist party in Germany has made the country less flexible and more inward-looking. While acknowledging Germany’s increased flexibility in response to external factors like the war in Ukraine and Brexit, he suggests that debates about the AfD have absorbed significant political energy that could have been directed elsewhere.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Kai Arzheimer with some edits.

Radical Right’s Influence in Europe Is on the Rise

Your research focuses especially on the populist radical right in Europe. How have you observed the evolution of far-right parties across different European countries in recent years? How do you see the impact of economic factors on the rise of these movements, and to what extent do cultural and identity issues play a role?

Kai Arzheimer: First and foremost, I think the radical right’s influence in Europe is on the rise. Across various countries, we observe an increase in the vote share of these parties, marking a shift from the political margins to the mainstream. This evolution is evident not only in their electoral significance but also in their impact on other parties and in the shaping of public discourse. The discourse, influenced by the radical right, centers around the concept of crisis. Consequently, the transformations in different European countries, both in terms of societal composition and economic structures, are portrayed as crises. The radical right positions itself as the defender of ordinary people against these perceived threats, contributing to its growing prominence.

Regarding the second part of your question, the two aspects of this perceived crisis are closely intertwined. It is not solely about concerns over immigrants potentially taking away jobs or jobs relocating to regions like China or Central Eastern Europe. Additionally, it involves the perception that immigration and other transformative economic processes, such as the decline of traditional industries like mining and the phase-out of internal combustion engines, are altering our way of life in a manner framed as a threat to the native population. Analyzing public opinion data makes it empirically challenging to separate the effects of economic anxieties from cultural threat perceptions. While they are not identical, these factors are intricately linked in the minds of voters.

Germany was considered an exception to the success of populist radical right and far-right parties until the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). What factors contributed to Germany’s resistance to right-wing populism for an extended period, and how did the AfD manage to break this trend? In other words, how do you explain the success of ‘cordon sanitaire’ until very recently and what factors could contribute to its demise?

Kai ArzheimerYou are right. The AfD, established just a decade ago, represents the first successful national radical right party in Germany since at least the 1960s. The establishment and maintenance of a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against the radical right in Germany can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, right-wing and far-right actors in Germany have often adopted extreme approaches. Unlike the most successful radical right parties in Western Europe, such as those in Scandinavia, the PVV in the Netherlands, and even the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France, which have moderated their stances over time to appeal to a broader electorate, far-right actors in Germany have tended to adhere closely to the roots of German right-wing extremism from the 1930s and 1940s. This historical connection, understandably, has been repugnant to most Germans, limiting the success of such parties.

Another contributing factor has been the historical division within the far-right in Germany. Numerous relatively small parties competed with each other, preventing any single one from surpassing the 5 percent threshold. Additionally, the mainstream right party, the Christian Democrats, has traditionally embraced a broad spectrum of ideologies, ranging from center-left to robust conservatism. Over the decades, they successfully appealed to a wide array of voters, some of whom later shifted to the far-right AfD once it emerged as a viable alternative.

One crucial aspect to consider is how the AfD successfully broke through the ‘cordon sanitaire,’ especially given that they did not initially identify as a radical right party. When they emerged in 2013, their platform primarily centered around soft Euroscepticism. The most notable member and co-founder, a former Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) member, contended that the CDU had left him due to a perceived leftward shift under Merkel’s leadership. This initial positioning made them acceptable to voters who had previously supported mainstream right parties like the Free Democratic Party (FDP), CDU, and Christian Social Union (CSU).

It was only over the first three years of their existence that it became evident that the AfD was transforming into a fully-fledged radical right party. By that point, they had already secured a presence in Parliament, become a significant political force, and garnered considerable media coverage. Through this evolution, they managed to establish themselves despite the long-standing ‘cordon sanitaire.’

Political Landscape Underwent Significant Changes with Influx of Refugees from Syria

Co-chairpersons of the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla at a meeting in Berlin, Germany on July 4, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

 

Your research discusses the transformation of the AfD from its moderately Eurosceptic beginnings to a more radical right-wing stance. Can you elaborate on the key factors and events that led to this ideological shift within the AfD?

Kai Arzheimer: First and foremost, it’s crucial to acknowledge that right from its inception, the party encompassed various right-wingers with diverse perspectives. While the individuals I mentioned in my earlier response, those with previous ties to the CDU or FDP, were more prominently featured, they represented just a segment of the broader ideological spectrum within the party. These individuals took center stage as front-row politicians for the fledgling party.

As early as 2014, a power struggle emerged within the AfD, pitting the more moderate proponents against the growing influence of radical elements within the party. By 2015, this internal conflict had escalated to the point where one of the co-founders and arguably the party’s most prominent figure decided to leave, taking approximately 10 percent of the membership with him. Notably, this group comprised a disproportionately high number of individuals from the middle management level of the party, contributing significantly to a division between the more moderate faction and the increasingly influential radical forces within the party.

Moreover, the political landscape underwent significant shifts with the arrival of numerous refugees from Syria and the broader Middle East in 2015 and 2016. This influx propelled the issue of immigration to the forefront of public discourse, providing an opportunity for the AfD to strategically capitalize on this altered agenda. Concentrating on immigration and multiculturalism emerged as a key strategy for success. This emphasis not only resonated with a segment of the electorate but also bolstered the influence of more radical voices within the party.

Finally, the party had solidified its position to such an extent that even more radical elements within its ranks, openly connected to traditional right-wing extremism both outside and inside the party, prominently rose to the forefront. This was exemplified by the regional leader in one of the Eastern States, who has become the face of the ultra-radicals within the party. Despite numerous attempts to expel him, none have succeeded, solidifying his status as a significant figure within the party. It is now challenging to envision any significant developments within the party occurring without his approval.

AfD Pushes Other Parties to Adopt a Tougher Stance on Immigration

Apparently, the AfD has emerged as a formidable force in German politics. How has the party altered the political landscape, and what repercussions does its presence carry for German politics? What impact is the AfD likely to have on the political trajectory of the CDU and CSU? Considering the broader context, what implications does the AfD’s prominence hold for the European Union?

Kai Arzheimer: Firstly, the AfD wields significant influence in several State Parliaments in Germany, particularly in the Eastern States, where it currently stands as the predominant party, commanding around 35 percent of the vote. This success has compelled the CDU to engage in unconventional coalitions with the Greens, SPD, and FDP at the state level, forming heterogeneous and oversized coalitions to avoid collaborating with the AfD. This impact is enduring, with three upcoming state elections, and the possibility that the AfD might even contend for State Premiership, potentially becoming the leading force in one of the Eastern States.

Secondly, the AfD has exerted substantial pressure on the CDU, as many politicians within the party feel a loss of both support and a portion of their conservative identity to the AfD. A discourse has emerged within the CDU asserting that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership of the party and the country was detrimental. Some argue that she shifted the party too much towards the center or even the left during her 16-year tenure as chancellor. Despite her prolonged majority control, this is perceived as a problem by a faction within the party, prompting a desire to adopt a tougher stance on immigration and cultural issues, aiming to realign the CDU with positions now advocated by the AfD. On the other hand, opposing voices within the CDU contend that societal changes have been significant, and Merkel’s success lies in her recognition of these shifts, allowing her to strategically reposition the CDU to maintain its political dominance for one and a half decades. This presents a second impact of the AfD’s success.

I believe the third impact is even more significant. In response to the AfD’s successes, there is now a discussion within the SPD and the FDP about the necessity for these parties to reposition themselves. The prevailing sentiment is that they must adopt a tougher stance on immigration and reconnect with their traditional constituencies. For the SPD, this involves appealing more to industrial workers and working-class individuals, while downplaying emphasis on issues such as gender equality or climate protection. This signifies a notable shift in the overall discourse towards a more right-leaning perspective.

The implications for Europe pose a distinct question. Personally, I don’t foresee the AfD entering into any form of coalition at the national level. There remains a broad consensus within the German political landscape that European integration, if not unification, is generally beneficial. While there is a push for fiscal prudence in Germany’s European relationships, it doesn’t undermine the fact that both major German political parties and the population, broadly speaking, are pro-European. Even the AfD, despite their criticisms of the European Union, doesn’t attribute a significant part of their current success to this issue. Strangely enough, the impact on the matter of European integration seems rather minimal at the moment.

A potential consequence could be that successful German governments may lean towards supporting more restrictive European policies on integration. Historically, the German government has maintained a relatively liberal stance within the European Union. However, there is a shift occurring, as a minority of European governments still support this more liberal approach. Domestically, there is pressure on the German government to adjust its position, and to some degree, this adjustment has already taken place.

Anti-Immigration Sentiment: A Fundamental Driver of AfD Support

EU elections campaign of Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Munich, Germany in May 2019. German nationalist, right-wing populist and Eurosceptic AFD is the largest opposition party in Bundestag. Photo: Shutterstock.

Could you explain how the AfD’s current support aligns with the typical image of European radical right voters? What fundamental motivations drive support for the AfD among its voters? How significant is the role of anti-immigration sentiment in the AfD’s ascension?

Kai Arzheimer: It is absolutely essential for the support of the AfD, just as it is for other European radical right parties. Concerns about immigration, particularly from non-European countries, play a pivotal role in driving support for these parties. While not every individual skeptical about immigration aligns with radical right policies, a close examination of the AfD’s electorate in Germany, as well as that of comparable parties like the PVV in the Netherlands and others across Europe, reveals a notable correlation: it is challenging to find a supporter of these parties who views immigration as a positive development.

There are other motives as well. A range of secondary issues, including climate change denial, concerns about gender equality, and opposition to same-sex marriages, among others, align closely with support for the radical right. While Euroscepticism is present, it is essentially a secondary motive. Stripping away these secondary concerns reveals that the primary and most significant factor for the AfD, and many similar parties, is resistance to immigration and the apprehension towards European societies becoming more diverse and multicultural.

One of your studies explores the impact of ‘place’ on populist radical right sentiment in Germany. Regarding the impact of ‘place’ on populist radical right attitudes, how do regional disparities, such as those in the former GDR (German Democratic Republic), still influence political sentiments, and what policy implications does this have? 

Kai Arzheimer: That’s a very interesting question. What we observe across Europe is a concentration of support for these parties in specific regions, often in rural areas or smaller, economically challenged towns. In our study, we sought to quantify the impact of objective indicators of deprivation, such as demographic changes, declining public infrastructure, high unemployment, and significant immigration rates, among other factors. Even after accounting for the demographic composition of the local population—for example, recognizing that younger, more educated individuals are less likely to support the radical right, while older men with lower levels of formal education tend to support it disproportionately—we discovered a persistent effect related to places being in the former GDR 30 years after reunification. There seems to be something enduring about this part of Germany that contributes to increased support for the radical right, and there are various possible explanations for this phenomenon.

One possible explanation is the lingering influence of the authoritarian regime in the former GDR, which might have left behind an authoritarian mindset. Additionally, the low levels of immigration into the GDR, even up to the present day, could contribute to the phenomenon. Rural parts of the former GDR, in particular, have relatively few immigrants, leading residents to be less accustomed to exposure to individuals who look different or have a different culture. There’s also the argument that individuals in the former GDR, having been ridiculed, treated as second-class citizens, may harbor a backlash against perceived Western superiority.

While all these potential explanations seem to align in a similar direction, disentangling them from each other proves challenging. However, a noteworthy factor that stands out is what we term “place resentment”—the sentiment that the area, town, or region where one lives lacks sufficient recognition and resources. This sense of being overlooked, especially in terms of recognition, appears to be a significant contributing factor to the peculiar and enduring GDR effect observed to the present day.

Hurdles for Banning AfD are Exceptionally High

Photo: Shutterstock.

Given the growing strength of the AfD, there are calls from the SPD to ban the party. How do you evaluate the arguments and considerations behind these calls for banning the AfD?

Kai Arzheimer: The hurdles for banning a party in Germany are exceptionally high, with only three institutions—the Federal Council, Federal Government, and Federal Parliament—having the authority to initiate such a process. However, they lack the power to enact a ban; they can only request the highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, to consider it. Convincing the court requires demonstrating that the targeted party poses a threat to the existence of democracy in Germany, and even if this argument is made, a supermajority of the court, two-thirds of the sitting judges is needed for approval. The last successful attempt to ban a party was in 1956 when the Communist Party was prohibited, and even then, it was a controversial decision. There have been two subsequent attempts to ban the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), another far-right party, which is now relatively small. Despite being labeled a real neo-Nazi party openly aligned with Nazi ideology, the Federal Constitutional Court concluded that, while they may espouse neo-Nazi views, they are essentially a tiny political sect and not a significant threat to the constitutional order of Germany, preventing their ban.

The potential for failure in this process is substantial, and many politicians are concerned that it could be perceived as restricting political competition. Such an attempt would likely align with the AfD’s narrative of victimization and marginalization in German politics. The party could exploit the situation to portray themselves as suppressed, with the establishment resorting to legal means to limit competition and disenfranchise their supporters. The risk of this narrative gaining traction is significant, and even if the process were initiated, it might turn out to be a protracted endeavor. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee of success, as the Federal Constitutional Court could ultimately decide against banning the party, which would, in essence, be seen as a tacit endorsement. Given these concerns, many German politicians and the government are highly reluctant to pursue this course of action.

The argument in favor of a ban stems from the presence of individuals within the AfD who pose genuine threats to the constitutional order. They quite openly talk about remigrating people, suggesting that individuals with a German passport, those who have legally resided in the country, or even their parents, should be expelled because their skin color is the “wrong tone,” or their surname is of the “wrong kind.” This sparked considerable controversy in German politics last week, although such sentiments are not new. These voices have persisted for an extended period, with concrete evidence such as a book authored by Björn Höcke in 2020 where these individuals actively campaigned for reprehensible ideas. The potential elevation of figures like Björn Höcke to significant positions, such as Minister, President, or State premier of a German State, is particularly concerning. Additionally, if the AfD emerges as the dominant political force in various parts of the German East, it raises legitimate concerns about the threat to liberal democracy.

This is why some politicians, journalists, professors, and others argue that we should, at the very least, contemplate the possibility of banning the AfD before it reaches a point of irreversibility. These are the key arguments both in favor of and against such actions. Despite the substantial political risks and the lengthy process involved, proponents argue that it might be a necessary step due to concerns that some individuals within the AfD are actively attempting to undermine the democratic principles that define Germany.

The last sentence of your article titled “Don’t Mention the War! How Populist Right-Wing Radicalism Became (Almost) Normal in Germany” reads: “Therefore, my prediction is that as in other countries, the rise of a right-wing populist party will make Germany less flexible and more inward-looking than it already is. This does not bode well for German and for European Politics.” It is an article written in 2019. Five years later, do you believe your prediction has been vindicated, or has Germany, in fact, become more flexible and outward-looking?

Kai Arzheimer: In a sense, my perspective has been vindicated, as Germany has indeed devoted significant energy to discussions about the rise of the AfD. The debates on accommodating voters, considering more restrictions, and emphasizing national interests have absorbed the attention of German elites and political energy that could have been directed elsewhere. In a sense, yes, Germany is even more inward-looking than it was five years ago. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the geopolitical landscape has undergone radical changes, marked by the war in Ukraine, Brexit, and the need to contemplate European security in light of a possible second Trump presidency. In response to these external factors, Germany has shown increased flexibility in its approach to using military power, providing military support to Ukraine, collaborating with European neighbors, and welcoming Ukrainian refugees. However, Germany was compelled to take these actions due to external factors. While I may not have been entirely accurate in my predictions, there is a sense of vindication in understanding the context behind Germany’s decisions.

AfD Poised to Secure 20-30 Percent of the Vote in EP Elections

How do you assess the recently exposed meeting involving AfD politicians and neo-Nazis, where discussions about deporting millions of people with a non-German ethnic background, including citizens, took place?

Kai Arzheimer: Well, I’ve already touched upon that. It sparked public outcry, and rightly so, given its disturbing resemblance to the ideologies of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the Nazis’ plan to exterminate Jews. This development is significant, aligning with the trajectory of the AfD over the past 5 to 6 years. Martin Sellner, a prominent figure in right-wing extremism from Austria and former leader of the Identitarian movement, attended the meeting, adding weight to the concerns.

Officially, the AfD asserts an incompatibility between membership in the Identitarian movement and the AfD. However, in reality, numerous members, especially within the youth wing of the AfD, are affiliated with the Identitarian movement. Furthermore, individuals from the Identitarian Movement have been hired as staffers for AfD members of Parliament. During the recent party conference for the upcoming European Parliament election, when the list of candidates was drawn up, many expressing similar ideas were present. The party leadership was in attendance, and no one seemed oblivious to the implications. While not entirely surprising news, it does contribute to a growing public awareness of these concerning tendencies within the AfD.

And lastly, what is your prediction regarding the AfD’s potential performance in the upcoming European Parliament elections? Do you believe the AfD could replicate the success of Geert Wilders’ party in the Netherlands?

Kai Arzheimer: I think that’s quite possible. Currently, the AfD stands at approximately 20-21 percent in national polls. However, European elections typically witness lower turnout, as some individuals may not view them with the same seriousness as national elections. The lower threshold becomes relevant for the AfD in this context. Consequently, people might be more inclined to experiment with their votes and support outsider parties. As a result, I anticipate a robust performance by the AfD in the European election, ranging between 20-30 percent of the vote. 

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

Professor Kurt Weyland: Democracies Possess Inherent Defensive Mechanisms against Populist Challenges

Arguing that democracy is less susceptible, less precarious, and less endangered by populist leadership, Professor Kurt Weyland of the University of Texas emphasizes, “Populist leaders inherently lean towards illiberal tendencies, aiming to consolidate power at the expense of democratic principles. However, democracy possesses inherent defensive mechanisms.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Kurt Weyland, a political scientist and Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, shared insights into the evolving nature of populist movements and their impact on democracies. The interview covered key aspects of his research, addressing the weaknesses of personalistic plebiscitarian leadership, the comparative analysis of populism’s impact on democracy in Europe and Latin America, the role of charismatic leadership in damaging political-party systems, and the long-term impact of populist movements on the political landscape.

Professor Weyland emphasized the challenges faced by populist leaders due to their domineering and self-assured nature, which often leads to arbitrary policy decisions and a lack of systematic governance. He highlighted the difficulties in forming coalitions and the intentional polarization fostered by populist leaders to maintain plebiscitarian support. 

The comparative analysis of populism’s impact on democracy revealed insights into the resilience of democratic institutions, emphasizing the significance of institutional frameworks, robust party systems, and the role of society. Weyland discussed conjunctural opportunities that populist leaders exploit, such as windfall rents and crises, and how these factors contribute to their mass appeal.

Addressing the impact on party systems, Weyland highlighted the corrosive nature of charismatic leadership, causing fragmentation within opposition parties and affecting the overall quality of democracy. He expressed optimism about the future of democracy, acknowledging its record of resilience despite populist challenges.

Regarding the potential re-election of Donald Trump in the United States, Weyland raised concerns about ongoing turmoil but maintained confidence in the strength of US institutions to prevent significant deterioration. He discussed the challenges faced by personalistic leaders in institutionalizing their rule, citing examples from Turkey and Bolivia.

Weyland’s analysis extended to the global perspective, critiquing alarmist findings on the decline of democracy by institutions like the V-Dem Institute. He emphasized the need for nuanced evaluations, considering potential biases in subjective ratings and acknowledging the historical context of democracy’s progress.

Weyland emphasized the significance of tackling representation deficits and addressing citizen concerns, pointing to proactive immigration systems as potential strategies for mainstream parties. He illustrated this point by referencing the Danish Social Democrats’ adoption of restrictive immigration policies, a move that had a profound impact on the populist Danish People’s Party.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Kurt Weyland with some edits.

Dr. Kurt Weyland, a political scientist and Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

Lacking A Systematic and Well-informed Approach, Populists Are Prone to Fail

In your research on “How Populism Dies,” you discuss the political weaknesses of personalistic plebiscitarian leadership. Can you elaborate on the key weaknesses and how they impact the ability of populist leaders to sustain their movements over time?

Kurt Weyland: When examining populist leaders, I often characterize them as embodying personalistic plebiscitarian leadership. Personalistic leaders tend to be domineering and self-assured, exemplified by their belief, as articulated by figures like Donald Trump, that “only I can do it.” Consequently, these leaders often eschew extensive reliance on expertise, consultation, or collaborative decision-making, leading to haphazard and arbitrary policy decisions. Lacking a systematic and well-informed approach, they are prone to making numerous mistakes. 

This article primarily scrutinizes populist leaders in governmental roles, emphasizing their policy enactments. In many instances, these leaders struggle to accurately identify problems and design comprehensive solutions. While my focus is primarily on economic policymaking, recent events, such as the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, have underscored the bumbling responses of various populist leaders. Such shortcomings not only weaken their performance but also sow doubts regarding their charismatic prowess, potentially eroding popular support.

Another challenge stemming from personalistic leadership is the difficulty in forming coalitions due to these leaders’ desire to be number one. They want to be in command. They are domineering. Other politicians don’t easily cooperate and collaborate with leaders like that. Their domineering nature and preference for command make collaboration with other politicians challenging. Populist leaders, in fact, often intentionally foster polarization and conflict to bolster their plebiscitarian support. By antagonizing the political establishment and mainstream parties, they create an environment where cooperation becomes even more elusive. Predictably, mainstream parties seize opportunities to retaliate and attempt to remove these personalistic leaders. 

The article primarily concentrates on government performance, and among the approximately 30 populist leaders examined, about 8 to 10 are quickly ousted due to a combination of protest-driven upheaval, impeachment resulting from policy mistakes, and opposition from the elites they antagonize. The main focus of the article is on the intersection of policy performance and governance sustainability. This is encapsulated in the title “How Populism Dies,” emphasizing that many populist leaders are swiftly ousted, particularly when their policy performance is erratic. A recent example is Pedro Castillo in Peru, who, after a year and a half marked by inexperience, lack of consultation, and various mistakes, was swiftly removed from power.

In “When Democracy Trumps Populism,” you provide a comparative analysis of populism’s impact on democracy in Europe and Latin America. What are the key lessons that can be applied to understand populism’s interaction with democratic institutions globally?

Kurt Weyland: In my initial attempt to analyze the threat of populism to democracy from a comparative perspective, a topic I delve into more comprehensively in my upcoming book, the core message remains consistent. I argue that democracy is less susceptible, less precarious, and less endangered by populist leadership. Populist leaders inherently lean towards illiberal tendencies, aiming to consolidate power at the expense of democratic principles. However, democracy possesses inherent defensive mechanisms, which I term resilience in my forthcoming book.

I stress the significance of institutional frameworks in this early analysis, acknowledging the strength and character of these structures. Additionally, I underscore the importance of robust party systems. Nevertheless, upon further reflection, I now consider the nature of society to be a more pivotal factor than the strength of parties and established party systems, as highlighted in my initial work.

In societies characterized by relative prosperity, a strong middle class, and educated sectors, populist leaders encounter greater challenges in garnering widespread support. Conversely, in economically disadvantaged regions like Latin America, where material deprivation and lower education levels prevail, populist figures such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela find it easier to amass overwhelming mass support.

A pivotal aspect elaborated in my book is the role of conjunctural opportunities that certain populist leaders exploit to bolster their mass appeal. Surprisingly, these opportunities arise from two opposite directions. On one hand, massive windfall rents, as exemplified by Hugo Chavez’s oil revenues in Venezuela, enable leaders to purchase support broadly, achieving popularity levels of 65-70% that nobody can resist. This unchecked popularity can lead to the erosion of democratic principles. However, without such substantial windfalls, it becomes significantly more challenging for populist leaders to achieve the same level of support.

Another unforeseen conjunctural opportunity arises during deep, acute, yet resolvable crises. When populist leaders effectively navigate and combat such challenges, they can emerge as heroes or, as Max Weber described, “charismatic saviors” of their countries. This narrative is exemplified in instances such as Nayib Bukele in El Salvador overcoming the challenges posed by the banking sector and Viktor Orban in Hungary successfully addressing an acute economic crisis. Similarly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey which faced a profound economic downturn in 2001, discrediting mainstream parties. However, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) managed to lead the country out of crisis, fostering economic growth and garnering substantial support.

These were the four factors I emphasized in the initial version of the upcoming book, set to be released in a few weeks. My primary focus revolves around institutional strength and conjunctural opportunities. I have streamlined the framework to zero in specifically on these key factors, making the analysis more concise and focused.

Disintegration of Opposition Contribute to the Corrosive Impact of Populism

Your research on “How Populism Corrodes Latin American Parties” highlights the role of charismatic leadership in damaging political-party systems. How does this phenomenon impact the broader democratic landscape, and what challenges does it pose for opposition parties?

Kurt Weyland: This question is interesting as it delves into the perceived danger of populist leadership. My primary argument contends that populist leaders pose less of a threat to the survival of democracy than commonly believed, even though their influence adversely affects the quality of democratic systems.

Populist and personalistic leaders exhibit domineering traits, seeking to bypass intermediaries and establish a direct plebiscitarian connection with large masses of people. Parties, along with their leaders and activists, become perceived obstacles in their efforts to reach followers directly. Consequently, populists tend not to invest in building strong parties of their own, preferring to undermine mainstream political structures. This approach makes it difficult for opposition parties to coalesce, resulting in a corrosive impact on party systems.

According to democratic theory, parties play a crucial role in maintaining the quality of democracy. Common citizens often find it challenging to form opinions on various issues, relying on parties to provide coherent policy packages from which they can make informed choices. Therefore, the corrosive influence of populism on party systems poses a significant challenge to the overall quality of democracy.

In the case of Turkey and Venezuela, for example, populist leaders with their overbearing and autocratic tendencies mobilize diverse opposition groupings. However, the opposition remains fragmented and lacks a cohesive organization due to the wide range of elements from various parties and new movements. The failure to build robust parties and the disintegration of opposition contribute to the corrosive impact of populism on the democratic landscape.

The Role of Institutional Weakness and Conjunctural Opportunity in the Rise of Populists

In your recent article, ‘How Democracy Survives Populism,’ you express optimism about the future of democracy, stating, “Democracy’s record tells us that it does not die easily.” What factors contribute to your optimism, especially in the face of the rise and strength of populist movements?

Kurt Weyland: In examining the instances where populist leaders have effectively undermined democracy and propelled their countries toward authoritarianism, I conducted a comprehensive analysis of 40 cases in my book. Surprisingly, only in 7 of these cases did democracy really get strangled by populist leaders. This prompts the question: under what conditions does such a transformation occur? The article summarizing the book’s main argument emphasizes that this shift occurs primarily under two conditions.

Firstly, institutional weakness is a contributing factor, prevalent in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, institutional weakness alone is not sufficient. The second crucial condition is the existence of a specific conjunctural opportunity that enables populist leaders to bolster their mass support. As mentioned earlier, this can be a massive windfall, such as the petroleum revenues that benefited leaders like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa, or the successful resolution of an acute crisis. These conditions are inherently restrictive. The era of the global commodities boom, particularly benefiting oil-exporting countries due to nationalized industries, has passed. Severe crises, such as hyperinflation, are infrequent. Moreover, not all populist leaders manage to effectively address these crises. Therefore, the circumstances under which a populist leader can truly destroy democracy are narrow and demanding.

Our perception of the threat posed by populism to democracy tends to be distorted, as we often recall emblematic cases. While figures like Chavez, Orban, and Erdogan are well-known, numerous populist leaders serve only one term or fail to succeed in destroying democracy, eventually getting ousted by Congress, mass protests, or impeachment. Examples like Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil, Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, or Petro Castillo in Peru are often forgotten. Populist leaders indeed have the potential to harm democracy, but success in this regard is far from guaranteed. Many fail, and even those who secure re-election, like Menem in Argentina or leaders in Colombia, often encounter institutional constraints that signal the end of their time in power. Examining the empirical record and the specific conditions required for the populist destruction of democracy reveals a more nuanced and challenging reality than the commonly perceived threat. It’s not that easy.

‘Javier Milei May Be Ousted from Office within One or Two Years’

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

When you wrote the article, we did not have the election results in the Netherlands and Argentina. Considering that Geert Wilders, known for his Islamophobic stance, won the elections in the Netherlands, and the populist libertarian Javier Milei emerged victorious in Argentina, would you still assert that democracies can survive populism?

Kurt Weyland: Absolutely. Initially, it’s important to note that populist leaders can indeed be elected, as seen in recent events. However, the victory of figures like Geert Wilders does not necessarily spell doom for Dutch democracy. In European parliamentary systems, the proportional representation and extensive party fragmentation make it exceedingly challenging for a populist leader to secure a majority vote. In the case of Hungary, an unusual scenario unfolded due to the 2008 crisis, which eradicated established government parties, enabling Viktor Orban to achieve a super majority and potentially undermine democracy. Yet, this is an exception.

Geert Wilders, for instance, won the election with less than 25 percent of the votes, requiring coalition partners. His populist and radical stance makes forming a governing coalition challenging. Even if he becomes Prime Minister, coalition partners will likely be skeptical and averse to his views, preventing any authoritarian tendencies. They’re not going to support Wilders becoming dictator of the Netherlands. This aligns with the nature of European parliamentary systems, where leaders like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy served three terms without destroying Italian democracy. In fact, during Berlusconi’s tenure, various rating systems, including Freedom House, indicated an improvement in the quality of Italian democracy due to heightened civic mobilization and participation stimulated by the populist government. So, even if Geert Wilders becomes Prime Minister of the Netherlands, he is not going to destroy Dutch democracy. 

Argentina presents a different scenario due to its presidential system, unlike European parliamentary systems. The institutional framework in Latin American countries, including Argentina, tends to be weaker. Javier Milei, despite having a small faction of supporters in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, relies on the backing of other parties. However, his political influence is limited, making it challenging to implement his proposed adjustment program.

The severity of the crisis in Argentina, marked by a staggering 150% annual inflation rate and the failure of his predecessor Mauricio Macri’s gradual adjustment program, adds complexity to Milei’s situation. While Milei aims to enforce a drastic neoliberal adjustment program, he lacks the necessary political strength. The legislative branch, exemplified by Congress, is likely to resist approving his ambitious Mega decree, leading to potential modifications or rejections.

Given the strong opposition, particularly from entrenched Peronists in Congress, unions, and among governors, Milei’s political standing appears precarious. Predicting outcomes in political science is inherently challenging, but it seems likely that Milei, compelled to pursue a drastic neoliberal agenda, will face significant opposition. My projection is that, within one or two years, he may be ousted from office. Comparisons to Fernando de la Rua, who was forced out after a two-year term about two decades ago, suggest a parallel trajectory for Milei’s political tenure.

‘Trump Has a Strong Chance of Being Reelected’

Former US President Donald Trump with a serious look as he delivers a speech at a campaign rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA – August 2, 2018. Photo: Evan El-Amin.

Drawing from your analysis in “Why US Democracy Trumps Populism,” how do you assess the long-term impact of populist movements on the political landscape in the United States, especially in terms of institutional resilience and democratic norms? Considering the possibility of Donald Trump winning the 2024 elections, some suggest that the United States could lose its liberal nature and the system of checks and balances. What are your thoughts on the fate of American democracy if Trump is reelected?

Kurt Weyland: The United States is the problem case among advanced industrialized democracies. As seen in the case of Geert Wilders in European parliamentary systems, populist leaders typically don’t come close to winning a majority. Even if they attain the position of Prime Minister, their political strength remains limited. The US, however, stands out as an exception and a problematic case due to its two-party system.

In the United States, a populist figure, exemplified by Trump’s outsider status and minoritarian position in 2015 and 2016, can potentially secure a party’s candidacy through open primaries. If successful, he could then win the presidency, garnering significant political influence. This unique scenario makes the US susceptible to challenges, and I am genuinely concerned that Trump has a strong chance of being reelected.

The potential reelection of Trump raises concerns about ongoing trouble, turmoil, conflict, and unending convulsions in the United States. Democratic norms could once again suffer as Trump, fueled by a sense of grievance from the 2020 election, may seek revenge. Moreover, he has a committed support base that may be inclined to carry out his directives, adding to the potential challenges faced by democratic institutions in the country.

On the other hand, I maintain the belief that US institutions are very strong. Even within the Republican Party, although few openly oppose him, there is a notable amount of resistance. The challenges faced in selecting a House Speaker, revealing a divided Republican delegation with radical and far-right factions, indicate internal dissent. Moderates within the party are unlikely to support a substantial assault on the essence and core of American democracy.

The Senate, with its more independent senators possessing the authority to resist Trump’s influence, provides a check against potential abuses. Senator Mitch McConnell’s apparent distaste for Trump and his reluctance to see Trump wield unchecked power further reinforces this internal resistance. Meanwhile, Democrats are well-prepared to counter Trump’s potential assaults.

The US courts, in Trump’s first term, demonstrated a willingness to rein in his actions, issuing rulings that restrained certain presidential actions. Additionally, the strength of civil society in the US is a formidable force against the transformation of the country into an authoritarian regime.

While I acknowledge the likelihood of Trump’s reelection leading to considerable trouble and conflict, I believe American democracy will ultimately endure. The degradation of democratic norms and the assault on democracy will undoubtedly impact its quality, but the resilience of US institutions will prevent a significant deterioration. Trump’s actions, despite their negative effects, have had unintended positive consequences. His outrages mobilize civil society and politics, resulting in increased electoral participation, diverse candidate representation, and heightened political interest.

Despite the countervailing tendencies at play, the overall quality of democracy in the US is not expected to decline significantly. Contrary to some depictions by democracy rating agencies, which may have downgraded American democracy, I consider such assessments seriously mistaken. While acknowledging the challenges faced, including the damage inflicted by Trump, it is crucial to recognize the counteracting effects that have, to a certain extent, mitigated the decline in democratic quality.

‘Turkish Election Outcome Proves a Significant Disappointment’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

Referring to Turkey in your article, you highlight Erdoğan’s success as an authoritarian leader. Regarding the 2016 coup, do you view it as an ‘autogolpe,’ akin to those seen in Latin America?

Kurt Weyland: In Latin America, an autogolpe is typically defined as an incumbent president orchestrating a coup-like assault on political institutions to seize authoritarian power. An example is Fujimori in 1992, where, as the democratically elected president and the incumbent, he utilized the military to shut down Congress and the courts. In contrast, the situation in Turkey doesn’t precisely fit this definition, as the incumbent did not initiate the coup. Some analyses suggest that Erdogan may have intentionally provoked the coup or baited certain factions into attempting it, though the conspiratorial argument that he orchestrated the entire event is dubious.

I would not subscribe to the conspiratorial argument suggesting that he orchestrated the entire event to take advantage of it. However, there is evidence of shamelessly leveraging the failed coup, a tactic reminiscent of what occurred in Venezuela in 2002. In that instance, Hugo Chavez, who had been evicted by a coup for a brief period, made a triumphant comeback and exploited the failed challenge to purge the military, consolidate his command, and strengthen his control over the country. This approach involves an incumbent president with authoritarian tendencies taking advantage of a thwarted challenge to discredit the opposition, implement repressive measures, and augment their personalistic control by claiming more powers. So, it differs from an autogolpe as seen in Fujimori’s case but shares similarities with exploiting a failed challenge, reminiscent of Hugo Chavez’s actions in Venezuela.

Erdoğan won the last elections held in May 2023 again. What do you foresee for Turkish democracy and Erdoğan’s one-man rule?

Kurt Weyland: The outcome of the Turkish election proved to be a significant disappointment, as hopes were high for the opposition, especially after their unification. Erdogan’s handling of the economy and the revelation of corruption within his regime, highlighted by the earthquake and questionable building licenses, had fueled optimism for a potential opposition victory, as indicated by polls. However, Erdogan’s triumph signifies a greater political resilience than initially perceived.

In the short term I think the prospects are not good for Turkish democracy, which has been destroyed. I would classify Turkey as an authoritarian regime, especially after the self-coup and the big crackdown and the repressive turn of the Erdogan regime. The personalistic and charismatic leadership style common among populist leaders tends to lack institutionalization, creating inherent weaknesses. While these leaders assert absolute control in the short term, their dominance can stifle potential successors and generate latent discontent among those aspiring to power.

Populist leaders, by their nature, rarely institutionalize their rule, and the personalistic, plebiscitarian leadership they exhibit inherently creates weaknesses. A typical personalistic leader asserts absolute command, dominating the political landscape. However, prolonged dominance by a single leader obstructs the ascent of other potential leaders. In cases where a leader, such as Erdogan, holds unparalleled control, only a select group of loyal associates can rise, fostering latent discontent akin to a simmering volcano.

Aspirants to power desire roles beyond being mere cronies of the ruling leader. This discontent among those who seek influence creates the potential for a challenge to the leader’s authority. Over time, the leader inevitably confronts their own mortality and grapples with the issue of succession. Choosing a family member, like Erdogan appointing his son-in-law as finance minister, or cultivating one’s own successors may not be well-received, as it excludes other potential leaders indefinitely.

The succession issue, particularly if it arises abruptly due to health concerns or other unforeseen events, unveils the fragility of personalistic populist rule. While such leadership may project an image of solidity and stability on the surface, beneath lies a host of brewing challenges. The example of potential health issues, like a heart attack, underscores that personalistic populist rule may seem robust externally but conceals underlying complexities and vulnerabilities.

Consider the case of Evo Morales in Bolivia, who appeared firmly in control when seeking a third consecutive re-election. During my visit to Bolivia in 2018, I witnessed the transformative changes he had implemented in the country, leading me to believe that a significant portion of the population would express gratitude through a clear majority. However, Morales encountered a formidable challenge, and to my surprise, he was ousted. This example highlights the transient and precarious nature of populism. It lacks firmness, solidity, and institutionalization, relying heavily on personalistic leadership. Populism, as demonstrated by Morales’ experience, lacks firmness, solidity, and institutionalization; instead, it heavily depends on personalistic leadership. It’s more of a temporary and precarious phenomenon, akin to a rental arrangement. This characteristic instability may hopefully also be observed in the case of Erdogan.

‘Meloni’s Success Resulted from Failures of Populist Leaders’

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 the article, when discussing Italy, you mention the late Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Interestingly, you do not refer to Giorgia Meloni and her neo-fascist party Brothers of Italy. How do you explain her success?

Kurt Weyland: I don’t categorize Meloni’s party as a populist party; rather, it aligns more with neo-fascist ideologies, indicating a distinct ideological stance. Ironically, I attribute her success to the failures of various populist leaders. Berlusconi, a dominant figure in Italian politics for two decades, faced decline due to age and scandals, rendering him ineligible for re-election. Following him, Matteo Salvini emerged as a prominent leader in 2018-19 but overplayed his cards, attempting to seize government power and eventually being excluded. This pattern mirrors a typical feature of populism—meteoric rise followed by a swift fall. Populist leaders often aim to grab power without solid support, and Salvini’s failed attempt to secure the Prime Ministership exemplifies this trend.

Additionally, the Five Star Movement, known for its amorphous and weak nature, served as the main coalition partner during Salvini’s tenure but eventually imploded. The failure of these populist figures created a political vacuum that Meloni filled. It’s crucial to recognize that the apparent strength of populist leaders like Salvini may not have substantial staying power; they often resemble shooting stars, dazzling briefly in the political sky before fading away.

The last sentence of your article is as follows: ‘While the threat of populism requires constant attention and energetic countermeasures, there is no need for global alarmism.’ Yet, the V-Dem Institute (Varities of Democracy) of Gothenburg University says in its 2023 Democracy Report: ‘Advances in global levels of democracy made over the last 35 years have been wiped out. The world has more closed autocracies than liberal democracies – for the first time in more than two decades.’ What is your take on V-Dem’s alarming findings?

Kurt Weyland: I think it’s exaggerated, which is why I titled my forthcoming book “Countering Global Alarmism.” The prevailing alarmist sentiment, epitomized by phrases like “how democracies die,” has been fueled, in part, by assessments such as those provided by V-Dem. While V-Dem is undeniably sophisticated and scientifically sound but it relies on subjective ratings by political scientists, which can be influenced by prevailing opinions and biases.

There seems to be a left-leaning inclination among political scientists, leading to a statistically significant bias against right-wing regimes in V-Dem’s assessments. This bias manifests in harsher grading and downgrading of right-wing governments. Considering the subjective nature of these ratings and the existing alarmism, I believe there is an element of exaggeration in the assessments made by V-Dem.

I have to admit I haven’t looked at that report specifically. But in 2023, the starting point of the advances in the last 35 years, would be 1988. At that time, we had Soviet Union and we had communism in Eastern Europe. That hasn’t been all reversed, even if Putin establishes an authoritarian regime, it’s nothing like the post totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. A good part of Eastern Europe is still freer than before. 

‘Mainstream Parties Should Bridge Representation Gaps and Address Concerned Citizens’ Fears’

Thai protester with face mask shows the sign “Listen To The People” at Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand against the government. Photo: Shutterstock.

Given the evolving nature of populist movements, what do you see as the future challenges and opportunities for democracies worldwide in dealing with the populist surge?

Kurt Weyland: You highlight the evolving nature of populist movements, a characteristic described as the “cameolionic nature” by Paul Taggart. This opportunistic flexibility allows them to exploit various opportunities, making it challenging to defend democracy effectively. Populist leaders can capitalize on any weaknesses, representation deficits, or unaddressed issues within the democratic system. However, what stands out to me is the resilience of democracy in the present era.

In my recent book, I explored the challenges faced by established democracies during the interwar years, a period marked by tremendous troubles and crises. Even in those challenging times, established democracies managed to survive. I am optimistic about the likelihood of their survival once again, given the considerable institutional strength, institutional interest, and democratic spirit present today. Populist movements, on the other hand, exhibit their own weaknesses and troubles, with some of them imploding when they assume governance roles due to inadequate performance.

I believe one unfortunate reality that democracies must confront, particularly in advanced industrialized countries, is the emergence of populists what we often perceive as eccentric or unconventional leaders like Trump. These leaders challenge the democratic system by exploiting inherent weaknesses, such as representation deficits. Certain segments of the population may feel unrepresented, excluded, and believe that their interests, needs, resentments, and fears are being neglected. In my view, when these segments constitute a substantial portion, around 20-30% of the population, mainstream political parties will be compelled to address, in some manner, the substantive aspects of these issues. I recognize that this perspective may be controversial.

Consider Europe, where migration is a significant concern for many. Paradoxically, European countries with low birth rates rely on migrants for sustenance. However, the apprehension often stems from the perceived loss of control, as people fear an unregulated influx of migrants. Both of us, residing in countries as migrants, understand the cosmopolitan perspective and empathize with migrants. Nonetheless, when a substantial portion of the population advocates for more restrictions and control, mainstream political parties will be compelled to address some aspects of this issue.

While it’s crucial to denounce illiberal and distasteful approaches, democracy necessitates responding to the concerns raised by a significant portion of citizens. Mainstream parties should not leave such issues solely for populist leaders to exploit. Instead, they should acknowledge and engage with the underlying substance of the issue. This doesn’t mean endorsing measures like building walls, as seen in Trump’s approach, but rather initiating reforms, changes, and improved control over the immigration system.

For instance, it appears that much of the immigration process is currently reactive, with individuals arriving at borders and claiming asylum. Countries tend to respond to these situations reactively. I believe a more proactive immigration system could involve countries selectively recruiting and welcoming certain individuals. This approach would prioritize legal migration while making illegal migration and verbal asylum claims more challenging. It’s a potential avenue that mainstream parties and governments may need to explore.

Consider the Danish case, where the Social Democrats made a move towards a more restrictive immigration policy. This shift significantly impacted the Danish People’s Party, which saw a decline in support from 21% in 2015 to around 8% in 2019, eventually becoming a minor outfit by 2022. Danish Social Democracy’s move, although distasteful and unpalatable for some, addressed the representation deficit on the right regarding immigration.

Mainstream parties might find themselves compelled to make such accommodations if there’s a significant representation deficit and considerable demands from sectors of the population. The specifics of how and to what extent this should be done remain unclear, but a responsive move, even if provocative, may be necessary in a democratic system.