Celebration of the Labour Day in Prague, Czech Republic on May 1, 2017. Banner is illustrating democracy as a leaf bitten by caterpillars with names: Putin, Kaczynski, Orban, Babis, Trump, Fico. Photo: Jolanta Wojcicka

Prof. Heinisch: The end of liberal democracies is possible

Prof. Reinhard Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. He has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading experts on populism, Prof. Reinhard Heinisch, of Salzburg University, has argued that the end of liberal democracies—or the dawn of illiberal democracies—is possible. Prof. Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. Heinisch has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers. “Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy,” he said. Prof. Heinisch also criticized European Union (EU) for not taking necessary measures in a timely manner.

The following are excerpts from our interview with Prof. Heinisch.

Why do you think Austria has been the cradle of populist and far-right parties? Is it about culture, politics, or what? 

There were two main factors: to recover from civil strife and WWII, Austria created the ultimate consensus democracy—to the point that elaborate power sharing mechanisms between the two major parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, dominated national politics for over 40 years. Their complete control of all political institutions—and even civil society—resulted in power cartelization, influence peddling, and political nepotism. This, in turn, provided the initial raison d’être for the radical-right Freedom Party to style itself as an anti-system, protest party fighting corruption.

The second factor is sociocultural: The forebearers of today’s Austrians considered themselves largely German. The experience of Nazism—and the need to distance the country from its German past—left Austrians with a highly ambivalent and insecure national identity. Often local customs, lifestyle, and widely shared sensibilities serve as superficial substitutes for a deeper understanding of what it is to be Austrian. To be a “real” Austrian often just means to like and do certain things and not others or to look and behave a certain way. Cultural outsiders and immigrants challenge these ideas and force Austrians to confront their own ambivalent identity. Political operators can effectively appeal to this sense of cultural insecurity by claiming that Austrian culture is under threat. Austrians also have a selective view of their past, often glamorizing the imperial legacy but exorcising the darker chapters. External criticism has in the past led to a rally around the flag that was exploited by populists. 

In your article with Fared Hafez, you argue that right-wing populism has changed Austria’s political approach to Islam. In what ways did these changes occur? Can you please elaborate?

Austria had very tolerant and liberal political approach to Islam going back many decades. While this was in part a consequence of Austria not having a [large] Muslim population, this also did not change once the share of guestworkers and immigrants, especially from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, substantially increased the population. Also, a number of terrorist attacks in and around Austria carried out by Middle Eastern commandos in the 70s and 80s never resulted in a discussion about Islam. Even after 9-11, this was essentially not the case. Only the radical-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) mobilized against Islam in the 1990s, opposing the construction of mosques and minarets, raising the issue of headscarves and foreign imams, and constantly associating Muslims with terrorism and the subversion of Christian civilization. Gradually this language was picked up—especially by the Christian Democrats, who adopted an anti-Islamic discourse and aim to pass new legislation directed against what they call “political Islam.” Under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the Christian Democrats moved substantially to the right in an effort to steal voters away from the Freedom Party.

Islam has been one of Austria’s official religions since 1912, yet it is so alien. What is the correlation between the rise of populism and Islamophobia?

Islam is the third largest religion in Austria, ahead of Protestantism, and the fastest growing. In Vienna’s largest district, the name Mohammed was the most popular name for a baby-boy in 2020. In general, the Austrian [Muslims] population has grown substantially in recent decades (by about 20%) resulting in sizable increases of both foreign residents (18.5%) and Austrians with an immigrant background—for Vienna, this percentage is 34%. 

Activists of the identitarian movement Austria block the access-road to the border from Hungary to Austria at Nickelsdorf on October 17, 2015. Photo: Johanna Poetsch

Immigration and asylum also mean increases in the Muslim population, which is now 8% of the total population but highly concentrated in certain areas. At the same time, we have seen a general decline of traditional Austrian religions, which has prompted traditionalists and the radical right to frame the issue of immigration and asylum as a battle for national identity and culture. The extent to which populism is an ideology framing politics as an antagonism between corrupt elites and dangerous outsiders on one hand and the virtuous people of the heartland on the other, allows populists to score political points by portraying Muslims as the “cultural other” who pose a threat to the “heartland,” whose identity and way of life is in need of defending. Immigrants—especially from outside Europe–are the most palpable sign of global change in everyday life and can be easily framed as a danger and scapegoated by populists, whether in Austria or in the US of Donald Trump.

Francis Fukuyama in his famous article The End of the History claimed that liberal democracy had won, and it [liberal democracy] would spread all over the world. Yet today we see a surge of populism and populist parties. What went wrong? Why are illiberal democracies gaining ground, in particular in Central Europe?

Like all complex developments, this one is multicausal and represents a confluence of developments. First and foremost, there is a loss of political legitimacy of established institutions and parties who have committed failures of representation. A growing number of people have the sense that vital decisions affecting their daily lives are made by unaccountable elites in far off capitals, in opaque international institutions and trade organizations, in Brussels or some boardroom. These policies may in and of themselves be efficient, rational, and in the long-run economically beneficial, but for countless people the consequences are disruptive, divisive, and feel at best technocratic. 

Second, globalization and the spread of sociocultural liberalism resulted in traditionalist and parochial backlashes. We may not necessarily agree with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, but most of us clearly underestimated the ability of political actors to mobilize on the basis of identity and construct identity narratives. 

The third cause is technical in the sense that new forms of electronic communication and the internet have resulted not only in competition at a global level but also in raising both expectations and fears. Whereas the former may induce merely discontentment or a willingness to migrate, the other breeds resentment. In times of change that induce distress and pressures to adjust, people crave stability and a return to the status quo. This is when authoritarians and populists can excel by promising order and thus a modicum of protection and safety. Populists are change agents who promise that in the future, the present will be more like the past, a familiar place where the community was whole, and everyone had their place—Make America Great AGAIN. In Eastern Europe, the return to a rose-coloured past is precluded by the negative historical experience, so populists construct an imagined and idealized national destiny, be this a hyper Catholic Poland or an ultraconservative and authoritarian Hungary that has moved past its Trianon trauma.

The integration of economies and the creation of large markets created new forms of competition and winner and losers…

Yes, this is an important aspect in global or integrated markets: the economic winners can uncouple themselves from the local economic losers. As a result, the experience of two groups within the same political system become detached from each other. In Austria, wages—especially of male workers in certain blue-collar jobs—have experienced significant stagnation. As such, they [blue-collar male workers] become susceptible to populist politicians scapegoating immigrants and purportedly uncaring elites. In Austria, the radical-right, populist Freedom Party has been the dominant blue-collar party going back to the late 1990s.

Looking at the huge surge of populist leaders all over the world, shall we start talking about “the end of liberal democracy” and the “dawning of illiberal ones”?

I think both are possible, and we are likely to see further increases either in illiberal democracy from the top (cf. Hungary) or populist democracy from below (unchecked majoritarian dictates through clever mass mobilization). However, as we saw in the US and also in Austria when populists were in government (2017-19), in long established democracies, institutions are quite durable and sticky. Despite Trump’s best efforts, he was unable to bend election officials, the courts, and the media to his wishes. It is the institutions of liberal democracies and the roles of individuals therein that give me confidence in the durability of democracy. Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy. 

Facing a huge boom of populism, do you think the European Union has taken necessary steps to counter it? Fidesz has left the EPP only yesterday!

Clearly no! Democratic institutions are not set up to fight democratically supported parties and groups operating from within democracy. This is what makes populism both so effective and dangerous in that it plays within the rules of democracy. Populists are responsive but not responsible actors; however, democracy generally rewards responsiveness more than responsible action. The EU especially often acts responsibly by being measured, deliberate, and bringing in diverse interests but this is precisely what gives it a bad reputation in the eyes of those who see only their own interests, favour quick but simple solutions and focus on headlines and messages.

In the cases of Hungary and Poland, there was a clear failure of imagination on the part of the EU. Brussels and the member states would have had to take actions much sooner and much more decisively. They would have had to imagine effective mechanisms that work even if more than one-member state decides not to play by the rules and that result in automatically suspending the offending member countries. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived action by EU member states against Austria in 2000 because of its inclusion of the radical right in the government backfired badly and spooked the EU later, when forceful action would have been warranted.

Nested dolls depicting world autocrats Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Recep Erdogan on the counter of souvenirs in Moscow

Populists usually and inevitably fail because they do not know how to govern. However, there are some populist leaders—like Erdogan, Orban, and Putin—who have kept power for a long time. How can their long stay in power be explained

This thesis of success in opposition and failure in government, which is the title of my most frequently cited article, needs to be qualified. There is something in the DNA of populists that makes them a poor match for running governments because populists are fundamentally voter-seeking in their strategy; thus, their operation and organization, their candidate selection and campaigning, is geared toward maximizing votes. This means they simplify and overpromise and ignore policy talent and policy expertise in favour of popularity and charisma. This catches up with them in government.

However, this is mainly a problem when populists need to interact in government with non-populists, such as in coalitions with mainstream parties (Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, etc.) or with strong democratic institutions (the US). There, populists either fail or are sufficiently tamed/mainstreamed that they have little lasting effect. However, where they end up in complete control of government and where institutions are weak, they are able to dominate the discourse and reframe the issues, engage in conspiracy theories, and explain away their own failures as the result of the machinations of “fake news media” (Trump) and “corrupt elites” (think of Orban’s campaign against George Soros). This is why successful populists try to change the rules (election laws, the constitution, the composition of high courts) to give themselves more control. Orban, Kaczynski, Erdogan, and Putin are each in their own way good examples. Trump was trying hard to do likewise but failed this time.

What will replace eventually failed authoritarian populists? Liberal democracies or harder dictatorships?

This is hard to say. Social scientists are not good at predicting the future as we do not have hard data on what will come next. Even successful authoritarians such as Erdogan, Putin, or Orban differ from a more totalitarian system like China in that power in the former is highly personalized. Take the person out, what happens? These are all not young men (Trump included). While the formula for power is clear, it is still not easily transferrable because in each case leaders also require personal attributes that make them successful—successful populist leaders were each able to convert certain personal abilities and strengths into political power, and they will each leave a certain vacuum that may result in wars of the Diadochi. Venezuela, with the transfer of power from Chavez to Maduro, is the most successful example. Personalized power that is neither dynastic nor based on a police-state like structure is hard to preserve when leadership changes. We would expect that after the leader’s demise, these systems will revert to flawed liberal democracies prone to seeking populist answers to political problems when needed, so that at some point the cycle may start again.

Are there any tested successful ways to fight against populist leaders and populist movements? Will they keep gaining ground? 

As argued above, my answer revolves around liberal institutions. I know this is unpopular, because these days it is all about grassroots activism and mobilization against political evils, and people often do not trust institutions. But my concern is that mobilization can go in different directions, and, of late, we have seen a lot of mobilization against Coronavirus measures where neo-Nazis, populists, people waving rainbow flags, and leftists were all marching in lockstep. Conspiracy theories come in all stripes, and people who are convinced that they are right and need to do what they need to do to save the planet or save something will ride roughshod over those standing in their way. Strengthening liberal institutions is an important antidote by providing sufficient funding for courts, prosecutors, and the justice system, for shoring up media independence and investigative platforms, for training civil servants, for supporting NGOs and watchdog groups, for strengthening parliaments to increase staff and boost the policy expertise of MPs, to fortify election systems and enhance the democratic accountability of social media platforms. Politically, we know that a so-called cordon sanitaire—that is the ostracization of populist actors—has worked to weaken their policy influence (e.g., the Vlaams Belang in Belgium) whereas adopting populist policy positions by mainstream parties may strengthen populists in the long run because it legitimizes these positions. As populism is a multicausal phenomenon, the answer is also multicausal—there are no silver bullets.

Some argue that populism has, to a certain extent, a democratizing aspect in terms of increasing democratic participation. Do you agree? When do you think populist parties/actors start to pose a danger to democratic values?

There is good empirical work on this by two of my former students, Robert Huber and Christian Schimpf, who have shown that in opposition, populism can have a democratizing effect by bringing into the political arena new or politically marginalized groups (this was especially the case in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc.). Populists also successfully draw the spotlight onto existing problems and democratic corruption (Austria, Italy, France) or on policies that were quite unpopular but hard to change within the existing political system (Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, etc.). There are also scholars who persuasively argue that politics and political systems require conflict and choices between opposites and that in late capitalist liberal democracies, all this has vanished. By reintroducing conflict into the political system, populism serves a purpose. However, we have also seen that once in government, especially when they are not controlled by checks and balances, democratic quality suffers, and corruption goes up substantially. So, if populists gain too much power, they do pose a danger to democratic values, which was clearly on display in the US following the relentless campaign to overthrow the outcome of the last election and culminating in the storming of the US Capitol.

Who is Reinhard C. Heinisch

Reinhard Heinisch is Professor of Comparative Austrian politics and also Head of the Department of Austrian Politics in Comparative Perspective at Salzburg University. His main research interests are comparative populism, Euroscepticism, and democracy.

He is the author or co-author of numerous publications including Understanding Populist Organization: The West European Radical Right (Palgrave 2016), Political Populism; A Handbook (Nomos/Bloomsbury 2017) and Populism, Proporz and Pariah: Austria Turns Right (Nova Science 2002). Other publication appeared in West European Politics, Democratization, Comparative European Politics, and others. He is currently co-editor of a special issue of Comparative European Politics on Populism and Territory as well as contracted for a book with Routledge on the same subject.

 

Political sociologist Dogu Ergil. Photo: Evrensel

Political sociologist Ergil: Populism has a deadline

“Populists share the populace’s negative feelings towards the establishment, but they lack the depth of solid criticism and a sound roadmap of reform. This is populisms inherent weaknesses. As a sweeping movement, populism starts to wane as reality overwhelms the excitement of the rhetoric. Thus, populism has a deadline. The deadline is the realization that populist leaders do not deliver what they promise.”

Interview by Alparslan Akkus

 In this series of interviews on populism, Professor Dogu Ergil argues that conditions are ripe for the emergence of populist leaders. Such figures take centre-stage if popular hopes are shattered and institutional fatigue weakens governmental systems. Populism may surface even in the most developed democracies when systemic fatigue takes hold and populist leaders start exploiting peoples fears, pessimism, and hopes. In general, these leaders idealize the glorious past but seldom have a solid projection of the future. Populist leaders will persist as long as the conditions require their existence, but populism has a deadline; the deadline is reality.

Scholars argue that there has been a worldwide rise in populist movements over the last decades. Some of these populist movements are defined as inclusionary, but most of them are exclusionary; all of them are fed by various ideologies and sentiments like racism, nationalism, xenophobia, souverainism, homophobia, polarization, dividing society into us” vs them,” creating internal and external enemies, aggravating anti-immigration sentiments, antisemitism, islamophobia, Euroscepticism, and anti-globalism, etc. Do you also see a rise in populist movements and, if so, what are the main reasons driving this phenomenon?

Populism is a political approach adopted by politicians that do not trust the “people” and popular government. They claim to be the true representatives of the people. Hence, there is no need for the involvement of the people in the political process. Instead, they can do a better job of representing the people and deciding on their behalf.

“The reason behind the rise of populist movements all around the world can be explained by several factors. Initially, people, by and large, do not feel comfortable deciding on their own on critical issues. Instead, they expect able leaders to lead them to a better future. People are willing to give up their right of choice and pass it on to political leaders who they deem to be superior to them.” 

Given this definition, populism and popular government are quite different in nature. Populist leaders dislike organized society. They shy away from popular participation in politics (participatory politics) that can hold them responsible for their deeds and decisions. In fact, the politics of populism is an indirect process; it may be called “proxy politics”: for the people, by the leader!

In the politics of populism, institutions, societal organizations (civil society), and organized labour (trade unions) are probable sources of opposition to and conspiracies against the populist leader, who knows and does the best for the people

The reason behind the rise of populist movements all around the world can be explained by several factors. Initially, people, by and large, do not feel comfortable deciding on their own on critical issues. Instead, they expect able leaders to lead them to a better future. People are willing to give up their right of choice and pass it on to political leaders who they deem to be superior to them. As Eric Fromm coined, this is a sort of flight from freedom.” Masses do not feel capable enough to decide on complex issues that involve serious risks and require a certain level of expertise like economic management, security, or international affairs. This void allows populist leaders to exploit peoples trust. 

Wherever you see an increase in populism, you see people who feel insecure and threatened by existing conditions. By and large, people feel excluded – like they’re on the losing side or their living standards are deteriorating. They gasp for help and hope from a source that is more powerful than themselves. At that moment, the populist leader appears at their doorstep to restore their hope and self-esteem. The slogans of populist leaders are almost identical: 

“Lets make our country great again,” or Our strength is in our blood, history, and unique qualities,” etc. 

Populist leader generally attribute greatness to the past, which has been usurped by sinister imperialist forces and their villainous internal counterparts. Reclaiming the might and glory of the past is the most attractive promise of populist leaders. For instance, in Turkey, the reconstruction of the idealized Ottoman period is almost necrophiliac; it’s as if the Empire didn’t disintegrate a century ago.  

Populists seem to promise an idealized past instead of a better futurewhich they fail to deliver. That is why the past is always gilded and more glorious in populist discourse. The masses do not question this regressive image as long as it satisfies their need for pride and hunger for self-respect.

“Populist leaders do not emerge out of the blue. The deteriorating conditions necessitate them. The gap between the failing or ailing system and disillusioned people is filled by populist politicians. People are in need of confidence and self-respect and are in search of better living standards. Populist leaders will always emerge as long as such conditions surface. Once adverse conditions disappear, populist leaders will become invisible.”

Professor Dogu Ergil.

Reality Overwhelms Hope

Is it correct to demonize populism in general? Isn’t there any valid pretext for emergence of populist movements when conditions avail? Furthermore, almost all populist movements claim to speak on behalf of the people” rather than ruling elites” and imposing bureaucrats.” This rhetoric intrigues people. And the record of the ruling elites so far is not so promising, all over the world. 

Populist leaders do not emerge out of the blue. The deteriorating conditions necessitate them. The gap between the failing or ailing system and disillusioned people is filled by populist politicians. People are in need of confidence and self-respect and are in search of better living standards. Populist leaders will always emerge as long as such conditions surface. Once adverse conditions disappear, populist leaders will become invisible.

We need to remember that populism” is just the opposite of popular rule.” Popular rule, in other words, popular government,” enables people to exercise their will and be involved in the governance of daily life in a less indirect way. This may be approximately called democracy. Democracy is the best way of governance that human beings have so far invented; it’s certainly better than any other existing system. 

Populist leaders propose simple answers to complicated questions. For instance, imagine a country where there is a badly run economy, an unproductive system, huge debts, rampant unemployment, dysfunctional education, negative balance of payments, and so forth: all these issues require sophisticated expertise to solve them. People do not understand or do not bother to understand the root causes and remedies of such complex issues. This is the opportune moment when a group of opportunistic politicians may emerge and propose simple answers like deporting immigrants or denying minorities basic human rights. 

These simplistic answers or remedies garner support from fragile groups who feel threatened. The promise of making things better” resonates with social classes who feel their expectations of a secure present and better future has been lost. They increasingly feel that the ailing system is inefficient, corrupt, and heartless. Populists exploit these negative feelings. Their rhetoric – to make up for past losses and to build a better future – wins the hearts and minds of the expectant people. Unfortunately, they offer no solid foundation for problem solving, instead offering only pejorative remedies.

Populists share the populace’s negative feelings towards the establishment, but they lack the depth of solid criticism and a sound roadmap of reform. This is populisms inherent weaknesses. As a sweeping movement, populism starts to wane as reality overwhelms the excitement of the rhetoric. Thus, populism has a deadline. The deadline is the realization that populist leaders do not deliver what they promise. The power of mobilization does not match with the success of realized hopes. Populist leaders either do not make comprehensive structural changes or fail while trying. Reality overwhelms hope and excitement. The balloon inflated by the populist leaders bursts on the surface of the sharp realities of the day.

The people are left with two choices: either to organize and be a part of the efforts to build a popular governance or join the trail of another populist leader and continue to be duped. The second way is much easier, although it does not lead to anywhere. Populist politicians sway people but do not lead them to “El Dorado.”

 Well, do you see any correlation between Wallersteins anti-capitalist views, like the world system theory, and the rise of populist movements in Latin America? 

Capitalism is prone to crisis but also has the potential to correct and upgrade itself until the next crisis. Marx predicted that the capitalist system will collapse one day, a prophecy that is not yet realized. However, Marx was right in pointing out that capitalism has innate flaws: exploitation and inequality, hence injustice. As long as theres inequality and injustice within a system, it will sooner or later collapse or undergo dramatic changes. 

Indeed, capitalism has proved resilient and undergone serious changes. It led to social democracy, a more egalitarian form of governance. With technological changes, working patterns changed along with class structure. You no longer have two antagonistic classes but many layers of the workforce that are complimentary. Tensions between them can be institutionally reconciled. These changes mitigated class struggle in industrialized countries. However, the fierceness of competition between antagonistic classes still rages in non-industrialized countries. Having said this, let me remind you that exploitation, inequality, and injustice remain unchanged in the capitalist system and these systematically hurt people. Dissatisfaction and suffering worsen at times of crisis, and [this is when] populist politicians take centre-stage. 

The struggle for equality will go on forever, further improving the system and ensuring the struggle for justice will not end. Although it isn’t the collapse of the capitalist system and the realization of the ensuring revolution, as Marx predicted, multiple revolutions have occurred in science and technology. These changes altered the modes of production and politics. Rather than a big, sweeping revolution, there have been multiple revolutions, which have changed life as we know it. However, in societies which have benefitted little from improving conditions, or where existing systems experienced entropy, we have witnessed the emergence of populist movements and leaders.

How exactly do you define the interplay of populism and authoritarianism? Is it just a matter of strongman politics, or are there some other social, economic, and/or political factors?

Populist leaders can emerge anywhere, even in the most economically and/or politically developed countries. Populism raises its head when democracy and affluence decline, and pessimism is on the rise. By definition, populism is a by-product of a degenerate democracy or popular government that has enjoyed elections and elected governments. 

There are also traditional autocracies, kingdoms, and emirates where democratic culture or popular government have not been developed. Political development is gradual and slow in such societies. Democratic culture doesnt flourish where there are no individual freedoms and basic rights. We cannot talk about populism in such societies. However, we can talk about forced mobilization and ruler domination. Populism exists where individuals give up their free will for a “superior” person who they expect to be their “saviour.”  

Respect for freedoms – like freedom of expression or freedom of association – are key to forming a democratic culture. Its hard to form popular governments where democratic ideals are not institutionalized. For instance, after the Ottoman Empire, the sultanate was replaced by an authoritarian bureaucratic government that claimed to directly represent the people. In fact, “populism” was among the basic [constitutional] principles of the Turkish republic. 

The leaders during the first decades of the republic were not coming from liberal backgrounds. They all relied on the unrivalled power of the state rather than rallying popular support. Only after multi-party politics was instituted (1950), did we witness the emergence of populist leaders. 

“There is a direct correlation between conspiracy theories and the way things are perceived among less enlightened groups. The atmosphere of populism is riddled by conspiratorial thinking. Faults are projected onto alien perpetrators. Failures are attributed to the misguidance of foreigners or their treacherous internal agents.”

Populism Is Based On Conspiracies

How do you interpret the relationship between conspiracy theories and rising populism?

There is a direct correlation between conspiracy theories and the way things are perceived among less enlightened groups. The atmosphere of populism is riddled by conspiratorial thinking. Faults are projected onto alien perpetrators. Failures are attributed to the misguidance of foreigners or their treacherous internal agents. With regards to Turkey, economic problems are the result of a so-called “interest lobby” that manipulates Turkeys monetary system and undermines its monetary system. There are always sinister foreign forces that want Turkey to fail and to disintegrate. Conspiracy is a substitute for failure. Populist leaders do not say that they have failed but attribute their failure to conspiracies where the culprits are external agents. Populist leaders need conspiracies; they are an integral part of their discourse.

Do you see any correlation between pessimism about the future of the world (or country or self) and the rise of populism? Do they affect each other?

Pessimism, fear, feeling of loss, but with the hope of regaining whats lost – these are the psychological foundations of populism

Do you think this widespread rise in populism is a permanent situation or a conjunctural phenomenon triggered by socio-political and economic problems?

Well, there are developed and undeveloped economies. There are also developed and undeveloped democracies, or put in different words, developed and undeveloped political institutional edifices. But all of these can be shattered by an economic (market collapse) or political crisis (i.e. war). Affluent economies can disintegrate, and people may fall into poverty. Germany for instance, at the end of the World War I, was destabilized and this industrial power had become a poor country. Or on the other hand, an exemplary political system, such as the United States, fell into such political disenchantment that Mr. Trump emerged triumphant from the 2016 elections. Many commentators have stipulated that the American Dream” has come to an end, and people were reacting by supporting a populist politician, namely Mr. Trump. Trump called for the rejection of the established system and proposed his own “wisdom” as its replacement. 

The U.S. example suggests that a rich and productive economy and an established constitutional democracy may fall into entropy, allowing the emergence of populist leaders.

Do you think populism is related to political culture? Is it possible that it wins general approval in some societies and is refused in others? 

Not really. A particular political culture may resist the lure of populism, if its politico-economic system works smoothly, meaning if it sustains a satisfying living standard, political representation, and responsive government. However, a systemic crisis in the institutional structure may lead to the attrition of hopes and confidence. Then, the rise of populist movements cannot be prevented. Just look at post WWI Germany, which once produced the greatest philosophers, scientists, and artists that the world had ever seen; it turned into a country where racism, chauvinism, and expansionism prevailed. When the good declines, the bad emerges. Opportunistic leaders feed on dead hopes, fears, and self-humiliation. 

“People have multiple fears. However, the fear associated with survival is the mother of all fears. Turks have lost an empire. Populist leaders have incessantly provoked their fear of losing again. They fear losing the motherland, the sovereignty of the state, and internal cohesion that may be disrupted by unrest among minorities.” 

Does provoking fear among the masses – or in other terms, a politics of fear / a politics of (in)security – pave the way for populist movements? 

People have multiple fears. However, the fear associated with survival is the mother of all fears. Turks have lost an empire. Populist leaders have incessantly provoked their fear of losing again. They fear losing the motherland, the sovereignty of the state, and internal cohesion that may be disrupted by unrest among minorities. Every single populist leader in Turkey played on these fears rather than finding solutions that could eradicate them. 

Another fear common among Turks is being denigrated and losing respect in the international arena. When somebody – be it a political leader or a nongovernmental organization or a think tank – says something critical about Turkey, then the Turkish people feel offended. They demonstrate on the streets for days. This is a result of a lack of confidence. Just remember the Russian plane incident: when a Turkish Air Force F16 fighter jet shot down a Russian attack aircraft near the Turkish-Syria border on 24 November 2015, Turkish leaders boldly said that we did it.” But later, when they began to experience the brunt of Russian retaliation against Turkey, they back tracked. They went to Moscow and almost begged for reconciliation. 

Their first reaction was for internal consumption. Their second reaction was an act of repairing the damage done in the international arena; it was far from boasting. In this case, populism is sort of an internal propaganda process to polish up the image of the regime and the leadership. 

Kurdish people walk by the bombed buildings after the curfew in Şırnak province of Turkey on March 3, 2016. Armed conflict between Turkish security forces and PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) members killed hundreds of people.

“Kurdishness As An anomaly”

Considering the political Islamist hegemony and the prevalence of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, how do you see the relationship between religion and populism” as well as religion and nationalism” in terms of the authoritarian populist discourse? 

Turkish nationalism is an ethnic ideology that excludes all other nationalities other than Turks. It is a reductionist political ideology, which does not incorporate all the citizens of Turkey.

As for the religious perceptions of Turkish society, we could state that the political Islamist ideology looks at society as an ummah (a union of believers) and refers to all existing congregations as the nuances of the whole. Political Islam expects people to behave as part of the larger ummah. When one emphasizes his/her ethnic identity and exacerbates it, nationalism and religious identity exhibit an uncomfortable co-existence, each identity claiming the upper hand. However, when it comes to the Kurdish “question,” nationalism and religion concur on the suspicion and exclusion of the Kurds. 

The nationalists and the political Islamists leave aside their differences and agree that Kurdishness is an anomaly. Kurds are excluded from every single equation at the national political level.

In both the nationalist and religious rhetoric, Kurds are either our brothers and sisters,” not a distinct identity group, or an alien existence that should be kept under control. This is an enormous contradiction in terms of the national solidarity” that is so exalted. 

Theres no problem in nature; there are facts and realities. Kurds are a fact. Just as any fact that is not perceived and managed properly, they have turned into a problem. Turkey has created a Kurdish problem,” which it does not know how to handle. 

Who is Dogu Ergil?

Professor Dogu Ergil.

Dogu Ergil has served as a professor of political sociology at various universities in Turkey and in the US. He has been a visiting scholar in various universities in the US, Britain and Sweden. Mr. Ergil was chairman of the Department of Political Behaviour at the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University until late-2000s.

Ergil has earned his BA degree in Turkey; MA and Ph.D. degrees in the US. He worked on political inclinations, ethnic relations, political parties and political violence. He accomplished the first research on political violence in Turkey, which was consummated in a book called ‘Social and Cultural Roots of Political Violence in Turkey’ in 1980, based on interviews in the prison system, on right-wing and left-wing militants. He completed his seminal research ‘The Eastern Question’ in 1995, offering peaceful social conflict resolution methods rather than ongoing violent police and military tactics. 

Ergil has worked with various NGOs on developing more effective leadership, conflict management, and creative problem-solving. He has won awards for his work in international organizations promoting peace and democracy. He has authored 28 books, published a sheer number of academic articles and book chapters.